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The Christian Reformed Church has wrestled with divorce as a theological issue and a social reality through most of its existence.

In 1883, for example, a congregation asked Synod to judge whether a man who had remarried “may hold his child while presenting it for Baptism.” The man had, at age 17, been compelled to marry a woman with whom he’d had “illicit relations”—or face a $500 fine or jail time. His lawyer advised him to marry her and then, after “a certain period of time,” have the marriage annulled (i.e. judged legally invalid and never having existed). The couple did this. The man and the woman eventually married other people. The man’s consistory rejected the annulment. It considered him divorced and viewed his current marriage as “unlawful,” an ongoing act of adultery. Synod agreed and decided that he “may not hold his child at Baptism.”

A more individualistic culture, laws making divorces easier to obtain, and rising divorce rates would force the CRC to reconsider its stance on divorce and remarriage and offer practical advice for consistories and people going through divorces. These trends could be viewed as attacks on marriage and family as institutions. They also involved church members in concrete situations making choices for themselves or doing what they thought best for their families.

Continuity and Minor Changes

Before 1908 the CRC dealt mostly with individual cases related to divorce and remarriage. In 1908 Synod formalized the denomination’s position: The Bible permitted divorce and remarriage only in cases of adultery. An innocent spouse could remarry and be a church member in good standing because adultery “freed” the “offended” spouse. An adulterer could not remarry and be in good standing. “Before God” he or she “remained united” in the first marriage; a second marriage would be “a life of adultery.” Any other policy would reward adultery, synod explained, and “evade the command of God.” Even “innocent” parties could not remarry if they divorced for any reason but adultery (e.g., desertion).

Synod dealt with questions about divorce and marriage several times a decade until the 1980s, with noteworthy decisions in 1947, 1956, and 1980.

In 1947 Synod restated the CRC position that remarrying after an “unbiblical” divorce was “continual adultery.” It allowed an exception, however, for people who had been “living in complete ignorance” of God’s Word about divorce and remarriage. Exceptions required people to give evidence of their ignorance, repent of their sins, and go through a time of probation. Only then could they be church members.

In 1956 Synod decided that Scripture did not support the claim that remarriage after a divorce was to live in continual adultery. Committee reports and responses analyzed in detail what could be inferred from the Bible versus what it stated directly. The Banner’s summary of the discussion took three pages. Synod also “urged” churches “to guard the sanctity of marriage and warn unceasingly against every violation of the marriage bond through unbiblical divorce or through adultery.” It entrusted consistories with deciding concrete cases, though it required them to seek advice from their classis. In 1957 Synod rejected appeals to rescind this decision or appoint a new committee, explaining that “a new committee now would discourage action at the consistory level where the problems should be first faced.” It also rejected desertion as a ground for divorce and dealt with membership of converts who had been polygamists before converting.

The 1947 and 1956 decisions reaffirmed the CRC’s stance of narrow Biblical grounds for permissible divorce but allowed consistories some flexibility in unique contexts and individual cases. In 1968, Synod decided that consistories no longer needed to seek advice from their classis, except when people appealed a decision. Reformed churches around the world and the Reformed Ecumenical Synod were dealing with similar questions. In the 1970s, Synod would again take up marriage, divorce, and remarriage in substance.

A Turning Point?

In 1971, Synod responded to an overture from Classis Toronto by appointing a committee to develop guidelines for consistories working with people struggling in their marriages or dealing with divorce. The committee reported in 1973. Synod could not agree on grounds for permissible divorce, did not accept the report, and appointed a second committee. The second committee’s report went to congregations for feedback in 1975. Synod took up the report in 1977 and again did not accept it. A third committee reported in 1980. Its report was striking in several ways.

First, the 1980 report argued that the Bible gives no “general sanction” for divorce or remarriage, even for adultery. The 1947, 1956-1957, and 1973-1977 reports had wrestled with expanding the grounds for permissible divorces beyond adultery (e.g., desertion). The 1980 report rejected listing criteria for when divorce and remarriage could be permitted, emphasizing that any divorce involves sin because it breaks a marriage covenant and undermines the church’s effort to live out the covenant of grace. The report stood in continuity with past synodical judgments in its high view of marriage and condemnation of divorce. It went further in contending that the Bible provides no “provisions for divorce and remarriage after divorce.”

Second, the 1975-1977 and 1980 reports emphasized—in a way previous reports had not—the relationship between marriage covenants and the covenant of grace. Past reports occasionally used the word covenant in discussing marriage but said little about covenant theology. The 1980 report revolved around covenant theology. The biblical metaphor of the church as the “bride” of Christ is not merely a useful analogy to help Christians understand the relationship between Christ and the church. And marriage is not merely a creational norm. Marriage has a “redemptive purpose,” the report argued. “The covenant of marriage reflects the covenant of grace. Its model, and in fact its fulfillment, is the covenant which unites Christ and the church.” More than that, “Understood in the light of Christ, marriage and family have an essential relationship to the church as family of God.”

