The following articles are positional documents written by the elders to give clarity on how we understand particular aspects of church life that are not clearly expressed in the Statement of Faith. These documents are not binding in the same way the Statement of Faith or church covenant are, but instead help the congregation understand how the elders intend to teach, lead, and counsel on various issues. If you have suggestions for other statements, please feel free to submit a request to the elders.
We, the elders of Covenant Hope Church, after prayerful searching of the Scriptures and discussion, conclude that, while Scripture is clear that believers only are to be baptized, the age at which a believer is to be baptized is not directly addressed in Scripture.
What is clear in Scripture is that Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Membership fit together.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the Biblical covenant signs marking the entry into, and renewal of, our membership in the church. If a person shows evidence of being born again (regenerate), we would not want to withhold baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Additionally, if we would affirm one’s admittance into the Universal Church, recognizing or administering a believer’s baptism, then we would not want to exclude that person from the local church, including all the benefits and responsibilities of that position (discipleship and accountability, serving in the church, member meetings, public care list, church discipline, etc).
According to our constitution, to qualify for membership “a person must be a believer in Jesus Christ who gives evidence of regeneration.” As elders and church members, we are called to assess the credibility of a member candidate’s profession of faith.
Though the baptisms in the New Testament seem largely to have occurred soon after the initial conversion, all of the individuals we can read of are both adults and coming from a non-Christian context. Both of these factors would tend to lend credibility to their profession of faith. The credibility of the conversion is the prime consideration, even though the effect of baptism on the individual candidate and the church community are legitimate secondary concerns.
We believe that the normal age of baptism should be when regeneration becomes naturally evident to the church community. This would normally be when the child has matured and is progressively leaving the God-given dependence on their parents, and is beginning to live more self-consciously, making their own choices, displaying a God-given wisdom which marks one who has felt the tug of the world, the flesh and the devil, but has decided to follow Christ, despite these temptations. While it is difficult to set a certain number of years which are required for baptism, it is appropriate to consider the candidate’s maturity.
With the consent and encouragement of Christian parents who are members, we will carefully consider requests for baptism for a young person but would urge parents toward patient caution. Of course, children can be converted. We pray that none of our children ever know any lengthy period of conscious rebellion against God. The question raised by baptism is the ability of others to be fairly confident of their profession of faith. The malleable nature of children is a gift from God and is to be used to bring them to maturity. This nature should also give us caution in assuming the permanence of desires, dreams, affections, and decisions of children. Nevertheless, should the young person desire to pursue baptism and membership in the normal course set out by the church, we will examine them on a case-by-case basis, with the involvement of the parents.
In the event of young persons from non-Christian families coming to the church for an extended period of time, professing faith and giving evidence of the credibility of this profession, requests for baptism and membership would be considered without the involvement of the parents. While all the previous comments on the nature of immaturity stand, the fact that such a young person would be doing so despite indifference, or even opposition, from their parents, could be evidence for the reality of their conversion.
Nothing in this statement should be construed as casting doubt about the legitimacy of the baptism of any existing members, regardless of how young they were when they were baptized. Because they have continued in the faith into their adult years, we assume the legitimacy of their initial profession made at baptism. The question we are concerned with is looking forward, not backward.
Our Membership Covenant states, “We will earnestly work to bring up any who may be under our care in the training and instruction of the Lord, and by a loving example and speaking the gospel, seek the salvation of our family and friends.” Our children are the most important non-members regularly attending our church. We long for our young ones to come to a true and lasting faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Question: Are there legitimate biblical grounds for divorce? If so, what are they, and how should that affect our counsel and response to pastoral situations?
Thesis: Scripture permits a Christian to pursue divorce in cases where the unfaithful spouse has broken the marriage covenant, though the general posture of the elder board should be one of encouraging reconciliation. There are two biblical grounds for divorce: sexual infidelity and abandonment (including forms of abuse).
“In the development of one’s understanding of the ‘exception clause’ one must be careful to form a view based on an unbiased reading of the corpus of biblical material on divorce and remarriage. As with all debated biblical doctrines, it is all too easy to craft one’s view of divorce and remarriage in light of past experiences, personal emotions, or with pragmatic intentions.” – Köstenberger 232
We should state at the onset that divorce always a bad thing. The Lord clearly tells us, “I hate divorce” (Mal. 2:16).
Positively, part of what makes marriage so beautiful is that it is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his church (Eph. 5). Thus, any time a divorce occurs, it is tragic, not only because it upends the intended order of God’s creation (Beale, 41), but it tells a lie about the faithfulness of our Savior to us, for “even when we are faithless, he remains faithful. For he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
The purpose of this memo (and following discussion) is therefore not to question whether divorce can ever be good. It cannot. The purpose of this memo is to help the elders consider whether and when there are times that divorce is permissible in response to the reality of a sinful, fallen world.
