MDR: Pastoral implications (Divorce recovery)

B. Divorce recovery

If we do all these things, we’ll have happier marriages, better children, and fewer divorces. But so long as we’re evangelizing the world, we’ll always have men and women struggling with divorce.

For too long, we’ve figured that since divorce is wrong, our teaching stops with “don’t divorce.” Why teach about how to deal with divorce when no one is supposed to be divorced?

Well, that attitude is now pretty naïve, but old habits are hard to break.

i. How to treat your ex

Let’s start with some basics. We have to teach our ex-husbands and ex-wives how to treat their exes. All too often, Christians seek vengeance against their former spouses. We often struggle to forgive a former spouse who has sinned against us. We carry grudges and resentments, and all this makes us miserable. Worse yet, we play games with the children, using them to punish our former spouses.

I’ve never heard a sermon against former-spouse abuse, but such behavior should be condemned in the strongest terms. As painful and agonizing as divorce can be, we still have to be Christians and live the Sermon on the Mount. It’s hard to turn the other cheek and forgive our enemies, but it’s the hard cases that prove whether we’ve really repented.

And, yes, this is a proper subject for sermons and classes. Everyone of our members has been touched by divorce directly or indirectly. The discipline it takes to deal lovingly with a former spouse can’t be taught in a day. Rather, we need to preach on this one so much that it becomes a mark of Christianity — it’s the Christians who settle their divorce cases and work out their differences and never, ever have to invoke the civil courts to make them behave like, well, Christians.

I would go so far as to say that we err when we take our domestic disputes to the courts. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 6, we should be able to work those things out outside of court. Now, the only way to be divorced is through the civil courts, but the property settlement, alimony, and child custody should be handled by the former spouses, and if they can’t work it out, by Christian mediators within the church. Two Christians should never have to try the question of custody or property settlement. If they can’t agree, a system of Christian mediators and arbitrators should be available to resolve these things consistent with Christian values.

Imagine the testimony of the power of Jesus to change hearts if we could act like Christians even when going through a divorce! Imagine what the world would think if Christians could work out their differences outside the court system?

Now, of course, some church attenders aren’t very good Christians, and sometimes a Christian will have to get a restraining order or compel the payment of child support through the courts. But when this happens, the church should feel shame that one of its members will only do what’s right when ordered to do so by the government. I mean, why isn’t God’s command enough incentive?

Well, one reason God’s command isn’t enough is that we’ve never really taught that God cares about such things. Divorce is so wrong that we haven’t formed a morality of divorce. We need one.

ii. Divorce recovery

None of this is to belittle the extraordinary emotional toll that divorce can bring. Divorce can be as emotionally devastating as the death of a spouse — even worse. After all, dead spouses don’t try to take away your visitation rights and bankrupt you with unreasonable demands for alimony! Christians need to be there to support and encourage those who are going through this ordeal.

Sadly, we are often too quick to judge and condemn (it’s just so much easier!), when the real need is for sympathy and love. Of course, sometimes condemnation is very appropriate, but typically this will not be the case. Most people don’t put themselves through a divorce lightly.

Some congregations have excellent divorce recovery programs where couples provide emotional support for those going through the ordeal. These are great and very necessary. We need more.

iii. Reconciliation

Paul urges the newly divorced to seek reconciliation. This isn’t always possible or even desirable, of course. Some men, for example, are too violent or too selfish to be married. When a woman divorces an abusive husband, we’d be very foolish to insist that she return to a situation that threatens her life.

On the other hand, optimally, following a divorce the couple should receive support, encouragement, and also counseling. Why did the first marriage fail? How can we do a better job next time? How do I avoid marrying a brutal, cruel man again?

Done right, sometimes a couple works through enough of their issues after divorce that they can happily reconcile. After all, if they wish to remarry successfully, they likely need to work through some relationship problems, and having done so, may well be able to make the old marriage work.

Getting over the divorce takes time. Men especially often marry on the rebound, as many men cannot bear to be without a wife. As a result, many men have leapt into perfect awful marriages shortly after a divorce (or a death). Here’s the rule: if your female friends or sisters say she not right for you, she’s not right for you. Get a second opinion if you want, but never ignore a woman’s advice about another woman.

The time following a divorce can be a time of profitable introspection and perhaps personal improvement. It’s a terrible time to go looking for a new spouse.

iv. Remarriage

Now, as we’ve discussed at great length, remarriage after a divorce is not normally a sin. It may be very unwise if undertaken too quickly. But if a divorcee wants to remarry, the church should be willing to bless the marriage. However, we don’t need to be naïve. The couple should go through premarital counseling. And the counseling should honestly confront the reasons for the previous divorces and try to make certain those causes won’t recur.

Of course, many spouses are entirely innocent and had nothing to do with causing the divorce. We can’t blame the victim. But we can certainly be sure we’ve asked and encouraged an honest appraisal of how this marriage is going to go better than the first one.

When the spouse in fact did contribute to the first divorce, we need to talk about repentance and God’s will for marriage. Mainly, we need to ask for repentance from covenant breaking and ask that spouse to confess the sin and pledge to turn away from it. The other spouse needs to be aware of the sin that led to the first divorce. Good relationships are built on honesty.

With honest, heartfelt confession and repentance, the church should honor and accept the new marriage as God-approved. There should be no hesitance to grant a “church” wedding and to honor the couple as any other. We should celebrate the power of God’s grace to forgive, cleanse the former sin, and give a fresh start.

Instone-Brewer goes so far as to recommend a ceremony whereby the divorcee formally confesses and repents, pledging to honor the new marriage covenant.[1] I imagine that in some congregations, where ritual plays a larger role than in the Churches of Christ, this would be an excellent proposal. But the Churches of Christ are so low-church that we really wouldn’t know how to respond to such a ritual. And, of course, not all divorcees are guilty of anything, and so not all need to be called on to repent. Therefore, this strikes me as something better handled in premarital counseling.

Of course, this means the congregation won’t get to see the divorcee confess sin, nor do they need to. Rather, we should have enough confidence in our leadership to know that if the church has approved the marriage, the divorcee has satisfied the leadership of his or her repentance, if needed.


[1] p. 300 ff.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to MDR: Pastoral implications (Divorce recovery)

  1. Linda says:

    should a married man teach divorce recovery to divorced women?

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Linda,

    As a rule, no — not unless there are others present. In a group setting I wouldn't see a problem. I wrote some suggested guidelines a while back http://oneinjesus.info/2007/09/03/helping-your-mi

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