Until Death Do Us Part
Prof. David J. Engelsma
Chapter 1 - The Sad Case of
Chapter 2 - The Scandal and
Chapter 3 - The Hillsdale
Chapter 4 - The Remarriage
of the Guilty Party
Chapter 5 - More Light on
Divorce and Remarriage: The Westminster Confession of Faith and
Chapter 6 - Marriage: A
Chapter 7 - Marriage: A
Chapter 8 - Narrow is the
Way: The Argument from Remarriage to Homosexual Relationships
The eight essays on marriage, divorce, and remarriage
in this booklet appeared originally as editorials in the Reformed
magazine, the Standard Bearer.
In certain, important respects, the essays advance
the argument for marriage as a lifelong bond beyond that which I have
made in two, earlier books, Marriage, the Mystery of Christ & the
Church: The Covenant-Bond in Scripture and History (RFPA, rev. ed.
1998) and Better to Marry: Sex and Marriage in I Corinthians
6 & 7 (RFPA, 1993). One such advance is the demonstration that
permission of the remarriage of the "innocent party" in a divorce
necessarily implies, and invariably leads to, the right also of the
guilty party to remarry.
In view of the increasingly strong pressure on
churches to accept homosexual relationships, the essay, "Narrow is the
Way," is timely. It shows that one of the main reasons for the churches'
acceptance of homosexual relationships is these same churches' prior
acceptance of the divorces and remarriages of heterosexuals in the face
of the clear prohibition of Scripture.
One doctrine of marriage, and one only, guards the
true church of Jesus Christ against every corruption of marriage and
preserves the holy institution among the covenant people of God.
Marriage is the intimate bond of love between one man and one woman for
life. Only death dissolves the bond. To be more precise, only God
dissolves the bond, and He dissolves it only by death.
This is what all married persons swore to in the vow
of the traditional, Christian marriage form: "Until death us do part."
Prof. David J. Engelsma
Protestant Reformed Seminary
Sad Case of Bert Zandstra
Bert Zandstra is a 30-year old adulterer.
Married with three little children, he fell in love
with a younger woman. He then abandoned his wife and children, to live
with his lover. Within a year, he divorced his wife and married the
object of his lust. Whether she too had been married and had children,
so that Bert Zandstra destroyed two families in his passion, is not
clear. It makes no difference to the story.
Bert Zandstra's is a sad case.
What makes his case still sadder is that Bert
Zandstra sinned against better knowledge. He was a church member. He was
member of a Reformed church. The church is conservative. It claims to be
a true church of Jesus Christ, based solidly on the "Three Forms of
Unity," if not the only true church. When Bert Zandstra left his family,
to take up with his paramour, the consistory admonished him. He quickly
left the church, asking for his membership papers.
Zandstra moved to a town some 60 miles from his old
home and church. There within a year he married his new wife and set
about making a new start in life. This included church life. Bert and
the new Mrs. Zandstra began attending regularly the Reformed church in
town. It is a congregation in the same denomination as the church that
Bert left a year earlier. It is a sister church in the federation with
the church 60 miles away of which the original Mrs. Zandstra is a member
with her, and Bert's, children. Soon Bert and his second wife appeared
at the consistory meeting asking to be admitted to the church as members
in good standing.
Now the sad case of Bert Zandstra becomes tragic.
The Reformed church accepted Mr. and Mrs. Bert
Zandstra as members. It worked with them first, especially Bert. It
charged him with sin and required confession. It looked for evidence of
sorrow in Bert's attitude. Bert even came to cry some tears over what he
had done a year or two earlier. The church forgave him in the name of
Jesus. The consistory had him write a letter to his first wife,
expressing that he was sorry that he had sinned against her and asking
for her forgiveness. In a postscript, the letter added that one day,
when the children had grown up, Bert would also confess to them. On a
certain Sunday morning, the minister read an announcement to the
congregation, informing them of Bert's repentance and of the admission
of him and his new wife to the fellowship of the church.
Why, then, some will ask, is this a sad case?
Bert and the second Mrs. Zandstra are happy, are they
not? They are now good church members, are they not? There is already
talk that Bert may be deacon, even elder, someday. Has not the church
earnestly worked for repentance? Did not Bert show sorrow to the point
of tears? Who dares to speak of a sad case?
Yes, there are, unfortunately, the original Mrs.
Zandstra, now alone, and three children growing up without a father. It
could be wished that this were different. But that is the way life is:
there are hardships. And life must go on.
Nevertheless, the case of Bert Zandstra is a sad
case. Nor is this merely a personal opinion. It is the judgment of God
upon this case and all who are involved, with the exception of the
original, and true, Mrs. Zandstra and her children. This is the judgment
of God in His Word, which will stand regardless of the contrary words of
Bert Zandstra and of the Reformed churches that are conniving at his
Bert Zandstra is an adulterer, an impenitent
adulterer, according to God's Word: "Whosoever shall put away his wife,
and marry another, committeth adultery against her" (Mark 10:11). So
also is his new wife: ... and whosoever shall marry her (or him) that
is divorced committeth adultery" (Matt. 5:32b). No adulterer or
adulteress will inherit the kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:19-21).
The Reformed church that has admitted him and his new
wife to the fellowship of the congregation has admitted a man and a
woman to the Lord's Table who by their life "declare themselves
unbelieving and ungodly," to use the language of Question 82 of the
Heidelberg Catechism. The consistory has profaned the covenant and
brought the wrath of God down upon the whole congregation. The
denomination that tolerates and approves such wicked behaviour on the
part of a member and on the part of a local church shares in the guilt
and exposes itself to the divine judgment. One certain, dreadful aspect
of the divine judgment will be that the number of Bert Zandstras in the
church will increase and multiply (I Cor. 5:6).
Bert Zandstra is fictitious. He represents real men
(and women), as his case represents real cases, in the Reformed Churches
in the Netherlands ("liberated"). But he is imaginary. The editor of the
church paper of this denomination, De Reformatie, invented him so
that the editor could write about such real cases in his churches in a
concrete, vivid way. In three articles in De Reformatie, under
the rubric, "Church Life," Prof. Dr. M. te Velde urged the re-admittance
of such as Bert Zandstra into the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands
("liberated") in the way outlined above (see De Ref., 18 Mei; 25
Mei; and 1 Juni 1996).
We recognize that the editor of De Reformatie
is concerned lest readmittance of the Bert Zandstras become too easy. He
fears that the churches are, in fact, accepting the Bert Zandstras
without confession of sin and reconciliation. He has good and
important things to say about the need today for ministers to preach
sharply against divorce. He calls on the members of the congregation to
pray for and talk to married persons whose marriages are troubled. But
in the end, he and his churches take Bert Zandstra back, remarried.
This is a sad case.
It is a sad case, first, because of the nature of the
sin. Divorcing his wife and abandoning his children, the adulterer broke
the vow that he made to God at his marriage and the vow, thrice
repeated, that he made to God at the baptism of his children. Divorcing
his wife, he not only cruelly injures her but also likely causes her to
commit adultery, and perish everlastingly, as Christ teaches in Matthew
5:32. For now it is likely that she will remarry, "and whosoever shall
marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." He himself tramples
upon that ordinance of God that is fundamental both to society and to
the church and that has the glorious significance that it symbolizes the
covenant of God with His people in Christ (Ezek. 16; Eph. 5:22ff.). He
dishonours God, and he hates his nearest neighbours, his own wife and
It is a sad case, second, because of the faulty
handling of the case, church politically. Bert Zandstra is allowed to
seek readmission to the denomination in another congregation
(hypothetically, Boshuizen) than the congregation that he left
(hypothetically, Hoogbergen). This is permitted by the church, even
though he lives only 60 miles from the church that he left. But there in
Hoogbergen are the elders who knew his case well and who worked with him
when he fell into sin. There is the body of Christ that he offended and
then forsook. The autonomy of the local church and, with this, the Dordt
church order's prohibition against one church's lording it over another
church demand that a penitent Zandstra betake himself to the church
which he left, when he seeks readmission.
It is a sad case, third, because the gospel-grace of
repentance is corrupted both by Bert Zandstra and by the Reformed
Churches in the Netherlands ("liberated"). Repentance is not mere
acknowledgment, under pressure, that one has sinned, not even when the
confession is made public. Nor is repentance a mere feeling of sorrow,
not even when this feeling produces a few tears.
After all, even Bert Zandstra, before he falls
pleasurably off to sleep in the arms of his young wife, must have a
fleeting thought of the real Mrs. Zandstra, crying alone in her bed, as
well as of three little children without a father.
Repentance is heartfelt sorrow over one's sin against
God that turns in abhorrence from that sin. The penitent sinner turns
from his sin to God, not only as one seeking forgiveness but also as one
fleeing his sin, resolved to live now according to the will of God (Heidelberg
Catechism, L.D. 33).
The repentance of a man who says, "I am sorry," while
living deliberately and contentedly in his sin is hypocrisy. It is
disgusting to God. It meets with no forgiveness from Him, regardless
what a church may say.
Let Bert Zandstra bring forth works worthy of
repentance. These works are not that he lives faithfully with his new
wife. These works are that he stop committing adultery with a woman who
is not his lawful wife in the sight of God. The church must not brush
this off by saying that once the man has remarried "the way of return to
the first marriage has been cut off." Perhaps this is so. But the way of
breaking with his adulterous marriage has not been cut off. The church
faithful to the Word of Jesus Christ will say to Bert Zandstra, "Are you
truly repentant? Do you now indeed know your despicable sin against God,
your wife, your children, and the woman to whom you are now married?
Then you will no longer live with your new wife. This is part of genuine
repentance, and the proof of the reality of it."
The gospel is at stake here: the free grace of God in
Jesus Christ that forgives sins and reconciles the sinner to God and the
church is a grace bestowed and received only in the way of repentance.
