After last week’s post on gluttony, a host of similar comments bubbled up about divorce. Isn’t it hypocritical of Christians to protest so loudly about homosexuality when the real marital problem in our churches is divorce? Over many years debating these issues in my own denomination, I’ve often encountered the divorce retort: “It’s easy for you to pick on homosexuality because that’s the issue in your church. But you don’t follow the letter of your own law. If you did, you would be talking about divorce, since that’s the bigger problem in conservative churches.”
A Smokescreen When it comes to debating homosexuality among Christians, the issue of divorce is both a smokescreen and a fire. It is a smokescreen because the two issues-divorce and homosexuality-are far from identical.
For starters, there are no groups in our denominations whose raison d’etre is the celebration of divorce. People are not advocating new policies in our churches that affirm the intrinsic goodness of divorce. Conservatives, in the culture and in the church, keep talking about homosexuality because that is the fault line right now. We’d love to talk (and do) about how to have a healthy marriage. We’d love for that matter to spend all our time talking about the glory of the Trinity, but the battle right now (at least one of them) is over homosexuality. So we cannot be silent on this issue.
Just as importantly, the biblical prohibition against divorce explicitly allows for exceptions; the prohibition against homosexuality does not. The traditional Protestant position, as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith for example, maintains that divorce is permissible on grounds of marital infidelity or desertion by an unbelieving spouse (WCF 24.5-6). Granted, the application of these principles is difficult and the question of remarriage after divorce gets even trickier, but almost all Protestants have always held that divorce is sometimes acceptable. Simply put, homosexuality and divorce are different issues because according to the Bible and Christian tradition the former is always wrong, while the latter is not.
Finally, the “what about divorce?” argument is not as good as it sounds because many of our churches do take divorce seriously. I realize that many churches don’t (more on that in a minute). But a lot of the same churches that speak out against homosexuality also speak out against illegitimate divorce. I’ve preached on divorce a number of times, including a sermon a few years ago entitled, “What Did Jesus Think of Divorce and Remarriage?” I’ve said more about homosexuality in the blogosphere because there’s a controversy around the issue in the culture in the wider church. But I’ve never shied away from talking about divorce. I take seriously everything the Westminster Confession of Faith says about marriage. Marriage is to be between one man and one woman (WCF 24.1). It is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord (WCF 24.3). Only adultery and willful desertion are grounds for divorce (WCF 24.6).
As a board of elders, we treat these matters with the seriousness they deserve. We ask new members who have been divorced to explain the nature of their divorce and (if applicable) their remarriage. This has resulted on occasion in potential new members leaving our church. Most of the discipline cases we’ve encountered as elders have been about divorce. The majority of pastoral care crises we have been involved in have dealt with failed or failing marriages. Our church, like many others, takes seriously all kinds of sins, including illegitimate divorce. We don’t always know how to handle every situation, but I can say with a completely clear conscience that we never turn a blind eye to divorce.
And Undoubtedly Some Fire Having said all that, it’s undoubtedly the case that many evangelicals have been negligent in dealing with illegitimate divorce and remarriage. Pastors have not preached on the issue for fear of offending scores of their members. Elder boards have not practiced church discipline on those who sin in this area because, well, they don’t practice discipline for much of anything. Counselors, friends, and small groups have not gotten involved early enough to make a difference in pre-divorce situations. Christian attorneys have not thought enough about their responsibility in encouraging marital reconciliation. Church leaders have not helped their people understand God’s teaching about the sanctity of marriage, and we have not helped those already wrongly remarried to experience forgiveness for their past mistakes.
So yes, there are plank-eyed Christians among us. The evangelical church, in many places, gave up and caved in on divorce and remarriage. But the remedy to this negligence is not more negligence. The slow, painful cure is more biblical exposition, more active pastoral care, more faithful use of discipline, more word-saturated counseling, and more prayer–for illegitimate divorce, for same-sex behavior, and for all the other sins that are more easily condoned than confronted.