(Note: this will be the first part in a series on Christians and divorce. It will be posted at both this blog and my devotional blog)
Once, the evangelical church spoke with a united voice on issues related to divorce. Those who divorced were sinners and were largely marginalized, sometimes shunned. They were certainly not permitted roles of influence in the church. Divorcees were not pastors, elders or deacons. Then, a (not so) funny thing happened. Divorce swept through our nation and churches were filled with people who had been divorced. In addition to that, Christianity in America developed a man-centered, therapeutic attitude. Gradually, divorced people took more and more significant places in the church. And now, we have much bigger issues. Denominations today are fighting over whether to allow unrepentant homosexuals into pulpits. Divorce seems like a much less crucial issue.
American Christians have often been led more by their culture than by the scriptures. When Southern culture approved and defended slavery, so did Southern Christians. As the feminist agenda took hold of our national mindset, women in pulpits became more common. As homosexuality has become more acceptable in culture, it has become more acceptable to Christians.
We are called to be biblical and our first responsibility is to God and His Word. If what the scripture teaches is offensive to culture, we must offend. But as we must let scripture confront what is culturally popular, we must also allow scripture to confront our personal and denominational traditions. We like to assume that our traditions are firmly based on scripture, but many may not be. So our goal is to look at the biblical evidence and live by that, even if we find ourselves in conflict with cultural norms or church traditions.
You will have to continue reading to get my full view on divorce. But this I will say now. I believe that many Christians have wrongly let our cultural norms dictate biblical interpretation. But I also believe that the traditional church teaching on divorce was also based on cultural norms and church traditions more than it was based on the Bible.
So, in this study, we will set forth some preliminary concerns, then we will look at every passage in the Bible that deals with the subject of divorce. We will look for answers to several questions. Is divorce always a sin? Can a divorced person remarry? What positions of service can a divorced person hold in the church?
We will seek biblical answers. I know that some who read this will certainly disagree with my position. I will argue that my position is soundly based in the proper interpretation of scripture and that it is the view that is most faithful to the intent of the Word of God. I will argue that those who disagree are misinterpreting scripture and arguing more from traditional bias than from biblical truth. I believe that the position I am advocating here is the one that bests fits all the scriptural pieces together.
But I do not question the faith, biblical integrity or love for our Lord of those who disagree. I can disagree with someone’s position on this issue without calling their love for Jesus or for the Word into question. I can say I think your position is wrong without saying I think you are wrong. So, I am going to argue forcefully for the position I believe, but do not break faith with those who hold to a different position.
In fact, the church I serve as pastor has an official position opposite mine. I have told them what I believe and why I believe it. Several men thought my position was a signal of compromise and could not accept it. Several stated unequivocally that they would leave the church if my position was adopted. I think the official position of my church is wrong. Yet, I still serve that church with joy. I will continue to try to convince them that my position is biblical and I assume they will continue to advocate for their position. But, as we study this, we can have uninterrupted fellowship and I can abide by a church policy I don’t agree with.
Defining the Sides
There are just about as many positions on divorce as there are teachers on the subject. I am going to try to categorize the views, but it is actually more of a continuum. Each of the major positions has subtle variants. The danger of simplifying is always over-simplifying. I believe that there are three major positions on divorce that modern evangelicals have fallen into.
The “Compassionate” View
Divorce is traumatic – it rips apart homes and families, devastates lives and brings heartache to all. There is really no such thing as an easy divorce. You hear celebrities sometimes talk about a “friendly” divorce. In reality, those are very rare.
The advocates of this position are primarily concerned with ministering to the divorced and helping them. Of course, all of us must do that. Advocates of every position believe in ministering to divorced people and their families.
What is unique about this position is that the church refuses to hold divorced people to any standard at all. One of the most prominent pastors in my denomination, a man with a national television ministry, was divorced by his wife. There have been no allegations of adultery on either side. This man had advocated for years that divorced men should not serve as pastors. When he was divorced, evidently his position changed. He continues to serve as pastor of that megachurch
Churches do not want to seem judgmental or exclusionary. That is a heinous sin in our culture. So, these churches welcome the divorced without judgment. They are permitted to serve in any and every position in the church without distinction. Biblical mandates have taken a back seat to therapeutic concerns. We don’t want to harm people’s self-esteem by confronting them with sin.
The positive side of this view is its compassion for those whom life has damaged. Every viewpoint should include the desire to minister to and make welcome those who have gone through the trauma of divorce. The doors of the church must be wide open to the divorced.
But we who love the Word cannot so easily dismiss its teachings. We cannot just pretend the Bible does not hold up the standard of “till-death-do-us-part” marriage. We cannot ignore the warnings of our Savior that those who divorce and remarry contrary to scripture are adulterers. Those commands have not been abrogated and we have no right to act as if they are not in God’s Word. Our position must be biblical. It must uphold scripture, not compromise it.
The “Prohibitionist” View
“We have to uphold the biblical standard of marriage.” That is what I have heard almost every time I have advocated my position. I agree with that. But the assumption behind this statement is that the Bible advocates a strict prohibition on divorce, on remarriage after divorce and on service in the church.
