Divorce, censure, and session responsibility

We synthesize particular biblical principles in order to compose theology that is biblical, practical and compassionate.

Under the gospel of Christ there exist two permissible reasons for divorce: adultery and willful desertion. (Matt.19:8,9; 1 Cor. 7:15)

Elders often have to judge whether certain acts of the flesh constitute adultery. Elders also have to decide whether certain patterns of life constitute willful desertion. This entry is concerned with the latter provision for dissolving the marriage contract, along with proper ecclesiastical oversight regarding the willful desertion provision.

Whenever a believer is loosed from the marriage bonds due to an unbeliever’s willful desertion, the believer is free to remarry even though the guilty party is beyond the pale of ecclesiastical censure by already being an unbeliever. (1 Corinthians 7:15)

In cases where both parties are regarded as believers, the only provision for divorce and remarriage is adultery. Mathew 5:32 enforces the point by teaching that if one divorces his wife for any reason other than fornication, the husband in such cases causes his wife to commit adultery. Furthermore, even the innocent woman’s future husband commits adultery by marrying her. In other words, under such circumstances not only is the husband culpable for his wife’s sin of adultery; the innocent spouse is not permitted to remarry, lest she commits adultery along with her future husband. Notwithstanding, there is good and affable news for the innocent spouse, if only sessions would do their job.

One may not divorce or remarry under the willful desertion clause as long as both parties are to be regarded as Christians by the church. Yet, if a professing Christian willfully deserts his spouse without cause in the face of Matthew 18 confrontation – then the deserting spouse should be declared an unbeliever. In such cases, the grounds for divorce would not be unbelief but rather willful desertion accompanied by ecclesiastical censure and unbelief. (1 Cor. 7:15). In other words, a believer may not divorce his spouse solely for the sin of unbelief since Scripture requires a believer to dwell with his unbelieving spouse as long as she desires to remain married. (1 Cor. 7:12-13). Nor may a believer divorce and remarry if deserted by a believer (i.e., one in good standing in the church). Rather, (aside from cases of adultery), a believer may only divorce and remarry if deserted by an unbeliever. The theological takeaway is that both conditions of (a) willful desertion and (b) status of unbeliever must be met for there to be biblical divorce and remarriage under the desertion clause.

Pervasive problem in the church:

It has become increasingly prevalent in the Reformed church today to condone divorce between professing Christians for emotional abandonment, in particularly verbal abuse. (This article does not address biblical fenceposts for such thinking. It recognizes there is biblical latitude and seeks to synthesize biblical principles in order to provide a coherent theological paradigm from which sessions might operate.)

When it is deemed by the courts of the church that a pattern of spousal abuse is tantamount to willful desertion, the guilty party should be censured to the utmost degree yielding a status of unbeliever. Only at which point may a professing believer be loosed from the marriage because now an unbeliever has departed. (Please internalize that point before reading further.)

Unfortunately, that is not what we always see, even within churches that practice discipline. Instead, we too often find an unbiblical accommodation for the offended party (assume the wife hereafter) who has suffered under emotional turmoil, which ironically can turn into a situation in which she deserts her husband without cause. (More on that later.)

We also observe instances in which the wife is not granted the ecclesiastical backing of the church that would rightly vindicate her and pave the way for a biblical release from the bonds of marriage.

In other words, one of two unbiblical accounts too often occurs. Either the suffering wife is granted at least tacit approval for divorce, yet without it having been deemed that her husband sinned enough to be excommunicated. Or else, approval for divorce is granted without her guilty husband having been excommunicated. In the first instance the abused wife is denied both the testing and privilege of sanctifying suffering; whereas under the second scenario the innocent wife is denied the peace the church was to have aided her in obtaining by ministering and declaring in Christ’s name that her unbelieving husband had willfully deserted her, and she is now loosed from the marriage.

No husband is to be considered having willfully deserted his wife to the degree in which his spouse may be loosed until there is such “willful desertion as can in no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate” (WCF 24.6) In other words, whether willful desertion comes in the form of emotional or physical abandonment, a valid certificate of divorce presupposes the dissuasion of ecclesiastical and civil authorities has come to naught. Consequently, willful desertion that is sufficient for biblical divorce presupposes that one has already been officially declared outside the church, for how is it possible that one within the church – a Christian(!), can be beyond remedy?

