MDR: Response to a Reader’s Question

Several days ago, I posted a question from a reader soliciting the readers’ thoughts, and the responses are much appreciated. I thought I’d share what I wrote to the reader. Now, I was responding to a longer version of the email, but had to shorten it for the readers’ use due to privacy concerns, so I’ve also edited my response a bit.

I’d like to note an interesting difference. I didn’t say much about the rightness or wrongness of the marriage of the young man and woman, because the reader had already acknowledged his agreement with my views on the issue. Rather, I mainly commented on the difficulties the doctrinal disagreement caused within the church and the staff — and the pastoral implications from the couple and the church.

However, the readers have largely discussed the rightness of the remarriage. Of course, my series on MDR was several months ago.

I responded to the reader by inserting replies in text of the email, so I’ll have to introduce each comment to give the context.

With respect to the elders’ theory that remarried couples should not have the full privileges of membership —

I never have understood the second-class citizen theory, as it so violates the doctrine of grace. It’s as though the rest of us are so righteous we can barely tolerate these divorced sinners. It’s a political solution to a scriptural issue.

With respect to whether the minister should deal with the doctrinal disagreements among the eldership from the pulpit —

I don’t believe preachers should contradict elders from the pulpit. I do think the ministers and elders should study the word together. It’s just so very important that they be on the same page.

I know churches where the elders and ministers have spent months in study together and brought in outside expert instructors before taking on a difficult issue.

We’ve never had to do that here because the elders all start with the same understanding of grace. Once you get grace down, the other issues tend to sort themselves out.

With respect to why the proposed marriage is considered “unscriptural” —

Has the husband from the first marriage remarried? Around here the conservative view is that if he remarries or is otherwise not sexually faithful to his first (continuing) marriage, he’s guilty of fornication and that frees his former wife to remarry.

But if she remarried first, then she is the fornicator, he can remarry, and she can’t.

Pretty silly, really, but if it happens he remarried first, even the conservatives would likely be satisfied that she can remarry.

With respect to the disagreement within the eldership and the staff —

You are in the throes of what I call the moderate church dilemma. For years, two different theologies have coexisted in your church, getting along through political compromise. As a result, you have a split eldership and split ministerial staff. I’m sure you also have a split congregation.

Churches can survive for years like this, but eventually the tension has to be resolved by —

  • A split
  • A dissident group changing congregations
  • Education

Sometimes the issue comes to a head over music or the role of women or some other hot button issue. But eventually one group or other within the church insists on having its way on something that can’t be politically compromised. Or one group gets majority control of the elders or hires a pulpit minister who tries to purify the church.

In my view, the worse issue possible to bring the tension to a head is MDR, because the couple affected will be at the center of the storm. It’s just very hard to deal rationally with a dispute involving such an emotional issue. Then again, maybe the leadership will be less doctrinaire when they have to look the consequences of their decision in the eye.

The only real cure for the moderate church dilemma is grace — taught at the congregational level. My preferred approach would be to teach first in the classrooms and then from the pulpit. The classrooms are less threatening to those opposed and allow for questions and answers. That’s how my church changed.

I might start by teaching a class on grace in the class the elders attend. Or I might ask the elders to have an elders/ministers class separate from the Bible program to study the issue. But it starts with grace. Until you get grace right, you can’t get MDR right.

OK. Let’s try this as a possible approach. Meet with the young man and honestly tell him —

a. The scriptures permit the marriage but he and his intended need pre-marital counseling in the worst way before they get serious. (Our ministers won’t perform a wedding w/o premarital counseling, and have broken up more than one planned marriage — for good reason. Amen.)

b. This church and many other churches (not just CoCs) will not grant them full membership — or membership at all — if they marry, as so many will take the view that the marriage is unscriptural.

c. They may not allow their marriage to become a source of division. If they get frustrated with the limits the elders place on their participation, they need to attend somewhere else. If they place membership, they have to submit to the elders.

d. In the meantime, the ministers and elders will be jointly re-studying this issue in depth — but no promises on how it turns out.

e. When (and if) the leaders change their views, there will come a time to educate the members, but change will come very slowly.

