Divorce & Remarriage — A Church Policy Paper

I produced the following for use as an official policy/position paper at South City Church (Milwaukee). It is largely inspired by and makes modifications from John Piper and Bethlehem Baptist’s A Statement on Divorce & Remarriage in the Life of Bethlehem Baptist Church.


As those who believe that “the Bible is God’s very word, … supremely authoritative for what is true and right,” and, as such, “is to be … obeyed in all that it commands” (I. Scripture under Membership Affirmations in the Constitution), we must look to scripture to determine how we should view, handle, and approach the matter of divorce and the potential remarriages that would follow.

However, the subject of divorce and remarriage is one over which many faithful Christians disagree. All agree that remarriage is intended to be a life-long union, with remarriage being permissible after the death of one’s spouse. But, with regards to remarriage after a divorce, whereas some believe that such remarriages are always wrong, others believe that remarriage after divorce may be permissible in certain select cases. Good, respectable arguments exist on both sides. And faithful, Bible-believing Christians disagree.

As members of this church, we are called to hold one another accountable and to intervene in each other’s lives (church discipline) when we stray from following Christ. And we have covenanted to do just that (see the Church Covenant in our Constitution). This discipline and mutual-accountability encompasses all areas of life, no less our marriages, divorces, and potential remarriages.

The question thus emerges, how shall we as a church engage in this sort of mutual-accountability and discipline in the midst of potential disagreements over what is right or permissible with respect to divorce and remarriage? To this end we accept the below principles, which we believe express minimum strictures expected of Bible-adhering Christians, as our boundaries for accountability and discipline.

It is not our expectation that every member will necessarily personally agree with all the permissions that would be allowed under these principles, nor are they required to do so. Rather these principles should be understood as representing certain minimum demands that the church can use as boundary-standards for the sake of accountability and discipline.

We grant a reasonable degree of freedom of conscience with respect to this issue given the reasonable plausibility of divergent evangelical positions on this subject. As such, each elder’s own personal convictions on the matter may serve as his own guidelines for personal counsel, teaching, public preaching, and participation in weddings. The same sort of freedom of conscience applies to each of the members of this church. Divergence in personal belief and practice are to be allowed among church members and leadership so long as the below principles of “minimum expectation” are not violated or disregarded.

Recognizing the honest and devout differences of conviction that may exist in the church, those of us with more limiting standards for remarriage consent at this point not to make them normative for the whole body. Others of us with views that allow more permissions agree to respect those among us with more limiting interpretations and shall not require or expect them to act in any way that violates their consciences, such as in attending, supporting, or performing enactments of marriages that they regard as contrary to Scripture.

Regardless of what may be permitted under the strictures of these principles, we would urge any member contemplating divorce or remarriage to pray and wrestle with all of the relevant scriptures with the aim of obeying Christ with his or her decisions.

Finally, it must be clarified that inasmuch as the following principles serve to identify instances in which church discipline would be required, such discipline shall only be exercised in the case of unrepentant sin. As stated in our Constitution, “Upon sincere repentance of sin at any stage in the discipline process, the process of discipline shall be discontinued and the member under discipline shall be completely restored to fellowship” (see X. Discipline). The church disciplines its members for the sake of their correction, not as a means of punishing sin. Thus, no past sin that is renounced, confessed, and forsaken – including sins of divorce and remarriage – shall be grounds for church discipline, but only those sins requiring repentance.

Principles:

  1. Since death ends the marriage bond, widows or widowers may remarry (Rom 7:2-3; 1 Cor 7:39).
  2. A believer and unbeliever should not marry (1 Cor 7:39; 2 Cor 6:14-15).
  3. Those already married to unbelievers should not seek to divorce them (1 Cor 7:12-16).
  4. These are considered legitimate grounds for divorce and subsequent remarriage: those cases where a spouse commits adultery or an unbelieving spouse abandons/separates from a believing spouse (Mt 19:9; 1 Cor 7:15).[1]
  5. Those who divorce on illegitimate grounds (contrast principle #4) retain an obligation to their original marriage and are commanded to reconcile and restore the marriage (1 Cor 7:10-11). To remarry after such a divorce is to violate the obligations and commitments of the original marriage (Mt 5:31-32; 19:9; Mk 10:11-12; Lk 16:18).
  6. In the case where one party refuses to be reconciled to the other per principle #5 despite serious efforts towards reconciliation on the half of the other party, the former party’s actions may be considered to be a case of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (see principle #4), whether a self-admitting unbeliever or one deemed as an unbeliever due to their unrepentant disobedience (Mt 18:17). In such cases remarriage may be a legitimate step, if taken with serious reckoning that this cuts off all possibility of a reconciliation that God may yet be willing to produce.
  7. In the case where a couple had divorced on illegitimate grounds, thus retaining obligations to their original marriage (see principle #5), and yet, despite this fact, one party disobediently remarries, the other party’s obligations to this marriage may be deemed severed and they may be considered free to remarry.

[1] Some may regard situations in which one spouse is dangerously abusive as falling under this category of “spousal abandonment.” Others may regard such situations as merely granting permission to separate for the sake of the physical safety of any parties involved.

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