A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

David Instone-Brewer, The Westminster Confession, and Judging Divorce

Jeff Crippen, Barbara, and I  have been discussing via email the role of the church in judging divorce. Believing some insightful thoughts have come from this discussion, Jeff and Barbara asked me to share some our observations and questions. To avoid the natural mistake, I want to be clear that while I am A Jeff, I am not THE Jeff! I am a survivor who has experienced pain from the way my church handled my divorce, so this topic is close to my heart.

Jeff Crippen recently posted about Westminster Confession’s insistence that when the question of divorce is considered, that

a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.

He questioned the wisdom of this, asking the question “Where in Scripture are we told that people cannot decide for themselves to divorce or not?”

David Instone-Brewer, a scholar who has looked into the issue of Biblical divorce with some of the most thorough work on the subject, takes a decidedly different view:

We cannot leave it up to a minister or a church leadership team to decide when a marriage ends; it is up to the individual victim, in prayer before the Lord. Only they and the Lord know what their life is really like. Only they know if their partner has expressed repentance. And only they will have to live with the consequences of the decision. Therefore no one has the right to dictate it to them.

These two views pose very different ways of handling divorce, so which gives us the best direction? When is it the Church’s responsibility to step in and judge a divorce? Some will say that it is not right for the church ever to judge, but 1 Corinthians 5 makes it very clear Christians are to judge in some cases. So what about divorce?

I believe that Instone-Brewer’s quote illustrates the fundamental weakness in the command of the Westminster Confession that divorce be decided outside of the couple. That is, who can really know what is going on in a marriage beyond the two people who have experienced it and the Lord? Especially in abuse cases, abusers are master deceivers, and often are able to deceive even their victims; the church stands little chance against a wary opponent unless it has a great deal of training and wisdom. I remember when my mother divorced I had some pretty judgmental feelings- now I stand back and realize that, though I was in the same house with she and my father for many years, I did not experience what it was like to be IN the marriage. Do I think her divorce was biblical? I don’t know- and the idea that I could be in the same house and not know makes turning their divorce decision over to a church a daunting thing.

Yet should the church just turn a blind eye toward sin when couples decide to divorce without any Biblical cause whatsoever? Or what about situations where a spouse abandons, cheats on, or abuses his or her mate and wants to still remain in the church in good standing, worshiping in the same congregation as the maligned spouse? Instone-Brewer’s quote focuses on victims divorcing and doesn’t seem to address this situation, so without qualification it might lead to the church being so hands off with divorce that it becomes an environment that encourages malicious or treacherous divorce. Consider the ESV rendering of Malachi 2:16:

For the man who hates and divorces, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.

God has very strong words for the sin of “hating and divorcing” – in this case, saying the church has no right to judge in this matter seems to be falling short.

On the other side of the spectrum are victims who are terrified to leave even to save themselves. Should the church stand idly by and refrain from giving potentially life saving counsel when a woman is too terrorized to have any idea what she should do? With so much anti-divorce preaching today, victims may not even realize divorce is an option to protect themselves.

The issue of judging within the church is largely dealt with in 1 Corinthians 5. Clearly this text calls the church to judge, but the church isn’t always consistent when choosing what kinds of sins require excommunication. Divorce is one that is commonly mentioned, but is there support from 1 Corinthians 5 to excommunicate over divorce? My approach to this chapter is to read the entire text to get a feel for what Paul is trying to convey, asking some important questions as I go. What is Paul’s concern? What is he trying to accomplish with excommunication? What kinds of sins does he talk about and how would the 1st century church view these sins? Finally, what modern day examples are most like the situation Paul is addressing?

The first thing that comes to my mind when I read this chapter is pedophiles in the priesthood of the Catholic Church: the world saw the church protecting and sanctioning these men– it was an absolute scandal. This is what happens when the church fails to discipline: the church rightly appears unjust to the watching world when it glosses over these sins. By ignoring them it presents a false testimony about the character of God. People look at the church and say “You may claim to behave in a Godly way, but look at these people you protect!”

