It is Our Business: Divorce, the Church, and the Tie that Binds

01.17.2013, 8:35 AM

Andrew Packman is Co-Pastor at Root and Branch Christian Church and a Ph.D. student in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

 

Sociologists like Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) and Mark Chaves (American Religion: Contemporary Trends) have called our collective attention to the dissolution of the ties that used to bind us.  Mainstays of 1950s America like denominational loyalty and that felt pressure to join the Rotary Club have fallen victim to the cult of the self.  So in this climate where that which binds us seems to pale in comparison to that which divides, it should come as no surprise that American marriages are not in good shape.

So why hasn’t this been on my radar?

It probably should be. I’m in the midst of planting a church whose target demographic just happens to include the first generation of adults to grow up in this post-sexual revolution “culture of divorce.” At Root and Branch Christian Church in Chicago, we are tackling the theological work of translating the good news into an idiom that hits home with that demographic. We believe the good news should actually sound like good news.

That’s why this report is important for my ministry. The children of divorce described in this study have grown up to be many of the adults in our church. And if the church is in the business of proclaiming good news, then the onus is on us to get to know the deep pain that dwells in the hearts of this generation and longs for redemption.

The central claim of this report is a bold one: when children experience their parents’ divorce, their lives of faith do not go on unchanged. It’s bold because a lot of armchair psychology implies otherwise. As a youth minister, I heard it all the time. So long as parents carry out their divorce amicably, their children will be fine. So long as the parents are happier after the divorce, their children will be happier too.

But by the lights of empirical research, this appears to be a myth. As the report puts it: “While a good divorce is better than a bad divorce, it still is not good.”  No matter how you slice it, switching from one home to two homes is a big deal. Watching the union that brought you into the world disintegrate before your eyes is necessarily traumatic. And missing out on youth group to spend a weekend at your dad’s house across town has a serious, destabilizing effect on young people.

This being the case, the authors of this study do us all a favor by resisting the urge to moralize. Their goal is not to affix a millstone of guilt around the necks of divorcées. But they do believe that everyone considering divorce should be aware of the real impact of their decision on the spiritual lives of their children. So instead of the usual religious finger wagging, this study chooses to empower parents to make their own moral decisions by disabusing us all of the myth of the good divorce. While there are certainly times when divorce is the best decision, this decision should not be one we make under false consciousness.

But what positive steps can we take as a church to prevent divorce before it starts?

Part of living a faithful life of discipleship is to risk engaging our fellow sojourners on the messiest, most fundamental parts of our lives. Practically, this means asking people out for coffee and checking in on the health of their marriage. It also means being willing to share stories of the trials, tribulations and redemption of our own relationships.

What the authors of this report are recommending is sorely needed in American Protestantism: a more robust application of Christian love. Liberal Protestants have focused on Christian love as  “radical hospitality” in the last few decades – and we are, no doubt, the better for it. Generally speaking, these churches are more welcoming than they were 40 years ago.  Showing others the extravagant welcome of Christ is a powerful first-step towards loving them.

But if we stop at welcome then what started as Christian love can degenerate into merely polite toleration.  his creates a culture that shudders when anyone dares to hold another person accountable to his or her commitments. To be questioned by a church member on the way we raise our children or the way we relate to our partners feels to us like an impolite impingement on our own personal affairs.

But Jesus wasn’t overly concerned about politeness. Not long after he radically welcomed his followers to come and follow him, he began to make disciples of them. He loved them enough to have expectations, to hold them accountable, and thereby to form them into a particular vision of what it means to live a good and faithful life. And then he told the church to go and make more disciples.

Bourgeois niceness tells us that the moral and personal lives of others are none of our business. But as this study rightly suggests, Christian love demands that we make it our business.

It is our business because something theological is at stake in the well-being of our marriages. Healthy marriages are the best environment in which to pass on religious practices and beliefs to our children. And marriages are healthiest when they are surrounded by a community who dares to love across the polite boundaries of suburban propriety.

