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.