Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Janel Curry, David Crump, Debra Freeberg, Cynthia Kok, Christina Van Dyke, and James Vanden Bosch

Divorce and the Congregation

Practical wisdom informed by biblical teaching.

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.

In his chapter entitled "The Kingdom Possibilities of Marriage," Gushee asserts that marriages provide a context for shared kingdom work. When marriages endure and flourish, couples are better able to serve God and others. Gushee views the role of the church as being countercultural in that it calls members to be faithful to their marriages in a culture that makes divorce too easy. The role of the church, he writes, is "to preserve, care for, and honor something valuable that God has entrusted to us." Thus, he encourages churches to teach and preach about marriage, care for those harmed by divorce, and provide marriage enrichment.

Marriage occurs within a community context of the church and of the broader society. Gushee argues that these institutions have a responsibility to support marriages. In addition to the advice he gives to churches, Gushee suggests changes in the law that would convey that the state values marriages, such as a longer waiting period prior to marriage, premarital education, and incentives for marriage enrichment and counseling. To prevent unnecessary divorces, he recommends that the law support substantial waiting periods prior to divorce, required counseling and education, and greater judicial discretion in granting requests for divorce and in setting conditions for divorce.

Gushee is a strong advocate for marriage, yet he understands that sometimes, despite our best efforts, divorces occur. When marriages are broken beyond repair, the church is called to care for those who are divorced. Gushee's advocacy for marriage does not prevent him from taking a caring and gentle tone toward those who bear the pain of divorce. Perhaps by learning how to "get marriage right," we can begin to halt the ever-increasing divorce rate, both in our churches and in the broader society.

The strength of Gushee's approach is that it recognizes the reality of suffering and the need to clearly incorporate an understanding and expectation for it within our theology of marriage and family. And Gushee does not let individuals use excuses for an unwillingness to work on their character. He draws a distinction between character and personality. Someone's personality is no excuse for not working on building character and developing virtues, shaping oneself more closely to the mind of Christ. This distinction is also helpful for leading us into deeper discussions on why marriages fail. Fundamental character issues are often at the heart of failed marriages, but are not as obvious to those outside the marriage as are infidelity or physical abandonment.

David Instone-Brewer's Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context has the potential to change the church's understanding of divorce through a more careful study of biblical texts. His work leaves one with a profound respect for the power of Scripture and its connection to concrete lives. Instone-Brewer, a Baptist pastor as well as a biblical scholar, develops nuanced answers to the troubling ethical questions surrounding divorce and remarriage within the church. This book's particular contribution appears in the author's mastery of the relevant 1st-century social and legal practices, both Jewish and Greco-Roman. The author is currently working on a multi-volume analysis of the rabbinic literature and its relevance to New Testament interpretation, a monumental work entitled Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament. He has raised the bar considerably for how the New Testament passages on divorce/remarriage must be read in light of the beliefs and practices of 1st-century Judaism, beginning with the accepted interpretations of Exodus 21:10-11 and Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

Instone-Brewer begins by establishing that the two pivotal Old Testament texts were understood to permit divorce (for both husband and wife) on the grounds of (1) material neglect, (2) emotional/sexual neglect (which included childlessness), and (3) sexual unfaithfulness. Remarriage after a legitimate divorce was the Jewish norm, with no stigma attached. Second, he then argues that both Jesus and Paul shared their Jewish contemporaries' attitudes on divorce and remarriage. Thus the relevant New Testament passages must all be read in a context that accepts the circumstances listed above, to which must be added abandonment, a subject that Paul explicitly takes up.

To his credit, Instone-Brewer admits that this step in his argument depends on an argument from silence. However, he maintains that "[w]hen the silence concerns an opinion that was universally held at the time of writing, and there is a suitable context where this subject has been discussed, it becomes increasingly safe to infer that the silence indicates agreement …. The fact that Jesus debated the topic of divorce with his contemporaries makes it very likely that his silence was deliberate, and that it indicated agreement with them on this matter." Consequently, the New Testament affirms four grounds for divorce, equally applicable to both men and women: adultery; desertion (by either walking out or throwing out, which was the Greco-Roman divorce procedure); material neglect; and emotional/sexual neglect. Remarriage after a valid divorce remains completely acceptable. Again, building on another argument from silence, he argues, "The fact that [Jesus] did not forbid remarriage, even after a divorce certificate [the principle purpose of which was to allow a woman to remarry] had been mentioned, is very significant."

