A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Abuse and Divorce: A Disagreement with the Westminster Confession of Faith

The following paragraphs are taken from the 24th chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith entitled Of Marriage and Divorce.  The WCF is the doctrinal standard for most Presbyterian churches and a very mildly edited version of it, the London Confession of Faith, is the doctrinal standard for most Reformed Baptist churches, like the one I pastor.  Here is the first paragraph I wanted to call to your attention:

III. It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And therefore such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.

Consider that this section says that a Christian is to only marry a Christian.  That is obviously biblical.  In keeping with this principle, a Christian should not marry “such as are notoriously wicked in their life or [who] maintain damnable heresies.”  Agreed once again.  Here then is my question — if a Christian is married to a person (who may well have claimed to have been a Christian when the marriage was joined), who is indeed notoriously wicked in his life, then why would anyone object to the Christian divorcing that wicked man?  Just an observation for consideration.

And here is the second paragraph.  This is the one I disagree with in part:

VI. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God has joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.

Where in Scripture are we told that people cannot decide for themselves to divorce or not?  The WCF here says that they are not allowed to do so — the decision is “not left to their own wills,” but instead the matter must be decided by “a public and orderly course of proceeding.”  Now, if this wording means that the divorce must be processed by the civil authorities, then I have no problem with it.  If you want a divorce, you have to go to the divorce court.

But it would seem to me that the church has often stepped in at this point and deemed itself to be the agency of this “public and orderly course of proceedings” and thereby overriding the individual Christian’s own right to determine before God, by Scripture and conscience, whether they have the right to divorce.

What do you think about these things?

21 Comments

  1. What if the divorce is not “their own will and discretion”?

    What if the divorce is God’s will, in which they are being led by the Holy Spirit?

    Does the Westminster confession of faith not profess that all true believers are priests of God, indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit, and able to hear God’s voice and discern His will in their lives thru the working of the Holy Spirit by whom they are indwelt? The above-referenced paragraph appears, to me, to be in direct contradiction with this thesis.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Joe – This is from chapter 20 of the WCF: “II. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.”

      • I would say, then, that:

        1. I agree with the WCF that believers should not act of “their own will and discretion.”
        2. Believers should act under the will of God, by the discretion of the Holy Spirit, by whom they are indwelt.
        3. However, this is a redundant statement when made specifically about a divorce situation, as it applies to every aspect of a believer’s life.
        4. The WCF, Ch 24, Section VI requirement for a believer facing divorce to stand before a church counsel who will be charged with making decisions deeply affecting both parties of the estranged couple, as well as any children, with neither the necessary knowledge nor level of prayer likely entered into by at least one party of the couple, is in direct contradiction to WCF, CH 20, Section 2, and should be completely ignored.

  2. Anonymous

    I think this goes to the same point, that the Church has overstepped its authority boundaries and taken control, and brought us back to Rome in some respects. It goes to the same thing that women who are Christians have been excommunicated from their Church, for divorcing their husband who abuses her and the children. They say they have authority in this area, to actually say that whomever they excommunicate, is bound from ever entering Heaven. How did a human being, ever gain this kind of authority? They must consider themselves as one having “divine” authority, if they believe they hold this power. Matthew 18 never says to put them out of the Church, it just says to treat them like an unbeliever and some translations say tax collector.

    They have taken liberty where they have not been given liberty, perhaps based on the WCF. We must remember, that the Bible is our source for all of life and that the WCF and the London Baptist, were written by fallible men. It is their interpretation, but not necessarily how God meant for it to be interpreted. If there is error in them,. then we must choose the Bible over our confessionals. I have seen this happen with Calvin’s commentaries as well. They choose his interpretation over what the Bible actually says.

    I wonder if they consider how angry God must be, when these power and control hungry “leaders” (I cannot call them shepherds, for that they are not) excommunicate and attempt to ruin, a true Christian, in exchange for an abuser, even if the abuser claims Christ. How can anyone on earth, say that they have the power to decide whether one enters Heaven or not? I can see saying that about someone who denies Christ, denies the Trinity, denies the Holy Spirit, and renounces Salvation. But, someone who divorces their abuser? God will judge and that day is coming, very soon.

