Category: Marriage

Why aren’t there more divorced people in our churches?

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.

Is a woman’s place in the home?

No. Unless you want it to be and it works for your family.

If you want to work, work.

If you want to remain in the home, remain in the home.

Neither makes you inferior.

Love God. Love your family. Outside of that, do what works best for your family context.

That is all.

PS I realise this is a broad topic. If you have worries or struggles or questions on our biblical “mandate” or what culture bombards us with, comment or message me and we’ll talk about it some more. Today’s McBlog is to remind you to have confidence in your situation and to be kind to yourself.

Dissecting emotional abuse and why it’s so easy to let it happen

Some things sound like a cop-out or an excuse. Emotional abuse is one of those. Physical abuse we can see. Psychological abuse we can understand. But emotional abuse seems a bit wish-washy. Doesn’t everyone say mean things from time to time? Does that make everyone an abuser? It feels like a blanket “men are mean” accusation, a large net that scoops up everyone and devalues real abuse,

This is why I feel moved to dissect this. Because it is real abuse. And there are people around us suffering from this right now, or suffering with post-trauma. If we can understand it, we can help them. So let’s get into it.

It’s hard for people to understand emotional abuse. First, much of the abuse is unseen so when abuse is declared, people can only judge by the behaviours they have seen and what they are hearing doesn’t seem to match what they’ve witnessed.

Second, people judge the behaviour by how they would feel, and if they wouldn’t feel abused by it, the behaviour is not judged to be inappropriate. The feelings of the victim are judged in comparison to the feelings of someone who is not in that situation.

Third, it’s hard to explain. A popular perception is that emotional abuse is just saying mean things or calling names. It can be those things, but it is so much more. It is the gradual compression of the spirit (more on this below).

Fourth, the victim is subject to the behaviour for years and so it is their “normal”. I’ve written before about the surprising number of women who don’t realise they are in an abusive situation (you can read it here). Think the mythical frog in a pot of boiling water. If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump straight out. If you put the frog in cold water, it will keep swimming while it gradually heats up. It grows accustomed to the increasing temperature – until it’s too late.

It is a subtle but tectonic shift over many years. But there is a process. Which means there are red flags you can look out for – flags by which you can protect yourself, or, flags to help you can recognise if someone you know is in a situation like this. I’ve summarised it in the diagram below and then talked through what those steps mean.

“Abuse” is a strong word. Not many people think they are “an abuser”. That’s because people tend to judge themselves by their intentions and other people by their actual behaviour. The majority of abusers intentions are not to abuse. But their behaviour is abusive. Let’s look at the process.

At the beginning of an abusive relationship, there may be some bullish behaviour and subtle control and manipulation. But two things blind the victim to their presence:

  1. The victim’s own confidence, self-esteem, coping mechanisms and support network are sufficient to override any disquiet or cope confidently with any shortcomings in the spirit of compromise within a new relationship; and
  2. Lovebombing” is a real technical team that describes an abusers modus operandi. Here are the main red flags – they will hook up quickly after the last relationship; they will isolate their new partner, shut out friends and so on and place all attention and affection on the partner (and themselves) so they are deeply and exclusively connected. Even if the victim has a large social network, there is an emotional interdependence created, an exclusive bubble; they will likely engage in repeated romantic gestures, extravagant attention and usually will co-habit and/or propose quickly. The reason this is so effective is that the victim is the subject of a Hollywood style level of affection. This behaviour covers over a multitude of subtle manipulation, coercion and power playing.

The next step occurs after some time of diminishing. The victim’s confidence gradually diminishes, their support networks might diminish as they are isolated, or their feeling of being able to talk to those networks diminishes. At the same time, the grand romance diminishes.

Over time, the victim has become more and more vulnerable to bullying, manipulation, control and coercion. But, in the style of the frog in the water, the victim might not know they are in boiling water. They might not know that their partner’s behaviour is not acceptable. It has become their normal.

The victim at this point may be soldiering on in their public life but inside feeling gradually crushed. At some point, as the capacity to cope dips below the level of adverse behaviour experienced, the wheels will fall off. If you’re interested, I’ve written before about the relationship between coping and trauma here.

This can be where the point of recognition occurs – the recognition of being in boiling water.

When the point of recognition occurs, the victim’s responses to the abuser will change as they realise what is happening to them. This is a critical juncture. Because as the victim’s behaviour changes, so does the abuser’s. The bullying and control and manipulation will begin to escalate. Volatility will become greater and more frequent, as will mood swings and the unpredictability as the abuser senses loss of control. Usually this is where gaslighting also escalates – an abusers process of making the victim believe it is their fault, or not happening, or even that they themselves are the abuser (read more here).

Then comes another downward spiral. Self-doubt in the victim leads to hopelessness and despair. This is on top of the emotionally abusive tactics (which are varied, diverse and insidious) which can generate real and deep fear and high levels of anxiety. The volatility of the abuser means that anger explosions don’t even need to happen for the abuse to occur – the fear is enough. Think of it this way: I have a new dog. At first when I was training her, I’d use words and tone of voice and even actions. Now, a mere 3 months later, my dog only has to see the look on my face to feel sure she is about to be shut outside and she’ll dart under the couch to hide from me. Victims have been trained and conditioned to know when to feel fear.