The contrast between OT Law and rabbinic practices and the teachings of Jesus and Paul are striking on this point. There are times where the OT Law (and certainly the rabbinic interpretations of that Law) requires divorce—particularly in cases of marital unfaithfulness. Yet Jesus and Paul do not command divorce. Instead, they use language such as ‘permit’ or ‘are free.’ This is an important posture for us to retain. Köstenberger and Jones note: —“Paul is not giving a casuistic reason for divorce [i.e., a scenario where divorce is the necessary response]; rather, like Moses, he is recognizing that divorces do occur in a fallen world and giving directions to govern such situations.” (Köstenberger, 235)
The first ground is stated by Jesus in two occasions in the Gospel of Matthew. The first occurrence in during the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31-32). As part of his teaching on the Law, and following his teaching that lust is equivalent to committing adultery, Jesus states:
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
The second place the exception clause is mentioned is Matthew 19:3-9 when Jesus is similarly teaching on the difference between OT Law and the Law of Christ:
‘And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed 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.”’
In both cases, you can see the ESV has translated the term porneia as ‘sexual immorality’. There is considerable debate about what exactly qualifies as porneia. The existing positions on what this word means are:
Both views A and B presume that porneia is speaking about a sexual sin that would make marriage unlawful under Jewish civil law (Köstenberger, 230).
I would argue that option C—porneia as referring to immoral sexual intercourse, or sexual infidelity is the most likely meaning. Here I am relying heavily on a memo prepared by Matthew Merker for the CHBC elders. Among the strongest arguments for this is the use of porneia in the Greek OT and the NT as exclusively in reference to immoral sexual intercourse. Paul also uses the term porneia to describe a Christian sleeping with a prostitute (1 Cor. 6). The physical action of intercourse is key to the breaking of the one-flesh union which is central to the biblical understanding of marriage.
As for why Jesus used a term that could be construed as both more general and more specific than simply saying, “adultery”, I think the simplest answer is context. The first exception clause follows his teaching on lust and adultery. Using the word ‘adultery’ (moicheia) directly after stating that lust in the same as committing adultery could have sounded as though Jesus was throwing the door to divorce wide open to whenever someone lusts, divorce is legitimate. Yet contextually, it is clear that the disciples understand him to be narrowing the parameters of legitimate divorce. Matthew perhaps chose to use this term to make it clear that he is permitting divorce only in the scenario of physical unfaithfulness, and not including emotional unfaithfulness.
Summary: Based on the exception clause of Matthew 5/19 divorce is permissible in cases of a physical violation of the one-flesh union within a marriage.
Sidenote: I suspect duration of time from when adultery occurs should also play a role in the legitimacy of a divorce. For example, if a woman’s husband was unfaithful once five years ago, is she permitted to divorce him? This sort of factor should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Paul also provides an ‘exception clause’ of his own, when discussing whether converts should remain married to their unbelieving spouse. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is exhorting believers to remain married to their unbelieving spouse, if those spouses consent:
“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him…But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” (1 Cor. 7:12, 13, 15).
(Once again, the context is promoting of a high view of marriage—even higher than the Old Testament!)
Paul’s words seem very clear here. In the case where a spouse chooses to abandon their partner, the faithful spouse is ‘not enslaved’ but is free. A wife is not bound to the marriage after a husband chooses to abandon it and her (and vice-versa).
The scenario is that of one spouse believing, and one not. However, this shouldn’t be exclusively applied to a situation where only one spouse professes faith. The act of abandoning a spouse in and of itself constitutes a clear rejection of the Christian faith, even if the one abandoning professes to still believe (one thinks of John’s words in 1 John 2:19, ‘they went out from us because they were not of us’). The point at which the believer’s posture should shift from seeking reconciliation to resignation requires wisdom.
Charles Hodge’s summary is helpful: “If the unbeliever broke up the marriage, the Christian partner was thereby liberated from the contract.” (From Newheiser, 223). In other words, the believer is not bound to the covenant stipulations of the marriage relationship. I suggest this should not only be understood to mean that a believer may passively consent to a divorce initiating by their deserting spouse. It should also mean that initiating divorce may become a permissible course of action for the believer, even if the unbeliever is not pursuing the legal action, if by their behavior they have made clear that they have abandoned the marriage.
Yet what should be understood as abandonment? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find much discussion on this at all. Below are some options.
I want to suggest that options A and B are most straightforwardly examples of abandonment. Options C and D may constitute abandonment, though likely would require case-by-case consideration.
Summary: Based on Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7, abandonment of one spouse by the other is a biblically legitimate ground for being divorced.
