As if divorce doesn't come with enough sense of shame, despair, hopelessness, failure, and regret in the first place... ahem.
In this particular case, in light of Mr. Piper's position paper on divorce and remarriage, this individual presented two questions to me:
- If you're divorced and remarried, does God look at this as an adulterous union?
- When you remarry, are you still married to your first husband in God’s eyes? Where does that leave your second marriage?
After a few days of reflection, prayer, and asking spiritual counsel from a church leader who's been a pastor far longer than I've been a pastor, I began the conversation with a disclaimer:
To be fair, I come at this knowing the particular theological perspective behind Mr. Piper's position paper will fundamentally conflict with the Wesleyan perspective I bring to these questions, and with the perspective of any woman appointed to a pastoral position, much less a woman who pastors after being remarried—such as myself.
To a certain extent, I agree. Where theological perspectives differ on this topic, though, is at the point of concern with implications of regeneration, or "new life," of the believer in Christ, as far as that "new life" includes remarriage as a Christian. It so happens I've personally been blessed beyond all comprehension by God's mercy shed through a denomination which has extended an enormous amount of grace to me, in respect to Jesus' compassion for fallen women and His baffling elevation of "the worst of sinners." Suffice to say, from my unique context, entering the discussion around Mr. Piper's paper comes with acknowledged bias and a grain or two of theological salt.
Thus prefaced with an agreement to hold loosely our differences over denominational leanings, may they be toward either law or grace, I offered the best response I could. Now I offer it here, for any fellow traveler who can make use of it, with the prayer that God will use these words for His good work in restoring others by His grace. Wherever we lack wisdom, may the Spirit of wisdom teach us gently, walking closely with us in the Lord's great mercy and forgiveness.
1. If you’re divorced and remarried, does God look at this as an adulterous union?
After a careful first reading of Mr. Piper's position paper and Scriptural references, I went to an experienced church leader about this one. The pastor I spoke with is one of the most brilliant thinkers I know, and he's currently pursuing a doctorate in ministry. When I asked the question and said that after my five years of ministry education, I’m not sure how to answer, he said, “I don’t know if I really have an answer for that, either.” What does this say for us, as ministers of God's Word? Well, if nothing else, dear soul... please take comfort in knowing this is a complex question, which many of us wrestle with, and so if you're wrestling with it, you are not alone.
Does God look at remarriage as an adulterous union? The answer that arises in my mind and heart is I trust God looks at this as a broken situation, in need of His forgiveness and mercy. Is a second marriage God’s ideal for us? No, of course not—His ideal for us is one marriage, and one marriage only. God would rather see us in an honorable, successful marriage the first time (two become one flesh). But we fall short of God’s ideal for us in many areas of life. And wherever we fall short of His ideal, we know sin is involved. That’s why we need His forgiveness and mercy—because we come into this world as sinners in need of grace.
Is getting remarried a sin in itself? It’s possible. We can have all sorts of sinful motives around a marital union. (Some of us entered a first marriage we had no business stepping foot into.) Now, to be clear, Mr. Piper takes the position that all remarriage is prohibited by Scripture; that’s one view. It’s not the most redemptive view, though, and Christ always points to redemption. Even if our past actions were taken in sin, Jesus always offers the hope of redemption in the situation we’re in now.
That’s part of the issue with referencing Mr. Piper’s position paper in this case: it really doesn’t speak to the remarriage situation in question. If we were talking about someone who was planning to get remarried or thinking about getting remarried, there might be some material for a good soul searching here. But we’re talking about someone who is already remarried. So the whole discussion of whether or not someone “should” get remarried is actually irrelevant to this situation. It’s not a question of “should I be remarried?" because the fact is this individual is remarried. That makes it a question of “how do I do this remarriage that I’m in, in a way that is honoring to God?”
That means accepting God’s forgiveness and mercy, finding freedom to love well in one's unique situation. First Corinthians 7:23-24 says, “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them…” Interestingly enough, Mr. Piper skips over these verses in his discussion of 1 Corinthians 7. Draw your own conclusions there.
