Monday, May 02, 2011

Divorce and Remarriage in the United Reformed Church?

If you're not a regular blog reader, chances are you arrived here by trying to find out what the United Reformed Churches of North America  position on divorce and remarriage is. Some will say that since the URC has never issued a synodical statement, the church has no position. On the other hand, one needs to strongly consider the fact that many (if not most) of the URC churches were formally Christian Reformed Churches. The CRC indeed worked through divorce and remarriage for over one hundred years.  It's true that the URC doesn't have an explicit statement outlining her view. I would argue though that this doesn't mean collectively the URC doesn't have strong remnants of her former CRC doctrinal statements influencing her. If you want to understand the URC on divorce and remarriage, you need to familiarize yourself with the CRC on divorce and remarriage.

by James Swan [URC, Pompton Plains New Jersey]

I. Introduction
Article 48 of the Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America states,

Scripture teaches that marriage is designed to be a lifelong, monogamous covenantal union between one man and one woman. Consistories shall instruct and admonish those under their spiritual care who are considering marriage to marry in the Lord. Christian marriages shall be solemnized with appropriate admonitions, promises, and prayers, under the regulation of the Consistory, with the use of the appropriate liturgical form. Ministers shall not solemnize marriages that conflict with the Word of God.

Article 69 of the Church Order of The Christian Reformed Church states,

Consistories shall instruct and admonish those under their spiritual care to marry only in the Lord. Christian marriages should be solemnized with appropriate admonitions, promises, and prayers, as provided for in the official form. Marriages may be solemnized either in a worship service, or in private gatherings of relatives and friends. Ministers shall not solemnize marriages which would be in conflict with the Word of God.

The similarities of these two declarations are more than coincidence. Their relationship can be attributed to the historical connection the United Reformed Churches have to the Christian Reformed Church. The following is a brief historical picture of the issues surrounding divorce and remarriage in the Christian Reformed Church [1]. While the seemingly youthful United Reformed Church lacks the rich historical denominational heritage of her predecessor, the battles waged over these issues nevertheless still hold a place in her formative history. By familiarizing herself with the history of divorce and remarriage in the Christian Reformed Church, the United Reformed Church stands to benefit in any future synodical declarations.

II. 1860 - 1890
The records of the early assemblies of the Christian Reformed Church touch sparsely on issues related to marriage, divorce, and remarriage. The Classical Assembly held February 1860 considered the length of time a person should wait after the death of their spouse before marrying again. After much discussion it was decided that it was “not prudent to give further regulations concerning the waiting period, since Scripture says nothing concerning this” [2].

The Assembly of 1866 considered the more controversial issue of a man marrying his deceased brother’s wife (with subsequent children of that union). This particular couple had been forbidden membership to the Dutch Reformed Church, but were accepted by the Scotch [Presbyterian] Church, “under the condition that they live separated by bed and board, as brother and sister.” The couple requested the same dispensation in the Graafschap congregation. “The Classis decides that these people must separate from each other regarding cohabitation before they can be accepted as members of the congregation; they must also publicly demonstrate that they truly are separated” [3]. The Grand Rapids church raised a similar concern about a couple in which the same situation occurred. A minister within the denomination had remarried this couple. The church council had already accepted the second wife as a member of the congregation. “This is a matter of too close a blood relationship, as well as being against civil law.” “The Classis decides that these members must be instructed about their error and admonished, and after lengthy effort they should be placed outside the community of the church, however, this is to be done outside the normal rules of excommunication” [4] The General Assembly of 1876 revisited these issues declaring,

[T]hat such people are not to be admitted into the congregation, but if they are already in the congregation we should deal with them in this delicate matter and according to the circumstances, and if offence should arise, they should not be allowed to participate in Holy Communion and in no case should they be elected to church offices. In one area, a concern is raised in this matter, to wit that under the same circumstances, one must remain outside the congregation and others being [already] inside, will not be expelled [5].

The General Assembly of 1877 briefly revisited these concerns again, but decided to remain with that decided by the Assembly of 1876 [6]. The General Assembly of 1878 referred to a case in Rochester, New York in which “a man married to the sister of his first wife, [wished] to join the congregation.” The council of that church asked for advice and was instructed, “The assembly decides to leave this to their own judgment” [7]

The Acts of the Synod of 1890 issued the first meaningful declaration about divorce and remarriage: “A man who, because he committed adultery, is divorced legitimately by his wife, may not remain a member of the church if he remarries while his first wife is living” [8] Further, “The question is raised whether or not a man who has married another woman on the grounds that his first wife has deserted him can be either a full member or a baptized member of the church. The answer of Synod is: ‘No, for no other reason than adultery’” [9]. The Acts of Synod 1908 issued the second specific declaration: “Such a person by his act of adultery freed his wife but not himself; before God he is still bound to his first wife, and his second marriage is, moreover, a living in adultery” [10]. These statements would play significant roles in determining church decisions over the next decades.

