The dissolution of marriage
We leaned against the pickup-truck fender out in the front yard. One of my laymen, Rick, was inside, talking with the woman of the house while her kids swirled about. I was taking the man through the Continuing Witness Training presentation of the gospel, leading up to willingness and commitment questions. He’d been tracking right along with the gospel as I laid it out along the lines of “God’s Purpose; Man’s Problem; God’s Provision; Man’s Response.” I thought he might be ready to accept Christ. But then he asked, “Would I have to leave Dovie?” The problem was that he was living, and sharing a bed, with a woman who was not his wife, and he didn’t want to give that up.
I sometimes bring up this example for classroom discussion, asking the students what they’d say. On the one hand, you’re not saved by righteous deeds, and you can’t insist that the convert be sanctified from the start. (As one old pastor told me, “You have to catch ‘em before you clean ‘em.”) On the other hand, repentance means something, as does the lordship of Christ, which the new believer professes. There should be a change of heart. So which is it? Well, good people can disagree about this, but I said, “Yes.” He needed to move out, at least until he got things in spiritual and marital order.
I didn’t give him a checklist of the behavioral standards he needed to meet in order to be saved. He’d brought up the subject of Dovie on his own, and that told me he was wrestling with the cost of discipleship at this point. For me to indulge his co-habitation would have betrayed the sweeping nature of the gospel. I think I would have said the same sort of thing if he’d asked, “Do I have to be baptized?” Of course, you’re not saved by baptism, but if you’re not willing to undergo it, you may well have a salvation problem.
That was just one of many occasions in that church when I had to stand up for marriage. And it all started when I decided to teach through 1 Corinthians. I was so naïve as to think that when I got to the seventh chapter, to its teaching about divorce and remarriage, that my congregation would understand my saying, “Of course, by this standard, there are some weddings I couldn’t perform in good conscience” – or something like that.
Talk about a meltdown. I quickly discovered that virtually every family in the church had been touched directly by divorce, that my predecessor was pretty much wide open on the subject, and that our church even had divorced and remarried deacons. Hoo boy! I was inundated with commentaries, recriminations and tears. One deacon even wondered out loud how they were going to pay my salary since folks were leaving the church over this. (Actually, before long, we began to grow in attendance and giving, but I didn’t know that at the time of his visit.)
The best I could tell from my subsequent crash course on divorce and remarriage was that a two-exception, “Erasmian” position (adultery and abandonment) was biblical, though there were some strong evangelical dissenters. Some quoted Barclay to say it was a matter of ideals and not rules, and so counseled liberty. Others urged me to follow Gothard in disallowing all exceptions past the betrothal period.
I got a workout thinking through the standard one-line arguments for a liberal policy: “Yes, I know the Lord said it was not good for Adam to be alone, but unlike divorcees, he was alone in a special way, as the only person on earth”; “No, divorce is not the unforgiveable sin, but there are trailing obligations from the covenants we accept, as when a drunk who stops cold turkey still has to pay the credit card bill for the fifth he bought just before his conversion”; “No, the loving thing is to make sure your kids know the biblical standard so that maybe they will avoid the mistakes that have brought you and others so much heartache.” On and on it went, and I was not alone. I’m eternally grateful for the insight and encouragement I got from others, including John Stott and John MacArthur.
That’s when I started to preach through books, beginning with Matthew. I discovered that a pastor is something like an mine sweeper, closing his eyes, covering his ears and venturing out through the field. You never knew what will blow up next, taking off a toe or worse.
When I got to the divorce teaching in Matthew 5, I affixed a plumb line to the pulpit and then went down beside the Lord’s Supper table to show how culture, both inside and outside the church, tried to pull it out of plumb, first one way and then another. I told them I was trying to let the Bible determine what was plumb, and I think it helped. It was great to hear from supporters, some of whom were divorced and remarried unbiblically, who appreciated my attempt to preach the Word, and not just social conventions. But I still exhausted my “honeymoon capital” in a month or so.
There’s just no telling what sort of matrimonial and procreative exotica will surface in our culture next. On the other hand, there is plenty of telling what the Bible will say about it, and that the sacred text will bring light and life to individuals and churches who do their best to follow the teachings of Christ on these matters, for the gospel is not just about getting to heaven. It’s also about avoiding and escaping hell on earth. Besides, how is one to understand the church as the bride of Christ if we treat matrimony as little better than channel surfing from spouse to spouse until we get the “program” we want?
Mark T. Coppenger is professor of Christian apologetics and vice president for extension education at Southern Seminary. He is also director of Southern’s Nashville extension center. Connect with Dr. Coppenger on Twitter at @mcoppenger.