A contemporary PCA theologian who said that abuse is grounds for divorce – David Clyde Jones
David Clyde Jones is remembered as the PCA’s chief ethicist of recent times (link). He trained generations of pastors at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he taught for 40 years. He commended my book Not Under Bondage.
Jones suggested that the Westminster Confession’s statement about divorce be modified in one small but very significant way.
The Westminster Confession was composed during the Puritan era. In chapter 24 the Confession says:
Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage, yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion of the marriage covenant as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage. (link)
In view of the confusion over “wilful desertion” in the Confession and the growing number of divorcing and divorced persons in need of pastoral care, it is time to think about how the Confession might be revised to represent more clearly and adequately the biblical teaching on marriage and divorce. What follows is one effort in that direction.
The Marriage Covenant and Divorce
The proposal is to replace the word “desertion” with the phrase “repudiation of the marriage covenant” as follows:
Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage, yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful
desertionrepudiation of the marriage covenant as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage”. ¹
I heartily second David Clyde Jones’s suggestion. Wilful repudiation of the marriage covenant covers simple desertion, constructive desertion and treacherous divorce. So it covers all the things I believe Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 7:15.
When will more people stand with me? In particular, when will more leaders in the PCA (Americans and Australians) stand up and publicly call for reform? I know that some men in the church appreciate my work because they tell me so privately. But what I want to see is them speaking out publicly on this issue, and one way to do so is to comment at this blog.
A final thought
When victims of abuse want to divorce their abusers, one of the problems they often face is that the church assumes it can control the victim’s decision and punish the victim if she persists in pursuing divorce.
The Westminster Confession encourages the idea that the church has the authority to direct the abused to ‘remedy’ a marriage that is on the rocks. It also suggests that the church has power of veto over whether the victim may divorce. This idea remains prevalent in Presbyterian circles. Many non-Presbyterians have the same idea. People like Chris Moles say you should ask your own church leaders whether they allow divorce for abuse.
All these ideas tie victims up in knots and put them at the mercy of church leaders – many of whom are ignorant when it comes to understanding domestic abuse. If you are a church leader and want to learn how better to respond to domestic abuse, I’ve given you some some suggestions below.
¹ David C. Jones “The Westminster Confession on Divorce and Remarriage” Covenant Seminary Review 16 (Spring 1990), 27-8.
Jones also submitted his paper for the PCA’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage to consider. That committee was appointed by the Eighteenth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America and it gave its final report to the Twentieth General Assembly. You can read the final report here: PCA Position Paper on Divorce and Remarriage
Other parts in this series
The PCA’s Position Paper on Divorce is dangerous for abuse victims – Barbara Roberts
How is the PCA responding to victims of domestic abuse? – Lynette English & Valerie Hobbs
Church discipline and church permission for divorce – Barbara Roberts