Divorce and Remarriage in the New Testament (Part 2)

Given the onging controversy surrounding remarriage, I shall add some comments, focusing on complicated cases of marital breakdown and divorce. In reality pastors encounter cases that are so complicated (messed up) that it is impossible to give a simple and direct application from specific scriptural verses. Counsel may even include the choice of a lesser evil.

Divorce and Remarriage in the New Testament (Part 2)

Further Theological Reflections
Ng Kam Weng

Given the onging controversy surrounding remarriage, I shall add some comments, focusing on complicated cases of marital breakdown and divorce. In reality pastors encounter cases that are so complicated (messed up) that it is impossible to give a simple and direct application from specific scriptural verses. Counsel may even include the choice of a lesser evil.

This should alert us to the possibility that the verses dealing explicitly with divorce do not provide exhaustive judgment on the matter of divorce and remarriage. Are we then to see these verses as exemplary/paradigmatic teachings instead? This gives rise to the problem of how we can ensure that counseling is in principle consistent with the explicit scriptural teachings. The fundamental question is, how does Scripture function normatively in Christian ethics? My suggestion is that we apply Scripture in a broader theological framework instead of using it in a mechanical and legalistic manner. In this case we need to view marriage in greater theological depth than was attempted by the paper since I was specifically asked to give a biblical study.

I shall begin by calling into question the view of marriage as an unbreakable ‘metaphysical’ union. Its inadequacy becomes apparent under the following considerations:

1. If divorce/separation is permitted in the event of adultery what actually is broken since ‘metaphysical’ union by definition cannot be broken? Furthermore, how can one be consistent in allowing divorce/separation on grounds of adultery but at the same time forbid remarriage? If permission is granted on grounds that sexual union breaks a marriage relationship then we are led to an absurd demand that marriage be legalized when a man has sexual union with a prostitute.

2. What happens when there is an ongoing second marital relationship? Shall we counsel the person to keep the second marriage going, since it makes sense to keep a living relationship rather than try to revive a dead relationship, especially when there is practically nothing to make such a restoration possible? Which of the person’s marriages constitute the unbroken union? Admittedly, the questions can be unfair but they serve as a useful exercise of reduction ad absurdum which highlights the difficulties and hence untenability of the view of marriage as an unbreakable union.

I propose instead that Christian marriage be seen as a covenant. This is not to deny that marriage has a human element. After all it involves two persons mutually pledging a commitment to live with each other. But this pledge must not be reduced to a social contract of convenience. The Christian values marriage not just on grounds of pragmatic reasons. Instead he views marriage as the exemplary model of co-humanity. As Barth puts it, we attain our full humanity when we allow ourselves to be determined by the other, whether as male or female. On the other hand since co-humanity is more than marriage we do not view those unmarried as necessarily unfulfilled. Indeed for the Christian, marriage is only a temporal institution since in the next life we neither marry nor divorce.

However, marriage remains of utmost importance for those who seek to enter it for it is also an occasion of divine grace. God is the source of covenant love expressed in a lifelong human relationship. A marriage is more than affection/passion. Marriage is seen as an occasion whereby a relationship is submitted to divine determination. For this reason, premarital sexual relationship by itself does not constitute a marriage. Instead a marriage is established in the context whereby two people mutually allow themselves to be determined by the other and together submit to divine determination. That is to say, marriage is a commitment to coexistence, a partnership under the Command of God (in the Barthian sense).

It is important to remember that the Command of God for our lives is more than a set of biblical rules. The marriage is linked to the Living God. As such obedience to God is not restricted to the act of following rules, even inscripturated rules (a Barthian insight here). To do so would be to commit the sin of legalism. Marriage becomes a legal burden rather than a means of divine grace.

The divine grace that underpins a marriage also highlights the Christians’ responsibility toward their marriage. As such any sin that leads to marital breakdown is seen not just as a betrayal of human trust. It is a rejection of the covenant love that God himself has blessed. In this case, the Christian cannot view issues of marital breakdown and divorce purely at the level of legality. It is possible that a divorce satisfies all legal requirements of civil law and remains sinful nevertheless.

What then constitutes a divorce for the Christian? The marriage is not broken only because some human courts of law issues a certificate. The reality or dissolution of a Christian marriage depends instead on whether it is still under the divine Command. It is possible that under certain circumstances God may judge a marriage relationship as dead and no longer under his gracious determination. In such an event, divorce is the occasion when the Christian community declares what God has already judged namely that marriage has already broken down.

Marriage has always been a communal event for Christians. Likewise divorce entails a communal judgment To be sure, this judgment may not be based on any single, isolated verse front the Bible, but it should satisfy the spirit of the divine Scripture. Some Christians understandably feel uneasy for I seem to be investing too much authority to the Church. In a permissive age when even gays are given recognition by some churches’ we can be sure that some pastors may abuse their authority for questionable gains. In the name of freedom they may excuse Christians of their marital failures.

We can never guarantee that the freedom and authority that God has invested in His Church will not be abused. In fact, given the record of human sin, we can only expect abuse to happen. We leave such sinners to their Creator. My concern is that such perversions should not paralyze the Church from exercising its tremendous privilege and responsibility. The Church must respond with divine freedom and authority to those crying for help in broken marriages. Is it possible that a church is running from its responsibility by pretending that a broken marriage is still alive when decisive action is required?

The Church should major on the major (that is, upholding the divine intent of marriage as a life-long union), especially when marriage is trivialized in modem society. The Church does not merely ask that Christians hang on to their marriages as a duty to contractual demands. It should remind them of the unique Christian assurance that God is actively involved in their marriage. There is always hope in a marriage submitted to God.

But this should not prevent the Church from extending God’s grace to broken marriages. Ministry for broken marriages requires boldness of faith. My suggestion is that the Church after much prayer come out as a united body to declare in public the judgment of God in a broken marriage. It should then offer Christian forgiveness/absolution and restoration to enable those afflicted by a broken marriage to begin life with a clean slate.

It is my contention that complications arise precisely when a church fails to deal with broken marriages in peoples’ past. As an illustration, consider two persons who were married many years ago. The teenage marriage broke up. Years later one of the partners becomes a Christian. He/she then falls in love with another Christian. Can he/she remarry? Should he/she try instead to convert the former spouse and be reconciled even though there has been no contact between them all these years? Obviously the unfinished business of the previous marriage has caught up with him/her.

Should not the Church exercise its divine authority and freedom to settle the past for the new Christian? Assuming that there is no further complication, such as the presence of children from the previous marriage (which requires a case by case consideration), I suggest that the Church releases the Christian from the: bondage and guilt of the past by pronouncing absolution upon confession. Whether the Christian remarries is to be seen as a separate matter. Ideally, this ministry of absolution and restoration for people with a broken marriage should be done as soon as the person becomes a Christian. Christian grace is given as a matter of fact and not just to pave the way for a new marriage. Needless to say, the Church is not condoning sin. It is only availing God’s resources for growth and renewal to sinners. God’s healing grace is not withheld from sinners who need it.