Regardless of their views on the subject, church leaders must minister to families touched by divorce with Spirit-filled pastoral care.
After 18 years of marriage, Sandy has reached the end of her rope. She and her husband, Todd, have been active members of your church for many years. Todd has served as an elder, while Sandy has led women's events. Their two teenage children are enthusiastic members of the youth group.
So, it came as an unexpected blow when Sandy came into your office, announcing that she is leaving Todd. An adulterous relationship on Todd's part and resentment on Sandy's part had brought the couple to an irreversible conclusion.
She had not come asking for your blessing on their decision. Instead, she sought guidance in healing the wounds that this decision would cause. How should you respond?
According to a 2001 Barna Research Group survey, 33 percent of Christians have gone through a divorce. In fact, the rate may be growing as people who are divorcing turn, in larger numbers, to the church for guidance and healing. And while these statistics are grim, equally sobering are the experiences of Christians who choose to divorce:
- People from the church stop calling them when they discover they are divorcing.
- If they hear from the pastor, it is to invite them to reconcile with their spouse regardless of the cause of the divorce.
- They no longer feel comfortable in the church they were attending and usually look for a new church home or stop attending church at all.
- They undergo profound spiritual confusion.
The dissolution of a marriage provides both a challenge and an opportunity for shepherds who are called to minister healing and restoration in a fallen world. But, in order to adequately provide care to divorcing persons, pastors need to learn about the divorce process, revisit the biblical passages on the topic and initiate a series of Spirit-filled care-giving practices within the local church.
WHO'S TO BLAME?
The process of divorce begins long before the legal agreement is finalized. What happens first is a period of time often referred to as pre-divorce decision-making, a season in which each spouse imagines the future without the other. Some couples even discuss the possibility of divorce with friends or family.
Next, partners may separate and face the economic realities of divorce. Then, the legal process unfolds: attorneys, depositions and gathering financial records.
It is often at this point that persons separate from the church. The pain of their emotions is so evident they avoid the public in embarrassment. In spite of good intentions, people in church ask intrusive questions for which there are no real answers. And, without any information, they often imply blame.
Finally, after months of waiting, the divorce becomes a reality. One or both partners begin to explore new life experiences, new identities, often even re-evaluating their relationships with God. No matter what the cause of the divorce, the heartbreak and grief is often overwhelming, because divorce closely resembles the dying process.
Usually, there is plenty of blame to go around for a failed marriage. But, the reality is that no single behavior by an individual causes divorce. An accumulation of destructive behaviors leads to discouragement, and divorce then becomes the climax of many small but insurmountable marital problems.
ACCEPTANCE VS. CONDEMNATION
Although Scriptures regarding divorce prove difficult to interpret (see "An Unforgiveable Sin?" page 60), Christian leaders often use such passages in a punitive way.
Pastors may attempt to shame divorcing couples into staying married, with statements such as, "God instituted marriage," "He established marriage as a covenant--a binding agreement--between Himself and those who marry" and "Divorce displeases God."
The implication is that people were created for marriage, and they should stay married, no matter what. Although these statements may be true, it is wrong to stretch Scripture or use it as a weapon against those who are contemplating divorce.
For instance, when Malachi thunders "God hates divorce!" he is not indicating that God is angry with people who divorce (see Mal. 2:16). Rather, the prophet is expressing God's concern for the pain and suffering divorce often brings.
God holds marriage in high regard because God desires the best for humanity. This is proved by research: People who are married are happier, healthier and live longer than unmarried persons do. Rather than making people for marriage, God designed marriage for people.
Also, while the goal of a pastor should always be the reconciliation of relationship, it is tantamount to spiritual abuse to manipulate people into staying in destructive--and even dangerous--situations. Both Jesus and Paul imply that the marital covenant may be broken under certain conditions. While divorce is not prescribed, it is permitted.
We don't know the specific causes of the strong feelings many have toward the divorced or divorcing person. Perhaps they are confused about what Scripture says regarding divorce, or they feel strongly that what appears to be a secular solution to a difficult situation should not invade the church.
Still others genuinely believe that divorce would not be necessary if people would only yield themselves to God. While this is often true, people who have divorced or are divorcing are becoming an increasingly larger group of people in the church. They should be there. They need to be there, and they need pastoral care.
Central to Spirit-filled pastoral care is the power of the presence of Christ. Christ's presence becomes a healing power when expressed through the presence, words and deeds of His people.
Pastoral-care experts refer to this as "being the incarnational presence of Christ." Jesus represented God to humans by taking on the form of a man. In a similar fashion, people who care for others represent Christ to them.
This may not be as easy as it sounds. In a reference to Philippians 2:7, James Dittes, professor emeritus of pastoral counseling at Yale Divinity School, says that--like Christ--we must empty ourselves of the trappings of ministry: power, position, status, authority and responsibility. Like Jesus, we must:
- Make space for people to grow.
- Ask questions rather than give answers.
- Enter with people into the raw encounters of life where there is chaos before form.
- Be prepared to have others not recognize our roles or the effects of our interventions.
- Accept the fact that we may not be able to sum up at the end of the day any list of accomplishments.
Certainly this is true of pastoral care to the divorcing. Their lives are often in chaos due to the sadness, grief and confusion they experience. More than specific information about divorce, the effects of divorce on children or what the Bible says about divorce, persons who are divorcing need the presence of Christ.
