Thursday, October 17, 2013

Divorce, Remarriage & Tension


Alyce Conlon is divorced from her husband. And she has filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). According to the story reported by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religious News Service, the suit alleges the firing was because of her divorce. But two male colleagues kept their jobs as they went through divorce and remarriage. Pulliam documents the requirements of IVCF policy pertaining to Separation and Divorce. Two verses illustrate Old and New Testament statements about divorce, Malachi 2:16 and Matthew 19:9.


Fred Clark weighed in on the news story with a post titled, The ugly little game of white evangelical divorce. Fred opines this case is about gender discrimination. Acknowledging that each case is different, Fred offers another opinion: “In the white evangelical church, there are good divorces and bad divorces.” The crucial issue becomes the answer to the question, who is at fault? So, what’s the ugly little game? It’s the game of making it clear who is at fault and who is innocent. Fred also points to comments by IVCF related to impact on funding and donors. Fred sums up his commentary with reference to the verses quoted.


Western societies with a history of some form of Christianity allow divorce and remarriage such that some end up having multiple legal marriages in a lifetime—a form of polygamy, some say. The laws that govern marriage and divorce generally establish the belief and behavior norms. The nation is the host culture in which a religion operates. Christian churches experience a degree of tension in handling something many find distasteful—the end of a marital relationship—especially in cases when the couple had declared their commitment to each other before God and a local congregation.


It’s the tension that caught my attention in the story by Sarah and the ideas posted by Fred. And I thought about the Finke and Stark theory (e.g., 2001), which depicts various forms of distinctiveness of a religious group compared to the beliefs and behaviors of the host culture. As noted in my posts about marriage and reconstruction (July 19, July 25) , Western cultures have moved far from the official Christian church teachings about marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
            The tension can be depicted on a continuum from ultraliberal to ultrastrict in terms of any belief-behavior norm. In this theory, ultraliberal positions are close to the host culture and members experience little tension. But the ultrastrict congregations experience the greatest tension—at least on a particular issue.
So what does the divorce issue look like? Well, I don’t think it is just divorce but rather the package of divorce-remarriage that concerns evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. Decades ago, divorce was uncommon especially in Christian faith communities. If  people were divorced, they were to remain in that post-divorce state. People who had been divorced were not eligible to become church leaders as prescribed by the scriptures. But times have changed—in the culture and within Christian traditions.
 Depending on the selected biblical texts and the interpretation of those texts, Christians have different options.

Lowest tension

Highest tension

Divorce- ok
Remarriage- ok
Divorce- ok
Remarriage- some ok
Divorce- some ok
No remarriage
No divorce
No remarriage

There are some caveats.
Despite official doctrinal positions, individual congregations may be less willing to insist on right belief and right conduct than other congregations.
And, some traditions allow marriages that meet certain criteria to be annulled.
When members have violated official teaching, Christians offer forgiveness and reconciliation. People can be restored.
On the downside, some people within any group will look down upon those who have been divorced and those who have remarried.

So, the matter of divorce-remarriage remains a complex matter of concern for the leaders in Christian faith traditions and for their congregants. This is especially true for those who identify as fundamentalist or evangelical within a host culture like the United States, which has moved at some distance on a number of belief and behavioral norms in the past several decades.

I wonder if there would have been a story in the early days of InterVarsity.

Without people who divorced and remarried, there wouldn't be many folks in church.


            I have not forgotten about the issue of gender discrimination. I think Fred has a good point here. Churches do indeed vary on what women can and cannot do. The presence of a double-standard is not hard to find even when official policy says otherwise. Perhaps you can plot the role of women as a point of tension too. Clearly, the official US societal position on gender is one of equality. But gender equality is not the case in many world religions, including many Christian faith traditions.

For more on fundamentalists see my 4 October 2013  post.
For more on the psychology of religion see news stories on my Facebook page.

Sources and Information

Some views on divorce and remarriage
Assemblies of God Divorce and Remarriage
Also see TIME magazine's article An Evangelical Rethink on Divorce?

A few other Church websites

American Baptist Churches USA
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Greek Orthodox
Seventh-Day Adventist Church
United Presbyterian Church USA
Feel free to post links to the official website of your religious tradition

Constructive comments welcome

Finke, R., & Stark, R. (2001). The new holy clubs: Testing church-to-sect propositions. Sociology of Religion, 62, 175-189. Link to Roger Finke’s page.

Another report on the Alyce Conlon story by Katherine Weber.

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