Imbedded in Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce in Matthew 19 is this command: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (v. 6). This biblical given is echoed in the official position of our denomination (see crcna.org). Both the Pharisees, who did not believe, and the disciples, who did, struggled to understand how the law of Moses was to be applied now that “the new” had come and “the old” had passed away (2 Cor. 5:17). And that struggle continues today.
Divorce is heartbreaking. When two people’s experience of their marriage has moved from love for each other to indifference or even hostility; when a chasm has developed between spouses that proves impossible to bridge; when anger and resentment are fueled by hurtful marital events and personal failings—in short, when the pain of a marriage in trouble becomes too difficult to live with, separation and eventual divorce appear to be the best solution in an unresolvable situation.
Couples who experience the death of their marriage—sometimes years before they legally seek closure through divorce—stand to lose much. Their standard of living may be negatively affected when two homes need to be maintained instead of one. Celebrations of significant family events and milestones such as birthdays, anniversaries, or graduations and holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas can become logistical nightmares. As well, their children’s distress and fears that they may be the cause of their parents’ difficulties can create intolerable tensions, recriminations, and guilt. Divorcing couples who ask their children to take sides against each other will often be rewarded with their children’s misbehavior and/or emotional fragility. Loss of friends, loneliness, and a loss of stature within one’s extended family and church family are all collateral damage of a marriage breakup.
Self-blame and guilt are paralyzing. At a time when a divorcing couple are most in need of friends and their church family’s support, their own misgivings, fears, anger, and sadness are all too often multiplied by their church community. G. spoke of feeling “like a branch that has been broken off the vine . . . I no longer fit in.” S. was told she had “disappointed” and “needed to work harder.” A. said her church family avoided talking to her, but talked about her to extended family, which felt very isolating.
Congregations do well when they’re willing to learn how to be helpful rather than hurtful to fellow church members when a marriage is headed toward divorce, whatever the reason. Being helpful means not taking sides, nor presuming to know what a couple should do. It also involves differentiating between individual and couple issues. When chronic infidelity, addiction, violence, mental illness, or a combination of these stalk a marriage, breaking the relationship is often necessary for a couple to gain a measure of individual health and well-being, as well as for the safety of any children. Problems of infidelity, addiction, or violence are individual patterns of avoidance that mask profound hurts and need to be understood and treated individually, with the help of trained professionals. In cases where violence or untreated mental illness are a factor, staying in a marriage can be dangerous for the whole family.
On the other hand, relational difficulties that are caused by unhelpful patterns of communication, intimacy issues, and/or poor conflict resolution skills, must be addressed by the couple together, usually with the help of a licensed therapist. If a couple fights competitively, for instance, someone always loses and nothing ever gets resolved; over time, this is very destructive to a marriage. So is trying to meet personal needs for distance or closeness by ascribing blame or guilt.
But the motivation and desire for change, and the vision and hope that change can be achieved, often eludes couples who struggle in their relationship. Sometimes their best efforts—along with time, patience, resolve, much prayer, professional help, and supportive friends and family—are not enough. Sometimes divorce beckons as a more reasonable and attainable alternative.
Church communities need to be clear about one thing: in the same way everyone in the community experiences the ravages of disease and eventual physical death, so everyone is affected by sin—both as perpetrators of sin and as recipients of other people’s sin. All of us are in need of continued cleansing and renewal. Just as homeowners and renters have to vacuum and wash floors regularly, so too we need regular forgiveness of sin and the lifting of sorrows and guilt if we are to be a spiritually healthy people of “the way.”
Divorce is not a part of everyone’s experience, but relational sins are known to us all. As church families we are regularly called on to forgive each other, to resolve conflicts in a Christ-like manner, and to make room for each other’s differences, responding to one another with love, patience, and sometimes long-suffering.
Divorced people do not need special consideration or pastoral care that would not also apply to the rest of the congregation. What they do need is acceptance of their status as full-fledged members of the church family, with all the responsibilities and rights conferred on any member in good standing. They need their fellow church members to refrain from judging and to accept the reality that they cannot fix someone else’s problem. They need brothers and sisters who are willing to befriend them, as they would befriend any member of the congregation who is struggling.
A couple in the middle of a breakup might require help from fellow church members, but it is the same kind of help anyone in a crisis needs: a listening ear, an empathetic hug, shared tears, the promise to pray, meals, child care, dog walking, friendship—and, yes, advice when requested.
The heartache of a broken marriage should not prevent individuals from being able to move forward into a new beginning with a slate cleansed by God and affirmed by their brothers and sisters. Divorce, after all, is not the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit.
Going through a crisis is an opportunity for change, but only those in the crisis are in a position to define what that change needs to be and how it can happen. Every marriage is complex, and mistakes will be made—sometimes with drastic consequences. But couples have the right and responsibility to make decisions about their marriage from their own perspectives, based on their own beliefs and values, their upbringing and experiences, and their faith in God.
As the body of Christ, we are called on to bless each other and not to condemn; to love extravagantly, and to build up rather than tear down. Prone to sin, we bless, love, and build up imperfectly, creating pain in each other we don’t intend—also with respect to our divorced brothers and sisters. Let’s remember that the ability to forgive is the central command that lets us experience a life of peace, even in the midst of our sins and sorrows.
For Further Understanding
In addition to seeking professional counseling, couples going through divorce and the communities that support them may find A Christian Divorce by Christopher Lake a helpful read. Lake is a Christian divorce attorney who grew up with divorced parents.