Sexual infidelity and abandonment are the two grounds that are clearly stated in Scripture. Yet many theologians and ethicists propose that physical abuse should also be included as a third ground for divorce.
Many evangelicals are quick to affirm abuse as a legitimate ground of divorce simply on the basis of its horrendousness. Yet as those who have received our faith from the Lord, we must be bound to Scripture in our defense of a position.
The typical argument is that physical abuse is an abandonment of the marriage-covenant responsibilities—namely for a husband to protect his wife. Thus it is a kind of abandonment of the spouse, even if they remain living in the same home. This view is proposed even by Calvin and Luther in their commentaries.
Personally, I am not quite satisfied with this argument, as I think it stretches the meaning of abandonment in a way I’m not comfortable with. That said, the existence of both Matthew 5 and 1 Corinthians 7 provokes a question for me that I think provides a better biblical basis for seeing physical abuse as a legitimate ground for divorce.
In Matthew 5, Jesus speaks as though sexual immorality is the only exception he grants for a valid divorce (Schreiner, 779). And yet Paul (who followed the teaching of Jesus) says in the case of desertion, the faithful spouse is not bound. At face value, it seems as though Paul held to one more exception than our Lord permitted. Of course, that is not an acceptable conclusion for us as Bible-believing Christians. So how should we read Paul in light of Jesus’ statement? In other words, how do they agree with each other?
I propose the answer is that both sexual infidelity and abandonment are breaking the one-flesh bond of the marriage covenant. In other words, Paul is demonstrating that the underlying principle to Jesus’ exception clause is centered on the integrity of the covenant bonds. When those bonds are broken by one spouse (whether by bringing another person into the marriage bed or by leaving it altogether), the other spouse is permitted to divorce them—an action which simply formalizes what has already functionally occurred: the breaking of the marriage bonds.
In this sort of understanding, abuse fits more clearly under the biblical ground for divorce. It is the one other category of behavior that can destroy the bonds of the marriage covenant. One ethicist calls it ‘constructive’ desertion—the one partner’s evil conduct ends the marriage because it causes the other partner to leave (cited in Newheiser, 263).
What should constitute as abuse?
There is of course some ambiguity as to what sort of abuse merits dissolution of the marriage and what does not. It is a little bit more of a sliding scale than physical absence or physical intercourse with another person (perhaps this is why it is not explicitly stated as a ground in Scripture). In all likelihood, this must be discussed on a case-by-case basis.
When should screaming matches, verbal threats of violence, or pushing during arguments tick over into being understood as abuse, or at least indications of serious abuse? It’s generally unclear. Yet the following list of scenarios from Newheiser is a powerful and helpful list for showing the way that different forms of abuse can be toxic and destructive to the bonds of marriage.
I do not list these all as examples I definitely agree should constitute grounds for divorce, but they are helpful in filling out the category of abuse:
These heartbreakingly real examples demonstrate that abuse is both clearly destructive, and yet also often ambiguous. The fact that it is a difficult to define category should not cause us to shy away from recognizing that it may necessitate divorce.
In terms of discerning when abuse becomes serious enough for such a step, there seem to be two main factors: intensity and/or regularity.
Protecting the abused spouse
Abuse is often difficult to discern. Yet even in unclear situations, we must be willing to move quickly to address the physical safety of the abused spouse (and any children present). Though discerning whether abuse charges are truthful or not (or whether the level or kind of abuse merits divorce) may take time, we should feel no hesitation in taking steps to physically remove a potentially endangered spouse (and children!) from a dangerous situation. This can consist of simply physical separation for a season—a season that would be aimed at discerning reality of the situation, as well as encouraging repentance, reconciliation, and rebuilding of trust.
Summary: Abuse may also constitute grounds for divorce, as it breaks the covenant bonds (one flesh union) of marriage.
I have tried to only use words like ‘permit’ in reference to divorce, because I think that is the general attitude of Scripture.
In most situations, our posture should be one encouraging reconciliation as far as is possible within a marriage. Again, “God hates divorce.” The radical message of the free forgiveness of God is demonstrated vividly when estranged spouses work to reconcile and heal their relationship.
Yet we should understand ourselves as elders to be limited in authority in these situations. We cannot force a cuckolded spouse to remain in a marriage if he wants out. It is permitted.
However, there may also arise occasions where we may need to actually encourage a member to pursue divorce. For instance, in an abusive marriage, the abused spouse may feel guilt and obligation to stay and a sense that they deserve such treatment. Or there may be a cycle of infidelity, but the faithful spouse continues to hold onto hope and a duty to the marriage even after it is continually disregarded by their spouse. These situations certainly need to be dealt with case-by-case. At this point I simply want to introduce the concept that we may at times need to not only permit but actively encourage divorce.
