What does the "style of Christ" and the "style of his kingdom" mean for the question about divorce and remarriage? Is adultery always grounds for divorce? The author also discusses 1 Corinthians 7 and divorce, and Matthew 19 and the phrase “hardness of hearts.”

Source: Lux Mundi, 2005. 12 pages.

About Divorce and Remarriage The Style of the Kingdom versus Remaining Sin and Weakness


Since 1993 the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated) are in a process of reflection on divorce and remarriage. The deputies appointed by the General Synod of Zuidhorn-2002 had to consult the churches on this subject. Half way one of the deputies, A.L.Th. de Bruijne wrote articles on the theme in the reformed weekly De Reformatie. These articles are now published in Lux Mundi. In the previous article De Bruijne demonstrated how deputies are in line with existing church practice. In this issue he tries to make clear how they emphasise especially the style of Christ’s kingdom as an indicator of the right direction (I) and addresses some criticisms deputies had to deal with (II).

Part I🔗

Style of Christ🔗

We must not isolate the increasing difficulty around divorce from a broader and deeper crisis in Christian life today. It constitutes only one of the symptoms. In order to come to a real answer, spiritual renewal and new dedication to God is necessary. Our society is not christian anymore. Once more we have to commit our lives and also our marriages (including our marriage difficulties) to Christ, directing ourselves toward God’s aims with marriage. Then you learn to see things not so much as they appear, but in the light of his coming kingdom. Not as you feel them yourself but judging them with the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).

If you do that, you will notice that we often deal with divorce and remarriage in a too limited way. We often say: ‘you have the clear rule, the seventh commandment: do not divorce; and you have a number of clear exceptions to this rule: and then it is allowed’. Yet, the Sermon on the Mount teaches that life with Christ goes deeper and reaches further than fulfilling the rules with exceptions.

In saying this, we are not saying that such rules, especially the seventh commandment, can be put into perspective. It is a persistent misunderstanding that our report places God’s commandments on the sideline and puts something vague like the “style of the kingdom” in their place. We hold completely to the commandment but do believe that Jesus’ teaching goes further. In His kingdom it becomes more not less. For this reason the Christian lifestyle asks for more than rules and exceptions to rules. The first questions become: what on this point of our lives fits with God’s purpose, as He made this completely clear to us in the person and by the works, promises and commands of Christ?

And: what for now does the most justice to God’s coming new world that Jesus opens for us? And: in what do you recognise Jesus Himself leading us, who wants to make his image visible in us? That is what we mean when we use the much criticised expression ‘style of God’s kingdom’. This includes also the concrete commands, and may never – also according to us – be in contradiction to the commands.

Seven Plus🔗

The seventh commandment says: you may not commit adultery. We often instinctively fill this in as: you may not divorce, but that is not what the commandment says. In the context of the law of Moses, God even tolerated forms of divorce. The direct point of the seventh commandment is that marriage breaks because a third person is involved. Divorce was when a husband took the wife of his neighbour, or when a wife had sexual intercourse with another man. This went beyond divorce. It is not for nothing that some Christians who wish to be faithful to the Bible, say that divorce is not always wrong, and by holding such an opinion one would be going further than the law.


What we say in this connection is that this is precisely what Jesus often does: go further than the immediate tenor of the law of Moses. Sometimes He does this by looking back at God’s perfect creation and sometimes by looking forward to God’s perfect kingdom. For the law of Moses is not a timeless manuscript but a dated expression of the will of God in the history of salvation. When it comes to Jesus, it is not over if you have properly followed the letter of the law. In the light of creation and of the kingdom, He teaches you to dig deeper: what does God want in our lives? What suits people who have been redeemed by Christ and have received His Spirit as an advance of the new life? According to us, Jesus’ radical message about divorce: do not divorce at all, stands in this light!


But what of the exceptions? Adultery and desertion, and maybe a few other circumstances: is divorce then wrong, too? For example, in the case of adultery we must not begin by looking to see if the Bible also says somewhere that divorce ‘is allowed’ or ‘is not allowed’ but with the question: what goes with Christ and his kingdom? Nobody can avoid that you are then called to forgive the other – if he or she genuinely confesses guilt ­ and even to be ready to wait long for that. That is how God deals with his adulterous people. In this way we see Jesus appearing even before His enemies. Adultery is thus no automatic ground for divorce.

Indeed, the way of forgiveness was also indicated in the old approach. Nevertheless the emphasis is different. What usually happens after adultery is that the marriage can be seen as undone and that it is a question of willingness, whether or not the offended party can forgive and go further along the road of reconciliation. The ‘rule’ comes first and the ‘style of Christ’ constitutes a possible additional option – but we would all understand it if the person could not manage this. In our vision there is no ground for this opinion within the framework of the New Covenant. There can be no doubt, according to us, as to what Christ’s way would be, even in the light of such a devastating sin by the partner. In this, the way of following Christ is also clear. This does not impede of course, that forgiving is sometimes very difficult or is not yet possible and that we need to have much patience with each other.

