Mailbag #27: What to Do in the Case of an Unbiblical Divorce; How to Respond to the Threat of Violence in the Church


What to Do in the Case of an Unbiblical Divorce »
How to Respond to the Threat of Violence in the Church »

Dear 9Marks,

A married couple in my congregation are having some problems. Both of them are believers. There have been no acts of adultery to my knowledge. However, they are committed to seeking a divorce. I’ve offered to meet with them for counseling but neither are interested. I know they have no biblical grounds for divorce, but how am I to respond as a pastor other than by offering counsel and prayer? If the couple does go through with the divorce, what does a faithful pastoral response look like? Thanks for your help with this difficult question.

Anonymous, Arkansas


Ordinarily, a faithful pastoral response to an unbiblical divorce will involve counsel and prayer, as you say, but eventually it will move toward church discipline. Jesus could not have been clearer: “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). Except for sexual immorality or abandonment (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:15), the latter of which I understand to include abuse, Christians must not divorce their spouses. Therefore, my own church would eventually excommunicate anyone who divorces his or her spouse without such grounds.

Now, getting to that point will take some time. There will be lots of questions and lots of counsel and lots of remonstrations before our church would pursue formal discipline. If you’ve been a pastor any length of time, you know to receive few things in a broken marriage at face value, at least in the first few conversations. Often there is more hidden dirt underneath, and that can take time to emerge. And certainly we would not excommunicate the spouse who is resisting the divorce.

I said “ordinarily” at the beginning of this email because I understand your church may not be ready to practice church discipline at all. You need to do a lot of prep and teaching work before you take any case of discipline before the whole church. And I have no idea if your church is ready for it or not. That’s another conversation. But assuming your church understands and practices discipline, then, yes, an unlawful divorce is a fairly standard candidate for pushing slowly toward discipline.

Assuming the elders had already pleaded with the couple for some time to repent by working toward reconciliation, my own elders would generally move to “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17) once the couple actually files the divorce papers. It’s the filing that makes their intended divorce “public” or official. Up to that point we assume it’s still undecided. In a members’ only meeting, then, the elders would give the church a very brief overview of the circumstances, and then ask anyone who has a relationship with the couple to encourage them toward repentance. And we’d ask the rest of the church to pray. Assuming nothing changes in the ensuing two months, the elders would then return to the church at the next regularly scheduled members meeting and recommend that the church remove the couple from membership by a majority vote.

Obviously the prayer and some measure of pursuit does not stop even if the congregation then votes to remove them. The purpose of the whole exercise, to be sure, is to warn them of the danger to their souls and to help draw them back toward redemption (1 Cor. 5:5). It’s also to save their marriage.

I pray this is useful.

Dear 9Marks,

What would be the proper response for churches to take when faced with the threat of violence by a person with a gun during a service or some other gathering of members? What responsibility do Christians have to the gunman as well as the members of the church? Businesses have workplace violence policies. Is this something churches should consider?

—Dan, Maryland


Yes, church leaders should devise a plan for how to respond to the threat of a gunman in its public gatherings, particularly if the church is in a location where such a threat seems more likely. Indeed, a church might even want to have a plan in place to stop such an intruder with authorized force, even to the point of using a firearm as a measure of final necessity. I would understand this to be a part of loving neighbor and maintaining justice. To make no credible attempt to stop such an intruder, I think, would be to participate in the injustice.

Obviously, this is a very complex and politically-fraught issue, even raising a bit of a stir in the “Christian press” of late. And brothers whom I love disagree with me. Therefore, I’d like to take a little more care in answering your question than I typically do in these mailbags.

The larger principle at play here is whether Christians can use lethal force for the sake of defending oneself or someone else, even if the Christian is not formally acting as an agent of the government. Personally, I believe that, in extraordinary circumstances, any citizen can act “in place of” the government in the government’s absence (e.g., where no officially recognized officer of the state can arrive at the crime scene quickly enough). I don’t make this argument based on the fact that, “in a democracy, we are all the government,” as I have heard others say. That would imply any of us could assume the mantel of government whenever we pleased. And no democratic constitution I have ever seen gives citizens the ability to do that. Rather, I believe Genesis 9:5-6 gives every human being, whether living in a democracy or not, the right to prevent a murder with requisite force, up to and including killing the assassin as a matter of last necessity.

To be sure, the verses in Genesis state the principle of justice in the language of retribution: “Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” But I believe the principle of retribution implies a principle of prevention, as in, “Whoever would shed the blood of man may be stopped (as a final necessity) by having his own blood shed.” And the rationale is the same—the person whose murder you would be preventing is made in God’s own image.

More foundationally, Genesis 9:5-6, a passage that I believe remains in effect until the final judgment, provides the license for governments to form (what Bruce Waltke calls “the legislation” which “lays the foundation of government by the state”). It authorizes governments to exist. But notice that the passage’s scope is slightly broader. It does not institutionally locate the principle of retribution for murder exclusively inside of governmental institutions, though I think that’s where the principle will principally be put into practice. And it is this lack of institutional specification, as well as the universal nature of the language (“whoever sheds…by man…”), that gives every human being not just the moral freedom but even the moral responsibility to act “in the place of government” in extreme situations.

