When Divorce Comes to Church

By Jim McAllister

They stood before me proud, excited and obviously very much in love. There seemed to be nothing but happiness ahead of them. They were young but mature. They were Christians and members of the church. They were friends of the pastor and closely involved with many key members of the church. They both had good jobs, and their first home was a nice house in the suburbs, not much trouble anticipated here. They should live happily ever after.

But something happened.I was no longer their pastor, in fact, I didn’t even live in the same state, but something happened. I heard that they had separated, then divorced. They had a child, and he was now the survivor of a divided home. Their friends, including myself, all wondered what could have happened.

Through the years I have seen several couples who should have made a success of marriage, but they failed. I have seen deacons, evangelists, pastors, denominational leaders and church laymen fail at obtaining marital bliss.

What is the problem? This divorce problem among fundamental, Bible-believing Christians is reaching epidemic proportion.

I have been fortunate. In 36 years of pastoring upwards of 3,000 members in five churches, I have only had three divorces occur in the churches under my pastorate. I say fortunate because I consider divorce in the church family one of the greatest tragedies that can happen to that congregation. My record of only three divorces in 36 years will probably be changing because of the present attitude of people toward divorce.

Hard Questions

It is understandable that the unsaved world should take lightly the marriage vow and walk away from responsibilities. One can readily see how the ungodly would become unfaithful and fall into the evil trap of adultery. It makes sense that the unrighteous would lie, deceive or be deceived.

We should not be surprised that they would count their commitment as nothing and break their marriage promise. Divorce should not be a surprise in this day of ungodliness and unbelief. They live together outside marriage and make morality a joke. Why wouldn’t they bring additional shame on God’s plan for man and woman and divorce their mates? But what can be happening to the Christians? Why do Christian leaders and their wives act like the unsaved? Why would they go so far that they would disregard the laws of the One who makes them different?

I was counseling a preacher and his wife. Suddenly the wife said, “Brother Jim, you think I don’t like my husband. That isn’t true. I hate my husband.”

That’s pretty heavy stuff for a person who claims to be an Arminian. Someone very dear to me said, “You preach and teach Arminianism, but live like Calvinists.”

What is the church’s responsibility in this matter? How do we minister to the divorced? How do we counsel those considering divorce? How do we prevent divorce? These are serious questions, and we pastors face these questions almost daily.

Tell the Truth in Love

First, the church does have a responsibility. The pastor must be diligent in preaching against adultery, immorality, divorce and the promiscuous life style. But we must not drop a bomb on an anthill. We may be doing that.

We need to preach our doctrine unashamedly as it pertains to matters of morals, modesty, marriage and divorce. However, we also must preach and teach strongly on the subject of love and commitment. I am convinced that divorce is a sin and the result of sin.

No person should have to tolerate infidelity or endure abuse, but somehow we are failing to convey to our youth, as well as adults, the fact that lying is a fatal sin and breaking the marriage vow is lying. So preaching, teaching and counseling are all musts for the pastor and church. Failure to do these things in an organized and biblical manner leaves the church with a certain amount of blame for the unfortunate things that happen.

Effective Counseling

Second, how do we counsel those who are considering divorce? Here’s how. Listen to both parties. Prepare yourself in advance. Recognize problems that are over your head. This is no place for an over-inflated ego. Stick with the scriptures. After all, God does have a lot to say about marriage and divorce. You can trust His Word.

Be fair. Don’t suggest anything for others to do that you couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do. If there is no physical abuse involved, I suggest taking plenty of time. Divorce lasts a long time, so they should be sure. Frequently, time works out problems.

Ounce of Prevention

Third, how do we prevent divorce? Every pastor should promote a strong Christian and church-oriented marriage counseling program. Just being a pastor doesn’t necessarily make the minister qualified to do counseling. While training can be secured, it may not always be best for the pastor do this work himself. It may be a detriment, rather than a blessing.

If the pastor decides this is not his ministry, he should find and recommend a qualified person for this work. The people will need this kind of help.

If the church has a teaching and training ministry that prepares people for marriage, teaches them how to act and react in marriage, and shows how to work through marital problems, most divorces between Christian people can be avoided. I prescribe books to read, videos to watch and seminars to attend. I teach an adult Sunday School class, and this class deals with marriage at least one-fifth of the Sundays each year.

Heal the Hurting

Fourth, how do we minister to the divorced? Kindly, as we would to an injured person. Passionately, as we would if they were critically ill. Firmly, as we would if they were our own children. We must minister truthfully, for they must know the truth in order to be set free.

Matthew 5:31-32 and Malachi 2:16 tell us that God hates divorce, but He loves the divorcee. The divorcee is an injured person, a sick person, a person who hurts deeply. The divorcee needs help and must be convinced to accept it.

The pastor and church must be adequate for this problem. Classes, support groups, seminars, books, videos, encounter groups, professional curriculum and sermons are a few of the helps possible. Probably all will be required.

In conclusion, divorce is a sign of failure. It is a result of weakness and inadequacy. It is sin. The church must preach and teach against it. It must be avoided at all costs. But if in spite of all the church does, it occurs, the divorced one must know that there is still a vital place in the church for them.

Make sure they feel wanted. They have a wounded spirit and a bruised ego. We must revive their will and resurrect their hope. They need the church now. Make sure we give it to them.

Article adapted from Contact magazine, July 1994.