I’m currently taking a class in family ministry, which is much broader in scope than the typical evangelical conversation on family. In other words, it is not focused on homosexuality, divorce, or gender roles. And yet… I still feel there are certain attitudes and assumptions in the classroom regarding divorce.
This is the problem: divorce is portrayed as bad. Period. But that’s not a truly Christian view of divorce in my opinion. A truly Christian view of divorce recognizes that divorce is often bad but sometimes good, although the bad things leading to the divorce are always bad. But we generally speak of divorce in bad-only terms, further marginalizing those who have experienced divorce as a good thing—a thing, I dare say, God may have led them to pursue. Maybe most people are simply divorcing because times are tough and they’re not committed anymore, but there is a significant minority with a different experience. I believe this minority should be addressed by church leaders and that the rest of our congregations, likewise, should be made aware of this minority’s presence and special needs.
My concern with this is personal. Many of my mom’s Christian friends and acquaintances pulled away after her divorce in 2008. Sadly, I believe this is a common response within the evangelical community. Obviously, we need to have standards of morality that we uphold, and we need to be gracious in how we communicate our convictions when these standards are broken. But there’s something more here, I think: ignorance of what even happened and whether this divorce is even worthy of our gracious disapproval. It’s foolish to assume we magically know why someone divorced their spouse and to declare that unknown reason to be illegitimate.
Do we know that person well enough to know if they were being battered? If their spouse had an addiction? If someone was cheating? One might assume to know what’s going on with a close friend, but let me tell you, even most of my mom’s closest friends had no real clue what was happening to her. Most of them didn’t ask, but even when she told some of them, they didn’t always believe her. “Oh, but your husband is nice!” they’d say. Sure…. Did they live with him? Maybe instead of assuming we should ask—and believe the person’s story.
And what’s worse: the fear of this sort of thing kept my mom from divorcing for years. Really, she not only feared others’ judgment but her own judgment against herself. She had been so ingrained to think divorce was evil, that she did not know if it were even an option. The truth is, her husband/my father was emotionally abusive for years, she was justified in getting out, and I wish she had gotten out sooner (something she now wishes, too). But nobody ever talked about emotional abuse—or any kind of abuse—at our church.
When speaking of divorce, why is it so very rare that we encourage anyone to consider divorce that should be considering it? I’m not saying we should try to break off marriages left and right, but people in an abusive situations are already questioning themselves and whether or not they’re making too big of a fuss over the situation. Anyone in an abusive situation needs to hear loud and clear from the outside that 1) abuse is real, 2) what it looks like, and 3) that it’s ok (and probably wise, and maybe even morally required) for them to divorce.
In my class, I wish that when divorce was mentioned, it wasn’t just lumped with those other “bad-ish things.” Just a sentence or two to students today could lead to a sentence or two to congregations tomorrow. It is easy to think a few short words clarifying our stance is meaningless—that everyone already knows that or that nobody will pay attention or that the kind of people at our church don’t need to hear that. Well, my upper-middle-class, private-schooled, conservative Christian doctor’s family is evidence to the contrary. People do live in these kinds of situations—people from all sorts of backgrounds, in fact—and there is a great need for them to hear that you will support them as they try to escape this hell.