Divorce is always a tragedy, a result of sin, the working out of the fall in the midst of human relationships.
Matthew 19:3–6 (ESV): 3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
But, sin intrudes to destroy marriages in spite of God’s original intent. And, given human willfulness, given human intransigence, some marriages simply cannot be saved.
The Anglican Church recognizes three just causes for the dissolution of a marriage: abandonment, abuse, and adultery. Each is a willful and profound breaking of the marital vows.
N., will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together out of reverence for Christ in the covenant of Holy Matrimony? Will you love her, honor her, comfort and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live (BCP 2019, p. 202)?
In the Name of God, I, N., take you, N., to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death, according to God’s holy Word. This is my solemn vow (BCP 2019, p. 205).
Abandonment is the refusal to live together — until parted by death — out of reverence for Christ. Abuse is the antithesis of love, honor, and comfort. Adultery is the desecration of emotional, physical, and spiritual intimacy through infidelity. Each is a devastating, and potentially terminal, blow to a marriage. It is only by the grace of God that any marital relationship can survive such violation of vows.
It is obvious that these three just causes are grievous — not trivial, not superficial. The notion of a no-fault divorce for unspecified irreconcilable differences is foreign to the Church.
Now, I want to suggest that one’s relationship with a local church is not unlike a marriage in this respect: vows — implicit or explicit — are made to one another, and the dissolution of that relationship is a most serious affair, tantamount to divorce. There are trivial reasons for such ecclesial infidelity, such as should not even be named among us as proper: “poor” preaching, too few activities, [fill in the blank] music, and the like. Personal preferences are damnable reasons to divorce a church.
But, there are just causes, few and grievous as with marriage, and not dissimilar: abandonment (of the Gospel and the faith once delivered to the saints), abuse, and inadequacy.
Abandonment takes at least two forms: heresy and distraction. Heresy is the most serious and obvious; distraction is more subtle and insidious. If a church teaches as necessary for salvation anything not found in the Old and New Testaments; if a church teaches as true anything contrary to the three Catholic Creeds; if a church rejects the teaching of Scripture, Creeds, or the first four Ecumenical Councils; if a church abrogates the faith, discipline, and worship of the one holy, catholic and Apostolic Church; then that gathering is heretical, no longer the Church at all. It has abandoned both the faith and its sacred vocation. If it refuses to repent and return, for the sake of your soul you are justified in leaving. Distraction is more difficult to recognize because it has a thin Gospel veneer. It is the problem of “Jesus and:” Jesus and political action; Jesus and racial reconciliation; Jesus and social justice; Jesus and this and Jesus and that. The problem is that, sooner or later, “Jesus and” becomes just “and;” the Gospel is lost in a sea of even good works and worthy causes, but the Gospel is lost nonetheless. Don’t misunderstand. The Gospel speaks to these and other social issues because the Gospel is forming a people for the Kingdom of God. But the Gospel does not speak to them primarily. The Gospel is not primarily about what we do, but rather about what God has done and is doing in and through Jesus Christ. If the primary focus of the church is upon our work to build the kingdom, then it has lost focus on the Gospel. If that cannot be recovered, it may well be time to leave.
Abuse covers a range of toxic relationships in the church. We are all too familiar with the scandal of sexual abuse. But there are also other abuses of power and position — the charismatic leader who builds a cult following and manipulates or coerces members to submit in unhealthy ways. Fortunately, in the Anglican Church in North America, there is church order — and church canons — that serve to protect members. No church leader is unaccountable or unsupervised, and there is always recourse for a member who suspects abuse of any sort.
Inadequacy is failure of a church to preach the Word fully (the whole counsel of God’s Word), administer the Sacraments faithfully, or offer pastoral care wisely. Worship is the work of the church gathered. If that is not the priority — Word and Sacrament — something is seriously amiss. But the church also exists to make saints and to empower the saints for ministry in the world. If such formation is lacking, if the equipping ministry of the church is not evident, then that local congregation is not adequately fulfilling its responsibility.
As with marriage, so, too, with church: the reasons for “divorce” are few and extremely serious.
There are other similarities between marriage and one’s relationship with a local church. The most basic requirement for a good marriage is stability, the knowledge that in difficult times, through disagreements, for better or for worse, the partners will be there one for the other. It is such stability that provides the context for challenging discussions, for difficult decisions, for transformation of the Christian husband and wife into the image of Christ. It is not least this which separates marriage from co-habitation: the vow of stability, the guarantee of presence. Something very like that obtains — or should obtain — in the church. Uniting to a congregation or parish carries an implicit vow of stability, a vow that likely should be made explicit. Neither the parish nor the parishioner can flourish in a context of instability. How do we challenge one another, how do we have the difficult conversations, how do we wound and forgive and move ahead, if we are not even certain of the stability of the relationship and the commitment of parish and parishioner to be there for one another?
Leaving a congregation is a serious decision, a severing of what God has joined together; it is a spiritual divorce and should be taken at least as seriously as the dissolution of a marriage. Leaving must be the solution of last resort. Anyone considering divorce should first seek pastoral counsel and perhaps professional marital counseling. The same is true for those contemplating leaving a congregation. Do not simply slip away without seeking resolution of underlying issues. Seek out a priest, a spiritual director, a trusted elder in the faith.
As with marriage, so too with the church: Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder. Amen.