Today, I am responding to an write-in article posted on RELEVANT Magazine. This is an explicitly cutting edge evangelical Christian magazine designed to engage culture from a Biblical Christian perspective. Here is the link to the article: I’m Getting Divorced. Why Won’t My Church Help Me? | RELEVANT Magazine. This exchange between a man, Marc, and Pastor Eddie disturbs and confirms many things to me. I will organize my thoughts about this post around a response to Marc–the writer going through a divorce–and Pastor Eddie–the respondent for RELEVANT Magazine.
Marc’s complaint is how his church is not supporting him as he goes through his divorce. More precisely he writes,
I am going through a divorce. It’s not pretty, but it’s also not overly dramatic and there’s really no huge event that caused us to get to this place. It’s just that after 11 years, my soon-to-be ex-wife and I are not in love, and are done. Anyhow, the church that I love has not been supportive of me even though I really feel like God is OK with my decision. I feel like they pretty much just said “fight for your marriage” and have been silent. I feel angry at them and could use whatever thoughts you have to resolve this tension.
Are you angry with your church because A) they are not giving you tools and support to fight for your marriage or because B) they are not validating/supporting your choice to divorce under your current situation?
1. The former (A) is a legitimate grievance but the later (B) is problematic–more on “B” later. Let’s say it is about the former issue of lacking in marriage equipping support. It is sad when the best a church does is give a command to “fight for your marriage” without providing ways to do so with concrete support. And it is angering to be charged to do something then blamed for failing even though you were never equipped to accomplish the “task.” That may very well feel like a step-up for failure. While a pastor and a church is neither a marriage counselor or therapy per se, the pastor can provided helpful resources and teaching about marriage from Scripture and the body of Christ can offer much needed support when it is working at its best. To me, I suspect you have not experienced either in this situation. DivorceCare groups are excellent places to receive both sound Biblical teaching and community support in my experience.
2. Now, if the reason you are angry is over the church not validating your choice to divorce (B), I have some difficult things to say on that matter. I suspect some of the anger is over their refusal to say what you are doing is right. If your reason for divorcing is simply that you two “are not in love…” then I will tell you the decision to divorce is sin according to Scripture (see I Corinthians 7:11). Divorce is not always sin (see post here). However, not being in love with one’s spouse is not one of the grounds for a biblical divorce in Scripture; so, to divorce under those circumstances alone is to violate God’s command not to put asunder what He has brought together (Mt 19:5) and is thereby sin. The church may be withholding validation and support of you in this decision because they cannot with a good conscience support you in sinning.
Generally speaking, I noticed much of your letter to Pastor Eddie talks about decisions regarding marriage based on feelings. For example, you are getting divorced because you are no longer “in love.” You write that divorcing your wife is okay with God because you “really feel like God is OK with [it]” (emphasis mine). This focus on feeling-based major decisions concerns me.
Pastorally, I perceive a failed theology of marriage at work here. Marriage is not based on feelings but on a covenant. God did not say in the Bible that He gave us marriage to make us happy. That is not marriage’s end goal but to honor God (see Eph 5 and Gen 2). We are to choose to honor our vows before God even and especially when it is difficult. To be a slave to our feelings is a horrible state to find oneself (see I Cor 6:12-13). God has given us wills. And He has given us the Bible. You may very well feel like God is okay with your decision to divorce but what does the Bible say about your situation? I do not see that discussion taking place in this exchange, and I find that disturbing. It is possible your situation fits into a Biblically allowed exception to divorce, but what you have currently provided information-wise suggests otherwise. God in His wisdom gave us the Bible in order to be able to check our feelings against His words so that we do not fall victim to self- or demonic deception.
If you have not already divorced, I hope you reconsider the decision and get real help. And if divorce has already taken place, I hope you surround yourself with people who are willing to help you heal and learn from this painful experience. I do agree with Pastor Eddie on those pieces of advice. My hope is for no one to have to go through divorce. It is a real trauma.
To Pastor Eddie:
First, I appreciate your humility and honesty in your response to Marc. I sense true care for him and a desire to honor God in discharging your calling as a pastor. Many pastors I have encountered are not as frank as you were in your response to Marc. I appreciate that.