Everyone is made in God’s image, says this passage. Everyone should therefore be protected by this principle of justice, and not just when a policeman or soldier happens to be present. And—here’s the kicker—everyone should feel obligated, responsible, duty-bound to help uphold this principle, each for their part. Verse 5 tells us three times that God “requires” all humanity to concern themselves with the principles of justice at stake here. The passage is not so much about a right to kill as it is about the obligation we all have to protect one another’s lives, each according to our abilities and assignments. That is not to say everyone is obligated to play the role of executioner. But it does license someone to play that role and obligates all to support it, including in extraordinary circumstances.

People sometimes say they would never pick up a gun because they feel the weight of the life they would be taking. Very good. But what of God’s requirement? Do you feel the weight of that? And what about the weight of the life you would be protecting? Why would you give a preference to weight of the guilty life over the innocent life? Could it be that, by refusing to protect the innocent life, you have chosen to take the comparative weighing of these two lives into your own hands instead of letting yourself be guided by God’s requirement? Have you made yourself a judge instead of a servant?

Certainly this does not mean that a person who uses lethal force to defend his neighbor is outside of the government’s jurisdiction. Since Scripture formally establishes the government as “an avenger” (Rom. 13:4), a government should carefully examine any actions of self- or neighbor-defense after the fact. Even more, God himself will examine any action of self- or neighbor-defense on Judgment Day. To say that every human has the ability, in extreme situations, to act “in the place of” government hardly means every human can act as a government unto him or herself. No! Such actions will always be subject to evaluation and to the principles of retribution themselves as carried out by the government and by God.

In short, if a man comes to kill either me or the person sitting next to me with a gun and I have the ability to stop this man with a gun, I believe that Genesis 9:5-6, not explicitly but implicitly, would have me stop this man even up to the point of killing him, again, as an obligation of justice and love. Furthermore, I believe that this reading of Genesis 9:5-6 matches our moral intuitions, as well as the moral intuitions of most governments. Most governments (I assume?) do not prosecute someone for killing in self- or neighbor-defense.

What about all those New Testament passages that say Christians must “turn the other cheek” and “leave vengeance to the Lord”? Does Genesis 9 no longer bind us? Well, the short and difficult answer is, we must, somehow, fulfill both sets of commands!

Of course, it’s no new thing for Christians to have to do the difficult work of simultaneously fulfilling those moral obligations which root in the creation order and its institutions (like marriage, family, and government) and those moral obligations which root in the new covenant and its institutions (the church and its offices). Somehow, Jesus would have us simultaneously forsake, even hate, our mothers and fathers (Mark 10:29-30; Luke 14:26) while also honoring our father and mother (Mark 10:19). Paul would tell us to fulfill our marital and vocational obligations as received in the created order of things, while also recognizing that they are not ultimate (1 Cor. 7). Jesus, again, would simultaneously have his disciples pay the temple tax, while recognizing that the present order of things is passing and that, as sons of the kingdom, they are free from the tax (Matt. 17:24-27).

For instance, let’s consider Jesus’ seemingly contradictory commands both to “honor” my father as well as to “forsake” my father. That does not mean that sometimes I must honor my father, and that sometimes I must forsake him. It means that I must always do both in a certain way. But what that will look like on any given occasion will be determined by a whole variety of factors. It might look like an act of obedience and it might look like an act of disobedience. It just depends.

Back to Genesis 9 and leaving vengeance to the Lord or turning the other cheek: The Christian is bound by both sets of commands—those rooted in a covenant given to all humanity through Noah and those rooted in a new covenant given to God’s special people—all the time. And what a Christian must actually do in any given situation, particularly when those obligations come into conflict, just depends. Sometimes a Christian might do one thing, sometimes another. If a man breaks into my house (or church) and tries to kill those whom I am able to defend, it would be positively unjust and unloving for me not to protect them, even if protecting them means taking that man’s life. Indeed, it could even bring shame on Jesus’ name if it is known that I did not protect them when I could have. If, however, I am standing in the arena and I am asked to acknowledge that Caesar or Hitler or ISIS is Lord or else be killed, the better thing to do is to forsake my life. That would better protect Jesus’ name.

Life in a fallen world will often place our God-given obligations into tension with one another. And there is a reductionism that tempts Christians to forsake one stream of obligations for the sake of another. We want “always this” or “always that” rule book answers. Yet often the answer can only be found through Wisdom’s case-by-case adjudications. Indeed, it’s these predicaments that should force us to our knees in daily supplication for wisdom (see Prov. 3:5-6; James 1:5-6). With regard to our conversation, it is reductionistic to always insist on passivity or always insist on retribution.

Back to your question, Dan. Yes, I believe churches do well to have plans in place for stopping violent intruders, just as churches should have plans for preventing child abuse in their children’s programs. To let a killer continue on his rampage would be unloving and unjust.

You might say, to kill the Sandy Hook killer at the beginning of his killing or even in that moment when the motion of his body signaled his irrevocable purpose would be an act of love to the children and their families and even to the killer himself. Yes, violence in a fallen world can be an act of love.

There is a long tradition of Christian pietism that will deny this, as will liberal progressivism. And they often do so by pointing toward imbalances in the other direction. But beware imbalanced views that gain a hearing by pointing to imbalances on the opposite side.

Further, I believe a person could do all this, and churches can prepare themselves, while simultaneously loving our enemy and turning the other cheek to those who would persecute us for our faith.

I pray this is useful and biblically faithful. If I am mistaken, I also pray that the Lord would teach us otherwise.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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