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Divorce: When the Church Adds Insult to Injury

I was talking church with a friend over coffee, and he alluded to some difficulties in his congregation.

“Uh oh, what’s up?” I asked

He said they’d discovered that one of their elders, years before attending the church, had been divorced. He and his current wife had been members at the church for a number of years now and he was an elder in good standing, but they didn’t know if their bylaws would allow him to continue serving in that capacity. I was shocked.

I asked, “What if you had found out he had murdered someone instead?”

“Oh, then there’d be no problem.” He replied.

We both laughed, but we both knew his response was no joke.

Divorce is hard enough as it is

As most who have experienced it will tell you, divorce is a living hell. Even the ones that aren’t acrimonious are full of crippling sadness, hurt, frustration, anger, and remorse. It’s like death with no finality: death of a family, death of a dream, death of a relationship, and death of a lifestyle. It’s one of the most painful things some will ever experience.

On top of this terrible injury, the church often heaps agonizing insult:

Fault-finding—One of the first things someone going through a divorce has to deal with is the hunt for a guilty party. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Therefore, a divorce has to include infidelity for it to be legitimate. People feel absolutely comfortable prying into the painful particulars of someone’s marriage to figure out who this unfaithful person might be, or to convince you that you have no acceptable grounds for divorce.

Ostracism—For the most part, churches don’t often come right out and say, “Maybe you shouldn’t attend here anymore.” What often happens instead is people stop calling. They stop reaching out. Once people think they have fault figured out, they’ll begin to isolate and marginalize that person. If they can’t figure it out (or occasionally even if they can), they’ll disassociate themselves from both. At your most vulnerable moment, your community disappears.

Lectures—With the best of intentions, people will give you marriage books, fill you in on snippets of sermons they’ve heard, or just give you their $.02 about what you should or shouldn’t be doing—despite their limited knowledge of the particulars.

Discharge—As is the case with the story at the beginning of this post, it’s not unheard of to have responsibilities taken from you when you’re going through a divorce. It’s not always done to ease the stress of the divorcée; instead it often feels punitive. In many of those churches, you won’t get those responsibilities back—ever.

Gossip—This may be one of the most difficult things to endure. You come to church for sanctuary and you can feel that it’s no longer safe. Everyone’s trying to figure out what’s going on and spreading stories that are mixtures of truth and fantasy. It is the most excruciating game of telephone.

Insensitivity—When you’re divorced in the church, you’re constantly privy to people talking about the divorced as second-class citizens. After Seattle won the 2014 Super Bowl, Quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife announced they were getting a divorce. Instantly, he went from Christian poster boy to Christian pariah.

Try being a divorced person in the same room where someone is talking about someone like Russell Wilson getting a divorce. Every time you hear, “Well, there goes Russell’s credibility,” you’re reminded of your status as a bad Christian.

Some of my favorites I’ve heard over the years are have been gems like:

“You’re surprisingly spiritually sensitive for someone who’s divorced.”

“I don’t judge you; I just know the value of keeping my promises.”

Can we just be reasonable?

The church values marriage. It’s not only a covenant between two individuals; it’s a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church. The church needs to build strong, healthy marriages. But there has to be a way to way to value something without resenting or hurting those who fail.

I have no question that God hates divorce. But couldn’t it be that God hates it for what it does to people? Doesn’t he hate it for the pain it causes? Couldn’t his feelings be hatred for the painfully destructive nature of a divorce and not, as we tend to assume, just indignation for people who would have the audacity to break their vows?

One thing I don’t see in Jesus is scorn for people who hurt, and people who fail. The whole reason the cross exists is because we are all, on some level, infidels and failures.

I think we can build and encourage strong marriages without heaping condemnation on people who, for whatever reason, find themselves dashed against the rocks.

This isn’t a justification for divorce

When push comes to shove, we know nothing about someone else’s marriage. I think you could go so far as say that only God understands all of the complexities that influences whether a couple succeeds: upbringing, family of origin, culture, communication styles, personalities, spiritual considerations. You can do your best to prepare a man and woman to marry, but there are innumerable ways for them to fail each other.

We need to make church a safe place to have a bad marriage. Maybe part of the problem of divorce in the church is the heights to which we idealize and standardize perfect Christian marriages. There are so many couples desperately bailing water while struggling to navigate their troubled marriages—scared to tell anyone they’re sinking.

This doesn’t make divorce acceptable by any means. It is always a tragedy. It’s ironic that many of the divorced among us are the church’s biggest advocates for the value of good marriages. They’ve seen the other side. They understand the horrors of divorce more than anyone else possibly could.

Divorce is terrible, ugly business. It’s a heart-wrenching failure.  But it’s not an irredeemable situation that falls outside the cross’ reach.

Showing the divorced compassionate empathy and tender care does not mean you condone failed marriages. 

Marriage is an important promise. Sometimes people fail. I believe we can champion the first truth while showing grace for the second.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jayson,

    You nailed it, man. At least from my perspective having gone through a divorce several years ago. It is by far the worst thing I’ve experienced in my 30 years, but also a time of immense growth. I would never choose to go through such a thing, but I also can’t deny the sweet fellowship I was able to have with a few close brothers and sisters during that horrible time. The sad thing is how quickly I realized our churches simply don’t know how to appropriately respond to their members going through divorce, especially when those members are actively involved in a leadership role as was my case. As if divorce isn’t hard enough the poor response of other Christians can truly shake your faith to the core. I was blessed to have a close group of friends and family that consistently loved me and pointed me back to Jesus, but I know this is not the case for many. Thanks for starting this conversation here.

    August 30, 2014
  2. Slavery, divorce, mixed racial marriages, gay and lesbian marriage. These folks need to give it a rest and move on.

