Janel Curry, David Crump, Debra Freeberg, Cynthia Kok, Christina Van Dyke, and James Vanden Bosch
Divorce and the Congregation
Most people assume that the issue of divorce has been resolved within the church—in most cases members are no longer excluded from participation on the basis of being divorced, and blended families are more accepted than ever before in our society. In spite of this superficial acceptance, the reality is much more complex. As a pastor recently stated, "There is no good book on divorce. One needs to be written." How can this be? And if this is so, what do the numerous Christian books that exist fail to address from his experience in ministry and from the experiences of those who have gone through divorce? This review comes out of a reading group which met for two years to discuss eight books related to the topic of divorce from the perspective of the Christian faith. Not all the books are directed toward the topic of divorce, but all speak to issues that become intertwined with divorce. The participants in the reading group were both men and women, some divorced and some not, and represented a range of expertise, from education to psychology, from English to women's studies. Our goal was to identify some key points that would be of value to pastors and congregations who are dealing with this difficult issue.
You might wonder why a reading group on divorce would choose as its first book Getting Marriage Right, by Christian ethicist and professor David Gushee. We knew that to study divorce, we first needed to think about marriage. Gushee's book, aimed at a broad audience of general readers, invites "Christians to rethink marriage and divorce." The book is divided into two sections: "Amid the Ruins" and "Rebuilding the Marriage Cathedral." The first provides a historical overview of the institution of marriage and addresses such issues as the decline of marriage, why so many marriages end in divorce, and the consequences of divorce for children. The second presents a Christian approach to marriage based on four foundational concepts: creation purposes, covenant structures, kingdom possibilities, and the community context of marriage. Gushee asserts that marriage is part of the creation order, established by God to meet certain fundamental human needs, such as companionship, sex, children, and social harmony. When these needs are met through marriage, human beings flourish. According to Gushee, the implication of this creation purpose for marriage is that "we are not free to abandon it, disdain it, or reinvent it at our whim. We are obligated to attempt to discover what God intended by and for marriage when he created it."
In order for marriages to flourish, Gushee encourages couples to develop "creation-related skills." The central skills of marriage include maintaining reasonable expectations, being a person of sound character, communicating well, resolving conflict, managing finances, developing mutually satisfying role relationships, meeting each other's sexual needs, and sharing service and worship of God.
This is an especially strong section of the book, in which Gushee lays out the work that is required of individuals to maintain satisfying and long-lasting marriages. Since, as he asserts, marriage is a part of God's creation order, it follows that individuals have an obligation to tend and care for marriages.
Although Gushee acknowledges the debate among biblical scholars as to whether human marriage is a covenant relationship, he argues that it is. In his reading, Malachi 2:13-16 defines marriage as a covenant relationship. He writes, "Covenant functions as the structural principle of marriage because it takes faithless people and forces them to keep faith." When marriage is viewed as a lasting covenant, it provides a place where marriage skills can be developed and where suffering can be tolerated.
According to Gushee, couples are often poorly prepared for suffering when it inevitably comes. He argues that American society in particular fails to prepare couples to expect suffering, to understand it, or to manage it well. Suffering will occur in marriages, perhaps through external sources such as poverty or illness (two contingencies which are included in many wedding vows) or through internal sources, such as one spouse hurting the other (intentionally or unintentionally) or harming the relationship. Couples may choose to divorce as a way to deal with the inevitable suffering that marriage partners experience. However, Gushee warns that divorce does not necessarily end suffering and that it may actually cause more suffering. "Suffering comes in marriage," he observes, "but if we endure, if we hold true, it does not necessarily stay." He encourages couples to remember that God is present in times of suffering and that suffering offers opportunity for growth in relationships.