Editorial: The Christian Divorce Culture
Syndicated columnist Geneva Overholser believes that churches will eventually approve of homosexual unions. Why? "I think in due time this thinking will change, just as most churches' opposition to divorce, for example, has changed," she writes. Overholser is not alone in this perception. But where did Overholser and others get the idea that most churches no longer oppose divorce? Maybe from the way churches, including evangelical churches, have handled the matter lately. The problem is not confined to one denomination or subgroup. The most recent high-profile example happened this spring, in the divorce of Charles Stanley, pastor of the 5,000-member First Baptist Church of Atlanta. Stanley acknowledged the gravity of divorce when he promised a few years earlier to resign if he were to divorce. But after Stanley's 44-year marriage ended, Gearl Spicer, the church's administrative pastor, told the congregation that Stanley, 67, would continue as the church's senior pastor. At this the congregation stood and applauded. Spicer added, "It is my biblical, spiritual and personal conviction that God has positioned Dr. Stanley in a place where his personal pain has validated his ability to minister to all of us."A prominent friend of Stanley's said he was "deeply sympathetic with the sorrow I know all of the Stanley family must feel over this." How the matter was handled in private, we do not know. But so nervous are we these days about being judgmental, condemning, and so on, few bothered to suggest publicly that Stanley's divorce was morally wrong. Divorce is certainly not the unforgivable sin, and when a couple divorces, it is only right that the church show compassion and understanding—especially in cases where abuse or truly irreconcilable issues have made the marriage a misery and a mockery.But there's no getting around it: whether we define sin as a transgression of Christ's commands, missing the mark, or the breaking of relationships, divorce is a sin. To be sure, divorce is sometimes the lesser of two evils, but it nonetheless nullifies God's intent. God joins people together; he doesn't pull them apart.Why emphasize the moral dimension? Partly because treating divorce as a therapeutic problem only gets us so far. We need to raise the stakes, or better, to show once again how high the stakes really are.As a recent study by George Barna showed, the percentage of born-again Christians who have been divorced (27) actually beats the national average by 2 points. "While it may be alarming to discover that born-again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce," says Barna, "that pattern has been in place for quite some time."Barbara Dafoe Whitehead argued in The Divorce Culture that divorce is not just a therapeutic problem but a moral one in which, to use biblical language, the commandment to love is thwarted: "Divorce has brought a steady weakening of the primary human relationships and bonds," says Whitehead. "Men's and women's relationships are becoming more fleeting and unreliable. Children are losing ties to their fathers. Even a mother's love is not forever." This is precisely why she concluded that if we are to "dismantle the culture of divorce," we need to "treat divorce as a morally as well as socially consequential event."What might this mean practically? First, we can stop using euphemisms. Divorce is more than a "tragedy," a "painful experience," a "great loss." It is the thwarting of God's will. It is something that tears at the fabric of our moral universe. As such, as Whitehead has reminded us, it creates ripples of moral and social consequences.Second, when pastors and other Christian leaders in significant teaching or preaching positions divorce, they should be held as accountable as they are for certain other sins, like adultery. At a minimum, time out for spiritual direction and healing, as well as a public service of repentance and renewal, are essential before public responsibility can be given again. If we were to make clear that divorce is also a moral issue, we would send a strong signal, stronger than we have sent for some time, that except in the most dreadful circumstances, divorce is not an acceptable alternative for Christians.