Compassion can tempt ministers to pick and choose which of God’s laws they will honor.
Dr. george long, senior minister of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church, used to feel anxiety when almost routinely he married a divorced person to a new mate. Then he changed his policy. Now Long refuses to marry someone unless that person has scriptural grounds for his or her divorce or has genuinely tried to become reconciled with the first mate.
When a divorced man recently wanted to be remarried, Long asked, “Where is your first wife?” Getting an unsatisfactory answer, he would not perform the ceremony. The man found another minister to marry him, but Long had his peace. As he puts it, “How can I say, ‘I’m sorry for what I’m about to do’?” He feels that in this case he would have been encouraging adultery.
Yet many ministers today automatically remarry the divorced—with or without scriptural grounds for the termination of their first marriage. They feel they are “ministering grace” by their lenient and permissive attitude toward divorce and remarriage. One seminary professor of pastoral care even remarried a person who, looking at his past marriage said, “I don’t want to commit my life to Christ. I might have to back off the divorce and I don’t want to do that.” Yet all the while the rejected spouse was praying for a reconciliation. This particular pastor/professor is usually king; but may the grace he is ministering be a variety of the “cheap grace” Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke against so strongly?
In an effort to shed some light on the dilemma divorce and remarriage pose to pastors, I queried a number from different denominations—Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Southern Baptist, and Congregational, as well as one from a well-known Bible church. I asked them the following questions:
• What are your struggles as you try to formulate a position on divorce and remarriage?
• What do you consider your responsibilities to people in your church—not only to those wanting to marry again, but to the rest of your congregation?
• How do you feel about ex-spouses of the people who come to you wanting absolution and a new marriage?
• Does it make a difference if the ex-spouse was divorced against his or her will without scriptural grounds and is still praying for a reconciliation? What is your responsibility to them? Do you have any obligation to work for a reconciliation?
The answers I received were surprisingly consistent and indicated a greater concern in this area than might be supposed from the relative ease with which divorced people today remarry.
Typical of the group was Dr. Long: “Matthew 19 says that unfaithfulness in marriage, by which I believe Jesus meant physical unfaithfulness (not the intangible ‘spiritual’ unfaithfulness that is now sometimes mentioned), sets the partner sinned against free to remarry. 1 Corinthians 7 says that willful, persistent desertion allows the party who was deserted the freedom to remarry. These two grounds for divorce were recognized by Reformed churches as the only two legitimate ones until the 1950s when the constitution of the PCUS [Presbyterian Church in the United States] was revised to indicate that unfaithfulness could be spiritual as well as physical, making the whole matter subjective, and that remarriage of divorced persons should be based upon the responsibilities of future success rather than upon the condition of past relationship.
“In trying to apply biblical principles, I have concluded that I should not remarry one partner if the first partner is still unattached unless the person talking to me is willing to go back (or has already gone back) to the first partner, confess his or her part in the wrong, and earnestly seek reconciliation. If the first partner has already remarried, or refuses a reconciliation, I interpret that as the desertion spoken of in 1 Corinthians 7.
“This approach I consider to be fairly lenient, but it still requires me to dig in my heels rather frequently. Everyone seems to agree that our society has too much divorce, but when anyone tries to dig in his heels and not cooperate with the swing toward more and more divorce and remarriage, he faces considerable pressure.
“The crux of the problem in Matthew 19 is that divorce is only a part of the transgression. The way Jesus words it, remarriage is a part, too. Obviously, if we know that what we are about to do is wrong, we should simply not do it, instead of doing it and then asking forgiveness.
There is a tension in the pastor’s heart between a desire to accommodate those wanting his blessing upon their marriage and a responsibility to his entire congregation that requires him to uphold biblical principles that govern marriage, divorce, and remarriage. I want our congregation to understand that our options are to make our marriage succeed, or to remain single the rest of our days (1 Cor. 7:11), except in the limited instances when remarriage after divorce is scripturally permitted. While this hurts those denied the blessings of their minister upon the desired marriage, it helps to strengthen the moral fiber of the congregation at large.
“I take the above positions humbly, and even reluctantly, and have suffered and gained some grey hairs as a result. But I feel that I live only once, and want to be as faithful to my understanding of our Lord’s teachings as I can.”
Ray Stedman, of Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California, had this to say: “My struggles basically arise from my tendency to empathize with couples who are going through difficult times in their marriages, or who are divorced and have met someone else with whom they feel they can have a happy marriage but are not biblically free from the old one. Yet I know that to wish them well and to remarry them would only involve them, sooner or later, in much deeper problems, because the biblical guidelines have not been satisfied. My struggle, therefore, is in refusing to let my feelings guide my actions and rather following the biblical guidelines as sympathetically as I can.
“Our entire pastoral staff takes very seriously our responsibility to the church to examine thoroughly the Scriptures and to teach what they say to the entire congregation. I don’t think our feelings have much to do with our actions in remarrying people. We may feel a great deal of sympathy, and probably do, but whether we remarry ex-spouses or not is a matter of biblical guidelines and not our feelings. We refuse to remarry anyone who is not biblically free to remarry, but we always try to feel sympathetic and helpful toward those who are injured in the breakup of a marriage.
“It makes considerable difference if the ex-spouse was divorced against his or her will and is still praying for a reconciliation. We simply will not marry anyone who does not have a biblical ground for divorce, and we insist that such people make every effort to become reconciled with their previous mates under such circumstances. If they will not do so, then we simply tell them they will have to look elsewhere for someone to marry them, for we follow the biblical rule, ‘Do not be a partaker in other men’s sins.’ We will not be a party to adultery, and make every effort we can, with grace and sympathy, to help people face the issues and act in a proper and biblical way.”
