Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Several years ago, I was studying to become a minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches. I ended up leaving that denomination after coming into disagreement with the PRC on the issue of divorce and remarriage. The PRC teaches that it is always sinful to remarry if the first spouse is living and that those who have done so must break off their second marriages if they are to become members of the PRC. I had defended the position of the PRC for a few years but after digging deeper into the Scriptures, reading several books recommended by the PRC, and studying the doctrine historically I came to believe that it is actually sinful to break off the second marriage. Despite the various rumors that have circulated, this was the reason that I left the PRC. I wrote a paper at the time and attempted to engage in serious Biblical discussion with both ministers and lay people in the PRC without success.
Since that time, after rigorous Biblical study and great doubt about my own reason I've become a Lutheran. Recently, I've had a few people in the Reformed camp ask for a copy of the paper I wrote. I now realize that although I did a sufficient job of showing that it is actually sinful to break off the second marriage, I missed the point. I missed the point because I had the same false presuppositions that the PRC does. I will begin by arguing within the framework of those presuppositions—showing that even if the presuppositions are accepted the position of the PRC is not a logical conclusion from the Biblical texts—and then show why the basic presuppositions are wrong. I will not spend time defending the position that remarriage while the spouse is still living is considered sin by Scripture. There are already excellent books by Andrew Cornes, Gordon Wenham, and Oscar Watkins on this subject. I recognize that my position is contrary to the Book of Concord but I have no secret plans to impose my view on the Lutheran churches.
Matthew 19:3-12 The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery." His disciples said to Him, "If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry." But He said to them, "All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it."
The discussion that Jesus has with the Pharisees in Matt. 19 is based on Deuteronomy 24.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 "When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man's wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance."
The Pharisees (and the KJV) misunderstood Deuteronomy 24:1 as a command. The stricter rabbis of the time taught that if a man found that his wife had committed adultery he was commanded by God's law to divorce the woman and was free to remarry another. The more liberal rabbis taught that a man could divorce his wife for just about any reason. Jesus rightly pointed out that divorce is not commanded in Deuteronomy 24. Verses 1-3 are a description of what was taking place without any real statement as to the rightness or wrongness of it. Verses 1-3 were taking place because of the hardness of the people's hearts. Verse 4 is the only verse that contains a command. Verse 4 forbids the first husband from taking the wife back if her second husband divorces her. Prof. David Engelsma is the most vocal supporter of the PRC position on divorce and remarriage and has written the most extensively on the subject. Just before I left the PRC, I met with Prof. Engelsma to discuss my problems with their teaching that the second marriage is one of continual adultery and that people must break off their second marriages. When I brought up Deuteronomy 24:4 he absolutely refused to make any judgment as to whether or not it still applied because Synod had never made a decision on it and never would until a situation occurred in which someone wanted to reunite with her first spouse and disagreed with what her consistory told her. It is absolutely irresponsible for the PRC to tell people to break off their second marriages while refusing to answer the question as to whether or not it is permissible to return to the first spouse. Engelsma reviews Cornes' book in the May 15, 1994 issue of the “Standard Bearer.” Engelsma gives a positive review of the book but complains that Cornes says that the remarried should remain in what Engelsma calls an “ongoing adulterous relationship.” But Engelsma does not deal with Cornes' argument based on Deuteronomy 24 or the other reasons that Cornes gives as to why he believes they should stay in that relationship. After I met with Engelsma he wrote an article in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal about why we shouldn't go to Deuteronomy 24 to learn about divorce and remarriage but he never dealt with my actual argument. Deuteronomy clearly shows that some great change has occurred in the marriage relationship between the original spouses if a return to the original marriage is an abomination.
