This is the beginning of a series of articles I will be posting in the weeks (months?) ahead on this topic. This series is based on a series I did several years ago on my personal blog – which is now engulfed by spider webs.
Is divorce always a sin, or are there times when obedient followers of Christ are permitted to end a marriage? If divorce is permissible in some circumstances, may those who divorce also remarry? Should those who have been divorced be considered eligible for service as pastors, elders or deacons? What does the Bible say on such topics?
Once, the evangelical church spoke with an essentially 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; at least not in evangelical churches.
It was pretty easy to enforce an ethic like that in days gone by. Divorce was rare; it was something respectable people just did not do. I remember as a child hearing the whispers and sly comments about the woman who lived across the street and a couple of doors up. She was a divorcee and, to compound things, had given birth to a child outside of marriage. We were not the kind of neighborhood that practiced shunning, but she was not considered respectable. There may have been sin, dysfunction, unhappiness or abuse going on behind closed doors, but our neighborhood was one in which mothers and fathers lived together in lifelong marriage and raised children together.
Then, a (not so) funny thing happened. Divorce swept through our nation and churches were filled with people who had been divorced. As so often happens, the doctrines and convictions of the church conveniently changed to reflect the new culture of divorce. We developed a man-centered, therapeutic faith that was more about making people happy than making them holy. Gradually, divorced people took more and more significant places in the church. As the moral slide continued, divorce turned into a minor issue. Some denominations today are discussing whether to marry and ordain unrepentant homosexuals. In that kind of culture, divorce seems like a much less crucial issue.
American Christians have a long history of being led more by our 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. Is this what has happened with divorce? Has the prevalence of divorce caused us to sacrifice biblical moral standards for the sake of convenience? Or, perhaps, did the prevalence of divorce cause us to reexamine beliefs that were long-held and traditional, but not biblical?
There is only one way to answer such questions. We must seek to understand what God’s Word says about the topic. 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 and have made unacceptable compromises that lower our standards of holiness. But I also believe that much of the traditional church teaching on divorce was based on cultural norms and church traditions more than it on the Bible.
So, in this study, we will set forth some preliminary concerns, and 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 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 questioning your faith. So, I am going to argue forcefully for the position I believe, but not break faith with those who hold to a different position.
In fact, the church I serve as pastor operates on an unwritten policy that is different than my position. 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 with which I do not agree.
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 “Compassion” 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. Those affected by divorce have their lives blown apart.
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.
This position is unique because it refuses to hold divorcees accountable for their behavior or apply any moral standard to the situation. The church is told to be compassionate, non-judgmental and accepting of those who have been divorced. A pastor in my community recently announced to his church that he and his wife were getting a divorce. He then told them that he and the board would be meeting to decide whether it would be best for him to continue in the pulpit of that church. Compassion without standards marks this view.
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 must uphold the biblical standard of marriage.” That is what I have heard almost every time I have advocated my position. Of course, I agree with that statement, as any Biblicist must do. We cannot abandon scriptural truth that is unpopular or unwanted by our society. To do anything less than to uphold biblical standards in marriage is a sin. 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. Those who say this often make an assumption I do not think is warranted by the biblical evidence.
To the proponents of this position, the clear teaching of Scripture is that all divorce is sin and all divorcees are prohibited from leadership in the Body of Christ. 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 are prohibited 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 traditions and ancient cultural mores. So, if the proponents of this position are not upholding the standard of Scripture, they are enforcing an 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 unnecessary and 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. Obviously, I have chosen a sympathetic name for this view, but I also believe it is an accurate descriptor. 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 exclusionary beyond what scripture permits. In fact, I believe that the Prohibitionist view fails to fully appreciate 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. And it emphasizes the transformational, renewing power of Christ.
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 certainly 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 significant 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, an unintentional but real denial of Christ’s transformational work.
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’s Word says about divorce, not what our traditions or culture say.
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.
In this study, we will look at every passage in the Bible that deals with divorce in any significant way, and then discern answers to the three key questions set out above.
- Is divorce ever permissible for the obedient believer? (If so, when?)
- Is a divorced person allowed to remarry without sin? (If so, when?)
- May a divorcee serve in positions such as pastor, elder or deacon in the church?