Some Preliminary Thoughts on Divorce and Remarriage
Editor’s note: Baptist Bulletin ran a three article set on the topic of divorce and remarriage in the November/December 2020 issue. Below is the first, an introduction by the magazine’s managing editor.
By David Gunn
In some ways, marriage and other family relationships is where the rubber meets the road for Christian ministry and living. Here, in the daily hustle and bustle of human lives lived in close proximity to one another, theory and doctrine are put to the test. Sometimes we rise to the challenge and glorify God in and through those relationships. Sometimes we don’t.
Marriages present Christian ministers with some of the thorniest issues they’ll ever deal with. Probably chief among them is the issue of divorce and remarriage. Does Scripture permit Christians to pursue that course? And if so, under what circumstances and according to what guiding rules and principles? Gallons of ink have been spilled exploring these questions, and no decisive consensus seems to be forthcoming.
Among Regular Baptists, two views on the subject appear to be dominant: some hold that the Bible does permit (although it does not command) divorce and remarriage under a limited set of circumstances. Others hold that divorce and remarriage are never Scripturally authorized. Sometimes these views are referred to as the “exception clause” and “no exception clause” views (although that verbiage is probably too narrow, as it doesn’t reflect the full range of passages and issues the discussion entails).
To shed light on these two viewpoints, we have asked two pastors to present the two respective views in this issue of the Baptist Bulletin. David Huffstutler’s article explains the former view, while Don Shirk’s explains the latter. This is not intended as a heated debate, but rather as a temperate explanation of the reasoning underlying each view. As Huffstutler puts it, the goal is more to present than to persuade. Both writers have tackled this project with a spirit of graciousness and pastoral sensitivity and a firm commitment to Biblical authority. It is our hope that these articles will assist you in thinking through this issue.
As I read the two articles in preparing this issue of the magazine, I was struck by the numerous points of agreement between the two writers. Of course there are major areas of disagreement as well, but it was heartening to notice how much common ground they shared. To set the stage for the discussion, it will perhaps be helpful to highlight those points of agreement and comment briefly on them.
This topic is difficult
Both writers note that the issue of divorce and remarriage is exceedingly difficult. This is true in at least two senses. First, it is exegetically and theologically difficult. We do not possess a silver-bullet prooftext that can easily and decisively settle the issue, as we do in other, more fundamental areas of theological inquiry. Numerous Biblical passages touch on the issue, of course, but understanding them and synthesizing them is no easy task. Thus there is room here for disagreement among informed, sincere believers.
Second, it is pastorally difficult. Even if one is solidly convinced of one view or the other, it can be incredibly tricky to implement that view in real life. For that reason, a great deal of humility and graciousness is called for in discussions such as these. Both writers, I noticed, emphasized the role of the individual’s conscience in navigating these tricky waters. I think that emphasis is wise.
Permanent marriage is the ideal
Reflecting on both God’s original creative design (Gen. 2) and on the analogy between human marriage and the union of Christ and the church (Eph. 5:21–33), both writers recognize that the ideal marital arrangement is one man and one woman permanently united in marriage. Any disruption of that arrangement—whether it is understood to be authorized by Scripture or not—is by definition a departure from that ideal. The basic understanding from which both writers are operating, then, is a high view of the sanctity and (ideally) the inviolability of marriage. Presumably, both writers would agree that our broader culture’s cavalier approach to divorce is incompatible with the Bible’s teaching on the subject. I would further suggest that this is so because our culture’s view of marriage is fundamentally incompatible with Scripture: it tends to view marriage (and virtually everything else, for that matter) as nothing more than a means of personal fulfillment and self-enrichment. In a word, it is self-centered, whereas a Biblical view of marriage will be God and others centered.
Our world is broken
Both writers also recognize that in a broken world such as ours, ideals will not always be achieved (or even achievable). “We all stumble in many things” (James 3:2). That is true for those who have been married only once. It is also true for those who have been divorced and remarried. And it is true for those who are single. No one is exempt from human fallenness. Wise counselors will recognize that we must deal with the world as it actually exists, not as we wish it to be. There may be times, then, when ideal solutions are not just difficult, but impossible.
No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace
Discussions of divorce and remarriage will probably take different shapes depending on the contexts in which they are raised. It is one thing to discuss the issue in a purely academic setting. It is quite another when counseling a couple whose marriage is on the brink of collapse and one or both parties are looking for a way out. Yet a third (and again, quite different) context is discipling a believer who has already been divorced and remarried. Particularly in the third case, I think it is important to emphasize—as both our writers have done—that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Christianity is a message not of condemnation, but of redemption (John 3:18). This doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus will prevent or negate all temporal consequences that might flow from our suboptimal decisions, but it does mean that all people can have peace and fellowship with God right now, no matter what their past looks like. We didn’t ask our writers to comment specifically on this, but I think it is important, whichever view on divorce and remarriage one accepts, that we say unequivocally to those who are already divorced and remarried, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Whatever your marital history might be, you need never think of yourself as tarnished in God’s sight. Jesus’ forgiveness is absolute. And while the failure of previous marriages is unfortunate and a departure from God’s ideal, you can nevertheless please God and glorify Him in your current marriage. We serve a God Who delights to lavish grace upon His children.
Reposted with permission from Baptist Bulletin © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved. Photo by Zoriana Stakhniv.
David Gunn is director of Regular Baptist Press and managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin.
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Looking forward to this series. It’s unfortunate that an issue so important doesn’t generate more study among laypersons.
…of a former coworker who had come to Christ after divorcing his first wife, and he asked what he ought to do, because he’d remarried. All I could say to him was “you fall on the mercy of God, really.”
It also strikes me that perhaps we’re not as divided on the proper causes of divorce as we are on the proper church response to divorce. We have the reality that people divorce for adultery and/or abandonment, and I would argue that unrepentant sin followed by walking away from the church really does constitute abandonment. My former sister in law did that, and sad to say, I’d seen it coming for about eight or ten years.
The question is what do you do when interacting with such a person. Perhaps churches won’t figure my former sister in law out—you’d need to talk with my wife’s brother to find his side of the story—and even if they did talk to him, who would they believe? Will they simply accept “abuse” as a reason, or will they ask what that abuse was—“getting angry when being cut off in traffic” is as close as my wife and I ever heard (and from both of them).
Either way, I think that if we did a better job with counseling and church discipline, we’d learn a lot, and maybe save some marriages.
Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.
… is the more difficult conversation.
Unfortunately, most analyses I see of this conversation conflate the two. Each should be treated separately.
Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)