And repentance is such a sorrow over sin as breaks with the sin.
Therefore, salvation is also at stake here. Bert Zandstra goes to hell,
as does his new wife. Only now he goes merrily to hell, supposing that
all is well with his soul. The Reformed church is responsible.
How frivolous Zandstra's repentance really is comes
out in his behaviour toward his real wife and children. The church
permits him to write his wife a letter confessing his sin against her.
From 60 miles away, he writes her a letter! One imagines the letter:
Dear Mrs. Bert Zandstra,
This is to inform you that I am sorry that I
sinned against you. Please forgive me. Tell the children that I am
Were such a man sorry, truly sorry by the grace
worked by the Spirit of Christ, he would crawl from Boshuizen to
Hoogbergen on his hands and knees. He would confess to his wife and
children to their faces in tears. He would assure them that he now finds
it absolutely impossible to live with the other woman, as impossible as
Christ finds it to live with another than His church. And he would plead
with his wife to have him back, if she possibly could.
If the man sends a letter, his wife should throw it
in the wastebasket unopened.
It is a sad case, fourth, because it shows that the
Reformed Churches in the Netherlands ("liberated") have caved in to the
world. They have caved in to the world, not in some incidental matter
but in the fundamental matter of marriage. Marriage is basic to God's
continuing His covenant in the line of the generations of His chosen
people. Marriage is the earthly symbol of God's covenant with His people
in Christ. The articles in De Reformatie make clear that the
occasion for procedures to accept the Bert Zandstras and their new wives
is an "epidemic" of divorces and remarriages in the churches. The
churches become worldly. They cannot withstand the pressure of the
godless, adulterous, faithless world. It is not so much that wicked
members divorce and remarry as it is that the churches make their peace
with the sin. They permit Bert Zandstra and his new wife to sit at the
Lord's Table. This is shame to the church. This is scandal to the
saints. This is dishonour to God and His Christ.
If this is happening in the Reformed Churches in the
Netherlands ("liberated"), it is happening also in most of the other
Reformed churches in the Netherlands.
It is happening in the conservative Reformed and
Presbyterian churches in the United States as well.
For the case of Bert Zandstra is sad, fifth, in that
it shows the bitter fruit of the erroneous conception of marriage that
has prevailed generally in the Reformed churches. This is the view of
marriage as a contract that sin and sinners can break. Until recently,
sounder Reformed and Presbyterian churches have restricted the right of
divorce and remarriage to the "innocent party," that is, the husband or
wife whose mate has committed adultery. The churches have forbidden
remarriage to the guilty party. They have not allowed the Bert Zandstras
membership in their fellowship.
Now the churches approve the remarriage of the
party. Church membership is open to them. Men and women may divorce
and remarry for any reason and be received as members in good standing
in the congregations. This is actually what is going on in many, if not
most, of the churches that loudly proclaim their conservatism. Many in
our country do not write this for the public. They are not honest, as is
the editor of De Reformatie. In their public utterances, they
insist that only the "innocent" or "deserted" party may remarry. In the
life of their churches, guilty parties—the Bert Zandstras—are received
with their new mates. In this country too, it is now an epidemic.
This is what it comes to, when the church does not
confess and practice the lifelong, unbreakable bond of marriage.
The sad case of Bert Zandstra.
Scandal and Silence
The ethical scandal in evangelical and
Reformed churches today is unbiblical divorce and the remarriage that
almost certainly follows. By "scandal," I do not only mean iniquitous
conduct that blatantly violates the clear command of Holy Scripture. But
I refer to behaviour that gives occasion to the ungodly to mock and
reject the gospel and that causes many to stumble into sin and perish
everlastingly. It is scandal such as Jesus had in mind in Matthew 18:6:
"But whoso shall offend (Greek: scandalize) one of these little ones
which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged
about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."
This warning is especially fitting regarding the
scandal of divorce and remarriage, for innumerable children of
professing Christians are the spiritual casualties of this sin.
An Eerie Silence
About this scandal, there is almost total silence in
the evangelical, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches. In view of the
prevalence and destructive power of the evil and in view of the
importance of marriage and the family for both state and church, the
silence is eerie.
The world of North America maintains similar silence
about the same evil. Divorce and remarriage are rampant. The
consequences for nations and society are disastrous, particularly the
ruin of the children, surely a nation's most valuable resource. Divorce
(with remarriage squarely in view) is the main social evil in the United
States. Not racism! Not sexism! Not poverty! Not the environment! But
divorce! The destruction of marriage and, with it, the destruction of
the home and family! By the institution of God at creation, the family
is fundamental to human life on earth, and marriage is basic to the
family (Gen. 1, 2).
Of late, a few officials in government acknowledge
the problem. They propose remedies. One is that the state frown on
"no-fault" divorce. Another is that those who intend to marry be
encouraged to opt for a special, lifelong "covenant" of marriage (as
though every man and woman who marry are not, in fact, bound to a
lifelong marriage-covenant by virtue of God's institution itself).
For the most part, however, the social reformers and
the vocal advocates of "family values" have nothing to say about divorce
and remarriage. The reason is that the evil is widespread and
entrenched. Condemnation of divorce and remarriage would be unpopular.
It would lose votes for the party and the candidate. Besides, many of
the social reformers, advocates of "family values," and politicians are
themselves divorced and remarried.
Unbelieving teacher and educational critic, Allan
Bloom, called the attention of North America to society's strange
silence on divorce in his bestseller, The Closing of the American
Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1987). Lamenting the harmful effects that
the divorce of their parents have on the bright young people who attend
the University of Chicago, the University of Chicago professor wrote:
Of course, many families are unhappy. But that is
irrelevant. The important lesson that the family taught was the
existence of the only unbreakable bond, for better or for worse,
between human beings. The decomposition of this bond is surely
America's most urgent social problem. But nobody even tries to do
anything about it. The tide seems to be irresistible. Among the many
items on the agenda of those promoting America's moral regeneration,
I never find marriage and divorce (p. 119).
The silence of the foolish world may be
understandable. But have the churches nothing to say? Have evangelical
and Reformed churches nothing to say about wickedness that dishonours
the God who is faithful in His covenant with His people and that
devastates the lives of professing Christians and their children, not to
speak of the disordering of life in society?
The churches keep a shrewd silence because of the
prevalence of divorce and remarriage among their own membership. The
rate of divorce and remarriage in evangelical churches, we are told, is
at least as high as in the world of the openly ungodly.
Leaders in the "mainline," that is, apostate,
churches admit their craven silence. In an interview published in the
August 11, 1997 issue of Christianity Today, Roberta Hestenes of
the Presbyterian Church in the USA said:
To say in our church today that divorce is wrong
is extremely difficult because we are morally compromised since so
many are divorced We are experiencing the psychological captivity of
the church-the feel-good, therapeutic culture has become the
operating theology of the church.
William H. Willimon of the United Methodist Church
A number of Methodist bishops are divorced and
remarried; so when asked about that issue, I have to say, somewhat
cynically, "When you're trying to attract the affluent upper- middle
class, it's tough to take a stand on that particular issue" (p. 17).
The evangelicals, Reformed, and Presbyterians are
equally silent, and for the same reason. The periodicals never mention
divorce and remarriage. Books that expose and condemn the evil are rare,
extremely rare. The preaching studiously avoids it. It was an open
secret at the meeting of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy
in Chicago in 1986 that the attempt to address the evil of divorce and
remarriage with a strong, biblical statement was scuttled in the back
rooms of power by the prominent pastors whose large evangelical churches
are full of divorced (and divorcing!) and remarried (and remarrying!)
members. This was the meeting of ICBI that was to apply inerrancy to
life. So much for application! So much for inerrancy! So much for life!
That which claims to be the church of Jesus Christ in
the world cannot defend the basic ordinance of God for human life. It is
unable to condemn infidelity to the most basic and sacred of all human
relationships. It cannot find in itself to require of those who profess
Christianity that they keep their marriage vows. It silently tolerates
the same treachery and unfaithfulness that characterize those who do not
know the Lord.
This scandalous silence concerning the ethical
scandal of our time renders the loud outcries of these same churches
against abortion hypocritical. The murder of unborn babies is the
world's problem, not the church's. The destruction of multitudes of
children of professing Christians by divorce is the church's problem.
About this, the churches are silent.
The Speaking of Scripture
How different from the prophet of Jehovah. In a
covenant community in which many, including powerful church leaders,
were divorcing and remarrying, Malachi spoke out uncompromisingly.
Jehovah hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). The one who thus deals treacherously
against the wife of his covenant will be excommunicated by Jehovah
Himself from His fellowship (Mal. 2:12). Where divorce and remarriage go
on and are tolerated, all worship of Jehovah is placed under divine
interdict (Mal. 2:13).
How different the silence of the churches from Christ
Jesus Himself In an ecclesiastical climate that permitted divorce, with
a remarriage to follow, for any cause, Jesus upheld the divine will and
ordinance, that marriage is a one-flesh bond for life made between the
two who marry by the Creator Himself. He prohibited divorce. The one
exception is the fornication of one's mate. Even in this case,
remarriage is forbidden. Jesus upheld marriage and prohibited divorce in
the very faces of the religious leaders who were responsible for the
marital laxity in Israel (Matt. 19:3-9).
How different from the apostle of Christ. In a world
as licentious as our own, he boldly proclaimed the gospel of marriage as
a bond that is broken only by death (I Cor. 7:39). He commanded
Christians not to divorce or leave their mates. He dared to require that
a woman who did leave her husband, evidently because of his fornication,
must "remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband" (I Cor. 7:10,
This was Christianity with steel in its backbone.
This was Christianity that did not abjectly conform to the world, but
that courageously confronted the world with a message that both
condemned the world with its ways and created in the midst of the world,
in the elect called out of it, a new life of truth, fidelity, and
chastity. For the Christianity of I Corinthians 6-7 was the gospel of
God, zealous for the glory of God rather than for the attracting and
stroking of self-indulgent church members.