So thinking about the testimony of the church, where does divorce fit? It seems to me that when there is oppression in the marriage, the church clearly needs to step in. For every story of an abused woman who is attacked by her husband, the reputation of the church is gravely damaged when it does nothing. Every time a man leaves his spouse without biblical grounds and shows up at church with a new woman on his arm, the church that looks away gives false testimony.

Bringing this back to the Westminster Confession, even while I am wary of the church presiding over divorces cases, I must admit that formalizing the procedures provides a means for victims to have their pain addressed and justice sought. There is something very right about an abuser knowing he is going to face the music and it won’t just be a private matter between him and his wife (whom he is probably pretty good at controlling). If this is to be effective, though, the church must be equipped and ready to stand behind and bring justice to the oppressed, while at the same time making it clear that the Bible only condones divorce when the marriage covenant has been broken by abuse, adultery, or desertion.  I confess that when I read “public and orderly course of proceeding” I think of a tribunal before which a battered woman stands in fear; however this view may be more based on the behavior of modern churches than the intent of the text.

So are there ways to take the strong points and address the weak points from each statement?

I think to Instone-Brewer we should add that the church must not neglect proper instruction and teaching on the subject of divorce, as well as a definition of the role of the church in being able to identify and seek justice for the victims of treachery in marriages. Additionally I take slight issue with his assertion that only the spouse can judge repentance; experience says that it is hard for any single person to identify genuine repentance from feigned repentance, especially when we desire to see the best in those we love. I would rather see the church come along side the victim in a supportive role to aid in understanding the heart of his or her spouse, but this only works if the church has the knowledge and tools to do so.

As to the Westminster Confession, I would suggest it would do better emphasizing the role of the church in protecting the doctrine of biblical divorce while recognizing with humility that no one but a victim really has a firm grasp on the depth of treachery within the marriage. While there is a place for taking a 1 Corinthians 5 type stand against some divorces for the sake of justice, often the place of the church should be to provide shepherding, not judgement. For this to work, the church needs to foster trust, and most victims will struggle to trust the church when they believe divorce is off the table. In my own situation I remember telling the pastor of my church that I could no longer discuss the marriage with him because I couldn’t trust him if he wouldn’t recognize divorce is necessary in some cases.

In my own opinion, I believe the core issue is that the interaction between divorcees and the church is seen as adversarial – the church is very afraid that people will divorce unbiblically and so judging becomes the first line of defense against divorce. However, the greatest thing the church can do to prevent divorce is to teach sound doctrine and encourage healthy relationships for its members. Members should have a very clear idea of what constitutes a Biblical divorce and what steps can be taken to avoid one (Paul’s approach highlights this – he spent far more time in his letters writing about how to have healthy marriages than he did discouraging divorce). I think in such an environment we can expect that the mature Christian who understands Biblical divorce will want aid from the church and desire shepherding (not judgement) through a difficult situation. An environment of unity between the victim who knows the marriage and the church who has the knowledge and resources to protect seems the best way to see justice done and God honored.

29 Comments

  1. Jeff Crippen

    Excellent article! Good work. The Scripture that came to my mind as I read this was:

    1 Corinthians 6:4-5 ESV (4) So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? (5) I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers…

    Well, the reality of our situation today is one of shame. There hardly ever seems to be anyone among us — us Christians — wise enough to settle these abuse cases with justice for the victim. As you say, in these abuse cases, pastors and church leaders and even every single church member MUST have instruction about abuse, AND be humble enough to admit that they need that instruction before they go off rendering decisions that are grievously unjust. You simply cannot sit in judgment in any case unless you know what the law is and what the offense is!

    In the world at large, groups of people who take upon themselves police power and judicial authority when they have no training or qualifications to function in such a capacity are called a “lynch mob.” I think that most of the readers of this blog would agree that they or someone they know personally has been “lynched” at the hands of their church when they went asking for help.

    No, there are not hardly any people among us wise enough to settle these cases. And that is exactly what needs to change. Before any pastor or church takes upon itself the duty that the Westminster Confession says is required in divorce cases (“a public and orderly course and proceeding”), then they need to admit they know little or nothing about these cases and stand in desperate need of remedying that ignorance.