At this point, several possible outcomes are possible. The victim may reach breaking point and leave. Or, the abuse may escalate to physical violence as well.

This is not an outcome that can be tolerated by our community. But it need not reach this point for it to become not tolerable. Emotional abuse ought not to be tolerated by our community either. It is emotional violence. It is damaging and scarring.

When we understand emotional abuse (and this short blog by no means explains all the nuances!) we can become more aware to behaviour that is not ok. It may not be behaviour that is abusive yet – but yet is the key word. If we can see where behaviour is heading in that direction, if we can see some red flags, we can help and support the people around us who may be experiencing this emotional violence and damage.

Is Medieval the new modern in doing singleness?

I like the idea of Ye Olde Dayes. In my imagination it’s always a balmy English summer and there’s long flowing gowns to go meandering through the cloisters in. It’s a nice life, a calm life, a peaceful life.

In the Middle Ages, entering a convent was an option for a woman seeking safety, and seeking freedom. We tend to think of it as a punishment for wayward aristocratic daughters. In reality, a convent could be a place of retreat and learning and service to God, which many women genuinely sought.

When I separated, I wanted to hide from the world. I wanted some kind of “convent” (except for Protestants and with kids). I wanted a peaceful life where I could retreat from a world that was cruel and cold and harsh. I desperately wanted an escape to a place of safety and calm. Except I didn’t want a nunnery for any devotional reasons. It was for me, and my convenience, not for God or his glory.

But there was something in the concept that I kept returning to. Separation is a lonely business. You have to work out how to do life all over again. You have to work out how to think, how to be. And yet at the same time, be completely consistent and solid for your kids.

I’ve talked before about my decision to remain single (you can read the start of my thought process here). The question I needed to answer for myself was how am I going to be single? How am I going to live this life in direct relation to God? Me? Separated, divorced, alone, struggling in the world?

The answer came to me in my Bible reading one day. I was in the book of Ruth (I know – what a cliche!). Ruth, a foreigner and an outsider, alone in a strange world, is noticed by Boaz. When Boaz shows her kindness, she says to him “why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me – a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).

And that was it. That was how I felt about God. He had showed me unbelievable kindness in that time – a clear and palpable kindness at a time when I had nothing. And I couldn’t quite believe that he would treat me with such compassion and abundance. What Ruth said to Boaz, is what my heart was saying to God.

That right there is what helped me to start working out how to do life with a God as my Boaz, my kinsman redeemer, my husband.

The first thing I did was to buy rings for my marriage finger. Nothing expensive – a symbol of what and who I was committing to. The top one represents the blood of Christ. The middle one is the wheat of the field where Ruth spoke to Boaz. The bottom one is because it was pretty (because that is also ok).

I stepped up my devotional activity. I increased my prayer times. I became more consistent with my reading of Christian history and biography. This becomes a basis for focusing outwards, being a Christian in the world, witnessing through word and deed. I’m still looking for ways to grow in this new existence, writing and reaching more people. The focus of my singleness though, and how I use my time, is not escape, it is God. I am single for him, I am married to him.

Don’t think for a minute that I am saying that I am nailing it. I still have down times, crazy times, busy times – nothing is a constant state. It is up and down, good and bad and somewhere in between (mostly in between).

But I know that God is my husband. This is how God styled himself in the Old Testament to bring comfort and confidence to his people. In Isaiah, God speaks words of comfort to his exiled people. He will bring them home, he says. He will bring them provision and safety and strength. “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your maker is your husband – the Lord almighty is his name – the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.” (Isaiah 54:4-5)

Again, as with Ruth, God speaks words to outsiders who he will bring home into a familial relationship with him. And not just any familial relationship. A spouse. A spouse who protects and provides, who strengthens and encourages.

God is my Boaz, my kinsman redeemer, my Lord, my treasure. My “convent” is in the world. I can still retreat and learn and serve, but among my community. I want my community to be able to see and understand my decision. I want to talk about my relationship with God, how he saved me, how I found favour with him, how he noticed me, a foreigner.

Use my label to reach me, not to judge me

Church is a place of labels. Some are logistically useful – we wear name tags so we can engage with others in fellowship. Some are purely organizational, categorizing us into ministries so we can be pastored more easily. But some labels are signs above our heads for all to see. These labels are burdensome to the bearer and scary or embarrassing to the reader – unless you know what to do with them. Then these labels become a signal as to how you can love and care for that person. It becomes a bridge into their life where you can sit with them.

“Single mum” is just such a label. Of course, there are “single dads” as well – but I can’t speak for them, I can only speak to my own experience. But I’m assuming a lot of what I say here will resonate with them too.

