Friday, January 24, 2014

Divorcing Ivory Tower Theology

Is this ivory tower theology?

Ivory tower theology can result when brainy academics spent too much of their life studying and teaching in seminaries and forget that life is not an academic exercise.

Society likes to assume that if you study something long enough, you become an expert in that field of study.  And as a rule, that's true enough.  Nevertheless, while knowledge about a particular subject is one thing, can't expertise in its application to everyday existence be quite another?

For myself, I don't claim to be an expert about anything, which is why the name of this blog includes the words "opinionated" and "layman."  What I offer are perspectives on a variety of topics that readers may not have previously considered.  You may agree with me, or you may disagree with me, but at least - hopefully - you leave my essays with a greater appreciation for the complexity of a particular topic than you had beforehand.

My opinions may not be worth as much as a certifiable expert's, but then again, sometimes I think they're worth more.  Such as when, for example, it seems a bit of ivory tower theology has been unleashed.

Consider the case with a recent post by Dr. William VanDoodewaard on his blog, "The Christian Pundit."  Entitled "When Divorce is Good and Holy" - got your attention already? - the post takes marital infidelity and criticizes us evangelicals for assuming that, "as the unfaithful spouse comes to repent, it is unadvisable to divorce."

Huh?  What?  He's criticizing us evangelicals for advising against divorce when repentance is professed?  If a husband or wife is guilty of infidelity, shouldn't divorce be discouraged if the offending spouse repents and seeks reconciliation?  Who doesn't believe that?

Well, apparently VanDoodewaard, for one.  He's a professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, so he's no left-wing nut case, yet he's advocating that divorce can indeed "honor the God who gave this good and holy option."

Divorce as a good and holy option?  Sorry, I just don't see it.  And believe me, when I see genuine iconoclasm, with my predisposition towards cynicism, I'm usually all over it.  But not this time.

For VanDoodewaard, divorce can be distinguished between what he calls "treacherous divorce" and "godly divorce."  Apparently, godly divorce provides an "opportunity for a way out of a violated covenant for the innocent party," whereas treacherous divorce is divorce for any reason other than infidelity.

So, infidelity is an unpardonable sin?  Infidelity is worse than, say, whatever sin the aggrieved spouse may have committed to encourage the adulterous spouse in the first place?  Like, for example, withholding sex, something that in itself can be sinful, and can push the denied spouse into the embrace of another?

"Divorce can be a good and holy option - standing fully in harmony with Scriptural forgiveness," he claims.  "You can come to divorce a spouse who has violated covenant, by God’s grace, without bitterness or vengeance, in Christian wisdom and love - and at the same time, pursue divorce.  You can pursue the divorce of an adulterous spouse - and forgive them as a fellow believer, upon their confession and repentance of sin."

Does this seem bizarre to you?  It does to me.  Yet there's more.  VanDoodewaard actually tries to celebrate the option of divorce.

"Those of us who are pastors and elders ought to present this Christ-given option to the spouse whose covenant has been violated," he reasons.  "We should do so with gratitude and in faith, knowing that we are providing the innocent spouse with an option that Christ has graciously and lovingly provided for them."

Now, I'm not married.  Never have been.  Not even engaged.  So on the topic of marriage and divorce, there's no way I'm any sort of expert.  But am I out of line by being vehemently disturbed by VanDoodewaard's logic on this?

First of all, if we're going to talk about infidelity, where does the definition of infidelity begin?  According to Matthew 5:28, if we but think a lustful thought privately, we've already committed adultery in our heart.  Obviously, both husbands and wives can commit adultery multiple times a day without ever even being alone with somebody else.  Talk about an open-ended license to abdicate from one's marriage!

Besides, isn't Christ's point about divorce over adultery holding to more of the spirit of the law, instead of the letter of the law?  When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about divorce in Matthew 19, Christ explained to them that Moses allowed divorce when "hearts were hard."  In other words, isn't Christ saying that if either spouse is unwilling to be gracious in accepting the repentance of an offending spouse, or if the offending spouse is unwilling to commit to repentance in the first place, then divorce is permitted?  And even then, although Christ allows for divorce, it hardly seems a concession worth glorifying.

Second of all, doesn't it seem as though VanDoodewaard is preoccupied with sex?  Sure, so I'm told, sex is a crucial element of any happy marriage, but it's not the only crucial element.  What about people who have sex before marriage, and their pastors tell them that with their marriage covenant, they can sort of start-over again?  Is that wrong now, too?  Sure, so I'm told, learning of a spouse's adultery hurts, and it undermines trust.  But here again, it's when the offending spouse refuses to repent and seek reconciliation that Christ provides a way of escape for the innocent party.  If indeed, there is a truly innocent party.  After all, a marriage involves two human beings, a man and a woman, and frankly, how many sexually-happy marriages fall apart from infidelity?

Third, what about marriage as a representation of our union with Christ, and the Church as His bride?  Does Christ look to escape from our waywardness and infidelity to Him?

Plus, what kind of testimony is the offending party displaying by playing the "get out of jail free" card, when we haven't talked about the Fruit of the Spirit here.  Love!  Joy, peace patience!  Kindness, goodness, faithfulness!  Gentleness, and self-control.  Wow, I see some pretty heavy fruit here that God may be wanting to magnify in some crippled marriages.  VanDoodewaard talks about God not contradicting Himself, and that is true.  So who's really doing the contradicting here?

Part of the reason why I'm so flabbergasted at VanDoodewaard's hubris is that he hardly needs to endorse what is already widely happening within evangelicalism.  I'm not sure I can think of more than one or two evangelical couples whom I know have stayed married after learning about adultery in their marriage.  Divorce in the Church is ravaging our witness to North America, and undermining our advocacy of heterosexual marriage.  To attempt to redefine divorce as a "good and holy option" in the aftermath of infidelity seems reckless and unnecessary at best, and unBiblical at worst.

Yes, divorce is an option, but it's an option in the face of belligerence and refusal to repent.  Hey, I know evangelicals who've divorced because of physical abuse, and I understand that, even though Scripture does not list physical abuse along with adultery as a divorcable reason.  During Bible times, women had virtually no legal status, sexual or otherwise, so having Christ speak specifically to spousal abuse and property rights for women may have struck His listeners as pure gibberish.

I understand why a spouse would want to legally divorce somebody who physically abuses them, even if a legal separation for an undetermined amount of time might be more Biblically appropriate.  Might it also be possible for a longsuffering spouse to be forced into divorcing their estranged partner to legally eliminate their liability for the partner's crimes?  There are situations of divorce that I believe God looks upon with His holy eyes towards the hearts of the people who feel as though such a step, even if it's not clearly sanctioned in the Bible, needs to be taken.  Part of the reason why I don't take a stronger line on some of these divorces is because, as a single male, I simply have no idea the emotional toll some experiences have on married people.  Nor do I understand all of the legal implications of staying married to people who are breaking the law.

Yet of all the stands I don't take when it comes to divorce, whether rightly or wrongly, I'm pretty sure the stand VanDoodewaard is taking towards it being a "good and holy option" is a product more of ivory tower theology than sound, Biblical advice.

For those of us who are the Bride of Christ, we should be eternally grateful that our loving Groom doesn't exercise the good professor's advice, either.

What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.

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