We must begin with the Bible. If one asked an Evangelical if Christianity has anything unique to add to the public square debate on marriage, one would hear a resounding, “Yes.” What is this unique understanding of marriage that Christianity brings to the table? As the Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 5, the mystery of marriage points to something beyond both the couple and the institution itself, to a greater and more beautiful reality of Christ’s relationship with his Church.
In terms of the biblical narrative, Christ’s relationship to his Church is founded on his sacrificing his life for his adulterous bride. He remains committed to her in spite of her lack of marital faithfulness, not because of it. What does it mean to say marriage represents Jesus and the Church if marriage does not, at the very least, mean forgiveness and reconciliation in cases of adultery? If marriage is intended to convey the unwavering, covenantal faithfulness of the Messiah to his bride, is allowing for divorce in cases of adultery not the antithesis of this symbolic representation?
When Evangelicals claim adultery as biblical grounds for divorce, they not only put words into Jesus’s mouth that the Gospels do not record him as actually saying, but they mutilate the essence of the uniqueness of the Christian witness to marriage. If we do not have a Gospel that demands of us forgiveness and reconciliation in the midst of marital unfaithfulness between two covenant-bound individuals, I am not sure we have a Gospel that offers any real hope to a fallen world.
This point is not lost on those who seek to redefine marriage from its historic meaning. They recognize the blatant hypocrisy of the Evangelical position. They hear us saying, “for better or for worse,” “in sickness and in health,” and “till death do us part.” But they know we say it with a wink, as long as the worse does not include adultery, the sickness does not include emotional turmoil from infidelity, and unfaithfulness does not precede death. Except for these qualifiers, which we conveniently do not proclaim at the altar, we believe in the permanence of marriage. Marriage is permanent, until it is not. On Saturdays, we officiate weddings with unconditional vows, on Sundays we preach sermons on the sanctity of marriage, and then on Mondays we counsel our congregation that Jesus exempts them to do the hard work of remaining faithful in times of unfaithfulness and that ultimately marriage is not about Jesus and the church but their personal desires. And Evangelicals wonder why our pleas for the sanctity of marriage often fall on deaf ears.
At the recent Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission’s national conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage,” Albert Mohler correctly asserted that the divorce revolution has done more harm to marriage than same-sex marriage will ever do. However, Evangelicals continue to be consumed with condemning that which, according to Mohler, is the lesser threat. Surely Jesus’s words on removing the log from one’s own eye, so that one can clearly see a speck in the eye of a neighbor, apply in this case.
We Evangelicals can decry divorce all we want, but words without action remain thatjust words. Action must take place at the seminary and local church level. Seminary professors who are instructing future pastors must not forsake a foundational, hermeneutical principle of interpreting the less clear passages in light of the clearer. This is especially true when a particular interpretation compromises the very integrity of the witness of the Gospel. Jesus’s often quoted “exception clause” in Matthew 5 and 19 must not be interpreted in isolation, but rather understood within the larger narrative structure and canonical context. This prevents the contradictory position of holding that the exception clause references adultery, but limiting it to physical adultery and not adultery of the heart. This creates a distinction Jesus was unwilling to make in the verses preceding the Matthew 5 exception clause.
On the local church level, let us not be quick to declare any situation of adultery irreconcilable, particularly since we are proclaimers of the message of reconciliation. If our people do not learn from their teachers and shepherds the covenantal nature of marriage and the power of reconciliation in the Gospel, from whom will they learn?
For my Evangelicals brothers who remain unconvinced and still believe adultery is a biblical justification for divorce, pastoral integrity seems to demand you either inform those you marry that you will not hold them to their vows in cases of unfaithfulness, or you instruct the couple to use conditional wording in their vows. This will at least remove any charge of hypocrisy.
Until serious steps are taken to put our own house in order, those looking in will be less inclined to give any serious credence to our public declarations regarding marriage. Arguing that children have a right to a mom and dad rings hollow when Evangelicals are not saying to moms and dads the Gospel demands covenantal faithfulness, even in unfaithfulness.
After a decade of ministry, I am fully aware of the pastoral difficulties presented by holding to this position. I have sat in living rooms and homes of many of these complex cases. But these relational complexities, however painful, cannot be the starting point. As a son of the Reformation, sola scriptura is always the source of theology, not life-situations. Hardships, potential or real, are no justification for shrinking back from the hard-truths of Gospel faithfulness to Jesus. What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
Cory Wilson is a pastor at Gateway Heights Church in Cleveland, OH and adjunct assistant professor of theology and religious studies at John Carroll University. He holds an MDiv from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a PhD from Reformed Theological Seminary.