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The State of Our Unions
Divorce causes great despair and brokenness. Here are four perspectives that can help us chart a response to divorce in our congregations.


It was impossible to miss. Innocuously embedded in a recent Maclean's article, the seemingly off-handed statement was a powerful reality check. Commenting on a nationwide survey on love and marriage, the author said that "sometimes infidelity can be the saving grace of a relationship—it blows things up and makes you deal with it. It's unfortunate that that kind of betrayal has to be the thing that does that."

We can no longer stay silent when it comes to separation, divorce, and remarriage.

When it makes national news that infidelity can save a relationship, we know the state of our unions is precarious.

Yet this is the reality we face in our churches today. We can no longer stay silent when it comes to separation, divorce, and remarriage. Issues that we didn't mention a decade ago are now the subject of major ministry and programming.

We struggle, however, to find a good framework for having a conversation about divorce, not merely the theological and biblical elements of the discussion, but also the pastoral ones. The church hasn't done a thorough job of answering complex questions such as: How can we create a culture of care and reintegration for divorced people in our congregations and communities without losing or damaging the purity of marriage? Personally and corporately, how do we enter messy situations while balancing grace and truth? What might it look like in Canada if our churches became known as places of sanctuary and sanctity?

As we open this dialogue, I offer four perspectives that can help us chart a response to divorce in our congregations.

1. Take responsibility

Churches are often swift to jump into action when social problems arise in our neighbourhoods. Many congregations have tackled problems of homelessness and addiction with righteous fervour, or made significant inroads in addressing global issues such as hunger or HIV/AIDS.

… when marriages break down, we aren't sure what to say or do.

But many churches are slow or unwilling to take responsibility when marital difficulties emerge. We laud "good" marriages, but prefer to avoid discussion about bad or ugly ones. In most churches, there is a multiplicity of sermons, programs, and conversations about how to make good marriages great.

But when marriages break down, we aren't sure what to say or do. Often, we shuffle off those involved in a divorce into a parallel universe of programming, some ministry focussing especially on their divorced status, where they quickly feel like damaged goods or second class citizens. In our awkwardness and uncertainty, we've hurt many people. For this, we must apologize.

2. Extend grace

Statistics reveal that divorce is as prominent within the Christian community as it is in the wider culture. The pastoral question, then, is "how might our response be different?" In our zeal to elevate marriage, we often err on the side of truth and fear as opposed to love and grace.

… Jesus certainly treated divorced people with respect and dignity.

That's not the pattern we see in Jesus' life. For a God who hates divorce (see Malachi 2:16), Jesus certainly treated divorced people with respect and dignity. In Matthew 19, Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce immediately follows His teaching on forgiveness. And in Mark, it follows Jesus' teaching on what it means to be salt in a world that has lost its way.

The church has a clear calling to protect and produce great marriages. But if we're going to take seriously what the Bible says about divorce, we need to take seriously what it says about forgiveness as well. We need to demonstrate courageous grace. If divorce is so common, let's not only show our culture what great marriages look like. Let's show them what it looks like to engage and love the people—not just the issues—surrounding divorce.

3. Customize support

Divorce is a complex issue to deal with pastorally. It often involves multiple layers of relational and lifestyle dynamics that collide with startling force and speed. We need to ask, "How do we willingly walk alongside people in our churches who require long-term care and support?"

Many times we're only equipped for problems that require a short-term or programmatic solution.

Divorce impacts every area of a person's life. One woman whose husband left her while she was involved in ministry experienced not only the pain of divorce, but also the loss of her vocation. Customized support structures that provide a full range of care—emotional, spiritual, and practical—best express the command of Scripture to care for the fatherless and the widows in their distress (see James 1:27). From financial counselling, to sensitivity towards kids who are in Sunday school every second weekend, to illustrations used in preaching, the reality of divorce requires a compassionate and unique approach to ministry.

Many times we're only equipped for problems that require a short-term or programmatic solution. Divorce isn't one of those issues. It requires a personal, individual approach—both towards those whose unacceptable and sinful actions need to be censured, as well as towards those who need loving reintegration into the church community.

4. Think missionally

When Jesus dealt with the Samaritan woman in John 4, He addressed not only her relational dysfunctions, but also her spiritual hunger.

Most people … appear to have it all together, but how many are either headed toward, or working though the pain of divorce?

Last year, I received an e-mail from a couple who had found our church online. They explained they were both divorced and looking for help in their current marriage. They sent their communiqué to nine different churches in our area and ours was the only response they received.

We met with them, prayed with them, invited them into community, and loved them. One year later, after much prayer and counselling and a long road still ahead, he committed his life to Christ.

She, too, has begun to experience hope and healing from the pain of her divorce. Many years ago, she was a pastor's wife, but when her husband left her for another woman, his actions destroyed not only their marriage, but also her faith. This past March, we celebrated with her as she rededicated her heart to Jesus. The pain that this couple experienced became a missional, eternal opportunity for us as a church.

Let's think about our communities. Most people likely live in pleasant houses and appear to have it all together, but how many are either headed toward, or working though the pain of divorce? Now, let's use our holy imaginations to picture what our cities would look like if our homes or churches became the place to go for people struggling in their marriages. Imagine our local newspapers carrying stories about how our churches radically care for those experiencing the pain of divorce.

Our country is desperately seeking guidance on these issues, and it appears the newsmagazines and tabloids are only too happy to oblige. However, a far deeper source of guidance and care could come from Scripture and from living out what it means to be a community of faith, hope, and love.

The missional potential to positively impact separated or divorced adults in our churches and communities depends not merely on a theological or informational response, but on a grace-filled and pastoral one. If we engage at this level, we may just be able to change the state of our unions.

Brad Sumner is pastor at Jericho Ridge Community Church, Langley, B.C.

Originally published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, May 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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