The Reformed Church in America has adopted various slogans throughout its history. “Guilt, grace, and gratitude.” “A people who belong.” “Reformed and ever reforming.” “Transformed and transforming.” The current phrase that appears in many documents and discussions is somewhat less theologically poetic: “We have to stop kicking the can down the road.” Those who use this phrase insist that the General Synod must make a decision, once and for all, about the status of LGBTQ+ people in the RCA. They insist on this despite the fact that the conflict over sexuality is a complicated question rooted in decades of disagreements about biblical interpretation, humanity and sin, and the purity of the church.
How does a denomination resolve sharp differences of opinion? Can the denomination be a big tent where different views are tolerated? Some members insist that the RCA clearly articulate its beliefs about homosexuality, and make sure that all ministers act accordingly. Others insist that RCA members do not agree on this topic and that it is not the role of the denomination to make such statements. Should a denominational statement decide moral questions and church polity?
In this essay I will explore similar questions about divorce and remarriage, which provoked significant controversy in the twentieth century. In the 1930s, some RCA congregations, but not all, suspended divorced people from church membership and denied them the sacraments. They discouraged or forbade remarriage in order to retain the possibility of reconciliation. These rules about divorce were rooted in a particular interpretation of the Bible and the desire to maintain the purity of the church and take a firm stance against sin. Other RCA churches took a more gracious path.
A century later, however, almost all RCA churches contain people who have been divorced and remarried. Even some pastors divorce and yet continue fruitful ministry in gracious congregations.
How did this transition occur in the RCA? Is there anything to learn from the conversations about divorce that might be instructive in our current debates?
In 1900, divorce was relatively rare and difficult to obtain, but the rate of divorce was rising and many Christians were very anxious about this trend. The RCA joined other mainline Protestant denominations in an effort to create uniform national divorce laws that would permit divorce only for adultery, and allow only the “innocent” party to remarry. In 1903, the General Synod was asked by one group to rule that RCA ministers should not officiate at the marriages of divorced persons except for the innocent party in a divorce granted for adultery.
Synod referred the request to a committee which reported in 1904. The committee agreed that divorce was a problem, but did not think Synod had the authority to instruct clergy, because divorce was not a matter of doctrine or polity. “Your committee is unable to find that either the standards or the Acts of the General Synod define the Scriptural grounds for divorce. Therefore your committee is unable to recommend the passage of such a resolution.” The committee members believed that Synod should not legislate on pastoral matters that ministers and elders should decide. The committee believed that the proper role of Synod regarding controversial social issues was to encourage members and clergy to act in certain ways, not to require compliance with hard and fast rules. Synod approved this recommendation.
The problem didn’t go away. Although different Christian groups tried to impose a high view of marriage on their fellow citizens, lofty words about marriage did not change human behavior. Divorce could be made more difficult to obtain, but new laws did not reduce the demand for it. In their efforts to discourage divorce and remarriage, churches often appeared rigid, legalistic, and eager to punish unhappy people by forcing them to stay in a bad marriage.
The divorce rate continued to rise in the United States and church members were not exempt. Some congregations called for increased education, in the hope that learning about marriage would help people succeed at it. Others insisted that church discipline would both discourage divorce and punish it if it did occur. Churches denied the Lord’s Supper or suspended the membership of people who committed adultery or divorced on non-biblical grounds. This could mean that a spouse who sought a divorce on the grounds of abuse or abandonment or addiction was considered sinful and subject to discipline.
Some Midwestern RCA churches and ministers found themselves in a difficult spot. If they disciplined people or refused to remarry them, they were considered harsh. If they were too gracious, the neighboring Christian Reformed churches criticized them for being too liberal and “soft on sin.” Eastern RCA churches felt more pressure to be tolerant and open.
The diversity of cultural contexts and approaches led to some discomfort. In 1948, the Classis of Pleasant Prairie asked General Synod to formulate a “definite and authoritative directive” about divorce. The committee assigned to study the request reported in 1949 similarly to the committee in 1904: it would not offer such a directive, because the General Synod did not have the constitutional right to make binding rules about divorce and remarriage. Such a directive would be a form of legalism that was inconsistent with both the New Testament and the Reformed tradition. The committee said that on matters which were not clearly articulated in the Standards or Book of Church Order, Synod can give advice, but it cannot bind pastors to particular actions. Instead, decisions about the remarriage of divorced people needed to be made by the individual pastors who knew the couple and their history. The church was not a punitive agency and should encourage people who made mistakes to repent, experience forgiveness, and make a fresh start.
