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Divorce and Remarriage: A Smokescreen and a Fire

Try arguing with left-leaning Christians about homosexuality and within the first five minutes someone will throw divorce and remarriage in your face.  Much to my chagrin, I’ve been embroiled in debates about homosexuality many times, and every time, someone defending homosexual behavior brings up divorce.  “If marriage is so important to you,” the retort will go, “why don’t you ever talk about the sin of divorce?”  The implication being: “You are just picking on homosexuals.  You don’t follow the literal letter of the law any more than we do.  If you did, you would be focusing on divorce, because that’s the bigger issue in our churches.”

Where There’s Smoke…
When it comes to debating homosexuality, 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 goodness of divorce.  Conservatives, in the culture and in the mainline, 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 to talk (and do) 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.  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 a 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 said more about homosexuality in the blogosphere because there’s a controversy around the issue in the wider church.  But I’ve said more about divorce in my church because this is the more dangerous issue for us (and most congregations I imagine).  Virtually every single discipline case we’ve encountered as a board of elders has been about divorce.  The majority of pastoral care crises I have been involved in have dealt with failed or failing marriages.  My 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.

…There’s Probably Some Fire
And yet…and yet, many conservative 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 the uneducated to 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 is plenty of duplicity to go around.  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 homosexuality, and for all the other sins that are more easily condoned than confronted.

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