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.