The problem of divorce and subsequent remarriage is becoming a subject of serious discussion amongst our young people. This is understandable. Strained or even broken marriages are becoming more frequent, thereby bringing the problem into the passionate consideration of people who are directly involved in such a sad state of marriage. Anyone personally involved in the breakdown of a marriage, or closely related to someone who is, quite naturally discusses the question of divorce and remarriage in a serious manner. Is divorce, as the dissolution of marriage, unscriptural? Does an innocent person, who is married to a terrible spouse, have to live all his life alone if separated from his or her spouse? Is that what the Bible requires? I Besides this, one quickly learns that our churches’ stand on divorce and remarriage is certainly the minority stand; and one has little difficulty finding historical support to justify divorce and remarriage if ‘ one’s spouse commits adultery. To face these issues, we should proceed carefully and thoroughly.
Two factors stand out in showing that the breakdown of marriage is increasing. The first deals with the number of marriages that end up in the divorce courts. Last year about 600,000 divorces were granted in the United States. This produces the appalling statistic that approximately one out of every three marriages ends in divorce. The second factor is that this is taking place at an increasing rate. From the United Press report: “The divorce rate in the United States climbed sharply in the 1960s, the Census Bureau said in a survey Monday . . . the increase was 33 percent over 1960.” In the year 1970, the rate jumped 40 percent in California. It will not do for us simply to shrug this off and say, “That’s the world.” Indeed it is, but the church is still in that world; and what happens in this world has a direct bearing upon marriage within the church. We can see this evidence amongst us already.
Cold statistics do not spell out the problem fully. Last year one million two hundred thousand husbands and wives parted ways. The scars of failure, the din of battle, the brawling, beating, screaming, daggered stares, ark deeply embedded in the hearts and minds of each one. There are no victors in divorce, only losers. Between opposing forces one finds the bruised and battered lives of children. To some they become chattel to be considered in the bartering for the settlement. To others they are the inevitable cast-offs of people who have never learned to love. Separation and divorce is deeply sad.
Liberalization of laws pertaining to the dissolution of marriage is becoming more commonplace. California has led the way in 1970; we quote from a United Press release, March 10, 1971, “Under a liberalized law effective Jan. 1, 1970, the word, ‘divorce’ was dropped in favor of, ‘dissolution of marriage?’ The traditional grounds of adultery and cruelty were abolished—except in cases where child custody is an issue. The new law requires only that the judge be convinced there are ‘irreconcilable differences,’ with specifics not ‘required.’ With this new approach it is not necessary to establish guilt or innocence. There is no lawsuit, one spouse bringing a court action against another. Both decide they can’t make the marriage work and appear before the court to get it dissolved. They work out a mutual settlement and are free to find another spouse. It is easy to see how this appeals to married people who are having difficulty and greatly contributes to the breakup of many marriages.
We should ask a deeper question: why are these laws changing? It is disturbing to the conscientious Christian to observe that what was once considered wrong is now so often considered right. This is true in the area of Sunday observance, public nudity, drugs, pornography, abortion, obscenity, etc. Our courts take a lenient position on many issues that should demand immediate condemnation. This also applies to easy divorces and other legal procedures that terminate marriage. Why is this happening before our very eyes? In our country, the judicial system reflects the character and temperament of the majority of citizens. Judicial decrees are expressions of the mores of the people. Moral values change, so the courts change. They have to keep up with the times. This is not right, of course. Situation ethics produces relativism in morals, simply because it is not founded upon the ethics of Scripture, which never change. This should remind us as Christian young people that our evil generation will produce evil laws and will allow the citizens to do things which are immoral and contrary to God’s Holy Word. A sexually depraved age clamors for the removal of every vestige of righteousness which serves as an obstacle to the pursuit of their evilpleasure. If marriage is such an obstacle, marriage has to go!
We intimate that the church today has to take its share of the blame in the breakdown of marriage. Books are written and periodicals are filled with a defense of divorce as the only way out of a bad marriage. Most will counsel that every effort must be put forth to save the marriage, but if this fails, we have to accept the inevitable and learn to live with it. Thus a book entitledMarriage Counseling, a Manual for Ministers, by J. K., Morris, states:
Divorce is a crisis for the persons involved in it. Following a divorce many adjustments must be made. If children are involved they too face many problems of adjustment. If the parties to a divorce belong to the minister-counselor’s church and both continue to attend that church, there will occur some strained and embarrassing situations. It often happens that one of the divorced persons may transfer to another church, especially if they live in a city where there are several churches of their denomination. In other cases a church of another denomination may be chosen.
