This “Pastors’ Roundtable” interview on the topic of divorce, featuring the Rev’ds Randy Asburry, Heath Curtis, and Jonathan Fisk (pictured left to right, below), aired as a segment of the August 20, 2008 episode of Issues, Etc.
A few notes, before you begin listening and/or reading:
This interview is over eight years old. I have heard many pastors say, referring to something they wrote or said in the past, “I still stand by that, but I wouldn’t say it that way now.” I’m sure you have heard the same, and I’m sure you’ve said the same, yourself, whether or not you’re a pastor. Any one of these three pastors might say the same thing differently now. Or perhaps he’d say, “No; I was wrong, and here’s why.”
This interview isn’t exhaustive. Part of the dynamic and spontaneous nature of radio interviews is that not every point gets made in its entirety or explained in all of its nuance. This is neither a bug nor a feature— it’s just part of dialogue. Unsurprisingly, this happens in a few spots in the interview. Bear in mind that you are reading a transcript of an interview, not a multi-author, multi-revision essay, and try not to read too much into what is left unsaid: it may be that the interviewees simply didn’t develop their thoughts as fully as they might have elsewhere. That having been said…
This interview is challenging. It might make you uncomfortable, whether or not you’ve been divorced. These three pastors raise as many questions as they answer— serious, perhaps even grave, questions which ought to give us all pause and make us consider whether thoroughgoing contemporary Lutheran opinion on the topic of divorce is duly formed by God’s Word, or whether thoroughgoing contemporary Lutheran opinion gives the lie to God’s Word in some way. Honestly, this is more of an “I, Thou” matter: each of us must always make sure that his own conscience is duly formed (held captive, etc.) by God’s Word— “thoroughgoing Lutheran opinion” be hanged.
That the current bishop of Rome, Joseph Bergoglio, has “made the world safe” for a kind of modish po-mo antinomianism, specifically w/r/t the question of divorce— or, if not the world, then at least the Roman Church (although Fr. Bergoglio seems rather zealous to blur the line between the two)— is an irony worth noting (redolent of Prof. John Pless’s observation that a certain continuum exists between legalism and antinomianism). This is concerning, because, as they say, when the pope sneezes, Protestants get a cold— or something worse, if Vatican II was any indication. My fear is that the Hans-Küngish miasma now emanating from Rome will, upon contact with the latent antinomistic spores which lie dormant in certain perennially unwashed zones of the Lutheran body-religious, inflame them into fresh pustulation. That would be bad for all of us. (Some thoughts on Bergoglio’s antinomianism from an astute Roman Catholic blogger whose work I tend to like— YMMV.)
That’s all I have to say. Oh, and the short section headings in bold-italic are my attempts at synopses. If you feel that they are inaccurate, misrepresentative, or otherwise off, don’t blame the pastors.
Greetings, introductions, et al.
TW: You know, among those topics that are not discussed in polite company— it used to be religion and politics; now, it’s divorce. And it’s really odd because so many people are divorced; so many people come from families of divorce. Divorce is such a common thing in our society, and yet it’s still one of those things that carries a measure of taboo. And maybe that’s contributed to the fact that the Church, the Church, where Christians divorce at the exact same rate as the general population, has a hard time talking about it and dealing with it as well, to the degree that a lot of pastors consider divorce a non-issue. They just won’t deal with it. Congregations don’t want it dealt with. We’re gonna be talking about divorce— what the Bible has to say and how the Church ought to deal with this reality. It’s our Pastors’ Roundtable; we’re coming to you live this Wednesday, the 20th of August. I’m Todd Wilken. You can join us for the next two hours of the program: 1-877-623-MY-IE; you can also email us with your questions and comments in this first hour. If you want, or to send your questions and comments or to call us anonymously, we will honor your request. Talkback@IssuesEtc.org. A little later in the program, second hour, we’re gonna be talking with Dr. Nathan Jastram about Samuel; the Church remembers this Old Testament prophet; he makes an appearance not only in life but also in death, in 1 Kings someplace, if I remember correctly. And then, right after that, we’ll be talking with Dr. Peter Kurowski about the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament; now there’s somebody who makes an appearance a lot. Who is the Angel of the Lord? Why is He always showing up? Dr. Peter Kurowski will answer that question for us; he’s author of the book The Angel of Angels, and coauthor of the book The Everlasting Angel. Our call-in number, 1-877-623-MY-IE, or talkback@IssuesEtc.org. Divorce is our topic. It’s our Pastors’ Roundtable. We’re joined here in studio by Pastor Randy Asburry; he is pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in St. Louis. Randy, welcome back to Issues, Etc.
RA: Thank you for having me back, and it’s good to be had.