Even though I use “you” language, my following critical comments are more about a general spirit regarding divorce than a personal critique on your particular response. You were brave enough to put into writing what I have suspected is behind many evangelical pastors’ responses to divorce.
I feel like some people in a divorce are not just looking for spiritual guidance (hopefully the church can help with that) but also practical help. Some will ask for a referral to a good lawyer, financial assistance, even pastoral mediation between the soon-to-be ex-spouses. And while all of these things seem like decent ways the church could serve a clear need, I also feel like—and I’m just being honest here—I don’t want to leverage any of the churches resources to help with divorce.
Strategically, if I’m going to choose what to do for divorced couples, I’m going to invest the time and money into preventative measures….
1) While criticizing people going through divorce for not only seeking spiritual guidance, you fail in your entire response to cite Scripture or present a theology of marriage/divorce to Marc. And you avoided the elephant in the room: Is Marc’s decision to divorce his wife based on not being in love sin? This is an important question to answer as it has very direct bearing on what is proper pastoral care followup. If we are afraid to ask the hard practical theological questions and wrestle with the Bible along with our congregants, then who will?
Why not start with what we can offer someone seeking our help as pastors? Let us open our Bibles and point them to Scripture to help them through these stormy waters. If they wanted therapy or a legal help, there are licensed therapists and lawyers to do that work. My point in saying that is Marc came to you as a pastor and Christian leader. What is implicit in his help-seeking is a desire to hear what God might think about his circumstances and have help sorting his feelings. As pastors, it is vital that we do not abdicate or outsource this role to other professionals.
2) You speak of the practical needs as being distinct from spiritual needs. Personally, I do not see this as a Biblical distinction. Just look at the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (see Mt 25:31ff). The judgment is not based on a cognitive assent to theology but on whether or not the sheep/goat provided practical help and care to “the least of these.” Certainly, someone going through a divorce qualifies as ‘the least of these.”
Perhaps, you feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with such massive needs? Referring people to proper help is fine to do when we feel overwhelmed. You already mentioned DivorceCare. They have many resources to help those going through divorce. That might be a good place to start. However, I want to be clear that the church ought to be doing something to address these needs and not shirking them off as “not spiritual needs” and thereby not our problem.
3) Now, we come to the most what disturbed me the most about your response. You wrote, “I also feel like—and I’m just being honest here—I don’t want to leverage any of the churches resources to help with divorce.” So, are you okay with leveraging the church’s resources to enable ongoing adultery and abuse? This is exactly is what happens when avoiding divorce is the focus as opposed to holiness and repentance in marriage. You can just ask my readership here if you doubt me. They can tell you horror stories about how they were shamed/guilted into staying in the marriage for longer than was wise because of this focus.
I do not write that to be cruel but to expose this problematic mindset I see in operation in the evangelical church and pastorate (see post: Divorce is NOT Worst Outcome Following Adultery). Divorce is not always sin. Adultery is. Sometimes divorce is exactly what is needed for God’s people. We see that in the book of Ezra where Ezra commands divorce for the Jewish people intermarried with non-Jewish people, and we see that in God’s response to ongoing, unrepentant adultery (see Jer 3:8 and Is 50:1). God may hate divorce but He hates adultery more. Personally, I would rather use church resources to “support” divorce than support ongoing adultery by not insisting on repentance from an adulterous spouse as a base-line condition for the marriage to continue.
The church and pastors are not doing a good job dealing with issues of divorce. Your response validates the experience I have had in the pastorate where I encountered even seasons pastors ill-equipped or unwilling to deal with these challenges. They usually punt as your statement suggests hoping to address the issue by focusing on preventive care or outsourcing their role to other professionals. DivorceCare is a group at your church some pastors may send those divorced or divorcing people to but clearly have not integrated into their own pastoral care model enough so that you would actually share the theology taught at the group. And on top of that, the idea that divorce is to be avoided more than adultery persists in the church clearly. This is hurting innocent people–spouses and family members–and misrepresenting God on the matter.
We need to do better.
Pastor David, M.Div, BCC