I suspect that the young man will in fact submit to counseling, get married, and place membership. And he’ll be much happier at church having knowingly submitted to the rules, even if he disagrees with them.

By the way, this is not the “model answer.” Some of the comments were very wise indeed — and made me very jealous. I thought about stealing the best ideas so I’d look all-wise and all-knowing, but God told me not to intrude into his territory. Oh, well …

Now, for the briefest of introductions to the doctrine of MDR as I see it. And if this isn’t enough (it won’t be), you really need to read the earlier posts. They’re kind of long, but it’s a tough subject.

* In Bible times, you didn’t go to court to get a divorce. You left your spouse. Thus, words like “put away” or “leave” or “loose” that are often translated “divorce” don’t mean “hire a lawyer and file papers in court.” They mean break the marriage covenant. In modern terms, the husband who abandons his wife “puts his wife away” even if she is the one who files the papers to get the state to recognize what’s already happened.

* Therefore, a permanent legal separation in Bible terms is a divorce. Marriage in the Bible is a relationship, not a legal status. If you aren’t living together as husband and wife, you aren’t married.

* Jesus and Paul never taught that a divorce was ineffective in God’s eyes. A divorce can be sin, but it’s nonetheless a divorce. Jesus said, “Let no man separate” not “Man cannot separate.” When your marriage has ended, it may have ended in deeply black sin, but it’s ended.

* You may not divorce your spouse to marry another. Both the divorce and marriage are sin because (a) breaking the marriage covenant is sin and (b) lusting after a man or woman to whom you are not married is sin.

* Paul plainly otherwise allows the divorced to remarry. Here’s the passage —

(1 Cor 7:27 KJ21) Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife.28But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.

(NASB) 27Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife.28But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.

(ASV) 27 Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife. 28 But shouldest thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Yet such shall have tribulation in the flesh: and I would spare you.

“Art thou loosed from a wife” grammatically refers to someone divorced, not someone never married, a virgin, which is the case Paul considers in vv. 25-26. The grammatical and contextual arguments are made at length in my earlier series on MDR. I’d be glad to discuss these conclusions with the readers who have read the posts.

Therefore, I’m very comfortable in concluding that the young man and young woman may scripturally marry. But I’d certainly insist that they go through premarital counseling. There are lots of issues, with children from a prior marriage, family who may oppose the marriage on scriptural grounds, and a wife who seems to struggle to make good decisions about men.

And I agree with those who counsel against marrying a non-Christian. I also know of plenty of marriages that have worked out well. But it’s a serious issue that will require more than a quick tract readthrough and baptism to cure. The two may have radically different values, and if she “converts” just to gain a husband and father for her children, well, I’ve seen this one before and the marriage lasted about a year.

It’s a tough case for the couple, but potentially even tougher for the church. Churches have split over these issues. And that’s what happens when you build a church on political compromise rather than grace. Fortunately, they have a good pulpit man and elders open to learning. That’ll go a long way.

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2 Responses

  1. “Therefore, I’m very comfortable in concluding that the young man and young woman may scripturally marry. But I’d certainly insist that they go through premarital counseling.”

    I find this contradicts with

    “I never have understood the second-class citizen theory, as it so violates the doctrine of grace.”

    To me, it sounds like “You are covered by grace and can remarry as long as … you meet some other condition that I declare”

    What do you think?

  2. I believe Jay also indicated that he strongly recommended premarital counseling for everyone, not just for this couple, as he also wrote:

    “The scriptures permit the marriage but he and his intended need pre-marital counseling in the worst way before they get serious. (Our ministers won’t perform a wedding w/o premarital counseling, and have broken up more than one planned marriage — for good reason. Amen.)”

    Hence, he is not setting up some special “other condition” for this couple.

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