On the Scandal of Divorce

Ron Belgau is one of the founders of the Spiritual Friendship blog, and he has released a long letter on Rod Dreher’s blog expressing his disapproval of The Nashville Statement. Over the years, Ron and I have had many back-and-forths over these issues, and I have always found him to be a really powerful and generous interlocutor. His remarks deserve a fuller response than I am going to give right here, so some of the engagement will have to wait until later.

But before getting into disagreement, I would highlight one part of Ron’s letter that I completely agree with. Ron points out that many Southern Baptists have totally capitulated to the divorce culture and have a really bad track record here. He also argues that conservative evangelicals writ large have allowed and tolerated this moral collapse for decades.

I completely agree with him about that. The widespread acceptance of no-fault divorce shows that our culture and capitulating Christians were redefining marriage long before gay marriage was on anyone’s radar screen. That is in part why the Southern Baptist Convention overwhelmingly approved a resolution in 2010 “On the Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce.” It’s also why I wrote this in my 2013 book on sexual ethics:

There may be no greater blight on the testimony of Christianity in our culture than the church’s near total capitulation to the divorce culture… What is perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that so many Christian marriages seem to have accommodated themselves to American divorce culture. Not only did churches say very little when no-fault divorce became the legal reality of our land, but they also said very little when no-fault divorce became the practical reality of the people sitting in our pews. Though practicing Christians tend to have lower divorce rates than the general population, the numbers are still very concerning… Perhaps there is some consolation in the knowledge that church-attending Evangelicals seem to fare better than those who are less devout. Nevertheless, it is a spiritual crisis that more than one-third of the more committed evangelicals report having been divorced or separated. The numbers are still far too high for those who confess to believe what the Bible teaches about the sanctity of marriage. John Calvin’s admonition is one that more people could stand to hear:

“They who, for slight causes, rashly allow of divorces, violate, in one single particular, all the laws of nature, and reduce them to nothing. If we should make it a point of conscience not to separate a father from his son, it is still greater wickedness to dissolve the bond which God has preferred to all others.”

Denny Burk, What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Crossway, 2013)

So I think we are agreed on this point. I think where we disagree is whether The Nashville Statement addresses the fact that evangelical churches are already woefully compromised on the issue of marriage. I think it does. He believes that it doesn’t. Our difference is over this paragraph in the preamble:

Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life? Will she maintain her clear, counter-cultural witness to a world that seems bent on ruin?

Ron reads this paragraph to mean that the church may become compromised but is not compromised yet. I understand this paragraph to mean that although many among us have already bowed the knee to Baal, there are many who have not. This paragraph frames the document, in my view, as a statement for a compromised church. The question is who is going to win out? The ones who have bowed the knee or the ones who have not?

One of the most important things to understand about The Nashville Statement is that it was not primarily aimed at the outside world. It is aimed at the evangelical Christian world where so much confusion on these questions seems to remain. As I said in my opinion piece for The Hill over the weekend:

The Nashville Statement is not a culture-war document. It is a church document. It stakes out no public policy positions. It advocates for no particular piece of legislation or political program. Rather, it was drafted by churchmen from a variety of evangelical traditions who aim to catechize God’s people about their place in the true story of the world. And fundamental to that storyline is our “personal and physical design as male and female.”

The Bible begins in Genesis with a marriage and ends in Revelation with a marriage, and that is why the nature of marriage is fundamental to our story as well.

You may be asking, “If the Nashville Statement is simply a Christian confessional statement, then why has it dominated headlines this past week? What’s so newsworthy about that?” Truthfully, we too have been astonished by the amount of attention this has gotten in the press. It does not seem all that newsworthy to reassert what the church everywhere has confessed for the last 2,000 years.

But we are okay with the attention because we believe that God’s design for his world and his people is not bad news but good news. We all stand in need of grace. This story of sin and repentance, faith and forgiveness is my story too. It is our hope and prayer that everyone who reads The Nashville Statement will find it to be their story as well.

I hope to have some more interaction later on other items Ron raises.