Divorce and Remarriage
Divorce and Remarriage
We return to the situation in Reformed Holland. A while ago I wrote about the controversy that had arisen there in connection with synodical decisions about the relationship between Sabbath and Sunday. We noted that according to some critics these decisions are in conflict with Scripture and the confessions and give evidence of a Bible-critical attitude among Reformed theologians. A number of the critics, in fact, concluded that the synods’ stand on the matter justified secession.
I wrote about this issue to show with reference to Bible and church history that the accusations of apostasy are unfounded. They appear to be the result of a serious misunderstanding of what the synods in fact decided and of the reasons they gave for their decisions. I referred to official synodical reports on the topic, by means of which the synods not only justified their stand, but at the same time provided the churches with a valuable study on the nature of the Sunday. That study, I suggested, deserves our attention as well. I, therefore, provided a fairly extensive summary.
My decision to turn to the present topic, namely the pronouncements by recent Dutch synods on divorce and remarriage, is inspired by similar considerations. In this case also, (1) accusations of apostasy have been raised which are difficult to sustain if one studies the pertinent documents and (2) the synods in question have once again provided arguments and guidelines from which believers outside the Dutch churches also can learn. Rather than giving a more or less complete summary of the documents and deliberations, however, as I tried to do in the previous case, I will restrict myself to mentioning only the main points and refer those wanting further information to the Dutch churches’ website.
I mention here especially the English translation of a shortened version of the report that guided the synodical decisions. That twenty-page document provides far more information and answers far more questions than I can do within the scope of an article. 1
The reason why the issue was placed on the agenda of recent synods is that divorce is becoming more and more frequent, not only in secular society but in the church as well. Time and again, consistories are faced with the need to respond to this development. They have to deal with questions about biblical teachings on divorce, the type of discipline to be applied in cases of unjustified divorce, the proper attitude toward remarriage after divorce, and so on. The problems they face in these areas are multiplied by the fact that practices among local churches often differ. It was in view of this situation that synods were asked to study the matter and come with guidelines. Five general synods dealt with it, beginning with Ommen 1993 and ending with Amersfoort 2005.
The central issue all along was the interpretation of relevant biblical teachings. For centuries the Reformed churches have held that there are two biblical “grounds” for divorce, namely adultery (based on the Lord’s words in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9) and malevolent desertion (kwaadwillige verlating). The second one was derived from 1 Corinthians 7:15, where Paul addresses Christians who are married to an unbeliever and are deserted by him or her because of the faith. In such circumstances, Paul says, the believing partner is not bound to the rule which forbids divorce. If the choice is between Christ and the unbelieving spouse, the commitment to Christ of course prevails.
A major difficulty, as various consistories pointed out, is that the traditional grounds fail to cover all the divorce situations the churches encounter today. Frequently consistories acquiesce in a divorce that cannot be placed within one of the two accepted categories. Examples are cases where a partner is guilty of incest, enslavement to pornography, or rape within marriage; where one of the partners comes out as a homosexual; or where there is evidence of serious psychiatric problems or of physical or spiritual abuse.
From a Biblical Perspective←⤒🔗
The third general synod to deal with the matter (Leusden 1999) had appointed new deputies, who were to consider the question how to deal biblically with causes of marriage break-up that are not directly mentioned in the Bible but that occur frequently today. These deputies reported first to the Synod of Zuidhorn, 2002/3 and then, by means of an adapted version of their report, to the Synod of Amersfoort, 2005. On June 24, 2005, Amersfoort decided in accordance with the report’s recommendations.
The report concludes that in many cases it is indeed next to impossible to work within the framework of the so-called biblical grounds for divorce. That approach too often leads to a farfetched reasoning by analogy. That is, not only literal adultery and literal desertion on account of the faith are considered valid biblical grounds for divorce, but also the various other cases that have been mentioned, such as incest, homosexuality, abuse, and so on. The latter, however, are then described as “some kind of adultery” or “some kind of malevolent desertion.” Such reasoning by analogy tends to become forced and can be stretched endlessly. If one insists on dealing with definitive and ever-valid grounds, it would be more to the point either to refuse acceptance of a divorce that cannot honestly be called adultery or desertion on account of the faith, or else to establish a third ground covering the additional cases.
