The Scandal and The Silence
The ethical scandal in evangelical and Reformed churches today is unbiblical divorce and the remarriage that almost certainly follows. By “scandal,” I do not only mean iniquitous conduct that blatantly violates the clear command of Holy Scripture. But I refer to behavior that gives occasion to the ungodly to mock and reject the gospel and that causes many to stumble into sin and perish everlastingly. It is scandal such as Jesus had in mind in Matthew 18:6: “But whoso shall offend (Greek: scandalize) one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
This warning is especially fitting regarding the scandal of divorce and remarriage, for innumerable children of professing Christians are the spiritual casualties of this sin.
About this scandal, there is almost total silence in the evangelical, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches. In view of the prevalence and destructive power of the evil and in view of the importance of marriage and the family for both state and church, the silence is eerie.
The world of North America maintains similar silence about the same evil. Divorce and remarriage are rampant. The consequences for nations and society are disastrous, particularly the ruin of the children, surely a nation’s most valuable resource. Divorce (with remarriage squarely in view) is the main social evil in the United States. Not racism! Not sexism! Not poverty! Not the environment! But divorce! The destruction of marriage and, with it, the destruction of the home and family! By the institution of God at creation, the family is fundamental to human life on earth, and marriage is basic to the family (Gen. 1, 2).
Of late, a few officials in government acknowledge the problem. They propose remedies. One is that the state frown on “no-fault” divorce. Another is that those who intend to marry be encouraged to opt for a special, lifelong “covenant” of marriage (as though every man and woman who marry are not, in fact, bound to a lifelong marriage-covenant by virtue of God’s institution itself).
For the most part, however, the social reformers and the vocal advocates of “family values” have nothing to say about divorce and remarriage. The reason is that the evil is widespread and entrenched. Condemnation of divorce and remarriage would be unpopular. It would lose votes for the party and the candidate. Besides, many of the social reformers, advocates of “family values,” and politicians are themselves divorced and remarried.
Unbelieving teacher and educational critic, Allan Bloom, called the attention of North America to society’s strange silence on divorce in his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1987). Lamenting the harmful effects that the divorce of their parents have on the bright young people who attend the University of Chicago, the University of Chicago professor wrote:
Of course, many families are unhappy. But that is irrelevant. The important lesson that the family taught was the existence of the only unbreakable bond, for better or for worse, between human beings. The decomposition of this bond is surely America’s most urgent social problem. But nobody even tries to do anything about it. The tide seems to be irresistible. Among the many items on the agenda of those promoting America’s moral regeneration, I never find marriage and divorce (p. 119).
The silence of the foolish world may be understandable.
But have the churches nothing to say?
Have evangelical and Reformed churches nothing to say about wickedness that dishonors the God who is faithful in His covenant with His people and that devastates the lives of professing Christians and their children, not to speak of the disordering of life in society?
The churches keep a shrewd silence because of the prevalence of divorce and remarriage among their own membership. The rate of divorce and remarriage in evangelical churches, we are told, is at least as high as in the world of the openly ungodly.
Leaders in the “mainline,” that is, apostate, churches admit their craven silence. In an interview published in the August 11, 1997 issue of Christianity Today, Roberta Hestenes of the Presbyterian Church in the USA said:
To say in our church today that divorce is wrong is extremely difficult because we are morally compromised since so many are divorced. We are experiencing the psychological captivity of the church—the feel-good, therapeutic culture has become the operating theology of the church.
William H. Willimon of the United Methodist Church agreed:
A number of Methodist bishops are divorced and remarried; so when asked about that issue, I have to say, somewhat cynically, “When you’re trying to attract the affluent upper-middle class, it’s tough to take a stand on that particular issue” (p. 17).
The evangelicals, Reformed, and Presbyterians are equally silent, and for the same reason. The periodicals never mention divorce and remarriage. Books that expose and condemn the evil are rare, extremely rare. The preaching studiously avoids it. It was an open secret at the meeting of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in Chicago in 1986 that the attempt to address the evil of divorce and remarriage with a strong, biblical statement was scuttled in the back rooms of power by the prominent pastors whose large evangelical churches are full of divorced (and divorcing!) and remarried (and remarrying!) members. This was the meeting of ICBI that was to apply inerrancy to life. So much for application! So much for inerrancy! So much for life!
That which claims to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world cannot defend the basic ordinance of God for human life. It is unable to condemn infidelity to the most basic and sacred of all human relationships. It cannot find in itself to require of those who profess Christianity that they keep their marriage vows. It silently tolerates the same treachery and unfaithfulness that characterize those who do not know the Lord.