TW: Yes. Pastor Heath Curtis is also in studio with us; he’s pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Worden, Illinois. Heath, is this the first time we’ve had you on the program? Or have we had you on the phone before?
HC: You had me on a Pastors’ Roundtable up in Chicago when you guys were traveling up there one time.
TW: I wonder how that worked. I knew we’d had you on at least once before. And another regular guest, Pastor Jonathan Fisk, is with us by phone. He’s pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Springfield, Pennsylvania. Jonathan, welcome back to Issues, Etc.
JF: Thank you very much, good to be here.
Pastor Fisk – 1
Divorce is a “horrendous rending” of that which God intended to be an image of His love for us in Christ.
TW: All right, question first for you, Jonathan: When God says, “I hate divorce,” that famous Old Testament passage, does He really mean it?
JF: Hey, you gave me an easy one right off the bat.
JF: I feel like Obama last night. Yes, He does. And, to go straight to the heart of the matter, God is a God of harmony, a God of compassion, a God of unity. Schism and division of any kind are not what He envisioned for His creation. And divorce in that way falls into a much broader category, into which we could combine all of the evils of the world, from warfare and theft and so forth. And, even more so, then, with the redemption we have now in Christ, and what that means theologically, as marriage becoming the image of man and God for all eternity, and Christ using that image of marriage as part of His promises to us, that He will never leave us nor forsake us, that almost doubly makes it a horrendous rending of things here on earth when man and woman become divided from each other into renewed sexual immorality.
Pastor Curtis – 1
Marriage is an image of the good and gracious order of creation; it prefigured the salvation of man even before the Fall.
TW: Pastor Curtis, I want you to entertain the same question, but to emphasize, if you would, or to expand on something that Pastor Fisk just said: this image of marriage as God and man in God’s redemptive plan.
HC: Yeah, that is an excellent way of putting it. It goes to the heart of one of the “why’s”— right? You ever played that question with your kids? You know, they’ll get going on something, why is the sky blue, and eventually you get down to, “Well, that’s the way God made it.” But sometimes there’s an answer to the next question, which is, “Well, why did God make it that way?” And this is one of these mysteries kind of unfolded as the Scriptures turn out. And the question is, Why did God make us male and female? Why not have three sexes? Why not have human beings reproduce like carrots reproduce? Why did God choose to do it, man and woman united together? And if we can dive into the Scriptures, maybe at a place folks wouldn’t think to go first for divorce, but how about Ephesians 5? Ephesians 5:21 and following, this famous passage that is read a lot at marriages, but is something perhaps we don’t think of a lot because it’s got some of those tough passages our modern world doesn’t really like, about submitting. So just let me read that. This is Ephesians 5:21 and following:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, His body, and is Himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water and the Word, that He might present the Church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so, husbands must love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it as Christ does the Church, because we are members of His body. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one; I mean in reference to Christ and the Church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
So God makes us male and female to be a reflection of what He knew He was going to do with the Church in Christ. Why are male and female called one flesh? Why does God create the human body to work as it does in procreation? It’s all unfolded in the mystery of Christ taking on our flesh, and the Church being Christ’s body. And so when we do something with marriage, whether it’s divorce or polygamy or homosexual marriage, all those things directly relate, they directly say something, against not only God’s laws, as if they were arbitrary, but against who God is and how He’s chosen to bring the world salvation.
Pastor Asburry – 1
Hardheartedness and sin lie at the root of the culture of divorce.
TW: Pastor Asburry, what is it in our culture today that has led even Christians, who know full well that Scripture is replete with prohibitions and warnings about divorce, about marrying hastily and about all the other ills that can befall a marriage, even Christians now consider divorce something unremarkable, and something that, really, the Church should just keep its nose out of? What is it about our culture?
RA: I think the easy answer is sin. You say Christians have the same divorce rate as the general public; that’s very true. And I think a lot of it is just ignoring things like Pastor Fisk and Pastor Curtis have mentioned here— that marriage is a picture of the relationship between God and His people, God and human beings, the way He intended it, and so even Christians are ignoring what God has said in the Scriptures, how God has designed marriage, and it all goes back to that sin. I think, to go back to the “why,” and does God hate sin, or hate divorce, I mean, we do need to go back to God’s institution of marriage, what did He institute back in the Garden of Eden? One man and one woman, joined together for life, in faithfulness and love. Right? That is a reflection of the relationship He established with humanity from the beginning. And then He’s restoring it in Christ, who Himself takes the Church to be His bride, says, “I want you to be united to Me. I want you to be My bride.” And so, when Christians are ignoring that, they’re ignoring both God’s design, God’s redemption, God’s plan for marriage in general. So it’s hardheartedness, it’s sin, it’s ignoring what God says. Some of it may be not knowing— some Christians may not know that divorce is a sin. Some may be surprised when the pastor tells them that.
