How to Reduce Divorce Stigma in Church

How to Reduce Divorce Stigma in Church April 8, 2024

I always believed that the moment you even thought about divorce in a marriage you had failed.

Somehow, many think, opening up the possibility of splitting will inevitably lead to the unmentionable happening.  In many churches today divorce is still taboo, it is unthinkable.  If it happens in your marriage the stigma and shame can be unbearable.  Some even react as though divorce might be contagious, perhaps by unlocking the idea that if one couple can get divorced then maybe we all will.

Of course a major reason for the stigma of divorce is that we do not talk about it.  When was the last time you heard a testimony or a sermon illustration that involved the speaker’s divorce?  Stigma breeds silence which breeds more stigma.  Much easier to just not talk about it, and perhaps turn up at another church and never tell anyone about what happened previously.

Part of the reason for the deafening silence about divorce is that it really isn’t fair to an ex-partner to publicly share the private story of your divorce.  No matter how one sided the reasons for the divorce might seem to you, your ex partner will no doubt have a different view.  And so to share how the divorce made you feel with the world risks putting only one side of the story out there and painting your ex-partner in an unfair light.  And so most people do not do that and therefore the divorce stays hidden, and this in itself can lead to worsening feelings of shame. It is really important to find at least some people that you can be honest with privately, or you may find the burden becomes crippling.

Although I have written about recently getting married on here, I have never publicly stated that the reason I got married in later life is that I myself have been divorced.   However, I will not talk about my own divorce story as it is not appropriate to do so. Nothing I write in this article should be seen as commentary on my own case, as that will remain private.  I will say, however, that my divorce was by far the hardest time of my life, coming as it did during the COVID lockdowns, and on top of years of struggle with major health issues. At times I didn’t feel like I could survive, and very few people knew how best to help me.

Divorce is rightly considered one of the absolutely worst forms of suffering that can come into your life. John Piper describes this with pastoral insight:

Divorce is painful. It is often more emotionally wrenching than the death of a spouse. It is often long years in coming and long years in the settlement and in the adjustment. The upheaval of life is immeasurable. The sense of failure and guilt and fear can torture the soul. Like the psalmist, night after night a spouse falls asleep with tears (Ps. 6:6). READ MORE 

Tim Keller likens divorce to an amputation, stating that it should never be entered into lightly but it is sometimes the only way to survive:

“Divorce is sometimes necessary and some people are awfully self-righteous about divorce and look down their nose at any divorced person . . .God is trying to say to all of us, “I love redeeming the worst situations.” “I love to bless the hardest cases. Try me. Come to me.” No one ever perished at Jesus’ feet. No one who ever came to him was in any way cast out.’  READ MORE.

I must ask you, Is your view of Jesus that he is gracious towards ALL people, even the hardest cases, those in the worst situations, those who have messed up more than anyone else? Or are you part of cancel culture?

The pain divorce causes overflows to many other people, tragically of course including your children. And yet too many people feel they have nobody they can talk to who understands what they are going through, and can compassionately help them through it.  You might be the only person in your church who has experienced divorce.

Some will feel immense pressure from others or themselves to always be positive and to hide their pain.  This is incredibly damaging.  Many divorcing Christians will say that they have never felt more alone or more in pain. This is definitely one moment counselling can be of great help, and I have no shame in admitting I made good use of it.

One thing that was also majorly helpful for me was Holy Trinity Brompton’s Restored Lives course which I did online.  I can’t recommend it strongly enough.  Even if you live in another country since the course runs via Zoom you may be able to join.  Perhaps you don’t know anyone else who is going through a divorce.  You will find a group of others to share with, and some helpful direction from a series of talks to guide you through the minefield of untangling two lives that have been together for many years. They also run a workshop for the children and young people of divorced couples.

A new Restored Lives online course starts in May so perhaps some of you needed to read this and book in right now. Here is the course trailer:

 

Somehow we have to find a way to reduce the stigma of divorce and to help those who are going through its pain.

I have met a number of other divorced Christians and there are themes which recur over and over again in many of their stories.

We are often led to believe that divorce never happens to “good christians”. The trouble is there is no such thing as a perfect Christian, and definitely no such thing as a perfect marriage.  All of us have some form of mess in our lives and if your own particular brand of mess leads to the end of your marriage that can be really hard to cope with.

