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 automatically 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, or else is not granted the official ecclesiastical backing of the church. In other words, one of two unbiblical accounts too often occurs. Either the suffering wife is given "permission" to divorce yet without her husband having sinned enough to be censured, or else she is given "permission" to divorce when her husband should have been censured by the church but was not. In the first scenario the abused wife is denied both the testing and the privilege of sanctifying suffering, and in the second scenario she is denied the peace that the church was to have provided her by declaring in the name of Jesus Christ that the husband broke the marriage covenant to such a degree that placed the marriage beyond the remedy of the church. 

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 tacitly approve 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 (or else the evidence is ignored(!) and no censure is pronounced). 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 censured as 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.

It’s also interesting to note that the apostle Paul refers only to unbelievers who depart. Never does Scripture suggest that a believer ever departs. Accordingly, a professing believer who would depart must be declared outside the church and consequently regarded as an infidel, for only those outside the church depart! To deny this is to introduce a category of willful deserters foreign to Scripture.

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 can ironically end up turning into her desertion of her husband, 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 when Bill is not censurable, 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 not to, even under hard providence, would be a sign of unbelief. And when Bill indeed should be censured, then Sally deserves to be vindicated(!), which is part-and-parcel with Bill being censured for willful abandonment that could not be remedied by the church. 

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. Yet if Sally truly has grounds for divorce, then Bill must be censured for willful desertion for Sally’s vindication and the glory of God.

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 willful 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. Neither should we not censure censurable-husbands, which is the church’s duty toward both innocent wives and guilty husbands.

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. And might ordained servants vindicate innocent wives and discipline husbands who destroy the covenant of marriage. 

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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Reed Here (GB) said...

I agree with your observations about how elders need to enter into these kinds of circumstances with greater caution and consideration of the various issues involved.

Having said that, what do you think about the common example of abandonment, that being of a spouse who is incarcerated because of breaking the law? Ordinarily the elders do not bother to consider the issue of whether or not this constitutes the guilty party an unbeliever.

Further, what do you think of the notion of a failure to keep the marriage covenant obligations? Is this a form of adultery or desertion? Both?

Reformed Apologist said...

Hi Pastor,

I would say that one can be incarcerated yet have a credible profession of faith. Moreover, I think we must keep in mind that profession of faith is not the issue but rather willful desertion since a believing spouse is to remain with the unbelieving spouse unless the unbeliever departs, in which case the believer is not under bondage and may remarry in peace.

Depending on the circumstances, I might be inclined under certain circumstances to regard a willful act that resulted in a “long” incarnation as qualifying as a willful act of desertion. If a man was incarcerated due to an unfortunate providence of say intent of pure self-defense that the law constituted as murder, I would be inclined to counsel the wife to remain in the marriage and accept the difficult providence. I’d be equally inclined in circumstances having to do with brain damage. We must keep in mind that “happiness” is not God’s goal for our lives but rather trust and through trust, peace. These are indeed difficult matters and ones that must be handled by a plurality of elders, but they are matters I’ve given some consideration to but thankfully have not had to render an opinion on apart from the hypothetical realm.

As for not keeping the physical aspect of the marriage covenant, it would depend upon what you mean. First, I would say that desertion must be willful. There comes a time either naturally or due to other circumstances that certain interactions are no longer feasible, but we obviously can’t allow seniors, for instance, to divorce due to the natural progression of things. I thing the acid test for believing marriages is somewhat clear. Desertion must be deemed willful by the church and accompanied a declaration of unbelief. The declaration of unbelief does not provide the grounds for divorce yet it does substantiate the gravity of the willful desertion, which are grounds for divorce.

That’s probably the best I can do.


Puzzled Elder said...

Ron - appreciate your thoughts. Do you think that "victimization politics" is having an effect on the thinking of pastors and elders in these situations?


Reformed Apologist said...

