This month on Wesleyan Sermons we are highlighting a few thorny issues Wesleyans do not always agree on. While our discipline underlines the most significant aspects of what we believe, there is room for disagreement intentionally left in the discipline. Last week we asked how should Wesleyans preach about war? This week, how should Wesleyans preach about divorce?
Whether or not you are aware, there was a significant memorial to the memorial of The Wesleyan Church’s denominational discipline this year regarding divorce. The primary text of the memorial reads this way:
To preserve the sanctity of the home by honoring Christ in every phase of family life and by demonstrating Christlike love, always avoiding spousal or child abuse, violence, including physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse toward one’s spouse or family members, as well as sexual infidelity or desertion, any of which warrant church discipline for the offender and may justify separation or divorce if true repentance and appropriate counseling cannot bring about reconciliation, and by living peacefully with one another, thereby building up one’s spouse and family members through word and deed, and encouraging the nurture and education of the children in the Christian faith so as to bring them early to the saving knowledge of Christ.
The aim of this memorial is to allow violently abused spouses a way out of marriages whose trust fabric has been torn, and whose continuation puts the victim at risk of ongoing violence. The vast majority of the representatives of The Wesleyan Church voted for this memorial seeing it as progress toward a more loving stance especially for battered women. There were however vocal dissenters. Their argument was that the memorial opened the door for easy divorce. Some were troubled since they wanted to situated the authority of scripture in individual texts literally interpreted rather than a more broadly biblical approach.
Many Wesleyan pastors have been counseling people toward divorce in habitually abusive situations for decades. Others have sought to be compassionate, but have only offered separation as a last resort for battered spouses. Regardless of which side of that issue we were on, Wesleyan pastors now need to think through how to preach about divorce. Most churches preach about marriage regularly. Many have a yearly marriage series (though not a yearly singleness series). Few Wesleyan churches preach about divorce in an extended or focused way. Yet in every section of every church sit divorcees.
Here are some beginning attempts at guiding rules of thumb for preaching about divorce from a Wesleyan perspective:
1. Offer them Christ. This is Wesley’s watch phrase to his preachers but it is richer than it first sounds. He saw Christ as prophet, priest, and king. The prophet proclaims difficult even painful truth regardless of the popularity of the truth. LIke it or not, The Wesleyan Church still opposes no-fault divorce, falling out of love, and other cultural narratives that make divorce the norm and not the abnormality. The priest offers healing and forgiveness to the wounded and broken soul. Every divorced person is wounded and in need of healing. Even those who divorce for wrong reasons stand in need of the proclaimed mercy of God. The king provides leadership and authoritative guidance for life. People need to know how to live given the choices they have already made or have to make soon. When you preach on divorce, which part of Christ do you lean toward naturally? Which office of Christ do you need to be intentional about if you are going to include it?
2. Preach the whole counsel of God. Preaching the whole counsel of God is the Wesleyan phrase that indicates our biblical practical theology is whole-canon in its scope. The danger of expositional preaching is that it turns verses into proof texts, passages into “texts” separate from the canon, and scriptural truth gets separated from its scriptural counterpoint. Jesus taught us this in the way he handled pharisaical teachings on Sabbath. What passages do you normally forget to think of when you consider preaching on divorce? Surely no sermon can truly cover the whole counsel, but it should take the whole counsel into account. And if one sermon leaves the issue anemically addresses, surely a society in which half of all marriages end in divorce could use a little more scriptural guidance than one week.
3. Preach only love. Wesley once said that if holiness was anything other than loving God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul and loving one’s neighbor as oneself he wanted nothing to do with it. Wesleyans are not legalists, not when they are truly Wesleyan. We are love-alists. To use more Augustinian language, the rule of faith provides the boundaries within which our preaching is kept in orthodox check. The rule of love, however, challenges any interpretation that fails to demonstrate a rich sense of love. Our people must be called to holy love of others: holy love of their enemies, holy love of their exes, and even holy love of their shame filled selves.
What guidelines would you add for preaching about divorce from a Wesleyan perspective?