A Book Analysis of:
Davis, John Jefferson. Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today 3rd Edition. New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004. 227 pp. $17.99.
John Jefferson Davis has written a formidable text on the ethical issues facing Western Culture today. All of the topics he addresses, from human reproduction to genetic advances all speak to the same point. That point is how mankind is or is not living up to the original order that God the Father created at the dawn of time. Mankind is made in God’s image with the ability to worship, reason, think and make decisions all under God’s sovereignty, but also with the capacity to follow or not follow God’s created order. The rebellion mankind exhibits when making ethical decisions is evidence of the desire to make decisions that set mankind above God. This is the root of sin from Genesis 3. Adam and Eve, by following the deceit of the Serpent, questioned God. Genesis 3:1 speaks of the Serpent’s guile, “He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” This uncertainty was the first seedbed of sin, setting mankind on the path of self-determination away from God’s presence. Throughout scripture mankind’s decline has shown to become further and further away from God’s desire.
Thus the ethical questions Western culture is forced to wrestle with today are numerous. With thousands of years passing since that first doubt, mankind has taken their God given creativity to expand their lifestyle in many good ways, but also in wrong ways. God’s original plan for Adam and Eve was to have them live together in a marriage bond that remained
unbroken. In the created order without sin, this would have been possible because they both lived with God without sin.
However, when sin first began, when Adam and Eve first questioned what God said, the possibility to distort the idea of one man and one woman living as one flesh in Gen 2:24 became reality. As mankind has enlightened himself with self-knowledge, he has also made arguments against the goodness of the marriage covenant to become the norm. Divorce in Western society is rampant. Davis presents compelling insight into what has caused the decline in marriage and how Christianity should address it.
The importance of the ethical decisions about divorce within the Church can be seen in the rapid rise of the divorce rate in the United States. In 1870 only 0.3% of marriages ended by divorce, in 1900, 0.7% and in 1960, 2.4%. Since then, the divorce rate has exploded by 700%! Today, nearly one in two marriages will end in divorce (100). At one time, it was uncommon for one to be affected by divorce. Now it is uncommon for one NOT to be affected by divorce. Everyone in America either is the child of a divorce (as am I), or a family member or friend is divorced, or they are divorced themselves. No one in America, or the church, is immune. As a result, the arguments in favor of divorce have increased. How the church responds to divorce and the victims of divorce is critical in order for Christ to be glorified in Western culture.
Justification for Divorce
There is no such thing as a good divorce. The discussion that follows must be understood from this starting point, as Western society today is numb to the harsh realities of the breaking of the marriage covenant. Augustine argued that divorce was permissible only because of adultery and even then the marriage bond was not eliminated. The Reformer Martin Luther saw marriage as a worldly thing and not a sacrament of the church. He supported full divorce after adultery or willful desertion (100). If Luther, Calvin and other Reformers opened up a more moderate view on divorce and remarriage, how should contemporary Evangelicals approach this hotly debated topic? There are no clear answers, but by looking at the biblical references on marriage and the ending of the marriage bond, as the Reformers most surely did, we can conclude that God intends for one man and one woman to be as one for their lifetime. However, due to the seriousness of God’s intended plan for marriage, the separation of that bond cannot be taken lightly. God is very clear in Malachi 2:16 when he states, “I hate divorce.” The exception clauses for divorce given by Jesus in Matthew 5:32 and 19:3-9 are in response to liberal interpretations of the Mosaic Law. The Teachers of the Law who questioned Jesus were merely trying to either trap Jesus in a false charge or were trying to justify their own sinful attitudes toward marriage (and attitudes toward women as inferior).
Jesus’ response speaks to his understanding of God’s original intent. In Matthew 19:6, Jesus reminds his questioners that God intended for man and woman to live together as one. What God has made one man cannot separate. However, the Mosaic Law does allow divorce because of sinful hearts. Jesus recognizes this reality, but does not condone it. At the heart of marriage is something Godly….something holy. On this note, one must disagree with the Reformers position that marriage is not a sacrament of the church. If God ordains it, then it must be holy. Marriage is part of the church. It is critical within the body of believers that the marriage bond be tied closely with the ordinances of God. Otherwise, marriage is simply a man made institution that can come or go with societal trends and Jesus would not have been so forceful in his statements on the holiness of the marriage bond.
