Clint Eastwood had the leading role in a movie by that name where he was called to avenge what a man had done to a prostitute. The movie was difficult to watch as there were no heroes or redeeming qualities in any of the characters. After avenging what had happened to that woman, it was clear that they could not overlook the fact that she was a prostitute and therefore, unworthy. I think of that movie when I consider that many of our churches are now full of people that have at one time in their past been divorced. They sit silently hoping that no one will discover their past.
Conversely and enigmatically, I have been in more than a few churches where men and women divorce but continue to go to the same church. The wife sits on the right side, while the husband sits on the left. Sometimes they bring their new boyfriend/girlfriend, even new husband/wife and they sit on the respective side seemingly oblivious that others in the church remember that they are divorced. So what gives? On the one hand people are sitting horrified at the thought that someone might discover their past while others seemingly mock the service by displaying their sinful attitude. Sometimes they manipulate friends into picking sides, causing division and dissension in the church body.
In both cases a lack of forgiveness is forefront. What is the right attitude concerning divorce or divorced people? It has been my observation that most Christians that have not experienced divorce have an incorrect biblical view of how they should treat those who have. Fearing that they are too “soft” toward sin, they take a hard line against the sinner. Certainly divorce should be highly discouraged, but what is the Christian’s perspective after divorce? They see their friends going through the terror of abandonment and disgrace and they sit silently, not knowing what to do or say. Most often they abandon them, as their former friends are banished from the Sunday School class they have been with for years and now find themselves exiled to the single’s or worse – the DIVORCED class. I find it inexcusable that this is the attitude of believers. We do not have a Widow or Widower class in churches; neither do we have a jobless or fired class either. What is the mind of Christ on for these people and how can we discover His thinking on how we deal with divorced people? We don’t seem to find a parallel in the scriptures and the teaching that people reach for is dreadfully scant or all over the map on Christian thought. Where is the right fit for these unfortunate, often unforgiven people?
The Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7 should provide believers with spiritual vision, but unfortunately, believers use this very text to foster attitudes of spiritual blindness. Jesus starts off his sermon by giving us the beatitudes in verses 2-12 and then tells us hoe we are to be the world’s source of spiritual salt and light in verses 13-16. Verses 17-20 is wisdom and insight from Jesus’ own mouth how He fulfills all the law and the prophets. He is the complete word of God. In verse 21, Christ turns toward the believer’s heart telling how in the heart we form justification for murder (21-26) and adultery (27-30). Christ closes out the 5th chapter telling about our personal deportment; personal integrity in our speech (33-37), our love toward others is to be so other centered, that we will go to extraordinary efforts to keep the peace (38-42) even so far as to demonstrate a loving response toward the very ones that hate and abuse us (43-48). In the 6th chapter, Jesus turns His attention to our personal character as viewed outwardly by those around us. We should not appear to others as being a big tither, in fact Christ would prefer if no one knew if we gave at all (1-4). We should not make a show of our pious prayers (5-8). Sometimes I wonder when I hear others pray in church (before the offering, to open or close the service) if their prayers were meant for God or for the hearers. Sometimes I have even wondered if they even think about what they are saying. (I know it’s not an easy thing to pray in public, so people may be doing the best they can). Christ gives us a template for our prayers with the Disciples’ or Lord’s Prayer (9-13). Jesus closes out chapter 6 by giving us spiritual vision about fasting (16-18), how we view possessions (19-24), and anxiety (25-34).
I will stop here but the entire Sermon that Jesus offered was replete with spiritual vision and action items that we should use as a basic for Christian attitude and behavior. But we don’t. You may have noticed that I left off two portions, Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 6:14-15. I left them off because these two sections of scripture seem that Christians demonstrate either a lack understanding or we deliberate forgetfulness or simply ignored. My perception of how the verses in Matthew 5:31-32, have been taught, Jesus teaching here on divorce to me seems out of place given what Jesus describes a believers actions in the other passages of this text. By comparison with Jesus other teaching points in his sermon, these two verses seem rather cold and heartless. They seem to indicate that this particular sinful act goes unforgiven or that those who are divorced are perpetually guilty! Divorce does seem to be in step with murder and adultery in that the path that leads toward divorce begins by coldness in at least one of the marriage partner’s heart.