Today, the churches say nothing.
There is a deep, deliberate silence about the ethical
Not only do the churches say nothing against the
iniquity, but they also are quick to speak out in defense of divorce and
remarriage when a lonely voice makes itself heard condemning the evil.
With the rare exception, the books and other writings on divorce and
remarriage that do appear in evangelical and Reformed circles have as
one of their chief purposes, if not their chief purpose, to justify
divorce and remarriage against the objector.
Officebearers and teachers are silent.
Where are the people?
Now and again, a cry is heard from the people of God,
lamenting the misery to which the corruption of marriage by the churches
exposes the people. For it must not be supposed that playing fast and
loose with marriage is an act of love that promotes true happiness among
the saints. Rather, it inflicts unspeakable agony on husbands, wives,
children, grandchildren, parents, brothers, sisters, friends, and the
whole congregation. Nor is the agony limited to the time of the offense.
It perpetuates itself from generation to generation. Unforgettable was
the haunting plea that was voiced once in the Christian Reformed
What had once been the high point of our family
experience for the year (the family Christmas party) we now ritually
observe, a hollow shell, a ghost-like mockery of what once was and
what might still be except for divorce .... The divorced member of
the family and his new wife will be absent from our party, knowing
that if they do attend other members will not. The divorced wife and
her children will be absent because they feel the dissension within
the family and would rather be missed than face the antagonism ....
In somewhat more than a week I will return to face five classes of
students a day in a Christian school. Each class contains students
who are the sad, living testimonies to the "happiness" which results
from divorce and/or remarriages .... I have seen students face the
prospects of long illnesses and even death ... with less pain and
anxiety than those facing the breakup of what had seemed a secure
home. Oh, the hurt in their eyes! ... Convince me, if you can, that
those who, in the name of love, smash to bits the happiness of
father, mother, sister, brother, child, pastor, and church are
keeping the law of love! Convince me that a denomination which
baptizes such actions by silence or by a subdued reprimand is acting
out of love! ("Where are We? Where are We Going?" Banner,
Dec. 9, 1977, pp. 18-19)
There was never an answer—not by the editor in that
issue of the magazine and not by the church in her synodical decisions.
It was too late. The tide of divorce and remarriage had already rolled
over the church, and the church herself, under pressure from some of the
people, had breached the dike by her official decisions.
What of us, the Protestant Reformed Churches?
In the goodness of God, we have the biblical message
of marriage, to the great blessing of our churches and families. This is
the message of marriage as a bond between one man and one woman for life
in reflection of the unbreakable covenant between God and the elect
church in Jesus Christ. Such is the teaching of our ministers, the
discipline of our elders, and the lives of our members that we are able
to speak out, with the voice of the prophet, of Christ, and of the
apostle, against the wickedness of divorce and remarriage.
Are we thankful? Are we determined to hold the
message and maintain the testimony? Members as well as ministers? At all
In the fall of 1999, shocking events at Hillsdale
College, a small but renowned college in Michigan, rocked the
conservative community in North America. The president's daughter-in-law
committed suicide. Her husband informed the public that just before she
killed herself she had confessed to adultery with her father-in-law over
a period of some nineteen years. She made the confession in the presence
of the father-in-law. The board of trustees of the college quickly
arranged the president's early retirement and appointed a high-powered
committee to find a successor. The committee included famous and
influential conservatives William J. Bennett, author of The Book of
Virtues, and William F. Buckley Jr., editor of National Review.
Hillsdale College came into national prominence over
the past thirty years because of its resistance to the encroachments by
the federal government. This entailed the college's refusal of federal
subsidies and grants. To compensate, the college needed hundreds of
millions of dollars from rich donors who share the conservative
political, economic, and moral views of the college. The recently
retired president raised these millions.
Both the college and its president were well-known
and highly regarded for their aggressive advocacy of moral rectitude in
our decadent society. Parents thankfully gave their young people; the
wealthy gladly gave their money.
The suicide of the president's daughter-in-law, the
report by her husband of her admission of adultery with the president,
her father-in-law, and the quick retirement of the president by the
board of trustees (with a retirement package of between two and four
million dollars) have shaken that bastion of conservatism to its
The national media reported the Hillsdale happenings
as a scandal.
But the governing board and administration of the
college deny the charge. Nothing can be proved. The president denies
adultery with his daughter-in-law, and the daughter-in-law is dead. Nor
does the board acknowledge any cover-up. They acted responsibly, they
insist, retiring the president only because the unfortunate events have
made it impossible for him to continue.
William F. Buckley Jr. backs the board. In an article
in the December 20, 1999 issue of his National Review, Buckley
argued that grounds are lacking for judging the former president of the
college guilty without reasonable doubt. In addition, the board of
trustees did what was best for Hillsdale.
In its February 5, 2000 issue, World magazine,
the Christian answer to Time, Newsweek, and U. S. News & World
Report, published the sober results of its own investigation of the
events at Hillsdale. The title of the article is "The Truth is Buried."
World concludes that no scandal can be confirmed. No one can prove
that the president of Hillsdale college fornicated with his
daughter-in-law over many years. Nor can any cover-up by the Hillsdale
board and administration be substantiated.
People may suspect. The media may play up the
suggestive circumstances. But even colleges and their presidents must be
presumed innocent until proved guilty.
There was no Hillsdale scandal, but only a
Why then speak out on the Hillsdale scandal?
Because there is a Hillsdale scandal. It is a
despicable, sexual iniquity committed by the college president, recently
retired. The administration and board of the college connived at it,
indeed approved and celebrated it. Vast and wide, the scandal implicates
virtually the whole of political conservatism in North America, as it
does almost all the supposedly conservative churches. The Hillsdale
scandal is a fact. All acknowledge the fact, although none, from William
J. Bennett to World magazine, recognizes the fact as scandalous.
Only, the scandal is not what is universally
suggested and supposed. It is not that the president of a conservative
college, avowed defender of moral rectitude in Western society and
professing Christian, slept with his own son's wife on and off for
nineteen years. Nor is it that the governors of the college looked
through their fingers at this unseemly behavior, or even that they tried
to cover up the wickedness when it came to light.
The scandal is that a few months before the suicide of his
daughter-in-law and the report by her husband of her confession of
incest, the president of Hillsdale College divorced his wife of
forty-four years and married another woman. He did this in a very public
manner, the only manner in which one can divorce his wife and remarry.
The college community, including its high-powered conservative backers,
celebrated the remarriage with a very public banquet on the college
campus. It is not at all impossible that William J. Bennett, author of
The Book of Virtues, and William F. Buckley Jr., champion of the
right, were among the celebrants.
Conservative Hillsdale College saw no scandal.
William J. Bennett did not decline to serve on the search committee for
a new president on the ground that the board of trustees had attempted
to cover up the former president's divorce and remarriage.
Bennett saw no scandal in the president's divorce and remarriage.
William F. Buckley Jr., who with his customary verve and logic argues
that no scandal can be proved, obviously does not regard the divorce and
remarriage as scandalous.
World magazine noted the divorce and remarriage in passing, as
one might report that prior to the events that caught the nation's eye
the college president had had an appendectomy. But the conclusion of its
careful investigation is that there is no evidence of scandal at
Hillsdale. World is blind to the scandal of a conservative,
professedly Christian, college president's divorcing his wife of
forty-four years, the mother of his four children, and remarrying
(within a few months).
What accounts for this scandalous failure to see the Hillsdale scandal?
One of two things, and possibly both.
All of these conservative persons and organizations have become so used
to divorce and remarriage that they do not even notice the evil anymore.
That a grandfather may have committed adultery with his daughter-in-law
still gets their attention. That a grandfather divorces grandmother for
another woman is not even noticed. Tolerance of wickedness soon results
in blindness to it. American society has reached this point as regards
abortion. It is well on the way to reaching this point with regard to
homosexuality. It is long past this point with regard to divorce and
remarriage. The Bible describes this spiritual condition as the searing
of the conscience with a hot iron (I Tim. 4:2).
The other explanation is that all of the parties are
themselves so compromised by unbiblical divorce and remarriage that they
are unable to speak out against it. Their mouths are shut. The
politically conservative galaxy in which Hillsdale College is a bright
and shining star is as rife with divorce and remarriage as are the
liberal circles that Hillsdale despises. The reputedly conservative
churches to which the editors and writers of World belong are
full of unbiblically divorced and remarried members. By this time the
leaven of marital infidelity has leavened the whole lump of most
evangelical, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches.
It is not surprising, then, that no one notices the
scandal—the real scandal—at Hillsdale, even though it stares them in the
The Hillsdale scandal is a classic contemporary
illustration and confirmation of the truth that the ethical
scandal both in our society and in the churches is unbiblical divorce
and the remarriage that follows. And all are silent about the scandal.
Especially the noisy reformers of society and church are silent about
The divorce and remarriage of the president of
Hillsdale College is a scandal. It is gross public transgression of the
seventh commandment of God's law: "Whosoever shall put away his wife,
and marry another, committeth adultery against her" (Mark 10:11).
It disgraces him: "If any provide not for his own,
and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and
is worse than an infidel" (I Tim. 5:8).
It disgraces Hillsdale College and the cause of
conservatism that Hillsdale represents, not because it happened, but
because the college did not swiftly and decisively expel its president
when it happened.
Indeed, the college did not even recognize it as a
scandal. It celebrated the remarriage.
The Hillsdale scandal—the real and unquestioned
Hillsdale scandal—is not neatly confined to a small college in Michigan.
It has spread to implicate in the iniquity and disgrace with the shame
all who have judged the events at Hillsdale without noticing the
scandal. Particularly is this true of those who have solemnly concluded
that no scandal is proven or provable at Hillsdale. The Hillsdale
scandal is the scandal of William J. Bennett, William F. Buckley Jr.,
and World magazine.
