The Grace Of Divorce and the Freedom Of Marriage

by Phil Johnson

A denominational policy statement on divorce and remarriage, approved by the Covenant Annual Meeting of 1976 and "updated by the board of ministry" was printed in the May 1988 issue of The Covenant Companion. This statement is the catalyst for the thoughts which follow. We apologize to readers who are not familiar with the Covenant or The Covenant Companion, but we trust that what is particular will be sufficiently clear and that our discussion is not so dependent upon the statement that it will be without value to those who have no access to it.

I proceed with this project with many misgivings. I ask your forgiveness for my p resumption in advance. I hope that this will be the beginning of a discussion of love and marriage and that it will not be intended or taken to be some sort of final word on the matter. God knows even better than we do, that in spite of the freedom God has given us, we are left with a lot of work and plenty with which to deal.

I. The Grace of Divorce

"Did you read the reprint of the Covenant statement on divorce and remarriage in the last Companion?" asked my friend.

"No. Is it in this issue?"

"Yes. I don' t know why they are publishing it now."

"How is it?"

"Not good."

After this conversation, I got out the Ma y Companion and read the statement. I am a lover of marriage, I see its blessings all around me, and I hope and pray that ours will last until death, but I, too, was troubled by the statement. Why? I asked myself. Who can fault it? Why did my friend not like it? The emphasis of the statement is, after all, upon redemption and healing.

The next morning, on my way to work, I realized what troubled me. The statement misses, I thought, the Grace and redemption of divorce itself. It is not necessary to use the categorical moral language used in the section, "The Problem of Divorce," to acknowledge that there is usually great pain for the persons involved when a divorce occurs. The pain does not begin with the divorce, however. Pain and hurt may lead to consideration of divorce and sometimes to actual divorce, but divorce itself is not the pain or the hurt. In spite of the pain that may accompany divorce, divorce is a redemptive grace, provided for our weakness to allow a new beginning. If the break divorce makes possible were not an option, the consequences would be more tragic.

Divorce is a structure of grace to marriages that survive as well as to those that come to an end through its provisions. Because divorce is a choice, continuing in marriage is a choice as well. Sometimes a problem which makes progress toward healing extremely difficult in a troubled marriage is that one of the partners continues to be married because he or she has no choice. A person's no-choice becomes a barrier to taking responsibility to work things out. It may preserve the marriage, which is a value, but it is not likely to bring relief to pain and hurt or to heal the relationship. A person does, in fact, have a choice because of the grace of divorce — one among many provisions, including the atonement, created for our weakness. Thanks be to God. The choice of divorce may be filled with problems, but it is legal, possible, and a citizen's right.

I think that not lifting up the redemptive role of divorce as a structure of Grace is a weakness in the policy. The policy does allow for remarriage. It would be difficult for the Covenant churches, and, I think, for protestant churches in general, to avoid participation in remarriage in spite of the strong words of Jesus, "whosoever marries her that was put away from her husband committeth adultery." {Luke 16:18). The Roman stand against remarriage has value, and I don't feel any need to convert them from their policy, but I don't want the fellowship that I am a part of to withhold a blessing on remarriage. I think it would be impolitic, judgmental, and that we would miss an opportunity for ministry and blessing to take a stand against for ministry and blessing to take a stand against remarriage. So, I appreciate the affirmation of remarriage in the Covenant policy.

The authors of the policy statement acknowledge three sources of authority: scripture, application of scripture to the contemporary social climate, and the actual practice of churches and pastors. It is not in scripture, but in the other two, that both remarriage and divorce find authority. (In addition to Luke 16:18, see Matt. 5:32 and Mark 10:11,12.) In the policy statement, remarriage does not receive the same negative scrutiny as divorce, suggesting, it would seem, that remarriage is more justifiable than divorce. It is inconsistent that the words of judgment and condemnation on divorce are allowed to stand without mitigating comment, whereas remarriage is justified.

There is no ultimate justification. We live by Grace on all fonts. The policy calls for a gracious healing response and suggests a rejoicing over the blessings and importance of marriage. For this I am glad. To the extent that this policy statement gives the Covenant fellowship and its pastors the authority and encouragement to open the doors of blessing which flow both ways, both through divorce and through marriage, the statement is a blessing. A clearer understanding of the blessing and redemption provided by divorce as a structure of Grace would add to the blessing of the policy.

II. The Freedom of Marriage

With respect to understanding the freedom of marriage which is also a structure of Grace, two things in addition to the experience of love and marriage have helped me. The first is the principle stated by Professor Hanspicker of Andover-Newton Theological School. In our class on the ministry he told us of a minister friend of his who asked couples who came to him to be married how getting married would make them more free. "Until you can answer that question, I will not marry you."

This question helps me to think of what freedom is and that there is no reason to move toward unfreedom. That is not Gospel.