Sometimes getting divorced might reveal to you that the church you are in is legalistic and you may feel condemned. Jesus loves all of us and is enormously kind to anyone who is truly seeking him. But when he was on earth he was very direct with those who were legalistic and who put hard burdens onto others that they could not bear themselves.

It wasn’t that long ago that many churches taught that divorce was never allowed, or if it was allowed you had to remain separate and never remarry.  Having tasted the togetherness of even a bad marriage even those considered the “innocent party” in a divorce were condemned to a lifetime of being alone. Having said that, a trend towards at least some Christians having a more relaxed view of divorce and remarriage began with the Reformers.

Some Christian leaders today are quite generous in their teaching on divorce and remarriage, like Tim Keller and Wayne Grudem. On the other hand some, like John Piper, at laeast in theory do not support any circumstances for remarriage (tho his own view is a bit more nuanced than at first sight).  Others like RT Kendall fall somewhere in the middle. It is important to recognise the reality that some marriages do not work, and then figure out what we are going to believe about that and the circumstances it leads to.

I have collated the views of some leading Christians and shown how they fit into a spectrum of differing views on divorce and remarriage in another post.

It would help if churches were in general a bit better at handling singleness.  But sadly often married couples are only friends with other married people, and singles may sometimes feel like second class citizens. They may be denied both social opportunities and restricted in ministry.  If you get a divorce all too often you loose your married friends and it may be hard to  establish new relationships now you are single again.   Often one or both parties will feel that they have to leave the church they were in as a married couple. Sometimes that reflects on the church, but sometimes it may just be about needing a fresh start.

Having spent possibly decades in an exclusive relationship with your partner, making new friends can be very hard.  The so-called “Billy Graham Rule” has led to an awkwardness between the genders in many churches, and some unhealthy marriages are so all-encompassing they stifle even same sex friendships.

If you are in some form of church leadership you may well find that is taken away from you if you admit to having challenges in your marriage, let alone if you divorce.  And so as a result painful years may go by with a hidden but inevitable decline in your closest relationship that you dare not talk to anyone about.

One thing that several divorced Christians have shared with me is that sadly as a marriage limps along, often at least one party becomes all the more angry and resentful. As a result the aggrieved party or parties become unwilling to be helpful to the other one when the split finally happens and they prefer to fight. Perhaps this is why Christian divorces can sometimes be among the most acrimonious. If you are drifting apart possibly there is an optimal time to admit the inevitable and separate in as friendly a manner as possible. But the Christian view of marriage makes this hard as we often feel we must stay in a marriage forever, no matter how painful.

It is often claimed that no divorce is solely the fault of one party. But if your partner has definitely decided they want out of your marriage there is nothing that the other partner can do to revive the marriage. It does take two to make or spoil a marriage, but it only needs to take one to dissolve it.

Sometimes one half of the marriage feels an undue pressure to fix everything by praying more, or even by changing their personality. Many Christian spouses end up putting up with things nobody should have to, and feel trapped with no possibility of escape.

After a divorce some Christians will feel incredibly guilty and may blame themselves entirely for what happened. They may feel like a complete failure as a husband or wife and as a parent.  Dealing with the guilt of that and coming to a place of forgiveness and wholeness can be a huge challenge.

I do not have all the answers to the question of how we reduce the stigma of divorce among Christians.  But I do urge us all to think about how we can make a start.  Part of this must include allowing the Bible to re-examine our assumptions about marriage.

READ MORE

Christian views on Divorce and Remarriage: A Spectrum

Christian Divorce: Adrian and Dave Bish in Conversation

John Piper on Divorce and Remarriage

Tim Keller on Divorce and Remarriage

Wayne Grudem on Divorce and Remarriage

John MacArthur on Divorce and Remarriage

The Reformers on Divorce and Remarriage

Beware the ‘Perfect’ Christian myth. None of us are mature

Stott: Reform, Don’t Follow Church Traditions.

Imperfect Churches Reflect God’s Perfect Glory

Men and woman CAN be friends: retiring the Billy Graham rule

Coping with life’s challenges – the role of friends and therapy

Should a Christian go to counseling with a secular therapist?

The Tyranny of the Positive

Covid caution and God’s grace

Six years on – Life after a cancer diagnosis

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