Another question is the attitude of the guilty party. If he or she does not reach recognition of guilt and repentance, then as we see it, reconciliation and recovery of the relationship is not possible. We are still of the opinion that even then, a complete divorce with the option of remarrying, should not necessarily be automatic. Sometimes there is room to wait for the other. If in such a situation the marriage still breaks down, it is ultimately not the adultery which is actually the cause but the refusal of the sinner to repent. On this point, according to us, this situation is not different to when somebody abuses a partner and shows no regret or repentance. This illustrates that as soon as you speak of a calling to forgive, adultery can no longer be presented as an absolute and direct ground for divorce.

Our approach also does more justice to the fact that in cases of adultery the question of guilt is not unequivocal by definition. When a man neglects his wife emotionally and she falls in temptation through contact with another man, she bears her guilt of course, but he cannot be rid of his share of the guilt in the marriage break up. Using an approach wherein you only look at the rule and the fixed exceptions and apply these simply and clearly, no justice would be done to the spiritual depth and the complex character of the various elements in the sin. With the help of an approach according to the style of Christ, these other elements would also come into consideration.


Many cannot understand why we speak so sparingly about adultery. Does the Bible itself not clearly name ‘adultery’ as ground for divorce? Let us first say: if this is the case, then we bow to this, because our approach on the basis of the style of the kingdom, is not meant to release us from concrete words of scripture. We are following however, an exegesis, which is very old and which was broadly carried in the early church, but which has passed out of sight in our more recent church tradition. It came under our attention via the books and commentaries of Professor Van Bruggen.

breaking cord

Strictly speaking, the Bible says nowhere that adultery is a ground for divorce. We thought this term up ourselves, later in the history of the church. And the question is whether or not it is a good term. The wording of Scripture only indicates that the Lord Jesus when speaking about divorce, makes an exception of adultery in a certain situation. But which situation that is, is not clear. Van Bruggen’s explanation appealed to us, which says that here, Jesus hints at the disobedience to God’s law which had crept in amongst the Jews on this point. Instead of stoning, they used the letter of divorce, which was not meant for this. In this case Jesus would be confirming that in ‘adultery’ something unusual was happening compared with many other marriage sins, but not that this constitutes a fixed ground for divorce.

Something similar plays a role in the classic ‘second’ divorce ground: desertion, from 1 Corinthians 7. We do not come across a term such as ‘grounds for divorce’ here either, but we do come across a very concrete and specific situation: an unbeliever leaves a partner who became a Christian. Strictly speaking, the reason why the unbeliever goes away cannot be found in 1 Corinthians 7. Nor is it clear why in this case, Paul does not insist on the continuation of the marriage. There are explanations of this text which point to special circumstances in Corinth, in which case the direct relevance in other situations would be reduced. This fact alone should make us careful with the conclusion that Paul’s teaching on this point should be taken as a proclamation of a second fixed ground for divorce. In other circumstances than that which Paul has before him, a believer following the style of Christ when an unbelieving partner goes away, could try to remain faithful, maybe from a distance.

For that matter, we think, just as our critics, that we can best view 1 Corinthians 7 as a choice in a situation in which two principles rear up together and threaten to clash with each other: your call to be faithful to your partner, even if he remained an unbeliever, and your call to follow Christ. In this concrete situation, Paul points in the way: being faithful to Christ has priority, naturally.

Double Emphasis🔗

So we are placing two emphases simultaneously. According to us, you must aim high when it comes to marriage and divorce. Not via a system of single rules and fixed exceptions, stating in advance: in this case divorce is allowed. Divorce can never be good, we say, because it can never be at one with God’s purpose for marriage as this is made clear in the light of creation and kingdom. Stay close to Christ by striving for mutual faithfulness, no matter how difficult it is, even when it feels impossible. Aim for this in faith. When you dare to expect much, you will be able to see something of it even in this life. And if you give up in advance, you block the working of God’s Holy Spirit too easily.

At the same time we all know how sin and evil can paralyse Christians – your own sin but also that of others. It is possible that you have to face the same sort of choice that we recognised in 1 Corinthians 7: caught between two evils. You taste something of this in Paul’s words earlier in the chapter. He says in verses 10-11: you must not separate from each other, but if that does happen, be reconciled or remain unmarried. In this, Paul also shows that he sees the brokenness. He does not insist: you must be reconciled, although in a marriage conflict, this is of course, the style of Christ, but he also gives an indication that if that is not possible, at least stay unmarried. He knows, probably from experience, that the reconciliation which is commanded, is not always attainable.

According to us, there is no biblical reason to say that such a choice between two evils can only take place when there is talk of adultery or desertion. As I said in the first article, there is a reason why the church in the past has always had more situations in mind. If adultery and desertion were not meant to be fixed grounds for divorce for always, then the obligation to push every situation under these categories is taken away. What remains is the guideline – when the choice is between evils, you must always choose in the light of the Scriptures, for that which leads to the lesser evil.