Curtis – 2
“The sexual revolution, empowered by the birth control pill…has completely changed the sexual ethics of the Church…”
TW: About a minute here, Heath.
HC: Yeah, I would second that, and with a minute until the break, I’ll throw out something that might be a little more controversial that I know that Pastor Fisk and I have even thrown around back and forth before. You asked what in today’s modern world, what changed from a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago? Divorce was very taboo, we didn’t— nobody did it, and you had all these stories about, well, those are the divorced kids, and the kids were ostracized, and now it’s just normal. I’ll throw out, we can talk about it, the birth control pill. The sexual revolution, empowered by the birth control pill, is what has completely changed the sexual ethics of the Church, and it’s a huge topic, it’s another one folks don’t like to talk about, because nobody likes the Church up in their business these days. It’s a little too personal.
TW: Yeah, stay out of my business. So, marriage is a picture of Christ and His Church, of Christ’s saving work for the Church and the relationship that He has established with His Church as Savior, sacrificial Savior. So just as you wouldn’t take a picture of beloved Grandma and draw a mustache on her and hang it on your wall— that would be, what? That wouldn’t be hurting Grandma, but it certainly would be showing disrespect to what that picture of Grandma is intended to represent. So divorce mars the picture of Christ and His Church. With that said, when we come back, we’ll talk more about divorce with our Pastors’ Roundtable. I’m Todd Wilken. Stay tuned.
TW: All right, I want to hear from you on the issue of divorce. Our Pastors’ Roundtable, Pastor Randy Asburry, Pastor Heath Curtis, and Pastor Jonathan Fisk, on this Wednesday, August the 20th. If you want to call anonymously, feel free to do that, or email us anonymously, on the subject of divorce. Our email address, email@example.com, and our call-in number, toll free, 1-877-623-MY-IE.
You raised a question right before the break, and I don’t want it to turn into a conversation on contraception, but I want to fit that into our conversation on divorce. You said the sexual revolution and the change in the sexual ethic brought about not only by the pill but by other forms of contraception have radically affected the way the Church thinks about marriage, the marriage relationship, procreation, and then, as a consequence, I assume, divorce. Say more.
HC: Well, just think about it this way. Once you— when God institutes marriage in the Garden, and when He calls Abraham, when He calls, ah, renews that call to Isaac, to Jacob, all through the Book of Genesis, you’ll always find that every time He’s renewing that covenant, He’s blessing His people— Noah too, I missed Noah in there— He repeats that blessing and command, Be fruitful and multiply. In other words, God puts His people, marriage, sex, babies, all together, one thing. When we decide to yank one of those out, all bets are off. And so you can look at every problem we have today with marriage, that having its roots in the sexual ethic and wanting to remove children from marriage— for example, Christians, we look at homosexual marriage as kinda nuts, as kind of a thing that doesn’t make sense, but again, if marriage is just about wanting to share your life with someone, why not? Right? The old answer to “Why can’t you have a man and a man get married” is that every seven-year-old child knows, two boy mallard ducks don’t make eggs. So they don’t get married. Why is polygamy wrong? Well, because a child needs a father and a mother. Not a father and a mother and a mother and a mother and a mother. Once you take children out of marriage, you get something off kilter. For example, just imagine if there were a pill you could take that would take friendship out of marriage. Just imagine if there were a pill that you could take that would take patience out of marriage. Would that be a good thing? Well, our society has invented this, and it puts our sexual ethic off kilter, and that is certainly not helpful to Christians trying to live this, trying to live a chaste and godly life in marriage.
Fisk – 2
Marriage without openness to offspring becomes an essentially selfish act.
TW: Jonathan, go ahead.
JF: Yeah, up to even the last hundred years, Lutheran theologians, without equivocation, gave marriage, and sex in marriage, basically three purposes that they drew from Scripture. One of these was children. One of them was companionship, and then the other was pleasure, the joy of marriage. And when, in the last sixty years, I don’t think it was ever, like, one person’s decision, at least within the Church, within the last sixty years, or seventy-five years, we’ve kind of eased off on that children portion, and kinda made it an option, or at the very least something to be postponed until one is ready, it kind of allowed for a change in the way that marriage is seen, as no longer being about the creation of life. You know, as that Malachi text that your opening question comes from, Does God hate divorce? What does God want in these marriages that are dividing? He seeks godly offspring. When you take that away, then suddenly, divorce— I mean, not divorce, but marriage itself becomes an essentially selfish act. It’s an act to pursue pleasure. And, although it can be about the good of the spouse, that’s possible, but what we see in the culture now more and more is really about the benefit I receive from being united to this person. Children, anyone who has children can tell you, by nature, they make that kind of relationship almost impossible. You can no longer have this two-person, dual-income lifestyle, which is all about enjoyment and pleasure. Life must become, in fact, about the other, and the helpless others that need to be raised in society. And losing that view of marriage has been detrimental, I think is at the root of the divorce, why that’s happening so regularly.
