Divorce in the Church (Part 1)

Divorce in the Church (Part 1)

The small church I lead has developed a bit of a reputation as a place where it is easy to get a divorce. Few are bold enough to vocalize that to me, but people talk and rumors of such opinions tend to spread. So I hear of them.

I get it. I really do. We have had our share of divorces and I am sure I don’t always appear to be as publicly opposed to them as is the norm in Evangelical America. Maybe we are soft on the priority of marriage? Maybe we are soft on the authority of scripture?

Not in any way.

I am very pro marriage. But more than that, I am for healthy marriages.

I would like to share a few thoughts regarding what for me is both a scriptural and a pastoral issue. Pastoral issues are not mere theological abstractions. Pastoral issues intersect the lives of real people with real stories. The Bible is always relevant in such conversations, but rarely in a way that is formulaic. Real life is messy and the interpretation and application of scripture in the middle of that messiness can be more difficult than you might think. It often requires a fresh wrestling with scripture; and it always requires a fresh prioritization of love for people. We all know too many stories where scripture has been accurately quoted without love and without a value for people. Such an approach rarely resonates with the revelation of God we have received in Christ.

You might be reading this and have the thought “he’s writing about me!” And that might not feel very good. I promise I am writing about an amalgamation of many stories and bringing out the most common patterns. It might not all apply to you. If it doesn’t, let it go. If any of it does, it might be worth your exploration.

In future posts, I would like to dig into some of the Biblical wrestling. In this post, I would like to offer a few thoughts regarding the pastoral and relational issues that it is good to be aware of going in.

Only juicy news goes viral.

People in our circles can likely list a few couples who have divorced or might be headed toward divorce in our congregation. It is whispered about. The news spreads. Speculation abounds. Rumors go viral.

Listening to the scuttlebutt, one might think all the marriages around here are on the brink of disaster and NOBODY SEEMS TO CARE! But it is actually just not true. For every marriage in crisis ending in divorce, I could list marriages that neared the brink of disaster and have experienced radical transformation and healing. I wonder why those aren’t talked about? It’s just not as juicy. And that’s just the ones in crisis mode. So many other marriages have become healthier, stronger, and richer in the depth and sustainability of their connection. A few haven’t made it and more marriages might fail. But it’s healthy to zoom out from the stories of separation and divorce and take a look at the incredible stories of reconciliation and growing health. Those stories aren’t as juicy, but they’re powerful to tell. Let’s tell them.

News to you isn’t necessarily new.

You thought they were doing fine. And now they’re separated? How can this be? How did this happen overnight?

Have they tried counseling? Have they gone through some kind of Freedom Ministry? Have they read the right books? Have they been to the right conference? Have they gone through our marriage process yet?

This is an especially appealing trap for me. I tend to think that a problem that’s new for me is a new problem, which isn’t a very mature way to see things. Few people are on a journey that begins when they meet me. When a couple is at the place of separation or divorce, it is HIGHLY LIKELY that they’ve already tried a lot things that haven’t helped. For you it feels like the beginning of a path where it’s just too soon to call it quits. But for them it might be the end of a long journey that’s been full of pain and dashed hopes. And sometimes that journey has been long enough and hard enough where somebody has reached the place where they are just done.

I’ve seen people who once thought they were done or at least nearly done experience incredible redemption and restoration. It’s actually one of my favorite things to witness. And when I can be part of that journey, it’s a true privilege. But such privilege rarely includes my assumption on the front end that done isn’t a real place that’s part of a really painful journey that’s taken place long before I had the opportunity to get involved.

They don’t need my permission.

I’ve actually heard people speak of my involvement in people’s stories as “giving them permission to divorce.”

My influence has been widely inflated. I’ve yet to have a Judge call me and ask whether a couple had my permission to divorce. In fact, I’m fairly certain that my permission isn’t necessary at all.

No one needs a church leader’s permission to divorce. Not in any church. Most couples drive by multiple divorce attorneys on their way to church every week and they don’t need a pastoral note to stop in for a consultation.

The issue isn’t permission. It’s connection.

Many churches are full of divorced folks. But the messiness of that experience happened in their previous church and was in the past by the time they arrived at their current church. I’ve noticed a pattern–people go through a divorce, often in the context of Church A that is opposed to divorce and tends (likely with good intentions) to operate in a “you need our permission” framework. This approach doesn’t actually prevent divorce. Those people get a divorce, leave Church A, and then start going to Church B. Other people reached that place of brokenness while in Church B. They leave Church B because Church B is also against divorce and very pro-marriage. They then move to Church A, who receives them with open arms.

