by Robert Morris
The late seventies and early eighties have seen a rising tide of divorce and remarriage in western Christendom. There is evidence to suggest that this will be a continuing trend through the rest of this century.
The late seventies and early eighties have seen a rising tide of divorce and remarriage in western Christendom. There is evidence to suggest that this will be a continuing trend through the rest of this century.
Evangelicals have felt the impact of changing social mores to an extent that was not predicted in the sixties. It is inevitable that mission agencies will have to struggle with the issue of whether or not to accept divorced applicants for cross-cultural ministry.
A number of boards are developing policies, or have recently adopted new policies relating to divorced applicants. Among them are the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, North Africa Mission, and Africa Inland Mission. The problem is especially acute for international and interdenominational missions, because they do not have a single church-adopted stance on the issue of divorce, but must seek to steer a difficult course between national cultural values.
The only viable way forward is to develop a policy that follows scriptural teaching as closely as possible. Here again an easy solution is frustrated by disagreement within the evangelical community. In particular, North America is characterized by two main divergent streams of thought on the matter of divorce.
On the one hand, there are those who stress the scriptural teaching on redemptive love, acceptance of one another, repentance and forgiveness. They tend to be more tolerant of divorce and remarriage. Others approach the matter from a more strictly theological perspective and tend to come to more conservative conclusions.
Even among conservative scholars, however, there is a basic dispute over exegesis of the relevant scriptural passages. The number of passages relating directly to the question of divorce and remarriage is rather small: Gen. 1:26-28; 2:23, 24; Deut. 24:1-4; Matt. 5:31, 32; 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:1-17.
On the basis of the exegesis of these and related passages, a majority of conservative evangelical scholars would probably agree on the following conclusions:
1. Marriage is ordained by God, and is a lifelong monogamous union of male and female by which they become one flesh (soul). (Gen. 1:27, 28; 2:23, 24; Matt. 19:3-6.)
2. Singlehood per se is not ideal (Gen. 2:18), but is honorable (as seen in Christ’s example) and even constitutes a higher calling than marriage when given by God for the sake of the kingdom (Matt. 19:10-12; 1 Cor. 7:32-35), or to meet the pressures of times of crisis (1 Cor. 7:26, 28).
3. Divorce was instituted by man (Matt. 19:8), was practiced in Israel, but was divinely regulated (Deut. 24:1-4).
4. The overwhelming thrust of all the scriptural data is that Christians must not divorce.
5. Divorce was permitted because of Israel’s refusal to accept God’s original standard for marriage (Matt. 19:8) and was regulated, not to change or qualify God’s law on marriage, but in order to control disobedience (Matt. 19:7-8).
6. Divorce is never necessary among believers and is never commanded in the Bible-even for adultery-with the possible exception of where an unsaved spouse demands it (1 Cor. 7:15).
7. Divorce when sinful is forgivable, as is every other sin, excluding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 2:5-11; cf. 1 Cor. 5; Luke 17:3; Matt.12:31-32).
8. If Christians do divorce contrary to Christ’s command (Matt. 19:9), they are to remain unmarried or seek a reconciliation with each other (1 Cor. 7:10,11). The biblical goal appears to be to avoid everything (even a second marriage) that would preclude reconciliation of original partners (cf. Deut. 24:1-4), even if one partner is unsaved (1 Cor. 7:12-14).
On the other hand, there is a major division of opinion on the following points. Differences vary mainly according to one’s interpretation of the "exceptive" clause in Matthew 19:9 and whether or not one sees 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 fitting under the overall ruling of 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, or being a separate case from it.
Evangelicals who arrive at a less strict conclusion would tend to agree to the following:
1. Biblical concessions for divorce include extramarital sexual sin (Matt. 19:9) and the insistence on divorce by an unsaved partner (1 Cor. 7:15).
2. Those who divorce apart from biblical concessions commit adultery and cause others to do so as well (Matt. 19:9; 5:32).
3. Those who divorce by biblical concessions, or whose spouses die, are free to remarry and do not sin in doing so (Matt 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:27, 28; cf.7:9, 15; 1 Tim. 5:14).
4. Divorce always stems from sin, but is not itself necessarily sinful when practiced according to God’s regulations (Matt. 19:8-9).
Evangelicals who arrive at a more strict conclusion would tend to agree to the following:
1. Jesus and Paul are consistent in maintaining a strict prohibition against divorce under all circumstances (Matt. 5:31, 32; Matt. 19:1, 2; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-17).