From the point of view that freedom is a matter of having the maximum possible alternatives and a minimum of limits, getting married for freedom's sake is hard to justify. But if freedom is understood more personally and practically as being free to do what one wants or needs to do, marriage for lovers represents freedom to be together as they choose and want to be, under the control of no one but themselves, free to make love all day long if they choose. In addition to that freedom, the church, believing it is doing the work of God, offers God's complete blessing upon the couple in their activities of love.

Included with this blessing is the service of making the couple's parents publicly relinquish authority over their children by asking, in the case of the bride, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?" When a parent answers this question "I" or "We do", the bride's freedom is acknowledged.

When the scripture, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife," is read, the groom's freedom is acknowledged and blessed. From the point of view of two lovers what could be better or more freeing?

The committment of the community to free lovers for a good start is revealed by the provision found in Deuteronomy 24:5, "When a man hath taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business: but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken."

The second help I want to mention is "The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage" by Soren Kierkegaard. It is found in Volume II of Either/Or. (The literary structure of Either/Or needs a word of explanation if one is not familiar with it. The two volumes were published as edited by Victor Eremita. Volume I is marked Either/Or, A Fragment of Life, Edited by Victor Eremita, Part I Containing the papers of A, Copehagen, 1843. Volume II is marked Either/Or, A Fragment of Life Edited by Victor Eremita, Part II Containing the papers of B , Letters to A, Copenhagen, 1843. The 2 volumes are referred to in several ways. Vol. I is the aesthetic volume, Vol. II, the ethical. Vol. I contains the writings of the aesthete, which include: "The First Love," "The Rotation Method," and "Diary of a Seducer," among others. Vol. II contains the letters written to the aesthete by the ethicist — a Judge. In both cases Kierkegaard represents a position through his writers that is not necessarily hi s own. S. K. introduces these "papers" by having Victor Eremita tell a wonderful little story of how he found these papers in a second hand-secretary which he had purchased.)

Some questions that arise are: Does marriage preserve freedom over the long haul? Is it a servant of love or a bondage in which love cannot live? It may be wonderful for lovers looking for their own space, but what about when love is not such an overwhelming force or when you "fall out of love," when day to day living imposes its demands which often include hardships, and when the personalities of the ones who were once lovers seem to be inherently antagonistic? Freedom then might mean freedom to fall in love again with another in the service of the aesthetic ideal. The aesthetic friend to whom Kiekegaard's Judge writes the letter which he calls 'The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage" argues that marriage requires sacrifice of "first love" since "first love" cannot be constrained by committment of any sort.

The Judge shows that marriage offers here also its blessing and freedom. It provides a way for love to exist over time. It gives aesthetic love, "first love," a life in history. It provides a way to raise children and to survive economically. The Judge shows that the ethical character of marriage does not invalidate the aesthetic life of love.

Indeed, marriage provides a defense, one might say, against the demands of first love. Living by the aesthetic alone means that a person is obligated to be open to the possibility of "first love" with any other when it happens. If one is like Fyodor Karamozov, or a female counterpart, who never saw a woman he couldn't find the desire to seduce, serving the requirements of "first love" may be worth all the work and trouble it presents. It is true that we are encouraged both as Christians and as loving human beings to be open and loving with each person we meet and we are asked to go a second mile with others. Marriage gives us the authority to limit our responsibility. It gives us the authority to say no. For some of us it has been only a fantasy that we should be pressed in this way, but it provides freedom, nevertheless, even though it may be protection against a very remote possibility.

Any person who remains celibate — those who take a vow not to marry and those who choose to be celibate unless or until they should marry — uses the ethical to establish her or his freedom. The Bible, the church, and society have provided authority for that freedom in various ways. A vow of chastity, which includes a vow not to marry such as a Dominican brother of mine has taken, frees a person for relationships and ministries which are probably not possible without such a vow. My friend says that his vow of chastity frees him for "holy promiscuity" since it frees him to relate at the most intimate level with any person of either sex. The ministry of celibate persons over the years has been a great blessing and has greatly enriched our lives and culture, as the Apostle Paul, for one, perceived.

In marriage, however, we are focusing on the freedom provided for lovers. There are lovers who do not experience this particular blessing for freedom. There are lovers who do not and cannot depend upon marriage to consummate their love. This does not mean that these lovers are unfree or that their love is wrong. I think that freedom of marriage, whatever its origin as a social and human practicality or a divine institution, is a super bonum additum — an extra blessing, useful to many and needed by some of us in our weakness. Lovers can be free without it. They can be and often are blessed without it. God's blessings for lovers are not limited to or bound by marriage, but wonderful blessings and great freedom are in fact given to lovers who are married. Thanks be to God.

My conclusion, then, is that marriage is a wonderful gift in many important and practical ways, but it is not something that makes the married person more virtuous than someone else. It is not something to use to judge people who are outside its blessing. And, as wonderful as it is, there are times when it is salvation for persons to be freed of their vows through the grace of divorce.