    • Dear Anon
      Not that this is important to the main point of this thread but I wanted to make a comment about your words, “Matthew 18 never says to put them out of the Church, it just says to treat them like an unbeliever and some translations say tax collector.”

      I agree that Matt 18 does not use the actual words “put them out of the church,” but we need to ask “What does it mean to treat someone like an unbeliever?”
      Different denominations cut this cake differently.

      I have been told by a minister who followed reformed theology that if a church disciplines someone by declaring them “as an unbeliever” that means the person under discipline should not take communion. That’s why we use the term ex-communicated:– ex meaning out of; communion meaning sharing the bread and wine which represent our partaking of the body and blood of Christ. Churches like this usually hedge the communion table by warning unbelievers not to partake in the elements lest judgement fall upon them (1 Cor. 11:29). These churches also tend to discourage children from taking communion until they have come to personal faith for themselves.
      But that does not mean the person under such discipline should be forbidden from attending church services. After all, we want unbelievers to attend church! We want them to hear the gospel so that perhaps they may come to repentance and salvation. So I would say that treating someone as an unbeliever shouldn’t mean that they are barred from attending church, but it should mean they are disqualified from taking communion and are removed from the membership roll.

      But as we all know, church discipline is poorly practiced: it’s either being performed unjustly by men who exercise self-aggrandizing power and control from the pulpit , or it’s not being performed at all – leaving wicked people sitting among us in the pews. Only rarely, as in Jeff Crippen’s church, have I heard it being exercised in a truly Biblical fashion.

  3. Jeff S

    Jeff, I think this is a tough one. I know the issue very well, because experience tells me the often you cannot really have enough knowledge to judge the validity of a divorce unless you were inside the marriage and really know what was going on. I remember being fairly judgemental of my mother when she divorced my father, and only now do I realize that I didn’t know the whole story from the outside, and never will (and I was in the home and SAW a lot of their issue, albeit from the eyes of a teenager). I’m not saying her divorce was biblically valid or not- I’m saying that I don’t think I can know. Better to leave it in the hands of God.

    I remember going to a new church while going through my divorce and being told by the pastor they couldn’t just accept me for membership without a better understanding of the situation (and they allowed divorce for emotional abandonment). They encouraged me to attend and be a part of church functions and the elders took time to get to know me and met with me regularly (and we didn’t talk about the divorce during these meetings unless I brought it up).
    I told them I simply wasn’t going to submit myself to their position about membership – I’d made the best decision I could given the information I had and I didn’t feel comfortable putting myself in the hot seat again – and realistically, if they, a new church, had told me that I shouldn’t divorce, who would really think I would have “repented” and gone back anyway? Now this makes it sound bad for the new church, but I totally get where they were coming from – they did not want to be sanctioning my divorce without knowing anything beyond what I said. The quirky result to this was that I was going to be able to join after the divorce was finalized. I think they were wrong in this (because I don’t think accepting me meant sanctioning my divorce), but I don’t think they were so far wrong as to be unmerciful – they were trying to navigate a situation that they really didn’t know how to navigate.

    So given my experience, I feel like unbliblcial divorce should be dealt with as a personal sin, one that really is between God and the divorcee if the reasons were invalid.

    However, reading the text through the eyes Instone-Brewer gives us, it is clear that at least part of Jesus response was against the leadership allowing remarriages in the case of invalid divorces (the part where he talks about remarriage behind adultery is clearly aimed at those who interpreted the OT to say that marriage for “any cause” was OK, but then accepted those divorces as valid when allowed by the more liberal side). Without thinking too hard, the implication is that the church should be judging these things to make sure that it is not allowing unbiblical divorces.

    In talking about prohibiting remarriage, Jesus was clearly addressing the conservative side who did NOT allow divorce for “any cause”, but still recognized such divorces as valid.

