MDR: The Traditional View, Part 2

The traditional view has raised a number of troubling issues over the years. And as divorce has become increasingly common over the last 40 years or so, these troubling issues have become commonplace for churches everywhere.

a. What about a couple unscripturally divorced and remarried prior to conversion? Does baptism cleanse the former sin and allow them to remain married? Christians have disagreed, but it has often been taught that no one can be saved without repentance (undeniably true!), repentance requires a change away from former sin (such as adultery), and so the divorced and remarried couple must divorce one another — putting their wrongful marriage behind them — to be eligible for baptism. Of course, the problem with this view is that we have preachers and elders telling couples to divorce to please God — often when they have children at home — causing unspeakable pain and harm: the very pain and harm that Christ’s teaching against divorce is supposed to prevent!

b. Some have taught that, rather than divorcing, such a couple may live together so long as they do so without sexual relations. And yet, as we’ll see, this seems to contradict Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 — that husbands and wives may not deny one another sexual privileges — not to mention being the occasion of much temptation and sin. I mean, while I know of cases where this has been done, how many couples have been driven out of the church by such teaching? Or have lived together and engaged in what they have been taught to be wrong? As Jesus (Matt. 19:11-12) and Paul (1 Cor. 7:7) both teach, not everyone has the gift to live a celibate life!

c. And how should we treat our church members who have divorced? The majority view would be that divorce is wrong (unless scriptural, that is, for fornication) but forgivable. However, many churches have, for reasons not clearly articulated, treated divorced members as second-class members — not “in good standing” — and denied such members the privilege of teaching class, attending the Lord’s Table, or preaching. Indeed, if a preacher’s wife leaves him and can’t be shown to have been a fornicator, the preacher’s career is over, no matter how innocent he may have been. In some cases, even where the wife was unfaithful, the preacher has become a pariah on just the notion held by some that there really never is an innocent party.

d. While divorce has been viewed as semi-forgivable sin, remarriage after an unscriptural divorce is viewed as unforgivable. The problem is that under the logic of the triangle drawn above, the second marriage is no marriage at all, but is cohabitation in violation of the first marriage, and adultery is committed every time the couple have sexual relations. Because adultery is committed more or less continually, forgiveness is unavailable. The only path to forgiveness is repentance, which means divorcing the second spouse — regardless of the impact on the children. Not surprisingly, remarried couples generally leave a church that takes this position and find a more indulgent denomination or else leave Christianity altogether.

It has been said that it would be better to kill your wife than to divorce her, since having killed her, you could obtain forgiveness and remarry! Just divorcing her leaves no path available for a second marriage.

e. Elderships sometimes have to face other daunting questions under this view. For example, suppose a woman’s husband abandons her, leaving no forwarding address. May she presume that he has had sexual relations with another woman, allowing the former wife to remarry, or must she seek proof before remarrying? And how much proof is needed? Indeed, a former husband is often very vindictive, and knowing his wife’s views on remarriage, may go out of his way to deny her the ability to remarry by keeping his sexual conduct secret!

f. What if under state law a husband who has abandoned his wife is presumed dead? May the wife remarry? What if it later turns out that he is alive and not guilty of fornication? Is she thus a bigamist? Must she divorce her second husband?

g. And does fornication after the divorce retroactively render the divorce scriptural? Suppose a husband divorces his wife when no fornication has occurred. This is an unscriptural divorce. Suppose the husband remarries. Has he now committed fornication, freeing the first wife to remarry? This would have a certain logic, but it would mean that after an unscriptural divorce, the first spouse to remarry is a sinner and the second spouse to remarry is not. There is logic here, but no justice — much less mercy.[1]

h. And what about a post-divorce death? Following an unscriptural divorce, one former spouse dies. Is the surviving spouse now free to remarry? Most would say yes, but Jesus’ sayings don’t explicitly make this an exception. For those who see the prohibition on second marriage as a penalty for sin, death is no justification, and so some don’t see an exception.

i. Suppose a husband routinely beats his wife. She is as patient and loving as can be, but he is a wife beater. Preachers, elders, counselors, police, and the courts can get him to stop. She moves out to avoid permanent injury or death. May she divorce her husband? And if so, may she remarry? Under the traditional teaching, she may not divorce him and if she does, she may not remarry. However, she may live separately from him and even have the courts grant a legal separation. She may even get a restraining order to compel him to always stay 500 feet away from her. But is this really God’s model for marriage? In what sense is she is his wife — or should she be? How can she relieved of her scriptural duty to submit (Eph. 5:21 ff) and to make her body available to him (1 Cor. 7:1 ff) and not be relieved of the marriage?

j. Suppose a couple is converted and baptized, based on genuine faith and repentance. Some time later the elders learn that one of the spouses was earlier divorced and remarried. The couple now have three children at home. Do they require them to divorce? To live without sexual relations? Or do they treat the baptism as having cleansed their marriage?

k. One of the more sad results of all this is the number of church splits triggered by disagreements on how to deal with remarried couples. Suppose an eldership admits into membership a couple divorced and remarried before baptism. The elders believe that baptism cleansed the relationship (or at least that we shouldn’t judge such things), but many members consider them plainly living in adultery. It has been common practice in some parts of the country for such members to feel compelled to leave the church rather than be guilty of “condoning” the adultery by remaining members of the same church as adulterers.


[1] Matt. 12:7: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Unless otherwise indicated, scriptures are quoted from the New International Version.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to MDR: The Traditional View, Part 2

  1. Joe Baggett says:

    This is such a complex subject.

