Divorce: The Elephant in the Church


Disclaimer: 
I am not pro-divorce. I am pro-marriage. As a matter of fact I am a through and through complementarian. I believe and embrace fully that God created men and women equally. However, in that equality God made men and women differently with roles designed perfectly suited for each gender.

Complementarian marriages are Biblical marriages and every God-ordained marriage is made up of men and  women exhibiting different God given gifts that are expressed both in and out of the marriage context. In light of these differences the complementarian shoe looks different for every marriage. There is not a one size fits all definition or expression of a what a complementarian marriage should look like.

With that said, since we also live in a sin stained/sin saturated world, these roles are often obscured by broken people dealing with deep rooted pasts or current sins. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:22-33 what Biblical marriages ought to look like. Men are exhorted to lead their families, but not with an iron-sin-soaked dictatorial fist. Women are encouraged to submit to their husbands leadership, but when that leadership is not expressed in a Christ-centered-servant-type leadership , then it becomes painfully difficult.

Complementarian marriages are not unhealthy or oppressive. But in order for healthy complementarian marriages to exist, there needs to be two people intentionally seeking to look more like Christ in their individual lives, which then allows room for husbands and wives to dig their heels into their God given roles as they figure things out for the good, health and Christ honoring aspects of their marriage. 

Divorce occurs for many reasons but for this argument as seen through a complementarian perspective, there are 4 main breakdowns that can cause divorce:
1) one or both parties involved are unable or unwilling to seek to exemplify Christ individually in their own lives
2) Husbands embrace a form of leadership that is expressed with using either harsh words or violence or other some form of emotional blackmail or degradation
3) Wives become hard-hearted and are unwilling to entertain the idea of submission when the husband clearly exemplifies servant-leadership in the home
4) When neither husband nor wife are able to understand their God-given roles or they abuse their roles, and/or they allow sin to govern their hearts to the degree that roles and gifts become shoved to the wayside. 

Complementarian marraiges are beautiful, when they function properly, as God intended them. More often than not, marriages headed for divorce are not operating under a complementarian perspective. 

This blog post simply addresses the issue of divorce and in no way shape or form undermines the beauty of complementarian marriages. 

In this post, when I refer to the spouse that is continually breaking vows I am talking about the 
1) abusive (verbal or physical)
2) neglectful (not the kind that just forgets to take out the trash or struggles at maintaining a certain level of domesticity)
3) adulterous
4) the spouse that abandons his or her family.

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For seminary I had to read a book for my Marriage and Family Therapy class. We had several to choose from and I ended up choosing a book on divorce. I opened up the book with the assumption that the same guilt-inducing material was going to be regurgitated using the same scriptures that I often hear perpetuated concerning the issue of divorce and remarriage. Prior to opening the book, what was missing on my part, was a hopeful heart. However, I was surprisingly refreshed that a clear Biblical and contextual approach to this topic was being used. This blog post addresses what it could look like if the church loved the broken-due-to-divorce family as much as they loved the healthy one.


Being a layperson in the church, and future counselor, I hear what people say and think about divorce. Fellow church people love marriage and love the families that exemplify nice and tidy examples of marriage, so much so, they don’t know what to do, what to say, or how to love the families in their churches that are broken due to divorce. It’s as though broken families dealing with an impending divorce or single parent families who have divorce in their history are stamped with scarlet letters and it ought not to be that way. Christians should be the very ones that offer empathy, safety, and understanding when marriage vows are broken due to sin, but until that happens these victims of broken marriages or relationships will be ignored, ostracized, or gossiped about, oftentimes in church settings. 

Marriage is a beautiful institution created by God from the beginning of time. When husbands and wives are able, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to chose Christ-like sacrificial love towards one another, it allows the couple to see and grow in the often difficult but beautiful fruit of sanctification that takes place in their individual lives, which in turn affects their marriages and overall family structures

However, since we live in a sin-stained world, this does not always happen.

