With the passing of the divorce referendum in Malta the other day, the Philippines will soon be the only country in the world where divorce is not legal. Because of the great influence of the Roman Catholic Church, two divorce bills have languished in the Philippine Congress for 13 years. But the great debate on the two bills will start again this week.
A few years back, I was talking with the wife of a Filipino pastor who mentioned that her husband just conducted a mass wedding ceremony for six couples who had been living together--and had born children--for many years. As we discussed this subject, it became apparent that she also noticed the epidemic of sexual immorality in the Philippines, not only in the cities, but even in far-flung villages. Couples, especially those in slum villages, start living together without getting married, on the pretext that getting married is too expensive for them. This is a lame excuse, because it is obvious that these people, especially the men, spend most of their money on cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, gambling and many other destructive vices.
Up to the 1970s, unwed mothers would commonly be disowned by their families, and couples living together would be a huge scandal in any community. With the increase in overseas Filipino workers (11 million OFWs), especially in the West, sexual corruption slowly crawled in. For the families of those OFWs, financial progress comes at a huge price--broken families, adultery, wayward children--perhaps millions of them.Millions of men and women, separated from their legal spouses, live with other men and women, consigned to their hopeless situation because there is no legal divorce. They bear and raise their own "illegitimate " children. Often, however, the men abandon their legal wives and children because they are not held accountable by the courts due to lack of legal divorce or separation proceedings.
To be sure, annulment can be filed, mostly under the pretext of "psychological incapacity. This option, however, is only for the very rich, and this is why only 8,000 annulment cases are filed annually, a drop in the bucket compared with tens of thousands, perhaps millions, who are separated and living together with other partners. The end result of all of this is the epidemic of social ills, sexual immorality, violent crime, poverty and general lawlessness.
Difficulties for a True Church
And the church is not immune from this epidemic. It is obvious that there are many men and women in the church today who live together illegally and immorally, and the reason is that he/she is married to a different person, but separated, and therefore cannot marry their current partner. This could be their sad situation for many years, and so they have children. And because they are not married, it is often all too easy for them to find new relationships. I have even heard that in some churches, there are men and women living in this kind of relationship who are allowed to be elders and teachers, partake of the Holy Communion, and have their children baptized.
What is the church to do? A church, to be faithful to Scriptures, has to exercise church discipline over its officebearers and members alike. Those who are in unlawful relationships are not to be allowed to be teachers and officebearers in the church. Because they are to be regarded as unbelievers, their children are not to be baptized. But these measures are always extremely painful to the church.
Most Filipinos have been schooled all their lives about the sanctity of marriage, knowing it is Jesus himself who commanded us, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt 19:6). To be sure, historic Protestantism recognize this holy and lifelong institution, but they also saw the total depravity of man's heart. Thus, they realize that God has provided a solution to those marriages that are seriously defiled and irreparably damaged by human rebellion against God, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8).
Chapter 24 of the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the Reformed position regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage. It affirms that marriage is to be between one man and one woman; a Christian must be married only to another believer; it is lawful for the offended party to seek a divorce in case of adultery and desertion only; and since the bond of marriage is considered dissolved after a lawful divorce, the offended party is allowed to marry another.
The above principles are grounded on Jesus' words, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt 19:9). This implies that divorce—and remarriage afterwards—on the grounds of sexual immorality are lawful, and thus are not considered adultery. Paul adds willful desertion as another ground for divorce, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (1 Corinthians 7:15).
The Westminster theologians recognized that God has clear guidelines in the matter of marriage, divorce and remarriage. They recognized that sinful man would abuse any gracious act of God, presuming that his grace is license to do whatever is right in their own eyes. He was gracious to the Jews in allowing divorce, but they then divorced their wives for any other cause in addition to sexual immorality and desertion. This was not God's intention from creation, and it was not his intention when he granted them lawful divorce due to their hardness of heart.
If Filipinos legalize divorce, how can they avoid its abuse such as what the Jews did, and what many countries are doing today?
Putting the Brakes on the Abuse of Divorce
Lawful annulment in the Philippines is commonly granted on the grounds of minority (a party below 18 even with the consent of parents), lack of authority of the solemnizing officer, absence of a marriage license, polygamy, mistaken identity, and incestuous marriage. Incest and polygamy fall in the lawful categories of sexual immorality and desertion, but the others are merely legalities. The only reason why annulment in the Philippines has not become an epidemic like divorce in the West is that only the very rich can afford the legal process.
If divorce is legalized, how is the church going to prevent its abuse, as can be seen in many other countries? Here, the church has a great responsibility. First, premarital and marriage counseling is a must. One of the major reasons for failed marriages is the lack or absence of Biblical counseling. Second, the church has to be careful in determining whether the divorce is based on the Biblical grounds of sexual immorality or desertion. This process has to be done when a member files for divorce or intends to marry a divorced person; both cases have to have lawful grounds for divorce. Third, a member is to be subject to the elders of the church, and if he or she disobeys the determination and advise of the elders, he or she is to be subject to church discipline. Fourth, women who become "widows " (and their young children) because of divorce must be cared for by the benevolence of the church.
If Filipinos are so concerned that legalizing divorce will end up like the instant “no-fault” divorces in America (after all, they have heard of Britney Spears' one-day marriage), grounds for divorce can be restricted to the above illegalities, plus adultery and desertion only. As in Malta, couples might be required to be legally separated for four years before they are qualified to file for divorce. What must be avoided are Pandora's boxes such as “psychological incapacity” and “irreconcilable differences.”
Historically, the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines has always been a tough nut to crack in the matter of divorce, and most of the 80 percent of Filipinos who are Catholics remain loyal to their church's policies. But this intransigence and ignorance of the Biblical grounds for divorce has had disastrous effects on the Filipino family, particularly on women and children. It had also put many churches in difficult situations when its wayward members decide that the most viable option for them is to continue their sinful relationships.