    Guess what? In a true, healthy local Christian church, it should be alright to admit that we don’t know everything and even that we have botched things up pretty badly in the past. What is not ok is to remain ignorant and yet act arrogantly.

    • Amen!

    • Song

      Jeff,
      “Lynch mob”!!!! Perfect explanation.

  2. This is a great post, which would be helpful for those church leaders who are willing to challenge and change their extra-Biblical approaches to divorce. I am in the midst of reviewing Instone-Brewer’s work in some detail and appreciate this discussion.

  3. joepote01

    Jeff S,

    I think you raise some very valid concerns, and have done a good job of stating some very valid points.

    I find nothing in scripture to indicate that divorce is inherently sinful and much to indicate that divorce is not inherently sinful. Divorce may very well be the most godly course of action in a given situation (consider that God, Himself, divorced the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel).

    Violation of covenant vows is sinful. Treachery against a spouse is sinful. Adultery is sinful. Divorce carried out in an unjust manner, for the purpose of treacherously defrauding or violating covenant vows is sinful.

    The sin is in either the cause of divorce or in the manner (or purpose) in which divorce is carried out, not in the divorce, itself. For further discussion see this post: https://cryingoutforjustice.blog/2012/04/04/divorce-is-sin-says-who-guest-article-by-joe-pote/

    So, in my view, the church has no business, whatsoever, in judging divorce.

    Yes, the church should judge clear instances of unrepentant sin within the congregation. If there is abuse, adultery, treachery, or other violations of covenant vows, judge those.

    By trying to judge divorce, the church confuses the whole issue. Judging sin is difficult enough, There is no reason to label as sin, something the Bible never calls sin. The real issues are more easily perceived and judged if we stick with issues that truly are sinful.

    • Well said, Joe.

    • Anonymous

      My experience is that Christians consider divorce a sin based on one verse, which is Malachi 2:16, where it is quoted that God hates divorce, and therefore it must be sin. If they were to take a critical look at that verse and conclude that only some translations are accurate in reflecting that it is the third person pronoun that is being used, ie, “He who hates and divorces…”, not “God says, ‘I hate divorce’,…”, then they be less inclined to believe that the act of divorce itself is a sinful act.

      Where a person divorces by cruelly abandoning a spouse, there would be no argument that divorce in that case would be a sin, but the sin would be more in the act of being cruel and emotionally abusive. However, when a person divorces to protect children, find safety and shun evil, then how could anyone justify the position that that divorce is sinful? It’s like saying to a child that rolling on the ground is wrong. If a child was doing that just to get the clothes dirty to create more work for the mother, then yes, it would be, but if a child was doing it to escape from a fire, then it wouldn’t be.

      • joepote01

        Anaon – Yes, that’s the one oft referenced verse…misquoted, mistranslated, and used out of context.

        Even using the KJV or NAS translations, with the “I hate divorce…” text, it is still very, very clear that the passage is addressing the sin of treachery (…for you have dealt treacherously with the wife of your youth…), not divorce.

        To take that partial sentence, in isolation from the rest of the sentence, the rest of the passage, and the rest of what scripture says on this topic, and use it to build a doctrinal position on divorce is, in my view, the epitomy of twisting scripture to suit one’s own purposes.

        Yes, I am in complete agreement with you that divorce, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil. It may, however, be used for either good or evil purpose.

        I can’t help but wonder whether the popularity of the unbiblical, position that “divorce is sin” might have something to do with Satan’s distaste for Redemption.

        God brought about our divorce from the kingdom of darkness, and He called it Redemption!

        We should not be surprised by a Satanic attack on the biblical concept of Redemption…

      • Song

        Anonymous,
        Thank you for this, “only some translations are accurate in reflecting that it is the third person pronoun that is being used, ie, “He who hates and divorces…”, not “God says, ‘I hate divorce’,…”, then they be less inclined to believe that the act of divorce itself is a sinful act.” This is the first time I’ve heard about the third person pronoun. It makes so much sense now.