This is just one of the many problems caused by divorce. The minister-counselor must try to help the divorced to continue his religious life and to find a congenial church home where he feels he can worship and be active.
Much depends also on the congregation involved. Here we would hope to see the church as a redemptive agent working cooperatively with the minister in helping the divorced adjust.
The point is that divorce is not condemned, not considered a great evil, but accepted as the lesser of two evils and therefore to be dealt with in “love.”
In general, we can observe that the leaders of the church and also official church pronouncements have taken the position that divorce may be granted upon the grounds of adultery. By divorce they mean the complete dissolution of marriage and not “separation of bed and board.” Such a dissolved marriage allows the marriage partner, who has not committed adultery, to marry someone else.
Augustine, the great church father, expressed hesitation and doubt on this matter. He writes:
And in the expressions of the divine word, it is so obscure whether he, who has the unquestionable right of putting away an adulterous wife, ought to be accounted an adulterer for taking another that, as far as I can see, in this case any person may make a pardonable mistake. Treatise, de fide et operibus, quoted in the book Divorce and Remarriage by G. Duty.
Martin Luther, the reformer, expresses it more boldly:
But I marvel even more that the Romanists do not allow remarriage of a man separated from his wife by divorce but compel him to remain single. Christ permitted divorce in case of fornication and compelled no one to remain single; and Paul preferred us to marry rather than to bum, and seemed quite prepared to grant that a man may marry another woman in place of the one he has repudiated, Reformation Writing of Martin Luther, by Woolf.
Feelings entered a great deal into the teachings of Luther on this subject. To illustrate this we have recorded the incident of the landgrave, Philip of Hesse, who was given in marriage to the daughter of Duke George. In those days romantic love was not considered in the least, and this marriage resulted in a miserable marriage for both. We quote from Here I Stand, by Bainton:
There were several ways in which his difficulty could have been solved. If he had remained a Catholic, he might have been able to secure an annulment on the grounds of some defect in the marriage; but since he had become a Lutheran, he could expect no consideration from the pope. Nor would Luther permit recourse to the Catholic device. A second solution would have been divorce and remarriage. A great many Protestant bodies in the present day would countenance this method, particularly since Philip had been subjected in his youth to a loveless match. But Luther at this point interpreted the gospels rightly and held to the Word of Christ as reported by Matthew that divorce is permissible only for adultery. But Luther did feel that there should be some remedy, and he discovered it by a reversion to the mores of the Old Testament patriarchs, who had practiced bigamy and even polygamy, without any manifestation of divine displeasure. Philip was given assurance that he might in good conscience take a second wife.
This was, of course, contrary to the law; and it necessitated secrecy. Soon it leaked out, and Luther’s final comment was said to be, “If anyone thereafter should practice bigamy, let the Devil give him a bath in the abyss of hell.” This shows that a complete Biblical conception of divorce and remarriage was not thought through by Luther.
Our forefather John Calvin also took the position that adultery dissolved the marriage, and that a person could immediately divorce his or her spouse and be entitled to right of remarriage.
We have some quotations on this which will have to wait until next time.
Why do we spend time with these quotations since they contradict the position of our churches? The reason is not to undermine the teaching of the Scriptures as maintained in our churches. Rather the reason is two-fold. We should search out the best line of reasoning which sets forth the divorce-remarriage position, in order that we can deal with it. It helps one understand his own position better if he has spent some time with the opposing view. This we hope to do. The second reason is that we have lessons to learn from history. Our forefathers were not infallible men, though many of them were giants in the faith. Their weakness becomes evident when weighed in the balance with their strength. It is not first of all what opinions a man may have on any subject; rather must all truth be tested by the only source of truth, the Word of God.
As we do this, we trust that we may have the conviction that the Bible allows for separation in marriage only when adultery has been committed, but forbids the dissolution of marriage in any circumstance.