HSR Summaries: Section XIV: Reflections on Divorce
By Jeff Scripps
The Human Sexuality Report that came to Synod 2022 has been widely debated but seldom read. Its intimidating length and broad areas of discussion mean many have heard about it but few have dug into it for themselves. The debate at Synod centered almost exclusively on the issue of same-sex marriage, but the report is far broader than any single issue. In this series we want to give you an overview of the Human Sexuality Report in bite-sized pieces and offer pastoral implications for us to live into going into the future.
The Human Sexuality Report does not give much space to the topic of divorce but instead directs the reader to Report 29 from the Acts of Synod 1980. Report 29 came from the third committee assembled by Synod to address the permissibility of divorce and remarriage for Christians.
Report 29 asserts that marriage is a God-ordained monogamous structure requiring the faithfulness of husband and wife; it is not something that can be altered or abandoned at (human) will. The unambiguously clear teaching of Scripture is that marriage is intended to be binding for life.
There is the question, though, of whether Scripture might grant that in a broken world the sinful actions of one or both marriage partners can so dissolve a marriage relationship established by God that it is no longer binding? The issue centers on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 and the apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16.
Unlike the parallel passages Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage (that it is adultery) contains an “exception clause”. Divorce is normally impermissible, but an exception can be made if one of the partners has been unfaithful. Jesus’ condemnation of divorce and remarriage takes place against the background of a Jewish tradition in which divorce was an acceptable remedy for any marital discord, including the desire to marry someone else. Jesus labels that practice adultery. An exception is possible if marital unfaithfulness has taken place, and given the Greek word porneia is likely to mean persistent and unrepentant adultery; but even then the path of repentance, forgiveness, and restoration is to be preferred as that is the essence of the Christian life. A marriage should never be dissolved, for that is contrary to God’s will, but by persistent and unrepentant unchastity, people can put asunder what God has joined together.
In 1 Corinthians 7:10-15, the apostle Paul addresses two situations. One of these is the marriage of two Christians and the other is a “mixed” marriage in which only one of the partners is Christian. With regard to the first, Paul says in verses 10 and 11, that divorce is not an option for married Christians. Whether or not Paul had in mind Jesus’ exceptions given in Matthew (and not in Mark or Luke) is unclear. With regard to the second, the Christian must stay married to the unbelieving spouse if the latter is willing to stay married. If the unbelieving spouse leaves, then the Christian is not bound. To “leave” here most likely means official divorce. To be “not bound” may mean freedom to not live with the unbelieving (former) spouse or it may mean freedom from the marriage entirely, in which case the Christian is free to remarry.
Report 29 reminds us that it is important to state neither more nor less than what Scripture requires. Scripture speaks more clearly to some cases than to others and it does not adjudicate every foreseeable situation. We are not going to get quick and easy answers as to whether divorce is always and everywhere to be condemned and remarriage always and everywhere to be labeled as adultery. What we are given, however, is clarity regarding God’s design for marriage (that it be a lifelong union) and the possibilities of redemption. Yet Scripture acknowledges that God’s will is not always obeyed and the gifts of grace and redemption are not always claimed. It is not possible or wise to construct a legal code which would cover all circumstances. Instead, the church must seek pastorally to assist the partners in marriage to achieve forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration wherever possible.
The Human Sexuality Report draws the following from Report 29 by way of steps that the church needs to take.
Refraining from a strictly legal approach to remarriage that tries to provide a basis for judgment that certain categories of remarriage are always compatible or incompatible with the teachings of Scripture.
Seeking to bring persons contemplating remarriage to a genuine awareness of what is involved in the covenant of marriage. The teaching of Scripture concerning marriage, grace, love, loyalty, vows, forgiveness, hope, and promise should be openly discussed. – Calling persons contemplating remarriage to an examination of their intentions in the light of the biblical teaching concerning reconciliation with the former spouse, the possibility of the single life, and remarriage.
Counseling firmly and compassionately against any remarriage that conflicts with the biblical teaching concerning marriage and divorce.
Exercising formal discipline when persons in hardness of heart refuse to heed the admonitions of the consistory and do not acknowledge and repent of their sins involved in divorce and remarriage. (Acts of Synod 1980, pp. 484-85)
After that, the Report laments that since 1980, divorce and remarriage have become widespread in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The teaching of this report, namely that divorce and remarriage generally constitute adultery, needs to be recovered and in the church we need to hold one another accountable to the teachings of Jesus.