The best first step in ministering to single mums is to recognise (and therefore help them not to feel) that they are a rare thing: that its just “them”. Sadly, in Australia, 22% of families are single parent families, and of that 22%, 87% of them are lone mother families.[1] It is unknown how many single mums currently make up our church congregations. It is likely that it is lower than the general population average, given that the number of divorced/separated people outside of church is 48% and 12% within the church. This is a big gap, but not so big that a single parent should feel alone. If your congregation is 100 people, there could be up to 12 people who are struggling with this reality and this label.

The next step is to understand a little of what a single mum might be feeling (again, I can only speak for women here):

  • There is terror. This is real. A single mum faces financial, social and logistical challenges that place her in danger of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, and this is not just in the poorer areas we imagine. At one point in my post-separated journey, I had no job, no money, no prospects and came closer than I realized to losing my house. I live in a pretty cozy middle-class area. I was absolutely terrified. The worries crowd in, one on top of the other and there seems no end or solution in sight.
  • There is loneliness. We can be surrounded by beautiful Christian community. But at some point, they go home to their families and you are left alone. You wonder who your family will be.
  • There is exhaustion. The logistics of taking care of kids can be easy and it can be hard, especially when you are working full time which most single mums have to, to make ends meet. The physical tiredness can’t be pushed aside. What is important to get a picture of though, is the emotional exhaustion. Doing all the parenting – the discipline, the counselling, the loving, the teaching, the cheerleading, the supporting, the bed times, the dinner times, the school drop off, the pickup, the bath times, the bed times – and there’s no back up. It’s exhausting emotionally and it’s intense and sustained.
  • There is love. When it’s just you and the kids, the kids become everything and, speaking for my own, my heart pumps for their kindness and joy and humor.

So, all that said, how can our churches better minister to single parents? Perhaps even encourage more single parents to come to church for the eternal perfection of a relationship with Jesus and, in the meantime, find a new community of family.

I am incredibly blessed to say that many of my pointers here are not because this is what I realized I needed, but my community of sisters (and brothers) who just appeared with these supports to me during my time, and still do. These are people who are living out the biblical principles of kingdom community:

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” Psalm 133:1, 3

  • Sometimes we need your material support: Before I got another job (and sometimes after) and I was in need, every so often I would come home to an envelope or bag of groceries on my doorstep. Another friend from time to time tells me she’s bringing dinner over. She doesn’t ask me if I need it, she just brings it and drops it off with a smile and a hug. Trust me when I say Centrelink does not stretch far so these gifts got us through many a week.
  • Open your home and your family: Every second Friday is a hard one for me. I come home to an empty house. I have beautiful friends though who bring me into their home. Its not a dinner party, I just join their family at their table. It’s inclusive, it’s normal, it’s joyful.
  • Give us a reason to put our bras on: Some days it can be easy to sink your head down and let the depression take over. A friend of mine one Saturday asked me if I’d like to join her and her friend for coffee. I didn’t feel like it, but I went. We started meeting frequently after that. It gives me a reason to get up, get dressed and get out into the world.
  • Cut us some slack on the “hallmark” days at church: A lot of churches do things for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even Valentines Day. These are hard times for us. We probably won’t come to church those days.
  • Don’t assume we can’t or don’t want to serve: OK, it’s going to be hard, but there are things we can do. Some might not want to but helping us to find a serving niche supports us in the church, it keeps us connected (because it is very easy to become isolated). It also tells us that you value us and that our “label” doesn’t also say “Failure – not to serve”.
  • Sometimes we need “dad jobs” done: I have learned how to do a lot of things that I never knew how to do before. But sometimes there are things that just stump me – putting new door handles on, replacing a kitchen cabinet door, replacing windscreen wipers. Sometimes we just need a Christian brother or sister to help us with practical around-the-house things.
  • Don’t assume we are looking for new husbands: The first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice could have been written for the modern church – here it is amended for people like me: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single [woman] in possession of [children] must be in want of a [husband].” I personally decided very early that I would not be in another relationship, partially for theological reasons and partially for personal reasons. Others may decide differently. Single mums don’t come to church (on the whole) like it’s a weird singles bar. We come to be with Jesus. Help us to do that. Because ultimately, in our time of need, he is what we need.
  • Help us to live in our singleness for the gospel: Whatever people decide to do, there is a period of time when they exist in singleness. Singleness in the church can be difficult whether you are a never-married, a single-again or a widow(er). We need help to discover the potential and purpose in our singleness so that we can grow as disciples and live for Christ.

Jesus says his community of believers is his family (Matthew 12:49-50) and in the book of Acts, we see the community of first believers living with strong bonds of unity. I have this family of believers around me. They saw the sign above my head and used it as a bridge to come into my life and treat me with grace and gentleness and understanding.

The thing that unites and bonds us though, is Jesus – the most gracious and gentle person of all. Help us to stay in church. Help us to stay connected. Everything I have mentioned here helps women like me to survive and get stronger. It helps us to not become isolated from church. It may help to build strong bonds to church because it shows how the church can reach out to people where they are without judgement or recrimination. Ultimately, it helps us to keep our eyes fixed Jesus. The kindness of his community, shows us a present and real picture of God’s love in action.

[1] http://www.hisheartministrytraining.com.au/one-together/