Puzzled Elder,

I’m sure I am not capable enough to connect the dots, but I do see manipulative maneuvers as part-and-parcel with feminism. I don’t know that a male politician would have been able to play the victim card that Sarah Palin laid after demonstrating that she was not as much a “quick study” as people might have hoped for. Either her being a “victim” blinded many conservatives to the fact that she was not a formidable candidate, or else their pre-commitment to her being a formidable candidate blinded them to the fact that she was not truly a victim; in other words, they thought her to be a serious candidate so her loss of populatity was attributed to her being a victim. For some reason it got by Fox News and her actions were no longer part of the issue.

At the end of the day, I think we must filter signal from the noise and process information according to biblical / confessional standards, which will require that we not confuse mercy with unbiblical leniency.

Nick said...

IF I'm reading you correctly, you're interpreting "unbeliever" in 1 Cor 7:12-15 not as one who is a pagan married to a Christian (with this being an obvious fact for all), but rather a Christian who has sinned gravely enough (obstinate abandonment) that he becomes classified as "unbeliever".

Am I reading you correctly?

Reformed Apologist said...


I would say the text is referring to one who was not in the church. What I'm arguing is that if one were to divorce without cause and without regard to ecclesiastical censure, then such a one should be regarded as an unbeliever even if prior to the fact he was a member in good standing of a
Christian church. Make sense?


Andrew Duggan said...

I do agree that the abuser must be censured with excommunication before divorce on the grounds that the abuse constitutes willful desertion.

It is a shame that in at least one NAPARC church, obtaining that censure is a 3+ year process requiring a complaint to be appealed all the way to the highest court, even though the facts of the case are uncontested.

I certainly hope though you are not arguing that a woman believer should be forced to live with a physically abusive husband who is an unbeliever even if that status of unbeliever was established by the censure of excommunication.

Reformed Apologist said...


Physical abuse ought to be dealt with by the civil magistrates, which should result in a removal of the husband. If the removal is severe enough in duration, I would feel comfortable translating the willful physical abuse as tantamount to willful desertion without remedy (given the unbelieving status) since the end result would be desertion due to a willful act to sin. A willful act to go to the store that ended in a car accident that placed someone in a coma would not be grounds for divorce, even though some would constitute the injured spouse as having deserted the other.

Yes, certain denominations don't yet grasp the biblical basis for a speedy trial. Also, verdicts should be final until overturned by a higher court. An appeal should not afford cause to table a verdict.

Thanks for weighing in.


Nick said...

It just seems like a problem though because if the text is talking about someone never in the church all along (a pagan), then applying it to a Christian who's gone off the rails doesn't work exegetically. Paul is saying if the unbeliever is willing to remain married, let the marriage continue. But if it is about a Christian disregarding civil and church appeals, then this status of "unbeliever" can only be considered and applied after the divorce.

Reformed Apologist said...

"this status of 'unbeliever' can only be considered and applied after the divorce."


You're making divorce a necessary condition for declaring someone an unbeliever. Accordingly, what you're suggesting is that if one never bothers to get the divorce and simply deserts his spouse and lives with another woman, then by your standards he can't be declared an unbeliever on desertion grounds because he's not yet divorced.

Nick said...

I guess I don't understand the basic argument then.

How are you interpreting the 'plain reading' of 1 Cor 7:12,15 (ESV)?
"if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her....But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so."

Here is how I read it:
1) Say a Christian is married to a Pagan"
2) If the Pagan wants to stay married, stay married.
3) If the Pagan wants to divorce, then a divorce can happen.

In terms of "abandonment" (which isn't really mentioned) I'd guess if the Pagan abandons the Christian spouse, the Christian spouse can divorce (or be divorced by the Pagan).

What I don't understand is how this works in a Christian/Christian marriage, especially in regards to the "unbeliever" classification. When does one of the Christians get classified as "unbeliever"?

Further, how is this not judging someone's soul?

Reformed Apologist said...

