When a marriage fails, the church has failed and needs to breathe new life where there has been death.

“It’s all over now. One final session in court and a life together is over. If the marriage had ended in death (you muse), there would have been a funeral. Your friends would have been with your mate or you for the final service. Word and sacrament would have been a comfort. Next Sunday there would have been prayers for the survivors. The grief could have been open, and even proud. One need not apologize for death.

“But this is a divorce … and divorce is completely and utterly without honor. The church has no prayers for the divorced. No congregational voice will rise up to heaven on behalf of your loss.”

So begins Alice Stopler Peppier in her introduction to Divorced and Christian (Concordia, 1974). She is right. More often than not, the church offers no support for the person caught in the painful grief of a living death: divorce. Divorce is a statement of failure not only for the persons divorcing, but also for the Christian church.

Some churches go to extremes. On the one hand, there are those that do not recognize divorce as legitimate on any grounds. Others, on the other hand, accept divorce as preferable to an ongoing unhappy marriage. The CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll (1979) showed that about two-thirds of the nation’s pastors fell somewhere between these extremes, believing divorce should be permitted only in an “extreme situation” (CT editorial, May 25, 1979).

My plea, regardless of the foregoing, is for pastors and lay Christians not to get so hung up on which biblical grounds divorce may be permissible that they overlook the duty of the church to minister to those who have sustained, or who are experiencing, divorce. In many cases, not only have these people not gone through divorce for the right reasons (if one accepts such a possibility), but for reasons that do not meet the biblical criteria some pastors and churches understand to be legitimate.

Much has already been said and written about how to prepare for marriage, but very little is available on what to do for those who have failed. Some seminars have been conducted for pastors who are seeking creative ways to uphold the biblical view of marriage and at the same time to respond to the suffering of divorced persons (see “Divorce and Remarriage in Christian Perspective,” by William Oglesby, Pastoral Psychology, Summer 1977).

The church desperately needs to face and develop a Christian policy and attitude toward both divorced persons and those who have remarried, so that it will be able to respond immediately and with openness when confronted with questions. We only compound the problem if we pretend it is not there, or when we force someone to suffer while the church makes up its mind about such things as membership, teaching, or holding office. By the time the dust has settled, the person in question usually will have given up and gone elsewhere, or simply dropped out of church worship and nurture.

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Each church, of course, must decide what the Bible teaches about divorce and the remarriage of divorced persons. Certainly the Bible upholds the high view of marriage as a God-ordained relationship that no one should destroy.

At the same time, because I believe Christians must care about divorced persons, we are also required by that same Bible to come alongside people who hurt, and offer them the redemptive, healing grace of God. Such an approach is described in “A Christian Understanding of Divorce,” by Thomas Olshewsky (Journal of Religious Ethics, Spring 1979); in Christian Alternatives Within Marriage, by Gary Demarest (Word, 1977); and in Divorce and the Faithful Church, by G. Edwin Bontrager (Herald Press, 1978).

I look at marriage as both a spiritual covenant before God and the church and a civil contract before society. It is a covenant in the sense that both parries vow to commit themselves by God’s grace to each other. These vows, spoken before God and his people, rest on the belief that Christ reinstated the supremacy of marital fidelity in the face of the Pharisees’ question about loopholes. Marriage thus pictures God’s covenant with the church.

As far as society is concerned, marriage is a civil contract in which the couple declare their intention to live by the laws of the state. These laws are for the good of society as a whole in that they provide stability for parents and children.

Such an approach to marriage carries us far beyond the immediate questions so often discussed: Was sexual adultery committed? By whom? Who is the innocent party? When we consider marriage as primarily a spiritual covenant, the important issue is personal fidelity to the vow to work toward becoming one in relationship. Wrongdoing is thus not limited to the overt sexual act with someone other than one’s spouse. Rather, it may well be the infidelity of neglect and alienation because of one’s preoccupation with a job or children or oneself. More often than not, these are the things that lie behind overt extramarital behavior, things that tempt a husband or wife to begin to look elsewhere for the understanding he or she perceives as missing in the marriage.

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If marriage involves such a spiritual covenant, the failure of that covenant is a matter for repentance. Sometimes surprising things happen when husbands and wives confess such failure and seek the support of the church in the person of a friend, a pastor, or a counselor. In this way they should be enabled to find God’s healing grace to change and return to the marriage with a renewed covenant. But for partners who cannot or will not take this step, divorce may become necessary as a last resort.

I agree with Olshewsky when he says, “If divorce from past failures does lead the Christian to a civil divorce, s/he has the continuing task of setting the break in repentance and mending it in forgiveness.… This requires not only that we adopt a Christian understanding of divorce but an understanding of Christian divorce, a divorce that leads into reconciliation rather than alienation.”

Gary Demarest comments: “This is not to say that divorce for any reason or every reason is acceptable. It does affirm the fact, however, that God makes a gracious provision for us to deal with the irremediable, destructive situations in every human relationship. This principle is reiterated in the context of Matthew 18:15–17, where a process is offered as a means of dealing with broken relationships in the Christian community.”

