(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.