Hi Nick,

The professing Christian should be regarded as an unbeliever if he refuses to repent of his sin. Keep in mind - and this is key, we're talking about a sin that requires a great deal of premeditation and determination. If one goes through with such a sin in the face of warnings from the church, then excommunication awaits such a one. Scripture requires that we treat him as an unbeliever if he won't listen to the church.

As for judging one's soul, God calls upon his church to make declarations from time to time. The task of the elders is to apply biblical principles and to prayerfully discharge their obligation with fear and trembling.

Best wishes,


Anonymous said...


I appreciate your site, and especially your attempts to extend kindness to those who disagree with you. I have a couple of questions that I would like to ask you about the Reformed faith.

I have looked for a way to contact you outside of posting on a article, but haven't found one so I am going to send it to you as a comment.

I have been being drawn to the Reformed faith for the last couple of years. I was raised Assembly of God, and so I have had a lot to leave behind to come along this road. I have to say, that it has been like blinders falling off my eyes.

It was through men like John MacArthur and Paul Washer that I started down this road. I have been studying dispensationalism, and have been more and more drawn to covenantal theology, and am weighing believers / infant baptism. I have found Vern Poythress to be a good source.

I have tremendous growth that needs to take place in my understanding, and I recognize this. This is where my question comes in...

There are currently no reformed churches around, but a church plant may be started this fall by a graduate of Westminster California. I am not knowledgeable enough to really be able to discern the correct doctrine. I have been so blessed as I have been reading the catechisms and creeds for the first time. I have been working through the shorter catechism with my children, and it has been great.

I have done just enough research to have some red flags about the 2K stuff. There are also some things with WSC that just make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I don't want to leave one church with false teaching, to go to another.

I live in NW Montana, and the options here for churches are pretty bleak. The gospel is not preached at all up here.

Could you contact me? I would appreciate it.

I am not sure how to facilitate this, since I would prefer this to be a private conversation, and would like to send my email and name to you alone and not post it here.


Reformed Apologist said...

Dear Saint,

I'd be more than happy to speak with you or correspond via private email. If you post me again with your contact information I won't publish the post on this site.



Anonymous said...

I'd say a pastor adding reasns for divorce should be considered an unbeliever giving adulterous advice to other men's wives. There is no 'abandonment' clause in the Bible.

Don P said...

Don't you think the desertion clause for marriage bond would also apply to an elder whose older child abandons the faith while living on their own?
1 Tim 3:4 one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence 5(for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)

Reformed Apologist said...

not tracking Don. sorry :)

Tom said...

Tom said...
Thank you for your very well written post and attempt to bring clarity from a reformed perspective. This is a particularly poignant article for me to read because I am struggling with a particularly painful situation in my own marriage of almost 18 years. Add to that the fact that I am an ordained Elder in our church and am desperately seeking God's wisdom and strength to suffer well. Having said that - what would be your thoughts on a spouse (in this case my wife) who has been a professing Christian for 25+ years but in the last year informed me that she has never enjoyed being intimate with me (having sex) and even going to lengths to avoid going away together so she could avoid physical intimacy. This was obviously devastating for me to hear. An attempt was made about 5 months ago by our pastor & his wife to meet with her on this which went very badly and my wife only became very angry and has since that time completely cut herself off from emotionally and physically. There is absolutely no physical touch, words of love, etc., let alone sex. My wife has no interest in talking anymore about this with me. We get along fine but it is merely as "roommates". I love my wife with all my heart and desperately want to see reconciliation and restoration but the Lord, in his divine sovereignty, has not chosen to bring that about. I should also point out that there is no evidence that I'm aware of involving adultery/infidelity on her part. Would this situation be a case where you would say my wife has deserted our covenant of marriage? Our session has already discussed what their responsibility needs to be and all have agreed that another attempt needs to be made to talk with her but if her stance remains the same would you view this as abandonment from our marriage? My heart is grieving and I truly wish we were not in this situation but I am willing to accept whatever the Lord bestows upon me. Even more painful is the fact that we have three children...

Reformed Apologist said...