    I say “without thinking too hard”, because I think the application of all of this in today’s church is really missing the point. What Jesus is really on about here is that the religious leadership of the day was creating an environment in which husbands could abandon their wives at will. Both sides were contributing to this mess- not only the people who were directly allowing it, but those who were accepting the other side’s allowance of it. And in the end, the ones suffering where the poor women getting divorced and abandoned by their husbands. This is the heart of the matter and should not be overlooked.

    Today we have turned this doctrine into an inquisition to determine the guilt or innocence of a divorced party. Quite frankly, my opinion is that even in the case of unbliblical divorces remarriage should be allowed, assuming the party is repentant and is taking the new marriage vows with the right heart. The emphasis in scripture is always on repentance and grace- look at Jesus’ heart with the woman at the well. He acknowledges that she had 5 marriages (which should end any notion that second marriages aren’t recognized in the eyes of God), but after saying this says he does not condemn her for her past, but tells her not to sin in the future. This is consistent with the general perspective of scripture- it is not about our past, but our current heart and how that carries us into out future behavior. Which is NOT to say their aren’t consequences for sin, but I never get through any of Jesus teaching that prohibition of remarriage is intended to be a consequence of sin- again, it seems to me his focus is on not creating an environment of easy abandonment. We can go too far in our efforts to not create an environment of easy abandonment as we can with any principle of God, and Jesus was not very nice to people who did that.

    So I completely get why the church feels they have to judge these situations, but in the end I think it misses the point and does not accomplish what the mean for it to. We should not dwell on the past actions of an innocent or repentant heart- at least that is my view.

    • I think there’s a lot to be said for the idea that un-bliblcial divorce should be dealt with as a personal sin, one that really is between God and the divorcee if the reasons were invalid.

      The church probably has the obligation to be involved in determining the legitimacy of divorce in so far as it can discourage and prevent illegitimate divorce – divorce done when there is no abuse, adultery or abandonment. But when there is abuse, adultery or abandonment, a mistreated spouse should be allowed to make the decision on their own, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

      The Westminster Confession of Faith said that the persons concerned in divorce should not be left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case. I’m sure that the Westminster divines wrote that in order to restrain frivolous or treacherous divorce. But I don’t think they were sufficiently aware of the difficulties of proving abuse as a ground for divorce. Some of them may have been aware of those difficulties, but I think they were the minority.

      The Westminster divines were very much aware of the misuses of divorce procedure that had pertained in the corrupt Roman system, where bribery and status could twist the arms of Roman Catholic officials to secure divorce or annulment, and enable a man to marry the woman he really wanted.

  4. Jeff – As I have been working through my own personal spiritual issues with regard to man’s ideas vs God’s ideas and what is plainly in His Word, knowing that He wants us to rely on Him and He has also given us His Holy Spirit as guidance, I’m struck with the fact that you are challenging the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith. This document was created by men, right? I don’t know the history of the document or if it has ever had revisions along the way, but this is an ongoing subject in my mind of late. Why do we put so much credibility in man-made interpretations of scripture? Is God’s word not plain enough? Is the Holy Spirit not able to give us insight? Why do we need such documents?

    I don’t know that I’m looking for real answers to my questions, but just wanted to express my thoughts as I read your article and read through the comments. It just seems that when we have these types of documents, it’s easier to rely on them for the letter of the law, rather than digging deeper in the word ourselves.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Good question, Julie Anne. I believe that these kinds of documents are essential for us in order to specifically define what we believe the Bible says. Obviously, as you say, such documents are not the inspired Word of God. But the fact is that every church and every Christian has a “confession of faith.” I used to think, “hey, it is me and my Bible. I don’t need anything else.” In a fundamental sense, that is true. But having no clear, stated doctrinal confession is even more dangerous than having one that may contain error. The history of theology and of the church shows that these confessions have always arisen historically in times when the truth of the gospel was severely threatened by heresies and the church had to specifically state what Scripture said in order to refute those heresies. What you will find out when dealing with false teachers/Christians is that they will very readily confess biblical doctrines and thus they will seem to be orthodox. But when they are pinned down in more detail, you will find that the point will come when they will have to say “no, I don’t believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man” even though before that they had readily said, “oh yes, I believe Jesus is the Son of God.” False teachers and wolves are, in other words, quite slippery.

