Divorce and Remarriage

Should the church allow divorcees to remarry? If the church were a fast food carry-out, this would surely be one of its hottest potatoes! The arguments have been well heated, and the very fact that there are so many arguments and debates shows that clear and unchanging Scriptural guidelines do not actually exist. Morality has always been the plaything of current culture. As David Cook said: “Once upon a time, there seemed to be a clear Christian line on most moral issues. Now it seems as if any moral view will be held by Christians. The recent debates concerning homosexuality and divorce and re-marriage illustrate the point.”

It may be said that the church has always been good at making rules, but people have not always been so good at keeping them. Traditionally, the church has outlawed divorce and remarriage, even if some people’s alternative has been interesting. As White points out: “Erasmus preferred bigamy to divorce. Some Anabaptists, some Roman Catholics, and some rationalists too, defended polygamy, as common in the Old Testament, not forbidden in the New. Luther, too, is said to have expressed the opinion that polygamy is not prohibited by the New Testament.”

In taking the clear but legalistic line of outlawing remarriage, the church has traditionally pointed back to the account of the Creation and other Old Testament Scriptures, and emphasised the unbreakable nature of marriage and the impossibility of divorce. (See: Deut. 24:1,2: 27:20-23; Ex 20:14,17; 21:10,11; 22:16; Lev. 20:10-21; Lev. 18:6-23; Mal 2:14-16)

Those who arrive at the negative answer to the question of remarriage of divorcees are sometimes seen as legalistic because of the way in which they, like Campbell, express their convictions: “I am also convinced that ‘re-marriage’ is without scriptural foundation, and should therefore be rejected. I, as a minister of God, and born again Christian, cannot, and would not perform a marriage ceremony over a divorced couple.” Such a legalistic attitude will certainly help this minister to curb any trend of excessive numerical growth in his fellowship! 

But will it also alienate people from the church, and therefore from God? Where an individual, a church or a denomination takes a legalistic line such as that of Campbell quoted above, there are inherent risks involved.  In a discussion article in the Baptist Minister’s Journal, Colin Cartwright concluded: “The Church of England’s present policy of generally preventing re-marriage in church risks a greater danger than appearing to condone divorce. This greater danger is more than the pragmatic consideration of alienating thousands of people from the church. It is the more profound danger of misrepresenting God’s nature expressed in the gospel of Christ.”

While it is not difficult to believe that God ordained marriage and hates divorce, it is also clear that God did allow divorce on some occasions, because of the hardness of the human heart. There are, however, some who argue that the Old Testament Scriptures are not relevant, since the church did not come into being until the New Testament. So what was on the menu in the New Testament?

MANY INGREDIENTS, BUT WHAT IS THE RECIPE?

The words of Jesus, amongst other Scriptures, have been often quoted during the long debates about divorce and remarriage, but no standard ruling has been arrived at for Christians in general. (Consider: Matt 5:31,32; 19:3-11; Mk 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Rom 7:1-3; 1 Cor 7: 2,10-15,39)

Perhaps Marshall has a helpful and important point to make, with which few would disagree: “Jesus regarded divorce as an outrage; the idea of marriage as a purely temporary arrangement, easily dissoluble, was foreign to his thought; and the Jewish practice of divorce, often enough on the flimsiest grounds, appeared in his eyes as a scandal.”

Marshall’s words raise the question of what Jesus (and the New Testament writers) held marriage to be. Marshall goes on to say: “At the same time, it must be clearly recognised that Jesus was not framing any law for the statute book of the state. His teaching about the indissolubility of marriage, like other hard sayings of his, is fully applicable only to those who are citizens of the Kingdom of God, who spontaneously accept God’s will as the law of their lives, and who consequently adopt the divine idea of marriage.” This point is also made by Richard Hays in The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Surely the view of marriage held by a couple about to be married will have a significant impact on their commitment to that marriage. If marriage is merely a convenience for as long as the partners want it but it can then be walked away from whenever they wish to do so, it is unrealistic to expect them to have a deep and lasting commitment to their marriage. Richard Hays is in no doubt about what the commitment to marriage should be: “Permanent, monogamous marriage is the norm; Christians are called upon to see their marriages as expressions of discipleship and to renounce divorce.”

The debate about remarriage in the church uses the Scriptures and many other words to state the argument from one side or the other. But the words that a person has used must always be taken in the context in which they were given, and the Scriptures are no different. Very often we do not know the whole of the situation in which words were used, and this must surely make it difficult to use the Scriptures in a dogmatic way. If there is no absolute ruling on an issue in the Scriptures, then it is unwise to make an absolute rule that Christians should follow.

For any Church or State absolutely to forbid divorce to all and sundry on the strength of the teaching of Jesus – which is fully applicable only to citizens of the Kingdom of God – would be to turn idealism into legalism, and would ultimately defeat the purpose of Jesus by worsening a situation which he sought to improve.

The witness of the Spirit through the Scriptures in the issues of divorce and remarriage is one of choosing the best, or least damaging, way out of a situation.  The Bible is not to be used as a rule book, but as a reference manual to help to lead people towards the best solution. 

As Frank Law said: “I am persuaded that no moral principle is completely autonomous to itself.  This is why Christians say that God is a God of love and mercy, but also a God of justice and judgment. Complexity, not contradiction, is involved in such instances. In other words, whenever moral laws and principles come into direct and unavoidable conflict with each other, and due to circumstances it is impossible to comply with all of them, it is our moral duty and obligation to choose the highest level of good possible.”

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.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

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