My Final Thoughts on How the Church Should Treat the DivorcedMarch 29, 2006
They had both been divorced before. Therefore, the odds were better than even that they would get divorced at some time. But marriage is not a statistical relationship, even though fairly consistent statistics can be gleaned from our nation of married people. They have choices and they have decisions and each one of those determines whether their marriage will last, not the decisions of others.
Leon and Patti were determined to make this work. They went to all the marriage workshops the church offered and attended every sermon they could find on marriage and love. They went on regular date nights and their sex life was regular and satisfying. For the first five years of their time together, three of it married, they experienced very little pain from each other. Patti’s first marriage ended because of her violent husband. Leon’s marriage ended because his wife didn’t want just one man in her life and proved it at least monthly. No one blamed either of them for their divorce. What was even stranger was that Leon and Patti had both fought to save their first marriages. Neither of them had willingly signed the final divorce papers for several years. They had waited at least six years to remarry. All of these factors help in assuring subsequent marriages will have a better chance of survival.
But like I said, marriage is not a statistic. The path of life has many wrecks along the side of the road. Just as many of them are sports car models as old jalopies. What I’m saying is that there is no predicting whether a marriage will work by looking at the ethical, moral and family values that the participants have. After five years of marriage, Leon and Patti decided to get a divorce.
Let me be clear why I am telling the story. It is a story of what a church can do for someone who is getting a divorce. This is counterpoint to what I said about Glenn and Traci a few blog entries ago. Needless to say the church was devastated when they announced their intention to divorce. They were fighting constantly and no amount of counseling had helped. Her kids hated Leon (who, by the way, never wanted children), and Leon responded by verbally abusing them on a regular basis. He was demanding with the kids, critical of his wife and in the last year together, rarely at home. He spent many hours at work instead of at home. Patti spent most of her free time doing crafts and joining groups in the church. Leon’s only church involvement outside of Sunday was the men’s bible study, filled mainly with divorced men.
When I found out they were getting a divorce, I met with each of them individually. They were not interested in more counseling. Actually, as a counselor, I have become very jaded toward marriage counseling. To quote Dr. Ed Smith of Theophostic Ministries, “Marriages in our country are not in trouble: People are in trouble, and this is reflecting badly on marriages”. I asked if they would both be willing to have a “divorce” mentor during this time. They agreed, though with much reluctance. The divorce mentor is someone who has been divorced, who has seen the worst that can happen and advises the person on how to act with love and grace during the initial year. They both agreed to have a mentor for a year.
Leon and Patti were both plugged into the church. I asked them to keep coming, no matter what happened. I also asked them to agree to this in writing. Eventually, Leon went to the first service (he was an early riser anyway) and Patti went to the second. Their mentors went over some other things with them. They asked them not to date anyone at all or even to flirt with other people during that year of mentoring. Both Leon and Patti were more than willing to comply. Of course, it was easier to say than to do. We had to confront her on numerous occasions because she would linger long after church talking to specific single men. It wasn’t that we were worried she would strike up another relationship so much as it complicated her life and made it less likely that she would solve her own issues. It is too easy to avoid our own sins and weaknesses by medicating them through other people.
Something happened during that year of mentoring. Leon decided he didn’t want a divorce, even though he didn’t want to move back in with Patti either. It took Patti longer, but she eventually came to the same conclusion. They both reasoned (correctly) that divorce was primarily to facilitate getting married again. They could remain separated for the rest of their lives and get the same legal standing as if they were divorced…except they couldn’t remarry.
Let me cut to the chase. Leon and Patti have been separated for seven years. Her kids have grown up and both moved from the home. Last month, Leon called me to let me know they are moving back together. During the last seven years, they have continued to go the same church together, to be part of mentoring and have even had many hours together in financial planning and prayer.
What made this work was the absolute commitment of the church to treat them both with respect, no matter what decision they made. This problem with divorce is not all that different than other problems we face in the church. How do you love someone and accept them with their problems and failures? You can go to one extreme as the Corinthian church did with the man who was having sex openly with his step-mother. They felt they were liberated and grace-filled by ignoring it. Paul rebukes them in 1 Corinthians 5. We can be thankful for the Corinthians. They were so blatant in their errors that they give us a host of biblical examples to learn from. So, after totally ignoring the sin of this guy, they then shun him and reject him. Paul tells them in 2 Corinthians 2 to rejoin their love to him and stop rejecting him. There is a balance.
The church needs to stop reacting with knee-jerk inefficiency and realize that some things just are going to happen, and our role is to teach, train and love. We cannot always prevent. For instance, this insistence of the church on never teaching children about birth control is about as ridiculous an approach as I have ever heard. The argument is that if we teach our children about birth control it is giving them license to have sex. I taught all my kids about the dangers of sex outside of marriage long before I taught them about birth control. But, I also recognize that they are sexual beings and need to have all the facts. And, they know I would hold them accountable.
The same thing is true of divorce. We need to be close enough to the people who attend our church to help them when divorce begins to be talked about. Just to take the “no divorce is ever God’s will” approach is to say that one size fits all. There are situations where divorce is going to happen regardless of what we say. Paul even recognizes this in 1 Corinthians 7. His answer: “Let them leave”. And for people who come to churches already divorced, what good does it do to punish them further by laying restrictions upon them that we don’t lay upon others. We have no idea who in our churches are molesters, liars, thieves, gossips, drunkards, swindlers etc. How do we find out? We find out by watching their lives and treating them in case by case situations.
I have a friend who attends our church who has been divorced. I have known him for several years now. In no way does he strike me as a man who takes his commitments lightly. I know another man who has been married for 29 years. Yet, as I have watched his life for the last few years, I realize I could not trust him to remove lint from my eyebrow. He is untrustworthy, even though he has never had a divorce. This is my last word on this. No two divorces are alike, and we should refrain from making any evaluations of divorced people until we know them for awhile.