Written by David Schel and Jennifer Graham
J. Robertson McQuilkin was president of Columbia International University, a Bible college in South Carolina, when his wife Muriel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Determined to keep his wife at home, where she was safe and loved, McQuilkin made the decision to care for her by himself, and so, as the disease progressed, he juggled a demanding job with the even more demanding needs of his wife. The day came, however, when the balls started to fall and he resigned the university presidency. He later wrote a booklet about his decision, which he titled “Living by Vows.”
McQuilkin’s choice was a homage to his marital vows, yes, but also an expression of his deeply held values. So why were so many people surprised and awed by what he did, an act of love which, as McQuilkin put it, “took no great calculation”? It’s because values are easy to have and hard to live by. And our inconsistency in the matter of values is what’s killing marriages today – not only inconsistency among flawed human beings, but inconsistency in the response of the supposedly stalwart Christian church.
When we live by values all of the time (or none of the time, for that matter), we are easy to know and understand. It’s when we live by values only part of the time – when they’re convenient – that we are inconsistent and things get complicated. It’s when our institutions, both private and public, break down.
Where is the church in the epidemic that is our nation’s divorce rate? In its desperate need to be all things to all people, so as to slow its increasing irrelevancy, the church has generally become a teeter-totter on divorce, wobbling between two extremes.
Many churches today stand strong like McQuilkin, unwavering in their support of marriage. Programs like Marriage Encounter and Promise Keepers still thrive, even with divorce rates hovering around 50 percent. But as divorce becomes more prevalent and accepted in our culture, there is a danger in the churches’ struggle to find balance between holding fast to their values and extending needed grace. Many churches lose their balance.
From a purely biblical standpoint, divorce is, in most cases, as wrong as lying or theft. Yet, it’s increasingly common to have churches offer programs about successful co-parenting, mimicking the cheerful “good divorce” chatter that makes up so much modern therapy. Among even the most evangelical churches, divorce has become accepted in a way in which other social wrongs are not. Imagine a church offering a program on “Redemption through Stolen Goods: How To Help Others With Things You Shoplifted.” You can’t. Theft is wrong; no subsequent manipulation of stolen goods, even for “good,” can make them redeemed.
Within the sanctuary, therefore, a pastor may read gravely the apostle Paul’s words that he who divorces his wife and remarries is committing adultery, while in the social hall, a few days later, divorced parents sit around and discuss how to do divorce “the right way.”
Fact: For a person living by values, there can be no “good divorce.”
Churches, if they are honest, if they live by vows and by values, would not offer co-parenting seminars, but programs on how and why divorced spouses should reunite.
New research shows that a “good divorce” may be more harmful to children and their future relationships than a bad one. When churches encourage their divorced members to hold hands, smile brightly and talk about how wonderful life is now that they’ve abandoned their vows, they are contributing to a sorry statistic, that children of divorce are 89 percent more likely than their peers to become divorced themselves as adults.
Simply put, the “better” our divorces, the more insensitive future generations become to divorce and the problem grows worse. By promoting “good divorces,” albeit in the name of grace, we do nothing to stop the incidence of divorce and everything to fuel it.
Grace can be a tricky thing. The church means well; she always does. But more and more, she blindly enables divorce, inadvertently leading the way to a culture best summed up by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, often referred to as “ Amazing Grace,” who said, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
Better the church remind us of this truth: When living by values, you don’t need forgiveness.
You make some interesting points, and I certainly agree churches should be much more in the game of saving marriages and reconciling failed ones. However, in very many divorces one spouse didn’t want the split to occur (and often tried in vain to prevent it). And that person certainly needs all the assistance and grace he or she can obtain in managing this new reality of single parenting or co-parenting. They are grieving the loss of what they had hoped would be a lifelong marriage and dealing with the negative consequences for their children. That said, I agree that “good divorces” should not be spoken of in any of these situations, because particularly for children, they don’t exist. All the best to you.
Lori, as a single parent who falls into the category you mention — essentially divorced against my will — I certainly understand the need for help. A couple of points, though. I don’t think this is what David and Jennifer are getting at in their article which is the church’s failure to take a stand on marriage and divorce, addressing the problem where it starts — with relationships — and offering help to families to stay together in the first instance. They have adopted the secular default — trying to clean up after the mess has already been made. We have a 40 year track record of trying to do that in our country and it doesn’t work. Plus, you can’t get someone to co-parent who won’t. My life as a single parent wouldn’t have been any less hard with this so-called classes and, from what I understand from the article, this is more of the “good divorce” pablum. And there are absolutely no efforts being made about addressing the issue of reconcilation; the split is being treated as a fait accompli.