Where I find difficulty is how believers (should I use the word) judge others who have had the matrimonial rug pulled out from under them, seems distant from Jesus’ teaching about our personal deportment toward others who have wronged us in the verses that follow. Is Jesus really stating that this particular sinful act is left unforgiven by other Christians? If someone slaps us we are to take it without seeking retribution, even offering the other cheek. If someone sues us for our shirt, we are to giftwrap our coat as an extra gift to them. If an abusive manager or boss makes an unreasonable request, we are to not only perform it, but take this task to its extreme satisfaction. But that’s not how we treat the divorced person. Instead, when a fellow believer gets a divorce, we slink away, banishing them from before us even from future service to the Lord because they have been so marred for life.
Does this please the Lord, that we are so relentlessly critical of the divorced, but not of the murderer, the adulterer or the thief? Remember, Jesus said we are guilty of those things, even if we harbor these desires in our hearts where no one can see. But God does see. I wonder how God restrains Himself and does not mete out the same punishment of Ananias and Sapphira who also harbored things in secret where no one knew or saw. How comfortable would you be if these things were open for everyone to know sins you had committed in your heart?
We bar divorced people from service to God as well. We fail to turn the other cheek or offer our coat of righteousness as a gift and we never go the extra mile of understanding for their plight. But with one voice set them up as second class persons unworthy even from God’s call. Isn’t God free to call whom He desires or do they need to meet our narrow view of those who would be His servants? Did Paul really intend for us to render that treatment in 1 Timothy 3? Paul’s words were “the Husband of one wife” and instead of using the whole counsel of God’s word, we automatically isogete the meaning that he was speaking of banning the divorced from assuming positions of ministry. We fail to realize that Paul could have used the word for divorce in that passage. By using the wording he chose could indicate a broader interpretation is needed. But with spiritual blindness we ignore 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 and narrowly assume that he too sees the divorced as being perpetually guilty. Why did he say “Husband of one wife?” Could his meaning also include those who were not married, or those who were widowed, or possibly to exclude those who had more than one wife (polygamy)? To excuse away these possible other intents, we place in the text – explanations - thus doing away with any meaning other than the one we want placed there.
Then there is the passage in Matthew 6:14-15. As I mentioned earlier, Matthew 5: 31-32 would seem to indicate that divorced people are perpetually guilty, and most believers would seem to agree with this viewpoint. They may verbally say otherwise, but their actions speak louder. But Christ says we are to “forgive people their wrongdoing” even stating emphatically that if we fail to forgive, God will not forgive us. Again, this is a hard teaching. Could it be that this is why the church is in decline today? Sometimes hurt goes deep and forgiveness is something that must be the outgrowth of a process of spiritual maturity, but scripture dictates that we are to forgive. It is a command from Christ and if we fail, there is penalty. Instead of concentrating on the legal mandates and rules, perhaps we should recognize that we imitate Christ most effectively in the action of forgiveness. In effect we hold people who are divorced to a higher standard that we apply to our sinful actions. This demonstrates our unwillingness to forgive.
So is God pleased with our phantasm stand against sin? Does He enjoy the aspect of His church banishing those whose lives already have been destroyed? Is He pleased with our spiritual blindness where we should have vision? We do not encourage divorce by refusing to forgive those so punished, in fact, it is the opposite. Rather than discouraging divorce, believers enable it when we refuse to offer consideration and forgiveness for those Jesus came to save. In reality we facilitate a concept of unforgiven believers of Christ! These, whose lives were interrupted and tarnished and who now bear the scarlet D on their foreheads, sit silently in our churches each week seeking Christ to wash away their cursed stain. They merely seek what good Christians will never offer - forgiveness. Without forgiveness from believers in Jesus, these silent believers cannot even find strength to forgive themselves. Of this I am certain, God is not honored.