On top of that, I often hear from other Christians and the church overall a view of marriage that is highly elevated that sometimes I fear has become an idol of sort. I understand where that elevation comes from. There is a current cultural attack on the institution of marriage and it is getting dragged through the mud, mainly due to the gay marriage stance. This ongoing attack has made Christians hypersensitive and extremely on guard to protect God's first institution in marriage, but unfortunately, in that need to protect, the church seems to have put on pedestals examples of stable two parent homes and their families. As a result they do not seem to know what to do with all the divorced families, blended families and single parent families in the church. 

In all our Bible studies in our churches we have some how missed all the patterns of nontraditional examples of families and failed to recognize that God mightily used individuals from families that did not exhibit the perfect nuclear family. If we think that God can or will only use individuals that come from stable Christian two parent homes to declare his glory, we have put God in a box, which is a sin that needs to be repented of. 


The issue of divorce and remarriage has been an area of controversy and contention in the local church for quite sometime. Leaders and laypeople alike oftentimes don’t know how to maneuver around the issue of divorce and remarriage and because of this fact, people, mostly woman, are left wounded, not only by an abusive spouse but the church as well.  Church leaders and Christian friends often strongly exhort these women, and sometimes men, to stay in neglectful or abusive marriages to "persevere in suffering" in the marriage, most often at the expense of physical safety or physical/emotional health due to dealing with the chronic stress associated with an abusive marriage



David Instone Brewer has written an easy to read, yet remarkable book on the topic of divorce and remarriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church:Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities. With great scholarly insight, Brewer delves into all the questions and concerns that this topic brings up when the topic of divorce is discussed among Christians in the church. Brewer sheds light, with magnificent historical clarity and context into all the typical Bible verses that church leaders and lay people alike use to convince a woman that she needs to stay married, lest she sin because she wants out. He highlights the true definition of a broken marriage, which encompasses more than just adultery, but takes into account the totality of the breaking of vows, which are the vows that a couple professes to each other at the marriage ceremony.


The very first broken marriage, according to Brewer happened right after the fall of Adam and Eve. (p. 24). Due to their disobedience, they were thrown out of God’s perfect garden and soon they found themselves dealing with extreme difficulties, not necessarily because they were thrown out a perfect place to live, but because they changed. The change left them knowing good and evil, and in that knowing brought shame, pride, and a desire to do what they wanted to do.


Brewer also reminds us that the overall state of marriage today is certainly not a healthy one, but we would be would be wrong to assume that marriage problems are just a modern disease (p. 26).  If marriage problems are not new, the breaking of marriage vows, which leads to divorce, is not a modern issue either. Brewer’s historical discoveries let readers in on ancient divorce that occurred around 1800 B.C. If the husband decided to walk out on his wife and children, leaving her without any money, property, or maintenance, he had every right to do so. If he decided at a later date to come back and reclaim her and the children, he had every right to do so as well. She basically had to wait, more often than not in poverty for when and if he came back. However, as time went on, during the Middle Assyrian period (approx. 1400 B.C.) the laws changed a bit and allowed an abandoned wife to be free after five years (Brewer 2003, p. 27) 

When God raised up Moses and gave him the Law, it included a provision for those abandoned women. The Israelite women were better off than their contemporaries because God understood what sin does to marriages in a world saturated with sin. 

The most impressive differences between the laws of Israel and those of the ancient Near Eastern nations were the laws of remarriage. In other countries, it was difficult for an abandoned woman to get remarried, but in Israel this unfairness was corrected by giving her the right to receive a divorce certificate from her husband. “He writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house” (Deuteronomy 24:1) 


In other words, God understood the depravity of the human heart, and knew that women were often the victims of marriages that broke. He looked out for these women by including a provision of a certificate of divorce, allowing her freedom to remarry if the situation arose, which meant she was not bound to a life of poverty while waiting for the man that abandoned her to come back. Brewer writes:
 