2. Those who divorce commit adultery and cause others to do so as well, except where the innocent party was forced by (Jewish) law to divorce an unfaithful spouse (Matt. 19:9; Matt 5:32).
3. Those who divorce for any reason should remain unmarried (1 Cor. 7:10-14).
4. Divorce is always less than God’s absolute will and therefore sinful, even where Mosaic law conceded it because of "hard hearts" (Matt 19:8).
But whether one comes to a more strict or a less strict conclusion, the debate has just begun for a mission society developing a policy for divorced applicants. The positions outlined above might be useful in developing a church’s policy on divorce, or in counselling couples facing marriage problems. But the issue facing mission leaders is, What is our response to those who have already divorced or remarried, whether in line with biblical standards or not, and are applying for membership?
It is widely conceded in mission circles that missionary candidates should meet the standards set for church leaders in the pastoral epistles. However, some would argue that the New Testament teaching on grace gifts seems to indicate that no ministry is "higher" or more important than another. Rather, qualifications relate to function more than to positon, because the church is an organism, not an organization. In this view, Paul’s list of qualities is not a list of individual absolutes, but rather of standards against which to evaluate candidates for office.
Because the issue relates to former sinners in leadership (conceding for now that missionaries are "leaders"), rather than just to biblical grounds for divorce, we must avoid adopting a policy which does either more or less than we intend. On the one hand, we must not exclude from service those whom God has called, nor must we too easily dismiss the terrible toll that the rising tide of divorce is taking in society and in the house of God.
Nor is the way forward that of legislating specific cases. Mission policy makers are finding that the variety of human experiences and the number of factors affecting marriage breakdown defy easy categorization. Even general guidelines such as "before or after conversion" and "innocent or guilty party" become slippery when applied to specific cases. On the other hand, absolute exclusion of all those with marital or sexual sins in their past risks being unbiblical and fails to deal adequately with the reality of sin in society and sincere debate within the church. Whatever policy is finally adopted by a mission society, it should meet certain criteria. First, our policies must be biblical, both in form and content. The biblical approach appears to be a very clear statement of God’s ideal for marriage and then a case-by-case consideration of exceptions to the norm. Where Scripture speaks clearly, our policy must be controlled unequivocably by it; where there is sincere dispute, we must not be dogmatic. Only by making Scripture our final court of appeal can we hope to overcome cultural and theological differences within the body of Christ. While appeals to overseas church attitudes, early church practice, or Western church theology can have significance in the process of policy formulation, none of them can be solely determinative-that role is left for Scripture.
Second, our policies must be as complete as possible. Those who fail to adopt policies which govern closely related issues, such as marriage breakdown among present members, or which cover all foreseeable types of divorce and remarriage experiences, will be doomed to discuss this painful issue repeatedly-it will not soon disappear.
Third, we must develop practical policies. Whatever instrument is developed must be capable of being applied in such a way as to maintain whatever ethos is desired in the mission, without necessitating major decisions for each application.
What so often happens is that policy-making bodies labor over exact wordings in order to please the various points of view represented, with little thought to ease of application. A policy relating to divorced applicants, unlike a doctrinal position, must be utilitarian-detailed enough to ensure consistency in decision-making, but general enough to apply to the reality of diverse human experiences.
One possible way to define a policy that meets the I criteria suggested is to develop a two-part instrument. Part I would be a list of "absolute exclusions from consideration" which can be agreed upon. Examples might be:
Twice-divorced persons; divorced persons for whom Two-part there remains some possibility of reconciliation; those instrument divorced since conversion on grounds other than adultery or desertion; remarried persons; those divorced or remarried since conversion.
The point is, only those persons with qualities or histories which it is agreed would exclude them absolutely from any possible service with the mission would be listed in Part I.
Part II would consist of a list of criteria which it is agreed are relevant to making decisions regarding acceptance or non-acceptance, but none of which are agreed upon as being individually necessary and sufficient reason to exclude someone. If all the criteria are worded as questions which elicit negative answers in the case of undesirable characteristics, one could preface Part II with a statement such as:
"Negative answers to individual questions would not constitute a bar to consideration but, cumulatively, negative answers to the following questions will preclude membership in the mission." Depending on which absolute exclusions are included in Part I and on policy makers’ understanding of biblical criteria, the following might be examples of questions in Part II:
1. Is the applicant free of any continuing financial responsibilities?
2. Is the applicant free of any child custody obligations?
3. Has church discipline been applied?
4. Was the original partner a non-Christian?
5. Did the event take place before conversion?
6. Have all possible avenues of reconciliation been explored?
7. Is there evidence of present stability in relationships?
8. Do national colleagues express a willingness to accept the candidate?
9. Is the applicant clearly the "innocent" or "offended" party?
10. Did the divorce/remarriage take place more than three (or five, or ten) years ago?
11. Did the divorce meet scriptural standards?
12. Is the applicant being considered for only short-term service?
13. Is the applicant being considered for other than church ministry?
The advantage of this design is that the filter through which divorced and other applicants msut pass is capable of adjustment without a major reworking of the policy. Both exclusions and criteria for consideration could be added or subtracted as a mission’s understanding of God’s will changes.
