The unacceptably high divorce rate in the church is an often lamented fact of modern life. Now it is true that the statistics are not actually as bad as they have been made out to be - the divorce rate among active evangelicals is actually significantly lower than in the general population - but the rate is still far higher than it should be.
Why is that? I would suggest one major contributor is that the church has virtually abandoned the practice of church discipline.
Jesus made it clear that a believer who is living in open and unrepentant sin is to be faced with his sin, first by one, then by two or three together, then by the entire church family, and then removed from fellowship if there is no repentance (Matthew 18:15-17).
Paul is quite direct in 1 Corinthians 5-6 that unrepentant sin should lead the church to place the offender outside the perimeter of Christian fellowship. “Purge the evil person from among you” (5:13).
Now Paul teaches us that sexual sin (in the Corinthians’ case, shockingly enough, a form of incest) is not the only unrepentant sin that should be the subject of church discipline. Sexual immorality, cheating in business, thievery, substance abuse, homosexuality, and participation in counterfeit religious practices all require the attention of the church (cf. 1 Cor. 5:10-11, 6:9-10).
As many churches do today, so the Corinthians did nothing in the face of open sin, and even considered their passivity a virtue, a display of admirable tolerance. They were “arrogant,” Paul says, priding themselves on how non-judgmental they were about a man sleeping with his father’s wife.
Instead, the church was to “mourn” over the terrible destruction caused by sexual sin and to place the offender outside the community of faith, a form of spiritual exile, where ordinary relationship is cut off. “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality..., not even to eat with such a one” (5:11).
Paul is quite clear that the purpose, the goal, the very nature, of church discipline is not to punish but to redeem. “[Y]ou are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (5:5). The exercise of church discipline can lead him to repentance and a return to a right relationship with God and man.
And it also is not just a matter of redemption for the sinner but protection for the church, for as Paul says, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (5:6). Sin is like a cancerous tumor in the body of Christ. If it is not dealt with in its early stages and removed, it can metastasize and threaten the health and viability of the entire organism.
Now Jesus’ teaching on divorce is unambiguous. “What God has joined together, man must not separate” (Matthew 19:6). Marriage is such a sacred institution that Jesus allowed just one ground for divorce, marital infidelity, and granted this one exception because of the immense damage adultery does to the integrity of the one-flesh bond of marriage.
And yet the church increasingly tolerates unbiblical divorce, watches it happen in its midst and throws up its hands, abjectly bleating that there is nothing it can do. And meanwhile, children who are victims of divorce have their entire universe crash in on them, and the adult victims of divorce are left to piece together the shattered ruin of their lives.
I distinctly remember the day a man, a friend and a fellow Christian, slipped into the back row of our church and sat through the service. I had been informed that he was leaving his wife and was already living with another woman. I sought him out after the service, and asked him if what I had heard was true. He admitted it was. I said to him, “Look, Don, I can’t let you attend this church as if nothing is wrong. You are not welcome here until you go back to your wife and make things right. If you do that, you and your family will be welcome here, but that’s something you must do first.” I never saw him again. But he was confronted with his sin and my church family was protected from infection.
Will a pastor and a church who does this come under withering criticism from the world? Of course. I myself have been castigated in the national media for my effort to reel in a wayward wife and restore her to her husband and her young children. But what should matter more to us: what the world thinks, or what God thinks?
(It’s laughable, by the way, for the world to criticize us for disfellowshipping an offending sinner while they at the same time are on a relentless crusade to exile Christians from every segment of polite society.)
It’s time for pastors and church leaders to put this redemptive and protective tool back in the toolbox and use it when necessary. The Scriptures demand it, and victims of unbiblical divorce deserve it.