[Note: Questions and Ethics is a monthly series in which Dr. Russell Moore provides insight into how Christians should navigate through life's most challenging moral and ethical issues.]
QUESTION: To help the pastors in the room think through when they are dealing with the topic of divorce and remarriage in their churches, what are some framework principles that they can have in terms of whom they should marry, whom they should remarry, what people are qualified for divorce, those types of things? Help them think through that.
RUSSELL MOORE: Well, a pastor has to work through what do I think are the biblically acceptable grounds for divorce and for remarriage, if he thinks there are any. He has got to work that through. And I think the time to work that through isn’t when you are sitting there with Bob and Martha. The time to work this through is at the very beginning of your ministry. It is something I always ask in ordination councils because that is the time to talk about this is at the ordination council when you are not dealing with specific faces. You are not dealing with specific power dynamics in the congregation. You are saying what does the Bible say, and are you going to commit your life to that? So he has got to have that understanding.
Secondly, he has got to preach about this: To stand up and say this is what the scripture says about divorce and about remarriage so that he can not only prevent some people by the power of God’s Holy Spirit from divorcing, but also so that he can give people who have divorced and perhaps have remarried unbiblically the opportunity to have the liberating power of repentance. If you don’t address it—and what we think is I don’t want to address this issue because I have people who are in this situation, and I don’t want to hurt them. So I am not going to address it because I am going to bring up something. The only way that the scripture gives us to actually be free of something is to confess it, to repent of it, and to reconcile. So if you don’t address it, all you are doing is leaving people under the condemnation of their own consciences or perhaps the accusation of Satan. You have to give people the ability to say what must we do now and then to be able to walk them through that.
So I have dealt with this many times where I have had a couple who have come up and they have said you know we both divorced unbiblically other people. We are now married to each other. We were wrong. We were sinning when we divorced our previous spouses. We didn’t have biblical grounds to do that. So what do we do now? I had a couple who said should we divorce and then go and try to reconcile with our spouses? And I said so you are asking me if the way you repent of divorce is by divorcing each other, abandoning each other and going and splitting up the marriages that have now happened with those previous spouses. No. That is not the answer. The answer to that is to confess—If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us of sin and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness—and then to live faithfully from that point forward. But that means having that sense of recognizing my sin against God and repenting of that. I think that has to happen.
And I think we have to have people who are willing to acknowledge that including publicly in our own congregations. And one of the things I think that we have lost and it is really bad that we’ve lost it, is in a lot of congregations anyway that sense of public testimony. I understand why we’ve lost it. I mean I grew up in a church where for a little while there it became a competition between people who were trying to show just how bad they were before they met Christ. So the one guys stands up, I was drunk every single weekend; then I met Jesus. The next guy, you know Ronnie said he was drunk every weekend, I wish that I had just been drunk. I was on horse tranquilizers, and that didn’t even do anything. You know it comes to the point where this isn’t healthy or right.
But there is something really important about a gospel-driven sort of testimony, not where someone stands up and says the verbal equivalent of “It was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day,” but when that person stands up and says this is who I was. I was crucified with Christ, and the Spirit is at work in me in seeking to fight and to war against this in my own life right now. That is a word of hope that we need to give to other people. And I think having people to stand up and say I was wrong when I left my wife. I was wrong when I left my children. I was wrong when I walked away from my husband. I sinned against God and I sinned against them. And there is nothing I can do to go back and to rectify that, but I want you to know that I stand here as someone who confesses and agrees with God that that was wrong. But the blood of Christ is able to cleanse every sin including this one.
Related: You can find more answers to ethical questions and subscribe to the Questions and Ethics podcast on the website of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.