Possible with God🔗

This combination of a high aim and the search for a way which is, simultaneously the most responsible in the midst of sometimes irreconcilable brokenness, is called contradictory by some critics. The one thinks we are too strict and idealistic. The other complains that we are too tolerant. We acknowledge that on this point there is an enormous tension. But it is the tension which belongs to this life: the tension between following Christ on the way to his kingdom, and living in a still sinful world.

We have only one defence to this criticism. The secret of this way of dealing with divorce lies in the submission to Christ. The relation with Him will always be under attack in this old world: a case of faith, struggle and growth. It will not be perfected in this life. As church you have to see this when dealing with divorce. At the same time this bond with Christ in our lives does more than we pray or realise. The disciples also thought that Jesus’ words about divorce were too strict or too idealistic. If it has to be like that, they say (Matth. 19), then you can better not marry. Jesus’ answer also points to a way for today: there are also those have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom. This is the secret. If Jesus with his kingdom is the true treasure of your heart, you find all your joy in Him. He is your life and your future. The more you believe this and live it, the more you dare to expect, the more you are prepared to do anything for Him, if necessary, even to suffer and to lose your life. He says Himself: he who loses his life, will gain it. Even an impossible marriage, in the light of God’s Kingdom, can become possible with God.


Our emphasis on communion with Christ, means, according to us, at least three things in practice:

  1. It makes a difference if you are dealing with somebody who follows his own interests and therefore does not persevere in his marriage, or with someone who truly seeks Jesus, also in a difficult marriage, and for this reason, fights but ultimately has to give up the struggle. You respond differently to the divorce and eventual regret of the first, than to the same of the second. The first must repent before Christ. The second must grow in Christ.
  2. Finding your life and joy in Christ and his kingdom and therefore even depriving yourself, is not only intended for people in a difficult marriage. This call is for us all. Therefore we must never moralize over people who want to divorce or remarry. It would be hypocritical to say to them; “you must follow Christ in his radical commitment to the kingdom” and not know this radicalism in other areas, yourself. To put it bluntly: a church with less than normal willingness to make sacrifices for neighbours in need, is in no position to judge the divorces in her midst. If we want to deal with this problem, then we, as Christians together, must want to learn this style of Christ across the whole spectrum of our lives. In so doing we serve our brothers and sisters with marriage problems or after a divorce, more than just with disapproval or telling them what to do. This sort of communal style in the church carries and stimulates our way of dealing with marriage problems.
  3. In the Old Testament it was normal that divorcees married again. We are inclined to forget this. In their article, Pathuis and Voorberg suggest that the letter of divorce would counteract this. They think that the letter of divorce functioned as a sort of ‘separation from table and bed’. But they base this only on an assumption and, in the light of what is known, they miss the point. They repeat an old opinion about the intention of the letter of divorce in the law of Moses. Contrary to what is often realised, the letter of divorce in the Old East was not generally in use. We come across it only in certain higher circles. Moses did not limit the use of the letter of divorce but took it further than was usual in his context: he extended its application to all members of the people. The intention behind this was to resist easy divorce for men and to protect the position of the women more. But if there was talk of an official divorce, then there was also room for the next marriage. This appears in the Bible itself. In Deuteronomy 24, Moses speaks about such a next marriage as something which was a matter of course. And in Matthew 5 Jesus says: if you send your wife away, you make her a victim of adultery. Jesus just assumes that a woman who has been sent away will marry again. It is also confirmed by the literal words on the Jewish letter of divorce, as they have been found. In this a man declares: “you are free to marry whomever you want”. Above all, in Israel’s culture throughout most phases, it was not normal for a woman who was not yet too old, to remain unmarried (see David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids 2002).


We realise far too little that this was the practice in the Old Testament. And because of that we do not see that where this is concerned, the New Testament indicates a more radical new line than the Old: after divorce, do not marry again. (I assume now that we read this line from the New Testament correctly and will go into this more extensively). This greater radicalism can only be understood in the light of the coming kingdom. On the basis of the creation and the Old Testament, you could say: a person is not meant to live alone. But in the New Testament, next to the call to follow Christ within marriage, a call to serve Christ while unmarried becomes evident. Christ’s kingdom gives meaning to marriage as well as to being single. Both are made places of growth for Christian love. The Spirit makes both subordinate to a new lasting community in which people shall not be alone but live together: the church of Christ. As soon as you realise that your calling to stay unmarried after a divorce for example, has something to do with that special perspective of the New Testament, it becomes clear that this means something for the way we deal with divorced fellow Christians. If, as churches, we want to reduce the number of remarriages after divorce, we must do more than read the law to divorcees and say ‘it’s not allowed’.

Having to remain unmarried is only understandable in the bedding of that new society within the church. A church that wants to propagate this call to remain unmarried, in the first place will have to work on being a home where not only married but also single people and divorced people are completely included, accepted and involved. Only such a church can be convincing in the insistence of the sacrifice of remaining unmarried after a divorce.

