When Believers Divorce on Unbiblical Grounds

by Jonathan Leeman February 23, 2016

It happens all too often. A married couple in your congregation are having some problems. Both of them are believers. There have been no acts of adultery, as far as anyone knows. However, they are committed to seeking a divorce. Maybe they're interested in pastoral counseling, maybe they're not, but in any event, they seem committed to splitting up. You know they have no biblical grounds for divorce, but how should you respond as a pastor other than by offering counsel and prayer?

If the couple does go through with the divorce, what does a faithful pastoral response look like?

Ordinarily, a faithful pastoral response to an unbiblical divorce will involve counsel and prayer, but when a couple demonstrates no substantive response over time, eventually a pastor's response will move toward church discipline. Jesus could not have been clearer: “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). Except for sexual immorality or abandonment (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:15) — the latter of which I understand to include abuse — Christians must not divorce their spouses. Therefore, my own church would eventually excommunicate anyone who divorces his or her spouse without such grounds.

Now, getting to that point will take some time. There will be lots of questions and lots of counsel and lots of remonstrations before our church would pursue formal discipline. If you’ve been a pastor any length of time, you know to receive few things in a broken marriage at face value, at least in the first few conversations. Often there is more hidden dirt underneath, and that can take time to emerge. And certainly we would not excommunicate a spouse who is resisting divorce.

I said “ordinarily” at the beginning of this because I understand some churches may not be ready to practice church discipline at all. You need to do a lot of prep and teaching work before you take any case of discipline before the whole church. But assuming your church understands and practices discipline, then we must include an unlawful divorce as a fairly standard candidate for pushing slowly toward discipline.

Assuming the elders had already pleaded with the couple for some time to repent by working toward reconciliation, my own elders would generally move to “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17) once the couple actually files the divorce papers. It’s the filing that makes their intended divorce “public” or official. Up to that point we assume it’s still undecided. In a members’ only meeting, then, the elders would give the church a very brief overview of the circumstances, and then ask anyone who has a relationship with the couple to encourage them toward repentance. And we’d ask the rest of the church to pray. Assuming nothing changes in the ensuing two months, the elders would then return to the church at the next regularly scheduled members meeting and recommend that the church remove the couple from membership by a majority vote.

Obviously the prayer and some measure of pursuit does not stop even if the congregation then votes to remove them. The purpose of the whole exercise, to be sure, is to warn them of the danger to their souls and to help draw them back toward redemption (1 Cor. 5:5). It’s also to save their marriage.

This post adapted from a Q&A originally published at 9Marks.org

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