Divorce rates parallel other declining indicators of our culture's moral condition. According to the CDC's report 100 Years of Divorce and Marriage Statistics, before 1910 divorce rates remained below 10%. The 1940s saw a distinctive spike when divorce rates climbed to 35% following World War II. Dropping in the 1950s, 35% was not reached again until the 1970s. By 1980, about 50% of marriages were ending in divorce. This number has remained fairly constant ever since.
Is there a way to proclaim God's truth without unnecessarily paining people? Is there a way to support hurting people without subverting truth? These questions, always tough, are made even tougher by the fact that almost everyone in every family lives within a few degrees of divorce. For many, the numbers in the previous paragraph represent the pictures and faces of loved ones and friends.
Terribly painful in the lives of effected individuals, divorce brings significant challenges to churches. What should we do? What should we teach and preach? Should we preach and teach at all? How can Christians walk the tightrope along "the goodness and severity of God" (Rom. 11:22).
As is usually the case, extremes are easy to define and decline. Preaching the truth about the permanence of marriage, about God's objections to divorce, and about limits on remarriage after divorce as if real live humans are not present and are not pained is an exercise in insensitivity. We cannot fail to take people and their pains into consideration and we cannot fail to behave with consideration toward them.
But our consideration for people cannot overwhelm our consecration toward God, and we cannot confuse consideration with cold silence.
Described as "the pillar and buttress of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15), The church holds forth the Scripture and the doctrine of Christ, as a pillar holds forth a proclamation. When a church ceases to be the pillar and ground of truth, we may and ought to forsake her; for our regard to truth should be first and greatest (Matthew Henry).
Just as we cannot fail to consider others, we cannot fail to fully consider The One by fully honoring the word. We "Shine as lights in the world" only when we "hold fast the word of life" (Phil. 2:15-16). Regarding the New Testament, we are thankworthy when we "accept it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God" (II Thess. 2:13).
From Above, Not from the Middle
Rejecting extremes is the easy first step, but not the final step in walking the tightrope along "the goodness and severity of God." Somewhere, rejecting thoughtlessness toward people and heedlessness toward God, our message must be crafted with care. Crafting our message, our best source of guidance comes from scripture.
Light From Above is the title of a biography of Alexander Campbell. The title comes from the design of Campbell's study - it had no windows, only a skylight that filled the room with light from above. The design was purposeful. Campbell wanted to always be reminded of the source of Christian illumination.
Enlightening our approach from above, Jesus addressed the tricky topic of divorce (Matt. 5:32, 19:1-9, Lk. 16:18) as did Paul (Rom. 7:1-3, I Cor. 7:10-16). Much of the teaching in these verses is summarized in Malachi 2:16: (i) "For theLordGod of Israel says that He hates divorce" (KJV), or (ii) "Forthe man who does not love his wife but divorces her...covershis garment with violence" (ESV).
So What Should We Do?
1. The Bible powerfully and consistently affirms the permanence of marriage and allows a very limited exception for remarriage after divorce. Running from this difficult subject prevents us from affirming this great truth.
2. Some brethren have concluded that the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage is off-limits. If there is a good reason not to gently and occasionally include this subject in the message of the Church, neither Jesus nor Paul got the memo.
3. Carefully observing the distinction between policing and preaching, we should "Speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). No either/or distinction needs to be made.