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Signposts: How Churches Can Minister to the Divorced

In this episode of Signposts I discuss what the responsibility of the local church is toward members who have experienced divorce, and what the gospel means for how we bear each other’s burdens through this.

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Below is an edited transcript of the audio.

I had a question that came in by e-mail from a listener who is asking about the issue of divorce; and not really a question about whether divorce is permissible, but this listener said, “I see a lot of confusion from church to church about how to minister to divorced people in their congregations. Some churches seem to pretend not to notice while others essentially treat divorced people as second-tier Christians. What can local churches do for those who have come out of or perhaps are in the middle of a divorce, and practically is there anything that churches shouldn’t do?”

That’s a really good question and I’m drawn back to a study that I saw several years ago about the way that churches speak about divorce from the pulpit. What they noticed was a trajectory of churches in the early part of the twentieth century talking about divorce in almost exclusively moral terms—“divorce is wrong”– to an increasingly therapeutic talk about divorce as time went on into the late twentieth century. I think there has been something of a correction to that. When I hear a sermon about the morality, the immorality of divorce, it is typically going to be from a millennial church planter, as opposed to a baby boomer, a suburban pastor. There are some exceptions obviously, but that’s typically the pattern. I think that is because you have a millennial generation and right before that a gen-X generation that lives through the wreckage of divorce, both in their own homes and in the lives of their friends and they just saw that the lie that was being given in the sixties, seventies, and eighties that divorce is ultimately not that big of a deal for kids and divorce can be a vehicle for self actualization and the children are better off if you divorce than they are if you are in a home where you are unhappy—those sorts of questions. I think there is a reaction to that coming from a younger generation that has lived through a divorce culture.

So, what should a church do and not do? Here are some things that I think. The first thing is to explain where you as a church are on the question of divorce in its morality, and if you have exceptions to that. I believe that the Bible does give exceptions where divorce is allowable and where re-marriage after that divorce is allowable. I think it is in the case of immorality, porneia, sexual immorality as Jesus explains that in the gospels and in the case of abandonment as the apostle Paul talks about it in 1 Corinthians 7; that person leaves, you are not bound, and I would include in abandonment physical or sexual or some other form of abuse; if its not safe for someone to be in a home, then that is someone who has been driven from that hope, that’s someone who has been abandoned by an unrepentant spouse.

Now, explain when you are talking about it–some churches think it is never morally permissible to remarry after a divorce, some churches think there are more exceptions than the ones that I have talked about, but make that clear to the people in your congregation, but also make it clear that in the Bible even where there are exceptions, that is the last phase. For instance, in the case of immorality, adultery doesn’t necessitate a divorce, unrepentant adultery would. And so, just because someone has had an affair doesn’t necessarily mean that that marriage ought to end. The first step ought to be let’s see if it’s possible to reconcile. Let’s see if we can bring this erring husband or wife to repentance and through that long process of healing that marriage. That ought to be our first inclination. Obviously there are going to be some situations where that is not possible and shouldn’t be tried. So in the case, for instance, of an abusive spouse we are not going to put pressure on or in a case where someone has, for instance, marriage to someone who is sexually abusing a child—you don’t want to put that child in that place of jeopardy by being back in that home. So there are going to be some exceptions to that. I think generally when you have a marriage that is starting to break down our first inclination ought to be to try to move toward reconciliation and only where that is not possible then we move forward with divorce. But in your teaching and preaching ministry, make very clear what it is that your church believes.

So, talk about the morality and immorality of divorce, and that means preaching against a divorce culture and preaching against divorces that are unbiblical. That’s not going to be popular but here’s the thing—if we have consciences that, Romans 2, are pointing us toward judgment, then not to talk about those things means that we leave people in captivity to them. We leave people with a conscience that is continually nagging them and that they are continually trying to silence and justify in ways that aren’t healthy spiritually for the person and can even be quite perilous and dangerous for the person. So, talk about that, talk about God’s judgment when it comes to divorce. Think about what Malachi, for instance, is talking about, those who have divorced their wives and talk about what the meaning of marriage is, as Jesus says what God has joined together let no man put asunder.

Speak truthfully about that, but also speak of God’s mercy, speak of God’s grace; when the person says that he or she has known of churches where people who have been divorced are treated as second-tier Christians, that’s a church that doesn’t understand the mercy and the forgiveness that comes through God’s grace. I mean, we don’t recognize that because we don’t know that all of us, Romans 3, are people who are law breakers before God. None of us have a brief that we can carry with us to the judgment seat that will exonerate us. The only thing that we have is the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. So, when we are talking about God’s judgment, we also are continually talking about God’s mercy through the shed blood of Jesus Christ through the resurrection life of Jesus Christ. We talk about mercy and we talk about grace, we talk about forgiveness.