That approach doesn’t seem very effective to me. It’s intended to protect a strong value for marriage, but just as many people wind up divorced and the only thing actually protected is the reputation of the institution. The church leaders appear strong on marriage by “not allowing” a divorce. The church leaders then appear gracious by welcoming other broken people who made their mess somewhere else. I don’t claim to have always handled it right. But I do want to prioritize connection and community in the midst of the brokenness and messiness of people’s lives and stories. When somebody is truly done, there’s usually a reason. We want to understand. We want to love. We want to stay connected if we can. I’ve actually found that approach to open up the possibility of lasting healing and reconciliation more than you might anticipate.

Disrupting the status-quo is scary.

I’ve seen this played out several times. A couple begins attending our church together. Up until that point, Spouse 1 feels like they have a happy marriage. There’s isn’t much conflict. Spouse 2 has learned how to not rock the boat, how to avoid the eggshells. There’s peace in the home.

Why?

Because the two became ONE, but the ONE they became was Spouse 1. Spouse 2 has disappeared. They’re silent. Invisible. They’ve learned not to communicate their needs or confront their frustrations. They’ve learned to live without boundaries. They’ve learned to keep the peace by reducing themselves into something far less than who they are. They’ve learned to keep the peace, but it’s not the true peace of connection. It’s the false peace of fear and invisibility. It’s the false peace that complies with blame, control and manipulation. Maybe they’ve been taught that such reduction is submission, or dying to self.

The “happy” couple starts attending our church and Spouse 2 begins to come alive. They matter. Their voice matters. Their needs matter. The constant aggression and passive-aggressive manipulation that has silenced them is NOT OKAY. They begin to speak. They begin to confront. They begin to exist. They begin to happen within the relationship. They disrupt the status quo.

Spouse 1 escalates the manipulation to restore the status quo. Or they jump through just enough hoops (counseling, books, events, etc) to restore the status quo. It works for a while, but Spouse 2 has a taste of health and life and has become brave in the face of fear.

Where there once was peace, now there’s conflict. Where there once was control, Spouse 1 now feels very out of control. Where Spouse 1 used to feel dominant and secure in themselves, now a light is shining on their immaturity, selfishness and brokenness. There’s actually an expectation for them to take ownership of their motives and behaviors and make lasting adjustments to meet Spouse 2’s needs.

At this point, Spouse 1 needs someone to blame for the disruption of the status quo.

“We used to have a great marriage before we started attending this church.”

I’ve heard it more times than you might think. Too many times. It’s truly heart-breaking. It always surprises me how a spouse could spend years killing a relationship, then act shocked when it’s dead, then play the victim when their spouse finally ends it, then blame the church for not preventing that outcome, then frame the narrative as if their ex is the bad guy in the story.

As I mentioned above, in future posts I hope to work through some of the relevant Biblical passages on the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. I also want to provide some practical steps for those who are recognizing themselves in the toxic pattern I described. Here’s a topic outline for the whole of the series. I hope you’ll read along and find it helpful.

Divorce in the Church

  • Does God hate divorce?
  • Can someone divorce their spouse for any reason?
  • Does divorce and remarriage equal adultery?
  • Help! I think I might be Spouse 1: What do I do?
  • Help! I think I might be Spouse 2: What do I do?
  • Help! I think I might be done? What do I do?
  • Help! I think my spouse is done? What do I do?
  • What about covenant?

6 Replies to “Divorce in the Church (Part 1)”

  1. Great read. You got it right on spouse 1 & 2 for me. Only Church A was clueless to my brokenness, Church B was too legalistic and didn’t extend the help that I needed. Church C equipped me and helped heal me. Keep doing what you are doing. You were part of my healing and if it weren’t for you, I worldly be who I am today.

  2. I’m so grateful for your willingness to love people well, and to teach what a healthy marriage is and isn’t . Alan, you are a father to me and to many. I pray others grab ahold of this truth and begin the healing process. I’m FOREVER grateful for you and Nancy’s investment into my heart and my life.

  3. This! This is my story. I have separated from my husband and I’m dealing with tremendous guilt. I am spouse #2 and my spouse #1 is using the church to bully me back into the marriage. I am exhausted from the manipulation and so very done. Thank you, thank you for posting this.

  4. I was spouse 2 for 15 years, along with emotional & physical abuse against me & my children. Thank you for talking about this issue. I do believe both spouses need to be healthy in the marriage, but as a divorced person, and married to a new mate, I do not believe in divorce. I do believe if both partners are willing to work on themselves individually & do it with true love then there would be no need for divorce… problem is, not many people are willing to actually put the work in for a healthy marriage, it does take two to tango.

  5. Alan, thank you for your boldness and honesty. I always felt supported by you during a rough time in my marriage, but never did you encourage me to do anything other than to protect myself and my son. You always pointed me to Gods word and His truth about me and marriage. Thank you.

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