Roman Catholic and Protestant divorce and remarriage...

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(Tim) Divorce is one of the most difficult questions pastors and elders face as we shepherd God's flock. Providing spiritual counsel in cases where husband and wife don't get along is relatively easy. Much harder are those cases in which husbands or wives physically abuse their spouses, fathers or stepfathers sexually abuse their children, husbands or wives commit serious sexual sin (what Jesus refers to as "porneia" in the exception clause of Matthew 19), or husbands demand their wives and children deny the faith. Each of these matters requires the most careful study of Scripture, prayer, and pastoral counsel. Sometimes the result is a session (board of elders) recommendation of divorce.

In the twelve years since Church of the Good Shepherd was founded, our session has made such a recommendation two or three times, each by unanimous consent. Sometimes it's hard to say whether the believing or unbelieving spouse is the one taking the initiative in the divorce. This is why it's impossible to say precisely how many times we've counseled divorce. We don't make the decision--the innocent party does. Yet neither do we abandon that innocent party to their own counsel. Our Westminster Standards are correct..

in their statement:

Although the corruption of man
be such as is apt to study arguments, unduly to put asunder those whom
God hath joined together in marriage; yet nothing but adultery, or such
willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil
magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage;
wherein a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed;
and the persons concerned in it, not left to their own wills and
discretion in their own case. (WCF XXIV, 6)

Although
things would be considerably easier for the session if it steered clear
of providing counsel at such times, we believe the Confession is right to exhort sessions that the couple ought not to be "left to their own wills and discretion in their own case."

When a church member pursues divorce at the counsel of the session,
there are folks inside and outside the church who are scandalized that
Christians, let alone elders, would give such counsel. These folks say
they're opposed to any divorce for any reason at any time. At first
blush, their position seems to be on a higher road of spiritual
devotion. When I was fresh out of seminary, I may have agreed with
them. Over the years, though, it's become apparent things aren't always
as they seem, and this not simply due to the callouses that come with
age.

Some time back, I preached a series of seven sermons from Matthew 19
on the biblical doctrine of divorce and remarriage. Divorce is terribly
destructive of the social fabric of a nation, of individual men and
women, of households, of children (young and old), of churches, and of
immortal souls made in the Image of God. There is little done by
pastors, elders, and Titus 2 women that is more important than the work
of reconciliation between husbands and wives who are tempted to pursue
divorce for marital difficulties other than sexual uncleanness and
desertion by an unbeliever.

But note I said "other than sexual uncleanness and desertion by an
unbeliever." In these two circumstances, Scripture approves of divorce.
In Matthew 19:9, Jesus explicitly states that divorce is right and
proper in cases of sexual uncleanness. And in 1Corinthians 7:15, the
Apostle Paul explicitly declares the believing spouse is "not under
bondage" when an unbelieving spouse wants out of a marriage. So in
these two cases, God Himself approves of divorce.

No divorce for any reason at any time is essentially the Roman
Catholic position, but the Reformers explicitly rejected that position.
Why?

Well, to bring the question into our own time, the tension of
setting up a system where salvation depends upon the good works of
infusion--attending Mass being principal among those works--and then to
deny hundreds of millions of divorced souls access to the Sacrament
because of their divorce; and finally, to offer the services of canon
lawyers who, for a fee, will work on an annulment does seem cynical.

Some time back, commenting on the vindication of Joseph Kennedy's
ex-wife, Sheila Rausch, in her finally-successful battle to get the
Vatican to reverse the annulment her husband had received from the
Archdiocese of Boston, The Independent reported:

There are eight million divorced and remarried Catholics in the US;
although the country contains only 6 per cent of the world's Catholics,
it accounts for three-quarters of all annulments sanctioned by the
Vatican each year. In 1968, the American Catholic Church granted only
600 annulments a year. That figure is now 60,000.

The issue
cropped up in 2004 when it emerged that John Kerry, a Catholic and
Democratic presidential candidate, had obtained an annulment of his
first marriage. It might arise this time around as well. Another
Catholic, the former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is the
front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2008. He has had one of
his two previous marriages annulled.

Here's an interesting article on the larger context of Roman Catholic annulments.

So, things aren't always the way they seem, are they? And this is
true in the Protestant church, too. There are pastors who say they're
opposed to any remarriage after divorce, but it turns out their
churches don't agree with them and the other pastors on staff have
no hesitation remarrying those who are divorced.

This post is not intended to be a Biblical treatise on divorce. Others have done a much better job than I could (scroll down to the position statement on divorce--it's an invaluable resource).

But it's worth saying that, particularly in this matter, there ought
to be some degree of symmetry between what we say we believe and the
common practice in the churches we serve as pastors and elders. If
we've been the pastor of a church for several decades; if our church
still neither agrees with our position on remarriage nor practices it
in its common life; if the other pastors on staff don't agree or
practice our convictions either; if our church has any number of
couples who have been remarried after a divorce, although by someone
other than us, and we believe these couples are adulterous; then
really, this state of affairs is similar to the state of affairs in the
American Roman Catholic church.

This is not a vote in favor of pragmatism, but we should see that
the Reformers had good reasons to sanction divorce and remarriage in
cases of porneia and abandonment by an unbeliever. They are biblical
exceptions, after all.

And regardless of the difficulty of determining the correct course
of action in particular cases, this work properly belongs to elders and pastors, as
the Westminster Standards point out.

For more on the Reformers' reforms in this area, here's a book
on adultery and divorce in Calvin's Geneva recommended by my brother, David. It's author, Robert Kingdon, taught me reformation history
during my undergraduate days at University of Wisconsin.