No one should doubt whether the divorce and
remarriage is the real scandal of Hillsdale. The cause of the sexual
promiscuity and perversity that now deprave and destroy our nation and
that defile the churches is the failure to honour marriage. If the
former president of Hillsdale College did, in fact, commit adultery with
his daughter-in-law, the greater evil, and the cause, was his
unfaithfulness to his wife.
The irony of the Hillsdale scandal is that the
college and its supporters are enthusiastic about "worldview." They war
against the lawlessness of liberalism in society and call for
conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, to promote a
Christian "worldview" in North America. This is also the agenda of
World magazine, which could not see any scandal at Hillsdale.
Any "Christian worldview" that has so little regard
for marriage and the family that it is unable to notice the scandal of
Hillsdale is unworthy of the name Christian. The efforts of such a
"Christian worldview" to resist what Robert Bork has called the
"slouching towards Gomorrah" of the United States and to advance the
kingdom of Jesus Christ—the calling and privilege of every true
child of God and especially every genuine Reformed Christian—are
The triune God, Creator of the heaven and the earth,
has made the family the fundamental institution of earthly life both in
the nation and in the church.
The foundation of the family is marriage.
The destroyer is divorce and remarriage.
The Remarriage of the Guilty Party
Now the guilty party may remarry. The man or
the woman who committed adultery against his wife or her husband, thus
causing the divorce in his or her first marriage, is allowed to remarry
and to be a member in good standing in the church. The churches that are
now allowing this are evangelical, Reformed, and Presbyterian churches.
They are evangelical, Reformed, and Presbyterian churches that have a
reputation for conservatism and orthodoxy.
These churches approve the remarriage of the guilty
party. In some cases, they may require confession of the adultery that
broke up the first marriage. But they approve the remarriage of the
guilty party. (It is not my concern here to examine the popular
distinction between "innocent party" and "guilty party" in a divorce,
whether this distinction is as valid in every instance as is often
Approval of the remarriage of the guilty party has
become common in the churches. The Christian Reformed Church synodically
approved the remarriage of the guilty party in 1956. This is also the
position, evidently, of those who recently seceded from the Christian
Reformed Church, the United Reformed Churches. They lived peaceably with
their church's decision for many years. Objection to the church's
teaching and practice of marriage, divorce, and remarriage was not part
of their reason for leaving. As is evident from "The Sad Case of Bert
Zandstra", approval of the remarriage of the guilty party is now the
policy and practice of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands
How the remarriage of the guilty party is regarded in
many conservative Presbyterian churches is fairly indicated in the
writings of Jay E. Adams. In a book that is highly recommended in
conservative Reformed and Presbyterian circles, Marriage, Divorce,
and Remarriage in the Bible (Baker, 1980), this popular theologian
and counsellor teaches his readers that "remarriage, in general, is not
only allowed but in some cases encouraged and commanded. It is looked
upon favourably in the NT." To the question, "Who may remarry after
divorce and under what conditions?" he answers, "All persons properly
divorced may be remarried." "Properly divorced," however, does not mean
for this influential marriage counsellor those who are divorced on the
one biblical ground, namely, the fornication of one's mate. Rather it
means "those who are released without obligations." These include a
professing Christian who has divorced his unbelieving wife in
disobedience to the command of Paul in I Corinthians 7:12. Also the
guilty party may be "properly divorced" so as to be free to remarry.
"Remarriage after divorce is allowed in the Bible and ... the guilty
party—after forgiveness is free to remarry." It makes no difference
whether the guilty party committed adultery, divorced, and remarried
before or after his conversion (pp. 84-96).
The remarriage of the guilty party is approved in
many churches that do not blow a trumpet before their practice. In their
public utterances, they argue for the remarriage of the "innocent
party." Probably, the minister refuses to officiate at the wedding of
the remarriage of the guilty party, for the sake of appearance (mainly,
his own appearance). But minister, consistory, and congregation allow
the remarried guilty party to remain, or become, a member of the church
in good standing. They too approve the remarriage of the guilty party. I
know whereof I speak.
A Radical Change
The approval in recent time of the remarriage of the
guilty party by these conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches is
a radical change and a significant development. In the past, these
churches have rigorously restricted the right of remarriage to the
innocent party. They forbade the guilty party to remarry. They refused
to allow the remarried guilty party membership in the church. Especially
the Presbyterians extended the right of remarriage to the believer who
is deserted by an unbelieving mate on account of the gospel, with
mistaken appeal to I Corinthians 7:15, but they too disapproved the
remarriage of the guilty party.
For many years, the Christian Reformed Church and
other conservative churches criticized the stand of the Protestant
Reformed Churches, that Holy Scripture forbids all remarriage after
divorce. Their vociferous argument was that the innocent party may
remarry. What their argument might be today, we do not know, for they
have all fallen silent on the matter of divorce and remarriage. The
churches do not like to speak on this subject. Whatever the argument
might be, it is certainly no longer a defence of the remarriage of the
innocent party. For they now approve the remarriage of the guilty party.
Chickens Coming Home to Roost
The radical change demonstrates that it is impossible
for a church to restrict remarriage to the innocent party. Such
is the pressure of the world, such is the force of the carnal element in
the church, and such is the power of the sinful nature of the saints
themselves that a church that opens the door "slightly" to the
remarriage of the innocent party will eventually throw it open all the
way to the remarriage of the guilty party. And if the guilty party may
remarry, men and women divorced for any and every unbiblical reason,
including burning the toast, are allowed to remarry.
But there is more to the recent development than
this. In the approval of the remarriage of the guilty party the chickens
are coming home to roost. The right of the remarriage of the guilty
party was implied in the churches' approval of the remarriage of the
innocent party. What we witness today is simply the logical, inevitable
outcome of the approval of the remarriage of the innocent party. The
evil tree now bears its evil fruit. And the fruit is exceeding bitter,
both in the dishonouring of God and in the destruction of marriage,
family, husbands, wives, children, grandparents, grandchildren, and
For consider: if the innocent party in a divorce has
the right to remarry, the reason must be that the marriage bond has been
dissolved. Obviously, one may not remarry, if he is still married to
someone else. And this is exactly what the conservative churches have
said in the past: the adultery of the guilty party dissolves the bond.
But if the marriage bond is dissolved, it is dissolved, not only for the
innocent party but also for the guilty party. This is in the nature of
the case. A marriage cannot be dissolved for only one of the married
companions. If the marriage has been dissolved, the guilty party has
every right to remarry. He has as much right as does the innocent party.
He is no longer married. It was his own adultery that dissolved the
bond, but the bond is dissolved. As one who is unmarried, he has the
right from God Himself to many. It is preferable that he remarry, for it
is not good for man to be alone.
The refusal in the past by conservative churches to
allow the guilty party to remarry was a mistake. It was a mistake when
judged by the standard of their thinking on divorce and remarriage. One
can understand why they made the mistake and even, to a certain extent,
sympathize with the mistake. The guilty party is a scoundrel. He is
unfaithful. He sins against his wife. He is responsible for the break-up
of his family. Often, he is also responsible for the break-up of his
neighbour's family. The emotional reaction naturally is to refuse him
the right of remarriage and, if he does remarry, the right of church
Nevertheless, the conservative churches that approved
the remarriage of the innocent party did not base their prohibition of
the remarriage of the guilty party on Scripture. Nor did this
prohibition reflect biblical thinking on marriage. Therefore, it could
not stand the test of time. To say it better, God's judgment in the
history of the church has exposed the approval of the remarriage of the
innocent party as erroneous by angrily leading the churches to approve
the remarriage of the guilty party.
As an unmarried man, in the thinking now of those
churches that approve the remarriage of the innocent party, the guilty
party has every right to be married. He has been "loosed" from his wife.
Does not the apostle teach, "Art thou loosed from a wife ... If thou
marry, thou hast not sinned" (I Cor. 7:27-28)? Remarriage, therefore,
does not exclude him from the church. Likely, he will have to confess
the sin of adultery that he committed when he was married to his first
wife and also his guilt in breaking up his first marriage, just as any
public sinner is required to do. But he may be member of the church as
remarried. He did not sin when he remarried. Nor is he living in
continual adultery in his second marriage. This would imply that he is
still married to his first wife, but the churches have said that that
bond has been dissolved.
To be sure, this approval of the remarriage of the
guilty party is a nasty, disgusting business. A fellow church member may
break up my and his own marriages and families by committing adultery
with my wife. After his wife divorces him, he may very well remarry
mine. If he confesses his sin of adultery, and my wife does the same, he
may be member with me in the church—living with my wife. What happens
to all the children involved, only the devil who is behind the whole
business knows. But this is the implication of the position that the
innocent party may remarry. And this grim, damnable state of affairs
actually obtains in "evangelical" and "conservative" Reformed churches
This is what the churches are approving, even though
the Word of God teaches, in language that a child can understand,
"Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and
shall many another, committeth adultery" (Matt. 19:9a). When the guilty
party in a divorce marries someone else, he commits adultery. The
relationship is an adulterous relationship, so that he goes on
committing adultery as long as he maintains it.
Jesus Christ disapproves the remarriage of the guilty
Re-examining the Traditional Position
Inasmuch as it is their approval of the remarriage of
the innocent party that has brought the conservative churches into open
war with Jesus Christ by now approving the remarriage of the guilty
party, the churches must re-examine their traditional stand on the
remarriage of the innocent party. It is unbiblical to view marriage as a
contract, or bond, that man can dissolve by his sin and at his will.
Scripture teaches that marriage is a lifelong bond established by God.