Curtis – 3
The modern claim that divorce is in the best interest of children is an egocentric façade.
HC: And again, back in the ’50s, ’60s, what was the line always on television? Right, in the sitcom? The couple has problems, but the resolution at the end of the sitcom is, “We’ll stay together for the kids.” When our society has downgraded its view of children and the importance of raising a family, now it becomes, “Well, I just can’t stand this woman I married anymore. I don’t care if it’s hard for the kids, that’s not gonna, I can’t let that judge me because I’ve gotta be happy. The only way I can raise happy kids is if I am happy, so really, really, this divorce is gonna be better for the kids.” That’s the kind of reasoning that you hear, and it’s crazy talk.
JF: Yeah, and it has no sociological, scientific basis either. All the studies show the opposite is the case.
Asburry – 2
Hedonism is incompatible with the theology of the cross.
RA: I do think the pleasure principle is key here. You asked me earlier about, why do Christians have the same divorce rate as the society? They’re stewing in the juices of a society that says pleasure comes first. Making myself feel good comes first. And once that marriage turns a little sour, once the children come along and things aren’t quite as happy or romantic or pleasurable, we start thinking, I gotta get out. It’s the pleasure principle. And if I can pick up on something else that Pastor Curtis said, it does tie into the sexual revolution. If you look at divorce numbers, which you can do on the Internet very easily, you see it shoot up in the late ’60s. What else is happening? I gotta feel good about myself. The sexual revolution’s coming in. So there was a direct correlation there. We just want to please ourselves and hence, when spouses do that, they want to get married for a while while it’s convenient, while it’s pleasurable, and then they can decide to divorce when it’s not pleasurable anymore.
TW: We did a show on divorce some years back, and Dr. David Adams was our guest, and he said something that I’d never thought about before, although I should have thought about it. And we were talking about divorce, and all he wanted to talk about was the theology of the cross. All he wanted to talk about was, Christians live in the shadow of the cross, and that means suffering, and that means that we don’t necessarily know whether everything’s going great just because everything’s going great. It may be not going great, but that’s where God wants us, and He wants us to connect that suffering to the suffering of Christ Himself, so that we will see where God’s pleasure really does lie: in the sacrifice of His Son. And I thought to myself— now, I’ve been married almost twenty years at the time— That makes perfect sense. What I’ve been experiencing for the last twenty years, as happy as my marriage has been, has been all about living in the shadow of the cross. Is it either pleasure or the cross? And, Pastor Asburry, a church that has decided that this relationship with Jesus is also about meeting my own felt needs, also about feeling better about myself or feeling good about God? Can that church have anything to say, by way of the cross, to the issue of divorce?
RA: Oh, most certainly. I think that it’s good to clarify that there is pleasure in marriage. Jonathan said that, that that’s one of the purposes God instituted marriage, procreation, but also for pleasure between husband and wife. That is there, yes, but there’s also service. Husband serving wife, wife serving husband. And that’s where the theology of the cross comes in. I have to crucify my own desires to serve my wife. And that’s what makes marriage very hard for many people. They have to sacrifice their own desires, put their own wishes on hold, and take care of their spouse. That’s the Christian view of marriage. And that’s what we’ve lost in many ways both in the Church and in culture, but especially in the Church.
What about those who are the victims of divorce? “Bring them to the cross.”
TW: This email comes from Michael in Florida. He says,
An urgent question about divorce: I know it’s outside the scope of your present discussion of avoiding divorce as harmful to the image of Christ, and believe me, I genuinely appreciate that scope for the countless times in eighteen years of ministry of counseling couples on the verge of divorce. However, I’m currently struggling to help a new member who was recently divorced. The deed is done. Because her ex-husband was a real louse, an adulterer many, many times over, and he moved on, there is no hope of restoring the relationship. The woman has come to me with the dealing of the deep-seated anger she holds, and in human eyes, rightly so. The man disgraced her shamefully, brought financial ruin to her, and still is striving to cause financial harm to her and their children.
He simply asks, “The anger runs very, very deep. She doesn’t want to display the hostility. How would you suggest helping her deal with the anger in that situation?” I’ll give it to the eldest in the room first, and then let the other guys handle it on the other side of the break. You’ve got…about one minute before our break to begin an answer.