The deputies conclude that the idea of “grounds for divorce” cannot even be directly derived from the Bible. Scripture makes clear that there are situations which may indeed lead to a divorce, but it does not teach that divorce automatically and necessarily follows in such instances. In view of these facts, the report suggests an approach that differs from the traditional one. It asks that the churches stop concentrating on isolated texts and consider the matter of divorce and remarriage with reference to the Bible’s instructions as a whole and especially to Christ’s words and works. Jesus’ focus is on the coming kingdom. To enter that kingdom, his followers must take up their cross, deny themselves, and mortify their old nature. The kingdom does not just demand a following of the commands, although these of course must be obeyed, but requires more than that, namely a righteousness which is greater than that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (Matthew 5:20). In the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere Jesus explains what that greater righteousness involves and illustrates it with reference to various subjects, including marriage and divorce. The emphasis throughout is on the deeper meaning of God’s law.
That deeper meaning can be summarized in the commandment to love God above all and one’s neighbour as oneself. This commandment shows that even the most serious sin is not an automatic reason to end a marriage relationship. Not even adultery constitutes such a reason. It is true that it has a greater destructive effect on a marriage than most other sins. In the case of adultery the continuation of a marriage is therefore not a matter of course. But neither is, in view of the Lord’s teachings, the disbanding of that relationship. God Himself forgives his adulterous covenant partner again and again. Christ forgave his enemies.
The Permanence of Marriage←⤒🔗
But is the rejection of “biblical grounds” not a means of making room for divorces that formerly were not allowed? This is what critics have argued. Deputies reply, however, that they simply describe what is already happening. Church councils consistently allow divorce on other grounds than the traditional two, even though so far this was not always openly admitted. Moreover, rather than encouraging the dissolution of marriage, the deputies urge that churches must not allow a practice of easy divorce, the demand for which, they add, is strongly influenced by the post-Christian and highly individualistic society wherein today’s Christians live. Instead, they ask for a return to a biblical radicalism, namely to an adherence to the style of Christ’s kingdom. Rather than simply attempting to set limits to the frequency of divorce, they address the core issue, which is the turning away from the teachings of Christ – in matters of marriage and divorce as in other areas. What is needed in the churches is not just rules that set bounds to sinful behaviour, but a spiritual renewal, which manifests itself in maximum devotion to God and an obedient and joyful following of Christ.
Deputies point out that Jesus’ emphasis was not on possible “escape routes” from a difficult marriage, but on the permanence of the marriage union. He teaches that divorce is an evil. This must be the church’s starting point. There is, however, the prevalence of sin and the brokenness of life, which can make the dissolution of a marriage unavoidable. Nevertheless, to acquiesce in a divorce when reconciliation is impossible (because of adultery, incest, or other reasons) is to choose not something that is good, but the lesser of two evils. This is Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 7. Here he urges reconciliation where possible, but states that if the choice is between Christ and the unbelieving partner, divorce is to be accepted. It remains an evil, however, for God established marriage as a permanent relationship. Therefore Paul writes that when divorce does take place and reconciliation cannot be achieved, the believing partner should remain unmarried. And Jesus teaches that the person who marries again after a divorce commits adultery (Mark 10: 11, 12; Luke 16:18).
Recommendations / Decisions←⤒🔗
The following are the report’s main recommendations, all of which the General Synod of Amersfoort 2005 accepted:
In matters of divorce and remarriage, the churches are no longer to follow the approach of deciding cases of divorce and remarriage simply with reference to what have traditionally been called biblical grounds of divorce. They will, in dependence on the abundant grace of Christ, encourage believers who face marriage problems to aim at a maximum devotion to God’s will, a following of Christ, and a life style that does justice to the coming kingdom.