Tom, I'm sorry that I accidentally deleted your post but I was able to retrieve it an post again.

I’m so sorry for the situation you find yourself. I’d prefer to discuss on the phone if possible than in this sort of forum. I would have a few initial questions either way. How was it possible for you not to know your wife’s feelings of 18 years? It seems to me that her remark of “never” having enjoyed relations was either overstated (by a long shot) or you were completely oblivious on that front for your entire marriage, an unlike scenario. I suspect that she did overstate her mind on the matter – for I would like to think that she must have initiated relations on occasion, and that she was more than willing on at least some of those other occasions. However, if her words are truthful, then you should have had at least some indication something was wrong and helped her through some things, but it seems from what you disclosed that you hadn't done that given your amazement. If you didn't address this matter, then your trial should be at least a little more palatable given your culpability of not being sensitive to her plight of nearly two decades. Please don't misunderstand, I don't mention that to accuse you. Rather, I mention that in order that you might be more sympathetic to your wife by taking some of the blame for this difficult providence. Understand? BUT (and it's a big "but") if her remark was an overstatement, which I think it must have been - she did marry you after all, then very possibly her words were an attempt to wound you, maybe because she is wounded? What has wounded her could be quite complex and that needs to be nurtured out of her - something to discuss with your pastor etc. Finally, it's more likely a combination of those two polar examples.

Yes, your bride has marital obligations but I think it would be an enormous mistake to overplay that precept with her. From where I am sitting - not knowing how much compassion and nurturing you have extended that she has refused, I could not say that she should be considered a covenant breaker re: marriage. Has she been forced into this position by your neglect in any sense? Again, she has her marching orders before the Lord but notwithstanding, if she has been neglected in matters of the heart, then her actions of the body could be as they are due to your sins of omission, which aren't as recognizable as those of commission. Again though, yes indeed, of course your wife has obligations, but those are obligations that come with awesome husbandly responsibilities that oblige you to create an environment of desire for her, not compulsion. So, please, whatever you do, don’t lord over her those marital responsibilities, for both your sakes. An analogy less close to this situation might be helpful. Children are to obey their parents in the Lord for this is right, but how can we expect them to obey if we as parents provoke them to anger? Yes, they are to obey, but what is our part in bringing them into a posture that not only obeys but delights in honoring too? If we don't do our part, they're still responsible to obey but... you see the point.

Again, this might not be the best forum to discuss..

Anonymous said...

Hi Ron,

Thank you for the very informative post. I have a question touching on this very topic, yet there are some extenuating circumstances that make finding an answer very difficult.

As a widow, God's word is very clear in 1Cor.7:39 that I am free to be married to whom I wish, but only in the Lord. With abandonment and divorce on the increase between professing believers, there's a growing number of Christians becoming single again - many against their will, and among these believers, it can be blurred as to which ones are free to remarry.

Case in point, there is a man that my husband and I knew from a previous church whom I have become reacquainted with after losing my husband and he losing a child. We both are very strong Christians and have developed a friendship out of mutual concern for one another. We often send encouraging scripture passages back and forth through email and texting, and occasionally go to events with a group of people. While we have never actually professed anything beyond a friendship, I have begun to develop stronger feelings for him, and am sensing the same from him. He was married for about 19 years and his wife, a professing Christian, abandoned the marriage and then initiated an unbiblical divorce against his will. They have been divorced for close to 15 yrs. now.

While they were still married, they sought marriage counseling from the elders of the church they were attending. When the wife decided to leave her husband it caused a division among the elders as how to handle the situation. One elder turned a blind eye to exercising church discipline, but the other two elders felt it should be carried out. A letter was written to the wife by one and shown to the other for his feedback. He thought some parts were too harsh, so agreed to edit it and send it to her.

Unfortunately he kept putting it off and then the wife left the church. Because action was never taken by the elders, she left with the idea that she was right in leaving and divorcing her husband and has never shown any sign to reconcile. She has not even spoken to him in all these years.