RA: I’d say the answer is simple, but it’s hard to implement and takes a long time, and that is, bring this lady to the cross, to Jesus Christ and His cross-won absolution. Yes, she has been a victim in a case like this, yes, she is angry, she needs to have the forgiveness of Christ, His healing, to start working on her ASAP, right away. And that’s how I would deal with that. If she were coming to me, I’d say, “OK, know that your Savior does love you. He’s not like your husband. He does care for you. He Himself was beaten for you, and put on a cross for you.” I think that’s the starting place, and that’s where the pastor needs to continue to remind her of that, and strengthen her trust in that great absolution, that great good news of Christ’s forgiveness on the cross.
Fisk – 3
There is such a thing as righteous anger, but because we are sinners none of our anger ever is perfectly righteous, even if it is legitimate on account of our being wronged.
TW: Pastor Fisk, I’ll give you about thirty seconds for a short response to, “What would you do with a woman who is beset with this kind of anger.”
JF: Yeah, this question opens up a whole box of issues. But I guess one thing I would want to strive to point out is that anger is usually the result of a feeling of injustice. And so in some ways, it’s a healthy response of a broken, sinful creature. We can never actually do it perfectly. And so we end up sinning while we do it. But I would encourage her to understand she has been wronged, and it’s natural for her to feel angry. But, nevertheless, what is natural in us is not sinless. And so that anger still needs to be turned over to the cross, because, “O Lord, if You kept a record of sins, who could stand?”
TW: Let’s take a break there. I’ll let you finish your response on the other side of this break. It’s our Pastors’ Roundtable on divorce this Wednesday, August the 20th. 1-877-623-MY-IE, firstname.lastname@example.org.
TW: Welcome back to Issues, Etc. I’m Todd Wilken. We’re talking about divorce. Pastor Randy Asburry, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in St. Louis is in studio with us, along with Pastor Heath Curtis, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Worden, Illinois. And on the phone for our roundtable, Pastor Jonathan Fisk, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Springfield, Pennsylvania. You can call us anonymously if you wish on this subject or divorce, or not. 1-877-623-MY-IE, or email@example.com.
All right, you were in the middle of a response, Pastor Fisk, to the woman who’s angry, and you got as far as saying, Look, the woman has been wronged, this anger is a response to a desire, or to an injustice that has been done. Pick up where you left off.
Fisk – 4
Is divorce even possible, in the final estimation?
JF: Yeah, well here’s the place where distinguishing between, as Luther kind of points that out in his Galatians commentary, the two kinds of righteousness. Horizontally, in the active civil righteousness, by which the world works, she has, at least from what it sounds like, been severely wronged. And so anger and the desire for justice, even the wrath of God to fall upon this man, is a normal, and in some ways a right response. But then, under the cross, where we live by faith in the righteousness of the crucified God-Man, who took our own sins upon Himself, and we’re all laid bare. And it’s revealed that no one stands justified before Him apart from His work and His merit on our behalf. And so forgiveness becomes a part of this picture as well, and the need to forgive. The parable of the unmerciful servant who would not forgive after he had been forgiven presents a danger to Christians who have been wronged in this way. I also wanted to say that this opens up a whole other bag— the question of what happens after divorce. Once this thing has happened— and by divorce, do we mean the United States government handing out a piece of paper that says that the marriage is no longer a real marriage— because from a biblical perspective, in some ways, there is no such thing as divorce. You can say that that you’re separated, this is a matter of the hardness of your hearts, but those who you would be with after this time, even if you re-enter into a civil marriage arrangement, you would be committing sexual immorality with them. And this is, man, a sticky wicket for pastoral care, and especially for we young pastors out here who believe the truth of what the Scriptures teach, but trying to put this into a practice into a church which has largely abandoned this teaching, well, that brings a whole other cross into the pastor’s life then as well, trying to stand upon this truth with a people that maybe are not ready to hear this truth.
Asburry – 3
On pastoral care of those on the verge of divorce
TW: OK, so let’s take them in order, if we could, because it seems to me there are several different pastoral questions that need to be addressed. The person who comes and says, “I want a divorce,” but they’re not divorced yet. The person who comes and says, “I’ve been divorced,” and we’ve dealt with that in part. And then the person who says, “I have been divorced. I want to remarry,” or, to add another one, the person who comes and says, “I was married. I was divorced. I remarried. Now I’m remarried. Am I doing wrong by being remarried?” Let’s deal with all of them in order, starting with, Pastor Asburry, the woman who walks into your office and says, “I want a divorce.” Hopefully it’s not your wife.
RA: [laughs] I hope so, too.
HC: We’ve got her on line one, actually.
RA: Yeah, right, let’s hear her now. Well, actually, I would say eight times, maybe nine times out of ten, just in my experience, that happens a lot. People come in to see the pastor and say, “I want a divorce,” sometimes even both parties of the couple come and say, “We want a divorce.” And by that time, I have noticed, it’s too late. They’ve already decided. Well, I’ll still try to counsel them and say, “Well, here’s what God says. He wants you to remain faithful. He wants you to remain married. How can we work through the issues? How can we talk about what’s wrong between the two of you, whether an extramarital affair, or just fighting all the time in the home, things like this— my job, as the pastor, is to try to get them to see God’s will for their marriage, but also how to forgive each other. How to live in Christ’s forgiveness under the cross in their marriage, to learn to serve each other. And that will be my starting point every time. But also, I do realize that eight or nine times out of ten, this decision’s already been made, and maybe they’re looking for justification for this action. Maybe they’re looking for the pastor to say, “OK, that’s fine, you’re forgiven; go your merry way”—
TW: Even, “I can’t stop you.”
RA: — or “I can’t stop you.” I think the pastor needs to try to stop it to the best of his ability, but also realize it’s not his decision. It is their responsibility, their decision. If the pastor can dissuade them from that, persuade them to stay married, to try to forgive and love each other, that’s great. That’s where I would start with that in pastoral care.
Curtis – 4
TW: OK. Pastor Curtis, the woman walks in and doesn’t say “I want a divorce”; she says, “My husband’s leaving me. I don’t want him to. I— this has come out of the blue. And suddenly he’s decided, there’s no other woman. He’s just not happy. He wants to go.” What do you say to this poor woman?
HC: With every one of these situations, I think the place I would start is always with— my goal, in any kind of, the way Fisk put it, a sticky-wicket pastoral situation, is I want to get the other person answering the questions. I want to open up the Scriptures to them and get them to talk to me, because I want to know that they’re thinking it through, because we pastors have a tendency to run our mouths and sometimes go right over people’s heads. So the first thing I’d do is open up to Matthew 19, I think Asburry has been sitting on that for about half an hour, so why don’t you—
RA: Actually I’d turned to something else, but go ahead.
HC: You turned to I Corinthians 7, I bet. Um, OK, so here’s Matthew 19, starting with verse 3:
The Pharisees came up to Jesus and tested Him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Haven’t you read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave His father and mother, be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
OK, so that’s where I’d start with any of those situations to answer them, and we’d start to talk through them. The question that you brought up just now is perhaps the exception to that, and Asburry’s got the Scripture on that; your question was, a gal comes to me and says, “My husband’s leaving, I don’t want him to leave, there doesn’t seem to be any adultery on his part. What should I do, Pastor?” The first thing I’d offer to her is, “I’d like to talk to your husband.” If he’s a member, I’d insist on it— I’d follow him around town until I’d talked to him. If he’s not a member, all I can do is say, “Hey, please tell your husband I’d really like to talk to him.” If he’s just— if his heart is hard, he’s unrepentant, then this kicks in, and Asburry’s ready to read that.
Asburry – 4
TW: OK, take it up, Randy.
RA: From I Corinthians chapter 7, starting at verse 10:
To the married I give this charge— not I, but the Lord: The wife should not separate from her husband, but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And the husband should not divorce his wife.
Very clearly, even St. Paul says, “Don’t divorce.” But then he goes on:
To the rest I say— I, not the Lord—that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. (RA: Again, no divorce.) If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband; otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
So, St. Paul is trying to uphold God’s institution of marriage here. But he goes on:
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases, the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?
So there is a recognition of this hardness of heart that Jesus talks about there, that in the case you gave us here, if the husband says, “I’m done with you, I’m leaving,” traditionally we’ve called that malicious desertion, you know, one party has said “I’m out of here,” well, the wife might say, “I don’t want that.” And, that’s good. That’s good. We can appreciate that and applaud her for it. But sometimes there may not be much she can do about it. If the husband is going to be unrepentant, whether a member of a church or not, and then we have to try to pick up the pieces with the wife there.
Fisk – 5
On clerical divorce and remarriage
TW: OK, we’ve got about a minute and a half. Here’s an email from Oregon:
Sometimes, there’s no option but to divorce. My birth father walked out in 1944. I know several pastors who were not given any option other than divorce. Does that make them, these pastors, ineligible for the ministry?
Pastor Fisk, about a minute to respond, and I might have to cut you off again.