The first requirement of a consistent application of a policy on divorce is to elicit the relevant information from the candidate. Initial application forms must ensure that the applicant is aware of the issue. Rather than the usual, Are you divorced/separated/remarried? it would be helpful to ask, Have you been divorced/ separated/remarried?
A further question is probably necessary to elicit information about increasingly common experiences not covered by marital categories. Without belaboring the point, the application could ask, Have you been involved in any kind of sexual liaison outside of marriage?
Whether we like it or not, we will have to treat divorced applicants differently from others. All applicants who answer Yes to the three suggested question above would have to be sent a separate questionnaire which would elicit information related to the criteria of Part II.
Questions about circumstances of the event, continuing obligations, present attitudes, and future plans would all be appropriate and necessary. Naturally, these candidates would also have to meet the other usual criteria for membership.
The final stage is to monitor the number and quality of candidates being accepted over a period of time. As people’s experiences and understanding of the issues develop, the "gate" for divorced candidates must be widened or narrowed as need be.
Because of the sensitive nature of the subject, and of the controversy surrounding it, we have invited three responses to this article.-Ed.
Be sure to consult overseas church leaders
by Emilio A. Nunez
Emilio Nunez teaches contemporary and systematic theology at Central American Theological Seminary, Guatemala City, where he formerly served as president. He was horn and raised a Roman Catholic in El Salvador, and found Christ as Savior at age 1 7. He was leaching school in El Salvador when God called him to the gospel ministry. He is a graduate of the Central American Bible Institute, Southern Methodist University, and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.D.). He has done postgraduate studies at Barcelona, Spain.
The exegetical and pastoral approaches to the problem of divorced applicants are necessary, but we also have to take into consideration the cultural and ecclesiastical contexts. For example, in a Latin American country the vast majority of people claim to be Roman Catholic. Their church is definitely against divorce. The major problem in relation to the family is not divorce, but the large number of unwed mothers and of couples which have not legalized their relationship. They are not married to each other, but live together. Nevertheless, divorce is a scandal for that society.
The evangelical church is strongly conservative. Most evangelicals would not approve a relaxation of the rules for divorced applicants on the part of missionary agencies. Generally, evangelicals tend to be more severe in their criticism of the foreign missionary than of a local leader in the church. Of course, the situation is changing, especially among middle-class evangelicals.
There are some national divorced men and women exercising leadership in local churches. We seem also to be on our way to a more permissive society. But the question is whether the missionary agencies are supposed to promote such a change in our mores.
The pastors determine to a large extent the attitude of their people toward moral issues, like birth control, abortion, and divorce. Missionary agencies should seriously consult with national evangelical leaders before adopting changes in their policies related to divorced applicants. The purpose of the consultation must not be to merely approve an already adopted policy.
There are cases in which question 9, Part II of the proposal, may raise another question from the biblical and pastoral standpoint: Is" there a real "innocent" party?
I imagine that an affirmative answer to the final question would facilitate the acceptance of a divorced missionary by the leaders and the churches. The objection to a missionary who comes not for a church ministry (Bible teaching, counseling, etc.) would not be as great as it would be for one who wants to have all the privileges of a pastor, or teacher of the Word.
Tough questions must be asked
by Paul E. Toms
Paul Toms has been senior minister of Park Street Church (Congregational) in Boston since 1969. His church supports 75 missionaries in 34 countries. He also does a regular radio broadcast. He is a past president of the National Association of Evangelicals and was chairman of NAE’s World Relief Corporation. He has traveled extensively overseas. He holds degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Whatever guidelines are finally agreed upon by any mission board, it must be remembered there will probably always be something of a limiting factor attached to the acceptance of one who has suffered the trauma of divorce and then applies or continues in relationship with a mission board. Thus, both the parties involved and the mission board must be prepared to grapple with this, whatever the policies may be.
The big question is to what extent is such a condition harmful to another culture? What degree of acceptance may be expected? What barrier of hindrance is raised? Mission boards would, of course, be sensitive to the local cultures and may find that their policies may not be accepted in a local condition. In connection with this, the author says a very important thing: ". . . public reputation must be covered."