Several pastors have told this man that he is free to remarry, yet he still feels uncertain about his situation because the church never exercised its responsibility and left it in an unresolved state. She was never officially declared an unbeliever nor excommunicated, has remained unmarried, and it is unknown if she has ever been unfaithful. He on the other hand has remained faithful, but is doubtful she will ever come back. He has reached a point where he would like to move on, but only if it does not come against God's word.
*The church this happened in no longer has the same elders. There were other similar circumstances that resulted in the same error, and it lead to a split among the elders.

I'm sure this is a problem that will continue to grow in the church and I want to be firm in my understanding of who is considered 'only in the Lord'.

Thank you for your valuable insight...

Reformed Apologist said...

I'm a little unclear on this part you wrote: "One elder turned a blind eye to exercising church discipline, but the other two elders felt it should be carried out. A letter was written to the wife by one and shown to the other for his feedback."

The letter was shown to the other or the others (plural), or did you mean one of the others?

Also, who is the "He [who] thought some parts were too harsh, so [he] agreed to edit it and send it to her"? Presumably it's the same "he" who "kept putting it off..." It was an elder, or are you possibly referring to the husband himself, but that wouldn't comport with the phrasing above.

Also, I'm curious whether the woman still professes Christ and what sort of church (Reformed, etc.) was to have been overseeing this situation?

Anonymous said...

The church itself was Calvanistic, but not reformed. As stated in the constitution, the 3 elders were to function as a plurality, however there were doctrinal differences among them. I'll refer to the elders as A, B, and C.

'A' was the main preaching elder.

Both 'A' and 'B' were Calvanistic.

'A' was not reformed, 'B' was, and was also becoming more reformed in his doctrinal position.

'C' was neither Calvanistic nor reformed.

All 3 elders were involved with counseling this couple. The wife brought accusations against her husband implying that he was physically abusive. This was proven to be false, and rather more her perception that she thought he had the potential to become abusive. The wife would often bring up unrelated complaints as far back as the beginning of their marriage. These included complaints about her husband's job and not making enough money, past arguments that the husband thought were resolved, and even dissatisfaction about her life.

About a year before she separated from her husband she was in a car accident in which she received a settlement of money from. Six months later she began consulting with a divorce attorney (unknown at the time to her husband, and before they went for marriage counseling). She used the settlement money to fund her end of the divorce.

Both the husband and wife were still attending the same church after she moved out of their home and even at the time when she initiated the divorce against the husband’s will. He wanted to continue with counseling to try and resolve their issues and save the marriage. She refused to do so. At this point elders ‘B’ and ‘C’ wanted to confront the wife for leaving her husband without biblical cause. Elder ‘A’ did not want to be involved with the situation any longer and told the husband that he and his wife should work it out between themselves. However, the wife would not even talk to her husband, so elders ‘B’ and ‘C’ decided to confront her themselves. This is when ‘B’ wrote the letter and presented it to ‘C’ for his approval before sending it. ‘C’ wanted to make some changes to the letter, but kept putting it off, and in the meantime the wife left the church after someone confronted her about the way the daughter was dressing. Basically, the wife was no longer under the church’s authority in order for them to exercise church discipline for willful desertion and also for initiating an unbiblical divorce. She has never shown even the slightest inkling of repentance, nor the desire to reconcile with her husband. She wants nothing to do with him and would not even acknowledge him at their daughter’s funeral. Because her actions were never addressed, she is under the perception that her willful desertion was acceptable to the elders authority and in the eyes of God.

The husband has waited these past 15 yrs for some kind of resolution. The wife still professes to be a Christian, was attending a non-denominational church, but it is unclear if she is attending a church at the present.

At this point, who has the authority to take any action such as making a declaration of where the wife stands as a believer, or to loose the husband? Is he even considered loose? If there is no church authority able to resolve this issue, how does it get resolved? What if she is attending a church that will not take action if presented with the scenario? Does the husband need the authority of a church to make this determination? I should also point out that the husband was never declared an unbeliever and remained in good standing in the church. He has since left that church and started attending another.