Except for a period of two years (1894-1896) the early Christian Reformed Church recognized adultery as the only ground for a biblical divorce. In 1894 Synod allowed divorce for the willful desertion of a spouse based on 1 Corinthians 7:15. This lasted until 1896 when Synod declared, “Willful desertion cannot be a ground for divorce, since the Committee finds no basis for it in the Holy Scriptures” [11] Synod 1898 reconfirmed the decision of 1896. In 1906, Synod declared that 1 Corinthians 7:15 “can only be to what we call ‘separation of bed and board’… It is the judgment of this Committee: that 1 Cor. 7:15 cannot serve as Biblical proof for the legality of divorce” [12].

III. Acts of Synod 1936 - 1945
The Synod of 1936 brought to light the inherent difficulties of such rigid statements as those put forth in 1890 and 1908. An unconverted man had been divorced by his wife. He remarried another divorcée. He was “subsequently converted and declared and manifested sincere repentance as to his sins pertaining to this divorce and his adulterous marriage” [13]. The decisions of 1890 and 1908 could not adequately be applied to such a situation. The Synod advised that this man be deemed admissible to church membership. But the reports issued as part of the Synod presented conflicting conclusions on several issues, including whether a guilty party in a legitimate or illegitimate divorce had the right to remarry, and whether the second marriage of a divorced person always remains adultery.

The 1944 Synod evaluated a divorce case in which adultery was clearly involved and if such guilty people should be allowed church membership. They decided, “in this concrete case the parties guilty of divorce and adulterous remarriage may not be admitted as members of one of our churches” [14]. The Synod of 1946 noted this confusion between 1944 and 1945. A committee had already been formed by a declaration of the 1945 Synod to investigate these issues.

IV. Acts of Synod 1947
The findings of that committee were reported to the Synod of 1947 in a document entitled Supplement 21, “Report of the Committee to Re-examine the Decisions of 1890 and 1908 Dealing with Church-membership of Unbiblically Divorced and Remarried Persons Who Come to Repentance of Their Sins.” When this report was presented “a lively discussion followed” [15]. The report found that the statements of 1890 and 1908 were too inflexible and failed to incorporate satisfactory scriptural evidence. Supplement 21 concluded those partaking in unbiblical divorce and remarriage could be admitted (or readmitted) to church membership by confessing their sin and being subsequently placed in a probationary period to show the church manifest godliness. Those who fall into divorce and remarriage while unconverted and in ignorance should be treated leniently. The question of abrogating a second marriage or abstinence for remarried divorced persons could not be settled decisively. The Synod adhered to some of the findings of the report, but determined that an unbiblically divorced and remarried person cannot be a member of the church while the former spouse lives. To obtain membership, one must repent and return to the former spouse. If this is not possible, one must cease to live “in the ordinary marriage-relationship” with his present spouse [16]. Those who were divorced and remarried in ignorance of the teaching of the word of God are not obliged to abrogate either their present marriage or marital relations.

V. Acts of Synod 1952 - 1956
These decisions were challenged. The majority opinion included in the Acts of Synod of 1952 determined that the church had no legal jurisdiction to dissolve second marriages, or force a return to a former spouse. The state was set up by God to regulate such things. Scriptural support for the loophole allowing those “completely ignorant” in their divorce and remarriage to obtain church membership was lacking. The Synod therefore amended the 1947 ruling to reflect marriage as regulated by the state, but that marriage and divorce also fall under the jurisdiction of the church. The article pertaining to the “complete ignorance” of a remarried divorced person was removed. As it stood in 1952, people remarried after an unbiblical divorce were still viewed as living in continual adultery by the Christian Reformed Church. A committee on divorce and remarriage was again set in motion.