Honestly, no matter where we're at in our knowledge of the Word, we might look at a big, long theological statement like Mr. Piper’s, and it might look pretty intimidating and condemning. There’s the rub, dear soul—Romans 8:1-2 tells us, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
There are those who tend to take a harsher view of Scripture, but the heart of the gospel message is above all a message of freedom in Jesus Christ. Jesus died once for all to pay the price for our sins. He does not ask us to keep suffering for them. He is not going to keep punishing us for them. Where we're hearing any message to the contrary, I want to confront that and ask what exactly is trying to be accomplished by what is being said—because if it’s really about Jesus, we know Jesus is pointing to freedom, not condemnation.
2. When you remarry, are you still married to your first husband in God’s eyes? Where does that leave your second marriage?
In reality, in the case of any divorce, there's always going to be a previous relationship that can’t be undone. Mr. Piper digs deeply in Scripture to make this point. What does this look like in the outworking of our lives? The previous marriage, even broken as it is, will continue to affect and shape your life and your other relationships, probably til the day you die. Your first spouse is now your ex-spouse—that's a continuing relationship. Barring the kind of reconciliation that brings divorced spouses back together again, your ex-spouse will continue to be your ex-spouse, and you will continue to relate to this person as your ex-spouse, as long as you both shall live. In our broken world, I'm afraid divorced parents, in particular, become especially, acutely aware of this reality. It's awfully hard to say the relationship is over when you're still meeting each other each week for kids' pick-ups, drop-offs, sports, activities, parent-teacher meetings, and holiday exchanges.
Even where there are no children involved in a divorce, you will continue to relate back to your ex-spouse in thoughts and emotions, even if you aren’t actually interacting with your ex in person. In most cases, issues of forgiveness and unforgiveness continue long after a divorce is finalized. Trust in new relationships is deeply influenced by wounds from past relationships. Healing takes time; new hurts are discovered. We continue to interact with the effects of a failed marriage long after the marriage has ended, even in instances when we have actually managed to make peace with the situation. Ultimately, in many practical and theological respects, the first marriage can’t be undone. That’s just one unfortunate consequence of the sin issues surrounding divorce.
But two wrongs don’t make a right, as one Christianity Today writer succinctly observes. Another divorce isn’t going to cancel out a first divorce. That would just add another divorce to an already broken situation—issues compounding issues, sin on top of sin.
And Mr. Piper does get to the point of the situation in question at the very end of his position paper. He says those who are already remarried “should not separate and live as single people thinking that this would result in less sin.” Mr. Piper, too, admits “the Bible does not give prescriptions for this particular case.” He also recognizes there is no absolute answer for this question. But he observes Scripture “does treat second marriages as having significant standing in God’s eyes.” Even if a second marriage was entered into with wrong motives, even if a second marriage “should not have been formed”—because ultimately, any remarriage falls tragically short of God’s ideal for a single, permanent marriage—the fact is that the second marriage was formed, and “ongoing relations should not be looked on as adulterous.”
Where does that put us? There may very well be some unrecognized or unconfessed sin involved, if there's a sense of guilt being experienced. Do you believe your first marriage ended for wrong reasons? Do you feel you should have known better than to enter into a second marriage when you did? Confess these things, if need be. Then recognize done things can’t be undone, as Mr. Piper points out in his clarifying follow-up piece. Our charge now is to love as Christ loves. That means loving broken people with the love of God shed abroad. That’s why we need God’s redemptive mercies to live freely in the situations we're in.
Sometimes, the underlying sin is doubting that God really has forgiven our sins of the past—that what was dead can live again. "I do believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24) Is there sin involved in divorce? Yes. Is there sin involved in getting remarried? Maybe. What do we do about that now? If we’ve confessed to Christ the sin we do know of, and we’ve confessed to God that we know our current situation falls short of His ideal for us (which it almost always does, in one area of life or another), and we’ve asked His forgiveness over these things… but we’re still living in shame imposed on us by other people or self-imposed by what we think "they" think… if we’re allowing ourselves to become slaves of human beings, where Jesus Christ has set us free by His work on the cross… then let’s confess that as sin and deal with that before God today.
Are there areas of forgiveness where you still need God to help you with unbelief?
How is it with your soul?