Judy Norris was a Reflections writer for Christian Standard in 1980. This piece about divorce was the first of four columns she wrote that year. It elicited several letters with such comments as “courageous and necessary” and “have her write more.”
Her obituary from 2016 said Norris “wrote several books and articles for Standard Publishing, the Billy Graham Association and College Press. An accomplished musician and speaker, she used her skills as pianist, soloist, and choir director at numerous women’s and senior retreats.” We have included her 1980 bio at the end of this column.
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Is Divorce the Unpardonable Sin?
By Judy Norris
March 2, 1980; p. 15
The officer in whose home I was staying asked, “Do churches of Christ and Christian churches consider divorce the unpardonable sin? I’ve only been a member of the Christian church for about five years. The idea of the restoration movement is the sanest, most thought-provoking plan I’ve ever heard. But it seems to me we’re also terribly illogical about some things.”
“Would you mind explaining?”
“A child in this community was killed by a driver’s carelessness. Even the parents were forgiving, expressing sympathy for the guilt that driver must feel. But one of our finest young men married a deeply wronged divorcee—one who was baptized after her divorce—and that couple can’t teach or lead in prayer in any service. Although the man has a Bible college education, he was told he can never become an elder or deacon in any church of Christ or Christian church. Is that true?”
Bill, my husband, preached an evangelistic meeting in another church a while back. Both of us were impressed with a fine couple who attended the services each night, Bibles in hand, searching the Scriptures as Bill preached. So we asked about them.
“They’re one of the most dedicated couples we have. He laid off work this entire week to attend the services. Lost a lot of money, for he has a very fine job. They’re new converts. He does quite a bit of calling to win people to the Lord. I’d like to have a church full of people like him. Too bad he can never be an elder or deacon!” the minister explained.
“Why can’t he?” I asked.
“He has a divorce in his background.” The minister shook his head. “It’s such a shame. He’s a truly dedicated man, a new man in Christ.”
I was speaking for a women’s retreat. A lovely young woman with the face of an angel played the piano. The song leader introduced a couple of songs for us to learn, compositions of our accompanist. They were beautiful, easy to sing and simple. I commented upon the pianist’s outstanding talent to the director.
“She’s a wonderful person, too. I get so angry sometimes about the way she’s treated at our church.”
“She’s only allowed to play for something like this, never for a church worship service. She’s a trained kindergarten teacher, but isn’t permitted to help with preschoolers in our Sunday school.”
“She was married to a monster who deserted her when she became pregnant. She finally divorced him. The court couldn’t even find him to serve the papers. But now the elders won’t let her do anything!” My informant’s face flushed with the intensity of her emotion. “Sometimes I think we’re trying to out-Pharisee the Pharisees!”
Another young woman, almost hysterical with fear, told me how her husband had threatened her life and the lives of their children. She sobbed out a question. “What shall I do? I don’t believe in divorce. I think it’s wrong, But I have a responsibility for the lives of our children, too!” She opted for separation, urging her husband to seek counseling.
I told her story to a brotherhood leader whose reaction was, ‘‘Oh, yes, every time someone wants to get out of a difficult situation it’s so easy to say, ‘I’m doing it for the sake of the children.’ She should have hung in there. After all, marriage is ‘until death do us part!’”
I walked away with no comment, thinking, “Death might well have ended it for everyone concerned. Does this guy ever read the newspaper?”
TRUE STORIES—Each of these stories is true. I could add many more. As I speak for women’s retreats and rallies, I hear at least one similar story each time, sometimes more. I never offer any advice to such sufferers, only a listening ear and an assurance of God’s love. But my heart is often troubled and discouraged by the way church leaders add to the heartache by condemnation.
Do we believe baptism really cleanses us from all sin? The first two persons mentioned were baptized after the divorce and remarriage had taken place. Was every sin except divorce washed away? Does that say for us, “Divorce is the unpardonable sin”?
The man who laid off work to attend the evangelistic meeting is served each Sunday morning by deacons who were conspicuous by their absence all week at the special services. Because their lives bear no tragic marks of divorce, are they fit to sit in a meeting making decisions for God’s people while that dedicated man is not?
The young woman, so talented, so willing, and ready to serve God, who played for the retreat—does a deserting husband make her the town’s “scarlet woman”? She writes songs, nothing but gospel. She’s rearing her own child in that congregation whose leaders have labeled her “unworthy to teach our children.” Is this young woman a threat? Are the elders of that congregation declaring divorce the unpardonable sin? Are no sinners teaching there? Haven’t all of us “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”?
Should the last young woman have “hung in there” even though a loaded gun might have ended things for her and her children? Is refusal to take responsibility for human life forgiveable while dissolution of a marriage is not?
Each of the persons I’ve described to you impressed me by a depth of commitment and love rarely seen. In reflecting upon them, I recalled the story of the dinner Jesus attended at the home of a Pharisee. Remember how the Pharisee questioned Jesus’ qualifications as a prophet because He was kind to that woman with the alabaster jar? Jesus’ comment to the woman? “Thy faith hath saved thee. Go in peace.” To the questioning Pharisee, “But to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.”
REAL ISSUES—I realize our culture has become frighteningly immoral, that some absolutes need to be declared. I also know what Jesus said about divorce. However, I can’t help wondering if our Lord, who defended breaking some of the laws of the Mosaic dispensation, intended to be setting up an unbreakable legal system. The Pharisees hated Him because He refused to follow the party line. Was the song leader right? Are we trying to “outPharisee the Pharisees”?
I also know the requirements for elders and deacons as the apostle Paul lists them. Do we enforce what we have come to consider legal requirements (from the apostle who carefully delineates the failure of legal systems to save anyone!) on every virtue Paul lists? Does every elder, deacon and preacher control his children perfectly? What about opening our homes to guests? How about teaching? Do we have no elders, deacons or preachers who worship the almighty dollar? None who covet? None who start church fights?
Tell me. “In churches of Christ and Christian churches, is divorce the unpardonable sin?” Have we become so Pharisaical that our own self-righteousness causes us to negate love? Pray about it.
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JUDY NORRIS is the daughter of a Christian minister, Frederick S. Dowdy; and the wife of a Christian minister, William O. Norris. Born in Norwalk, Ohio, she attended Bethany College, Butler University, and West Liberty State College in West Virginia. She and her husband, Bill, have three children and five grandchildren. An active church worker, Mrs. Norris has also been engaged in community and educational projects. About twelve years ago, she began freelance writing. Numerous articles have been published as well as five books. Two other book manuscripts are nearing completion. Judy travels frequently speaking for women’s retreats, rallies, and convention workshops.