God makes the two one flesh (Gen. 2:18ff.; Matt.19:3-9). Only the death
of one of them dissolves the bond, so that the other has liberty to
marry again (I Cor.7:39). The sexual unfaithfulness of one of them is
ground for divorce in the sense of rightful, even legal separation
(Matt. 5:31-32; Matt. 19:9). But not even the innocent party may
remarry. If she does, she and her new husband are guilty of adultery
(Matt. 5:32b; Matt. 19:9b). She still has a husband. She is still bound
to him, "until death us do part," as the form of marriage states.
The thinking that has prevailed in Reformed churches
concerning the right of the remarriage of the innocent party always
suffered from a fatal flaw. This flaw should at last be recognized. It
is the notion that adultery dissolves the marriage bond. This is the
notion that was the basis of the churches' approval of the remarriage of
the innocent party: her husband's adultery dissolved the marriage so
that the innocent wife might remarry. This is also the notion that today
compels the churches to approve the remarriage of the guilty party:
having dissolved his own marriage by his adultery, the guilty husband
has every right to remarry. In view of the importance of sex for
marriage and in light of the reaction of the saints against adultery, it
is understandable that the churches took the position that adultery
But the notion is false.
First, experience gives the lie to it: many marriages
of the people of God have survived adultery.
Second, the notion rules out the exercise of
forgiving grace in the lives of married believers: if adultery dissolves
marriage, there is not even the possibility that a betrayed husband or
wife forgives the offending marriage companion and is reconciled.
Third, and worst, it flies in the face of the gospel
concerning the real marriage, of which ours are symbols: our adulteries
against God in Jesus Christ do not and cannot dissolve His covenant with
us (see Jer. 3; Ezek.16).
Let it be shouted from the housetops: adultery does
not dissolve marriage. It does not dissolve marriage so that the guilty
party may remarry. It does not dissolve marriage so that the innocent
party may remarry. Only God puts asunder what He has joined together,
and He puts asunder by death (Matt.19:4-6; I Cor. 7:39).
This must be the stand of the church of Jesus Christ.
Only then is she secure against the wickedness of the approval of the
remarriage of the guilty party.
on Divorce and Remarriage: Matthew 19:9
Matthew 19:9: "And I say unto you, Whosoever
shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall
marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is
put away doth commit adultery."
From a reader comes a request for more light on
divorce and remarriage. The request is a response to the series
of essays that appeared first in the Standard Bearer: "The Sad
Case of Bert Zandstra," "The Scandal and Silence," and "The Remarriage
of the Guilty Party." The request for more light asks particularly
about the Word of Jesus Christ in Matthew 19:9.
Prof Engelsma's otherwise excellent series on
divorce and remarriage left me in a bit of a logical quandary.
Unless I am totally misreading Matthew 19:9, the "adultery"
exception seems to relate directly to the phrase, "and marry
another, "in which case the Westminster Confession is correct
in saying, "In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for
the innocent party to sue out a divorce and, after the divorce, to
marry another, as if the offending party were dead" (WCF
XXIV.V). On the other hand, Prof Engelsma's view that adultery is
ground only for "separation" does not seem to take into account the
phrase, "and marry another." However (and this is my quandary), both
I Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:3 clearly imply that the death of a
spouse is the only ground for remarriage.
The trouble that I have (and I am greatly
troubled by all of this) is that these passages seem to present a
contradiction. On the one hand, divorce and remarriage are
apparently permissible in the case of adultery. On the other hand,
the only ground for remarriage is the death of a spouse. While Prof.
Engelsma's arguments against divorce in the case of adultery are
compelling particularly in light of our adulteries against our Lord,
I am still not clear on how he would exegete Matthew 19:9.
Either Engelsma is correct and the WCF is wrong on this count
(notice: I did not even ask about the "not under bondage" phrase in
I Corinthians 7:15!), or the WCF is correct and Engelsma is
imposing extra-biblical restrictions on divorce and remarriage.
However, if the WCF is correct, I still have difficulty with
I Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:3.
I certainly do not want to give any credence to
the Christian Reformed and Van Tilian camps which so eagerly embrace
the "paradoxes of Scripture."
If Prof Engelsma can shed any more light on this subject, I will
Virginia Beach, VA
Does Scripture Then Contradict Scripture?
There is one text in the Bible that might seem to
approve remarriage after divorce. One text! If understood as approving
remarriage, this text would approve the remarriage only of the "innocent
party," that is, the married person whose wife (or husband) has
fornicated. All other remarriages are forbidden as adultery.
This one text is Matthew 19:9:
And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his
wife, except it be for fornication, and shall many another,
committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth
Against the seeming approval of the remarriage of the
"innocent party" m Matthew 19:9 stand a number of texts that clearly
forbid all remarriage after divorce, regardless of the ground for the
divorce. These passages condemn all remarriage after divorce as
Mark 10:11-12: And he saith unto them, Whosoever
shall put away his wife, and many another, committeth adultery
against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be
married to another, she committeth adultery.
Luke 16:18: Whosoever putteth away his wife, and
marrieth another, committeth adultery; and whosoever marrieth her
that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.
I Corinthians 7:10-11: 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
I Corinthians 7:39: The wife is bound by the law
as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at
liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.
Romans 7:2-3: For the woman which hath an husband
is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the
husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So
then if while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she
shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is
free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be
married to another man.
The prohibition of remarriage in these passages is
Romans 7:2-3 and I Corinthians 7:39 ground the
absolute prohibition in the nature of marriage as a lifelong bond by
virtue of God's sovereign ordination as Creator and Governor of this
One text apparently conflicts with this absolute
prohibition of remarriage by a seeming approval of the remarriage of the
If Matthew 19:9 does, in fact, permit the remarriage
of the "innocent party," it flatly contradicts Scripture's teaching on
marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the passages quoted above,
especially I Corinthians 7:3 9.
Westminster's Admission of Contradiction
Even though it adopts the position that Matthew 19:9
permits the remarriage of the "innocent party," the Westminster
Confession of Faith really admits that permission of the remarriage
of the "innocent party," and, therefore, Matthew 19:9 (as the
Westminster divines explained it), contradicts I Corinthians 7:39. It
makes this admission when, having said, "in the case of adultery after
marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and,
after the divorce, to marry another," it adds: ""as if the offending
party were dead." The delegates to the Westminster Assembly
recognized that their permission of the remarriage of the "innocent
party," supposedly on the basis of Matthew 19:9, contradicted the rule
of I Corinthians 7:39 that only death dissolves the marriage bond so
that a married person is set at liberty to many another. Therefore, the
Westminster divines felt it necessary to concoct the strange, startling,
and obviously false decree that adultery effectively renders the
adulterer the "guilty party" dead in the sense of I Corinthians
7:39. Thus, they attempted to bring Matthew 19:9 (as they explained it)
into conformity with I Corinthians 7:39.
The trouble with this is that I Corinthians 7:39 is
not referring to a fictitious, virtual, "as if," unreal death. The
apostle does not say, "but if she or someone else decides to regard her
husband as dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will." The
death in I Corinthians 7:39 that alone dissolves the marriage bond so
that a married person may marry another is real, actual physical
death—death that breaks all earthly ties, death that puts the man's body
(that otherwise belongs in bed with his wife) in the grave.
The explanation of Matthew 19:9 that permits the
"innocent party" to remarry contradicts I Corinthians 7:3 9. In this
case, Scripture contradicts Scripture.
Is Matthew 19:9 Self-Contradictory?
Matters are even worse. If Matthew 19:9 permits the
remarriage of the "innocent party," the text is self-contradictory.
Intending to forbid the remarriage, among others, of the "guilty party"
as adultery (this is what the text expressly teaches), the text actually
opens the door to the remarriage of the "guilty party." It does this
exactly by permitting the remarriage of the "innocent party." For if the
"innocent party" may remarry, it must be the case that the marriage bond
between the "innocent party" and the "guilty party" is dissolved. But if
the marriage is dissolved, presumably by the adultery of the "guilty
party," it is dissolved for the "guilty party" as well as the "innocent
party." And if there is no marriage, the "guilty party" has every right
to remarry. Being unmarried, he is at liberty to many (again).
Thus, Matthew 19:9 contradicts itself and
plunges the matter of divorce and remarriage into utter confusion and
The Harmony of Matthew 19:9 with All Scripture
In reality, there is no contradiction between Matthew
19:9, on the one hand, and all the texts prohibiting remarriage, on the
other hand. Matthew 19:9 merely seems to approve the remarriage
of the "innocent party." To say it more accurately, the approval of the
remarriage of the "innocent party" is an inference that some erroneously
draw from Matthew 19:9.
The meaning of Matthew 19:9 is that all divorce
except that due to the sexual unfaithfulness of one's mate is forbidden.
In keeping with the Pharisees' question in verse 3, the main subject of
the passage is the legitimacy of divorce. The phrase, "except it be for
fornication," gives the one biblical exception to the prohibition of
divorce. It does not give an exception to the prohibition of remarriage.
To say it differently, the words, "except it be for fornication," give
the one biblical ground for divorcing one's wife (or husband). They do
not give a biblical ground for remarriage after divorce.
Christ does mention remarriage in the text. He
mentions this because almost always the man who divorces his wife either
intends to marry another woman or will eventually many another.
What about remarriage after divorce? What about the
permissibility of remarriage after divorce in Matthew 19:9?
There is no question about the remarriage of the man
who divorces his wife unjustly, that is, the man whose wife has not been
guilty of fornication. Jesus states, indeed it is His main purpose with
the text to state, that he commits adultery when he remarries.
But what about the remarriage of the man who divorces
his wife on the ground of her fornication? What about the remarriage of
the "innocent party" in Matthew 19:9?
If Matthew 19:9 concluded in the middle of the text,
concluded, that is, with the words, "... and shall marry another,
committeth adultery," there might be some excuse for uncertainty whether
this text permits the remarriage of the "innocent party." Even then, the
church would have to take into account the clear, explicit teaching of
Scripture elsewhere that all remarriage after divorce is prohibited.
Scripture interprets Scripture. The doubtful passage must be explained
in light of the clearer passages.
