MDR: Pastoral Implications, Part 1 (Divorce prevention)

If the state legislature can’t solve our divorce problem, what can? Plainly, Jesus is the answer, and regarding divorce, I believe Jesus works foremost through his church.

The church has to see divorce as a church problem and not merely a private problem for couples to wrestle with, perhaps with the help of counselors. Rather, we must share one another’s burdens and work together to build a community where marriages are strong and resist divorce.

A. Divorce prevention

i. Preaching

The first goal has to be divorce prevention. How do we build strong marriages — so strong that they last a lifetime? I suppose I’m a little old-fashioned, but I think it all starts with preaching.

We cannot and should not try to “guilt” people into staying in bad marriages. However, we need our members to know that God really does hate divorce and really does condemn violations of the marriage covenant. Excellent, positive, Biblical preaching on sex and marriage can help create an atmosphere that makes divorce less likely.

a) Premarital sex

I suppose we have to begin with premarital sex. As Buddy Bell teaches, Satan will do everything in his power to get a couple to have sex before marriage and to keep a couple from having sex after marriage.[1] Husbands and wives are more likely to be faithful to their spouses if they are abstinent before marriage. If we don’t have the discipline to control our sexual impulses when single, we just may have trouble changing our ways once we’re married.

Unfortunately, many of our preachers and churches have unconsciously bought into the popular culture’s notion that premarital sex is inevitable, and so there’s just no benefit in making young people feel guilty about premarital sex. Our efforts, we feel, are better spent working with the married.

However, fidelity in marriage is part of a larger Christian perspective in which we see sex as proper only within a marriage. If we don’t condemn premarital sex, we unintentionally remove some of the stigma of extramarital sex. After all, if men and women can’t be expected to control themselves when single, how can we expect them to control themselves when married? It’s really all the same.

As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,

We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity — like perfect charity — will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God.

Spouses sometimes find themselves forced to control their sexual urges because their spouse is unavailable due to travel, long work shifts, pregnancy, disease, small children, and such. Sometimes the husband and wife could find more time for each other than they do, but sometimes they just need to control themselves. It helps if they’ve had practice. The myth that we can’t control our sexual selves can’t be allowed in the church, and dismissing this lie means teaching abstinence to our single members.

Now, this is not about what the public schools should teach. It’s about what the church and parents should teach. Our children should learn their morality from their parents and their church home. If our parents and churches will do their jobs, then we’ll be much less concerned about what our children learn at school.

I should add that we must also take on the modern practice of couples living together without the benefit of marriage. This is no longer condemned by society, and the church seems awfully out of step in even speaking on the subject, but premarital sex is wrong, and merely living together does not solve the problem.

In addition to Lewis’s sublime Mere Christianity, I would commend to our preachers the excellent The Case for Marriage[2] as a resource in preaching on marriage, living together, and such.

b) Emotional affairs

We need our husbands and wives to know how affairs begin and how to avoid them. For example, nowadays most affairs begin at the workplace when a man and woman become too emotionally attached. The term is “emotional affair,” which doesn’t mean passionate sex. Rather, it refers to a male-female relationship that is emotional rather than sexual. However, these affairs often become sexual.[3]

Jesus too says that the sin begins long before the sex. Rather, when a man or woman seeks emotional support and emotional intimacy with someone other than his or her spouse, the journey to a sexual affair has begun. As dangerous as emotional affairs are to Christian marriage, we never preach on the subject, as Biblical as it would be. Our traditional teaching on divorce has been so centered on the sex act that our members can easily rationalize that any relationship short of sex must be okay.

c) Pornography

Just so, pornography is a sin against a marriage. It’s not just because it involves lust. Rather, pornography moves a man’s urge for sexual gratification away from his wife, and so is a lack of fidelity. We need to teach against pornography, but then we also need to teach wives how to be satisfying lovers for their husbands. While we can fairly ask our men not to be unreasonably demanding, the fact is that we live in a highly sexualized age where men are constantly being told they are entitled to incredible sex lives. Their wives need to honor Moses’ and Paul’s teaching and lovingly fulfill their husband’s sexual needs.

And all this needs to come from the pulpit. Send the kids to children’s church or whatever it takes — but in a sexualized age, the preacher has to address these issues regularly. In a typical Church of Christ, 30% of the membership never attends class. Moreover, we have a sermon-centered culture, and nothing is really important to us unless it’s important enough to be preached.

Some congregations may be shocked to hear sexual themes resound from the pulpit, but most members will wonder why it’s taken the preacher so long, and many spouses, fathers, and mothers will be very, very thankful for righteous teaching on marital fidelity.


[1] Sermon delivered to the University Church of Christ, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, June 2006.

[2] Linda J. Waite & Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Broadway Books, 2000).

[3] The leading work might be Shirley P. Glass, Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust & Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity (New York: Free Press, 2003). Chapters 1 and 2 lay out the emotional pathway along which emotional affairs begin and turn into sexual affairs.

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, Part 1 (Divorce prevention)

  1. RE: Premarital Sex

    One of your earlier posts, regarding the history of "marriage" as a ceremony, etc, creates an interesting conflict with your discussion regarding pre-marital sex.

    And I'm not going to suggest I've completely thought this thru, but I find it an awkward issue.

    As you've observed earlier, marriage is really about the commitment a couple makes to each other, and only as culture became more sophisticated have we constrained marriage to an artificial start date which coincides with a ceremony.

    That is convenient for those who seek to impose a legalistic measure on when the commitment begins, but I would like to think that most folks realize the marriage commitment actually begins sometime before the formal ceremony takes place.

    So, (and I know you love these kinds of questions), would it be sinful for a couple who have committed themselves to marry to engage in sexual relations prior to the date of their ceremony?

    The easy answer is to say, yes, it's sinful because they are not really married. But if, in their hearts they are committed to the marriage and later do, in fact, meet the traditional and cultural requirements for marriage, were they not in fact married when they made that commitment to each other?

  2. Jay Guin says:

    David,

    I've heard this argument before, but I'm not convinced. Marriage requires no ceremony, but it does require an intent to be (not later become) married. Merely planning to marry does not make a marriage.

    Consider the alternative. If becoming engaged = marriage, then breaking an engagement = divorce. Scary, huh?

    In the First Century, the Jews became betrothed before marrying, and ending the betrothal was very nearly the same thing as a divorce. Mary and Joseph were betrothed when she became pregnant with Jesus. He considered "putting her away privily" (KJV) or "divorcing" her (NIV) (Matt 1:19).

    But how did Joseph know Jesus wasn't his own child? Plainly, because they'd not had sexual intercourse. Hence, even a commitment so strong that divorce was required to break it didn't allow sexual relations — because they weren't yet married.

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