Spiritual: Prevention and Help🔗

If we try to answer the growing divorce problem with loud words and tighter rules which we intend strictly to maintain, we might be forcing the right thing to happen but apart from Christ, in a carnal way. Especially so if we refuse to recognise that some situations have broken down and that people sometimes do not have the strength of faith or the room to go further. In raising these points we are not looking for loopholes but we are looking for a way of dealing with marriage problems and divorce wherein we first bring each other close to Christ in order to go forward together on the radical way of discipleship.

At the same time: if we just surrender step by step to the broken reality and accept one new divorce ground after another, we are being caught up in a downward spiral. In another way, this is just as carnal. Where is our expectation of the Spirit of Christ in this?

Maybe that is why it is better to react to the current problem by trying to go around it. Let us not only be shocked by the many marriage crises and try to tidy them away nicely or to limit the damage, but let us also pay attention especially to avoiding future problems. For this reason we have suggested paying much more attention to church instruction and training to marriage and being single, not only when people get married, but from the very beginning of church teaching. If anything has been missing in catechism lessons in the course of the centuries, it is instruction in the practice of Christian life, while in the Old Church this was the very centre of church teaching. We also recommend that we work on having more to offer in situations of marriage difficulties than norms which say how things should be done. Direct help is necessary, which combines spiritual guidance with relational expertise.

Before everything, we hope for a desire in the churches for new dedication and discipleship of Christ. Therefore it would be a great pity when an unrestrained and up-building discussion with each other about this, is pushed out of the picture by concern and distrust. Even if nothing concrete came out of our approach but a spark that sets this desire for new dedication alight, we would have reached our aims in a way. Would Christ’s power not be promising for Christians in the middle of this crisis about marriage, sexuality and relationships?

help needed

Part II🔗

I hopefully made clear that our talking of the ‘style of the kingdom’ is not meant to avoid concrete Biblical words, but to stimulate a new zeal and dedication at a deeper level. Now I am going to look more closely at the criticism. I address four subjects:

  1. 1 Corinthians 7
  2. ‘Hardness of heart’
  3. Discipline
  4. Remarrying after a divorce

    A. 1 Corinthians 7🔗

    The greatest difficulty comes from our handling of 1 Corinthians 7. In our report we say that in 1 Corinthians, Paul gives an incidental exception to Jesus’ rule that you may not divorce. Moreover, we suggest that in some circumstances, the church is obliged to do something like this. Of course, Paul speaks with apostolic authority and the church does not, but this does not take our point of comparison away.

    Sometimes, while maintaining the rule, you come up against a situation in which application of this rule would have unacceptable consequences. In such a case, it is better ­ or preferably, the lesser of two evils - not to apply the rule than to suffer the consequences. In 1 Corinthians 7, application of the rule not to divorce, could lead to the sacrifice of the bond with Christ for the sake of your unbelieving partner. Because this is unacceptable, Paul ‘suspends’ the rule, as it were, for this situation. This exceptional missionary circumstance was not yet in view in Jesus’ teaching. But, as we see it, this can happen more often and then the church is obliged to do something like this.

    Take, for example, the case of a woman who is married to a psychopath who terrorizes her life and even threatens her, and who destroys the family. According to us, in this sort of situation, the church must do more than wait on the sidelines. Some would recommend this approach – the church hopes that the woman has enough faith and strength to carry on, supports her in this, but will not judge her too harshly if she does not succeed. In this arrangement, you leave the responsibility completely in her shoes.

    In many other difficult marriage circumstances, this can be a good arrangement but in this sort of extreme situation, I see it as an unacceptable way of keeping your hands clean as a church. You know that God does not want somebody to destroy his partner or family. You are called to stand up for the life and salvation of your neighbour, certainly when they are weak. In this situation, if there is no other alternative, the church should say, as did Paul in 1 Corinthians 7: you are no longer bound. Just as in 1 Corinthians 7 it is ‘an evil’ if the marriage breaks up, but just as there, it would be a greater evil if you forced those involved to maintain the marriage at any price.


    Many critical questions have risen around this approach. Does the church have the same apostolic authority as Paul?

    Can you say that Paul releases people from the compliance with a rule of Christ? Is God’s revelation on the subject of divorce not closed, so that you cannot expand the principle of 1 Corinthians 7 to other situations?

    We can certainly empathise with some of this criticism. In retrospect, we see our choice of words as having been unfortunate, if only because of the misunderstanding these have caused. ‘Release from the obligation to follow the rule’ or ‘suspension from obligation’ are vulnerable expressions, to be sure if one uses them to say what the church today ought to do.

    We distance ourselves fully from these expressions, even though we do not mean to say what various critics hear in them. Instead of these sort of expressions, we now say that in 1 Corinthians 7 we see how Paul applies the guidelines Christ gave concerning divorce, in a very specific situation.


    On the other hand, we rather miss in what our critics say, thorough consideration of the problems surrounding 1 Corinthians 7. Because as Paul writes: you are not ‘bound’, we are inclined to understand this as ‘bound to husband or wife’. But in following others, we have pointed out that Paul uses another word here than would be expected in that case. The word he uses, seems to be best understood as a reference to Christ’s rules. In the concrete situation in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul seems to be saying that those involved are not slavishly bound to the rule that you may not divorce. This was the reason for our, in retrospect, too vulnerable expressions.

    Many critics (Storm, for example) nevertheless, do not go into this argument with one single word and act as though it is without question that the verse speaks of being bound to your husband or wife. All the same, this point does make rather a difference. Because, if Paul says: here you are not bound to your husband or wife, you could possibly come to a new category, a ground for divorce. But if he has the binding to the rule in view, it is about more than an incidental concrete signpost in a dilemma. We think it is a real shame that all sorts of critics heavily criticise our use of 1 Corinthians 7, without offering an alternative for the considerations which brought us there. In this we think also of our earlier mentioned standpoint, that situations in which we meet an extreme dilemma, occur more frequently. The church, in one way or another, will have to indicate the way forward then, and in those cases can learn from what she sees Paul doing in 1 Corinthians 7.

    The oath🔗

    What we want to claim with the help of 1 Corinthians 7, can also be made clear along another channel. Maybe this will help to take away the difficulty with our handling of 1 Corinthians 7. To this end, I will make use of a less charged example.

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ utters radical words about the oath. You must absolutely not swear, He says, everything more than a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ is ‘from the evil one’ (Matth. 5:33-37). Now that the kingdom is drawing near and Christ’s mercy and His Spirit shall fill us, we must aim further than just limiting lies (with the help of an oath). Now the law is written in our hearts and lies must be banished. I will not now look at the familiar question of whether or not Jesus’ word was also meant for civilian society, for example, in a time in which this has become estranged from God. In any case we can learn that in the church, an oath is not fitting and betrays the influence of sin. All the same, later in Paul’s teaching, now and again we come across a sort of ‘oath’, not as he speaks to society, but within the church. It seems that things still sometimes happen which should not happen. And it seems that as a consequence of this influence of sin, situations occur in which you cannot avoid an oath. In such circumstances the straightforward application of Jesus’ words that you may never swear could make, that lies and mistrust ruin relations amongst brethren, or that room for the Word and the church officer (Paul) disappears. Then a choice between two evils is thus created: the oath as means of help, for which there is not actually any place in the church, and the dangerous spreading of lies and mistrust. In these situations, Paul chooses for the oath as means of help.

    Structurally, something similar to 1 Corinthians 7 about divorce is happening here. The question is what we can conclude for our circumstances from this. Should we say: oaths are never allowed, except in the exact same circumstances that Paul later allows an oath to be made, using the argument that Paul was an apostle and we are not? Or could other situations emerge after the New Testament time which do not look exactly like that of Paul’s, and which allow you to draw a more general lesson from his example? Namely this lesson: sometimes also within the church, you get caught up in a dilemma and then an oath is the lesser evil.

    This question has already been answered by the church in Lord’s Day 37 of the Catechism. There we confess that the oath is sometimes permitted ‘if necessity demands this.’ The church has not said: we may not go further than the concrete situations wherein we have come across exceptions to Jesus’ rule in the New Testament that we may not swear an oath. On the contrary, in Paul’s dealing with Jesus’ words in specific situations, the church, in the full realisation that he was an apostle and we are not, nevertheless, has also recognised an element of example and has dared to expand this to that unspecified indication in the catechism. We could make comparable comments about the ‘white lie’.

    an oath🔗


    What we mean to say about divorce on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7, is not different. For this reason all comments that critics make about the fact that God’s revelation has been closed, also on the divorce theme, and that we may not add or take anything away from God’s Word do not hurt us at all. We recognise that revelation has been closed. We come across this example of application of apostolic teaching within the revelation and work with it further.

    Moreover, the closure of God’s word does absolutely not mean that the last word has been said and that ethics can be reduced to exegesis, as our critics seem to think. The Scriptures say things about the government and about war and peace. God’s revelation on this theme is closed. Nevertheless, the most important insights in Christian ethics on this point, which most Reformed people up until today, take for granted, come from ethics developed in the history of the church which build upon the revelation given, and not upon direct exegesis. The political situation of later centuries, with a more or less Christian government and society did not occur in this way during the period of God’s revelation. The Scriptures say nothing directly about certain concrete subjects and the situations in which they were relevant (for example in medical ethics). There we find it completely normal to work on the basis of the broad general thrust of the Scriptures and to use examples which the apostles offered in other circumstances. No grounds exist to determine that on the subjects over which the Scriptures do say something or even say much (such as the oath or divorce) everything has been said, also for concrete ethical circumstances, and only needs to be exegetically dug up, so that we may suddenly stop applying for today or make use of elements of example.