But Matthew 19:9 does not end in the middle. There is
a second part: "and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit
adultery." "Her" is the woman of the first part of the text who has been
divorced unjustly and whose husband then married another, committing
adultery. She is the "innocent party." Nevertheless, whoever marries her
commits adultery. Of course, she too commits adultery, if she remarries.
Matthew 19:9 condemns the remarriage of the "innocent
party" as adultery.
Because the wife (or husband) is bound by the law to
her husband (or his wife) as long as her husband (or his wife) lives.
Only death dissolves the bond. Adultery does not dissolve the marriage
bond. Emphatically, adultery does not have the power to dissolve
the marriage bond.
Matthew 19:9 is in perfect harmony with all of
Scripture in the vitally important matter of marriage, divorce, and
Divorce is permitted on the ground of fornication.
All remarriage after divorce is forbidden as
adultery, including the remarriage of the "innocent party."
The reason is that God's honourable ordinance of
marriage is a lifelong, indissoluble bond.
Let the saints practice it.
Let the church proclaim it.
And defend it with discipline.
a Lifelong Bond
The evil of unbiblical divorce and remarriage that invariably
follows is widespread in Reformed churches. Many churches quietly
tolerate this great wickedness against God and the neighbour. Many
others openly defend it.
Various factors contribute. A significant factor is
the churches' conformity to the world. In these last days, the churches
become worldly, as Christ forewarned. Therefore, lawlessness increases
both among the membership and on the part of the institute itself. "
And because lawlessness shall abound, the love of many shall cool"
(Matt. 24:12, Greek text).
The root of the scandal is the churches' refusal to
view marriage as a lifelong, unbreakable bond that God establishes
between one man and one woman. Having compromised this fundamental truth
about marriage, even those churches that once tried to restrict the
right of remarriage to the "innocent party" have caved in to the
pressure to tolerate the remarriage of any and all who are divorced,
including the guilty party. This necessarily follows from the
granting of a right of remarriage to the "innocent party." For if the
"innocent party" may remarry, it must be that his original marriage has
been dissolved. If the original marriage has been dissolved, it is
dissolved not only for the "innocent party" but also for the guilty
party. And if the marriage of the guilty party is dissolved, she may
marry again, just as every unmarried person is free to marry. The church
may not forbid it. The church may not refuse the membership of the
remarried guilty party, at least not on the ground simply of the
The epidemic of divorce and remarriage among their
members and, especially, the scandalous presence at the Lord's Table of
many who have unjustly divorced and then remarried ought to drive the
churches to reconsider their doctrine of marriage. Specifically, this
evil should compel the churches to consider seriously whether marriage
is not a lifelong bond established by God, which no one and nothing can
dissolve as long as the two live.
Instead, the churches more and more view marriage, if
not in theory, then in practice, as a contract drawn up and entered into
by the married persons mutually. It is dependent upon their pleasure. As
a conditional contract, it can be broken by one or both of them. In this
case, the marriage is abrogated. It is as if it never existed. Both may
then make another contract with other parties. Ad infinitum. Ad
A spineless church enthusiastically blesses every new
contract and dutifully approves the breaking of the old ones.
What part the great God of heaven and earth plays in
this abuse of His holy ordinance is a mystery. It seems to be His role
genially to validate every abrogation of the old contract and
compliantly to ratify every new one. Whatever suits the will and
pleasure of the men and women who marry, divorce, and remarry, He
sanctions. The god of the marriage doctrine and marriage practice of
many evangelical and Reformed churches resembles nothing so much as a
"Great Wax Nose" in heaven.
There is no excuse for the churches' rejection of the
truth that marriage is a bond created by God. The testimony of Scripture
is clear and compelling. A child can know it. The cleverest theologian
cannot explain it away. At the institution of marriage in the beginning,
the Word of God described the very essence of marriage as a man's
cleaving to his wife in a "one flesh" union (Gen. 2:24). Where was the
contract in the garden? Where was the conditional agreement, implying
the possible dissolving of marriage? Marriage is, by God's own ordaining
and effecting, a bond, a wonderfully intimate oneness. It is such a
close oneness—"one flesh"—as unavoidably raises the questions, "Can this
oneness be dissolved? Who or what can possibly make two again of those
whom God has joined together?"
Appealing to the institution of marriage,
specifically the words of Genesis 2:24 that describe marriage as a bond
(with the express purpose of forbidding divorce!), Jesus sharpened and
strengthened the biblical revelation that marriage is a God-formed bond:
"What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder"
(Matt. 19:6). Essentially, marriage is God's joining together of husband
and wife as one flesh. It is a bond. There is no room in Jesus'
authoritative doctrine of marriage for the notion of marriage as a human
contract, not even if God is allowed to peer over the shoulders of the
contracting couple to ratify their bargain.
Christ's apostle taught the same, and ordained it in
all the churches: "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband
liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to
whom she will; only in the Lord" (I Cor. 7:39). The point now is not
that the bond is broken only by death (which the text teaches in
language that cannot be misunderstood), but that marriage is a binding
and bonding. To be married is to be bound, to be bonded. What binds and
bonds is the law, that is, the living Word of God. Of a contract, the
apostle knows absolutely nothing.
The alternative to the view of marriage as a bond is
the notion of marriage as a contract. James Fitzjames Stephen was right
in his debate with John Stuart Mill when he put the alternatives as he
did: "(Is marriage) a divine, indissoluble union governed by the
or is it a contractual unit governed and dissolved by the wills of
the parties?" (John Witte, Jr., From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage,
Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition, Westminster John Knox
Press, 1997, p. 198).
The Bond in Ephesians 5
All contract theory of marriage shatters on Ephesians
5:22ff. Is the relation between my head and my body that of a contract?
Did my head and my body agree conditionally to live together for their
mutual advantage and pleasure, or even for their life? Is it part of
their "co-living" and of their cooperation that if one fails in its duty
the other may sever relations and find another, more agreeable body or
head? If the head should become senile, may the body leave and
re-attach? If the body becomes paralysed, may the head dissolve
Can they dissolve their union?
Nonsense, you say.
And you are right.
No fool represents the relation between physical head
and physical body as a contract. It is a wonderful, close, ultimately
mysterious bond established by the Creator in His creation for every one
who partakes of human nature. Such is the bond that head and body,
though distinct, are one.
But now the inspired apostle describes the relation
of husband and wife exactly as that of head and body: "the husband is
the head of the wife" (v. 23); "men ought to love their wives as their
own bodies" (v. 28). No more than that of head and body is the relation
of husband and wife a contract. As much as the relation of head and
body, marriage is a bond of intimate fellowship in which the two share
Not even this in Ephesians 5, however, is the most
powerful testimony against the sterile, fragile contract-theory of
marriage and for the fruitful, solid doctrine of marriage as bond. The
most powerful testimony is the apostle's teaching that earthly marriage
symbolizes the relationship of Christ and the church. Having quoted the
fundamental Word of God at the institution of marriage, the apostle
exclaims, "This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and
the church" (v. 32).
If earthly marriage is not a bond, but a contract,
such also is the relationship between Christ and the church. If earthly
marriage is a mere contract, dependent for its endurance upon conditions
fulfilled mutually by husband and wife, so also is the relationship
between Christ and the church. If earthly marriage can be dissolved by
one or the other of the parties at his or her will and pleasure, or even
by his or her sin, so also can the covenant between Christ and the
church be dissolved by the will of Christ or by the sin of the church.
And then, a remarriage, at least on the part of Christ.
Years ago, a dear sister, who was not at that time
enamoured of everything Protestant Reformed, said to me, "The best thing
that the Protestant Reformed Churches have going for them is their stand
on marriage." She was not far wrong. For in addition to its being a
blessing to many families, as well as to the churches made up of these
families, the doctrine of marriage as a lifelong, indissoluble bond
serves the gospel of the covenant of grace. And this grand gospel of the
covenant as a bond of fellowship between Christ and us, established,
maintained, and perfected by the triune God in sheer, unilateral,
unconditional grace and, therefore, unbreakable and everlasting, is the
"best thing" in the Protestant Reformed Churches, as it is the "best
thing" in the Bible.
On the day (which may God graciously forbid!) when
the Protestant Reformed Churches give in to the pressures of the world,
which are heavy, and to the desires of their own members, which can be
strong because of the hard, marital circumstances of ourselves or of our
children, and permit remarriage, on that day they will repudiate
marriage as a bond. And on that day they will be committed to a doctrine
of the covenant as a contract a conditional, breakable contract.
By virtue of Ephesians 5:31-32.
Marriage is a bond. God the Creator made it so. He
made it so for the sake of the redeemed and for the sake of His own
covenant as Redeemer.
The question then is: Can the bond be broken, and if
so, by whom?
God must answer this question. Marriage is His
institution. He has formed every marriage-bond as with His own hand. Men
and women may not speak here. All must listen to the Word of God. Then
they must confess what God has said. They must ignore what the world
says. They must pay no attention to the answer pleaded for by their own
circumstances or by the circumstances of those whom they love.
God's answer, given in Holy Scripture, is plain.
Earthly marriage can be dissolved. It can be
dissolved only by God Himself. He dissolves it by the death of one of
the married persons (I Cor. 7:39).
Fornication on the part of husband or wife can so
strain the bond that divorce in the sense of full, legal separation is
allowed. But even then the bond is not broken, so as to permit
remarriage (Matt. 19:9; I Cor. 7:10, 11).
Only the death of one of the married persons
dissolves the bond, for the bond is superhumanly strong: "one flesh" by
the joining of the Almighty.
"Marriage: a lifelong bond" implies "marriage, a calling."
Marriage: a Calling
As to its nature—what it essentially is—marriage is a
lifelong, unbreakable bond established by God the Creator between one
man and one woman.
