Putting Asunder What God Joined: The Divorce Dilemma

Does a consensus on divorce exist within the PCA? If so, what is it?

What I thought was a consensus when I graduated from seminary, what guided my pastoral practice, and what I thought the PCA intended to affirm as it came into existence seems not view of conservative Presbyterians whom I respect and whose views I am obligated to consider. I have seen the definition of sexual sin that justifies divorce broadened beyond what I have understood to be covered by Bible and Confession. It has been extended to cover sexual sins, which, grievous though they are, do not rise to the level of adultery as I have understood the matter.


When I graduated from seminary 40 years ago I honestly thought there was a consensus among conservatives of my generation about the doctrine and practice of divorce. There were two grounds for divorce, given in Scripture and taught by our Confession of Faith, adultery and desertion. Both of grounds were to be narrowly construed. This understanding has guided me as a pastor exercising both the power of order (acting as an individual officer the church) and the power of jurisdiction (acting in concert with other officers in a church court).

The doctrine and practice of divorce was one the issues that lead to the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in America, which adopted the text of the Westminster Confession of Faith held by the Presbyterian Church in the United States before it altered the chapter on divorce.

The Westminster Confession, as originally held by the PCUS and  adopted by the Presbyterian Church in America, says on Divorce:

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 no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case. (XXIV:6)

This original was revised by the PCUS was revised in 1959 (and rejected by the PCA in 1973 ) to read:

It is the divine intention that persons entering the marriage covenant become inseparably united, thus allowing for no dissolution save that caused by the death of either husband or wife. However, the weakness of one or both partners may lead to gross and persistent denial of the marriage vows so that marriage dies at the heart and the union becomes intolerable; yet only in cases of extreme, unrepented-of, and irremediable unfaithfulness (physical or spiritual) should separation or divorce be considered. Such separation or divorce is accepted as permissible only because of the failure of one or both of the partners, and does not lessen in any way the divine intention for indissoluble union.

The remarriage of divorced persons may be sanctioned by the church, in keeping with the redemptive gospel of Christ, when sufficient penitence for sin and failure is evident, and a firm purpose of and endeavor after Christian marriage is manifested. (XXIV: 5.6)

This change was one of several evidences cited by the Steering Committee for a Continuing Presbyterian Church as evidences of unfaithfulness, departures from Biblical and Confessional standards of truth and conduct, by the PCUS. A pamphlet on the subject prints the PCUS revision of the chapter and on an opposite panel cites the original version of the Confession with this introduction:

Though we recognize and appreciate the Assembly’s attempt to wrestle with the involved and difficult marital problems which abound in contemporary society, true Presbyterians feel bound by absolutely to the clear teaching of Christ and His Word on this subject.

The Bible plainly teaches that a man may divorce his wife on the ground of adultery. Upon the same ground a woman may divorce her husband. Remarriage in such cases is legal (Matt. 5: 32; 19:9; Mark 10:12).

It is also evident that a believing man or woman has the right to dissolve the bond of marriage in the event of willful, irremediable desertion by an unbelieving partner. Again remarriage is legal (I Cor. 7).

Separation without dissolution is un-Scriptural in all cases (except for seasons of prayer – I Cor. 7).

All this is background to say: What I thought was a consensus when I graduated from seminary, what guided my pastoral practice, and what I thought the PCA intended to affirm as it came into existence seems not view of conservative Presbyterians whom I respect and whose views I am obligated to consider.

I have seen the definition of sexual sin that justifies divorce broadened beyond what I have understood to be covered by Bible and Confession. It has been extended to cover sexual sins, which, grievous though they are, do not rise to the level of adultery as I have understood the matter. This is a paragraph, intentionally reflecting PCA Position Paper on the subject, from a sermon I preached in 2002:

There is still sin this world. Does Jesus make any provision for the effects of sin on marriage? Yes, Jesus does teach that there is an exception to the no divorce rule: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” There is an allowance made for the person whose spouse is guilty of sexual immorality. The word in Greek isporneia, a word which covers all sorts of sexual immorality. Some would say that it means, therefore, any and every sort of sexual immorality. If that were the case, then lust, and any from of lustful indulgence, would be grounds for divorce. If lust were a basis for divorce, then every woman could justify divorcing her husband. By sexual immorality Jesus means any form of sexual immorality that involves overt behavior with another person which breaks the one-flesh nature of marriage. In that case a person sinned against may, with God’s approval, seek a divorce which renders the sinning spouse as good as dead to the other. People do, by sexual immorality, destroy the .one-flesh relationship, and that justifies divorce.