Remarriage after a divorce will, generally speaking, not be followed by a church confirmation. This decision is based on the consideration that Scripture places great stress on the permanence of the marriage union and on the binding nature of a promise that has once been given. The promise of lifelong fidelity, which bride and groom made before God and his congregation, keeps its validity, also after a divorce. This must become clear. Also, it is often difficult for a church council to assign guilt, for example in the case of a break-up because of adultery or desertion – especially if part of the history took place outside its own congregation.
Church councils have the right to inform the congregation when they are dealing with a case of divorce that has become public knowledge. This is to be done regardless of the council’s ultimate decision in the case. In some instances the council will decide that it must acquiesce in the divorce and that disciplinary measures will not follow. In other instances, church discipline will be applied, but frequently only after a lengthy procedure. By informing the congregation at an early stage, the council can make clear that it is indeed dealing with the matter and that it wishes to uphold the style of Christ’s kingdom regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage. In this way the perception that divorce is acceptable and that the consistory silently allows it will be avoided. The information must be as austere as possible, however, and efforts must be made to obtain the agreement of the member(s) in question.
Church councils are asked to introduce pre-marriage courses and to urge those who prepare for marriage to attend these courses. As one of the deputies points out, one thing that has in the course of the centuries largely disappeared from catechetical teaching is instruction in the practice of the Christian life style, whereas in the early church such instruction constituted the core of ecclesiastical education. There is an urgent need to return to that early church tradition, certainly today in our secularized environment.
Consistories often find it difficult to come to the proper decision in situations of divorce and remarriage and feel the need of expert advice. For that reason a permanent Advisory Council regarding marriage and divorce will be instituted. Its task will be: (1) to advise consistories in matters of divorce, remarriage, and the type of discipline to be applied in different cases and (2) to give information on such matters as pre-marriage courses, instruction regarding the choice of partners, and instruction regarding the development of relationships. (A temporary Advisory Council has already functioned since the Synod of Zuidhorn, 2002/3 and has served consistories well.) The Council will help consistories to play a more active role in the issue at hand – one that does not displace but rather supplements the church’s traditional work of preaching, teaching, counselling, pastoral care for existing marriages and preparation for future ones. A lengthy instruction regarding goals, structure, composition, and functioning of the Advisory Council can be found in the Acts of the synod of Amersfoort.
What is noticeable in recent synodical decisions – in those concerning the Sunday and again in the ones about divorce and remarriage – is the emphasis on the original intent and spiritual meaning of God’s commandments. Instead of advocating an approach that runs the danger of legalism (obey the commandments, no less, but also no more, and all is well), they focus the believers’ attention on Christ’s teachings regarding the cost of discipleship, and in connection therewith, on the need for an ongoing spiritual renewal among Christians.
Deputies admit that their recommendations in the matter of divorce and remarriage do not answer every question. They are convinced, however, that the call to obey the laws of Christ’s kingdom must be sounded. It is not easy to obey that call and some church members have accused deputies and Synod of excessive idealism. Deputies admit the difficulty of obedience but warn against following the road of least resistance. One of them writes: “We hear and read how in Christ’s strength persecuted Christians in North-Korea do the impossible. Does Christ then not have promises also for Christians who live in the midst of a typically western crisis around marriage, sexuality, and the forming of relationships?”
The sharpest criticism of the report’s recommendations and the synodical decisions is not that they are too idealistic, but that they are unbiblical. Not to honour the idea of “biblical grounds,” various opponents assert, is to “take away” from Scripture and to admit divorce for other reasons than those specifically mentioned in the Bible is to “add” to it. These critics conclude that the deputies in fact promote the heresy of an “ongoing revelation.” Synod has rejected the accusations on grounds that will have become clear in the foregoing. It has also been pointed out that what the deputies recommended and Amersfoort accepted is not new. For the first 1000 years of its existence the Christian church often did not work with “biblical grounds” for divorce and the Reformers already allowed the church to make, in a biblically responsible manner, exceptions to the biblical rule.
Again, the deputies admit that questions remain. They express the hope, however, that worry and suspicion will not prevent a serious consideration of the call they have issued for a renewed devotion, a truly Christian life style, a closer following of Christ – in the matter of marriage and divorce not only, but in all areas of the Christian life.
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