It was a stimulating privilege to sit with colleagues in Toronto working through proposed changes to the Church Manual when it comes to how members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church should be cared for when they divorce and remarry. Though many would disagree, I believe progress was made in that the issues were clearly identified and discussed more candidly and completely than I have heard it done in a venue such as the floor of a General Conference session. Here are a few reflections:
1. Although the theological foundations for the sanctity and perpetuity of marriage are admirably laid out in the necessarily brief statement introducing the divorce-remarriage section of the Church Manual, I believe the cryptic theological or biblical reflections on divorce and remarriage that follow were not covered quite as well. While the issues of grace and forgiveness, so foundational to the Bible, are mentioned, such biblical principles are not in reality brought into the Manual so that they are actually allowed to make proportional impressions on the necessary disciplinary policies recommended in the Manual for divorcing and remarrying couples. Partly because of this, the divorce and remarriage policies expressed in the Manual are not as consistent as they could be with the realities covered in the Bible and confronted in everyday life.
2. It seems to me that the struggles experienced in the discussion of these things on the floor in Toronto were due to a tendency among us to place the prescribed discipline advocated in the Manual almost on a par with Jesus' statements about adultery being the only just reason for divorce and thus remarriage. In other words, I do not know of anyone who would gainsay Jesus' declaration that ultimately the only legitimate cause for divorcing your spouse is adultery, but I do know those who would question that it follows that the only way for the church to properly treat such people is to remove them from church membership.
To state this concern in yet another way: it seems that the Church Manuals policy of removing illegitimately divorced and remarried members from church fellowship has tended to be placed on a par with the authoritative words of Jesus decrying the common divorce procedures He observed. Thus it must be said that the illegitmacy of divorce except when adultery is present is a divine reality, articulated by Jesus Himself, but the act of disfellowshipping someone in the face of such a divorce and remarriage is a human policy. This distinction must be drawn clearly so that the Church can, if it is led to do so, find other ways of caring for divorcing members who agonize in their sense of failure and loss.
It is true that administering discipline is a difficult and unpleasant thing, from which we naturally tend to shy away. The point here is clearly not to avoid necessary church discipline, but simply to suggest that formal removal from the church community is not the only effective action a church may take in the case of its divorcing and remarrying members, and the church would not be denying the authority of Scripture, if it took another approach.
I am grateful and proud to be part of a church that is passionately concerned with protecting and defending the lives of people from unjust and callous behavior. Knowing Jesus and looking carefully and contextually at His statements about divorce (particularly in Matthew 19), reveals this to be His primary concern. The kind of community which, for example, allows men to divorce their wives for very little reason and thus potentially consigns their former wives to an almost intolerable existence, sounds in principle at least, remarkably like much of what occurs in the wake of current divorce and remarriage, even in contemporary Christian societies. The Church must stand against this kind of injustice as Jesus did. The awfully casual view of marriage against which Jesus made His definitive statements had long since lost the essence of its divine source and focus: that of a true covenant-commitment grounded in agape love.
3. Finally, while there is the immense and growing need to maintain the unity of a world Church, we must acknowledge that regardless of what the corporate church decides upon when it comes to the Manual's guiding policies for managing divorcing and remarrying couples, that same corporate body, as an integral part of its policy structure, is itself asking the local congregation to make the final, critical decisions about the future of those among them who are divorcing and remarrying.
The local congregation knows and probably loves the couples and the children who may be involved. Everyone knows how different the making of a decision can be when those about whom the decision is being made are looking us in the eyes as we make it. Thank God, the local congregation, with all its prides and prejudices is commissioned by the Manual to make these decisions. Local congregations and their pastors need to be affirmed and trusted as they do it. Above all they need to be granted sufficient initiative and leeway to carry out this most sensitive and important aspect of the Manual's policies.
Let us press on toward the day when more than ever we will believe unequivocally that the highest standards of Christian behavior are those that spring from an in-depth knowledge of Him Who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. And that to embrace the Lord of the church is to embrace the reality that the highest expressions of true obedience are those thoughts and actions, including policy actions, that emanate from a mature and far-reaching realization of who Jesus was and is and what His will ultimately is for His church and His people.