      • Joe, I think at least a part of it is that divorce never occurs without sin. The breaking of a marriage is always tragic. The problem is conflating cause with effect. It’s like saying medicine is evil because it’s required when people get sick, and sickness is bad.

        We like things to be controllable and easy to understand- to fit into nice formulas. It’s much easier to deal with rules that it is with messy humans. A blogger I’ve read in the past says that Evangelicals do things “to avoid relationships” and I think that’s accurate in a lot of cases. So divorce=sin: it’s easy, clean, and it means we don’t have to get involved in messy situations. Unfortunately, it isn’t biblical and it hurts people when it’s wrong.

        I do believe that some divorce is sin, though we are probably arguing semantics at that point. I certainly think that divorce is not inherently sinful- how can you and read that God used it as a metaphore for his relationship with Israel?

        One thing I’d really be interested in is a study into divorces today to find out just how many cited biblical reasons (without trying to prove one way or the other). Is it possible that our culture has such a high divorce rate not because of a lack of commitment or a proper view of marriage, but because people are unrepentantly treacherous in their marriages? If so, our preaching has really missed the mark of being salt and light.

        What would the cultural effect be if the church said loud and clear “if you mistreat your spouse and demonstrate unrepentence, you can expect to be divorced and excommunicated from the church- we will not stand for that behavior”? My guess (perhaps optimistically) is that you would see a drop in divorces because people would not see marriage as a license to sin without consequence. Who knows, though?

      • What would the cultural effect be if the church said loud and clear “if you mistreat your spouse and demonstrate unrepentence, you can expect to be divorced and excommunicated from the church- we will not stand for that behavior”?

        If the church leaders had the chutzpah to act on this we would see abusers start to squirm. Maybe some might even get it. I think the world would take notice too and the church would gain some degree of respect, which we currently do not have because we do not deserve it.

      • Song

        Joe,
        “Satan’s distaste for Redemption”… Yes. To kill, steal, and destroy…Satan’s choice of Modus operandi.
        “God brought about our divorce from the kingdom of darkness, and He called it Redemption!” That is a powerful statement to me. Thank you.

      • Anonymous

        Song, there’s a thorough explanation in Not Under Bondage by Barbara Roberts.

      • Song

        Thanks, Anonymous. I will read it.

      • Brilliant analogy about the child rolling on the ground, Anon. That one is going in my sound bites file.

      • joepote01

        Jeff S. – In regard to your statement, “The breaking of a marriage is always tragic,” I agree that the violation of covenant vows is always tragic. The divorce, itself, may be tragic, or may be cause for great joy and renewed hope of healing.

        Saying that divorce is painful is a bit like saying surgery is painful. Yes, it is always painful. However, if the reason for surgery is to address an unhealthy issue that has been a longstanding source of constant debilitating pain, then the surgery is also cause for joy and renewed hope of healing and deliverance.

        The same holds true for divorce.

        We must not confuse the surgery with the disease. Yes, they are both painful. Yes, they are related. However, surgery that brings healing and deliverance is a very good thing.

        I love the question you pose about what would happen if the church took a strong stand against violation of marriage vows rather than a strong stand against divorce!

        Churches who embrace such a stance are definitely much closer to God’s heart, as revealed in scripture.

      • Joe, I am something of an expert on the experience of surgery, having watched my ex go through something like 20 in a span of 12 years. Now her specific need to have this many surgeries is a topic for another time and place, but I can say that I never once rejoiced at her having a surgery, even when I believed it was clearly going to improve her situation. I also did not rejoice that my son, born premature and addicted to painkillers, had to live in intensive care for the first month of his life, even though I was grateful that such a resource was available to allow him to survive. I wont deny that I was happy to to find surgical answers to the physical problems of my ex, but in the end every surgery was painful, and if it could have been avoided she would have been better off.

        Our bodies were not designed to be cut into and disrupted, but sometimes it is regrettably necessary. I find this an apt analogy for divorce; not the way we were designed, but sometimes painfully necessary. I can also say the effects of turning to surgery too quickly and seeing it as a source of salvation can be extremely harmful. I would consider all surgeries tragic as well, even when they are necessary or lifegiving.

