Divorce and Remarriage in the CRC

This is the second and concluding installment of Rev. Jelle Tuininga‘s article on “Divorce and Remarriage in the CRC.” Rev. Tuininga, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Smithers, British Columbia, served as a delegate from Classis British Columbia at the 1976 CRC Synod.

It is particularly in the area of remarriage that I take exception to the 1976 Report. While up till now our stand has been that only the innocent party in a legitimate divorce (on grounds of adultery) could receive the blessing of the church in a remarriage, the Report recommends that this be extended to both partners, including partners to a divorce on grounds other than adultery.

It ought to be noted that the Report is not saying that guilty parties in a divorce (whether on the grounds of adultery or not) ought to be accepted as members of the church once there is genuine repentance. Nor are they saying that previously divorced people who were sinfully remarried ought to be welcomed as members of the church if there is solid evidence of genuine repentance. That has always been the stand of the church. Any sin, including adultery and murder, can be forgiven. And where there is repentance and forgiveness, there the way is open to fellowship within the church. We live in a world where many things take place that ought not to take place, including divorce and remarriage. The church must warn and discipline its members, but repentance always opens the door to forgiveness.

But that’s nol what the Report is asking for. The Report asks that the church give its blessing to marriages (remarriages) which until now the church has always condemned, and which, as I see it, the Bible clearly forbids. Of course, this stems from the committee’s view of divorcc. If there are other legitimate, biblical grounds for divorce than that of adultery, then of course that would also open the door to other remarriages. But that’s precisely where I find the committee’s argumentation unconvincing.

In any case, the Report is recommending not that the church acquiesce in remarriages that take place contrary to God’s Word, and that it try to make the best of these broken situations, hut that the church “extend the blessing” to such remarriages. In other words, ministers of the CRC would be asked to solemnize such marriages and invoke God’s blessing on them.

It would seem to me that the relevant passages in the gospels alone forbid such remarriages. And in dealing with these, the “exegesis” of the Report is far from convincing. One reads such phrases as “by inference,” “very few churches . . . maintain this unconditional stand against the remarriage of divorced persons,” “a more common interpretation,” “perhaps a further qualification can be defended,” “this qualification centers around the intention of the persons involved,” “but even this statement should not be taken out of its historical context” etc. All of which suggests to me that the committee is grasping at straws in order to make a case for their viewpoint. But it clearly lacks an exegetical basis.

What is more, Paul has something to say on the matter too. And what he says leaves little room for doubt (cf. Rom. 7:1–3; I Cor. 7:10–15). The first passage, though used by Paul to illustrate another point, nevertheless states a basic principle about marriage. Says Murray: “Paul asserts in Romans 7:2, 3 a basic law respecting marriage, a law as universal in its obligation as is the general principle that the law has dominion over a man so long as he lives.” And, contrary to what the committee says, the exceptive clause in Matthew does not violate this basic unconditional law:

It is our thesis that divorce for adultery does not interfere with the unmitigated obligation and unrelenting principle to which Paul gives expression in the passage concerned.

What Paul is stressing here is the binding law that governs marriage. There is, it must be emphasized, in reality no exception to that law, and that is just saying that there is no circumstance under which the woman may regard herself as free from that law and at liberty to violate it.

It should not be regarded . . . as incompatible with this emphasis to conceive of the woman as being relieved from this law of her husband by some kind of action . . . which involves a complete dereliction of fidelity and desecration of the sanctity of the marriage bond on the part of her husband. For, if adultery gives to the innocent spouse the right of divorce and remarriage, it means that the action on the part of the guilty spouse has so radically affected the relationship that release is thereby secured from the law that previously bound the innocent party” (pp. 90. 91).

However, Paul says something even more explicit than this. He says in I Corinthians 7:10, 11: “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband) and that the husband should not divorce his wife.”

Well, on the face of it, that seems clear enough. There are only two possibilities open: Either remain single (after separation) or be reconciled. But the committee has a way out of this one too:

The question can be raised, however, whether the advice to remain unmarried represents a universal principle that must be maintained over against all those who seek remarriage.

There is some evidence in the text that the advice to remain unmarried should not be regarded as a principle of universal application (p. 479).

The “evidence” for this you can find in the Report. Ingenious, but far from convincing. And on one point definitely wrong: the sharp distinction between what Paul says (the parenthetical phrase) and what Jesus Himself said. Paul’s word is as authoritative as Christ’s. For a more thorough and convincing exegesis, cf. the Postscript by the Rev. A. Persenaire. Let me quote from Murray once more:

He is saying in effect, “If separation has actually taken place, then certain provisions must be adhered to. Let the breach be healed. Failing that, under no conditions may another marriage be undertaken. In other words, the parenthesis simply regulates the wrong when it has taken place, but does not in the least legitimate the separation itself” (p. 62).

The parenthetical statement in verse 11 – “but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband”—simply provides that if, contrary to this commandment, separation actually takes place, another marriage must not be contracted. . . . The parenthesis does not sanction separation; it simply recognizes that it may take place. . . . The divine institution is that those united in the bond of marriage are bound to the mutual discharge of all marital debts until the bond is severed by death or by dissolution on a proper ground” (p. 104).

In much the same vein Calvin says:

“that even those who are not received by their husbands, continue to be bound, so that they cannot take other husbands. . . . For if a wife would fall into a protracted illness, the husband would, nevertheless, not be justilled in going to seek another wife. In like manner, if a husband should, after marriage, begin to labor under some distemper, it would not be allowable for his wife to change her condition of life” (quoted by Murray, p. 104).

In conclusion, it‘s one thing to have compassion for people who have marital difficulties or even resort to divorce. They need the concern, love, and advice of the Christian community. Too often that kind of compassion has been and is, lacking. It‘s one thing for the church to acquiesce in circumstances beyond its control. But it’s another thing to justify sinful actions and extend the blessing of the church to those who have been involved in such actions (through divorce) by remarrying them again. Then the church sets its seal of approval upon such actions, actions which the Bible itself forbids.

Someone might say: If a person is forgiven, then the consequences of his sin should also be taken away, and he should be allowed the opportunity of a new beginning. We ought to remember, however, that though David was forgiven for his sin with Bathsheba, the child still died. And though the thief on the cross was forgiven, he still had to suffer the consequences for his misdeeds. Sin leaves scars, and forgiveness does not remove responsibility for past sins. It does not hold that a person divorced on unbiblical grounds who sincerely repents of his sin and is forgiven, should therefore also be allowed to remarry. The guilt may be removed, the results or consequences are not.

It ought to be said yet that no rules or guidelines adopted by the church will ever be able to be applied in an across-the-board manner. Life is too complex to be able to be subsumed under rules. In divorce and remarriage too each case must be judged to a certain extent on its own merits. All the church can do is give certain general guidelines. Practical life is more complicated than our theory often admits to. And the church should never give its approval or assent to divorce regardless of what the grounds are.

Divorce is contrary to the divine institution, contrary to the nature of marriage, and contrary to the divine action by which union is effected. It is precisely here that its wickedness becomes Singularly apparent—it is the sundering by man of a union God has constituted. Divorce is the breaking of a seal which has been engraven by the hand of God (Murray, p. 33).

One final comment: Here if anywhere the proverb is true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We must begin the treatment at the beginning of marriage. Young people need instruction about the nature and responsibilities of marriage, and, before they embark upon the sea of matrimony they had better make sure they have a seaworthy craft.