    August 30, 2014
  3. Since my parents never divorced, my first real exposure to the dilemma of it came from two different sets of cousins whose parents got divorced around the same time. It was an awkward experience for everyone–more so for the children–but I remember the effort that my parents and other relatives put into keeping in touch with our now former in-laws and making them feel welcome.

    Good post, Jayson!

    August 30, 2014
  4. Hi Jayson,
    I’m finding learning about how you guys do ‘church’ absolutely fascinating. My experience is quite different. When I was first exploring the idea of becoming a Christian I was drawn to my local Catholic Church, as I have a lot of friends who attend that church, and because I was educated in a Catholic school and taught there too. In other words, I’m about as at home in a Catholic Church as I am anywhere. It was a shock to me ( how naive?!) that while I was welcome to worship there, I wouldn’t be able to take Holy Communion because I am divorced. Well, duh -The Catholic Church is quite explicit about its views on marriage and divorce, right? Faced with the dilemma of attending a tribunal to have my first marriage annulled (in the eyes of the church) in order to be a full member of that church, or finding another church to attend, I chose the latter.
    My church home is CofE, relaxed, liberal and very, very welcoming. The Vicar’s take on it (and I think the CofE, though don’t want to commit a doctrinal faux pas) is that covenants are broken time and time again in the bible. That while we celebrate and revere marriage, we understand that divorce is sometimes a sad fact of life. God knows this, and God understands.
    Re: Jesus talking of marriage to the Pharisees; I see this as another example of His revolutionary stance on the status of women. He’s speaking within a context where men found it all too easy to divorce and discard their wives for being barren, or for some other so called infraction. By stressing the sanctity of marriage and giving clear guide-lines for how marriages could be dissolved, he’s actually attempting to protect women, not necessarily giving hard and fast unbreakable rules about how we should conduct our lives for evermore. But hey, what the heck do I know? I’m just delighted to have a place where I can be accepted for who I am, regardless of my past failings, and really, isn’t that what Jesus was all about?
    Sorry for going on a bit and I hope I’ve not offended anyone.

    August 30, 2014
  5. JW #

    I experienced the Ostracism part…. and I wasn’t the one in the marriage who was cheating. We belonged to a supposedly open-minded Episcopal church, that I had been raised in, moved away for a time, married, then came back to attend that church again…. My now-ex was from another church, another world, really… a VERY heavy-duty Christian Reformed church and he couldn’t stand those folks, he didn’t want to go there, so we went to my church. He refused to become a member however, and didn’t really want to be there at all, he was not really much of a believer (He used to just love to argue with his parents and people from their church to be a Big Rebel, Piss Off the Elders, that sort of thing…..) Mainly, he just went for the kids’ sake. He quit going for good, when we began to split up, although we still lived together for another 2 years. Once he moved out, I didn’t go to church either, because I had to work on Sundays (I was waitressing at that point….) . The gossip mill was at work however, and when I did have the temerity to show up now and then, I was INVISIBLE….. Our MINISTER had even offered us counseling, but we didn’t do it with him, because HE was busy getting his OWN divorce….. We went elsewhere for counseling, it didn’t do any good, because he only wanted OUT anyway, not to try to fix anything…..and we ended up REALLY hating each other. A few months after we were divorced, I met someone else, and when we eventually started talking about getting married, we attempted to attend my church again. People still treated me like some sort of pariah… one would think that perhaps they would be GLAD to see me picking up the pieces and trying to be happy again?? HELL NO….

    August 30, 2014
  6. trajay #

    My question is what about the saved vs the non believing spouse? I will attempt a back story without the novel. I have been in a loveless marriage for almost 20 years. For the first 15 years, I had faced extreme verbal, mental and emotional abuse, with an occasional physical act of abuse. I have been called names I didn’t even know existed and have been spit at directly in my face. When speaking with my then pastor for council and explaining to him these acts, I was rebutted with, “Well, Jesus was spat on, we are called to love. He doesn’t know Jesus and you, being the believing spouse have to continue to show him compassion and set an example” So I have stayed. Twenty years. I have since left that church and have found a wonderful, new church home. Still, afraid of being excluded from the only true place I found solace, I don’t dare talk about the issues with anyone in the new church, because I am afraid of yet again being treated differently and being questioned on the “progress I am making”. I am not certain if that is even the position my new church will take, but I am not willing to bring it up unasked. Over the last 5 years, the abuse ceased and we have “learned” to coexist per say. Living like roommates (ie separate rooms, checking accounts, expenses) but we probably talk less than roommates do. I am a bible believing Christian, he, wants nothing to do with the church. We have children that are older (one HS one college) that are also actively involved in church (side note, he was never abusive to the children and 90% of the abuse I suffered was after they had gone to bed, he didn’t want them to see it). Now, because the abuse is gone, I now feel even more that I have to stay, because the believer is not to leave the unbelieving spouse. What about situations like this? He has not admitted to any infidelity, which is the only way I’ve been told I can leave the marriage. What about this? I do not love this man. I become envious and sad when I see men raising one arm in worship and the other around his wife, both praising the Lord. I do not fit in at bible studies provided because I am not a single, nor can I attend the couples. I have just turned 40, I don’t know if I can do this another 20 years. What.about.this?

    August 30, 2014
  7. plaver #

    Very enlightening post on how the church can treat divorcees. We need to be very careful to not finger point and judge especially when we don’t know the story.

    I wonder whether there is a temptation for married people to criminalise divorcees because they want to show their community how much they themselves value their own marriage. There’s often pressure to always make out that your marriage is perfect! And it doesn’t help anybody.

    August 31, 2014

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