A man named Craig once shared with me: "What was important to me when I divorced was the fact that my pastor was there for me. He didn't try to tell me what I should do. He didn't give me information I didn't want. He prayed with me. He listened to me. He loved me."
Most divorcing persons feel that they have failed. They feel fatally flawed. They do not need judgment. Rather, they need someone who will regard them as cherished and responsible citizens of the kingdom of God. They need to be regarded as people who are living, as best they can, in faithful relation to God.
Pastoral conversations tend to be symmetrical: one disclosure or statement requires another. However, in pastoral care the need to elicit a response is replaced with an active, intense listening--lucid listening.
Lucid listening is the attempt to fully understand what is being said from the other person's perspective. It is entering into his or her world for the sake of determining what she or he is experiencing. It seeks to determine the meaning of circumstances and events and to assess their effect on the person.
Divorcing persons want to go to a church where their families can be cared for. Most often this caring occurs in Sunday school classes or youth groups. Some ways in which to demonstrate Spirit-filled pastoral care to the children of divorcing parents include the following:
- Convey interest in the children of the divorcing person by taking the initiative to meet each child personally.
- Provide opportunities for teenagers to become involved in a youth group and, perhaps, in the ministry of the church.
- Be especially cognizant of the birthdays of children of divorcing parents.
- Engage them in age-appropriate conversation about anything other than the divorce--sports, school activities, TV interests and hobbies.
Just as the divorcing person is on a journey of faith, so are the children. Listening to their experiences provides the same benefits as it does to the divorcing parent. It provides acceptance and encourages hope.
Develop a healing worship community in your church, where the Spirit of God offers grace to each person regardless of life circumstance. It provides relief from suffering, and strength for life and living through preaching and prayer. Acceptance and positive regard are extended to everyone and opportunities for service are provided.
A healing community of faith provides each person the knowledge that she or he will have the full attention of at least one person, should they want it. Thus, pastoral care is an antidote to the isolation and loneliness that often accompany the journey of divorcing people.
Because divorcing persons are often among the most isolated people in their communities as well as their churches, they benefit from being reminded that they are part of a family. This is a historic, universal family that cannot be broken; it is forever.
A healing worship community talks. Encourage people to tell their stories. Ask previously divorced persons to share their stories with the church. These testimonies grant validity to personal experience. They create hope and can provide comfort.
Caring for divorcing people through a healing worship community requires multiple points of entry. Spirit-filled caring is provided for divorcing persons when they are given unconditional positive regard.
Divorcing persons are in need of pastoral care, but they need care from persons who understand the process of divorce. This does not need to be someone who has experienced divorce, but it should be someone who is educated about the turns and twists of the divorce journey.
They need someone to care for them who has thought through his or her conceptions about divorce and arrived at a life-giving perspective of this tragedy. They don't need to be "re-victimized." Divorced persons must experience in a new and fresh way the presence of Christ through the activities of Spirit-filled care giving.
An Unforgivable Sin?
While Scripture acknowledges God's grief over divorce, it offers guidelines for when it is permissible.
The dissolution of a marriage is always a tragedy, but biblical statements regarding divorce should not be stretched to suggest that divorce under any circumstances is prohibited. A brief exploration of the topic in the New Testament reveals that divorce is allowed in certain situations.
When Jesus was asked about divorce by the Pharisees, He was being asked to join sides in an ongoing debate between two well-known Jewish leaders (see Matt. 19). Refusing to take sides, Jesus pointed the religious leaders to their own scriptures.
In light of the context, this was not a divine pronouncement about the dissolution of marriage but a response to two competing schools of theological persuasion. His intention was to uphold a high view of marriage as well as to regulate and mitigate an existing custom.
In the time of Christ, adultery was met with death, not divorce. When Jesus indicated that divorce was permissible, He infused a painful, difficult situation with grace: God's grace.
In 1 Corinthians, it appears that Paul is addressing a situation in which some people were rejecting sexual relations in marriage in order to precipitate divorce--or at least be unencumbered--so they could give themselves entirely to service for Christ. Paul stipulated that nothing is to take the place of sexual relations in marriage, not even prayer (see 7:1-6).
Paul advocated that people should remain unmarried in order to give themselves completely to service for God. However, if an unmarried person is involved in sexual activity, he or she should marry in order to avoid the ongoing entanglement of sin (see vv. 7-9).
The context of his response may indicate that those who were struggling with sexual activity were persons who had previously been married. Some scholars suggest that Paul's response implies remarriage for the divorced person.
Paul prohibited divorce for Christian partners (see vv. 10-11), especially when it would appear that Christians were divorcing for "eschatological" reasons: Jesus was coming soon, and they felt the need to give themselves in service to God.
However, in case of desertion (see vv. 12-16), the believer is to release his or her unbelieving spouse. In this situation, the believer is "not bound" (see v. 15). The particular language used here suggests that the person is released from the relationship.
What is meant by desertion? Some indicate that it is religious incompatibility, which seems to be the situation in the Corinthian church. Others indicate that desertion occurred because of the unwillingness or inability to engage in conjugal relations or even abuse.
The text isn't clear, but what is clear is that Christian couples are to live in harmony (see v. 13). Persons who physically, emotionally or spiritually abuse their mates do not demonstrate a willingness to live in harmony.
Edward Decker, Ph.D., is professor of Christian counseling at Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions. He is licensed as a professional counselor and marriage and family therapist, and is director of Counseling Care Associates, a community-based counseling center that emphasizes Spirit-empowerment and direction in counseling.