As to how the people of God are to regard marriage,
and their life in it, marriage is a calling. It is not an institution
and way of life that is intended primarily for their pleasure, comfort,
happiness, and fulfilment. Marriage is intended for the glory of God.
Believing men and women are privileged and commanded to serve God in
married life. Their happiness and fulfilment are secondary. The only
happiness and fulfilment that are of real importance are the happiness
and fulfillment that believers have from serving God acceptably in
marriage. This happiness and fulfilment they can—and must—have,
regardless of their happiness, or lack of it, with their marriage
The Fact of the Calling
That marriage is an earthly ordinance in which the
Christian works out his salvation by serving God as God requires in His
Word is the teaching of the apostle in I Corinthians 7. This is one of
the outstanding passages in Scripture on marriage. The instruction is
practical. But underlying the passage and its practical instruction is
the truth that marriage is a calling. At a crucial juncture in his
teaching on marriage, the apostle declares, concerning marriage,
"But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every
one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches" (v. 17). A little
later, with reference to one's race and nationality, one's occupation,
and one's social status, as well as one s marital state, he says,
"Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God"
Marriage for Christians is a "vocation." The
effectual, saving call of the gospel not only gives elect believers
salvation, but also commands and empowers most of them to be servants of
God in His holy institution of marriage.
This is what professing Christians ignore today. This
is what their supposedly Reformed and evangelical churches allow them to
ignore. They view marriage as merely an arrangement of human life for
their pleasure and convenience. When it suits them, they get married,
and only because it suits them. When they find that their marriage does
not please and satisfy, they divorce and remarry. They are sure to
leave, if they should have to suffer in their marriage.
When a believer regards his or her marriage as a
divine calling, the earthly circumstances of the marriage are of no
ultimate importance, whether her husband is a good man or a fool like
Nabal; whether his wife is a lovely woman or a shrew; whether the
marriage is a delightsome life that is ended all too quickly, or a
burden heavy to be borne until God finally grants relief in death. The
circumstances of marriage are unimportant, just as it is not important
whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, weeping
or rejoicing (I Cor. 7:18ff.).
The one important thing about marriage is "the
keeping of the commandments of God" (v. 19).
For believing young people, regarding marriage as a
calling will mean that they marry. God commands them to marry, and
sooner rather than later. Unless they have the gift of continence and
have resolved to remain single in order more devotedly to serve the
Lord, they are to marry, in order to avoid fornication (I Cor. 7:1ff.).
Since the young men must take the initiative, they must consider
themselves duty-bound to seek wives among the young women in the church,
thus providing their spiritual sisters with the husbands whom they are
commanded to marry. There should be more of this seriousness in dating
and deciding to marry, and less of the quest for an emotional "falling
The Marriage Ceremony
When the young people marry, they must enter marriage
as a distinct, divine calling. Parents and church must have taught them
this from childhood. The minister who marries them must give them this
counsel. In the solemn setting of the Reformed marriage ceremony, the
traditional, biblical vow must hold the calling before the couple. It is
inexcusable that ministers allow the couple to create their own vows,
especially when those vows fail to reflect the fundamental biblical
duties of love on the part of the husband, submission on the part of the
wife, and mutual faithfulness until death parts them.
A December, 1997 editorial in the Chicago Tribune
("Promise tweakers: Why today's wedding vows are meaningless")
complained about this very thing.
To understand why the United States has the
highest divorce rate in the world, go to some weddings and listen to
the vows ... A growing number of couples—perhaps most—compose their
own vows. It would be hard to exaggerate the symbolic importance of
this shift. The old vows were created by society and presented to
the couple, signifying the goal of conforming the couple to
marriage. The new vows are created by the couple and presented to
society, signifying the goal of conforming marriage to the couple.
The editorialist correctly observes that by thus
trivializing the marriage vow society is disparaging marriage and
exalting the couple. He asks, "Who is to blame for this transformation
of the vow?" His answer is:
I suggest that we blame the clergy. Many pastors
have become little more than entertainers, bit players, in the
weddings they officiate and in the marriages they launch .... What
matters most about the wedding is increasingly overshadowed. The
party gets bigger; the embrace of the marital promise gets smaller.
What is to be done? First, pastors should reclaim the historic
responsibility to promulgate and maintain the integrity of the
marriage vows exchanged in their churches. Central to this
reclamation would be the revival of the vow of marital permanence.
Our ministers must insist on the traditional vow. If
the couple resist, the minister should tell them to find someone else to
Then the message at the wedding ceremony must not
center on the couple's happiness, their love for each other as no two
have ever loved each other before, and a (mythical) life of
uninterrupted bliss before them. The message must be the Word of God
setting before them and before all in the audience the all-important
reality that marriage is a calling. This includes the recognition that
there will be troubles in married life. Wisely, the Reformed marriage
form begins by assuring the couple of God's assistance of them in their
afflictions. This is based squarely on the apostle's teaching that all
married saints "shall have trouble in the flesh" (I Cor. 7:28). To leave
this out at a marriage ceremony, probably because this "gloomy note"
does not harmonize with the pretty flowers, lovely dresses, and
sentimental mood, is foolish.
The Practice of the Calling
Because marriage is a calling, believers stick it out
in a bad marriage. They do more than stick it out. They exert
themselves, on their part, to live as Christ commands them to live in
marriage, regardless of their miserable wife or husband. There are bad
marriages in the church. One cannot be a pastor in the church for many
years and remain ignorant of this. There are husbands who are unloving
toward their wife. It breaks your heart to see their coldness,
unkindness, and harshness toward their own body. There are wives who are
little or no help to their husband. Brawling, sharp-tongued women, they
make you cringe when they contradict, criticize, and demean their head.
The believer in such a marriage does not, may not, cut and run. It lives
in his or her soul, "Abide in the calling in which you are called."
So much is it the case that believers are cheerfully
to remain in a bad marriage that the believer is commanded to maintain a
marriage with an unbeliever (I Cor. 7:13-14).
The sense of calling will in many cases move the
husband or wife whose marriage companion has committed fornication to
receive the unfaithful party back, if she or he repents. Even though the
sin has so deeply and painfully hurt them that they are inclined to
divorce (as they have a right to do), knowledge that their marriage is
above all a calling directs them along the way of reconciliation.
The truth that marriage is a calling, however, does
not only function practically in circumstances of marital distress. Its
main effect is not that believers decline to divorce. Rather, it
produces the fruit that married believers live together daily in the
right way. Living in marriage as a calling, the husband exerts himself
to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her
(Eph. 5:25-29). Love for the wife is a command from Christ Jesus
his Lord. The lovableness of the woman may make it easier to obey the
command in some cases than in others, but the command has nothing to do
with her lovableness. Neither does it have anything to do with the
husband's feelings of love, or lack thereof.
Love for the wife is a command. It has everything to
do with marriage's being a calling. There is simply no place in the
Christian life or in the church, therefore, for the mournful words, "I
no longer love my wife." Usually the man who utters them supposes that
they express a ground for divorce that cannot be challenged. But his
words are irrelevant. The proper response to them is, "So what?" If they
mean anything at all, they are a confession of sin, as though one would
say, "I robbed a bank yesterday." The man must be urged to repent of his
damnable sin and to start loving his wife again. The grace of God will
enable him to do it, if only he will seek it.
The godly wife is similarly commanded to reverence
and submit to her husband, as a help to him (Eph. 5:22-24, 33). This has
nothing to do with the power and pride of the male, as it has nothing to
do with her own natural inclination or disinclination. Her marriage is a
calling, and in this calling the God whom she serves wills her
Carrying out these basic commands for God's sake,
Christian husbands and wives will experience a great deal of bliss in
marriage—bliss in their own relationship—as God blesses those who fear
and serve Him.
For some in the church, God prevents and prohibits
marriage. By governing the circumstances of their lives, God makes
marriage impossible for some who would like to marry. Others He forbids
to marry, e.g., the woman who is divorced because her husband is guilty
of fornication (I Cor. 7:10-11). Such are to receive their single life
from God as a calling. Willingly, joyfully, they are to serve God
as single persons. They must guard against resentment and bitterness.
Discontent in single life is rebellion against God whose calling this is
for the single person.
It is also foolish. For marriage itself or single
life is of no ultimate importance. That is why married people are to
have their wife or husband as though they did not have them (I Cor.
7:29). Only one thing matters: living obediently in our calling.
This is the only thing that will matter one day when
each of us gives account of his or her life in marriage to Christ the
judge. How much or how little happiness we had will not even come up.
The question from the tribunal will be: "Did you fulfil your calling?"
With eternal consequences.
the Way: The Argument from
Remarriage to Homosexual Relationships
The church ought to embrace "homosexual people who
live faithfully in covenanted partnerships."
This is the plea that Lewis Smedes addresses
particularly to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).
Writing in the May, 1999 issue of Perspectives,
Smedes urges the acceptance of practicing homosexuals in the CRC. He
exhorts the CRC to "embrace," that is, accept as members of the church
in good and regular standing, "Christian homosexual people who have
committed themselves to a monogamous partnership" (all quotations in
this editorial are from the article by Lewis Smedes in the May, 1999
issue of Perspectives, pp. 8-12).
Perspectives is a religious periodical, "A
Journal of Reformed Thought." It is edited and largely written by
theologians, teachers, and other prominent, influential persons in the
Reformed Church in America and in the CRC.
Dr. Lewis Smedes is a minister of the gospel in the
Smedes' Plea for Homosexual "Marriage"
It is not the purpose of this essay to criticize
Smedes' plea for the approval of the practice of homosexuality in the
CRC. Something might well be said in this regard. No doubt, reflecting
on the plea by a renowned Reformed theologian for approving homosexual
relations would be beneficial. Strong pressure is now being
exerted by the evil one upon all churches, "conservative" as well as
"liberal," to cave in to the world here also.