Not everyone in the RCA agreed. Some RCA pastors still sought clear rules about how to carry out punitive discipline. In 1954, the Particular Synods of Michigan and Chicago appointed a joint committee to provide churches with specific guidance about divorce and remarriage. In 1957, this joint particular synod committee published a substantive pamphlet containing its detailed advice about how to discipline divorcing members and prevent remarriage.
One of the crucial issues in this discussion was the definition of marriage as a sacred bond that could only be broken by death, adultery, or desertion for religious reasons. The authors suggested there was something holy or supernatural about marriage. This led to serious relational knots. Was a divorced man married to his first wife? His second wife? Both? Most people who divorced saw this very differently. Their marriage bond had been broken by adultery, cruelty, absence, addiction, or by the decision that the marriage was over. The legal act of divorce simply acknowledged what had already occurred.
The members of this joint committee wanted to maintain the purity of the church by discouraging divorce, but the discipline more often punished those who failed at marriage. The efforts of the pastors and elders to intervene could be experienced as intrusive and meddling rather than caring and gracious. The authors of the pamphlet knew that both spouses usually contributed to the failure of a marriage, and yet they assumed they could decide who was guilty and who was innocent and treat them quite differently.
A major shift in the RCA’s thinking about divorce appeared in 1962 when the Christian Action Commission (CAC) published a paper on divorce. The paper acknowledged the persistent dilemma: ideally, marriages last a lifetime, but in reality, many do not. People behave badly or grow apart and their marriages break down. Churches had tried to resolve this dilemma in the past by refusing to recognize divorces or bless remarriages. Insisting on the permanence of the marriage bond did not keep marriages together.
The CAC noted the significant cultural differences between the first century and the present. Jesus discouraged divorce in part because he was trying to protect vulnerable women from being discarded for petty reasons. Divorce was not the ideal, but Jesus gave one example of how it might be justified. Several decades later, the Apostle Paul did not simply adopt the literal teaching of Jesus (divorce only for adultery), but recognized that if an unbelieving spouse left the marriage, the desertion broke a marriage just as adultery did. The CAC argued that these were not the only two possible grounds for divorce, but two examples of the many ways a marriage could fail.
The CAC argued that the church should encourage permanent relationships, but when they failed, the church should be gracious and offer healing and acceptance rather than judgment, shame, and discipline. The Commission did not use the categories of guilt and innocence, because both spouses usually contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. Remarriage should be a possibility for all divorced people, regardless of the grounds. For example, couple forced to marry because of an unplanned pregnancy may not have had the maturity to succeed in that marriage, but should not be denied the opportunity to try again. The criteria for remarriage should be whether the divorced people have come to terms with their own failures and immaturities, forgiven the partner, and provided adequate support for the spouse and children.
Unfortunately, the gracious provisions of the 1962 report were not consistently adopted. In 1973 the Particular Synod of Chicago (PSC) asked the Theological Commission to offer biblical solutions to the problem of increasing divorce and remarriage. They were concerned that “neighboring churches of the same denomination may have a different interpretation as to the solution of these problems thus making cooperation difficult.” It appears that some churches in the PSC with stricter policies resented RCA congregations that welcomed divorced people rather than disciplining them. Again, the PSC asked for a set of rules that should apply to all. Again, the Theological Commission refused to supply these rules.
Instead, the Commission gently chastised churches for not being gracious enough. “The church is called to be a fellowship where those who falter and fail can rebuild and where the divorced can find love and patient support. Some congregations (including elders and ministers) have not developed their ability to exercise the forgiveness of Christ toward repentant adulterers and divorcees. Yet the Bible indicates that failures or sins in this area are no more grievous than other sins nor any less forgivable.” This marks a striking shift from the older belief that discipline and punishment were essential to preserve the church’s purity. The Commission did not believe that the church should shame or punish divorced people, or accuse them of grievous sin, as the 1957 pamphlet had done. Divorce happens, and churches earn no bonus points with God for making divorced people feel worse than they already do.
Unlike earlier discussions of divorce in the RCA, this paper did not debate which grounds for divorce were legitimate. Elders no longer needed to investigate the reasons for marital breakdown in order to determine who could remarry. Instead, the paper recommended that all divorced people take adequate time to repent, reflect, change their unhealthy patterns, and rebuild their lives, but they did not have to face a life of singleness to atone for the sin of divorce.