        “What is the definition of a minor surgery?”
        “Sugery on someone else!”

      • Great analogies about surgery, Joe and Jeff. Never pleasant, but sometimes way better than the disease or disorder that made it necessary.

      • Joe, one point I meant to make in my last post- when I said “the breaking of a marriage is always tragic”, I meant that literally. I do not see divorce and “breaking the marriage” as the same thing. In my case I specifically believe that my ex broke the marriage and I merely filed the paperwork.

      • joepote01

        Jeff S. – I appreciate you sharing such difficult experiences so candidly. I know those had to have been very trying, painful times, for you to have experienced.

        I absolutely agree that neither surgery, nor divorce, should be taken lightly or used unless absolutely necessary. I agree that unnecessary surgery (or divorce) is tragic, and should never be regarded as a cure-all or easy fix.

        However, whether discussing surgery or divorce, for those times that it is necessary, I cannot call it tragic.

        Painful? Yes! Difficult? Yes! Heart-breaking? Yes! Sorrowful? Yes! Scarring? Yes!

        Tragic? No!

        That which results in hope and deliverance from evil, I cannot call tragic, no matter how difficult or painful.

        That which caused the divorce (or surgery) to be necessary is tragic. The necessary divorce (or surgery), itself, is not.

        I appreciate you, brother, and enjoy sharing differing perspectives with you!

      • joepote01

        Jeff S. – I probably should add that, in my view, the marriage is not ended until the divorce is final. I do not see the filing of paperwork as separate from the dissolution of the marriage, but as the final severing act. In the case of abuse, that final severing act is necessary, and was made necessary by the acts of the perpetrator, not the action of the one who files. Yet the filing and subsequent legal proclamation is the final severing action.

        I’m pointing out this difference in perspective, not as a judgment or indictment, nor to start a debate, but to clarify that this difference in perspective probably influences my careful distinguishing between cause and effect.

  4. What Jeff S and Jeff C said.

  5. Anonymous

    Great job, Jeff S!

  6. Anonymous

    Well said Joe ! I agree with you on this one ..

  7. Laurie

    This verse pops up in discussions concerning godly women and submission:

    Tit 2:5 To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

    But I am thinking about what Jeff S. said here: ” It seems to me that when there is oppression in the marriage, the church clearly needs to step in. For every story of an abused woman who is attacked by her husband, the reputation of the church is gravely damaged when it does nothing. Every time a man leaves his spouse without biblical grounds and shows up at church with a new woman on his arm, the church that looks away gives false testimony.”

    These two are not diametrically opposed, because faithfulness is necessary (not required, as in ball-and-chain commandments; but necessary, as in it will not live without the blood therein) in marriage. When a man deals treacherously with his wife, he puts her into a position that she really has no desire to be in, and that is why I believe that Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees who were looking for any cause to divorce. He wasn’t saying that a divorced woman, one her husband puts away from himself, is filthy and becomes a harlot (like most people think it says). But He was saying that unfaithful men FORCE their wives into difficult and ugly situations when they play to their hard hearts.

    And I think this can do nothing BUT mar the perception of those outside the church of Who Jesus really is. The word of God is blasphemed.

    • joepote01

      Well stated, Laurie!

  8. Wow, lot’s of really great points and amazing insights were made here by everyone. Thank you, All, so much for sharing your thoughts. I experienced several “Ahhh” moments just in reading the comments.

  9. Finding Answers

    My divorce was Biblical in a number of ways, and I was not the one who filed the papers for divorce. My anti-x merely legalized the process by which the covenant had already been broken.

    Oddly enough, Barb’s comment triggered me, though not Anonymous original comment on which it was based.

    Barb commented Brilliant analogy about the child rolling on the ground

    My “mother” had grounds for divorce, but chose to vent her vindictiveness on me. To her, I was rolling on the ground intentionally to get my clothes dirty, not to escape the fire.

    I am No Contact with my family of origin. They have all broken covenant. I have “grounds for divorce”.

    • To [my mother], I was rolling on the ground intentionally to get my clothes dirty, not to escape the fire.

      Yikes. What a horrible twisting of the truth!

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