Points well made and well taken, Lori. I wonder, though, if it wouldn’t be better if churches ministered to the divorced as individuals, not as groups, and in practical ways, not generalities. So often, divorce seems like death without casseroles, in large part, because we have no societal protocol for dealing with divorce. Caring churches could lead the way to developing one, and recovered divorcees ought to lead that effort since, so often, well-meaning people just don’t know what to do.
Very interesting points.
I’m painting in broad brush-strokes here, so forgive me if I’m stepping on toes.
I think, when you speak of the Church, there are *many* varieties and views on divorce.
If you are talking about the mainline Protestant variety, it’s anyone’s guess what the pastor or church believes about marriage,divorce, sin, adultery, etc. In most cases, the pastor will encourage a married couple to work out their problems. If the couple mutually wants a divorce and there seem to be no grounds for it except incompatibility, virtually no mainline church pastor will tell them it’s a sin. They may counsel against it, but that’s just one person’s opinion. It’s certainly not spoken as the voice of God. If there’s infidelity from one of the partners and they are leaving their spouse and children, perhaps the pastor may say something. In many cases I’ve heard of pastors who have refused to intervene at the request of the spouse being cheated on, offering watered down responses like, “You are both in pain, and in our prayers. Who am I to judge?” I have never heard of any mainline church excommunicating a person for cheating on their spouse and refusing to give up the affair. So you are very likely to hear warm, loving things about blended families, etc.
Then there’s the Catholic Church. It has, on paper, the strictest teachings against divorce. In fact, there is no divorce in Catholicism. The sacrament of marriage is unbreakable. They have marriage encounter, Retouvaille and lots of resources aimed at helping people to save marriages. On the parish level, however, all is not well. All parish priests are supposed counsel their parishioners against divorce and confront the guilty party or parties. They are supposed to tell people to stop having affairs and reconcile. In many cases they do not. They know who is cheating on their spouses in their parish and they still serve them communion every Sunday. Then there is the issue of annulment. An annulment means the marriage never really happened. In other words it was “sacramentally invalid”. Supposedly, if one or both of the parties, even if practicing Catholics, came into the marriage with any dissimulation or doubt about their commitment to a life-long marriage then the marriage can be annulled. At least that’s how most people get annulments. An when a marriage is annulled, both parties are off the hook and free to get re-married in the church. In an annulment, there is no “guilty” or “innocent” party. And from what I hear, almost everyone in the US who applies for an annulment gets one. I don’t think the Catholic church has seminars on post-divorce “happy talk” and blended family living, because in theory, divorce is never sanctioned by the church. Divorce never happens in the Catholic Church. The reality is that there a plenty of people out there living in blended step-families because the church “annulled” their marriage.
The Orthodox Church believes in life-time marriage. Yet is recognizes that people screw up. It allows an Orthodox faithful three marriages in a lifetime. Each re-marriage ceremony expresses some form of contrition for the failure of the first marriage. I don’t know much about cheerful talk about blended families in Orthodox churches.
Then there are the Evangelicals. I think this is who Dave and Jennifer are addressing in the article. In theory, most conservative Protestants believe marriage is for a lifetime and allow for divorce on only two grounds: abandonment and adultery. And only the innocent party is allowed to sue for divorce. Only the innocent party is allowed to remarry. This doesn’t mean the church encourages divorce in cases like this, but they allow it. That’s the theory. Lots of evangelicals, however, divorce for incompatibility and re-marry. In fact, some studies show Evangelicals have the highest divorce rate in the country. They often show up at a new church, with their new spouse and blended family and present the pastor with a fait accompli. Mix this moral messiness with a rich theology of grace, and most well-meaning, but uninformed, churches end up sanctioning these re-marriages.
I think things would be clearer if evangelical churches/pastors did 3 things. First, they need to be willing to discipline and excommunicate anyone that is cheating on their spouse and refuses to stop. Second, they need to be willing to discipline and excommunicate anyone who is seeking to divorce their spouse without the necessary grounds (the other spouse cheated or abandoned them). Third, they need to show courage and refuse to marry anyone who has been divorced if they were not the innocent party (cheated on or abandoned). All these “hard-line” actions should be bathed in an atmosphere of grace with hope for reconciliation and opportunities for people to give up their harmful behavior.
What David and Jennifer don’t really address are the innocent parties in the divorce, who didn’t want it and who were cheated on or abandoned by their spouses. These people remained faithful to their vows and were brutalized by the actions of a selfish spouse. They need to be loved and encouraged to move on with their lives. Somehow, these people need to be distinguished from those who were very cavalier about their vows and are trying to get the church to sanction their new arrangements.