One of his most important statements is, "On the one hand, we must not exclude from service those whom God has called, nor must we too easily dismiss the terrible toll that the rising tide of divorce is taking in society and in the house of God."
This, coupled with his observation that past sins should not act as an absolute exclusion, guards us against excluding large numbers of very useful people who have been forgiven and who wish to commit their lives to service.
Each case must be considered individually. There is need for great wisdom in, for example, creating an "absolute exclusion" from service in a given board because of past relationships.
Divorced applicants will have to be treated differently, as suggested by the author. This has been true with ministerial candidates in general, even though this seems less observable today, as more and more divorced people are becoming involved in public ministry.
However, I would also note that this particular problem is limited in our own experience as a mission-supporting church. This is because candidates are accepted only after they have been approved by a recognized mission board. Given the current attitude of most mission boards, this has precluded the problem generally.
We need to move very slowly. One of the great advantages of all of these questions suggested is that it forces the candidates to clearly review their own sense of call to some phase of ministry. It requires him or her to decide whether or not it is worth all the trouble to press ahead toward acceptance. There are indeed barriers. The acceptance of a policy will not immediately make it easy, nor necessarily effective, for a divorced person to advance in certain areas of missionary activity. This is simply in keeping with the reality of the situation.
I can agree with most of the basic policies suggested. I would plead for a continued loving understanding of the tension that exists, and also for a clear recognition of the continued impairment that such a stituation provides. It will not be easy nor ideal for a divorced person to step immediately into missionary activity.
Double standard not unbiblical
by Warren W. Webster
Warren Webster is general director of the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society, Wheaton, 111. He was a CBFMS missionary in Pakistan for 15 years. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif.
Now that divorce and remarriage are becoming increasingly frequent in American society, they affect the church in two different ways: (l) Churches seriously seeking to minister to the needs of their community see a growing number of divorced people coming to Christ and into the fellowship of the church; (2) The frequency and ease of divorce in society in general seems to be contributing to the breakdown of more marriages within the church and its leadership ranks. From both of these directions come searching questions about what ministry and responsibility should be given to Christians with a history of divorce.
Because many doors to ministry in American evangelical churches and schools seem closed to divorced applicants, a growing number are turning to mission organizations to try to find spheres of service overseas. Whereas a few years ago we seldom received applications from Christians who had experienced a divorce, now a week seldom goes by without such inquiries or applications.
It is perhaps understandable why people confronting closed doors near at hand look for openings in more distant places, but in a sense this is unfortunate and regrettable. It has often been observed that cross-cultural mission work is not "holier," but it is generally harder than similar ministry in one’s own country and culture. Experience has also shown that a person’s strengths and weaknesses both are more pronounced when working in another culture.
Missionary service requires stable people with stable marriages. The stresses and strains of living and ministering in an adopted culture are not particularly conducive to the type of help and healing which the survivors of broken marriages need. In addition, not all cultures are as tolerant of divorce and remarriage as American society has come to be, and this creates another problem for both divorced individuals and the organizations they seek to serve.
One relevant scriptural passage on divorce which is often overlooked (as it was by author Morris) is found in Leviticus 21, where the Lord gave to Moses a list of qualifications for priests. There in the Old Testament theocracy, when God himself was setting the standards, it is interesting to note the direction given that priests could not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a prostitute (Lev. 21:14).
While some people dislike double standards, the point here is precisely that God introduced a double standard for priests and people. Others could, priests could not. More was expected from those who were to be leaders than from followers.
Several New Testament passages dealing with leadership in the church reflect a similar high standard of expecting more from leaders by way of personal purity and piety than from other members of the religious community.
While God hates divorce (Mai. 2:16), it is clear that divorce is not the "unforgivable sin." Unfortunately, however, divorce often leaves scars that are not entirely changed or totally removed simply by becoming a Christian. Like the permanent effects of a serious automobile accident, the individuals involved in a divorce have to live with scars which may affect their future, including opportunities for Christian ministry and leadership.
After long and careful investigation into the theological issues involved, and further research into practical and cultural considerations, our mission is willing to consider applicants in whose background there has been a divorce, provided it was prior to salvation and there is subsequent evidence of consistent Christian living. Such individuals will be considered under our short-term program for supportive roles, but not for leadership. There is a further condition that they will serve only in cultural settings, or in roles, where a history of divorce is not likely to have a negative effect on the worker’s ministry as far as the national church and missionary community are concerned.
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