13 February 2017

Martin Bucer's Grounds for Divorce

Martin Bucer as an intermediary between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, by Josef Ehrismann

Here we finally get to what Martin Bucer wrote about divorce (and remarriage), which helped me along in my journey through divorce. For those wanting the complete story, check out Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer by Herman J. Selderhuis. What follows has been culled mostly from this book (the page numbers throughout correspond to it).


Irreconcilable Differences:
As a result of a lack of love and good will, a marriage has irreparably broken down. In this instance (which is decidedly not a matter of trifling disagreement), while the divorce is as yet unofficial, the marriage in fact has ceased to exist, in that personal relations are essential to the existence of a marriage.
. . . there is no true marriage between them, who agree not in true consent of mind; so it will be the part of godly magistrates to procure that no matrimony be among their subjects, but what is knit with love and consent.
(Lifted from chap. XIX of John Milton's translation of Bucer's De Regno Christi.)

This entails the obvious—extramarital sex—but also the withholding of sex, according to Bucer. The withholding of sex also includes being guility of driving the other toward sexual immorality, which marriage in part is meant to thwart. "Unilateral abstinence not only leads to but is adultery" (p. 289). (How's that for a response to being caught sleeping with the neighbor's wife? "You drove me to do it with all your conveniently placed headaches!")

Desertion or Banishment:
Included here is geographical separation, either deliberately or as a result of a cause out of their control (e.g., imprisonment, soldiers of wars, commercial travelers who fail to return, etc.). Deserters are "certifiable marriage-wreckers" (p. 293). Such "unchristian conduct is proof of unbelief," Bucer wrote (p. 294).

Sexual Relations:
"Conjugal work" is so important for marriage, said Bucer, that where it is refused or cannot be rendered, a divorced has to be legitimated.

Psychological and Physical Factors:
If sexual intimacy is rendered impossible due to psychological or physical illness, then a divorce is to be legitimated (clearly this is a pre-Viagra world). Bucer's thinking primarily of all forms of "dementia" here. Physical illness refers to anything that renders sexual intimacy permanently impossible. (But note, where Bucer saw a legitimate grounds for divorce, Luther saw an opportunity to serve God by serving the spouse in his or her illness, and thus the opportunity to live up to one's salvation, p. 295.) Both Bucer and Luther in the end agreed that indefinite impotence was grounds.

The Pauline Privilege:
Apparently at the time among Protestants, a divorce was permitted when an unbelieving partner no longer wished to live together with the believing partner (i.e., desertion; 1 Cor. 7:15). But this only applied if the deserting spouse was an unbeliever from the beginning. If he or she becomes an unbeliever after the marriage, then the only recourse is legal separation, with no possibility of remarriage for either parties.

Bucer took umbrage with this common interpretation: if an unbelieving spouse divorces, he argued, then the believing spouse is free to remarry. Unbelief in this instance is seen in the fruit—one who leaves his spouse for unsanctioned reasons and divorces shows him- or herself to be an unbeliever, in violation of God's Word (see Eph. 5:1–33). Also, "the refusal of sexual communion is disobedience to a divine mandate and therefore unbelief" (p. 304).

Insofar as there are no other grounds for divorce, the believer is absolutely not permitted to leave the unbelieving partner. The believing partner must persevere as long as possible. Only when the other categorically refuses intercourse and to show love and fidelity and there's no longer any hope for change, can the believing spouse divorce (p. 306).

Physical and Emotional Abuse:
In instances of physical abuse that is habitual and harsh, the spouse may divorce (these qualifiers of "habitual" and "harsh" will no doubt run against the grain of our modern sensibilities. We would say now—and rightly so—to take every legal measure possible to extricate yourself from an abusive relationship, before it gets physical). Wherein a spouse becomes a tyrant (emotional abuse), a dissolution of the marriage is permitted. The courts are bound to deliver the victim from unjust tyranny (pp. 308–309).
"God instituted marriage so that a [spouse] would receive love and faithfulness form the other and not ugly language, pain, and grief." The divorce is legit if a spouse receives nothing but "ranting, pounding, beating, pain, and agony" (p. 309).

Special Calling:
Divorce is permitted in response to a special call, that is, to a monastery or nunnery. Very few people are called in this manner, noted Bucer.

A legitimate divorce may be procured in response to a serious crimes perpetrated by a spouse—murder, sedition, and abortion are noted as examples by Bucer.

* * *

In all of these instances, it is important to note Bucer's premise: an attempt must be made—at least initially—to bring about reconciliation. Yet the innocent party must not be forced so to do. If there are legitimate grounds for divorce, a Christian must forgive (without continuing to tolerate toxic behavior and habits), but that does not necessarily entail staying. If he or she finds that they are not able, on account of what has happened, to love the other with an open mind and heart and to maintain full communion of life with him or her, then no obligation to stay married remains.

