Here’s an interesting thing – based on the 2016 census, there is 12% of our population who are separated or divorced. Based on the 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS), 6% of our church population is separated or divorced. Half! Does this mean that churches are amazing at supporting marriages? Or does it mean that people feel that our churches are not welcoming to divorced and separated people?
Is there a stigma attached to divorce? And if there is, does that come from the church congregation, or from the church leadership and culture?
My personal experience is to have felt as though I was morally tainted in some contexts, and welcomed and supported in others. In the former, I think this was brought into sharper relief by my own feeling of failure. A divorced person is highly sensitized to any sense of rejection, moral failing and stigma. It’s hard to walk into a church as a single-again. If it’s your own church, then it’s a very public declaration that you are now on your own. Everybody knows (or at least can see the evidence of) your business.
If its a new church you’re going to, one of the first questions is always about your family situation. What do you say? Will they judge me? You become acutely aware of being a lone parent checking your kids in at kids church. You become super paranoid that people can see the paler band of skin on your finger where your wedding ring used to be.
In addition, churches are largely set up for families. 65% of the church population is married (NCLS) compared to 48% in the general population. So what is “normal” in the world, is “abnormal” in the church. You stick out.
So, if people are even remotely cold or seeming to lack in grace, the separated person will go running for the hills.
In some ways, its understandable. Throughout all cultural changes and world movements, the church has remained steadfast. With no-fault divorce and the explosion of divorce rates subsequently, the church remained focused on the centrality of the family and marriage as the bedrock of a Christian community. That’s a good thing. Our churches cannot move with the times just “because”. We have to stay true to what we believe.
But one of the things we believe is grace.
If churches are havens of the broken, why are there not more single-agains in them? Churches should feel like a safe space for the lost. And yet they are not – or at least, not seen as being so.
There is a biblical phrase that has been bandied around very unhelpfully. “God hates divorce.” This comes from Malachi 2:16 which is translated either as ““The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”” or as ““I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “because the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence”” The context of this passage is covenant breaking on the part of the priests that Malachi is rebuking. Notwithstanding, it provides a clear indication of what God appears to think of divorce.
But here’s a thing everyone should know – all divorced people understand completely why God hates divorce. Because its terrible. It’s painful and torturous. It hurts whole families. It is horrible for the children. It tears up families, friends and can even split communities. We know intricately and agonisingly why God hates divorce. We know better than anyone.
When Jesus is asked about marriage and divorce, he relates his answer to Genesis and comments “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate” (Matthew 19:6). When asked about this unequivocal stance when Moses allowed divorce, he says “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:8) Divorce was never the plan. Perfect harmonious relationships are the plan – but we are human. So divorce is not a gift, but it is a gracious provision in the face of our human rubbish-ness.
Now that doesn’t mean we should be like the world and dash about marrying and divorcing with impunity. It does mean that we need to treat each other with grace because we are imperfect.
Unfortunately, church history and tradition have over-layed the “God hates divorce” thing. For the Romans, divorce was terribly functional. Like the dissolving of a business partnership that no longer worked, divorce had no moral taint attached to it. In the early church, there was a speedy move to the indissolubility of marriage except in certain circumstances (on the basis of Jesus’ teaching), but they didn’t really get involved unless one of the parties wanted to re-marry. As the church gradually took over jurisdiction of marriage, by the early Middle Ages, divorce became far more regulated and commented on. Divorce was even deemed to be criminal. That attitude pervaded until at least the 19th century and we still have hangovers of it today.
Divorce is a very public “sin”. If you are divorced, you must have done something wrong. There is a presumption of sin and sinful behavior. Even if it wasn’t your fault, you let it happen. You failed.
Here’s what Kevin deYoung said of divorce: “Is every divorce the product of sin? Yes. Is every divorce therefore sinful? No.”
Its a helpful reminder. We can never assume what the story is. Undoubtedly there has been sin somewhere but we do not know what and by who. We cannot and ought not, to assume guilt. Assuming guilt throws shame on the broken. If there is sin, then surely we must walk with people to help them repent? People don’t repent because they’ve been judged by other humans. They repent because their hearts have been moved by God. If there is no sin, then we must envelope them with the love and warmth of Christ.
Above all, we must help people to know that they have a place in our church, that they are welcome there, that they belong.
I would gently challenge churches to consider how a single-again would feel if they turned up to your church for the first time. What is the culture? Would they feel welcomed as though they had a place there? What about if one of your parishioners marriages imploded? What support mechanisms are there? Would they feel they can talk freely and honestly?
The main thing here is to be aware of how over-sensitive single-agains can feel, and that perception may be out-weighing the reality. In which case you may have to over-compensate to change pervading attitudes and assumptions as to what the church thinks.
Also, lets think about how the world sees us. We know that we are havens for the broken. But the world often sees us as oases of homogeneity. We are either nice white middle class community centers for families with small kids, or we are stern ivory towers of judgement on anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. That’s how we are seen. How do we change the perception, so that at the worst possible time in someones life, they know they can turn to the church for support and love?
I don’t have all the answers, but it seems to me that we need to think about this if we are to help the lost to feel as though church is a safe space for them to come and find belonging in the arms of Jesus and find his love in action in his community.
NOTE: Many churches are starting to offer Divorce Care. This is an excellent course and you can find a group here or even find more information on how to set up a group in your church.