The Study Committee on Divorce and Remarriage included its finding in the Acts of Synod 1956. It maintained “the marriage of any person who has obtained an unbiblical divorce (or who was divorced as the result of his own adultery) is a living in continual adultery” [17]. Another committee entitled the Ecumenical Synod on Marital Relations concluded “No substantial and conclusive Scriptural evidence has been produced to establish the thesis that parties remarried after being divorced on the ground of their own adultery, or divorced on non-Biblical grounds, are living in continuous adultery” [18]. They also concluded no biblical evidence supports that a divorced person must cease living with a second spouse to prove repentance. Clearly, the Synod was divided, and discussion included the notion that perhaps the issue could not be decided biblically one way or the other. The synod eventually rejected the following recommendation, “Those who have been divorced and remarried contrary to Scriptural requirements have entered an adulterous relationship which is sinful in its continuation as well as its inception” [19]. Synod affirmed that no conclusive scriptural evidence was produced to prove remarried divorced persons must cease living with their presentral evidence was produced to prove remarried divorced persons must cease living with their present spouse to prove repentance, or that they are currently living in adultery. It thus simply stated,

The consistories are advised that people who are guilty of unbiblical divorce, or who are divorced as the result of their own adultery and having remarried, seek entrance or reentrance into the Church, shall be expected to show their sorrow and genuine repentance during an adequate period of probation. Such cases shall not be settled without the advice of Classis [20].

VI. Acts of Synod 1957
In 1957, requests were made that Synod rescind the declaration of 1956 [21]. Arguments suggested the decisions of the previous year failed to furnish Scriptural support, that “no conclusive evidence is given by any Study Committee of Synod that our old stand, the stand prior to 1956, was not Scriptural,” and Synod had acted too hastily in its ruling. The detractors further argued that according to Article 31 of the Church Order, decisions are binding unless they are proved to conflict with Scripture. In essence, the Synod of 1952 reversed this by placing the burden of proof on a study committee in regard to the church’s previous position. Rather, the burden of Scriptural proof should fall on those who protest it [22]. A new study committee was requested. Others asked that Synod clarify the 1956 decision with particular attention to the following questions: First, is the remarriage of a party unbiblically divorced merely a sinful act or does it constitute a sinful relationship? Second, if it constitutes a sinful relationship, just when and how can this sinful relationship be terminated? [23]

The 1957 Synod decided to not accede to requests to rescind or reverse the 1956 decision [24]. They stated they were “merely asked to judge whether substantial and conclusive Scriptural evidence had been produced to support the then existing decisions and therefore Art. 31 of the Church Order was not directly applicable in 1956” [25]. “Substantial and conclusive evidence for the former position had not been produced” so “marital problems in question fell under the general Scriptural instructions regarding repentance and forgiveness, and deemed it unnecessary to cite specific passages” [26]. They rejected the motion to clarify the Church’s position and the two clarifying questions. The Synod then appointed a committee of three men “as to further procedure in this matter” [27].

A report was also included as to whether desertion by a spouse is a second ground for a biblical divorce (according to 1 Corinthians 7). The report denied a “general” desertion, but allowed for “a special kind of desertion.” 1 Corinthians 7:15 only applies to Christians whose unbelieving marriage partner departs for deeply-seated religious reasons [28]. It does not provide the Christian with a second ground for divorce, generally. “On no account does Paul… permit divorce in all cases of desertion” [29]. “It absolves the Christian from the obligation to preserve a marriage broken or about to be broken by the divorce-proceedings of an unbelieving spouse acting from deeply-seated religious motives” [30]. This committee advised “That if a Christian husband or wife is deserted by his or her spouse for such a length of time as indicates an irrevocable decision not to resume married relations, the deserted party should not be regarded as transgressing the law of Christ in seeking divorce” [31].

VII. Acts of Synod 1968 - 1973
The 1956 decision on admitting unbiblically divorced persons into church membership stated, “Such cases shall not be settled without the advice of Classis.” This was challenged in 1968. Church order held that a consistory has jurisdiction of matters of discipline. It was therefore adopted that synod “declare that admitting or readmitting to membership in the church persons who have been divorced on unbiblical grounds, and have remarried, or who are divorced as the result of their own adultery and have remarried, is the task of the consistory and is the responsibility of classis only in case of appeal” [32].

In 1971 Classis Toronto requested a new study committee be drawn up to study marriage, divorce, remarriage, and marital difficulties. They objected to the terms “biblical” and “non-biblical” for grounds of divorce, and further argued marriage may end in divorce as the result of living in a sinful world and “remarriage of divorce persons need not be wrong” [33]. Acts of Synod 1971 granted this request and stated, “it would be difficult to establish a universally acceptable statement on marriage” like that put forth in 1956. It decided studies on this topic “should first deal with such a question itself, and then report its findings to the Reformed Ecumenical Synod” [34]. The goal of the committee was to establish guidelines for pastors and consistories on these issues.

