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.