Even the guilty can remarry before God, according to Bucer, provided they repent (pp. 317–18). Perhaps somewhat contradictorily, even if they don't repent, he thought it was probably better that they do remarry, despite his recognition of 1 Corinthians 7:10, which suggests that a spouse who leaves the other for an invalid reason must remain unmarried (p. 318). But Bucer thought that marriage as a divine mandate trumps all the other concerns put forth about remarriage (p. 321). Why? Because, as I wrote in the previous post, in the end he thought it better before God to sin less by remarrying than to "fornicate."

06 February 2017

Divorce—Cowardice or Courage?

It's important to state every so often along the way in the course of this divorce discussion that it wasn't completely one-sided. My ex, depending on your point of view, was either a coward or courageous. But our relationship had died years before, not least due to my own words and actions. 

I was holding on because I had a bottom-line commitment to the ideal of the lifelong marital bond (absent adultery and abuse—but even then I had thought in theory that reconciliation was best). We did not share that fundamental starting point, apparently. But this presses into all sorts of other questions, perhaps most importantly the questions revolving around—from a Christian perspective—what constitutes a viable divorce beyond adultery and abuse (emotional or physical). And this is, again, where Martin Bucer comes in.

The vertigo from being left is felt as a result of the shock of its coming, even if you had seen it coming for a while. Unrequited love may or may not be wrapped up in that shock, and of course that just sucks. There are no more words to add to that kind of pain. Suffice to say, you will read Le Morte d'Arthur, Remains of the Day and The Sun Also Rises in a new way.

Rejection, shame, wounded pride—all of these get mixed in there too. I was truly a mess for a time (fighting off apostasy as much as anything else), but I still don't think I can put a finger on the precise feelings that made up why I was reacting the way I did. I thought perhaps love for my ex had something to do with it, but even now I'm not so sure. Perhaps it was more a love of what was lost: the best that was yet to be, would never be. I do know this much: the event unfolding before me went against a core value—an identity marker—and that goes a long way to at least helping me understand the devastating affect it was having on me at the time.

We must not forget that the leaver has also experienced the pain the leavee is feeling. They've simply walked that path already, and probably more slowly. The one being left is playing catch-up in this instance, and that's also a part of what makes the upheaval so intense. The resolved (or seemingly cold) nature of the leaver jars the leavee, but, again, that's likely because the leaver turned the corner long ago. If grace is every going to be a factor in your handling of divorce, continually humanizing the other is necessary (hypocrisy alert!), which, of course, doesn't entail winking at toxic behavior.

And speaking of human dignity, Bucer's views on divorce and remarriage were meant to uphold exactly that. If you're unfamiliar with the going narrative, the gist is that the majority of Reformers stuck to the Catholic line on divorce, even if they jettisoned the notion that marriage is itself a sacrament—preferring instead to locate it within the context of a civil institution rather than within the church. If the late medieval Catholic teaching on divorce is flattened out to be that the church simply never recognized divorce a vinculo (a total divorce), even in response to adultery (where it would grant a divorce a mensa et a thora, i.e., a legal separation), then that doesn't hold up. Most of the early Reformers did indeed affirm a complete divorce in response to adultery.

So, while it's not a total mistake to consider Bucer's views as more liberal than say, Calvin's or Luther's, it's very easy to overstate the case. Mere freedom wasn't his major concern; caring for abandoned women and children was. In short, the majority of Reformers—Calvin and Luther included—argued that divorce is allowed in certain scriptural cases, in which the "innocent" party is permitted to remarry another person (and I can only think of a very few instances where one party is, indeed, "innocent"). Bucer said the same (and he did interpret those biblical reasons more liberally than others), and he added that remarriage is also allowed across the board, because in the end he thought it better before God to sin less by remarrying than to "fornicate."

It's worth noting that it was in response to the perceived reformational laxity with respect to divorce and remarriage that the Council of Trent upped its ante on the indissolubility of marriage. (The oddity that is seen among—in my experience—the patriarchal Reformed crowd nudges up against this view, which admittedly gets its impetus from WCF 24.) This brief article in the January/February 2017 issue of Christianity Today covers the ground fairly well, even if it necessarily lacks nuance at key points: "Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli." Here's a more in-depth historical overview from the old Winnipeg Theological Seminary's Trinity Journal: "Divorce and Remarriage from the Early Church To John Wesley." (Note the bit about John Milton, who was undoubtedly influenced by Bucer in this regard.)

I find that I've chased a few other rabbits in this post, so allow me to pick up with Bucer immediately in the next one.

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