As the definition of adultery seems broader than I have thought, so it seems is the definition of desertion. Paul apparently deals with the particular circumstance of a sort face by the church in Corinth in chapter 7: 10 -15 of his first letter to that congregation. He contemplates an existing marriage between a believer and unbeliever. It seems that the “this is the age of the Spirit” teachers were teaching that spiritual persons could (should?) leave their unspiritual spouses.  Paul makes it clear that this spiritual incompatibility does not justify separation or divorce. The believer should not leave the unbeliever. However, if the unbeliever chooses to leave, then the believer is not bound to maintain the marriage. He or she is free. A believer may divorce an unbeliever who leaves the marriage.

The Confession seems to generalize from the concrete circumstance to a class of cases, so that any desertion that cannot be remedied by powers of the state and church (both apparently bound to seek to maintain, even compel, the continuance of the marriage) constitutes grounds for divorce. The point has been made and is well taken that there may be cases of desertion where the non-offending spouse does the actual physical leaving (separating). That is, an offending spouse may compel the non-offending spouse to leave, as in a situation where to remain puts that person in actual danger of life or limb.

But how broadly can we construe what constitutes desertion? Here is a statement of a PCA church on separation:

While Scripture knows of only three perpetual statuses with respect to marriage (single, married, or divorced), prudence may require temporary separation in cases of abuse (physical or otherwise) or other dangerous circumstances.  Such a remedy is by nature temporary and is for the effecting of a proper resolution (the removal of the dangerous circumstance, in conjunction with reconciliation, or in some cases, biblical divorce.

Note the definition of abuse that justifies separation. What is covered under “otherwise” above? And note that, even with the “removal of the dangerous circumstances,” divorce may the proper remedy. Note also the difference between the Steering Committee’s statement on separation and this statement.

The statement goes on to deal with desertion:

Paul further elaborates on divorce: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so.  In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.  God has called you to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15).  Such “desertion” entails physical leaving, and such instances which make the conditions of marriage as intolerable as physical desertion itself (judgments of which are best left to the discretion of the Session).  This is not so much a second ground, as it is a practical acknowledgement that other than biblical divorce happens, and that a divorce is but making official what has happened in reality (i.e. the one-flesh principle has been violated by the unbelieving spouse’s desertion).  The believing party in a marriage who is deserted by a non-believer is permitted to divorce.

Note the desertion includes “such instances of which make conditions of marriage as intolerable a physical desertion itself.”  Also, compare the use of the word “intolerable” here with its use  in the PCUS revision of the Confession. (Note also that the PCA position paper quoted below also uses the word “intolerable”.) How that operates in practice I do not know, but it seems to me potentially to be a break in the defense of marriage line big enough to drive a division of divorce through.

I have known of a case where a pastor advised a spouse that his wife’s use of drugs constituted desertion. Does it? What about deception? Criminal conduct? If a man goes to jail for tax evasion, does his wife have grounds for divorce? Does every disciplinable offense in the church constitute sufficient reason to justify separation and divorce? The very naming of possibilities suggests how complicated and messy marriage situations can be and not infrequently are.

But, we ask: What is our first response? While we recognize the right of the “innocent party” to divorce, do we seek by all reasonable means to preserve the marriage? How quick are we to judge that desertion has occurred? What obligation does the church have to seek to achieve reconciliation in cases that eventually might be judged to constitute desertion?

Here is in a question and answer format something I wrote a number of years ago for a church newsletter as a summary on the subject of divorce:

Where does God teach about divorceDeuteronomy 24:1-4; Malachi 2:13-16; Matthew 5:31,32; Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Corinthians 7:10-16.

Does God allow divorceDivorce is always a tragedy. It is contrary, as Jesus teaches us, to God’s intent for marriage. The Roman Catholic Church does not allow divorce, hence the complicated system for annulment, which is taken to mean that the marriage never existed. However, Protestants have generally taught that, because marriage takes place between sinners in a fallen world, there are some circumstances when divorce is allowed.