In sum, what Marquardt, Ziettlow, and Stokes are asking of us is to try out an authentically Christian love, the kind of love that calls others to a higher standard, that cares enough to take notice when other families are suffering, and to risk the kind of holy, intimate, vulnerable interactions that make the church the church and not a social club.


10 Responses to “It is Our Business: Divorce, the Church, and the Tie that Binds”

  1. Wayne Stocks says:

    The children of divorce described in this study have grown up to be many of the adults in our church. And if the church is in the business of proclaiming good news, then the onus is on us to get to know the deep pain that dwells in the hearts of this generation and longs for redemption.

    Amen! and Amen!

  2. Susan Dutton says:

    Yes, it is our business. Of course, in order to do that, we have take responsibility for relating to each other in a way that honors and loves while encouraging growth and improvement. But do we relate to one another that way? And if not, who will teach us to do so? Who teaches those very real “soft skills”? And once we have them, who makes sure that scenarios like the one I’m about to describe don’t occur?

    I have a friend who was in an accountability group. It was a bunch of married guys who were trying to be good husbands and keep their marriages strong. A man was in it for two years, then suddenly dropped out. Turned out he was getting a divorce. But he never even mentioned any problems.

    The one thing I’ve noticed about the mystics of old is that they accepted everyone with unconditional love, and showed no surprise over even the most heinous of sins. They only assured everyone of God’s love, forgiveness, and approachability. I think about how Paul was accused of preaching Grace to the point of being irresponsible, and of the proverb that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. And the admonition that “you who are spiritual should restore gently, but watch yourselves.”

    In the end, I think we all suffer when family breaks down because love breaks down. When we don’t have any examples of enduring human love, it becomes hard to believe in eternal love. It makes the Church stepping in with love that much more important.

  3. Chris says:

    Thanks for the post. We certainly need to be encouraged to ask harder questions and not be afraid of truly loving our brothers and sister in Christ by holding them accountable. However, the following sentence worries me very much:

    “While there are certainly times when divorce is the best decision, this decision should not be one we make under false consciousness.”

    Though I agree that there is no good way to have a divorce since no matter how “peacefully” it goes, the children and church will be affected, I still don’t think divorce is ever the best decision whether it is made with all of the negative affects it may have in mind or not.

    Being the son of divorced parents, then seeing my mother re-marry only to see her husband divorce her 16 years later because she became a believer (he chose to walk away, she did not want a divorce) I know first hand how divorce can affect children. However I don’t believe pointing out how divorce seriously affects children no matter how “well” it goes is all that society or the church needs to hear.

    We all need to be reminded of the truth that marriage is of God. He brings two people together and when He does so, no man can seperate them. We can help not only by holding married couples more accountable and daring to ask harder questions about their relationships, but also to not marry any couples who do not understand that divorce was really never an option. And of course, if a couple continues to seek out divorce either way, be should lovingly admonish, councel and encourage them with the truth of the Gospel, seeking their repentance and if possible, the reconciliation of the marriage.

    However, divorce was permitted only because of our sin and wickedness, never truly being how we can most glorify the Lord with a marriage since the root of divorce is just that, our sin and wickedness! And you are very right to say:

    “It is our business because something theological is at stake in the well-being of our marriages”

    But that “something” is more then the fact that a marriage is the best place to pass on our beliefs to our children, what is at stake is that our marriages are one of the most powerful testimonies on earth of Christ’s unconditional love for his church. When we divorce, we are trampling the testimony of Christ love for his church. How I love and treat my wife should reflect how Christ loves his church and is willing to lay down his life for her. I fall terribly short, but it is my desire and goal every day.

    But I am certain that Christ would never divorce his church nor consider divorce to be the best decision at any point. No matter how wicked she could be. If that were so, heaven will be empty and hell jammed packed with me first in line. As Christ is patient and loving with his bride, seeking out repentance and reconciliation, we should seek to be forgiving and also seek out reconciliation. Our marriage is about Christ, about keeping covenant.