Deuteronomy 24:4 teaches that there is some kind of change in the relationship between the original two spouses when one of them enters into a second marriage. If there were absolutely no change in relationship then the first husband would be able to take the wife back and should do so. But the Scriptures don't even allow such a thing. God says that this is an abomination. This is not just some concession to the cultural norms of the time anymore than the prohibitions against homosexual acts were. The wife cannot return to the first husband because there is still a bond but the bond has changed. The only explanation that I have found that makes sense of this comes from Gordon Wenham. He notes that in the Song of Solomon and other passages of Scripture kinship terms such as “sister” are used to speak of a person's wife. Adam says that Eve is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh which is similar to the English expression “flesh and blood” and is used throughout Scripture to speak of one's relatives. Through marriage a person in some sense is joined in a kinship relationship with his spouse. If a person is divorced from the first spouse and remarries another the kinship remains but through the wife the two husbands are also joined in a kinship relationship. If the wife leaves the second husband to go back to the first she would be engaging in a type of incest. Three reasons are given in Deuteronomy 24 for forbidding the husband to take the former wife back who has remarried: “she has been defiled,” “it is an abomination before the LORD,” and it “causes the land to sin.” Theses same phrases are used in Leviticus 18 and 20 in the laws against incest that not only outlaw sexual relations between close blood relatives but also close in-laws and the prohibitions remain even if the spouse has died through whom the kinship relationship was originally established.
Some in the PRC have stated that the use of the present tense in Matthew 5:32 (commits adultery) indicates that the adultery is a continual action among the remarried. However, the present tense is not used very often in Scripture to denote continuous action. The most common use in Scripture is the descriptive present. Within the context of the question and answer exchange that is taking place it seems far more likely to understand “commits adultery” as a gnomic or general present. This idiomatic use of the present to denote a general truth is not uncommon in the Scriptures (Matt. 5:32, Mark 2:21, John 3:8, 2 Cor. 9:7, Heb. 3:4). The string of aorists lends support to interpreting as an aoristic present. It is the remarrying itself that is referred to as adultery and not the remaining in the remarried state. Some have used Romans 7:3 where it says that if a woman is joined to another man while her husband is still alive she will be called an adulteress as proof that the adultery is a continual action. Aside from the fact that this passage is about the law and not about marriage, it also does not follow that the adultery must be continual for her to be considered an adulteress. If I go murder someone, people are going to call me a murderer regardless of whether or not I do it on a regular basis.
1 Corinthians 7 says that people should be content in their present state. If Paul had desired to tell people in second marriages to leave their second spouse he very well could have, but he doesn't. He commands married men and women to engage in sexual intercourse with one another and does not have any exception clauses for those who are in second marriages. The adulterous marriage category created by the PRC is foreign to Scripture. Since the Scriptures contain no rules or regulations for this category, there is no clear thus saith the Lord in regard to responsibilities and boundaries. The Scriptures do not refer to second marriages as anything other than marriages and never says that they are any less binding than first marriages. The Song of Solomon is a love poem between Solomon and one of his very many second wives. There is nothing withing the teachings of Jesus or Paul that suggests that prohibitions against divorce apply only to the first spouse. When Jesus speaks with the woman of Samaria in John 4:18 he speaks of all those who she was married to as her husbands.
Numbers 30:6-9 says that even rash vows are binding. The PRC objects that we cannot perform vows which are vows to sin but fulfillment of a marriage vow is not sinful in and of itself. A person can take out a loan sinfully if the paying back of the money makes it impossible for him to provide adequately for his family but the person is still under obligation to repay the loan. The PRC will argue that these are completely different matters because the one is the taking out of a loan which is not sinful and the other is a vow to commit adultery but these labels are superficial. They could just as easily be labeled as a vow to steal (since the man is stealing from what rightfully should be given to his family) and a vow to marry.
Ezra 9-10 has been used by PRC ministers as an example of God telling people who have divorced and remarried to leave their second spouses. But the context of the passage does not give remarriage as the reason. It is possible that some did put away their Israelite wives to marry foreign women (Mal. 2:10-16) but this is not reason given in the passage for the need to separate. The only reason given in the passage itself is that these women were foreigners who would lead God's people into idolatry. If not for 1 Corinthians 7, it might make sense to use this passage to teach that believers should leave unbelieving spouses but it seems better to take this passage as a recounting of a particular historical event to show us how dangerous idolatry really is rather than as an example that should be repeated. The Israelites were told directly by God to kill everyone in the unbelieving nations but it's clear that we are not to follow this example. In this passage the people are told to send the children away as well. The PRC teaches that people still have a responsibility toward children they have in second marriages.
Some have used 1 Timothy and Titus where it says that elders/bishops must be husbands of one wife to teach that in order to be a communicant member you cannot be in a remarried relationship. However, the qualifications for elders and deacons are stricter than they are for communicant members. Elders must be able to teach well but we don't excommunicate someone simply because they are a bad teacher. There are some pretty strong arguments for the idea that “husband of one wife” disqualifies those who have remarried after the first spouse has died but there is nothing sinful about remarrying after the first spouse dies.
