Dear Friend of Catholic Answers:
Some years ago I participated in debates with Bill Jackson, head of a Fundamentalist ministry called Christians Evangelizing Catholics. Our last debate was in 1993 in Denver, during World Youth Day. I devoted a chapter to Jackson in my first book, "Catholicism and Fundamentalism."Jackson appears to be in semi-retirement now. At his web site he provides what he terms a "personal testimony" on divorce and remarriage. He says:"My first wife, Norah, divorced me in February 1979 and remarried in March 1979. Before the divorce, I endeavored in every way possible to stop it, including refusing to sign the decree. "In November 1992 I married Lucy [his second wife]. She informed me in July 1995 that a divorce [from Jackson] had been finalized, although I wasn't notified by the court of a pending or completed divorce action. Again, I did not sign any divorce decree but, if it was done, it was unilateral."As of June 2003 [the time of his writing] Lucy has not, to my knowledge, remarried. I still consider myself bound to her and will continually be open to reconciliation as the Lord undertakes. If she responds to this reconciliation, I pray that I will be able to help her fulfill all of God's will in her life. If she doesn't respond, I pray I will be all I can be for Jesus."Jackson uses an eight-step argument when discussing divorce and remarriage. Let's see how that argument stacks up against Catholic teaching."
- Basic principle: It is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18), assuming, of course, that any union be scripturally correct." Jackson does not explain what he means by "scripturally correct." He may have in mind what Fundamentalists call the "principle of separation," which is based on 2 Corinthians 6:14: "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers." One might supplement this verse with 1 Corinthians 3:9: "Marry only in the Lord." To Fundamentalists of Jackson's stripe, this means not only that one should not marry a non-Christian but also that one should not marry the wrong sort of Christian. The wrong sort includes Catholics, whom Fundamentalists such as Jackson do not consider to be Christians at all, but also most Protestants."
- God's provision of marriage is meant to be a complete, life-long union (Gen. 2:24.)" So far as it goes, this is in accord with Catholic teaching, but the Church puts a different emphasis here. Not only is marriage "meant to be" indissoluble, it actually is indissoluble. Once a valid, sacramental marriage has been made, it cannot be undone. Jackson's phrasing leaves a distinction between what is meant to be and what is. He is getting ready to argue that sometimes what is meant to be does not pan out."
- It is possible for a man or woman, in disobedience to God, to contract a divorce (Matt. 5:32)."Here Jackson goes awry. If a Christian obtains a civil divorce, that does not end a true marriage--at least not in Catholic eyes. In Jackson's eyes, our Lord has provided an exception in Matthew 5:32. Jackson is relying on a translation that says "except for adultery," but such translations are erroneous.The New American Bible handles the passage fairly well. Its rendering is "unless the marriage is unlawful," and its notes say that our Lord was referring to a situation in which parties who were ineligible to marry (as when they are too closely related) attempted to marry anyway and held themselves out as being married.Other commentators say the apparent exception refers to situations in which couples cohabit or are in some other irregular state. In all these cases there would be no valid marriage, so the parties would be free to separate from one another. "
- While God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), both the Hebrew and Greek words for divorce show it to entail an actual cessation of the married state--'keriythuwth,' a cutting (of the matrimonial bond); 'apolou,' to free fully."In Matthew 5 Jesus explains the leniency of the Mosaic Law and contrasts the perfected rule that will pertain under the New Covenant. Whether a divorce under the Mosaic Law effected "an actual cessation of the marital state" is immaterial now to the Christian. "
- A person who, against his will, is divorced is no more to be blamed than a man who, against his will, is murdered or robbed (1 Cor. 7:15)."Jackson is right here, but only in a limited sense. If one spouse walks out on the other, the spouse who is left behind is not guilty of the sin committed by the other. If one spouse seeks a civil divorce, the other is under no penalty of sin arising from that action. But Jackson persists in mistakenly thinking that a divorce ends a sacramental marriage."
- A person loosed from his wife is not to seek a wife (1 Cor. 7:27). Although he may be loosed by his partner, he is still bound to keep the wedding vows he made before man and God. He must love his wife until death. However, it would seem proper that if the party who divorces remarries, he is free from this obligation, for it is not right to love someone else's wife."There are multiple confusions here.In 1 Corinthians 7:27 Paul is talking about people choosing the best state through which to work out their religious lives. He recommends virginity (celibacy), but that does not apply to everyone. He asks, "Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek a separation." This means a man should not dump his wife out of misplaced zeal. He has a continuing duty toward her. Paul goes on to ask, in the same verse, "Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife." Here he is talking to widowers and advising them to adopt a life of celibacy. Note that he is not commanding them not to remarry. Remarriage after the death of one's spouse is permissible.Jackson errs when he says that if a man's wife marries someone else, the man is free to marry also. This presumes that her remarriage dissolves the original marriage to him. Not so. Her remarriage is only an attempted remarriage. In fact she has entered into an adulterous relationship, not a new marriage, even if the justice of the peace says otherwise.When he says "it is not right to love someone else's wife," Jackson makes a double error. First, the woman remains the man's own wife. Her attempted remarriage has not changed that fact. Second, even if she abandons him, the man should continue to love her and pray for her. Jackson almost makes it seem as though the husband should cease caring about his wife if she goes astray."
- A person who, against his will, is divorced is scripturally free to remarry if the party who contracted the divorce remarries." Tellingly, Jackson provides no scriptural reference here--and rightly so, since there is none. Nowhere does our Lord say a man may take a new wife if he is abandoned by his original wife."
- While most see a scriptural reason for a person who has been divorced to refrain from the office of pastor and deacon, there is no Scripture to prohibit that person from continuing in an active role in ministry under the auspices of the local church. The person who contracted the divorce should seek forgiveness from God and restoration of the marriage if at all possible."
Bill Jackson has had two wives walk out on him. One remarried a month after she divorced him. The second divorced him without even letting him know she was doing so. One must empathize with him, but that empathy should not lead one to accept his misconstrual of Scripture. Our Lord did not say what Jackson imagines him to say about divorce and remarriage.
His own case highlights the kinds of problems that arise from a married pastorate or, in the Catholic analogue, a married priesthood. Should Jackson be debarred from serving as a minister in his denomination? I suppose he would not have brought up the issue unless some in his congregation had said that he should have stepped down because he was divorced, even though he was not to blame for the divorce.
When a moral problem occurs in one department of life, its effects may be seen in other departments. A minister's wife abandons him, and that affects his status as a minister. Similar things have happened when ministers' children have gone bad. "If a man can't keep control of his own household, why should he have control over our congregation?" It is an oft-heard question (although heard more often in years past, perhaps).
I wish Jackson well. He certainly is more principled than many of his co-religionists (and, sorry to say, many of mine). He knows divorce is wrong and believes he needs to maintain loyalty to his wife so long as she is his wife. He errs when he argues that divorce actually ends a marriage, but, at least in sentiment if not in theory, he is not all that far from the Catholic understanding.