Writing about divorce is always difficult, especially when you have been divorced, as I have. I feel a bit like C. S. Lewis, who was reluctant to address the same issue in Mere Christianity because “Christian doctrines on this subject are extremely unpopular.”1
Here it is in a nutshell.
The North American General Conference of The Wesleyan Church approved a revision (known as Memorial 52) of our statement on the family on June 4, 2012. If ratified by a two-thirds majority of our district conference delegates this summer, it will become a permanent change in our constitution. As a delegate, I will be asked to cast a vote on this question.
Memorial 52 (read it here) encourages couples to build one another up through words and actions, and warns against mistreating one’s spouse through “violence, including physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse toward one’s spouse or family members, as well as well as sexual infidelity or desertion.” All good advice.
However, the statement errs by adding that any one of those behaviors justifies divorce.
I am not naïve about the reality of life in a broken world or a broken family. Over the last 26 years, I’ve done my share of pastoral counseling with women and men who faced the very abuses listed in this statement. I realize that the marriage bond can be shattered.
And I fully support what I think is the aim of this statement, to offer grace and protection to victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse.
But this initiative is badly flawed and ultimately unhelpful. Here’s why.
The debate on Memorial 52 has been framed in terms of domestic violence and is charged with emotion. But the issue is not whether hurting people deserve grace and compassion. Obviously, they do.
This issue hinges on two questions:
- Does Scripture name grounds for divorce other than sexual immorality?
- If not, should we?
The answer to both questions is no. Here is why I think this change is both poor Bible interpretation and poor church government.
1. It Badly Misuses Scripture
The biblical texts advanced in support of Memorial 52 just don’t hold the weight. The statement relies on Mal. 2:13–16, Matt. 5:32, and 1 Cor. 7:10–16 to assert that violence and desertion (in addition to sexual immorality) are biblical grounds for divorce.
These verses simply do not say that.
If anything, the Malachi passage argues against the premise. Jesus himself stated a single justification for divorce. There is nothing unclear about the biblical texts. This statement misinterprets them.3
2. It Permits Divorce for Nearly Any Reason
What is “emotional abuse”? How would you define the “mental abuse of a family member”? Certainly we could muster examples, but examples are not definitions. Nearly every problem that occurs between a husband and wife could be labeled with one of the terms listed in this memorial.
Our culture has found it impossible to agree even on the definition of sex.4 There is no possibility that we could arrive at a common understanding of emotional or mental abuse, perhaps not even desertion or violence.
No-fault divorce is available in all 50 U.S. States precisely because such definitions cannot be made. Our culture holds that no clear reason is needed to terminate a marriage. Memorial 52 seems to agree.
3. It Is Unwise.
Behind this initiative seems to be the belief that Jesus’ statement on divorce (and therefore The Wesleyan Church statement on divorce) has been used as a whip to drive helpless spouses back to their abusers. If so, that is regrettable.
However, my observation is that the church’s practice has both held us to a high standard on the permanence of marriage and also allowed the use of conscience by spouses, pastors, and district superintendents.
While we may admit that divorce might be justifiable in some cases that would be difficult to define as sexual immorality, we have so far recognized that it is unwise to list them.
We have been down the road of making “sin lists” in the past. If worded too narrowly, they become fuel for legalism. If stated too broadly, as in this case, we become permissive. We are best off to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide our practice rather than creating a list of do’s and don’ts.
4. It Is Driven by Culture, not Christian Teaching
However well intentioned, this memorial reflects the thinking of our culture, not the clear teaching of Scripture or the historic witness of the church.
Perhaps we should simply admit that we dislike making statements that seem harsh or judgmental to our neighbors. It is tiring to be out of step with the world around us.
I am reminded of the words of Joseph Sobran, who said,”It can be exalting to belong to a church that is five hundred years behind the times and sublimely indifferent to fashion; it is mortifying to belong to a church that is five minutes behind the times, huffing and puffing to catch up.”5 We appear more like the latter in this case.
Jesus was filled with grace and truth, perfectly balancing justice and compassion. In these days, the church is moving, rightly, toward grace. Yet in this instance, it is at the neglect of truth.
I am voting no on Memorial 52. And here’s what I think we need to do instead.
I hope this question marks the beginning, not the end, of discussion on marriage in The Wesleyan Church. Here’s what I think we all need to be doing after district conference.
Treat Hurting People with Grace and Compassion
Behind each word proposed for Memorial 52 there are a thousand stories—real people who have suffered abuse, violence, desertion, emotional and mental anguish in their families. I know that marital stress is one of the significant problems people in my community face. I’d like to inspire the people of Fall Creek Wesleyan Church to do more about that.
Take Marriage Transformation Seriously
God has the power to transform lives. Our culture does not believe that, which is one reason divorce is so readily accepted as a solution. We can bear witness to the fact that Jesus Christ can transform people, marriages, and families. As we do, I hope divorce among us will be not merely regrettable but also rare.
Restate Our Teaching on Marriage
The statements we are debating are Covenant Membership Commitments. This means that, pass or fail, they are not binding on our more than 18,000 Community Members. I find that odd. Whatever we say about the family certainly should be said to everyone. That alone calls for further thought and action.
Ironically, this debate could have been circumvented by subtracting just two words from our constitution rather than adding 60. Removing “the only” from Paragraph 265.5 would produce the intended effect of Memorial 52 without the attending problems.
Those two words indicate that sexual sin is “the only” biblical grounds for divorce. Without them, we would tacitly allow the possibility that other circumstances might be considered just grounds for divorce—given the Spirit-illuminated use of Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason—without attempting to list each one or prop them up with misapplied texts.
I hope the 2016 General Conference will return to the practice of subtracting words from The Discipline rather than adding. To find unity in essentials, we should narrow them down to just a few.