The fact that the Theological Commission urged grace and forgiveness did not mean that all RCA churches followed their suggestions. Often divorced people felt excluded in a congregation centered around families. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even if people were no longer disciplined for being divorced, they might be treated as second class citizens. One interesting indicator of a congregation’s full acceptance was when the first divorced and remarried person was elected to consistory. Another was the treatment of a pastor who was divorced.
It is striking to observe the very different theological and pastoral perspectives evident in the RCA. One side insisted that the purity of the church must be maintained by following strict rules about marriage and divorce. Those who broke the rules were disciplined and shamed. Technically, God may have forgiven them, but they could not marry again, so in a sense, the church remembered their sin. The other approach recognized both the power of human brokenness and the power of God’s grace and forgiveness. Divorce was difficult and painful but people could be forgiven and make a fresh start. The church was not punitive, in this view, and it valued grace more than law.
In the question of divorce and remarriage, the more gracious approach finally “won.” Some people changed their minds when they saw the pain caused by rules, discipline, and shaming. Conversely, when they saw happy second marriages, they realized the possibilities of grace and a new start.
The growing acceptance of divorce in the culture and media also affected the church, even though church members often decried the bad influence of the culture. Television shows, novels, and movies told the complicated stories and made it easier to understand and empathize with people who were divorcing.
The RCA realized over time that it was generally better to be too gracious than too legalistic regarding divorce. Harsh discipline did not prevent divorce and often caused people to leave the church. Grace was more likely to keep them connected. Grace was more healing and life-giving than discipline, which was often shame-based.
At the denominational level, the RCA took its time in working through policies about divorce. Committees were formed to study difficult questions, and then congregations were encouraged to study their papers. The commissions recognized that the world is not static. Culture, public opinion, and biblical interpretation all develop over time based on new knowledge and perspectives. Change is not necessarily evidence of sin, and it is not sinful or unfaithful to revisit and rethink the big questions. To think deeply and repeatedly about important issues is not “kicking the can down the road,” but an awareness that church opinion about topics like divorce, as well as slavery, sexuality, and the role of women, have changed over time. It is wise to be open to the leading of the Spirit and not assume that a question that affects people in deep ways may be decided once and for all.
General Synod has been reluctant to legislate about controversial pastoral issues, even when the Bible seemed to provide clear instructions. Synod and its commissions engage in theological reflection and give advice, but they recognize that people disagree, and they often chose to trust the pastoral instincts of the ministers and elders who were closer to the situation. Divorce was complicated and one rule rarely fit all circumstances.
This story about divorce is a fascinating historical precedent that raises some questions about current RCA debates. If the RCA can change its mind regarding divorce, why not same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ+ people? If the RCA changed its ways of reading the Bible regarding divorce, why not regarding sexuality? If the church can allow pastors and elders to decide about divorce and remarriage, why not allow pastors, elders, and classes to decide about marriage and ordination for LGBTQ+ people? If God preserves the purity of God’s church, do God’s people need to be quite so anxious about it?
As a denomination historian and loyalist, I like the idea of the big tent where multiple viewpoints are accepted. As an advocate for the full acceptance and equality treatment of LGBTQ+ people, I have some doubts. If the RCA stays together by tolerating different views on sexuality, are LGBTQ+ people paying the price? Can the RCA be a welcoming, gracious denomination if there is not room for all? Is it enough to tolerate multiple opinions and approaches when some of them do not recognize the full personhood of LGBTQ+ people? I believe that opinions have changed rapidly and will continue to do so, but I wonder how much harm will be done before that happens.
In times of uncertainty, churches and other institutions are tempted to make rules, to make final decisions, to set boundaries. In times of deep anxiety, absolutes are appealing. But history has shown that strict rules and an authoritarian style are not the healthiest approach in the long run. Divorce, sexuality, identity, and community have been and will always be complicated issues. They involve sin and grace, repentance and forgiveness, pain and loss, redemption and healing. In all these things, we rest in the mercy and the comfort and the transformation made possible by the God to whom we all belong.
An expanded version of this paper will appear in Collecting Chronicles, Maintaining Tradition, and Preserving Acts of Disciples: Essays in Honor of Russell L. Gasero, ed. James Brumm, forthcoming fall, 2021.