When does God allow divorce? There are two circumstances. One is sexual sin (adultery) that breaks the one-flesh marriage bond. The other is desertion (abandonment) that cannot be remedied because the one who leaves refuses to return.

What sexual sins constitute grounds for divorce? The Greek word Jesus uses is porneia. It is a general word for sexual immorality. Here I quote from the position paper approved  by the PCA General Assembly in 1988:  “We agree that porneia refers to ‘sexual immorality.’ But sexual immorality could be understood to include all sorts of sexual sins… To be sure, these are sins that impinge against the one-flesh relationship, but they do not necessarily break it. We ask then, ‘What does Jesus mean by porneia in this passage as the grounds for divorce?’ We believe Jesus intended porneia to be understood in a more limited way, as referring to those external sexual actions which would clearly break the one-flesh relationship…we must distinguish between those  sexual sins that clearly break the one-flesh union and those that don’t. (Those that break the one-flesh union [do so] precisely because they involve sexual union with a being other than one’s marriage partner, i.e, they amount to adultery.) Other acts of sexual immorality do not as clearly serve to break the one-flesh relationship… they do not unmistakably break the one-flesh relationship; but if a person becomes so obsessed with them that they become a substitute for fulfilling the conjugal rights of the spouse, then they could be understood to break the one-flesh union……some sexual sins may hurt the marriage union without breaking it. But when the sin becomes externalized in such a way that it becomes a substitute for the one-flesh relation with one’s spouse, then the Session may judge it as being the equivalent of porneia.”

What is desertion? “Several considerations incline us to agree with those… who have maintained that desertion can occur as well by imposition of intolerable conditions as by departure itself…(Note: The only possibility considered in the report is physical violence which leads to the abused person’s leaving, because the abusing partner forces the abused partner to flee the home for physical safety.) We are quick to add, however, that the list of sins tantamount to desertion cannot be very long. To qualify, a sin must have the same extreme effect as someone’s abandonment of his spouse… The Bible gives no justification for divorce based on merely inward, emotional, and subjective reasons. Even if we find justification for interpreting desertion in a broader sense …(it) must be broadened only within the boundaries of serious objective acts of  desertion. (It) must not be interpreted in any way that opens the floodgates to divorces based on subjective reasons, such as ‘irreconcilable differences,’ ’emotional separation,’ ‘loss of affection,’ or the like. There is often great pain involved in marriage, and God intends for people to work through the pain and learn to love even when we are not loved by the other. Emotional problems in and of themselves are not Biblical grounds for divorce. And the elders of Christ’s church must not surrender to worldly pressures and allow that which God does not allow…”

What is the responsibility of the church? The church’s responsibility is (1) to train its youth according to the Biblical teaching regarding sexuality and marriage; (2) to do everything possible to strengthen the marriages of its members; (3) to uphold Biblical standards regarding the grounds for divorce; (4) to approach every troubled couple with love, understanding, and help with the goal of restoring the relationship; (5) to support the party who does not cause the divorce*; (6) to minister to the needs of children for whom divorce is almost always destructive; (7) to seek pastorally, with humility and showing grace, to help the erring party to repent and find forgiveness, according to his/her profession; and (8) as a last resort to use the Bible’s disciplinary process (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Galatians 6:1) to uphold the honor of Christ, to protect the purity of the church, and to reclaim the person who (it is be hoped) had temporarily gone astray.

What should persons who have been divorced without Biblical grounds and who have since remarried do? Repent of the sin involved. Do not leave but stay in the marriage. Do everything possible to mitigate the effects of those sinful actions on others, especially children.

*The question comes, “Is there ever an ‘innocent party’?” In one sense, no. Marriage is between two sinners (saved, we trust, by the grace of God), and they are going to sin against one another, sometimes in ways that cause much pain. But, in terms of the Bible’s teaching on divorce, the “innocent party” is the one who has not committed adultery or who has not deserted the spouse. But the church should encourage that person to examine his/her conduct within the marriage, to seek change in attitudes and behaviors that are harmful to marriage, and to proceed slowly and with counsel toward any future marriage.

The question remains: Does a consensus exist within the PCA? If so, what is it?

Honest questions.

Bill Smith is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America. He is a writer and contributor to a number of Reformed journals and resides in Jackson, Miss.  This article first appeared at his blog and is used with his permission.


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