    Divorce cannot be an unforgivable sin or the cross was only for those who would not commit it, or any of the other “bad” sins we have deemed as unforgiveable.

    There are many other things worse than physical fornication in a marriage. Physical abuse is just one of many that leave people scarred and bruised worse than a spouse who simply sleeps with another woman.
    I believe adultery is not just only confined to physical sexual intercourse but anything that continually breaks the marriage vows. When someone who continually breaks any of the marriage covenant and after counseling and continued efforts to resolve the mental or physical adultery willfully continues on either or both sides the marriage is essentially dissolved whether there is a legal civil divorce or not.

    Now the idea that the church is in charge of enforcing this and making sure each party has done everything they should down to the last detail is not biblical. When will we start treating all sins the same, nice sins and "bad sins"? If we are going to treat divorce like we have traditionally getting all up in everyone's business then why not do it with greed or sloth or any of the other sins that we basically ignore?
    IT IS NOT OUR JOB TO MAKE PEOPLE ACCEPTABLE TO GOD WHEN WE CAN’T EVEN MAKE OURSELVES ACCELTPABLE TO GOD.
    This traditional method and doctrine of divorce is a major contributor to the image problem that Christianity has now. An image and perception of judgment and hypocrisy! We must this perception by changing our doctrine and practice.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I ask this with all sincerity: Does a bank robber who becomes a Christian need to return the money he has stolen in order to truly repent?

  3. Nick Gill says:

    Joe,

    I am not a proponent of the doctrine in question, but most of those proponents DO NOT believe that divorce is UNFORGIVABLE.

    They believe the following:

    1) that ANY sin is unforgivable while one is still committed to practicing it. — we'd probably agree so far

    2) that marrying in violation of the particular edicts of Jesus in Matthew is a commission of adultery.

    3) One cannot repent of adultery while maintaining an adulterous relationship. — I think we'd agree with that as well.

    Where we disagree with them is NOT that we believe that divorce can be forgiven while they do not. Saying so just squirts lighter fluid onto an open flame. You get one of two things — either the fire goes completely out (no conversation whatsoever) or you get a huge conflagration (where no real communication is possible).

    We disagree on what constitutes adultery. Jay's clear exposition of the scriptural definition of adultery as COVENANT VIOLATION can be a great help there.

  4. Nick Gill says:

    Jonathan,

    While acts of restoration can be clearly indicative of repentance, I do not believe that God allows Himself to be tied down so tightly.

    What if the bank robber stole the money and then had it taken from him by another criminal?

    What if he stole the money and spent it to pay for his child's organ transplant?

    Let's be even less gracious to him: What if he stole it and JUST BLEW IT?

    In all three of these situations, the robber might spend his entire life doing honest work and never make enough money to repay that debt.

    Several stories of Jesus touch this subject tangentially, at least: the father and his two sons in Luke 15, and the king who forgave a great debt in Matthew 18. Also, while Zaccheus promises to repay four times what he has extorted, we see no such promise required from Matthew, AND John the Baptist lays no such requirement on the tax collectors who asked him to help them repent (Luke 3).

    For a bank robber, repentance would mean DEFECTION from the kingdom of self or the kingdom of some criminal boss INTO the kingdom of God. Therefore, I believe that as one has opportunity, loyalty to one's new King could include restoring what you took if you are able and if it is in the best interests of one's King.

    in HIS love,
    nick

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Jonathan,

    I have a post coming on this question. But consider this: wives are not like money. I can give money back. I can't give a wife back. I especially can't give children by that wife back.

    Rarely would a husband, by divorcing his wife in hopes of being saved, be able to get his ex-wife to marry her ex-husband. Women aren't things to be given away. Marriages aren't the same as ownership.

    Consider David and Bathsheba. After David killed Uriah, he married Bathsheba. Their second son was named Solomon, whom God clearly considered legitimate.

    And yet, by the repentance logic, David had to divorce Bathsheba because their relationship was forged in sin. For David to repent, he had to give up what he stole. But he didn't and God blessed the union.

  6. Amala says:

    Forgiveness is the only remedy to overcome such dissolution. Read more on forgiveness: http://matrimonyxpress.bharatmatrimony.com/2008/0

  7. Anonymous says:

    That's a question that some have posited No. However, I think the bigger problem with MDR and say a thief is the simplicity of the nature of the New Testament. We are not under the Old Law anymore. Jesus was clear his kingdom is NOT of this world. What makes us as Christians think we can live sinless under such "law" that the Jews did not?

    Christ is giving us the edict that God hates divorce. We are to respect that and strive to keep that out of our lives. But if we don't, then what? We've come up with all of these wild inferences and terms that don't even exist in the Bible to justify our treatment of the divorced.

    The fact is, God is the judge. He knows our hearts. The robber feels the pains of his conscience and must abide by them. If he truly believes he can skirt the issue of fairness by simply repenting, he has another thing coming. If he's truly in a situation where the money cannot be given back, I see this as something he has to search his soul about. But it is not mine to judge.

    I find it interesting that people will say, "Yes, we had to withdraw from John Smith because he's unrepentant and living with his second wife." I think to myself, "Did he just not repent? Or did he repent and nor divorce? Who is to judge his repentance? Am I to do so based on an inference or do I let God judge his repentance?

    I've also heard people say, "Well we have withdraw from those who walk disorderly!" So we go from inferring that that must divorce to truly repent to considering them "walking disorderly" based on that inference.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Thanks jpo321. I've always doubted the wisdom of insisting that people divorce in order to repent of divorcing. And I question the wisdom of comparing a husband or wife to a bag of money. Any doctrine that insists we treat people as property is deeply flawed.

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