Richard Halverson of Washington, D.C.’s Fourth Presbyterian Church put it this way: “I have an obligation to work for reconciliation, and we have an annual service where marriage vows are renewed. I refuse to marry anyone unless I feel the divorce was on biblical grounds—unfaithfulness or desertion, by which I mean reconciliation is impossible.”
Ron Davis of Hope Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis says: “One of the most difficult things in my life is to confront people one to one when they have done wrong or when they have hurt someone. Whenever this happens, it is as if God is saying to me, ‘All right, Ron, if you want to be Lord, don’t confront them. But if you want me to be Lord, as hard as this is for you, they must be confronted. This is part of your responsibility in discipleship.’ One of the evidences that we are going to be presented mature in Jesus Christ is when we are committed to doing Christ’s will, even before we know how hard it is.”
Steven Brown of Key Biscayne Presbyterian adds: “I believe that God has never affirmed divorce. This includes Christians and non-Christians. Marriage is a part of the Adamic covenant and is therefore binding on everyone. I will do anything to keep a marriage together. I never even suggest divorce as an alternative because it isn’t one. I show couples what the Bible says (e.g., Mal. 2:16; Matt. 19) and let them know that no matter how bad their situation, God is perfectly capable of restoring their marriage. Divorce is sin.
“In some cases there will be two believers who are having problems with their marriage, and one of the believers refuses to return to his/her spouse. If there is no reconciliation, then it is right for the church to declare the wrong partner an unbeliever (according to Matt. 18:15–20) and then to act under the principles of 1 Corinthians 7 about a believer living with an unbeliever. Then the person seeking the unrealized reconciliation is free and the other has sinned by refusing to become reconciled.”
In fairness to ministers taking such a strong, biblical stand on divorce and remarriage, I must say that all have struggled. And none are legalistic. They all have compassionate hearts and that is just the reason the struggle is so difficult.
Steve Brown brings up the matters of physical abuse and homosexual spouses, which he calls “grey areas.” I believe the matter of homosexuality is pretty clear. Adultery is adultery whether it is performed with a man or a woman. A husband having homosexual relations, in my opinion, has committed adultery and/or fornication just as clearly as if the act had been performed with a woman who was not his marriage partner.
But the problem posed by physical abuse disturbs me deeply, too. I have two daughters, and as strong a stand as I take against divorce, I could never stand idly by and see them harmed. And I could never question their decision to seek divorce if they had tried to deal with the situation prayerfully, but failed. I fall back on the argument concerning “hardness of heart.” A wife beater certainly does not have a “soft” heart; neither is he loving his wife as Christ loves the church (Eph. 5:25). And I don’t think it is stretching the point to call such a man “unfaithful” to his wife and their marriage covenant. There is nothing subjective about black and blue marks and broken bones.
I have a close friend who finally divorced her husband after years of threats on her life and repeated beatings—some so bad as to require plastic surgery. She does not have a hard heart, but I believe her ex-husband does.
Brown is typical of the compassionate pastors when he says: “I have struggled with the issue of marriage and divorce more often than I can count. I can’t tell you the times I have stayed awake at night praying for wisdom in dealing with very difficult situations.”
Just the other day I met a minister who was miserable over the divorces in his church and over some 20 marriages about to break up. I asked if he were doing anything to support these marriages, or offering any kind of challenge. He sheepishly lowered his head and said, “If they’d come to me for help, then I’d try to do something.”
I contrast that with the advice given in Why Christian Marriages Are Breaking Up, by Gerald Dahl, a marriage and family counselor in Minneapolis: “The problem is that the church has become silent. Its passiveness toward troubled Christian marriages reflects a definite neglect of the authority given to it by God to shepherd its marriages and families.… The church must sense the responsibility to personally look after each marriage within its group of believers.… This includes discipline and authoritative correction as well as love and nurture.… Direct confrontation coupled with love and honest concern will almost always bring a positive response from the couple.
“If you sense that a couple is having problems and they do not come to you, go to them! It is your responsibility.… In most cases God will be able to work through you to save a marriage and family.… Let the church take the time and make the effort to reach out to the one lost marriage, rescuing it from destruction and divorce. Let us remain silent no longer.… People caring for people is necessary to heal relationships.”
We would not consider helping someone break laws against theft or murder, for example. Then why would a minister help someone break one of God’s laws like the prohibition against remarriage (except in certain cases) and adultery?
R. C. Sproul, head of Ligonier Valley Center and a renowned theologian, says in Discovering the Intimate Marriage: “Civil courts are disrupting the commandments of God in granting illicit divorces. In many cases the institutional church has sanctioned divorce (and remarriage) on grounds that are in clear opposition to the teaching of Christ. Clergymen and counselors through the land are recommending divorce (and permitting remarriage) where Christ has prohibited it. It means that not only is the sanctity of marriage corrupted by both state and church, but that the authority of Christ is flagrantly disobeyed in both spheres over which He is King. The word for such disobedience is treason.”
Let’s look at it from another angle. Most ministers refuse to marry two homosexuals because that would be against God’s laws. How then can they marry a man and a woman if at least one of them has divorced his or her mate without scriptural grounds, and is unwilling to work toward a reconciliation? How can ministers pick and choose which of God’s laws they will honor and which they will violate—even if their violation is motivated by a feeling of charity?
God’s laws are God’s laws. Man (even an ordained minister—especially an ordained minister) has no authority to break them, or even help break them.
Most ministers want to be compassionate toward those who are divorced, especially the truly repentant. This is as it should be. Our God is clearly a God of forgiveness toward those who repent. But does not genuine repentance involve a willingness to forgive and to become reconciled? Without that objective standard we try to judge hearts on a subjective basis. No man can do this.
If we have submitted our minds to the Scripture, we must be prepared to administer its guidelines with both straightforwardness and humility.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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