      The Westminster Confession of Faith and really all of the great confessions arising out of the Reformation era are wonderful statements of the Christian faith. They are made for our protection and for the truth of the gospel. But they are not the inspired Word of God and most all of them quite readily state that very fact.

      For my part, over the years, I have learned to be very suspicious of a “me and my Bible” church because I know full well that such churches do indeed have all kinds of chapters in their unwritten doctrinal statements and you will only learn what these are when they come crashing down upon you.

      • Wouldn’t it make sense, though, to limit a Confession of Faith to essentials, such as deity of Christ, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, salvation by Grace thru Faith, principle of Redemption, etc.?

        IMO, when the COF goes to the level of detail shown in this post, of prescribing which English Bible translation to use, and prescribing how every divorce situation is to be dealt with, it leaves little room for diversity within the church and no room for personal spiritual growth.

      • Jeff S

        I don’t think you’d want to limit a confession to only essentials- it is useful to know where the identity of a church stands even on non-essential issues so there is something beyond the much more fallible proclivities of individual church leaders. Having spent years in Bible churches that appeal to no such confessions and then getting broadsided by doctrines I didn’t know they believed (I had no idea of my church’s views on divorce or wholesale dismissal of modern psychology, for example), I am drawn to churches where I know what I am getting into and have a point of reference for open discussions.

        It’s all well and good to say a church is founded on the Bible, but the problem is we are dealing with a rich set of inspired documents of different types of literature, in different languages, written to different peoples, in different cultures. You can easily agree to take the Bible “literally” without any agreement on what that really means. And even those who do agree often come away with different interpretations.

        So I am starting to embrace the idea of confessional churches that have definitive beliefs about certain doctrines. As I understand it, individual churches and pastors are generally allowed to take exceptions to the confessions based on sound, reasoned arguments. And as a member in the congregation, I am not going to be kicked out for not believing every line of a confession. No one considers them inerrant, but they are a good rule of faith absent reasons to object.

      • I see your point, Jeff S.

        Thinking about myself, personally, and my views on various biblical topics, I tend to think of the “essentials” as my confession of faith, and the “non-essentials” as how I currently see things in my Christian walk.

        I do not expect my view of the “essentials” to change over time.

        I do expect my view of the “non-essentials” to change over time, as I grow, mature, experience more of life, and come to deeper understandings of scripture and of God’s nature.

        Similarly, I consider anyone who is in agreement with me on the “essentials” (my personal confession of faith) to be my Christian brother or sister, with whom I intend to walk in Christian fellowship, regardless of how drastically different our views may be on the “non-essentials.”

        I’m not sure I’ve got any further point here…just thinking out loud…

        Thanks!

    • Dear Julie Anne,
      If you study the history of the Westminster Confession of Faith – the religious context of the time in which it was written, the reason people felt it was important to compile it – you will understand that it was a very valuable project at the time. And the fact that so many Christians have respected it since it was written, speaks, I think, to the fact that the men who put it together were very thoughtful and careful theologians. But as with any such document, it is a ‘subsidiary’ statement, and is always to be recognized as secondary to the Bible itself.
      [You can read about the history of the WCF's statement on divorce and remarriage here.]

      Confessional statements like the WCF give a basis of union, an explicit statement of “these doctrines we believe, and these are the scriptures from which we have derived these doctrines” (the Confession cites Bible verses from which it derives its doctrines). Theologians worked for lifetimes to nut some of this stuff out. We are wise to consider what they arrived at, given we only have so many hours in our lifetimes to nut things out from scratch for ourselves.

      But we should never take a subsidiary standard as a primary standard. The Bible is the primary standard and rule for our faith. If any Confession, like the Westminster Confession, teaches something that we think is incorrect or insufficiently nuanced to represent the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), then we need to hold it only lightly, or correct or reject it.

      With the Westminster Confession’s teaching on divorce, Professor David Clyde Jones (retired professor of ethics, Covenant Seminary, Presbyterian Church of America) has suggested that paragraph 24:6 of the Westminster Confession should be re-worded to read: “Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage, yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful repudiation of the marriage covenant as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.”