How and where did the PRC go wrong? In regards to Matthew 19 in particular, I've now come to realize that both the PRC and I have missed the entire point of the passage. The Pharisees were coming to Jesus in order to have a debate with him about the law. The Pharisees sought their salvation in their obedience to the law. When Jesus answers He's not acting as some kind of new Moses. Jesus is not primarily interested in providing them with principles for living untainted by the sin of adultery. Jesus' point is to show them that they are all sinners. Jesus' point was to show them that both rabbinic schools were guilty of adultery and worthy of God's present and eternal punishment. Only by crushing them with the law would they realize that they could not stand before God with their own righteousness but needed an alien righteousness. Their righteousness could only be found in the crucified Christ.
As the position of the PRC which differs both from the position of the historic church and the position of the historic Reformed and Presbyterian church bodies has had time to ferment, its defenders have become more and more rabid in defense of the doctrine. In the September 1, 1976 issue of the Standard Bearer, a lay person wrote a letter to the editor about his dismay over the decision of synod to allow a PRC minister to serve in the OPC in New Zealand. One of the lay person's big concerns is that the minister will have to administer the Lord's Supper to someone who is living in an adulteress marriage or baptism to the children of such people. The editor, Homer Hoeksema, warns against self-righteousness and minimizes the difference between the position of the PRC and the Presbyterians on the issue of remarriage. He rightly points out that the PRC did not always teach this doctrine and used to commune the remarried and should not expect other denominations to just jump on board. From it's beginnings in 1924 until the mid-1950's the PRC allowed remarried people to become members and receive communion. Even after this time, there were church members who were grandfathered-in and allowed to commune. Homer Hoeksema did not think that the tone of lay person was appropriate but more recent editors of the Standard Bearer have gone far beyond the tone of the lay person. It is not uncommon to hear PRC ministers speaking of the dangers of communing with those who have remarried. Not only is this strange given the PRC's own history but it also leads to a wrong attitude towards communion. The partaking of Christ's body and blood is not for the righteous but for real sinners. Those who deny they are sinners should not be allowed to commune. If I come to the communion rail and thank God that I'm not taking communion with those remarried sinners in the church down the block then I am entirely unworthy to partake.
Why did the PRC go wrong? Because they have the wrong hub on their wheel. The PRC has a unique understanding of the covenant and views that unique understanding of the covenant as the central theme of all Scripture. Although the concept of the covenant is a major theme of Scripture, it is not the central theme! Jesus Christ is the central teaching of all Scripture. Jesus did not say that all of Scripture is about the covenant but that all of Scripture is about Him (John 5:39, Luke 24:27, etc.).
When Herman Hoeksema was searching the Scriptures concerning remarriage, he was using a covenant-centered hermeneutic rather than a Jesus-centered hermeneutic. If Hoeksema had read Matthew 19 with a Jesus-centered hermeneutic, he would have realized that Jesus is preaching law to us to drive us to Him. He is the only one who can save adulterers like us. The Apostolic teachings handed down to us in the ecumenical creeds are centered completely upon Christ. They provide both an excellent summary of the Christian faith and lens through which to understand Scripture. They do not carry the same authority as Scripture but they are like a swatch from an expensive dress that can be used to test for authenticity and if we are headed in the right direction. There is nothing in the ecumenical creeds about covenant theology and the various attempts at constructing covenant theologies has only led to numerous Reformed denominations that subscribe to the same confessions but can't agree on which brand of covenant theology is best. Their forefathers were able to create consensus documents such as the Canons of Dordt and the Heidelberg Catechism but their children feel the need to remain separate over these things and anathematize those who disagree with them.
But not only is a covenant-centered understanding of divorce and remarriage wrong-headed, it's simply impossible to apply consistently. If we are going to argue as the PRC does that because God's covenant is unconditional, therefore the first marriage is also unconditional and unchanged (which in reality they refuse to say if it is or isn't because they will not say if a wife can return to her first spouse), then we also have infallible and sinless husbands because Jesus is infallible and sinless and marriage is supposed to be a reflection of Christ and the Church. If we are going to apply this principle consistently then wives may never under any circumstance disobey their husbands since the Church may never disobey Christ.