To the proponents of this position, the clear teaching of scripture is that all divorce is sin. Most make an exception for adultery, but some do not even grant that. Because all divorce is sin, remarriage after divorce is adultery. Since adultery is sin, those living in adulterous relationships are not eligible to serve in positions of responsibility in the church. Pastor, elder, deacon; these and other leadership positions would not available to those who have been divorced. Some make exceptions for those who were divorced before they were saved, figuring that what a person did before salvation should not be held against them afterward. Those who hold this position are often still reluctant to allow the divorced to serve in key church positions.
On the positive side, proponents of this view have a high view of scripture and are willing to stand by scripture even if it offends culture. This is admirable. If their position is biblical then their stand is noble.
My problem, though, is that I do not believe that the Bible teaches the position they are advocating. I think that position is based on church and cultural traditions. So, if the proponents of this position are not upholding the standard of scripture, they are enforcing a legalistic, extra-biblical position on divorced people. They are excluding them contrary to the revealed will of God. If their position is biblical, it is noble. If it is not biblical, it is cruel. So, the question is simple: is the prohibitionist position biblical or not? That is the focus of this study.
The “Redemptive” View
This is the position that I will advocate. I reject the Compassionate view because it does not uphold biblical standards. I reject the Prohibitionist view because I think it enforces a standard that goes beyond that which is taught in scripture. It is legalistic and cruel. In fact, I believe that the Prohibitionist view is a denial of the redemptive power of Christ. I know that such is not the intent of anyone who advocates that view, but I believe that it is the effect.
The redemptive view is based on the transforming power of Jesus Christ and the Cross. This view upholds the biblical standard of lifelong marriage and recognizes that divorce is the result of sin on the part of one or both partners. What this view refuses to do is put divorcees into a special category of sin.
Jesus came to forgive sin and redeem sinners. A murderer can be forgiven and redeemed. An adulterer can have his sin washed white as snow. So can a thief, a drug addict, a prostitute, even a homosexual. In the same way, those who are divorced are forgiven and redeemed by the power of Christ.
Leadership in the church is a matter of character and integrity. Those who lead the church must have spiritual integrity in their walk with Christ and must have demonstrated character to the church and community in their public walk. We are all sinners, though that sin takes different forms. God is working to conform us to the image of Christ. Those who lead the church are those who are farthest in the process of Christlikeness.
What matters is not what I did 20 years ago, but what I am today. Maybe, 20 years ago I was a drug dealer. But today I am walking with Christ and people can see what I am. Maybe, 20 years ago I robbed a bank. I did my time, got right with God and began to grow. If I have demonstrated that I am a new man in Christ, and have reliable character, I can be a leader in God’s church.
Why is divorce any different? If I am in the middle of a divorce, I am probably not ready to be a pastor, elder or deacon in the church, even if I am the “innocent” party in the divorce. But if I was divorced 25 years ago, remarried, and have been a faithful husband to my wife for all these years, should that divorce forever eliminate me from service.
I believe that blanket elimination of a person who has been divorced from service in the church is a denial of the redemptive power of Christ. Jesus came to redeem sinners and to make them like Christ. To continually throw a sin of the past in the face of someone who has repented and has been renewed in Christ is, to me, a heinous thing.
Once again, if the biblical evidence supports the Prohibitionist viewpoint, then my view is weak and compromising. If Paul, when he told Timothy that leaders must be “the husband of one wife” meant “never divorced”, then my view is wrong. That is why we need to inductively study scripture.
Toward a Biblical View
The Biblical position strikes a balance between the opposing sides of prohibitionism and compassion. We must take into account both God’s terrible holiness, and His gracious forgiveness in view of the sinfulness of man. It must stress both the sanctity of marriage in God’s eyes, and the harsh reality of life in a sinful, fallen world. It must stress forgiveness and restoration to divorced people, just as is true for people guilty of other sins. To find the biblical position on divorce and remarriage issues, we must:
1. Approach the scriptures open-mindedly. We all have the tendency to believe what we’ve always been taught, without looking at our views critically, to see if they are consistent with scripture. The person who desires to know God’s mind must always come to the word with a pure heart and an open mind, leaving prejudices and preconceived ideas behind. WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT IS THAT WE FIND OUT WHAT GOD SAYS ABOUT DIVORCE, NOT THAT WE PROVE THAT WHAT WE SAY IS RIGHT.
2. Look at all the scriptural evidence. We cannot just rely on those verses which support our cherished positions. That is how we so often argue scripture. I marshal several texts which support my position, then deny or ignore the texts you have marshaled to support yours. For a view to be biblical, it must fit every scriptural text into the view without denying or doing hermeneutical violence to any position.
3. Look at each scripture in its context. The context of a passage will never change the meaning of a verse, but it will clarify the meaning. Each text must be studies on its own, faithfully understanding it in context. Then, we seek to put all the verses together into a unified and consistent whole. If the Bible is God’s Word, then every verse’s clear meaning will fit together into a totality that is logical and consistent.
Methodology of This Study
In this study, we will look at the biblical evidence on divorce in its entirety. We will look at the Old Testament evidence, then the words of Jesus himself, and then the evidence from the New Testament Epistles. Each section will have summary statements, and at the end, there will be an overall summary. The issue of remarriage will be dealt with in a separate summary at the end of the stud, though it will also be mentioned in dealing with the separate verses.