JF: Yeah, you probably will. Well, if we take the Scriptures seriously, especially Paul’s admonition to Timothy, that a pastor must manage his own household well, and see that his wife and his children hold to the faith, I think the first thing that needs to be said is that any pastor who finds himself in such a situation, in good conscience must ask himself that question, Am I fit for the ministry? And if that terrible day were to come to me, I would have to answer, based on Scripture, No, I no longer am, and resign from the ministry at that point.
TW: So, through no fault of your own, so to speak, through no fault of your own, you have been rendered ineligible.
JF: Well, you know, and here’s— no-fault divorce, right? You’re having someone on to talk about the order of creation this week. I think there’s a tremendous difference between the role of man and woman in the marriage. And essentially nothing can happen in the marriage that the head of the marriage is ultimately not responsible for.
TW: OK, let’s stop there again. He’s just raised something very interesting. Does the man, does the husband, bear a greater responsibility in this, what people think is the hundred percent/fifty-fifty relationship we call marriage? Does he bear the greater responsibility when the marriage fails? Especially if he’s a pastor? We’ll answer that question after this.
“Can anything really go wrong in a marriage… for which the head is not ultimately responsible?”
TW: Welcome back to Issues, Etc. Ten minutes left for your phone calls and your emails on divorce. Our toll-free number, 1-800-623-MY-IE. We’re coming to you live this Wednesday, August the 20th, our Pastor’s Roundtable. Or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pastor Fisk, we got a chance to raise another thorny question just as we were going to that break, and you said something like, can anything really go wrong in a marriage for which the head— that is, this created order of God-Christ-man-woman— for which the head is not ultimately responsible? I’m going to let you finish it; you started it.
JF: Yeah. Well, and the answer is, no. And you can see this— the thing about the order of creation is that it’s built into the creation; in some ways, it’s obvious. You can see this in the world today, in any company, or any sports team, wherever you want to go, there’s always some form of hierarchy at work, for the sake of the community, or for the sake of the good. And at the end of the day, if the company’s failing, unless you happen to work for a Lutheran radio station, it is the CEO that would normally be punished for the failure. And I hope that joke is appreciated, that I threw in there.
TW: Oh, it’s deeply appreciated, yeah.
JF: Yeah, good, OK. But the head of any organization is ultimately responsible for it, even if— you can say this in the military as well. When something goes wrong in the field, even if it’s not the commanding officer’s fault, it’s his fault. And he must take responsibility for that. And headship in marriage is not only just like that, in some ways it’s more like that, because this is the head over the body. You know, if your hand gets cut off, you don’t blame your hand. And it’s kinda the same situation here. So to bring this then back to the other question of pastors in the ministry who are caught off guard by what could be the most malicious possible divorce in the world, for me, if that were to happen, God forbid, and I cannot envision it, but if it were, nonetheless, for the sake of the Church, and for the sake of the purity of God’s Word, that God’s Word might not be maligned by outsiders, to uphold that understanding of headship and the promises of Christ, I would need to resign from the ministry at that point.
Asburry – 5
TW: All right, we’ll see if the other members of our roundtable agree or disagree, because John in Oklahoma emails us, and he asks quite honestly:
Let me get this straight. My wife, out of the blue, said she was divorcing me to chase after another man. I begged her not to. I brought her a Christian brother with me to talk to her, then the two of us and our pastor. She was unrepentant and adamant about divorce. Are you saying that this is my fault because I’m the man?
RA: Oh my. I think what Pastor Fisk is getting at here is that the man does bear the responsibility as the head of the family. Of course, in the example you just read about, the wife has her own sin there, too. She has her own responsibility. I don’t think we’re denying that. But the husband is the head, he does have that responsibility given by God, just like I do in my marriage. If something goes wrong, I have my own guilt and sin to confess, as would my bride, if she were to do something like that, too. And so, it’s not to put the blame exclusively on one person or the other, but to recognize the ultimate responsibility is the head. And so, both parties do need to confess their sins, and I think that’s very important.
Curtis – 5
Regardless of fault, clerical divorce presents a scandal to the Church and the world.
HC: What might be offending here is the notion that this ain’t fair. To which the response is, well, life isn’t fair. Driving home today, I could get, God forbid, hit by a semi truck and paralyzed from the neck down. I’d have to resign from the ministry. I couldn’t fulfill the duties of the ministry if I was paralyzed from the neck down. It’s not my fault I got hit by the truck, but— so what Pastor Fisk is trying to get at is that, from I Timothy, he’s saying, you know, where the qualifications for a bishop, for a pastor, he’d be dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent, not quarrelsome, no lover of money, he must manage his own household well. And with the last thing that Pastor Fisk said, about giving offense, especially to the unbeliever, pastors are held up to this higher standard specifically for the sake of the Word, so that we want our pastors to be above reproach, as St. Paul says, for the sake of the Word, so that outsiders will have no easy way to just dismiss the Gospel. I mean, if your pastor’s a drunk, and he’s out there preaching the Gospel, and everyone in your little town knows the pastor of the Lutheran church is a drunk, how’s that going to reflect on the teachings of your church? Well, not well. And people and the devil will use that to snatch the Word away from people. We don’t want that.