The world that God made, including marriage, was perfect and wonderful, but everything was spoiled when we rebelled and became selfish. God told Adam and Eve that, as a result of their sin, growing food would become difficult and there would be problems in the relationship between men and woman (Genesis 3:16-19) . Many harvests failed, and many marriages too. When marriages failed, a woman, being more vulnerable, usually suffered most. The Law of Moses limited the damage that divorce inflicts by forcing a divorcing man to give his ex-wife a certificate that would allow her to remarry. (Brewer 2003, p. 31) 



God knew the effects that sin had on marriages and how it would provoke people to break their marriage vows, leading to divorce. God loved the divorced women enough to provide for her in the aftermath of broken vows, whether she broke the vows or he did. A certificate of divorce allowed room for either party to potentially repent of their sin due to the breaking of vows and allowed for life after divorce.

With that same kind of God-love the contemporary church  should provide a measure of safety and reassurance for those women that find themselves contemplating divorce due to broken vows. We should also be offering divorcees a seat at the table of fellowship by not treating them like second class citizens. 

More often than not, the abusive, neglectful or adulterous spouse is functioning pathologically. 
Due to a pastor's or small group leader's lack of training in this area, specifically in regards to recognizing pathological patterns of dysfunction or psychological manipulation that often happens in fractured marriages, the pastor or small group leader is unable to see these patterns of dysfunction and normally accepts superficial outward behavior as a litmus test for sincerity or repentance. As a consequence of this lack of training church leadership will vehemently cling to scripture, used out of an improper historical biblical context and accept the offending spouse's word that he or she is "sorry" and then proceed to pile on guilt and push the victimized wife or husband to forgive. This could potentially give an unrepentant husband or wife, with the unknowing assistance of church leadership the freedom to demand that their spouse forgive him or her of the continual abuse, neglect and adultery. Inevitably the true victim gets scrutinized for hesitating with their forgiveness and the victimizer gets let off the hook due to a deceptive apology.

What this book offers is a grounded in scripture rock solid approach to understanding Biblical grounds for divorce that goes beyond the traditional view that says adultery is the only reason Christians could get divorced. These five grounds are affirmed by Paul in the NT who understood the proper scriptural context of what constituted grounds for divorce according to OT applications. According to Brewer, the Holy Spirit has miraculously ensured that marriage vows used for a marriage ceremony during the time of Moses, in essence are the same marriage vows contemporary Christian couples use today. The breaking of these vows is serious business and ought not to be taken lightly.

These include: 
1) a refusal of conjugal love 
(will explain in depth what this means in another blog post) 
2) a refusal to provide food 
3) a refusal to provide clothes [1-3 would be considered neglect] 
4) adultery 
5) abandonment 


Again, too many times church leadership and Christian's alike will push that the only legitimate reason for divorce to occur is when someone commits adultery, using Jesus’ words in Mathew 5:32 as their base, and even in this instance, the victimized spouse is strongly reminded to try to forgive, and reconcile. Reassuring a victim of broken marriage vows, who is either being abused, neglected or is having to deal with ongoing adultery should not have to deal with any extra-added guilt or pressure to preserve his or her marriage. They should be given safety and reassurance that they are not sinning by wanting out of her broken marriage.

Brewer also spells out six Biblical principles as a way to understand the topic of divorce in the church. If Christian leadership and the average Christian in general can use these principles when ministering to people or friends contemplating divorce, they will be much more Biblically centered and grounded in scripture to help these victims of broken vows.  



1) Help both parties of a broken marriage understand that marriage is a lifetime contract between two 
partners and marriage vows are the stipulations of this contract.  
2) Help partners understand that part of the marriage vows was to provide material support and physical affection and to be sexually faithful to each other and if these are not being met, carefully and with lots of love, ask why. 
3) If one partner continually and unrepentanly breaks marriage vows, help the victim understand that she has the right to decide either to end the marriage with a divorce or carry on and work through the issue of rebuilding trust. 
4) Stress to both parties involved that divorce should only take place if vows have been broken and it is always sinful to break vows – which include to love, nourish, cherish and be faithful.
5) Help them understand that Jesus adds a caveat that we should forgive an erring partner unless they break their vows continuously or without repentance. 
6) Help them know that Paul adds the caveat that if a divorce takes place without citing broken vows, remarriage to another is allowed only if reconciliation is impossible.
(p. 167) 