What did this mean? “Church is more than a place where we are taught to live as Christians in marriage, for the church is itself the family of God which is the goal to which Christian marriage contributes and for which marriage exists.” Marriage can be “a means of grace.” The report thus raised the stakes for families, marriages, and divorces. “To break this unity in Christ, either by attempting to live the unity of marriage apart from its goal in the family of God or by divorce, is to violate that for which Christ died” and “a failure to fulfill the redemptive purpose for marriage.” Though its appeal to covenant theology was characteristically Reformed, this position also echoed sacramental views of marriage.

Third, the report offered pastoral advice for consistories responding to cases of marital difficulty and divorce. Churches should educate members about the Christian view of marriage in a time when marriage is “often under attack.” They should minister to people whose marriages are in crisis, including emphasis on reconciliation. And they should minister to those who are divorced. “Exercise formal discipline only when there is disdain for the biblical teachings and when unrepentance is beyond doubt,” the report advised. “Marital breakdown and divorce does not by itself mean the loss of church membership.” The same was true of remarriage. Biblical texts, Synod judged, “provide no simple law by which to regulate divorce and remarriage.”

Behind this carefully-stated advice lay humility. “(Recognizing) the limits of human ability to discern the subtlety and intricacy of human motivation,” the report explained, “the church must recognize the limits of its ability to assess guilt and blame in the intimate and private turmoil of marital distress.”

Synod did not refer the report to churches for study, as a classis requested, but approved it. In 1981 it rejected an overture to reverse the 1980 decision—by a congregation concerned that Synod had opened the door for people who were “contemplating divorce” or were divorced to partake in the sacraments.

What is There to Learn?

Continuity long characterized CRC policies about divorce and remarriage, with Synodical decisions from the 1940s to 1960s creating a bit of room for local judgment by consistories in concrete cases. What stands out about this history, especially Synod’s decision in 1980, which remains the basis for CRC policies on marriage and divorce today?

One thing is the seeming disconnect between Synod’s covenant-oriented restatement of the CRC’s view of marriage and its new pastoral advice. Synod emphasized that people’s sin in divorce was not only breaking a marriage covenant but also failing the covenant of grace. Yet its pastoral advice offered new flexibility in judging individual cases, providing support, and promoting healing. This disconnect might be perceived as a mixed message—upholding traditional principles, with no “general sanctions” for divorce, but providing greater freedom in practice for local churches. It also can be viewed as appropriately holding in tension an ideal view of marriage and concern for people amid the complexities of life in a sinful world. The disconnect or tension likely has corresponded with different experiences for people going through marital difficulties or divorces in different congregations.

Another thing is the dearth of discussion in synodical reports of ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, and Greco-Roman social contexts related to marriage and divorce. In the 1980 report there are few references even to Old Testament passages (only Gen. 1-2; Mal. 2) and rabbinical debates. These typically had practical contractual elements, as marriages involved economic matters (e.g., land, dowry money). Marriage covenants were temporal as well as spiritual. Previous reports had included more analysis of Old Testament texts and rabbinical debates. The 1980 report also did not discuss the differences between marriage in ancient societies and modern North America. The overture from Classis Toronto in 1971 had addressed a range of these matters, but Synod largely ignored them.

The metaphor of Christ’s relationship to the church as a marriage makes sense because people can make sense of a spiritual mystery through their experience of something familiar. But the 1980 report’s covenant theology mostly reads the analogy from the covenant of grace to marriage covenants and marital experiences. It neglects the many Old Testament passages that use human experiences of marriage and marital difficulties to illuminate God’s covenant with his people. The report’s theological section rarely refers to “marriages,” but almost exclusively to “marriage” as an ideal. As a result, its discussion of marriage and covenant theology feels abstract, floating above the contingencies of marriage covenants and relationships as experienced in particular times and places.

How might this matter? The 1980 report perhaps reduced analysis of Old Testament texts and ancient contexts because it rejected the idea of general grounds for divorce, unlike previous reports, which had explored them. But are such texts and contexts relevant only to grounds for divorce? Might they also be vital for understanding marriage and covenant theology? The report could have discussed the complex, often untidy features of marriage contracts, marriages, and divorces in rabbinical debates, the Bible, and ancient and modern social contexts. If it had done so, might its pastoral advice and theology of marriage covenants have been more effectively connected?

Reformed thought characteristically has emphasized the relevance of Christian faith, theology, and worldview for all areas of life. Perhaps also characteristic has been a struggle to integrate theoretical ideals with the circumstances of daily experiences. This struggle has been especially painful when it comes to marriage and divorce, due to the tension between high ideals and the contingencies of life. While Synod in 1980 provided a framework for the CRC to address ongoing and new issues, it unsurprisingly left as many questions as it answered.

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