Asburry – 6
On whether second marriages are false— i.e., inherently sinful estates.
TW: OK, one more question of casuistry, and then I want to return to where we began. And it’s probably the one most pressing with our listeners:
I have been divorced and I realize my sinful part in it, and I have repented and received absolution. Now can I remarry? Or, I have been divorced, and then out of, perhaps out of ignorance I did remarry, and now I’m stuck in this situation— am I doing wrong every day by waking up next to my new spouse?
Pastor Asburry, let’s deal with both of those.
RA: Let’s begin with the truth that we sin in all we do. So yes, we’re going to be asking these kinds of questions with that in mind, that, well yes, this is not quite right, or that’s not quite right. We do need to live by God’s grace. Several of the things I’ve checked out on this, talk about a “sufficient amount of time” between a divorce and remarriage, but they never specify what is that time. And so I would prefer to err on the side of God’s grace and say, well, if a lady came to me and said, “I’ve been divorced, and I’ve been remarried. Am I sinning?” I’d have to say, no, you live in God’s grace. Right? And help her realize that that’s how she ought to view her second marriage, and go from there.
Curtis – 6
Give no appearance of evil; consider that you may now be called to celibacy.
HC: I’ll present a different view, at least for the sake of argument. In another parish I served, we had a guy who was on the evangelism committee, and just got to know him as an intelligent and wonderful Christian man, and I asked him one time, I’ll call him Bob, “Bob, why don’t you ever think about becoming an elder here at the church?” He said, “Well, Pastor, I’ve been divorced, and I just don’t think that would be right.” And, in subsequent conversations, there was another gal at church he kind of hung out with a lot, and as we got to know each other better, I said, “Bob, you know—” we’ll call her Sue— “what’s up with you and Sue? Would you like to pursue that?” And he said, “Pastor, I told you before, I’ve been divorced, and the way I read the Scriptures, and the way my divorce went down, I just don’t think it would be right for me to remarry. I think that from this point on, I’m called to live a life of celibacy.” That made a profound impact on me. And, actually, I think this is a spot where our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have got us beat hands down: their advice in that situation that you gave would be to live a celibate life from that point on.
Fisk – 6
“When we are faithless, He proves Himself faithful.”
TW: Pastor Fisk, I’m gonna give you the last word, and it’ll have to be a short one, please. We started with Christ and His bride in this perfect marriage that He forged with a perfect life, and the shed blood at the cross, and His body laid down for His bride. And now we await its consummation in the resurrection that is ours in Jesus Christ. The great promise of marriage, can our abuse of this marriage ever undo what it is intended to show us, by way of the Gospel, what Christ has done for us?
JF: No. No way. When we are faithless, He proves Himself faithful. And that is the meaning of the cross from the beginning. Though His own didn’t even receive Him, but would rather have seen Him dead and buried, He came anyway and triumphed over all that we could put upon Him, so that the promise of marriage, the promise of unity, with the Trinity in unity in paradise forever might be ours without question. And that promise is there in spite of all of our sins. Coming in repentance, which again is an act of Him upon us, His law working repentance in our lives, that promise is there for us to cling to in baptism, and nothing can take that away.
TW: Well, that’s a good, that’s a very good final word for our conversation on divorce, that clear word of grace. Pastor Jonathan Fisk is pastor of Springfield Lutheran Church in Springfield, Pennsylvania. Thank you so much for being our guest.
JF: Yeah, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
TW: Pastor Heath Curtis is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Worden, Illinois. Thank you for coming in.
HC: Absolutely, my pleasure.
TW: And Pastor Randy Asburry, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Saint Louis, thanks for being our guest.
RA: Thank you, Todd, it’s an honor.
TW: There is nothing worse than what we do with the good gifts of God, divorce being among them. We abuse the good gift of marriage in divorce, and in so many other ways, as well. But the abuse does not nullify the gift. It never does. It doesn’t nullify the gift. Marriage remains good in spite of the fact that marriage, our marriages sometimes— often, perhaps— fail. Our consolation in that hour when we fail because of our sin, when our marriages fail because it’s always two sinners, is what Christ has done for us. He sought out His bride— what does the hymn say? “From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride. With His own blood He bought her and for her life He died.” That remains true and unassailable in spite of our abuse of the great gift of marriage that He has given us.