      Compare this with the wording in the Confession as it stands:
      … nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion …”

  5. deborah

    Does anybody know the old testament chapter and verse where couples were to decide amongst themselves whether or not to divorce? I believe it was under Moses’ leadership. It was clear that the decision was to be made by the couple.

    • Deborah, I don’t think there is a passage in the OT which talks about couples deciding between themselves whether or not to divorce. The OT passages that deal with divorce are Ex. 21:7-11; Deut. 21:10-14; Deut. 24:1-4; Jer. 3:1,6; Mal. 2:16 (read the Malachi one in the 2011 NIV, the ESV or the Holman Christian Standard Bible, as I believe they are the three versions that have translated it correctly).

  6. Sprite

    In my denomination pastors and elders have to take a vow that they accept the scriptures as infallible and the WCF as a correct summary of the scriptures. If they want to take exception to a phrase in the confession, or if their opinions change over time, they agree to report that to the elders. These are requirements for holding any office in the church.

    The thing that scares me is that in my particular congregation they are sticklers for their own authority too. I have been thinking about separation or divorce, and I would like to be allowed to decide for myself. I don’t want them evaluating my suffering!

    Deciding for myself would would get me excommunicated for failing to submit to the authority of the elders.
    I know a lady who took her case to the elders to ask for legal separation without remarriage. Her husband cheated, did drugs, and was verbally and physically abusive. He also spent all the money she earned cleaning a nursing home on the night shift, so she needed a legal way protect the income.

    They forbade her to separate, “because she had already forgiven him for the adultery”, and none of the other problems were grounds for either separation or divorce in their opinion. She quit her church membership at that point.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Sprite – before God you ARE free to make this decision yourself. What you describe here is typical of the abuse of authority that we see in churches very often, and it is wrong. You have the right before God to separate and divorce your abuser. If they ex-communicate you for it, Christ does not lend His authority to such an action.

    • joepote01

      Sprite – It sounds like you have been put in the difficult position of having to choose between following your conscience and the leading of the Holy Spirit, or following the counsel of your church elders. That is a tough spot for any believer to be in, especially someone with a high regard for church leadership.

      In regard to yuor statement, “I have been thinking about separation or divorce, and I would like to be allowed to decide for myself. I don’t want them evaluating my suffering!” I would say, first, that the decision to separate is ultimately between you and God, regardless of what the church leadership may think of your decision.

      Second, that the consent of the church leadership is not a requirement for divorce. Thankfully, the civil courts make decisions regarding divorce as well as just division of property, etc. The civil courts are very flawed, and often get things wrong, but in this area I’m glad it’s not up to churches to decide.

      If you do decide to divorce, Jesus, your Redeemer, will walk with you through that process and will deliver you from the false teachings and self-righteous judgment of church leaders lacking in understanding.

      Divorce, if chosen, will likely cost you your church membership in that particular congregation. It will not cost you your salvation, nor will it lessen our Father’s love for you and grace toward you.

      Blessings in Christ, our Redeemer!

    • The thing that scares me is that in my particular congregation they are sticklers for their own authority too.

      That scares me too.

      • Sprite

        .Thanks everyone. I’m so glad I found this site. Till now I had never known that abuse constitutes grounds for divorce. If I leave him I’ll do it in good conscience.

    • Sprite, stay tuned to this blog. We have another post scheduled for early January about how the Westminster Confession does not specify that the elders and pastor have the authority/right to tell a congregational member whether or not they may divorce. Read chapter 24 of the WC and you will see there is no mention of elders or pastor, all it says is ‘a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it, not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case.’ Not left to their own wills and discretion implies that the divorcing person should seek advice from others, and common sense would say that the advisers should be wise Christians, but it does not specify the elders/pastor/presbytery. If only all elders pastors and presbyteries were wise to the dynamics of domestic abuse! but very few are.

      Take home message: Not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case does not imply that elders and pastors can lord it over the victim of abuse who is considering divorce, and veto their decision or punish them with excommunication or some other form of shaming. Elders who arrogate that power to themselves are going beyond what the Westminster Confession says.

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