    I’m not saying a wife or husband should never seperate for a time from their spouse because they are abusive, but at that point, the one who wisely leaves for a time should be praying for their spouse while looking forward in faith to forgiveness and reconciliation. Not considering a divorce so they can “move forward and be happy”. If you got married with the biblical understanding of what marriage is, you commited to that person for the rest of your life. You covenanted with that person and God. Divorce should never be an option.

  4. Paul says:

    I agree with Chris above. Stating that sometimes divorce is the best or only option is failing to see God’s ability to speak grace into what appears to be an unsalvageable situation.

  5. ki sarita says:

    I personally do not share your religious beliefs regarding divorce, however I respect them and I respect that you try to live up to them in your own life.
    With one exception- the idea that one should hope for reconciliation with an abuser.
    Abusers seldom change. For every abuser that does change, there are many many more that don’t, or that change temporarily- just temporarily enough to rope the former mate back in.
    Your advice could be responsible for an abused spouse- and children- facing a life of fear and degradation, risk for bodily injury, up to and including death. I urge you to rethink it.

  6. Chris says:

    @ ki sarita

    I appreciate your sincerity and sharing your thoughts. You bring up a good point; these type of reconciliations should not and can not be rushed into. I agree with everything you stated, It can be very hard for an abuser to change (they may never change) and it could be dangerous for a mother and children to prematurely return to a man who truly has not repented and has shown evidence of transformation by the Lord.

    I believe that when this advice is given, it should be given within the context of a local church who is commited to the bible and where there is accountability for both the husband and the wife. I also believe that Pastors (purposely plural) can not and should not encourage a wife to accept her husband back if they cannot testify that he has shown significant evidence of repentance and transformation, and has maintained it over a significant amount of time. It is a long, grievous process full of prayer, counseling and lots of humility. And it is one that needs to be lived out in front of the church, that’s part of accountability. But during this time of waiting, healing and prayer, I dont think either person should be pursuing divorce.

    And by the grace of God, I believe the person can change and the relationship can be restored! I have seen it personally in the lives of some from my local congregation, in the life of an abuser. The Lord can change hearts. The time frame in which all that can happen can be over the span of several years, but again, that is part of the marriage resembling the same loving patience that Christ shows the church.

    You mentioned the word “hope”. My conviction is that there is hope for every and any person, to be forgiven, saved and restored by the grace of God. It is because of this, and because of my convictions regarding divorce, that I feel that divorce shouldn’t be presented as an option. And again, if a couple went into marriage with a biblical understanding of marriage and divorce, keeping that covenant, though hard, is still possible no matter what may happen down the line. Likewise, resotration is always possible when Christ is at the center of the individuals lives and the marriage.

  7. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: I’m not saying a wife or husband should never seperate for a time from their spouse because they are abusive, but at that point, the one who wisely leaves for a time should be praying for their spouse while looking forward in faith to forgiveness and reconciliation.

    Chris,

    Sorry, no, that’s too simplistic. Jesus in the Gospels doesn’t condemn what we would understand as divorce, and neither does his church: Jesus and the church condemn, specifically, *remarriage*. One of the earliest church documents actually orders believers to separate from their misbehaving spouse (this is in the Shepherd of Hermas, and specifically concerns adultery, but the argument would be even stronger concerning abuse). There is no reason to believe that Christianity requires that an abused spouse look forward to ‘reconciliation’, whatever that means.

    In point of fact, many Christian clergy would tell you that abuse in a relationship is, on its face, suggestive evidence that the person involved had abusive tendencies to begin with, and that therefore such a marriage would be open to annulment.

  8. Diane M says:

    I agree with ki sarita. If you are a mother, you have a moral responsibility to leave an abusive spouse. A father has the same responsibility.

    Staying puts your children in danger. It harms them.