On the issue of justifiable divorce, Jesus brings out in Matthew 19 that the Mosaic Law did permit divorce. God saw that sin could disrupt what he made holy and set clear guidelines for what he found to be so offensive as to disrupt his holy sanction. Mankind distorted this permission to include offenses as trivial as the wife burning the husband’s food (102). So at the heart of the debate on justifiable divorce lies the definition of what offenses in the marriage relationship are offensive enough to God’s Law to warrant the breaking of the holy covenant between a man and wife.
If both parties in the marriage seek the divorce due to selfish reasons, then both parties are at fault and have forfeited their rights to remarry. The bond between the two is ended, but not negated. God sees their union as eternal. With the rise of no-fault divorce came the explosion of divorce and the justifications for it. This is the heart of the debate within the Western Church today. We justify our sin and claim redemption from God so that we can go on and remarry. As already argued, God does not take this lightly. The only justifiable cause for divorce is the act of adultery and/or desertion. There is compassion here for the victimized party. If the husband commits adultery and then abandons his family (as is most often the case) the wife could be left vulnerable and alone. She then suffers the consequences of his sinful behavior and is then considered a widow although her ex-husband remains alive. Yes, there is always the possibility of redemption on the adulterer’s part, but when desertion also plays a part in the adultery; the victimized spouse is left as a widow to carry on and in most cases to raise the children alone. God cannot be happy about this and I do not see that he would hold the victim accountable for the sin of the adulterer. Now, it is very possible for the divorce widow to live as a single person. And I think it is the responsibility of the church body to take care of this divorcee just as they would a widow. But there must be a clear distinction between the divorcee who chooses a no-fault divorce over the one who is forced to divorce because of their spouse’s unfaithfulness and abandonment.
With the explosion of divorce in Western society, it is also very reasonable and right to be wary of claims of victimization in a divorce situation. Scripture is clear that only in cases of adultery or abandonment is divorce permissible and that God does not hold the believing victim accountable. It is also correct that the church must be discerning in cases of divorce widows as to how they help and how they council a remarriage situation. Remarriage after divorce should be an ethically allowable situation. However, these should be the exception rather than the norm. What makes ethical decisions difficult is the vastness of the divorce culture in Western society today. There are most definitely too many adulterous affairs that lead to the breaking of the marriage bond. There are too many women (and men) left to raise children alone because of the sinful habits of their spouse.
A divorce widow should not immediately seek to remarry. There should be ample time for healing and reflection as to whether God desires this individual to remain single. Just as a surviving spouse must carry on after the death of their marriage partner, so must the victimized divorcee who had nothing to do with the sin of their adulterous spouse who then abandons his or her family, including the children. This sinful rebellion towards the marriage responsibility most surely breaks the bonds of the marriage covenant.
God hates divorce. But he also comforts the widows and the orphans. In our over divorced society today, there are a plethora of victims in divorces including both children and a spouse. The church must be compassionate toward these victims as Jesus would be compassionate. However, it is necessary to discern whether the divorce is genuinely abandonment or a decision not to be together any more. This requires a lengthy investigation as well as familial commitments within the church body to intervene in a marriage before the divorce. If the adulterer is a non-believer, then Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15 that the believing spouse is not bound to the marriage bond. However, the only way for the church to know this for certain is to be involved in the lives of this family before the break up.
In conclusion, divorce is a bad thing and should never be encouraged in the Church. However, men and women sin and God realizes that sin distorts his perfect plan. There is a delicate balance between restorative redemption that leads to remarriage and condemnation of the unrepentant heart. Too many in our culture today take the greasy grace attitude toward their divorce. They think, “God will forgive me because I cannot live with this person any more.” This is the wrong attitude and dissolves any right for remarriage. In the end, divorce is a bad thing. God said so. Divorce is rampant in our culture, which leaves plenty of ministry opportunities for the church. To blindly condemn anyone because of divorce is itself ethically wrong. To be bold and call sin sin is totally biblical and justifiable. Yet, in that proclamation, there is compassion and if the Church would find that balance between boldness and compassion, then divorce culture in our society would eventually fade away.