A Response to “We Must Help the Oppressed – Even In Marriage”

A response to Todd Bordow’s article on marriage and divorce.

His central assertion is that “It is time we add another category to what we normally consider divorce exceptions for Christians, one we might call intolerable conditions, or cruelty.”  Essential to his contention is that the normal restrictions, outlined in Scripture and our Confession, restricting divorce only in the cases of adultery (Matthew 19:9) or abandonment by the unbelieving party (1 Corinthians 7:15) is inadequate, and essentially cruel to many victims of spousal “abuse” (which Bordow makes clear takes many forms, not limited to physical abuse).

 

There has been an alarming tendency among minsters of late to deal with the issues of marriage, divorce and remarriage in a way that is far more lax than what is found in our historical standards (as, for instance, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 24, Of Marriage and Divorce).  The thought seems to be that, since so many people are stuck in bad marriages, and the church, by upholding the historical view, is effectively enslaving people in those bad marriages, something has to give!  While a concern for those who are struggling in bad marriages is legitimate, and pastoral, what is often missing in such arguments is a clear grasp of why the historical position on divorce and remarriage is what it is.  The ensuing result is often something like what we find in Todd Bordow’s article We Must Help The Oppressed – Even In Marriage.

His central assertion is that “It is time we add another category to what we normally consider divorce exceptions for Christians, one we might call intolerable conditions, or cruelty.”  Essential to his contention is that the normal restrictions, outlined in Scripture and our Confession, restricting divorce only in the cases of adultery (Matthew 19:9) or abandonment by the unbelieving party (1 Corinthians 7:15) is inadequate, and essentially cruel to many victims of spousal “abuse” (which Bordow makes clear takes many forms, not limited to physical abuse).

He cites the work of ‘therapists’ and ‘countless studies’ which demonstrate that ‘psychological abuse’ is not good for the person on the receiving end, leading to such things as physical sickness and even suicide.  As a result of this, he recommends we add to our normal understanding of what constitutes adequate grounds for Christian divorce.  Beyond this, he suggests that it is best to leave the parties involved free of outside ecclesiastical interference, and generally trust them to exercise “their freedom under the New Covenant to follow their conscience before God.” So he places divorce in the realm of Christian liberty and matters of conscience.

I question this rationale on three grounds.

First, I find the idea of ‘intolerable conditions’ extremely ambiguous.  Frankly, it is so subjective that it really leaves the door wide open for divorce for all sorts of reasons.  It is difficult to know how, if this became an accepted ground for divorce, a minister could ever counsel any unhappy spouse to stay married.

Second, his use of Matthew 5:31, 32 is questionable.  According to him, citing our Lord’s pronouncement on divorce in Matthew 5:31, 32: “There is no reason to assume our Lord meant to cover every possible exception to divorce in Matthew 5.”  But we should evaluate whether this is really true.

There Jesus says, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  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.’”  Now, it is important that we understand what Jesus is saying here.  According to Bordow, Jesus isn’t covering every ground; he is just giving one example of a possible exception, leaving open the door for others.  But the reality is very different.  John Murray is very helpful in explaining the precise force of the exception here, when he says:

What is of paramount importance is that however significant is the exceptive clause as guarding the innocence of the husband in dismissing for sexual infidelity, it is not the exceptive clause that bears the weight of the emphasis of the text.  It is rather that the husband may not put away for any other cause.  It is the one exception that gives prominence to the illegitimacy of any other reason.  Preoccupation with the one exception should never be permitted to obscure the force of the negation of all others (Divorce, p.21).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones also addresses this fact in a sermon on this text when he says:

It does not matter how difficult it may be, it does not matter what the stress or the strain, or whatever can be said about the incompatibility of temperament.  Nothing is to dissolve this indissoluble bond save this one thing” (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, p.260).

So, the force of the exception is that it negates all others, leaving Bordow’s assertion, “There is no reason to assume our Lord meant to cover every possible exception for divorce in Matthew 5,” unfounded.

Third, Bordow denies the clear teaching of the Confession.  He does so in two ways.  First, merely by the suggestion that we need to “add another category” to the normal grounds for divorce, he is guilty of the very thing the Confession condemns when it says in 24.6: “Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage yet nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can in no way be remedied by the church or civil magistrate is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.”  So, when the Confession says, “don’t look for further reasons,” he says, “look for further reasons” as well as studying arguments that will justify such additions.

And secondly, what is worse, he suggests that such actions must be left to the individuals (as noted above); whereas, the Confession wisely says about divorce: “The persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own cases.”  That the Confession includes ecclesiastical authority is clear when it speaks of desertion which can “in no way be remedied by the church.

It is plainly evident that Bordow and the Confession are arguing for the exact opposite things.  The Confession realizes that man is corrupt enough, that if left to himself, he will find endless reasons for divorce!  The reality is that everyone who is married at some point finds the situation to be “intolerable,” and if the church or state left the matter of whether to stay married up to the individual, we would return very quickly to the situation common among the Pharisees, where divorce was lawful “for any cause” (Matthew 19:3).  The Confession curtails this sinful tendency by the above quote.  But Bordow leaves the matter entirely with the individual, and tells the church to stay out of it, except to let suffering spouses know there is a way out (i.e., divorce).

While the question of what to do about genuine suffering in marriage is one every pastor has to face, it does not seem wise to me to look for further grounds for divorce.  We should rather accept the biblical and confessional teaching on the matter, and look for other solutions, while preserving and upholding the sacred bond of marriage.

John Sharpe is Pastor of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida.