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Why no one is happy with your church’s policy on remarriage

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Posted by Simon Tomkins, 5 Feb 2019

Simon Tomkins explores the practical problems with establishing a policy on remarriage in the current context.

I want to be clear from the start - this is a really unambitious article.  Here’s what it’s not.  It’s not about whether it’s ever OK to get remarried after a divorce when a former spouse is still alive.  It’s not about how to help those who are struggling with the devastating effects of divorce.  I’m not even going to suggest what your church’s policy on remarriage after divorce should be.  This is simply an attempt to articulate why it’s so hard to come up with a policy, which may be some help to ministers and the wardens/PCCs who advise them, and help us all appreciate why Christians who love God’s Word have such different policies in this area.

For better or worse, the Church of England says that the decision whether or not to remarry a divorcee is entirely in the hands of the church’s incumbent minister.  I think they have 3 basic options, and none of them are particularly consistent, because each of them is trying to balance a high view of marriage with a high view of grace and forgiveness.

1. The first option is to say yes to everyone. 
As one church puts it ‘If there’s no way back, we want to help you find a way forward.’  I like that policy.  It’s realistic about the modern world (if you refuse to marry a couple, they’re going to go to the nearest nice civic venue anyway and you just look out of touch with the culture).  It’s compassionate, and full of grace, and straightforward to apply.

The problem is that you are almost certainly going to be blessing relationships which Jesus calls adulterous (Mark 10.10-12).  The C of E marriage liturgy doesn’t really fit that kind of service as there’s no place for expressing repentance and sorrow over past failures.  And have you got a good answer when someone asks why you then can’t bless a same-sex relationship which also denies Jesus’ teaching on marriage?

2. The second option is to decide on a case-by-case basis.
I like that policy too.  It feels fairer.  It can be done very sensitively without setting yourself up as judge and jury.  If you think that the Bible permits the innocent party to remarry after adultery or desertion, you can start by explaining that Jesus is your boss and you have to answer to Him.  You can open a Bible and explain your understanding of the key passages, and ask the couple ‘You tell me – can I marry you guys on these grounds?’  The decision then rests on them.

The problem here is that there will almost certainly be people you think should get married who shouldn’t get married on those grounds.  Let’s say the fiancée was married before as a teenager, and the marriage collapsed.  She moved in with a guy 20 years ago, and they’ve been together since then and had 4 kids together.  Both of them have just been gloriously converted, and now want to get married as a mark of repentance and faith in Jesus.  I don’t know any evangelical minister who would say they should break up or continue cohabiting– but what can you do in this case where it’s not clear that there are Biblical grounds for remarriage?

3. The third option is to say no to every remarriage if there’s a previous spouse still living. 
That’s simple, clear, and consistent.  It’s my current policy as I think it’s the closest fit with the direction of passages like Mk 10.1-12.  It helps couples in the congregation who have difficult marriages (i.e., all of us) to see that the Bible has a high view of ‘hanging in there’.  The problems with the policy are that, depending on how you read the exception clauses in Matthew 5.32 and 19.9, it may be stricter than Scripture (I’m a bit agnostic on the exegesis there, and can’t work out if I’m more scared of blessing adultery or being a Pharisee).  We’re also still stuck with the confusing situation where we’re actively encouraging people to get married (because, e.g., they’ve been together for ages and have kids), but can’t perform the marriage ourselves.

4. A fourth option that could sit alongside option 2 or 3 is to have a blessing (perhaps only for members of the church family) when you can’t carry out a wedding.
That would be a way of nodding towards a high view of grace and a high view of marriage.  But it generates more inconsistency – if I don’t feel I should conduct a wedding, in what sense can I bless it?  I suspect few of us would use that logic with a same-sex relationship.

Why is all this so hard?  I think it’s because Jesus explicitly tells us this is not how life is meant to be (Mark 10.8).  Deuteronomy 24.1-4 regulated divorce and remarriage in a fallen world, but this is not how life was designed to work in Eden (Mark 10.4-6).  The New Testament writers weren’t writing in a context where ministers acted as registrars, and I’m persuaded they don’t explicitly address the question of when/whether remarriage after a divorce is OK.  If the Bible equips us with everything we need for life and godliness, I assume this must therefore be a matter of wisdom rather than law.  We need to come up with a policy in line with our conscience that seeks to uphold a high view of marriage and a high view of grace, and try to explain it gently to congregations before it becomes a live issue for them.  We also need to show public support to fellow-ministers who want to be whole-heartedly Biblical, but have come to a slightly different conclusion to us.

Whatever our policy, when we’re counselling the broken-hearted through the trauma of divorce, let’s start with the gentleness Jesus shows to the Samaritan woman in John 4. He is wonderfully gentle with someone whose relationships have been a total mess (with her own particular patterns of sin and being-sinned-against).  His teaching on divorce in the synoptic Gospels is much more pointed, and directed towards smug married men looking for the exit clause in their marriage vows.  As we point people to Him, we may need to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and have given up on trying to be totally consistent and tidy in a messy, broken, hurting world.  Wonderfully, we can explain that in the midst of all that, we’re longing for the day when we’re caught up in the Great Marriage to our perfectly faithful and loving Bridegroom who (unlike a local church’s leadership team) is able straighten out every piece of emotional and relational wreckage from our lives.

Simon Tomkins is vicar of St Martin's Talke, St John's Alsagers Bank and St James' Audley.

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