The PRC position is also a symptom of the Reformed tendency to build inference upon inference, moving further and further from the clear teaching of Scripture. Reason is the devil's whore. Starting with a couple of statements from Scripture while ignoring many others can lead someone just about anywhere and often does. God does not act or behave in ways that we would expect. The Scriptures clearly teach various attributes of God such as omnipotence and omnipresence but if we were to simply start with these attributes and use our reason to create various rules that God would follow we would end up with a very different god from the one found in Scripture.
If we start with the doctrine of the Trinity we have to acknowledge that our reasoning is very limited in regards to who God is. If we were going to reason out a god for ourselves based upon a handful of statements that are true in themselves we would never end up with the Biblical God. The Scriptures themselves testify that God's ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Our only real contact with God can be found in the person of Jesus Christ. But this is a great mystery as well. How could a just, omnipotent God send His only-begotten to son to die for poor, miserable sinners like us who when we met Him killed Him? There is no way of logically comprehending that or reasoning to that point. We accept what God says about Himself because He died and rose again from the dead. By faith we believe what God says but we would be utter fools to create a scenario in which God dying for us makes sense. If we think it makes sense then we do not know that we are sinners. Why on earth would an omnipotent God die for a murderer like me?
If we consider divorce and remarriage as an abstract study in law then we can call in the lawyers and each make a case for a particular understanding of the laws and by-laws that God has given to us in the great book of laws known as the Bible. But if we start with Jesus Christ all bets are off. We simply cannot understand the mind of the one giving the law and if we read the texts as something that we can do then we show no understanding of the one speaking. Jesus was speaking to those who thought they could keep the law and who wanted to read the text in a way that made it doable. Jesus said, “NO! You are all adulterers and murderers and you have no hope of getting better! I'm going to die for your adultery and your murder! If you insist on moral improvement as your ticket to the wedding feast you will be damned!”
Unfortunately, I don't have much hope that the PRC will change it's position on this issue. The process that would be required would be almost impossible. Unfortunately, the process itself makes it almost impossible to turn from any error. A remarried person coming from the outside who requested membership would be automatically denied membership and have no means of protest. More than likely the person would simply join another church body anyhow. It would require a person to already be a member of the PRC and divorce and then remarry. Excommunication would then take place and the person I suppose could appeal to synod. The person would be treated like dirt by many and all kinds of wonderful and fantastic stories would circulate about the person and the appeal to synod would be rejected without any real consideration of the Biblical arguments the person would make since synod would say that the matter had already been settled in the yonder days of Hoeksema. Such a person should probably locked up in some kind of mental health facility for subjecting his or herself to such a process in the first place. The person clearly enjoys punishment. None of this is to suggest that the ministers in the PRC are all agreed on the issue of divorce and remarriage. I know of at least one minister who holds to the view found in the Westminster Confession. I wouldn't be surprised if there are more. I don't know how they can act in good conscience and tell people that they may not become members of the church unless they sin by dissolving the second marriage but apparently my mind is too simple to make sense of such things. I don't understand how a minister can tell me that there is nothing unbiblical about homeschooling and then serve on a committee that casts out a minister who homeschools. I've spoken with PRC ministers who diligently carried out the teachings of the PRC on the issue of remmariage while hoping that they were doing the right thing. I've spoken to elders who also hold to the Westminster view but think that the view of the PRC makes sense from a practical perspective and it helps keep out the rampant divorce and remarriage found in all those other churches. But isn't this what the Pharisees were doing, at least part of the time? Creating human laws to keep people from breaking the real ones? God sending His only-begotten Son to die for me is not very practical. Turning from its current position would also probably cause some kind of division in the PRC and create one less PRC distinctive. Unfortunately, all denominations at various times forsake the truth in an attempt to preserve the institution. LCMS Inc. certainly does this and so we shouldn't expect PRC Inc. to be any different. Institutions will always develop whenever two or three gather together to worship but the institution must always be the slave of the Gospel. When preservation of the institution becomes the central goal then the institution loses all reason for existence. Fear of the disintegration of institution will always put a person in the same place as Jesus' opponents.
Posted by Chuck Wiese at 10:28 PM