    Context (1)🔗

    Storm summarizes our vision in this way: according to us, the context of the church may make clear to us that we are free from clear Scriptural rules. No wonder that he then declares that he is afraid of new hermeneutics that he sees creeping into our approach. Fortunately for him and for others, we do not recognise ourselves in this reproduction. I already indicated that especially to avoid misunderstandings on this point, we distance ourselves from the expression ‘release from the obligation to follow the rule’.

    I now add that the element of ‘context’ can receive its place in two ways. In the first place, insight in the concrete circumstances (context) can make clear that there is evidence of a dilemma, in which a choice between two evils seems to be unavoidable. In this case we keep speaking of an ‘evil’, also if we were to accept a divorce. This also means that Christ’s rule in the relevant situations remains completely valid. She truly collides with another rule or against consequences which seem unacceptable in the light of Scripture. But also if we cannot follow Jesus’ rule because of this, it remains intact. We even believe that you can only make such a choice between two evils in humility and thereby must always call upon God’s grace.

    Context (2)🔗

    But the context can play its part in another way. Sometimes it seems to be that the Scriptures directly say something about a certain subject in our context, while when looking further into the historical background of the text, you must conclude that it is not or not quite about the same subject. The rule is not abolished or suspended then, either. But then you conclude that the rule, in retrospect, was not relevant to what you meant to do with it.

    A simple illustration can be found in the opinion of some Christians that the death penalty is unacceptable on the grounds of the sixth commandment: you shall not murder. He who sees this commandment in its original context, directly discovers that this conclusion is not right. The sixth commandment appears to be relevant to something like the death penalty, but it is just not talking about this.

    women with head scarf

    An overworked but clear example lies in what Paul says about women covering their heads (1Corinth. 11:2-16). The person who reads the Bible as an unhistorical collection of norms, may well think that this is a direct clothing requirement for today. But, if you look into the historical context of such a text, you discover the meaning of covering the head in that time. In our context, this is different. Instead of a direct application we see a guideline at another level. For example: Paul teaches us that also in the way we present ourselves, we must respect the place which God gave to us as husband or wife and not be a provocation.

    You must always try to find out if a biblical guideline or norm is relevant to similar things in our time. The same is relevant to themes such as ‘homosexuality’ or ‘women in church office’, with which our critics unfortunately want to illustrate the dangers of our approach. It certainly is damaging, that people often copy each other on such themes, that homosexuality, women and office in Bible times were completely different manifestations than they are today, so that you are not bound to what the Bible says about these concretely. But, it is just as damaging when others, just as casually and without arguments, prove the opposite. Why? Because you must not assume in advance that an equal sign can be placed between such things. You must listen to the Bible carefully as God gave it in those times, and look at your own time. In this way you discover whether and to what extent there is evidence of differences and similarities. Reformed ethicists, who, like Douma and myself, reject the homosexual practice, do not make conclusions without such honest research. Should we act otherwise, then that would be irresponsible towards those involved and could provoke them to easily join the opposite standpoint.

    Also in the application of what the Scriptures themselves have to say about divorce, we may not avoid such research, in which marrying and divorce, as it then was, is compared with the present context. And this is not about getting rid of the biblical norms, but precisely about discovering as concretely as possible what they do or do not want to say, in order to be able to bring them into practice as God intended them. The critics create the impression that they have a blind spot for the necessity of this sort of reflection. But such discernment is not only needed concerning ‘divorce’, but also around other ethical subjects in order to come to a convinced and convincing Christian style of living.

    B. Hardness of Heart🔗

    Along with many others, Pathuis and Voorberg show their concern about the way we speak about ‘hardness of heart.’ In Matthew 19 Jesus says to the Jewish leaders: Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning (NIV). It is clear that Jesus teaches us not to fix upon a sort of godly command or permission to divorce, but upon the binding nature of marriage. The fact that there was a temporary command under Moses which catered for divorce, was because of the hardness of hearts. But near to Christ and in the perspective of the kingdom, hard hearts will become soft. As I made clear, the main thrust of our approach is based upon this: always start with the binding nature of marriage and therefore, deny yourself in order to remain faithful. Jesus points to no other way and his mercy and Spirit make possible what you thought you could not do! Nevertheless, we admit that ‘hardness of heart’ from time to time raises its head even in the church of Christ. We then can still learn from Moses’ temporary measure. Considerable criticism has been expressed on this point. In this we would be opening up an escape route, write Pathuis and Voorberg.

    By the way, we do not associate hardness of heart especially with remarriage after divorce. As much by an illegal divorce as by an illegal second marriage, there can be evidence of weakness of faith or insight, and of powerlessness, according to us. If there is evidence of clear resistance to God, we are of the opinion that the church may not be tolerant and patient. But if there is evidence of a weak faith or Christian life, the church must search for a way of keeping those involved as close as possible to the style of Christ, to help them pick up the thread of a Christian life again.