I hope I was able to bring further clarity to the situation. Thanks for your prompt response to my initial post :)

Reformed Apologist said...

From all you've said, I think the husband is loosed from the marriage and eligible to remarry. I thought that after your first post but just wanted to clear up some loose ends.

That the two elders (B and C) pursued the wife indicates that she was the "guilty" party and deserted without cause. What is tragic is that the elders tacitly approved her behavior, some more severely than others.

Please keep in mind that my Blog entry pertains to desertion under the same roof. If one can be constituted by the church as deserting their spouse while living together, then church discipline should obtain in such a situation, which would serve to substantiate desertion. In other words, church discipline would vindicate the understanding that one spouse has deserted the other while living under the same roof. And although the threat of church discipline should have been brought to bear in this situation, it was not needed in order to substantiate willful desertion. Desertion occurred in the most literal sense simply by her departure. Accordingly, even though the elders nodded off on this one by not moving toward exercising the keys of the kingdom, the husband was deserted and, therefore, put away without biblical cause.

Please let me if you have any other questions.

In His grace,


Anonymous said...

Ron, you wrote: "Please keep in mind that my Blog entry pertains to desertion under the same roof. If one can be constituted by the church as deserting their spouse while living together, then church discipline should obtain in such a situation, which would serve to substantiate desertion."
Could you please clarify examples of circumstances that would contrast 'desertion under the same roof' OR 'deserting their spouse while living together'.
The husband and wife were still married and living in the same house at the time the wife decided to leave him. Unbeknownst to him, some of her friends helped her move out of the house while he was at work one day. Essentially, he came home and his family was gone...
I'm assuming this fits the parameters of what your blog entry pertains to.

Also, the husband and elder 'B' have remained friends even though the husband was hurt by the negligence of the elder board.
I don't think 'B' ever realized the extent of the ramifications until recently. He may have buried it with the past and then assumed the husband felt he was free to remarry. It was not until recently, after I confided in 'B' that I was developing feelings for this man, that 'B' casually confronted the husband about his views on ever remarrying. He replied by stating the 3 conditions that would loose him do do so: if she had committed adultery, her death, or being declared an unbeliever, and since the elders never made a declaration, how is it possible for him to be free to remarry?

It appears the crux of the problem is he is torn between whether or not he has authority to declare her an unbeliever guilty of willful desertion OR must it come from the authority of the church that handled (or in this case, mishandled) the situation at the onset.

I think he may also be concerned that if he were to remarry, those that sided with his wife would label him an adulterer. His wife basically dragged his reputation through the mud all those years ago with her false accusation of abuse. The people who know him well, know the truth of the matter. For one thing, her accusation was proven false. Unfortunately, there are some who will only believe what they want to believe...

What is his recourse in resolving this issue if church discipline cannot be obtained?

Reformed Apologist said...

Desertion while living together or under the same roof is the same thing. Not sure whether that was clear to you.

The blog entry pertains to the allegation of desertion while living under the same roof, which does not fit your scenario. Your scenario pertains to physical desertion. Your scenario is more cut and dry. Desertion doesn’t have to be established in your scenario (as it would in scenarios that fit the blog entry). Your friend was literally deserted by his wife.

There seems to be a grave misunderstanding regarding the three permissible scenarios for remarriage. Adultery and death are of course two of the three, but the third reason is not that one party be declared an unbeliever but rather that the innocent party is deserted by their spouse. Unbelief is not sufficient grounds for a believer to pursue divorce and remarry. In fact, 1 Corinthians 7 forbids the believing spouse to divorce his or her spouse because of unbelief. But, if the unbeliever departs the believer is free to remarry. That the church in this case failed to confront the professing believer in her rebellion against her spouse does not negate the record of desertion.

What is his recourse in resolving this issue if church discipline cannot be obtained?