That report was submitted to Synod 1973. It argued “adultery” had a broad meaning of “marital infidelity,” and that marriage was a “relationship of fidelity” rather than contractual and covenantal. It isn’t simply adultery that breaks the marriage bond. The word “porneia” has a general meaning, covering “all the ways in which infidelity in marriage can take place” [35]. Since we live in a “broken world,” divorce is a result of the complete breakdown of a marriage relationship. Divorced and remarried people should not be barred from church membership. The terms “biblical” and “unbiblical” divorce should be dropped. These guidelines were rejected because Synod was not convinced it “was entirely in accord with the biblical teaching on marriage” [36]. Marriage as a “relationship to fidelity” amounts to an undefined personal commitment to each marriage partner. The disputed terms “biblical and “non-biblical” were reaffirmed.

VII. Acts of Synod 1975 - 1979
Another study was thus authorized by Synod 1973. Its contents were included as supplement 38 of Synod 1975. That report argued “Marriage at its heart is the bond of fidelity to which a man and a woman commit themselves before God. But it is not a purely private matter between two individuals” [37]. Porneia refers primarily to adultery, but includes “such sexual infidelity as incest and homosexualism” [38]. The term “biblical ground” for divorce should be avoided, as it fosters the false impression that the Bible “encourages unchastity as the approved means to that end” [39]. As to a second ground for divorce, “Willful desertion, while not in itself a so-called second ground for divorce, may be judged to be tantamount to physical infidelity and therefore also indicates that the marriage relationship cannot function in any meaningful way” [40]. “If the consistory judges that it is prolonged and unrepentant adultery or a situation equivalent to it (such as prolonged and unrepentant willful desertion), then one may, albeit with mourning and repentance, legitimately seek a divorce” [41]. These people are permitted to remarry. Those divorced for unbiblical reasons, the church should exhibit “a true forgiving spirit after the fashion of Jesus’ treatment of the woman taken in adultery” [42].

This report was revised, and included as Supplement 35 in Acts of Synod 1976. That report added that an innocent party in a divorce is free to marry without thereby committing adultery after there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation with the former spouse. For those involved in an unbiblical divorce, a sincerely repentant individual should be forgiven, restored to full fellowship of the church, and may legitimately consider remarriage [43].

1977’s Synod adopted aspects of Supplement 35. It adopted the positive section on “Biblical Teachings Regarding Marriage.” It rejected though its exegesis on porneia, and also stated, “The so-called exceptive clauses serve only as a qualification of Jesus’ emphatic and well-attested teaching that a remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery.” “Jesus does not address himself to the question of a possible legitimate reason for divorce.” “Believers who are separated are instructed to be reconciled or remain single.” “The believing partner is said to be bound and not free to remarry as long as her husband lives.” “Remarriage after divorce is not clearly sanctioned in Scripture” [44]. In summary, the synodical advisory committee decided the Bible provides guidelines for marriage, not provisions for divorce and remarriage. Therefore, divorce cannot be given general sanction. Forgiveness and restoration occur when a guilty party recognizes their sin, after the instances of sin, not in anticipation of a failed marriage ending in divorce.

Another study committee was then appointed “to reexamine and set forth the biblical teachings on divorce and remarriage, evaluating critically the traditional exegesis of the relevant passages.” And “to formulate pastoral guidelines with respect to the problems of divorce and remarriage as they appear in our society…” [45]. That committee reported to Synod in 1979 it needed more time to complete its work [46].

VIII. Acts of Synod 1980 - 1983
Report 29 entitled “Marriage Guidelines” was presented to Synod in 1980. In the first section, it argued marriage is an institution created by God, and covenantal relationship between a man and a woman. God is party to the covenant and unites husband and wife. It is a permanent relationship. The second section addressed divorce and remarriage. The exceptive clause from Jesus allowing for divorce is not a ground for divorce. Rather, Jesus is “acknowledging the effect of sin in breaking norms established by God.” “It does indicate that it is possible for such persistent sinful conduct to dissolve a marriage established by God.” “Marriage should not be dissolved, for that is contrary to God’s will; but by persistent and unrepentant unchastity people can put asunder what God has joined together” [47]. In regard to desertion as another ground for divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7) the report noted differences in interpretation, and took no definite stance. Part three presented guidelines for the ministry of the church, including counseling and sensitivity to those going through a divorce. Included are guidelines “to those contemplating remarriage.” Stressing permanence, “the basic declaration of Scripture is that divorce and remarriage while one’s spouse is alive constitutes adultery” [48]. However, “The Bible also indicates that there can be circumstances involving unchastity (porneia) where the judgment of adultery does not fall upon a person who remarries after a divorce” [49]. “1 Corinthians 7:12-16 allows for divorce under certain circumstances.” However, “it is impossible to prove conclusively that remarriage is either forbidden or permitted under the circumstances mentioned” [50]. This three-section report was adopted by Synod.