Critique of the plea for approval of homosexual sex
would note that the learned Dr. Smedes professes ignorance as to the
meaning of the Holy Spirit in those passages of Holy Scripture that
treat of homosexuality, particularly Romans 1:18-27. Smedes does not
know who they are who are described in the passage: "Who were these
people, the ones who were having sex with partners of their own gender?
... Nobody knows for sure." Nor does he know what is meant in the
passage by "against nature": "What he (the apostle-DJE) meant by
'contrary to nature' none of us knows for sure."
The doubt of our unbelieving age that increasingly
prevails in the churches has blinded Smedes' mind to the clear testimony
of the Word of God. The people spoken of in Romans 1:18ff. are men and
women who perversely lust for people of the same gender and then
perversely engage in sexual acts with them as best they can. The
practice of homosexual sex is "against nature" in that it contradicts
the will of God for sex as made known in creation itself. This
will of God, writ large in nature in the physical characteristics that
distinguish male and female by virtue of God's creation of the human
race, is sexual relations between a man and a woman in marriage.
One who is uncertain about these basic things of
divine revelation and the Christian religion is disqualified to be a
teacher of the church on sexual and marital ethics.
Comment on the plea for approval of homosexual
relations would call attention to significant verbal slips, when Smedes
is lamenting his church's current prohibition of "monogamous
partnership(s)." "To all homosexuals it says: You have no
choice; you may not marry and you must be celibate" (the emphasis is
Smedes'). The noteworthy words are "marry" and "may." The use of "marry"
shows that the "partnerships" which Smedes asks the CRC to approve are,
in his thinking, marriages: homosexual marriages (the emphasis is
mine). If Smedes has his way, there will be two kinds of marriages in
the CRC, heterosexual and homosexual.
Closely related is his use of "may" in his wording of
his church's present forbidding of homosexual unions: "You may
not marry." But this is a mistake. What the church says is, "You
cannot marry (each other)."
The thing is impossible, as impossible as it is for
homosexual sex to be fruitful in children. By definition, definition
grounded in the ordinance of God at creation, marriage is a relationship
between a man and a woman, a male and a female. Men can do many things
with men, and women can do many things, apparently, with women. One
thing that they cannot do is marry.
Analysis of Smedes' plea for homosexual "marriages"
in the CRC would also predict that this abomination is sure to come in
that church. If ministers are permitted publicly to advocate homosexual
"marriage," it will come. If theologians of the stature of a Lewis
Smedes are already bold to plead for homosexual "marriage," it will come
sooner rather than later.
The Argument for Homosexual "Marriage"
But my interest in Smedes' article lies elsewhere.
The interest of the readers ought to lie elsewhere. Our interest is not
the plea itself for homosexual relations, but the argument raised on
behalf of the plea.
Smedes has an argument.
The argument is solid and compelling, indeed,
irresistible, as far as the CRC is concerned.
The CRC may yet for a time forbid homosexual
partnerships, but they will not do so by refuting Smedes' argument.
They will merely ignore it.
This argument is equally compelling for many in other
Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
The argument fails completely in the Protestant
Reformed Churches (PRC). But then it is important, even urgent, that
members of the PRC carefully consider the argument, so that they
strengthen their determination that this powerful argument for
practicing homosexuals in the church never get a foothold among them.
Smedes' argument is this: Just as the CRC came to
approve the remarriage of divorced persons despite Jesus' prohibition,
so also the CRC can and should approve homosexual "marriage."
For many years, the CRC forbade remarriage after
divorce and excluded remarried persons from membership in the church as
those living in adultery. In the 1950s, the CRC radically changed its
stand and accepted remarried persons as members of the church. These are
not only "innocent parties," but also "guilty parties" and those who
divorced for all kinds of unbiblical reasons.
Smedes readily acknowledges that the reason for the
acceptance of remarried persons by his church was not the discovery of
new material on divorce and remarriage in the Bible. The reason was not
even a new interpretation of the words of Jesus and the apostles that
the CRC had for many years appealed to in support of its condemnation of
remarriage. But the reason was that the church found itself confronted
by a dramatic increase of divorce and remarriage among its members. And
those divorcing and remarrying were the sons and daughters of the
members of the church, including the ministers and elders who made the
More sons and daughters of the faithful were
getting divorced and were marrying again. Before World War II, the
church could exclude such people on the assumption that they would
very rarely be their own loved ones. After the war, however, local
congregations discovered that persons whom they loved as brothers
and sisters in Christ—and, yes, their own children—were doing
it. And it was very hard to look their own sons and daughters in the
eyes and say to them: "You will go to hell unless you leave your
In light of these hard realities, the CRC
deliberately revised its understanding of Scripture's teaching on
marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Smedes puts it this way: "It (the
CRC) factored human reality into its reading of the Lord's words."
With this new "reading" of biblical teaching, there
was a much wider application of the mercy of God to adulterers. The wide
mercy of God was extended to the professing Christian who unjustly
divorced his own wife and remarried the wife of his neighbour. Proclaims
Smedes, in his explanation and defence of the CRC's change of position
regarding remarriage, "The grace of Jesus Christ ... could bless and
support remarried people in their second marriage."
This wideness of God's mercy is an important aspect
of the CRC's acceptance of remarriage after divorce, as it is an
important element in Smedes' argument for the acceptance of homosexual
"marriage." It accounts for the title of Smedes' article: "Like the
Wideness of the Sea." This is part of a line in a hymn that goes,
"There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea."
This acceptance of remarried persons at the Lord's
Table allows for, if it does not require, the similar acceptance of
practicing homosexuals as members of the church.
Does the church 's dramatic move from the
exclusion to the embrace of divorced and remarried Christians
provide a precedent for an embrace of homosexual Christians who live
together in a committed partnership ?
My answer to my own question is, Yes, it does
seem to me that our embrace of divorced and remarried Christian
people did indeed set a precedent for embracing Christian
homosexuals who live together.
If the church, with appeal to the wideness of mercy,
can accept remarried persons because members are in fact divorcing and
remarrying, including the dear children of the church, even though
Scripture clearly teaches marriage as a lifelong bond, then the church
can also accept practicing homosexuals for the same reasons, even though
Scripture plainly teaches that God wills sex only in the marriage of a
man and a woman.
This is the argument.
It is valid.
The church that accommodates the Word of God to the
painful circumstances of its members in the matter of divorce and
remarriage should do so also in the matter of homosexual desire. Fact
is, as Smedes shrewdly observes, "The biblical ground for excluding them
(homosexuals) from embrace within the church is actually weaker than was
its ground for excluding divorced and remarried heterosexuals."
How can ministers and elders say no to homosexual
sons and daughters of the congregation, when they have not been able to
say no to remarried sons and daughters? Much less, as is
more and more the case, when these rulers in the church are themselves
If the mercy of God, in the thinking of the church,
is wide to bless and save one who transgresses the seventh commandment
in one gross way—adultery—why should that mercy strangely narrow so as
to exclude another who transgresses the same commandment in another
gross way—homosexual acts?
If sexual pleasure and the earthly comforts of life
override Christ's demand for costly, sacrificial discipleship in the
greater matter of marriage, why should they not override His demand in
the lesser matter of mere sex?
Approval of remarriage after divorce is not only an
argument. As Smedes correctly points out, it is also a "precedent." It
has "paved the way'' for the acceptance of homosexual ''marriage."
The church that has forsaken the biblical teaching on
divorce and remarriage cannot consistently prohibit homosexual
relations. The church that has caved in to the pressures of the
lawlessness of these last days in the matter of remarriage will
eventually do so also in the matter of homosexuality.
This is by no means only or even mainly the CRC.
Smedes naturally pitches his plea, with its argument,
toward the CRC. For this reason, I must mention the CRC often in this
essay. But I will not have any reader suppose, or charge, that I like to
point the finger at the CRC. Not here! Not whatsoever! This essay is
fundamentally uninterested in the CRC. It is interested in an argument.
For the overwhelming majority of Protestant churches
approve the remarriage of divorced persons. The overwhelming majority of
churches that like to be regarded as conservative—Presbyterian and
Reformed churches—approve the remarriage of divorced persons and welcome
them to the Lord's Table. Their reasons are the same as those that moved
the CRC to change its stand on remarriage. And their defence of this
wickedness, when they are challenged, is also the same: the wideness of
Smedes' argument applies to them all.
When some of them waggle their finger at the CRC
concerning an alleged "softness" toward homosexuality, they play the
The Argument Refuted
The argument for approving homosexual relations in
the church is effectively answered by a church's faithful, biblical
stand on marriage, sex, divorce, and remarriage. The plain teaching of
the Bible is the authoritative rule for the thankful life of the
believer in marriage. The difficult marital circumstances of some are
not allowed to compromise, much less negate, the Word of God. The true
church refuses to "factor human reality into its reading of the Lord's
Members of the congregation, including ministers and
elders, look their own children and grandchildren who find themselves in
such circumstances in the eyes and call them to a life of self-denial:
being a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven's sake. The grace of Christ is
sufficient. By the Spirit of Christ, their brief earthly life will be
God-glorifying and rich. And the glory that will be their reward is so
great that the present suffering is not worthy to be compared with it.
Christ will eternally make up to them their temporal loss.
As for the wideness of God's mercy, who can
sufficiently extol it?
Higher than heaven, deeper than hell, wider than the
east is from the west!
Wide enough to forgive, bless, and save fornicators,
adulterers, unbiblically divorced, remarried, and homosexuals! As it is
wide enough to forgive, bless, and save those who are worse sinners than
any of them: the proud!
In the way of our repentance!
Only in the way of our repentance.
The teaching that God's mercy saves impenitent
sinners who go on in their sin is a false gospel. It is the heresy of
antinomism. It invents a "faire and easie way to heaven," only to send
the comfortable sinners to hell.
Wide is God's mercy.
But narrow is the way.
Does anyone remember anymore?
Narrow is the way.