Divorce and Remarriage (2)
This approach should leave the decision about remarrying a divorcee to the minister, rather than having a church lay down a fixed ruling that must be obeyed. Churches in Australia have grappled with this issue and have stated that:
“There is no way in which the centralised organisation of Churches of Christ can legislate concerning what ministers and local congregations may or may not do in relation to the remarriage of divorced persons. To try to do so would be contrary to our history and tradition. Decisions concerning remarriage of divorced persons must be left to local congregations and to the convictions and consciences of ministers concerned.”
If the decision making is to be left to individual ministers, what guidelines can they be given which can help them to get the to the answer to the problem for themselves?
GUIDING WITHOUT PUSHING
The church needs to teach clearly and specifically what the Biblical view of marriage and remarriage is. Ministers need to ensure that the couples they are marrying for the first time know what they are doing. It is hard to come away from Scripture with a low view of marriage.
Throughout Scripture marriage is invariably spoken of as a divine institution. It is a covenant. Bruce’s statement is now becoming untrue in a very real and widespread sense: “It is very significant that in all civilised nations it is regarded not merely as a civil contract, constituted by the consent of the contracting parties, but as a most solemn engagement, requiring to be confirmed by a religious ceremony.”
If a divorcee wishes to remarry in church, how is the minister to respond? Does it depend on the circumstances of the particular person? Is it best to do the loving thing? Can Situationism help the minister or local church here?
Is it loving to refuse to marry people in church when one or both parties have been divorced? A proper answer to this question needs to ask, ‘loving for whom?’ Is it loving for the couple, for their families, for their previous spouses, for people in the church struggling with difficult marriages, for young people asking whether marriage is for life or not, or for the vicar with a bishop breathing down his neck? Situationism tells us that love is what we need, but for whom? Cook has explored this very subject.
Divorce has no winners, only losers. Remarriage is a sensitive issue in which the minister will probably offend someone by whatever decision he or she arrives at. Trying to do the loving thing does not guarantee that no-one will be hurt or offended, but it is impossible for the minister to remain neutral on this issue. John MacKenzie considers that the correct way to judge the issue is not to look at the situation, but consider the person who is in the situation.
The truth seems to be that the fully developed moral judgment is always pronounced, directly or indirectly, on the character of the agent. That is, MacKenzie says, “It is never simply on a thing done, but always on a person doing, that we pass moral judgment.”
The benefit of the minister gently but firmly counselling the divorcee who wants to remarry is that the Spirit of God is allowed to guide the minister during the personal encounter and thereby lead him or her to understand the person, as well the situation. In an issue like remarriage, the personal approach is surely to be preferred than a dogmatic rule. Is the church really about loving people and caring for them?
TO JOIN OR NOT TO JOIN?
Should the church allow divorcees to remarry? I believe it should do so. Human life is not perfect and neither am I. However, just as a complete and legalistic refusal to remarry divorcees is unhelpful, so a complete and legalistic openness to remarry divorcees without thought, prayer and counselling is also unhelpful. Therefore, while believing the church should be willing to remarry divorcees, I would put forward some important qualifications.
The decision to remarry (or not) should be left to the discretion of the individual minister whose decision would be based upon the results of an interview with the persons who are requesting the remarriage. While it is far too late to rake over what happened previously at a divorce, it is the right time to give clear and firm teaching about what the church, and therefore the minister, perceives marriage to be. This involves the reality of their personal commitment to Christ, the church and the marriage. As White said: “By defending the wife’s right in marriage, Jesus implied that it was equal in privilege and responsibility for both partners.”
In speaking about the partners’ attitude to marriage, he also had this to say to the man: “If you love because in her you see the image of Christ, modesty, and purity, then you love Christ in her. This is spiritual love.” But non-Christians clearly cannot love in this way, and we should not expect them to do so.
The clear message must be that marriage is not a convenience, and the church is not a convenience store. The church is the body of Christ, and each and all of its members should be aware of the responsibility that membership of the body brings. All of us ministers are dealing with real people – not with theological rules and regulations. The church needs to deal with all the hot potatoes in a sensitive and loving way, and then take them off the menu of controversy.
John S MacKenzie, A Manual of Ethics, Sixth Edition, London, University Tutorial Press, 1938
W S Bruce, The Ethics of the Old Testament, Second edition, enlarged, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1909
David Cook, The Moral Maze, London, SPCK, 1983
L H Marshall, The Challenge of New Testament Ethics, London, MacMillan and Co, 1948
R E O White, The Changing Continuity of Christian Ethics Volume 1, Exeter, Paternoster Press, 1979
R E O White, The Changing Continuity of Christian Ethics Volume 2, Exeter, Paternoster Press, 1981
Richard B Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1996
Colin Cartwright, God’s Law on Marriage and Divorce, Article in the Baptist Minister’s Journal, April 2000
Frank L Caw Jr, Biblical Divorce And Re-Marriage, In the public domain on the Internet at: http://www.frankcaw.com
Robert Campbell, Divorce & Re-Marriage, In the public domain on the Internet at: http://users.interact.net.au/~pmkk/robert/DivorceRemarriage.htm
‘Divorce and Re-Marriage and the Church’. The Report of the Federal Study Commission on Divorce, as requested by the 30th Federal Conference of the Churches of Christ in Australia, October 1980. Editor: Lyndsay L. Smith, Federal Secretary of Churches of Christ in Australia. In the public domain on the Internet at: http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/llsmith/DIVORCE.HTM