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[151st General Synod Minutes, 18 May 1973, pp. 52-56; Documents of Synod, pp. 199-202.]

Dr. David Jones presented the report as follows:

Background of the Present Report:

The Florida Presbytery overtured the 149th General Synod of the RPCES anent "Clarification of the teaching of Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith on divorce and remarriage," proposing that Synod

1. Proclaim guidelines regarding persons who have become new creatures in Christ subsequent to divorce and now wish to remarry, and
2. Advise whether a person, having become a new creature in Christ, may remarry and become an officer in the Church.[1]

The overture was referred to a committee appointed by the moderator, with instruction to report to the 150th General Synod.

On the first question the Committee in its report to the 150th General Synod took the position that where repentance is evident, but reconciliation appears impossible, such persons as are truly penitent, whether divorced before or after profession of faith, may remarry. The Committee argued that to forbid remarriage to such persons would be inconsistent with the forgiveness of God.[2]

On the second question the Committee cited a decision of the 28th General Synod of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (St. Louis, April 1-7, 1964) to the effect that a person divorced before becoming a Christian who has since shown "a firm allegiance and obedience to Jesus Christ" may be considered as a candidate for ecclesiastical office. The Committee felt that this principle applies to the penitent believer as well.[3]

It was the recommendation of the Committee that its work be continued by a new committee "in order that a wider representation of the church be possible." Synod adopted this recommendation and the minutes record that "an attempt will be made to have a deeper exegetical study of these matters to be presented by the new committee."[4]

The new committee in the present report addresses itself only to the first question, desiring to be sure of the mind of the church on divorce and remarriage before attempting to speak on the question of divorce and ecclesiastical office.

On Divorce and Remarriage

Marriage is the unique one-flesh relationship of a man and a woman joined together by God in a union that He wills to be both permanent and exclusive, binding the couple to each other in a life-long companionship of common life and conjugal love. (Genesis 2:23-24, Matthew 19:4-8, Romans 7:2-3).

It is the duty of husband and wife to maintain the unity and integrity of their marriage by cohabitation and coition. (Cf. Larger Catechism, Q. 138). Should separation occur, reconciliation is to be sought. (I Corinthians 7:10-11). Deliberate severance of the marriage bond is open violation of the seventh commandment and merits God's disapprobation in the strongest possible terms. (Malachi 2:14-16).

Divorce is therefore always an abnormality arising out of human sinfulness. It was tolerated in the civil legislation of the Old Testament, but the Mosaic Provision was given only "for the hardness of your hearts." (Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Matthew 19:3-8). The civil legislation took into account in this matter the insubordination to the will of God characteristic of unbelieving Israel.

In the New Testament Jesus calls his people to faithfulness to the original will of God for marriage as expressed in the creation ordinance. (Matthew 5:31,32; 19:3-8). The apostle Paul presses this teaching of our Lord upon the early Christian community. (I Corinthians 7:10-11). The original ideal of marriage is to be maintained by the people of God in this age of the fulness of God's saving knowledge.

This is not to say that divorce is never sanctioned in the New Testament. But it is only sanctioned in circumstances of grace infidelity -- adultery and willful, irremediable desertion. (Matthew 5:32, 19:9; I Corinthians 7:15; Cf. Confession of Faith, XXIV, v-vi). These are definitive actions that strike at the heart of the marriage relationship. Adultery violates the exclusiveness of the marriage bond, malicious desertion its permanence. Both radically affect the one-flesh union and so provide "cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage."

The "innocent party" in such circumstances is free to remarry. However, a word of caution is in order lest the impression be given that "innocence" means "without any fault in the broken marriage relationship." It may be more helpful to speak of the "offended party," that is, the one against whose will to maintain the marriage the definitive actions which led to its dissolution were taken.

The Florida presbytery raised the question of remarriage in regard to pre-Christian marital failure ending in divorce. It would not be inconsistent with faithful maintenance of the ideal pressed upon the people of God in the New Testament age to overlook a divorce that may have occurred in the time of "hardness of heart" so far as the marital status of the person is concerned. Moreover, just because of unregenerate obduracy, such divorces frequently amount to willful, irremediable desertion on the part of one or both partners in which case the marriage may be regarded as dissolved.

