Robert D. Decker is professor of New Testament and Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The Banner recently focused its attention on the rising problems of the break-down of family living, divorce and the remarriage of divorced persons, sexual promiscuity and how these phenomena are affecting the church. We do well to pay attention to these problems, for they affect Protestant Reformed people, families, and churches too. Editor Andrew Kuyvenhoven writes:
When a friend of mine was very young, she knew there was something unusual about the life of the church organist. She knew that he did not have a wife. Years later she learned that his marriage had turned sour and that he and his wife had separated from each other. That man always lived alone; he was never divorced.
Today we don’t have many such “separated” people in our churches. We do have a growing number of divorced people. One week we are shocked to hear of the marriage breakup of our friends. A couple of months later they file for divorce. We hear that she has gone to live with another fellow. And within a year the former husband comes to church with another woman. And we say, Is this really happening? Is this our church? Then we think, Let’s be happy that he still comes to church, with his kids; we should get to know the woman.
CHANGING MORES. One of the church fathers—I believe it was Augustine—tells of a woman who committed adultery. Burdened with shame and full of repentance, she spent seven years in cloistered penitence. That’s even stranger than the case of the separated organist.
Were they exaggerating or have we lost some feelings that are essential to a Christian esteem of sex and marriage? Have we become estranged from the holiness of Christian living and the sacredness of the marital covenant? It is not impossible . . . .
When it comes to sex and marriage, evangelicals are tempted to imitate the world but translate the concepts into their own jargon. The evangelicals’ answer to the feminist movement is a sexually very attractive package of perfection: the full woman, the femme fatale, and the go-getter of
all in. one beautiful born-again person. Our burgeoning evangelical-books businesses stock many shelves on the enjoyment of sexuality, and much of this material consists of a recent evangelical adaptation of humanist insights.
Of course, all evangelicals are shocked by and concerned about the decay of families—the crumbling of the bricks that make up society’s edifice. More than 50 million of us have watched the Dobson films so that we may get a better hold on the problem and be on the side of the solution. And all denominations and Christian publishers are producing materials on family values.
THE POISON WITHIN. Yet, running through all evangelical thinking is a philosophical current that is basically friendly to divorce and sexual license: it is the gospel of prosperity, vitality, happiness, self-fulfillment. These goods are constantly sold by evangelical people whose own good looks and obvious success seem to back up what they claim as gospel promises.
The only reason why the organist of my friend’s youth did not get a divorce was that he did not know the gospel of self-fulfillment. He did not do much thinking about life enrichment. He knew only the hard-to-travel path to the narrow gate, taught by the Calvinist school of obedience. And with sweaty palms behind the organ and nightly pain, he tried to keep looking forward, not around . . . .
Dr. Henry Holstege, a professor of sociology at Calvin College, comments in the same issue:
In the Christian family God has given us a beautiful model of how life ought to be lived. It is a model that God blesses and that we should earnestly seek to follow and defend. Unfortunately, it is also a model that today’s society threatens to undermine and weaken.
Profound changes are taking place in the North American family. Some of these changes run counter to God’s model of family life. Christians ought not to be embarrassed to label such changes as sinful and harmful and unacceptable while at the same time extending love to those who are the victims of these changes.
Let’s look at several areas of change and their impact on the family.
SEXUAL PROMISCUITY. On a worldwide basis, nonmarital cohabitation has increased and is much more tolerated than it used to be. For many people, “living together” has become part of the courtship process. Apparently a considerable percentage of couples in such a relationship eventually do get married, although precise numbers aren’t available. On the whole, the institution of marriage has become more fluid and changing than before.
In Europe and North America the intense stigma attached to “living together” began to lessen in the 1960s because of a broader change in sexual mores that enticed a majority of young men and women to have sexual intercourse before marriage. This promiscuity allowed all types of sexually transmitted diseases to run rampant. Although AIDS is getting the most publicity because its victims die, other diseases such as herpes, chlamydia, and genital warts are much more prevalent, along with such well-known venereal diseases as gonorrhea and syphilis . . . .
DIVORCE. In addition to the problem of sexual promiscuity, an increasing number of divorces is taking its toll on family life. Until World War II, the United States had a relatively low rate of divorce (about two per 1,000 population) . . . At present it is about five per 1,000 population, which means that forty to fifty percent of all marriages will eventually end in divorce. At least fifty percent of American children today will spend some time living in a single-parent household.
Clearly, a humanistic, existential emphasis on self-fulfillment is gaining wide acceptance, and therefore marital conflict often quickly ends in divorce . . . five out of seven Americans now believe it’s socially permissible for a married couple to get a divorce when they can’t get along, even if they have children. Religious constraints are playing a diminishing role.
Consider the results of all this. Current evidence says that at least a third of all American children from single-parent homes will suffer continual psychiatric trauma. Over half of these children never see their father . . . Society has moved from a model of marriage based on permanent commitment, self-sacrifice, and agape love to a model that views marriage as a temporary situation that lasts only as long as one finds personal satisfaction. One’s own self-actualization and destiny take precedence to those of the marriage.
Throughout the world the reports are similar: the rate of divorce is higher than in the past. The Christian community must realize that this change is not merely the result of structural changes such as industrialization and urbanization; to a great extent, it is the result of new ideological emphases . . . .
Holstege goes on to comment on the fact that the current birth rate has fallen well below the 2.1 births per couple that constitutes “zero population growth.”
A few comments about all this: 1) The Biblical teachings concerning marriage are plain and easy to understand, but impossible to observe except by the grace of God. According to Ephesians 5:22-33 and other passages, marriage is a picture of Christ and His bride, the church. The calling of husbands is to love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. Wives are to submit to their own husbands just as the church submits to Christ. Where, by the grace of God, Christian husbands and wives are obedient to these their respective callings one finds happy, blessed marriages in which difficulties and conflicts are prayerfully resolved in the way of confessing one’s faults to each other and to God. The love of God in the hearts of Christian husbands and wives is the very opposite of the world’s concepts of “self-fulfillment” and “self-satisfaction”. God’s love in us is a love of self-denial which finds it more blessed to give than to receive. 2) Divorce is sin. Except for the cause of fornication no one may put away his or her spouse. The one who does commits adultery and the one who marries the spouse who was put away commits adultery. Matthew 19:3-12 and related passages make this quite clear. 3) Marriage is a bond between one man and one woman fork life. Only God Who creates the bond may sever the bond, which He does by death. 4) Our churches must never compromise these clear Scriptural teachings. If we do we shall reap a very bitter fruit indeed! 5) Our pastors and elders and all of us in the office of believers must insist on obedience to these truths. Pastors and elders must preach and teach these principles publicly and from house to house. The churches must discipline and excommunicate all unrepentant adulterers and adulteresses and whoremongers.