The issue is resolved in so far that the record shows that the woman willfully abandoned her husband. It’s not likely that discipline will be obtained given the time that has elapsed. My advice would be that he seek the counsel and blessing of his current church, but given what you've said he is certainly free to be remarried given that his wife abandoned the marriage without cause.

Anonymous said...

Ron, you commented:
"There seems to be a grave misunderstanding regarding the three permissible scenarios for remarriage. Adultery and death are of course two of the three, but the third reason is not that one party be declared an unbeliever but rather that the innocent party is deserted by their spouse. Unbelief is not sufficient grounds for a believer to pursue divorce and remarry."

When I re-read my previous post regarding the 3 permissive scenarios I can see how I gave the impression that I was claiming that simply being declared an 'unbeliever' was grounds for divorce. I certainly do not believe that. My apologies for the confusion, and thank you for making clarification :)

I'll try to explain what I meant:
When it comes to the willful desertion of a spouse, there seems to be an implication among many Christians that the innocent believing spouse is loosed only when the deserting spouse is an unbeliever. So then, if a believing spouse deserts another believer, the guilty spouse must be declared an unbeliever in order for the third scenario to be permissible for the innocent spouse to be remarried. Is this assertion correct? Would my friend's former wife need to be declared an 'unbeliever', and if so, by whom?

Reformed Apologist said...

I did not take you to mean that the declaration is sufficient for divorce. I was simply trying to be comprehensive as I wasn't sure what you might have thought. Per the portion of my response that you just pasted above, what I was trying to say is that the declaration is not any sort of condition, necessary or sufficient. Each one of the three is sufficient and any one of the three is necessary. In other words, if and only if one obtains, then remarriage is permissible.

Again though, there is a misunderstanding about the declaration. The declaration should accompany (after pastoral pursuit), but delinquency on the part of the elders does not negate the condition that has been met.

Reformed Apologist said...

If it would be easier to talk, just post a number and I won't publish it.

Reformed Apologist said...

Must not be tracking. States typically have a short timeline. In any case, the elders must determine whether a state of affairs constitutes willful desertion.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently in this situation but with an interesting twist. For almost 8 months of being separated from my husband (and one month prior to that, he stopped going to church and behaved worse after I finally opened up to the pastor about repeated physical and verbal abuse, and drunkenness-alcoholism), I left the state, under pastoral counsel, (I was counseled to separate and the way to do that was to go with family out of state) I then obtained a legal separation and a one year restraining order. I recently asked for counseling by my previous pastor regarding grounds for divorce. He said that having not seen my husband at church or doing any of those things we asked of him during all this time, I did, based on abuse, and desertion.

However, my husband has as of one week ago, returned to our previous church. It seems he has reached out for help, and is seemingly coming under their counsel.

I'm confused. Even though I'd been counseled I had biblical cause for divorce now he was never excommunicated, (when this happened, he wasn't a member of that congregation and neither was I but the pastor treated me as if I was). Where does that legitimately leave me? My previous pastor told him when he met with him to respect my decision and stop contacting me (he can get obsessive about calling) and that I have grounds for it, but, my question is, if he's being brought into the fold for care and shepherding again, and was never formerly qualified as an "unbeliever" deserting me, though that was the presumption as I understood it, wouldn't that cancel the -Biblical- grounds for divorce on my end?

Wouldn't I be considered an adulteress if I ever remarried again?

Both my previous pastor and new pastor are in agreement if i want to pursue divorce it would be biblical, and I was very abused, no light borderline stuff, but legitimate abuse, but how can that be (that I still have Biblical gounds) if he's now being taken in as a believer? I hope you can help me. Thanks.

To clarify, I offered forgiveness numerous times throughout, but he continued to be verbally and emotionally abusive throughout.

I want to obey the Lord.

Reformed Apologist said...

Given what you've said, I'd say you have grounds for divorce. What concerns you seems to be that your husband was not excommunicated. Keep in mind though that your husband couldn't possibly have been excommunicated having not been a member of a church. He couldn't be declared outside the church because he hadn't yet been received into the church. Make sense? In such cases another principle applies: if an unbeliever departs let him depart...