Acts of Synod 1981 records a protest from the Sussex Consistory over the third section of Report 28, but was dismissed [51]. Acts of Synod 1983 includes a rejected personal appeal as well [52].

IX. Conclusion
This historical inquiry demonstrates the emotion, care, and passion surrounding the issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the Christian Reformed Church that ensued for over one hundred years. Each historical chapter demonstrates a struggle to interpret the Scriptures and understand their relevance and relation to the church and the world. The United Reformed Church would benefit from a fresh look into these documents. As she develops her own exegetical positions in the future, these documents can be used to avoid the pitfalls the Christian Reformed Church succumbed to at times, and also to glean insight from their struggles.

1. The official website of the Christian Reformed Church presents two specific entries pertaining to this topic, Beliefs on Marriage available from: and Beliefs on Divorce available from: Each entry ends with an almost identical set of references to CRC synodical statements, documenting their position extensively from 1908 - 1983. The Agenda and Acts of Synod 1994 are referenced, but provide no significant information to this topic.

The Agenda and Acts of Synod 2000 are referenced in Beliefs on Marriage. Synod 2000 was asked to endorse the Resolution of the Southern Baptist Convention on Marriage and Family, which Synod denied. They referred to the very reports covered in this paper but also stated, “The CRC has already adequately stated its position on marriage and family as well as on singles in Our World Belongs to God, paragraphs 45- 49, approved by Synod 1986” (Acts of Synod, 2000 [Grand rapids: Christian Reformed Church in North America], 711). This document likewise presents no pertinent content to that which ensued in the CRC from 1860 – 1983.

Synod 2006 likewise refers back to the documents addressed in this paper: “Over the years, our denomination has produced a number of reports to guide our churches as they address the subject of marriage. Synod 1980 adopted a number of guidelines for the ministry of the church in matters of marriage, divorce, and remarriage that have been reproduced on pages 383-87 of the 2001 edition of the Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government (Acts of Synod, 2006 [Grand rapids: Christian Reformed Church in North America], 643).”

2. Classis 1860 of the Christian Reformed Church, available from:

3. Classis 1866 of the Christian Reformed Church, available from:

4. Ibid.

5. General Assembly of 1876 of the Christian Reformed Church, available from:

6. General Assembly of 1877 of the Christian Reformed Church, available from:

7. General Assembly of 1878 of the Christian Reformed Church, available from:

8. Acts of Synod 1947 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Publishing House, 1947). 239, referencing Acts of Synod 1890.

9. Acts of Synod 1957 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Publishing House, 1957), 336, referencing Acts of Synod 1890, Art. 65, 24.

10. Acts of Synod 1947 of the Christian Reformed Church, 240, referencing Acts of Synod 1908.

11. Acts of Synod 1957 of the Christian Reformed Church, 337, referencing Acts of Synod 1896, Art. 62, 37.

12. Acts of Synod 1957 of the Christian Reformed Church , 338, referencing Acts of Synod 1906, Bijlage X, 111.

13. Acts of Synod 1936 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Publishing House, 1936), 145.

14. Acts of Synod 1944 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Publishing House, 1944), 59.

15. Acts of Synod 1947 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Publishing House, 1947), 17.

16. Ibid., 66.

17. Acts of Synod 1956 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Publishing House, 1956), 56.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid., 58.

20. Ibid., 118.

21. Acts of Synod 1957 of the Christian Reformed Church), 87.

22. Ibid., 87, 95.

23. Ibid., 89.

24. Ibid., 94-95.

25. Ibid., 94.

26. Ibid., 95.

27. Ibid., 90.

28. Ibid., 106.

29. Ibid., 335.

30. Ibid., 106.

31. Ibid., 335-336.

32. Acts of Synod 1968 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Publishing House, 1968), 61.

33. Acts of Synod 1971 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1971), 638-639.

34. Ibid., 112.

35. Acts of Synod 1973 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1973), 598.

36. Ibid., 59.

37. Acts of Synod 1975 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1975), 497.

38. Ibid., 502.

39. Ibid., 505.

40. Ibid., 506.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid., 508.

43. Acts of Synod 1976 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1976), 480.

44. Acts of Synod 1977 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1977), 136.

45. Ibid., 135.

46. Acts of Synod 1979 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1979), 467.

47. Acts of Synod 1980 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1980), 477.

48. Ibid., 483.

49. Ibid., 483-484.

50. Ibid., 484.

51. Acts of Synod 1981 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1981), 62, 614-617.

52. Acts of Synod 1983 of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1983), 671-672.

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