BY BRUCE MANNERS
ivorce is a tragedy. Remarriage is a common result. Both are increasing realities in Seventh-day Adventist congregations, particularly in Europe, the Americas, and the South Pacific. As divorce rates among church members in some regions approach those of the wider culture, how should the corporate church respond?
More important, how can the church respond to these reminders of human brokennness in a biblical, redemptive way that demonstrates the grace God offers to all? That's the stated aim of the document "Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage" that was voted two years ago at the 2000 General Conference session to replace the "Divorce and Remarriage" chapter in the denomination's official Church Manual.
Some observers noted what they thought of as "an unusual silence" about this document in months preceding the Toronto General Conference session, particularly when compared to the issue of women's ordination at the two previous sessions (Indianapolis, 1990, and Utrecht, 1995) that created much interest and some heat. The issue of women's ordination was an attempt to understand the biblical text and the Spirit's leading of the contemporary church, but was largely a theoretical issue for many Adventists: Of the denomination's more than 12 million members, few know personally a woman working in ministry.
The issue of divorce and remarriage is quite different, particularly for those, like me, who live in a country in which at least 40 percent of marriages fail. Most of us know several Adventists whose marriages are failing, or have failed, or who have remarried. They worship with us on Sabbath mornings.
The real tragedy for the Seventh-day Adventist Church is that our corporate response to divorce and remarriage has frequently not been redemptive: at minimum, it has not succeeded in keeping people within our fellowship who experience these crises. Australian statistics show that 50 percent of Adventists no longer attend church within three years of divorce. Too often our attempts to be loyal to our understanding of the biblical teaching have led to bewilderment, condemnation, and rejection of individuals-sometimes in an attempt to keep the name of the church "pure." On the other hand, when the church attempts to act "redemptively," it has too often been an awkward, silent observer.
Adhering to the biblical teaching does not mean we cannot be redemptive, however. These values are not meant to be opposites. On the contrary, underlining biblical truth should make us redemptive: the two values go hand in hand.
Just such a synthesis has been attempted in the statement voted in July 2000 by the church's General Conference session in Toronto. We must applaud the endeavor of the new chapter in the Church Manual.
Journey to the New Statement
The journey to the new statement on marriage, divorce, and remarriage began seven years ago at the 1995 General Conference session in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It had an out-of-the-ordinary birth.
The size and complexity of the denomination's quinquennial sessions means that only rarely can delegates consider new proposals from the floor of the meetings. In this case the issue emerged during a discussion of a procedural matter to bring the Church Manual into harmony with the Minister's Manual on the question of for whom ministers may conduct wedding ceremonies. Delegate Gerald Winslow, an ethicist from Loma Linda University, moved that a world commission be set up to consider the whole issue of marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
When the proposal was put to the delegates, it received overwhelming support. The need had been well stated and well understood.
Some 18 months after the session, a commission of 19 persons was formed and scheduled to convene four times before bringing a proposal to the denomination's Annual Council in Washington, D.C., in 1999. The commission included members from Asia, Australia, Europe, Inter-America, North America, and South America, and drew from the ranks of administrators, pastors, theologians, and therapists. There was a balance of male and female representation.
Their task was to consider all aspects of the issue. They were to study and to make recommendations for possible changes to the statement in the Church Manual. Any recommended changes would be submitted to the Church Manual Committee, which would then decide what to recommend to the 1999 Annual Council. During its deliberations, however, the commission prepared a report that covered a broader range of topics than was considered in the existing Church Manual. The change in the chapter title to include the word "marriage" signaled the addition of much of this material.
The final documents and proposals were presented by the Church Manual Committee to the 1999 Annual Council, which made amendments to the document, and then recommended it to delegates at the General Conference session in Toronto.
But the journey really began with the recognition of vast changes in many societies since this chapter was last considered in an in-depth way in 1952. Back then, in most Western countries the church's position on divorce-simply stated, not permitted unless adultery had taken place-was relatively easy to administer. The courts of the land made the decision. Once adultery had been legally proven, the church could act upon a decision its members didn't have to make.
Enter no-fault divorce. In several countries around the world during the 1970s and 1980s, changing social mores and the decriminalization of adultery made a determination of adultery less likely in the judicial process. Congregations were now forced to do something that many were poorly equipped to do-deciding who had been guilty of sexual sin. Fortunately, few went to the lengths of one church elder who was caught halfway through a bedroom window, attempting to discover if adultery was in progress. The morality, or lack of it, in his own act apparently never occurred to him.
Congregations naturally felt uncomfortable about assuming a private investigator role, so the emphasis shifted from taking disciplinary action when a divorce occurred to the time at which one party remarried. The spouse who remarried first thus became the "guilty" spouse. While this may not have been morally the case, there was at least evidence of a kind that the remarried spouse had been unfaithful to-had committed adultery against-the former spouse.