This scandalous silence concerning the ethical scandal of our time renders the loud outcries of these same churches against abortion hypocritical. The murder of unborn babies is the world’s problem, not the church’s. The destruction of multitudes of children of professing Christians by divorce is the church’s problem. About this, the churches are silent.
How different from the prophet of Jehovah. In a covenant community in which many, including powerful church leaders, were divorcing and remarrying, Malachi spoke out uncompromisingly. Jehovah hates divorce (2:16). The one who thus deals treacherously against the wife of his covenant will be excommunicated by Jehovah Himself from His fellowship (2:12). Where divorce and remarriage go on and are tolerated, all worship of Jehovah is placed under divine interdict (2:13).
How different the silence of the churches from Christ Jesus Himself. In an ecclesiastical climate that permitted divorce, with a remarriage to follow, for any cause, Jesus upheld the divine will and ordinance, that marriage is a one-flesh bond for life made between the two who marry by the Creator Himself. He prohibited divorce. The one exception is the fornication of one’s mate. Even in this case, remarriage is forbidden. Jesus upheld marriage and prohibited divorce in the very faces of the religious leaders who were responsible for the marital laxity in Israel (Matt. 19:3-9).
How different from the apostle of Christ. In a world as licentious as our own, he boldly proclaimed the gospel of marriage as a bond that is broken only by death (I Cor. 7:39). He commanded Christians not to divorce or leave their mates. He dared to require that a woman who did leave her husband, evidently because of his fornication, must “remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband” (I Cor. 7:10, 11).
This was Christianity with steel in its backbone. This was Christianity that did not abjectly conform to the world, but that courageously confronted the world with a message that both condemned the world with its ways and created in the midst of the world, in the elect called out of it, a new life of truth, fidelity, and chastity. For the Christianity of I Corinthians 6 and 7 was the gospel of God, zealous for the glory of God rather than for the attracting and stroking of self-indulgent church members.
Today, the churches say nothing.
There is a deep, deliberate silence about the ethical scandal.
Not only do the churches say nothing against the iniquity, but they also are quick to speak out in defense of divorce and remarriage when a lonely voice makes itself heard condemning the evil. With the rare exception, the books and other writings on divorce and remarriage that do appear in evangelical and Reformed circles have as one of their chief purposes, if not their chief purpose, to justify divorce and remarriage against the objector.
Officebearers and teachers are silent.
Where are the people?
Now and again, a cry is heard from the people of God, lamenting the misery to which the corruption of marriage by the churches exposes the people. For it must not be supposed that playing fast and loose with marriage is an act of love that promotes true happiness among the saints. Rather, it inflicts unspeakable agony on husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, parents, brothers, sisters, friends, and the whole congregation. Nor is the agony limited to the time of the offense. It perpetuates itself from generation to generation. Unforgettable was the haunting plea that was voiced once in the Christian Reformed Banner:
What had once been the high point of our family experience for the year (the family Christmas party) we now ritually observe, a hollow shell, a ghost-like mockery of what once was and what might still be except for divorce…. The divorced member of the family and his new wife will be absent from our party, knowing that if they do attend other members will not. The divorced wife and her children will be absent because they feel the dissension within the family and would rather be missed than face the antagonism…. In somewhat more than a week I will return to face five classes of students a day in a Christian school. Each class contains students who are the sad, living testimonies to the “happiness” which results from divorce and/or remarriages…. I have seen students face the prospects of long illnesses and even death … with less pain and anxiety than those facing the breakup of what had seemed a secure home. Oh, the hurt in their eyes! … Convince me, if you can, that those who, in the name of love, smash to bits the happinesses of father, mother, sister, brother, child, pastor, and church are keeping the law of love! Convince me that a denomination which baptizes such actions by silence or by a subdued reprimand is acting out of love!
(“Where are We? Where are We Going?” Banner, Dec. 9, 1977, pp. 18, 19)
There was never an answer — not by the editor in that issue of the magazine and not by the church in her synodical decisions. It was too late. The tide of divorce and remarriage had already rolled over the church, and the church herself, under pressure from some of the people, had breached the dike by her official decisions.
What of us, the Protestant Reformed Churches?
In the goodness of God, we have the biblical message of marriage, to the great blessing of our churches and families. This is the message of marriage as a bond between one man and one woman for life in reflection of the unbreakable covenant between God and the elect church in Jesus Christ. Such is the teaching of our ministers, the discipline of our elders, and the lives of our members that we are able to speak out, with the voice of the prophet, of Christ, and of the apostle, against the wickedness of divorce and remarriage.
Are we thankful?
Are we determined to hold the message and maintain the testimony?
Members as well as ministers?
At all cost?
By David J. Engelsma