Conversations I wish I had in the church #1: Marriage, Divorce and Infidelity

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post listing a few conversations that I wish I had…well, still wish to see in the church today because to me: (1) They are important issues for many, and (2) We have been so bad at handling those issues for so long.  The first one on the list was “Marriage, Divorce and Infidelity”.

Don’t get me wrong…I am not saying that the church has not talked about these issues.  In fact, the church has talked plenty about them.  The problem is, the church has been doing all the talking, and not nearly enough listening.  As a former professor of preaching, one thing I have learned is that preaching about a subject on Sunday is not the same as having dealt with it in the community.  A mistake pastors and church leaders make too often.  I am not out to resolve the issues involved in a short blog post, but I would like to raise a few questions to hopefully invite conversations.

Earlier this year I spoke at an event, sharing my story and trying to raise awareness for mental wellness.  Afterwards a person in the audience whom I recognized as a leader in the Chinese church circles came up to me and offered his kind encouragement.  As we were wrapping up our conversation he said to me: “I am sure God will continue to use you to help people, because you managed to save your marriage.”

I have thought a lot about what he said and one question troubled me:  Why is God’s ability/willingness to continue to use me to help people conditional upon whether I had stayed married or had gotten a divorce?

What is more troubling is that I don’t think my friend had intended what he said to be a theological statement on how God works.  Rather, what he meant was: If I had gotten a divorce, I would have been shunned in the Christian community and would not be given these opportunities to speak, to serve, to help people.

Of course, this is hardly news.  Pastors have lost their careers, people have been marginalized and others have been asked to stop serving in the church for the sole reason of choosing a divorce.  Again, I am not here to offer quick solutions, but I would like to ask:

Why does having a divorce “disqualify” a person for ministry?

If two consenting adults have genuinely stopped loving one another and decided to get a divorce rather than being miserably trapped in a “by-name-only” marriage, why is that so wrong?

Who among us are qualified to judge all that goes on between 2 people in their marriage/divorce?

Perhaps rather than just being “anti-divorce”, the church should learn what it means to be “pro-love”?

Closely related to this issue of course is the matter of infidelity.  All the sermons I have heard on the subject basically have the same message: “Don’t do it.  Just don’t.  Don’t give in to lust.  Don’t play with fire.”

Of course that is good advice.  Problem is, most people do not get involved in an affair just because they are looking for great sex, or because they are looking for “excitement”.   People get involved in extra marital affairs because there are deep needs that are not being met within the marriage, there are pains and wounds that they have suffered with for a long time, and for most, because they are, simply, desperate for love.   The tragedy is that we paint people who have committed marital infidelity as being guilty of the ultimate sin.  We alienate them from our community.  We look at them with eyes of judgement.  And most of our so called practices of “discipline” or “restoration” are little more than exercises in shame and punishment.

What will happen, if we learn to look at a person and rather than seeing the sin, we see the hurt underneath?

How I wish we had better conversations when I was still in the church….



4 thoughts on “Conversations I wish I had in the church #1: Marriage, Divorce and Infidelity

  1. Alfred I agree with you. When I married, the day the honeymoon was over, my husband showed me a side of him that I never knew was there. It was like I married two different men. The good and the evil. Determined to make the marriage work, I lived with Jekel and Hyde for 7 1/2 years of mental and physical abuse. I brought up to believe that marriage was forever and was determined to turn it around somehow. Really though, both parties need to have that will to make it work or it just doesn’t. After taking the final beating, I knew, for my sake and the sake of our daughter, that I could not raise her in this environment. Lying on my bed, I cried out to God to show me the way. Give me the tools to make it work or let me know that it is time to leave. Little did I know that He was already working to relieve me of this burden. I counselled with an aunt and she reminded me that my vows stated “until death do us part”. She then told me that also could mean until the death of a relationship. I thought about it for a long time but took no action until I was beaten and kicked to the floor. No loving God would require the I remain in a “marriage” such as that nor would He want an innocent child raised in that environment. With a heavy heart, I finally had to leave. The day before we parted, my husband’s parting comment was, “I know how to make you happy – If I want to”. and he laughed. So he was fully aware of what he was doing all the time. On looking back over my life, I can see how God was, for many years paving a new path for me, long before I ever asked for it.. He then blessed me with a new husband, a beautiful daughter and 30 years of a healthy relationship before he died. God is good. He tells us, judge not unless you be judged. Those on the outside need to remember that unless they walk in someone’s shoes, they have no idea what they are talking about. God is Love and I am sure he does not counsel cruelty to another. Divorce is not the answer to ending all problems. It is just a new beginning with the problems that divorce brings but at least these problems can be worked on in a safe environment. I never hated my spouse, he was still the father of my first child. For my daughter’s sake, I continued to be pleasant, and when his second marriage failed and he was alone at celebration times, he was invited to my home and table for our daughter’s sake and made welcome. He lived just across the road from our daughter and was frequently in their home as she said, “he is still my dad no matter what.”. How did he repay her? He abused his granddaughter. Her life is changed forever. My question is, how did I ever see anything in that man? It is very hard not to hate him for a lifetime of terrible behavior and just accept that he really is a sick individual. I hope I never run into him again.. Thank you for listening.