This led to some sad situations for church members attempting to work with the church's position. Some spouses openly threatened to wait to remarry so their former partner would be the one disciplined by the church. Others attempted to help by making false confessions of adultery so that a former spouse could remarry and maintain church membership. And if the congregation remained silent when a person remarried, there was an implication that the former spouse must have committed adultery.
Many a pastor and church board has agonized over complicated scenarios. What if, for instance, a former member marries again, this time to a non-Adventist, who then decides to become a member? Can the former member be reinstated at the same time, through baptism? On another front, the threat of legal action has caused some churches to pull back from disciplining members.
Few pastors and church boards were willing to make judgments on the limited and understandably biased information from the individuals involved. Many congregations shifted to focus on nurture and support rather than attempting to judge who was right and who was wrong, or who might be "allowed" to remarry.
Several attempts were made before the 2000 General Conference session to address the difficult issues involved for the corporate church. A church commission in the 1970s produced a policy statement that was voted at the 1976 Annual Council for use in the North American Division only, although it was to provide a basis for study and practice in other divisions. The document included a detailed procedural model on how ministers should handle readmission to church for those disciplined because of divorce and remarriage.
A 1982 action by the church's Annual Council approved, on an experimental basis, a plan developed by the Loma Linda University church to deal with divorce and remarriage. The experiment has extended far beyond the two years envisioned, and has been adopted by several large churches in the United States.*
Strengths and Weaknesses
The strengths of the new Church Manual chapter on marriage, divorce, and remarriage voted by the Toronto General Conference session are many. The greatest, in my opinion, is the section "Local Church Ministry for Families," which calls for the church to be a redemptive agency of Christ to minister to members in all their needs, including divorce.
This section calls for preventative measures, including "programs of orientation" for engaged couples, and "programs of instruction" for married couples and their families. It also calls for "programs of support" for broken families and divorced individuals. The church and church members are to forgive as Christ forgave and make every effort to maintain caring contact with those who have been disciplined by the church.
These guidelines hold enormous potential for helping to "divorce-proof" marriages within the church if followed. And that should be a first priority.
The Church Manual chapter begins with what is probably one of the best statements the church has produced on the biblical ideals of marriage. The sanctity and permanence of marriage is emphasized. Grace, the chapter tells us, is available to all, including those who have experienced a broken marriage relationship. And "the church today is called to uphold and affirm God's ideal for marriage and, at the same time, be a reconciling, forgiving, healing community, showing understanding and compassion when brokenness occurs."
The "Biblical Teachings on Divorce" section points out God's opposition to divorce; Jesus' view of marriage as a lifelong commitment; and the danger of breaking the principles that support marriage. Grace is again emphasized, this time as the "only remedy for the brokenness of divorce."
Those seeking major changes to the portion of the document dealing with practical aspects of how the church should respond to divorce and remarriage were probably disappointed. The changes voted at the Toronto session about the administration of the policy were more cosmetic than substantial. The main thrust continues to be on disciplining the unfaithful spouse (the word "unfaithful" refers to sexual sins) in the event of divorce or remarriage.
Two changes, however, should be noted. Divorce is now allowed for "abandonment by an unbelieving spouse," which reflects 1 Corinthians 7:10-15, but remarriage is not permitted. Divorce because of physical violence in the relationship is now recognized, for it gains a mention, but is not considered a biblical reason for remarriage.
Many participants in the Toronto decision believe that the new statement's major strength is its underlining of biblical values in the face of lowering standards for divorce in the wider culture. Others question whether the statement gives adequate force to the biblical imperatives of compassion and forgiveness. Still others note that the practical effect of the Church Manual changes can still be problematic: it still offers little assistance to congregations in countries with no-fault divorce laws. In those countries the congregation's emphasis will likely remain on whether or not to administer discipline at the point of remarriage, with all the complications noted above.
Steps to Conclusion
There is much to admire in the church's new statement on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, produced after years of study and deliberation. Those seeking more guidance from the Church Manual in dealing with painful situations in their local congregations will undoubtedly continue to press the corporate church for greater clarity and specificity. It would be unfortunate if they did not also see the many positives that the new chapter provides, particularly in its emphasis on premarriage education, strengthening existing marriages, and modeling grace and forgiveness in dealing with hurting people.
Divorce and remarriage will always be difficult issues-primarily for the persons involved, but also for the faith communities to which they belong. The Seventh-day Adventist Church's protracted journey to this point has certainly had its difficulties and its pain: finding solutions that will prove satisfactory within a highly diverse worldwide fellowship will never be easy. The denomination's statements on these issues remind us that our duty to apply the Word in all its fullness to our lives and relationships will never be fully realized until the kingdom. These are steps in the right direction, not an endpoint or a destination.
*See Michael Pearson, Millennial Dreams and Moral Dilemmas: Seventh-day Adventism and Contemporary Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) for more background information.
Bruce Manners is the editor of the Australian Signs of the Times magazine, and a frequent contributor to Adventist periodicals.