There are some who may say that this is letting down the barrier and inviting divorce. Not at all. Without condoning sin, the church must still love a divorced or divorcing couple and seek to minister to them. We must remember that the justice and love of God are to be wedded in that experience also. In Romans 6, the apostle Paul tried to explain the forgiveness of God in the face of the law of God. We do not invite sin that grace may abound. But neither must we hold that divorce is the unpardonable sin for which there is no healing and forgiveness from God.

Responsibilities for the marital relationship are spread among the couple and the community of faith before whom, and with whom, they have taken their vows. If marriage is so serious a task, and we humans so sinful, then the church has a great responsibility to support that task by every possible means. It can do this through helping a couple prepare adequately for marriage, and by supporting them through the ups and downs of their becoming “one flesh.”

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Here is the background for the church to respond more effectively to divorced persons. The place to begin is by taking church membership more seriously. If confessing Christ as Lord and Savior means not only that we are related to God through his Spirit but also that we are now related to other Christians in the church, then we need to reevaluate the covenant relationship of church membership. Do people simply come and go in spectator fashion? Or does church membership involve responsibility for one another in Christ? Growth and education in the Christian life cannot be experienced without meaningful relationships in the church.

But please note: I am not speaking of authoritarian relationships where one merely stands in judgment of another’s behavior. Rather, I am remembering that I, too, am a sinner who has been forgiven much by the Savior. I am speaking of relationships where we call one another to commitment, and where we encourage and support one another and bear one another’s burdens when we fail (Gal. 6:1–5).

As Henri Nouwen says, we need to be committed to membership in a community of “wounded healers.” This can be experienced only where there are growth groups within the church. Small cells provide the kinds of relationships necessary for leveling with one another in love for the purpose of Christian growth (Eph. 4:15).

The church also needs to help Christians learn how to live in a fragmenting, secular society. For example, probably one of the greatest causes of divorce is that it is too easy to get married. Contrast how much time a couple spends in romance with the amount it spends in preparation for a married lifetime. According to Wayne Oates, “The divorced Christian is a symptom of the irresponsibility of the church as a teaching community and its failure of nerve as a fellowship of human suffering” (Pastoral Counseling in Social Problems, Westminster, 1966).

Bontrager writes: “It is imperative that counseling services be provided to persons considering marriage to help them understand the seriousness and responsibilities of marriage.” While this is, of course, true, it may be too little, too late. We need to revamp our educational programs so as to provide realistic and effective education for living in our stressful society—that is, we need to provide support/study groups in the church at every age level. We need to apply Christian truth and grace to living in an alienating society, and we need to do it to prevent problems and to reeducate people who have fallen into patterns that have produced problems.

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An important function of the church is to provide the supportive, accepting relationships that are so much needed by those suffering the painful grief of divorce. Divorced persons often find that it takes one to three years to work through grief and readjustment. That this period is so long may be due in part to the loneliness and alienation such individuals have experienced in the Christian community.

I remember one active member of an evangelical church who was suffering a divorce and the loss of his job at the same time. He told me he could count on the fingers of one hand the people in the church from whom he felt real support. Others, he said, would turn down another aisle to avoid him as he entered the church. Some would admonish him to pray more, or to get his life in order so that God could bless his marriage and restore him to a job.

A Christian singles recovery group can be of tremendous value during this period of grief. Most churches already have enough people for such a group when they take into account the widowed and divorced persons who are already there. Christian organizations that minister to singles are glad to provide help to get a group started.

It is important to recognize that group ministries like these should only be for recovery. Their goal is to reintegrate hurting people into the life of the church. An important part of that process is educating the rest of the church body to help their understanding.

We need to get in touch with our own unbiblical prejudices and fears about divorced persons. Particularly we need to look at how we subtly—and not so subtly—communicate our attitudes to formerly married persons. I remember one church that had an adult group called “Pairs and Spares.” It wasn’t until I began to listen to widowed and divorced people that I realized how brutally that title described how they are often made to feel.

Darlene Petri quotes Katie Wiebe’s experience of attending a large, church banquet with a woman friend. “As we entered the banquet half, the ushers asked us if we would mind splitting up and taking single seats, which they found difficult to fill with couples. I wondered later how many married couples had been asked to do the same” (The Hurt and Healing of Divorce, David C. Cook, 1976).

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The church that takes seriously God’s high call to Christlikeness will be able to support and teach the high view of marriage as a covenant between two partners to become one flesh in Christ for life. At the same time, such a church will join those who fail in confession and healing, and in renewal through God’s forgiving grace. The congregation that has a theology of divorce, and a Christian response, is prepared not to deny, ignore, tolerate, or condemn divorced people. Rather, it will face divorce with a failing couple, and with them, own it as a sinful failure of the covenant. That church will provide counsel for healing and renewal. And, if necessary, it will walk with that couple through the pain of civil divorce, mutual forgiveness, and restoration, to the end that together they may go on for God in the Christian life.

George Ensworth, Jr., is professor of pastoral theology and chairman of the Department of the Ministry of the Church at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He also conducts a private counseling psychology practice.

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