Scripture does not forbid the remarriage of the "guilty party" in such cases. Where there is genuine conversion, evidenced by sincere and heartfelt repentance and faith in Christ, the church, after providing pastoral counseling and instruction in the biblical teaching concerning marriage, may approve remarriage in the Lord.

On Separation and Reconciliation

The previous synod committee raised the further question of Christian marital failure. The apostle Paul speaks to this question in I Corinthians 7. It is especially instructive to note the contrast between verses 10-11, where Paul addresses the Christian couple, and verse 15, where separation on the part of the unbelieving partner is in view.

In verses 10-11 the apostle, appealing to the express teaching of the Lord, instructs the wife not to separate (choristhenai) from her husband and the husband not to send away (aphienai) his wife. In the event that the wife should separate, Paul's imperative is, "Let her remain unmarried or else (e) be reconciled to her husband."

It is a misunderstanding to regard "remain unmarried" and "be reconciled" as two equally valid alternatives for the Christian spouse. In light of what Paul has just said concerning conjugal duty (vv. 2-5) it is hardly likely that he should suggest permanent separation as a solution for marital problems. The [Greek] particle e can be used for a comparison which is really exclusive (meaning "rather than the other")[5] and that would seem to be the force required by the context. Thus, Paul mentions the possibility of remaining unmarried as the necessary precondition of reconciliation, the burden of the passage in delineating Christian responsibility.

In verse 15, when an unbeliever separates from a believer, Paul's advice is "Let him (or her) depart." Instead of an exhortation to remain unmarried we find the affirmation that the believer is not bound to the marriage in such cases. The marriage bond, as in the case of adultery, has in effect been dissolved, not by the religious incompatibility of the couple but by the act of irremediable infidelity on the part of the unbelieving spouse.

The difference of tone between verses 11 and 15 may be accounted for by Paul's anticipation of reconciliation in the case of a marriage where both partners are Christians, and his realistic appraisal of the situation where an unbeliever deserts a believing spouse.

The question naturally arises, is the principle of I Corinthians 7:15 applicable when a professed Christian deserts a brother or sister? If the desertion is willful and can no way be remedied, including through the ministry and discipline of the church, the answer will have to be in the affirmative. At the same time, the sinful action on the part of the offender is of such grave nature as to require church censure, and possibly excommunication.[6]


The Committee recommends that it be continued for another year in order to prepare a report on the question of divorce and ecclesiastical office.

[1] Minutes of the 149th General Synod of the RPCES, (Covenant College, May 14-20, 1971), p. 14.

[2] Minutes of the 150th General Synod of the RPCES, (Harvey Cedars, May 12-18, 1972), p. 88.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Blass-Debrunner-Funk, 245a(2).

[6] James Oliver Buswell, Jr., Systematic Theology, I. 393. Cf. John Murray, Divorce, p. 76n.

Respectfully submitted,  
David C. Jones, Chairman
William B. Leonard, Jr.
Albert F. Moginot, Jr.


1. Adoption of the present report as providing guidelines in the matter of divorce and remarriage.

By motion, seconded and carried, debate was postponed to Tuesday at 8:00 A.M. (See below).

Report on Divorce and Remarriage Continued

A motion to amend the report by adding to the last paragraph of the section "On Separation and Reconciliation" the following sentence was seconded, "However when the marriage bond is permanently dissolved and repentance becomes evident, the offender must again be accorded the full privileges of a child of God." It was moved and carried to add the words "in accord with our Book of Discipline," after the word "However" in the amendment. The motion to amend carried.

It was moved and seconded to recommit the report to the Committee. It was amended by setting the time for the report at this session of Synod. The motion passed.

Report of the Committee on Divorce and Remarriage (continued from page 55)

Dr. David Jones reported changes in the report: in the third paragraph of the section entitled "On Separation and Reconciliation," make the third sentence a footnote to be numbered 5. Place the 5 at the end of the first sentence in that paragraph. The completed report as amended and changed was adopted for providing guidelines in the matter of divorce and remarriage.

The Committee's recommendation that it be continued for study on Divorce and Ecclesiastical office was adopted. A motion of thanks to the Committee for its fine work was passed.

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