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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Willful Desertion, Divorce & Ordained Servants


Under the gospel of Christ there exist two permissible reasons for divorce: adultery and willful desertion. (Matt.19:8, 9; 1 Cor. 7:15) In the world we live in today elders often have to judge whether certain acts of the flesh constitute adultery. In the like manner, elders also have to ascertain whether certain manners of life constitute willful desertion. This blog entry is concerned with (a) the latter provision for dissolving the marriage contract, willful desertion, along with (b) an ecclesiastical abuse of the provision.

If a professing Christian were willfully to desert his or her spouse, the guilty party would be worthy of being declared an unbeliever. The declaration of unbelief that would accompany willful desertion would not be the innocent party’s ground for divorce, but rather ground for divorce would be willful desertion of a spouse. (1 Cor. 7:12, 13; 1 Cor. 7:15)

Willful desertion by an unbeliever cannot be accompanied by an ecclesiastical judgment on the unbeliever because God, not the church, will judge those outside the church. (1 Cor. 5:12) Accordingly, 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, by the nature of the case, is beyond the pale of ecclesiastical censure (being an unbeliever). Such should never be the case (under the willful desertion provision) when both parties are professing believers, though again, the ground for divorce is not that the guilty party has been declared an unbeliever but rather willful desertion is what may loose a spouse. (So, even if the elders fail to discipline a member for willful desertion, the willful desertion condition will still have been met.)

It has become increasingly more prevalent in the Reformed church today to approve of divorce between professing Christians for spousal abuse – particularly verbal abuse. The thinking is that verbal abuse can constitute “abandonment” [see footnote] of the marriage obligation, and abandonment is deemed sufficient ground for divorce. Although excommunication is never ground for divorce - in cases in which a professing believer willfully deserts a spouse we would expect to see the guilty party censured to the degree of unbeliever. Unfortunately, that is not what we always see, even within churches that practice biblical censures. Instead what we can find is an unbiblical accommodation for the offended party (usually the wife) who has suffered under verbal abuse, which ironically turns into a situation in which she deserts her husband without cause. She is given "permission" to divorce yet without her husband having sinned enough to be censured. Prematurely she is denied both testing and the privilege of sanctifying suffering.  (More on that point later.)

The thinking of many elder boards or sessions (same thing) is that an abused spouse is free to divorce without any ecclesiastical censure of the guilty party. In those cases of approving divorce without ecclesiastical censure an unbiblical restraint often accompanies such ministerial approval: no future-privilege for the allegedly abused wife to remarry, which is an unbiblical restraint whenever there is biblical ground for divorce. (I will not address that point in this post.) Ordained servants are sometimes willing to approve tacitly the desire of an abused spouse (usually the wife) to divorce her husband yet without there being enough evidence to constitute the husband an unbeliever. Yet ground for divorce is to have been the husband's willful desertion of the wife, which is always a sufficient condition for the husband to be declared an unbeliever. Consequently, it stands to reason that if the husband cannot be constituted an unbeliever, then he has not yet willfully deserted his wife – in which case the wife has no biblical grounds for divorce.

If a spouse commits adultery and repents, it can be biblically consistent for the innocent party to "sue out" divorce without an accompanying pronouncement of unbelief upon the guilty party. The reason being, adultery is sufficient for 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 may allow the innocent party to sue out divorce “as if the offending party was dead”. (WCF 24.5) Yet in cases involving desertion, no husband is to be considered having willfully deserted his wife to the degree in which she may be loosed unless 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 verbal abuse or literal abandonment, it presupposes that the dissuasion of ecclesiastical and civil authorities has come to naught. Consequently, willful desertion presupposes that one is not in the church, for how is it possible that one in the church - a Christian, can be beyond remedy?!

(Assume the verbal abuse was toward Sally from Bill.) It was noted above there can be an accommodation of prematurely approving Sally's divorce. Such accommodation ironically ends up turning into her desertion of her huband, Bill; which if it had been done in the face of direct ecclesiastical instruction that she not divorce, the result would entail willful desertion on the part of Sally, demanding a pronouncement of unbelief upon her, hence the irony.

What is most unfortunate is that when a session or elder board does not discharge its pastoral oversight properly by issuing warnings against willful desertion to women like Sally, such women either can be denied their privilege of sharing in Christ's sufferings as they progress in sanctification, or else all interested parties are denied the manifestation of the reality that the "faithful obedience" of the suffering spouse is not truly saving – for the abandonment of the marriage in the face of ecclesiastical warnings, even under hard providence, would be a sign of unbelief.

In the final analyses, the standards teach that the only non-adultery grounds for Sally to divorce Bill must entail Bill being beyond remedy, which may not be considered the case as long as Bill is to be regarded a believer, indwelt by the Spirit. If Bill is in the church receiving the means of grace, then he is no way to be considered "beyond remedy", which means that Bill may not be regarded has having willfully deserted the marriage, which in turn means that Sally has no biblical grounds for divorce and if she does divorce, then it is she who has abandoned her husband.

The only question now is whether ordained servants will be faithful to their ordination vows and challenge head-on those who would pursue unbiblical divorce. 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 the two exception clauses can be met (adultery or desertion). Elders are to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. They are to love their flock according to knowledge, which sometimes means they are to encourage the sheep under their care in the life of the cross to which we all are appointed for our profit and God's glory. We must come along suffering wives - labor with them if we must, but we must never allow them to pursue unbiblical divorce without first declaring to them the ecclesiastical woes that accompany sin with a high hand.

Robert Letham points out in his review of Andrew Cornes: "Divorce and Remarriage...", which was published in the Westminster Theological Journal (Spring 1995), that there are pitfalls for viewing marriage with an "individualistic slant" that ignores marriage as "structured by covenant" - in particular in light of "marriage and the covenant of grace" alongside the "relation between Yahweh and Israel, Christ and the church", which is an "indissoluble covenant bond of love." Letham notes that "Apostasy is thus cutting oneself off from covenant with God. In turn, willful desertion involves a person cutting himself off from the covenant bond of marriage." Finally, "desertion is itself an act of unbelief" is Letham's interpretation of Bucer on 1 Cor. 7 with respect to this particular matter. Letham translates Bucer:
"But some will say that this is spoken of an unbeliever deserting. But, I ask, has he not rejected the faith of Christ by what he has done?..."
Yes, willful desertion is sign of unbelief. The task of ordained servants is to discern who is the one deserting the marriage. Let us not be deceived, even by a suffering wife for whom we must have compassion.

Footnote: I think part of the confusion comes from the vague and subjective term “abandonment”, which has been substituted in the minds of ordained servants for the precise confessional phrase - “willful desertion” which connotes no remedy and presupposes a formal ecclesiastical standing of unbelief. May God be pleased to grant increase to this message.

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