    We think that the most criticism on our speaking of ‘hardness of heart’ stems from a difference in terminology. The critics understand ‘hardness of heart’ as ‘unwillingness to repent’, while we meant the weakness of believers and the great influence of the old nature in the Christian life sometimes.

    couple with child

    The word that Jesus used, is not frequently used and gives pretext for more than one interpretation. We acknowledge that the interpretation of the term as ‘unrepentant’ is well founded, irrespective of the question whose ‘unrepentance’ Jesus implies. For this reason it is better not to tie our plea so directly to the exegesis of this expression. That could easily distract from the central question: do we also under the New covenant still have to take account of weakness and of the influence of the old nature in the Christian life? We are possibly more in agreement about this, than the debate about the expression would suggest.

    After all, Pathuis and Voorberg also write about 1 Corinthians 7:10f that Paul adjusted to the situation in which reconciliation between a married couple who have left each other, is no longer possible. In spite of Jesus’ radical words in Matthew 19, Paul also takes account of sin, weakness and a ruptured life which are not always sufficiently conquered. And he points to a way which takes account of this, just as Moses did by introducing the temporary letter of divorce.

    By the way, this has also been the usual approach of the Reformed Churches. Even if there has been evidence of divorce without one of the recognised grounds, for example, because the relation was damaged, the church accepted this in the end, as long as it was clear that the involved parties were not acting out of unrepentance. And it was precisely in such circumstances that the church guarded against a possible second marriage.

    Our comments about the hardness of heart are aimed at the same. He who says that Jesus put a stop to the letter of divorce and in that also abolished divorce and that since you do not have to take into account weakness and lack of faith as Moses did, must realise that he is leaving the track which the Reformed Churches have always followed. In the dealings with marital sins and divorce, a certain perfectionism can easily creep in (that we often label as anabaptist in other discussions).

    In contrast to this, we rightly say: that also those who may live through the Spirit, are repeatedly liable to the influence of the flesh. The formula in the classic form for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper points us the way here: there is still evidence of ‘many sins and shortcomings’ in the life of genuine Christians. Decisive is whether or not ‘we are heartily sorry for these shortcomings and desire to fight against our unbelief’. The anti-triumphant note in this expression must be noticed: ‘desire to fight’. There is no assumption that this struggle always gets off the ground. Genuine Christians are often weak. There is absolutely no suggestion that the struggle automatically leads to victories. According to Lord’s Day 12 we will have the final victory after this life. In this life, fortunately, the Spirit gives us a generous taste of this, but this does not guarantee that every weakness or influence of the flesh is already ‘conquerable’. This conviction means that you cannot make yourself completely free of Moses’ wisdom directed at limiting remaining weakness or consequences of sin. This is how we meant our reference to the hardness of heart. But in order to avoid misunderstandings, we shall no longer use this expression in this connection, but speak about weakness and the influence of the flesh in the Christian life.

    C. Church Discipline🔗

    There is also much criticism of what we write about church discipline. For some divorce and remarriage situations we recommend the use of a new disciplinary measure. The synod has indeed given room for this for the time being. In this, the church council makes known to the congregation his judgement about a situation which became public, not always prohibiting those involved from taking communion. We view this as important because of its exemplary effect. If there are more and more cases of divorce and second marriages, this seems to become more and more usual in the church. If other people find themselves in such a situation, they will consider this possibility sooner.

    But now some think that we want to unsettle the existing discipline. This is absolutely not the case. If the church council knows for sure that people deliberately resist God’s Word in a certain issue in their lives and oppose God, it is necessary to refuse access to the Lord’s table, also with regard to divorce and remarriage. But the problem is, that sometimes a situation has become known in the congregation, before it is clear how the church council deals with it. Often the elders are first busy pastorally for a long time and if necessary, with silent discipline behind the scenes. Sometimes a consistory does not even have the frankness for any form of discipline. Or the consistory never comes further than this silent censure; and after a while he has to abandon disciplinary measures and end silent discipline without public announcement. Sometimes these are about distressing circumstances, wherein we are dealing with positive brothers and sisters who obviously love and serve the Lord.

    church discipline

    In such cases (tr: as things are presently done in Dutch churches) the congregation notices nothing. People who think that we are in favour of liberalizing disciplinary procedures, have not understood our intentions. We see that there already is a broad practice. And we are concerned about the undermining effects of this upon others in the church. For this reason we introduced this new disciplinary measure, not as a replacement of withholding people from the Lord’s table, but as an addition for situations in which a public signal is necessary, while this cannot (yet) be given in the existing disciplinary process.

    Of course there are also people who say: sin is sin, therefore you must always withhold people from the Lord’s table, and somebody can appear so much like a Christian, if he makes a wrong choice at one point, this is false. If he does not repent of his choice, it follows that he must be cut off. But this takes us back into the sphere of perfectionism. In the Reformed churches people are not permanently held back or cut off because of sin or wrong insights which they hold in good faith, but for hardening in sin, which is proof of unbelief. A church council should form a spiritual judgement about this. Especially because often such a hardening in sin is not there, we can understand that church councils in some cases of divorce and remarriage do not have liberty to withhold people from the Lord’s Supper or to take further steps in the process of christian discipline.