Using these principles would allow for a thorough understanding as the basis of a divorce. If it becomes apparent that one party continuously breaks their marriage vows and the other spouse wants to end their marriage, they should be given the safety and respect for doing so. In addition to these overarching principles, Brewer also gives 5 potential policies for a church to implement in their church policy as well as possibly institute in their teaching to lay people in order to close the wide and often uncomfortable chasm that exists between church people and the topic of divorce or potential divorce within the church family. 

 
1) The biblical grounds for divorce are adultery, neglect, abuse, any of which is equivalent to broken vows
2) No one should initiate a divorce unless their partner is guilty of repeatedly or unrepentantly breaking their vows. 
3) No one should separate from their marriage partner without intending to divorce them
4) If someone has divorced or separated without the biblical grounds, they should attempt reconciliation. 
5) Remarriage is allowed in church for any divorcee after a service of repentance, unless they have divorced a wronged partner who wants to be reconciled.
(p. 167) 


When using these policies in a church setting, it will help create understanding and empathy towards victims of broken marriages. Brewer stresses that the main point or overriding principle is that the person who is wronged, or is the victim of broken marriage vows, he or she gets to make the decision to stay or to leave. They are the only one that gets to determine to what degree the marriage vow was broken and they get to decide if they want to save the marriage. Brewer is able to give relief to the victim by affirming that making every effort to live happily every after is not a demand from God and that he or she is not sinning nor losing his or her salvation if either one of them is the victim of a neglectful or abusive marriage and they decide they want out. He explains how Jesus’ teaching in Mathew is misinterpreted and this misinterpretation has actually hurt the church in how they minister to marriages that break. 


If more Christian leaders and lay people would take the time to read this book, or even if church leadership took the initiative to teach the findings in this book, Christian’s in general will have much more empathy for families that are broken due to divorce. The teachings and scholarly work found in this book will also be an encouragement for those who are suffering in marriages where marriage vows are continuously being broken. Divorce is never good, but sometimes it is the only way to end the evil of a broken marriage (p. 171)

There needs to be more stress on marriage vows, which are not to be taken lightly and breaking these vows is a serious transgression. However we also know that God forgives sin. If these victims decide to remarry, we must also believe that they are allowed to move on after repentance. (p. 137). 

Christians are people of repentance. Embracing a spirit of repentance when dealing with friends or family that are considering divorce will effectively help them as they maneuver the complex and very painful issues of divorce. 
 
My prayer is that we show that we are people of repentance by not heaping on guilt or shame to the victim of broken vows because they want out of their marriage. Let us be people of empathy and understanding. 

Jesus died to reconcile us to the Father and in that reconciliation, with the power of the Holy Spirit that now lives in us, we can strive to be Christ-like in our marriages. However, he also died to forgive us when we find ourselves wanting out of a marriage that is broken due to the sin of broken marriage vows. Jesus forgives sin of the repentant soul, yes....even the sin that ends in divorce. Divorced people are not second class citizens in the body of believers. They are just like the rest of the body of Christ.....redeemed sinners of the Redeemer. The only difference is that divorced families cannot hide their past sins behind assumed proper Christian behavior. We need to treat families that have gone through a divorce with the same dignity and respect that we give to intact healthy families. We should not shy away from intentionally seeking out warm sincere fellowship with these families. 

If we struggle to connect with the divorced or broken families that are either in our church already or might show up on any given Sunday looking to be loved by Christians we are neglecting one of the biggest mission fields in our country. We need to ask God to give us an empathetic heart. Most often what happens is that we have created idols of the nuclear family in such a way that we don't know how to categorize broken families according to our traditional church ideals of what a family should look like.  

My prayer is that we embrace the fact that we are people of repentance, in both word and deed, and not just when looking at our own personal sins, but also the sins that cause families to break.