The next stage, I think, is to make sure that the discipline of your congregation is able to operate in the realm of marriages that are breaking down, and by discipline I don’t just mean excommunication; I mean that formative discipline where you are, through your congregation, taking accountability for the marriages in your congregation. I mean when the scripture speaks to marriage, the scripture is speaking to an entire congregation. There is a reason why the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul speaks to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 and speaks to parents in Ephesians 6 and does that in the reading of a letter that comes to the entire congregation. Why? Because we are to bear one another’s burdens, we are to hold one another accountable, and our marriages are the business of our church. There are all sorts of ways that we can do that, one of those is by making sure in premarital counseling we are spending a lot of time teaching about what a Christian marriage is and helping people to see potential conflicts that are happening in the future, and then making sure that we have resources for families, for couples particularly to be able to grow in their marriage. I’ve seen churches that have done this really well with mentoring relationships of older couples who are wise and who have been through a lot, who are mentoring younger couples. In some congregations, that happens when there is a crisis point. You have a couple who are having a crisis and you assign them to a mentor couple to help them work through those issues, but actually I think we all need that and so if you have the resources within your congregation to pair people up in those formative years of marriage with Godly wise older couples, I think that would go a long way in shaping and forming people ahead of a crisis, before they get to that point where there is a divorce situation that is happening. I think also in terms of preaching and teaching about what to do when you see that your marriage is starting to get into trouble so that you kind of take the stigma away from some one to come up and say, “I’m having trouble in my marriage,” because there are a lot of people who think “If I say we’re having some trouble, I feel like other people are going to say, you’re not a very good Christian or what’s wrong with you spiritually?” We’ve got to get rid of that and enable people to say I really need some help from the rest of the congregation.

I think that other part of discipline when you do have situations where you have someone who is being wronged, the rest of the congregation steps in. When you have that spouse who is abandoning another spouse, to have the congregation to come in and to speak, Matthew 18, move through that process and say, brother, don’t do this, sister, don’t do this, realize what you are doing to your family and to work to try to hold the erring partner accountable and also to bring about reconciliation again where possible within that couple. I think that is an important part of the discipline in the church that we have just almost completely ceded to the outside world, to divorce lawyers and to therapists and to others, I’m not saying that all of those pieces aren’t good and necessary, but the church often is silent and absent and when we ought to be a place of support and a place of healing and refuge there. Then the last stage, I would say is give people space for confession and where possible restitution and reconciliation. I’ve known of a church where when a person who is divorced comes to that congregation and applies for membership one of the things that the church leaders do is to say, “What went on with the divorce? Tell us about what happened with the divorce.” And in some cases the church would say well this is a situation where you are the innocent party or you were the guilty party but you’ve come to repentance for that but in some circumstances, this church would see this is a couple that actually needs to talk to one another and this divorce came about because of reasons that ought to be addressed with some support from others and they’ve actually seen marriages come back together and couples be re-married and couples healed and move forward. That’s a beautiful story, that’s not always going to happen but the church is making an attempt to do that.

Sometimes, of course, there is no reconciliation that is possible either because there is an unrepentant spouse or because one or both of those partners have married now other people. Well, we still need to have the place where people can come and confess their wrong doing if they have done wrong or even confess the ongoing burden they are bearing as a result of this divorce in order to hand it over and to see this as being something that is past. That’s just one of those things that all of us need, regardless of what our particular situation is, that ability to say to someone this is where I’ve sinned against God and against others and to hear from another human voice the word that has been given in the gospel in the scripture, remember who you are in Christ that you are forgiven. Go and sin no more. Our churches need that. How you do that is going to differ from church to church. Some churches have a time of invitation where people are able to come forward and pray with one another, if your church does that, it might be a good idea to say, some of you are having a difficult time because of a divorce in your past and maybe you’ve been sinned against and you’re having trouble handing that over to God, or maybe you were the guilty one and you have a conscience that is continually accusing you, well we invite you to come and pray with one another, to come and lay that before God. I think that’s a good thing to do, or maybe in your church the way you do it is through particular small groups or particular classes, tailor that and contextualize that to your church, but I think it is something that is good and necessary. When we do that, when we are clear about what the Bible teaches about divorce, when we discipline, we are involved in the lives of people’s marriages, and we hold one another accountable in terms of our marriages and when we emphasize the mercy of Jesus Christ when it comes to all of the ways that we’ve gone astray, including divorce and re-marriage, then we can have a congregation where we don’t view people who have sinned in a way that we haven’t as second-tier Christians or second-class Christians.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).