You were deserted by one who Scripture calls an unbeliever. What allows you to divorce would be his willful desertion that couldn't be remedied by state or church. The question you and your pastors must be sure of is whether it may be truthfully said that he willfully deserted you, which I believe includes actions by the guilty spouse that require the innocent partner to remove herself from a dangerous situation. His willful actions that result in your departing out of necessity of safety is I believe tantamount to his willful desertion.


Unknown said...

I just found this blog this morning and would like to discuss my situation with you privately. How can we do this? I am happy to leave my phone # with you but don't want it displayed in the blog.
Thank You

Reformed Apologist said...

Sure thing Barbara. Leave your number, I won't publish the post. Maybe leave some times and days that would work best for you.

Anonymous said...

Could I please contact you privately about my situation? If so, how? I'm so confused and heartbroken, and don't wish to discuss details openly here.

Reformed Apologist said...

If you post your phone number I won't publish the post. I will then call you.


Anonymous said...

I live in South Africa so that would be a very expensive call. Could I email you?

Reformed Apologist said...

Yes. Just please post your email address and I won't publish.

Reformed Apologist said...

To save time, why not include with your email address a synopses of your situation and any questions you might have. Of course, I won't publish.

Reformed Apologist said...

Got them. A bit to process. Give me some time to process...

Anonymous said...

How would Matthew 5:32 be handled with respect to desertion?

"But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, MAKES HER COMMIT ADULTERY, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

I would seem that the wife in this case, is still bound to her husband, even when improperly put away or "deserted" by the husband. She would need to remarry to survive, and therefore be forced into adultery.

Reformed Apologist said...

If that’s the correct interpretation, then how would you reconcile it with 1 Cor. 7 and it’s teaching on desertion?

Anonymous said...

I guess in 1 Cor 7:15 the word "enslaved" or "bound" would at least have to include freedom to make a divorce and not be held responsible for "causing her to commit adultery". I would almost also say that the innocent party was free to remarry, for they might still be "enslaved" otherwise.

The hang-up I still have for remarriage is in Matt 5:32 pertaining to the status of the wife.

It's hard for me to accept that the even though the wife in Matthew 5:32 was deserted, she cannot remarry without committing adultery. Unless, it is indeed an incorrect interpretation.

What am I missing with Matt 5:32?

Reformed Apologist said...

A more faithful translation would convey the idea of stigmatized as such.

Anonymous said...

Regarding what Anonymous said... How would Matthew 5:32 be handled with respect to desertion? "But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, MAKES HER COMMIT ADULTERY, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

This is my understanding of Matt 5:32 & Matt. 19:8-9 -vs.- 1 Cor. 7 – In Matt, we learn that the Jews were putting away their wives for no good cause,and against God’s Law, just so they could get a younger, prettier wife. Those Jews who thought they were ABOVE the law, were here chained, or bound, by that law even more. In 1 Cor 7, we learn that there ARE "extenuating circumstances" concerning Matt 5:32 meant for those who are truly concerned about abiding by the law of God, and those folks here are made FREE-ER in that law – i.e, given a little more informational freedom). Paul details the law in 1 Cor 7 with this caveat, “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this …” AND “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord):…” AND “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) …” (Hey, Moses gave concessions in Matt 19:8-9, and here Paul gives some concessions too. Are they “legit” concessions? YOU BET!).

Daniel Harper said...

Thank you for your helpful article. It particularly gives me insight into how to approach a situation wherein one party divorces the other for unscriptural grounds but does not engage in an adulterous relationship and claims to still be a believer. You have made it clear that a divorce on unscriptural grounds is a breaking of covenant, and therefore an act of unbelief. If the divorcing party will not repent then they are to be regarded as an unbeliever, 1 Cor 7:15 is applicable and the innocent party is free to remarry.