    Staying allows an abuser to go on sinning.

  9. Susan Dutton says:

    Actually, the ancient world did not condemn remarriage. A divorcing husband was commanded to write a certificate to his wife – called a Get. The Get is still in use today in Judaism. The words on the Get? “She is free to remarry.” Divorce is a serious issue, but even the ancient world wasn’t so cruel as to expect the unfortunate who did divorce to therefore remain single forever.

  10. Chris says:

    @Hector_St_Claire

    I appreciate the comment and insight. I can see how what I have written can come off as simplistic considering how vast a topic this is. Both what scripture says about divorce and remarriage as well as any process of forgiveness and restoration. But in my defense, I did write:

    “It is a long, grievous process full of prayer, counseling and lots of humility. And it is one that needs to be lived out in front of the church, that’s part of accountability.”

    and

    “The time frame in which all that can happen can be over the span of several years, but again, that is part of the marriage resembling the same loving patience that Christ shows the church.”

    I also said

    “It can be very hard for an abuser to change (they may never change) and it could be dangerous for a mother and children to prematurely return to a man who truly has not repented and has shown evidence of transformation by the Lord. ”

    In no way am I suggesting that anyone purposly live under the same roof with an abuser and put themselves in harms way. But, if they were to return, (or allow that person to come back) it would be to a forgiven and restored man, not an abuser. What I am saying however, is that divorce shouldn’t be an option.

    I’m going to have to disagree with you about Jesus not condemning our understanding of divorce, or at least the Pharisees understanding of divorce (which I believe isn’t to far off from modern day society). That is exactly what He is communicating to the Pharisees in Matt 19:3-9. In the process he also quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 stating the original intentions of marriage. Since I agree with him on this, I’ll just quote John Piper directly:

    “The implication is that Jesus rejects the Pharisees’ use of Deuteronomy 24:1 and raises the standard of marriage for his disciples to God’s original intention in creation. He says that none of us should try to undo the “one-flesh” relationship which God has united.”

    The only reason The Lord, through Moses, permited divorce was because of mans hardness of heart. The original intention for marriage is that two become one-flesh, which no one can undo. I believe there is no God honoring reason for divorce since the heart behind divorce was and still is a hard, sinful heart. And because man cannot separate what God unites, that is why remarriage, as you have correctly stated, is forbidden. Simply because in the eyes of the Lord, the divorced individuals are still married; they are still one flesh.

    I’m not familiar with the Shepherd of Hermas but I plan to look into it, but if that document, and you now, are using the word “seperate” like the word “divorce” then I would simply say that it is wrong and doesn’t hold up to the authority of scripture. And whether clergy believe it is a reason or not, abuse, or any other reason for divorce is not stated in scripture. I say that humbly because I cannot imagine how hard a situation like that can be, however in the end, it’s not about what we think or how we feel, but what scripture says.

    Again, the only reason divorce exists in the first place is because of mans hardness of heart. I am aware of what Matt 19:9 says as well, but what many percieve to be a “loophole”, I believe actually refers to fornication ocurring during betrothal (engagement). Piper explains this much better than I ever could in an article I’ll include at the end of this comment.

    Regarding what you said about reconciliation; considering the original intention of marriage is that the two become one flesh which no man can separate or undo, and that in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 it says:

    “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”
    Emphasis mine.

    Knowing this, I believe that a husband or wife who is separated from their spouse and is not looking forward to being reconciled, is someone who doubts the Lord can heal, change and restore a person and/or is someone who doesn’t understand the original and biblical meaning of marriage. Either way, I believe your’re wrong to say that a Christian isn’t expected to seek reconciliation with their spouse.

    I am by no means an expert on this and have so much to learn, but I do not see anything in scripture that would suggest that divorce can occur without sin taking place; eliminating it as an option. Whether it be the offender who pursues it or the victim.

    Thanks again for pushing back and helping me think through this some more and even learn some things as I write this response.