Today, we are talking about divorce. It is something that has affected me personally in ways that I am only now beginning to fully appreciate. Both of my parents were divorced before they married one another. My wife was divorced before she and I were married. Several friends of ours have experienced divorce. I care deeply about Christ’s teachings on the subject, but I also care deeply about the people who have been affected by this tragic and all too common occurrence.
The Two Minds of the Church on Divorce
Make no mistake, divorce is a tragedy. But the church has been of two minds about the issue in the last several decades. On the one hand, we know that God never meant for marriages to end the way that they so often do in our culture. We know that Jesus forbade divorce in most circumstances, and we know that to violate his commands is to commit adultery (cf. Matthew 5:31-32; 19:1-2).
Jesus’ conviction on the issue is rooted in his understanding of God’s intent for marriage; that is, it is rooted in his interpretation of the Old Testament. But there is something else at work—something that may be even more foundational to Jesus’ message on divorce. God is defined by His loving character (cf. Exodus 34:6-7; 1 John 4:8), and God expects the creatures He made (and especially the members of His family) to reflect that love in their relationships with one another.
The implications of this conviction are beautifully expressed by Warren Barfield’s song, “Love Is Not a Fight.” Here are just a few lines from the first verse for you to consider:
Love is not a place
To come and go as we please
It’s a house we enter in
And then commit
To never leave
So lock the door behind you
Throw away the key
We’ll work it out together
Let it bring us to our knees
And yet, we also know the pain of watching people we love struggle through marriages that lack love. Worse, we have seen too many people (particularly women) trapped in unhealthy or abusive relationships because of economic hardships, social taboos, or legal obstacles. We have even seen people use Jesus’ words to harm the very people he was trying to protect.
It is difficult for us to countenance bringing down the judgment of God upon people who are trapped in unhappy marriages. Won’t such condemnation only bring them more pain? What they really need, we often think, is a supportive environment where they can recover from the trauma that they have experienced.
Divorce Hurts People
So how do we work our way through the minefield of confusing emotions and contradictory motivations related to divorce? How do we, in our churches and in our world, be faithful to what God has told us and be loving to those whose marriages are in trouble?
It seems to me that we need to begin with the acknowledgement that divorce hurts people. It hurts the two people involved. It hurts any kids they may have. It hurts their networks of family and friends. And this is true regardless of the reasons behind the breakup.
This is an important fact to remember because people often feel that ending the marriage is the only way to end their pain. The logic is not difficult to work out. “This person I am married to is hurting me. If I get rid of them, then I will stop hurting.” The problem is that it just does not work that way. My wife likes to say, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Her point is that just getting away from the person is not going to solve all of “your” problems. Each person carried pain, brokenness, etc. into the relationship, and they will carry those things out of it—along with all the negative issues they picked up from the relationship itself.
Healthy Marriages Are the Goal
Having said all of this, we also need to understand that it isn’t just the act of ending the marriage that hurts. It is all of the things that led up to that severing of the relationship. For this reason, Christians need to understand that just keeping people married to one another is not enough. Our goal should be to help people create and maintain healthy relationships.
A lot could be written about how we go about achieving this goal. The truth is that I do not have the space or the expertise to fully explore this issue here. But it strikes me that in order to help people be better spouses, we need to help them be better disciples of Jesus. Rather than just wooing them with the Song of Solomon or beating them over the head with Ephesians 5:21-32, we need to help them see how these texts are woven into a larger vision for human life. Moreover, we need to give them skills for applying that grander vision within the context of their marriage.
It also strikes me that we need to get over our phobia of the social sciences. Yes, these are human endeavors, which means that they are inevitably marred by human sinfulness and weakened by human frailty. Nevertheless, God created us to learn, and we should use human learning to help us improve the lives of our fellow human beings. That means we need to use the tools provided to us by psychology, sociology, and social work to help people have better marriages.
Prevention May Be the Best Cure
There is another point that we need to consider, and it is related to the call to help people build and maintain healthy marriages. It is often easier to prevent a problem than it is to fix it once it occurs. For this reason, we need to do some serious thinking about how we can prevent marital dysfunction before it occurs.
A lot of churches invest heavily in premarital counseling and education, and I think that this is a good thing. But I will never forget what an experienced counsellor told me about the subject. “It doesn’t work,” she said. Why? Because, by the time that people come to you for counseling, they have already decided to marry one another. They are already too emotionally bonded to one another to do anything else—even if it is clear to their counselor and all their friends that the relationship is unhealthy.
I am not qualified to evaluate the wisdom of my friend’s assessment. (As far as I know, she still does premarital counseling.) But it did get me thinking. What else can churches do to help people avoid the relational dysfunction that leads to divorce? A couple of ideas came to mind. First, we can do everything in our power to give children a safe, healthy place to grow and thrive. Perhaps this will, in some small way, help them develop healthy criteria for determining the attractiveness of a potential mate and healthy ways of dealing with feelings of attraction. Second, we can help dispel unrealistic expectations about marriage. We do this by sharing the truth about married life with our single friends. We need to let them know that marriage takes work and that it isn’t always pretty.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
* What do you think churches can and should do to prevent marital dysfunction? Are there specific practices that you have seen be effective? Are there practices that churches should avoid?
* How should churches handle the discovery that there is a physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive relationship in the congregation? Can these marriages be saved without doing irreparable harm to the victims of abuse? How can the church engage the situation in a way that is consistent with its convictions and that fulfills its obligations under the law?
* Are there instances when a church should sanction or even encourage a divorce? If so, how should this decision be made, and how should it be communicated to the parties involved?