Exceptions and Loopholes

Show Outline with Links


The downward spiral we are now riding when it comes to sexual ethics did not begin with Obergefell. It did not begin in the homosexual enclaves and bath houses. Homosexuals did not want to participate in the great marriage joke until after heterosexuals had turned it into the great marriage joke. But once the center had given way, and the widening gyre began, and easy divorce was first tolerated, then accepted, and then in some quarters celebrated, all the rest of this sexual clown car parade was inevitable.

And the pressures and realities connected to all of this are by no means absent in the conservative sectors of the church. For example, Wayne Grudem recently stated that he had reworked his views on whether abuse was grounds for divorce, and he had gone back to the text in response to a few horrendous situations he had encountered. Now this is an entirely appropriate thing to do, and I am not here disputing his textual work, one way or the other.

What I doing is pointing out that when there have been two scripturally legitimate grounds for divorce that have been slowly expanded into loopholes, then what makes us think this process will stop if we find that there are three scripturally legitimate grounds for divorce? If there is legitimacy here at all, then there is a border between legitimacy and illegitimacy, and that border will have to be articulated and defended by pastors and counselors with backbone.   

What I Am Not Talking About

When it comes to the question of the permanence of marriage, I hold to what I believe to be the standard Reformed position. Even though this is the last day of November, this is less a qualification than it is a circumscription—I am not attempting to prove anything one way or the other about this position. I am simply noting it as the place I am reasoning from.

And to be specific, I believe that marriage is created by God, not man, and that what God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Marriages are not simply contracts which can be voided when the parties to the contract feel like it. Marriage is a covenant, and God is one of the parties to the covenant. This means that a marriage cannot be dissolved except under the two basic conditions that are set forth in Scripture. Those two conditions I believe to be the infidelity of adultery, and willful desertion. When one of those two conditions pertain, I believe the party sinned against may obtain a lawful divorce, and in principle, is free to remarry.

And What I Am Talking About

A great deal depends on whether these two exceptions are treated as exceptions, or whether they get treated as increasingly elastic loopholes.

And so what do I mean by exceptions becoming loopholes? I mean that all adultery is infidelity, but not all infidelity, particularly in seed form, is the kind of adultery that grants the liberty of a divorce. If a husband ogles a magazine cover in the checkout line at the supermarket, then that is infidelity and Jesus warns us about it. But it is not the kind of adultery that triggers an acceptable divorce.

If abuse is shown to be a separate third category that allows for divorce, or if it is included under one of the existing two categories (as being tantamount to willful desertion), the opportunity is immediately created to do the same thing. And that is to say that abuse is grounds for divorce, and then proceed to significantly expand the definition of abuse. True abuse is something that cops can tell you about, as well as pastors. Say a man beats his wife up several times a week—that is abuse, and that would be what Grudem is talking about. But suppose the definition of abuse is expanded to include those instances when a husband wasn’t “there for her, when she needed him most.” What if it now includes a husband who won’t agree to something his wife really wants to do? And suppose that he puts his foot down in a rhetorical manner that indicated he wanted to be crowned as king of the meatheads?

A Quick Review

Here is a statement of the two exceptions as articulated by theologians who were not participating in what might be called our modern “exception inflation.”

“Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments, unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage; yet nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage; wherein a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it, not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case.”

WCF 24.6

There are three significant points to be made from this, and they each indicate that the Westminster Assembly contained a number of experienced pastors.

First, they noted that when it came to how people want to get out of unhappy marriages, they are apt to “study arguments.” They are people with an acceptable conclusion who are on the hunt for useable premises. This tendency is assigned to the corruption of man. We must be careful of this because we live in corrupt time.

Second, the two exceptions are stated. They say that there are no grounds for divorce except for these two situations. “Yet nothing but.” Adultery is the first situation, and that would be defined as sexual intercourse contrary to the standard of fidelity set down in Scripture. And note that the second condition is not simply “willful desertion.” It is “willful desertion” that can in “no way be remedied by the Church or by the civil magistrate.” In other words, there might be a desertion, but we still need to see if the pastor and elders, or perhaps the sheriff, can fetch the straying spouse back.

The third pastoral note is that these determinations should be made by third parties, and not by the disputants themselves.

The Case of Separation

Now what happens when you have a situation that is obviously intolerable, but the two exceptions above do not seem to pertain? It is intolerable because the cops are getting called every third night or so, but there is no sexual infidelity, and the husband, who is the aforementioned king of the meatheads, says that he is not deserting his wife, but really wants to remain married to her. What then?

I think a biblical case for separation (not divorce) can be made, and the basis for it is here:

“And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10–11).

1 Cor. 7:10-11 (KJV)

This is talking about a situation where the wife who departs from her husband does not have a biblical basis for a divorce (which would give her the right to remarry). Paul expressly excludes that option. And so Paul says that she should stay right where she is. He is saying this in the light of his cryptic “not I, but the Lord” phrasing.

I do not take this as Paul outlining the inspired parts of 1 Cor. 7, contrasting them with the mere Pauline opinion parts. Rather, I believe that Paul is referring to the Lord’s teaching on marriage in the course of His earthly ministry, where He was teaching in the context of Israel, where both husband and wife were members of the covenant. In that setting, the Lord gave us one legitimate basis for divorce, which was adultery. Paul is referring to that first exception here, and it is the basis for him saying that the wife must remain single if she leaves. If she does not remain unmarried, she becomes an adulteress—committing adultery against the king of the meatheads.

Elsewhere in this chapter, Paul says “I, not the Lord” and he is there talking about a new situation that had arisen. This is apostolic instruction, not dominical instruction. The gospel had by this point gone out into the Gentile world, and the new and relatively common situation of mixed marriages was presenting pastoral questions. One of the partners had been converted, and the other one had not been converted. So the Corinthians wrote Paul and asked if it was okay to be married to a pagan. Yes, Paul says. To have sex with him? Yes, Paul says. But what if there are kids? Won’t they be contaminated (1 Cor. 7:14)? No, Paul says. They will be holy.

Now in this setting, Paul is saying that he recommends against separating, but if she separates against this advice, what does he require? He requires that the woman who depart remain unmarried, or else to be reconciled to her husband. It is clear that he requires this because if she takes up with another man, she will be committing adultery. That means the first century church had the option of a married couple living apart, but where there were still marital obligations in place. In other words, what we would call a separation.

And here is where things can go off the rails. This is where exceptions can become loopholes.

In our pastoral ministry, there have been situations where it really was necessary for the wife to “move out of range.” And our church has consistently sought to provide wives with the kind of protection that a church can give in that kind of situation. Men are sinners.

The Hard Part

But, as should always be remembered, women are sinners also. A wife who is abused by her husband should obviously be protected by her church. But a wife who falsely accuses her husband of abuse should be disciplined by her church. Believe all women is the devil’s lie. This is just another way of saying that husbands, as members of the congregation, require the protection of the church as well. This protection must include things like due process, two and three witnesses, and judges who don’t come to the weighing of the evidence with minds already made up.

There, I said it. Under the cover of a waning no quarter November, I come out squarely in favor of justice and equity. Make of it what you will.

Today’s Giveaway Deals

Note the plural! I said deals.

On marriage, we have Federal Husband available today, and it is here. And because you all have been such good sports all through November, and it is Advent now, we are offering the bonus gift of God Rest Ye Merry, which is here.