    1. Hello JoAnne! Thank you for reading and sharing your own painful experience. Your example is one of the reason why I chose to write on the issue in my blog. I feel that all too often in the church, we speak about issues related to divorce as if it is an academic legal subject to be debated: Is it lawful? Is it wrong? What constitutes a lawful or legal divorce in the eyes of the Bible? etc. Often lost in the discussion is the heart wrenching pain that is being suffered by those who live in those situations.

      I am thankful for your courage to share your story of how God gave you a new life after going through the pain of the divorce. I believe that is a message that many need to hear in the church today. Rather than judging them, labeling them, and marginalizing those who have been divorced from the church community and simply quoting (and often misquoting) Scriptures to them, Perhaps we need to learn to see past the divorce and see the pain the person is going through, and at the same time helping them see the hope for a new life that God has in store for them beyond the horizon.

      Thanks again JoAnne, for reading and sharing. God bless!

  2. Alfred, I am going to answer your questions:

    Why does having a divorce “disqualify” a person for ministry?
    – While sin is equal before God, not all sins are equal in impact. Some sins are more scandalous then others. As a Pastor, you are supposed to be the shepherd and example to the flock. Marriage is important and God values it. God hates divorce.

    If two consenting adults have genuinely stopped loving one another and decided to get a divorce rather than being miserably trapped in a “by-name-only” marriage, why is that so wrong?

    It’s wrong because God says its wrong. It’s what God’s word says. God hates divorce. How dare you question God’s word?? You are a former pastor, you should know this. You don’t get to negotiate with God in this matter. I also acknowledge the hard hardheartedness of people. However, God is a miracle worker, and has the power to change hearts, even cold, and “dead” hearts and He’ll do it for couples who’s hearts are surrendered to the Lord and submitted to transformation and prayer. Divorce is not God’s best.

    Who among us are qualified to judge all that goes on between 2 people in their marriage/divorce?

    It’s in the bible! Well Paul says we can’t judge outsiders, but those in the church, we have to love and hold accountable. This is not just for marriage and divorce, this is about all of life. For example, as a single man, I want the church community to keep me in check, hold me accountable for my actions, challenge me, pray for me. It’s hard especially as a single guy, there is a lot of temptation out there. We need the church community to lovingly support and encourage and if necessary discipline its members.

    Perhaps rather than just being “anti-divorce”, the church should learn what it means to be “pro-love”?

    I 100% agree with you on this one. We need to encourage couples to be proactive, to “keep dating” their spouse, to keep choosing to love their spouse even though they don’t feel like it, to be willing to fall in love again, over and over again. I look at my parents, and all of the children have left the home. In this scenario, the focus of their relationship is more on each other now rather than raising children. They have to choose to fall in love again, and it’s beautiful to see.

    1. Hi Joshua! How are you? First of all, thank you for reading. I think it;s obvious that you and I approach our spirituality from very different perspectives, which is a good thing! At the same time, I always feel it is important to respectfully disagree with you and engage you in dialogue, because this is precisely the reason why I started this series of entries. Your views are of course commonly heard in the church, and I feel it is important for me to give those who are struggling in silence a voice, to engage those who hold your views in a balanced dialogue. In keeping with the spirit of this series, rather than trying to convince anyone, I simply would raise some questions.

      I agree with you that “not all sins are equal in impact”. However, who gets to judge what sins has “more impact”? Who gets to decide that divorce disqualifies someone from ministry, and pride and arrogance doesn’t? What about lust for power? How about greed? All these “sins” are common among those in the ministry.

      Yes, God “hates” divorce, because of the pain that is always associated with it, not because He hates those who have been divorced. People divorce out of incredibly painful situations. And it is very easy for people like you, or me, or anyone else who are not going through that pain to say “God is a miracle worker and can change dead hearts.” With all due respect, if you have not walked in their shoes, you have not earned the right to say those words to them,or to judge them. Your parents are in a wonderful marriage, of course that is a beautiful thing to see. But there are others who are living in pain in their marriages. People can be incredibly cruel to one another. I have witnessed marriages in my career where there is abuse (physical, emotional, spiritual) and neglect. In some of those situations, as a pastor I have been supportive of people’s decision to divorce. I would do the same again today if faced with the same scenarios.

      I wrote this entry because I know there are those who need to hear this: I don’t believe divorce is always “wrong”. I don’t believe a divorce disqualifies people from serving God. I believe God never “hates” those who have been divorced. And I believe that out of all of life situations, what happens in a marriage between two people is outside of anyone’s ability, or right, to judge.

      Thanks again for reading, Joshua. Blessings to you!

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