In summary, it stands to reason that if the husband may not be constituted an unbeliever, then he has not yet willfully deserted his wife – in which case the wife has no biblical grounds for divorce. Yet if the wife has biblical grounds for divorce, then her unbelieving spouse has deserted her.

Excursus:

It is conceivable that if a spouse commits adultery and later repents, it can be biblically consistent for the innocent party to “sue out” divorce without an accompanying pronouncement of unbelief upon the spouse. The reason being, adultery is sufficient to file for biblical divorce, and repentance is sufficient to regain one’s standing in the church. Accordingly, one can truly repent prior to being excommunicated; yet notwithstanding the transgression allows the innocent party to sue out divorce “as if the offending party was dead”. (WCF 24.5)

A solution to no-fault divorce:

In cases alleging desertion, Sessions frequently condone divorces without sussing out the guilty party and sanctioning accordingly. Elders often excuse their neglect for reasons such as: (a) too few elders, (b) not knowing the circumstances of marriages in turmoil, and (c) “discipline won’t do any good”. Such excuses obviously have no place in the church, though they are commonly held among elders.

Admittedly, in desertion cases it is more convenient for sessions to vacate responsibility than adjudicate. Notwithstanding, sessions must function as courts of Jesus Christ. Sessions don’t have the luxury to close a blind eye to divorce in the church. Such dereliction of duty must stop. By heeding the call to exercise the keys of the kingdom, some professing believers will be excommunicated for not striving longer with their spouses; whereas others will be vindicated and loosed from their marriages as spouses are censured for willful desertion without cause.

Having to pronounce discipline forces sessions to abandon a de facto policy of no-fault divorce. Instead of abdicating its responsibility, sessions are to extend pastoral care. Here are a few things sessions are to do: (a) not leave divorce cases to the private judgment of individuals; (b) determine whether abused spouses have biblical grounds for a divorce; (c) excommunicate those judged guilty of emotional abuse tantamount to willful desertion; and (d) not tacitly approve divorce for those who have been abused to some extent short of that which warrants excommunication of a spouse; and (e) discipline wounded spouses who continue headstrong into divorce without biblical cause and against session approval.

A case study of Bill’s abuse of Sally:

There is an instance of unbiblical accommodation in prematurely approving Sally’s divorce without having adjudicated her case. Such accommodation can ironically end in Sally’s desertion of Bill.

When a session neglects its pastoral duty by not issuing warnings against willful desertion to women like Sally when Bill is not censurable, such women either are denied (a) the gift of sharing in Christ’s sufferings through perseverance, or else (b) seeing the manifestation of their own unbelief in the abandonment of the marriage in the face of ecclesiastical warnings not to pursue divorce.

In the final analyses, the Westminster standards teach that the only non-adultery grounds for Sally to divorce Bill entails that Bill is beyond remedy, which is not to be regarded as true as long as Bill is called a brother, believed to be indwelled by the Holy Spirit, receiving the word of God if not also the sacraments. If Bill is a church member in good standing and receiving the means of grace, then he is not “beyond remedy”, which means that Bill may not be regarded has having willfully deserted Sally. Consequently, Sally has no biblical grounds for divorce. Yet if Sally divorces under such circumstances, then it is she who has abandoned her husband. But if Sally truly has grounds for divorce, then Bill must be censured for willful desertion both for Sally’s vindication and the glory of God.

A charge to elders and sessions:

The only question now is whether ordained servants will be faithful to their ordination vows and challenge head-on those who willfully desert their spouse or pursue unbiblical divorce. Marriages are at stake and children are needlessly being torn from parents in the aftermath of divorce due to pastoral neglect.

Indeed, God-appoints difficult providences for all who are in union with Christ, but we must expect God’s grace to be sufficient for all his people to keep the marriage vow of “for better or for worse” unless one of two exception clauses can be met (adultery or willful desertion). Elders are to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. They are to love their flock according to understanding, which means they are to encourage the sheep under their care in the life of the cross to which we all are appointed. Elders must come along suffering spouses – labor with them indeed, yet censure those who willfully desert their spouses or pursue unbiblical divorce with a high-hand.

Let’s pray together for Christian marriages and that ordained servants might be faithful to their vows.