    D. Remarriage🔗

    A last point of criticism of our report has to do with marriage after divorce. Some are concerned because we reckon the hardness of heart (from now on: the influence of weakness, sin and brokenness) also relevant to this matter. But just as a church council sometimes has to resign to a divorce without approving it, it can also be that he sometimes resigns to a second marriage. And just as divorce sometimes seems to be the lesser of two evils, this can also be true of a second marriage.

    We direct your attention to the example of a young man or woman who married in a rush and divorced as quickly. The way of following Christ is then clear, according to us. At the same time, experience teaches that also true Christians are sometimes too weak to sustain this a lifelong and can become entangled in much worse sins. Or, think of the mother of a growing family who, after her divorce, finds herself in big trouble and from whom the children threaten to go off the rails because the stability in the home disappeared. According to us, it is then not unthinkable to avoid the greater evil of the children derailing by choosing for the lesser evil of the second marriage.

    Others are mindful of another aspect of our view of remarriage. They think our proposal of not ‘confirming’ second marriages in a church service, very unfair. After all, are there not people who cannot help it that they are divorced? And do people who marry a second time, not need God’s blessing and the support of the church?

    In the first place, we think that we have good practical arguments for our proposal. For in the current situation, church councils must decide whether or not remarriage is allowed. Actually church councils are not up to this because in the most instances they cannot honestly reconstruct the preceding circumstances. This brings much inequality with it. Some can remarry because there was formal evidence of adultery, even though it was an incident and the reasons behind it remain unknown. Sometimes ecclesiastical solemnisation of a marriage is refused because the valid grounds were not present, while there might have been years of struggle and difficulty preceding. The agreement not to solemnise second marriages in the church, would avoid much injustice and relieve church councils from a responsibility which they often cannot realise.


    At the same time, we think that also in the light of Scripture, there is something to be said for our proposal. In our view, marriages following after divorce never are up to the standard of God’s intentions, even though there are situations imaginable in which staying unmarried can be the worst option. But you have promised each other fidelity before God ‘til death do us part’. With such a promise in mind, it is not fitting to promise the same again to someone else, while the other is still alive. Moreover, there are concrete Bible texts which seem to confirm this. In 1 Corinthians 7:11 we came across Paul’s guideline: if you are already divorced and reconciliation is not possible, stay unmarried. Nowhere in the text is there an indication that this refers only to specific divorces. We have introduced this division on the basis of our habit of working with fixed grounds for divorce. But if we are right that the Scriptures did not intend to give such grounds, then neither can they become a binding factor in the application of Paul’s word. And if the expression ‘bound’ in 1 Corinthians 7 has no relation to your commitment to your partner but to the way of dealing with Jesus’ command not to divorce, then you can say with less ease, that after such a divorce, that you are free to remarry.

    Along with 1 Corinthians 7 we also point to Matthew 5. There, Jesus says: if you marry a woman who has been sent away, you commit adultery. Under our terms, there would be evidence of deliberate desertion: a man sends his wife away with a certificate of divorce. Maybe she can do nothing about it. In the Reformed tradition we then say: she is therefore free to marry. But is Jesus not more radical? If she were to remarry in this situation, He calls that adultery. Thus here Jesus too, rejects a second marriage.


    We are well aware that our standpoint is stricter than it has been previously in the Dutch Reformed tradition. And especially on this point we have tasted much resistance, not least of all from fellow ministers who find this unjust. Moreover, we recognise that our standpoint leaves questions unanswered. If, after a divorce, the one partner marries again, must you still tell the other partner that his or her second marriage is not God’s intention and refuse solemnisation in the church? And if you promote greater involvement of the church in preparation for and coaching of marriage, with an view to our non Christian society and law, does this not conflict with your refusal to solemnise marriages, which you afterwards have to recognise as real marriages anyway?

    We hope that around this suggestion, agreement and conviction may yet grow. But at the moment this evidently is not the case. It cannot be that the synod of Amersfoort, assuming that it be convinced by us, should change something in the churches, while a basis of a shared conviction for such a change is yet missing. For this reason, in our report we shall on the one side, uphold our plea but at the same time, moderate our practical proposals. In short this means that we are of the view that in situations of a preceding marriage, in which discipline is being exercised or in which the church council sees a public disapproval in the church as necessary, marriages shall not be ecclesiastically solemnised. In other situations, there will be room. We do think that if we go no further than this at this time, it is important in such cases, to do justice to the seriousness of the marriage breakup of the first marriage. In this connection we are considering the possibility of, where suitable, inserting elements of penitence and sorrow with the solemnisation of such a marriage.

    I hope and pray that this explanation may have cleared issues up and may serve the continuing discussion around divorce and the whole of our lifestyle.

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