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Permission to divorce?

We are all children of a great divorce.

I was recently at a gathering discussing churches leaving their denomination. It struck me that the attitude was “you have our permission to get divorced.” There was no plea for reconciliation.

When I was in a congregational pastorate and a married couple would come to me talking about divorce, my reaction was not how can we make this divorce easier. My counsel was, “Let’s slow down and talk.” Next, I would point out the consequences of divorce. There would be great pain. Immediate and extended family relationships would be damaged or destroyed. Reputation in church and community could suffer. Resources of time, talents and treasures would be wasted. All this would have negative generational effects and not solve most of the issues. There is a reason God says, “I hate divorce” (Mal. 2:16).

We would then start to work on communication: how to listen, how to state your thoughts fairly and clearly (maybe through writing), and how to identify the noise, the problems before making small steps of cooperation. The goal was renewing vows – restoring love, the desire to be with each other in communion.


In Ephesians 5 Paul presents marriage as a reflection of Christ’s relationship to his church. Some people are troubled by this passage because it has been interpreted and used to subjugate women. This is a misinterpretation and misuse of power. Paul is expressing in the language and culture of his time a radical picture of couples serving each other as God in Christ has served us.

This service in a broken world with broken people is not easy. In Matthew 19 the Pharisees test Jesus concerning the legitimate reasons for divorce. Jesus rejects their premise and points out the foundational purpose of marriage is to build human community from one generation to the next. The Pharisees question this with Moses’ divorce “command.” Jesus corrects this to a “permission” because “your hearts were hard.” While divorce is permitted, it is not the goal or principle.

Children of Divorce

We are all children of a great divorce. Some might think of Genesis 3. I am referencing the years 1054, 1517, 1834, 1857,1886, 1924, 1996, 202?. Children of divorce often have trust, anger, medical and depression issues. They wrestle with love. This can lead to a lineage of divorce, as the previous and other dates make too clear. We have accepted, permitted and promoted church divorce because it is in our lineage. It is permitted, but it is not the goal.

New Community

Jesus worked, died and prayed for new community: “. . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me . . . so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21-23).

Paul celebrates, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… his purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph. 2:14-16).


Denominationalism is dying. Many university students do not know their denomination, and if they do, little of its distinctiveness. Church structures still retain the scars and divisions of old battles Europe exported to America, Africa and the world. New battles are destroying those old structures, but this is only bringing greater divorce. Jesus and Paul reflect the consequences. The world often does not believe or know God’s love in Christ or see peace.


“Ecumenism” is related to the Greek word for “house.” How do we as children of divorce learn to live in the same house without extending the legacy of divorce? Let’s slow down and talk. Listen. Learn to understand more than be understood (cf. Saint Francis Peace Prayer).

We can move to greater cooperation. I have a vision of one brand of Christ’s church with different flavours in every community. There could be a church community council that meets to talk, listen and learn; to pray; to explore needs and opportunities; to share resources; and to console and encourage, not compete. It is about the purpose of love and service, not power.

Twenty-five years ago, 90 percent of the churches in Byron Center, Michigan cooperated to create the Byron Community Ministries. The churches of Platte, South Dakota created a community youth ministry. I hope you know many other examples. In Christ reconciliation, restoring love, communion, community and cooperation are possible.

Let’s renew our covenant vows.


  • Tom Wolthuis

    Dr. Thomas Wolthuis is a CRC pastor serving as the English pastor of the Chinese Church of Iowa City. He has been a campus minister, institute president, professor, pastor, and church planter. His Biblical Studies podcasts are at www.geneva-ui.org.

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