Here I simply want to propose some additional topics around this issue that we likely need to discuss in the near future:
Question: Is remarriage after divorce biblically permissible for believers? If so, what factors should influence when it is or is not permissible?
Thesis: Wherever there are biblical grounds for a divorce, there is freedom to remarry.
This paper follows on and depends on the work done in the memo on divorce previously presented to the elders. The statement the elders approved following that discussion is as follows:
“Scripture permits a Christian to pursue divorce in cases where the unfaithful spouse has broken the marriage covenant; though the general posture of the elders should be to encourage reconciliation. There are two biblical grounds for divorce: sexual infidelity and abandonment (and forms of abuse).”
The issue of remarriage very naturally follows on from this topic.
Because of the complexity of the remarriage question, after addressing the most basic version of the question, we will examine three scenarios or case studies to help us apply the biblical principle to situations we will likely face: a believer who has been unbiblically divorced and remarried; a believer who unbiblically divorced and married before their conversion; and a believer who unbiblically divorced before conversion and has been married or wants to pursue marriage as a believer.
Most evangelicals take one of two positions on remarriage—either they hold that divorce and remarriage are never permitted (eg Boice and Piper), or that remarriage is permitted wherever divorce is (majority view: Carson, MacArthur, John Stott, etc.).
There are only a few (such as Gordon Wenham, Bob Gundry) who argue that divorce is permitted, but not remarriage. These argue that though a biblically divorced person is no longer obligated to maintain the marital bonds, they are still bound to that person in God’s eyes (until death). They would particularly point to Jesus’ statements in Mark 10 and Luke 16 that state that a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery (which have no exception clause). They argue that therefore remarriage is always forbidden, except in the case of death of one of the former spouses.
Similarly, they argue that when Paul says the spouse abandoned by an unbelieving spouse is not bound or enslaved, he is arguing that they don’t have to stay in the marriage—but he is not saying that they are free to pursue another marriage. Given those objections, I will examine the those texts raised, and show that exegetically, these objections are not well-founded.
I will argue that “when divorce is permitted, remarriage is permitted.”
What is the meaning of the phrase “not bound” in 1 Corinthians 7:15?
Contextually, Paul is discussing what a believer should do if they are married to an unbeliever. He argues that they should remain married, because the marriage is holy before God, even though it is between someone in and someone outside of the new covenant. However, “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved (or bound) God has called you to peace” (1 Cor. 7:15).
As an elder board, we have established that, at the least, this language means that they are free to divorce the unbelieving spouse when a free conscience.
However some, such as John Piper or Gordon Wenhem, argue that this language of ‘not bound’ refers only to the commitments within the marriage covenant—but does not mean that they are free to remarry. In my opinion, this seems to be connected to an implicit (and generally unhelpful) idea that marriage ‘under God’ is distinct from and more permanent than marriage ‘under the authority of the state’, something I will discuss below in Section 2.
The meaning of ‘not bound’ is clarified by the ending of 1 Corinthians 7:39:“A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” Here, though discussing a different situation, the same language—‘bound’—is contrasted with free to marry. Therefore it seems Paul uses the language of not being bound to mean free to marry.
All three synoptic gospels quote Jesus as stating that whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her (Mark 10:11), commits adultery (Luke 16:18), or makes her commit adultery (Matt. 5:32). Only Matthew provides the exception clause regarding sexual immorality (porneia).
The fact that Mark and Luke provide the statement as an absolute, with no exception, has raised the question for many as to how to reconcile or harmonize the statement.
One solution has been to say that Matthew is only permitting divorce in the case of sexual immorality, not remarriage. This reconciles the difference by arguing that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus as forbidding remarriage, but Matthew helps clarify that divorce is sometimes permissible.
On the face of reading Matthew 5, this has some plausibility. Matthew says, ‘I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’
However, Jesus addresses divorce again in Matthew 19, and there he says “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality and marries another, commits adultery” (verse 9). This clearly ties the exception to remarriage as well as divorce.
So should the meaning of porneia be governed by the lack of exception clauses in Mark and Luke or should we under Mark and Luke to be assuming the sexual immorality exception? As discussed in the divorce memo, this first option is exegetically unsound, and is “jarring to the original flow of the passages.”
Based on the conclusions presented on these textual questions, I believe that Christians are not prohibited from remarriage following a biblically permissible divorce. In other words, if we determine that a member was divorced on the basis of the biblical categories of sexual infidelity and abandonment (and forms of abuse), then they are permitted to marry again, to another believer (though of course, matters of wisdom and prudence may influence whether it is advisable or not).
This permission only resolves half the question for us. We must also ask the question as to what obligations do remain in the case of an unbiblical divorce? That leads to our next point.