Although the argument from silence is typically considered the runt of any logic-litter, Instone-Brewer makes a compelling case when he insists that "the New Testament writers knew they would have to enunciate their teaching extremely clearly and unambiguously if they wanted to teach the opposite of [the] universally held view[s]." Finally, the book finishes with a very useful chapter of "Pastoral Conclusions," drawing from Instone-Brewer's years of pastoral experience. (Oh, for more such books by competent scholars with pastoral experience!) Here he briefly offers ten practical suggestions for how the church should handle these issues today. In addition, he has produced a more popular book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities, where he has significantly expanded the application of these practical suggestions. While Instone-Brewer will not convince every one of his readers, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible is an important contribution to the field, and it deserves an important place in every pastor's library. It is a work that cannot be ignored by anyone claiming to "rightly divide the word of truth" on matters of divorce and remarriage within the church.

Instone-Brewer's clarification of biblical understandings of the grounds for divorce make concrete many of the character issues alluded to by Gushee. Together they uphold a high standard for marriage while at the same time emphasizing that the gospel speaks to the reality of our broken lives. Instone-Brewer is particularly helpful on the issue of the legal move to pursue a divorce as opposed to the reality of a marriage in which promises have been broken. Often the church places the blame on the person who files for the divorce. Instone-Brewer shows how the biblical tradition gives to the person toward whom promises have been broken—as defined above—the power to decide whether a divorce has in fact already occurred. The filing of the legal papers merely recognizes an existing reality. The biblical tradition recognized that the failure of one party to maintain his or her commitments freed the other party from continuing in the marriage. In the case of a husband's failure to keep commitments, the social structure even began a series of penalties until he freed the woman from the marriage.

What registered deeply within our reading group was the story of forgetting that happened soon after the establishment of the early Christian church—and the forgetting that has continued right on to the present day. If Instone-Brewer is correct, that everyone in Jesus' day understood the context of the discussions regarding acceptable reasons for divorce, there is a great deal of work to do, undoing assumptions and practices that are not based on this once-common knowledge.

Many Christians who have experienced divorce struggle with their own failures, but also with the idea that God has not kept his promise in maintaining the marriage. This comes from our concept of marriage as a covenant. At the time of the wedding, two people make a promise before God and the community. But what happens when one person breaks that promise? Has God failed to keep his covenant with the other party? At stake is how the Old and New Testaments use the language of covenant. Historical background material is relevant insofar as it illuminates the biblical text; it ought not to be used to reconfigure or to misconstrue the meaning of the text. This is a fundamental methodological mistake made by both Gushee and Instone-Brewer. To say that covenants are always relational (a true statement) is not to say that all relationships are necessarily covenantal (a mistake that Gushee is guiltier of than Instone-Brewer). Because biblical texts clearly describe reciprocal relationships between God and the creation, as well as with or between Adam and Eve, the conclusion is frequently drawn that such evidence of "relationship" is necessarily evidence of "covenant." But this is fallacious reasoning. All kinds of relationships exist in the world that have nothing whatsoever to do with the specifics of covenantal relationships.

A second common logical fallacy bedeviling this discussion is the misuse of simile and/or analogy. The prophets use many similes and analogies in order to get Israel's attention as covenant-breakers. The divine-human relationship is compared to the relationships between master and slave, lord and servant, parent and child, even a chicken and her chicks. Does this make all those relationships covenantal? Of course not! Yet this is the logic used by Gushee and Instone-Brewer when they conclude that Malachi 2 (and similar texts) teach that marriage is a covenant. A long-standing, highly respectable school of interpretation maintains that this passage in Malachi has nothing to do with human marital relations. God is capable of keeping his promises to us, but we are not capable of ensuring that our spouses keep their promises. Marriage is a promise between two people with God present. God is with you in this commitment, but God does not promise that both partners will keep the commitment. God never promises us that our marriages will remain intact, but his covenantal promise is that he will be there for us in facing whatever comes. God is not breaking his covenant with you when your marriage fails.

In Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works, Francine Deutsch reports on a study of successful marriages in which both spouses are equally involved with household, parenting, and job-related tasks. The research on which the book is based included couples from all socio-economic levels and focused on the elements that led to success rather than failure. This approach makes it a particularly helpful book, especially as it illuminates gender dynamics. Why does the sociological literature show that divorced men tend to drop out of church? Why can we more easily imagine a church providing meals for a single-parent father, for years unending, than for a single-parent mother, who might more likely be asked to provide meals for others? And why might such a mother feel more inadequate if such support was provided? How can congregants better understand the assumptions they bring to their responses to divorced members of their congregation?

It is easier for congregations to respond to death or illness than to the aftermath of divorce. Beyond the crisis of going through the legal process of a divorce, which can easily last more than a year, single-parent families are much like those families described in the book Halving It All, but more so: their routines are highly structured. With single-parent families there is the added factor of no extra back-up parent for snow days or illness. The church can best help such families by being organized and setting schedules far ahead so single parents can plan to participate. Offering rides or car-pooling options for youth group activities, for example, is extremely helpful, since there are no two parents to be at two places at one time! Recently a social research class partnered with a church to carry out focus groups of neighborhood single parents. It came as a great surprise to congregants that on a scale of one to ten in terms of feeling purpose in their lives, these single parents placed themselves at ten—they were feeling healthy! They were extremely busy, but it was a healthy busyness. Congregants' views of single parents are often quite out of sync with these individuals' views of themselves. Single parents are not so much "needy" as on very tight schedules that cannot readily handle disruptions. Helping with regular physical needs such as picking up groceries, or giving people time for themselves to take a walk: simple things like this go a long way. The strategies that will be most helpful to single-parent families are the same ones that move the church toward teaching and modeling family lives of shared responsibility for parents—models of how husbands and wives can share the work, rather than seeing the sharing as an imposition on the husband's freedom from domestic responsibilities.

Another way that congregations can shape their practice to serve all their members is to clarify and make evident the baggage that comes with language. Often within the congregational setting, families that have gone through divorces are referred to as "broken families," even as they are feeling whole for the first time. Meanwhile, families that are intact in legal terms may actually be experiencing incredible brokenness and stress but feel unable to express this for fear of showing weakness. Congregations are served well by corporate prayer and healing services that focus on the full range of struggles in a congregation: difficult marriages, those struggling with violence and abuse in marriages, families in crisis, those going through divorce, recognizing that all families—indeed, all human relationships—are broken in some way.

When single parents say how their children need the adults in the church, they do not mean they need the church and its adults to be the missing parent to their children. What they mean is that the children need "aunts and uncles," adults who look out for them in a special way, take time to talk with them, show some interest in them. All children do better when they are part of a web. Much of what single-parent families need to thrive is what all families need to thrive. Halving It All is a valuable book in its ability to make visible many of the scripts that we unconsciously follow.

Our group was pleasantly surprised by Joseph R. Myers' The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups, even though the book was not aimed directly at the center of our concerns. Myers set out to analyze what he knew in an intuitive and experiential way—namely, that the mania for the formation of small groups as a heal-all device for spiritual development within contemporary American churches was wrong-headed and counterproductive. American Christians—others, too—clearly longed for a sense of belonging in their church communities, but he couldn't find the right framework or vocabulary to help him articulate how and why the small-group movement was so often not meeting this need.

While Myers was in the process of trying to develop this critique, he was also teaching a college course in theories of communication and found himself once again rehearsing the theory of proxemics put forward by Edward Hall in 1966. Hall's analysis of how human space is related to various kinds of human communication was outlined in his book The Hidden Dimension, and in it he described four kinds of personal space that relate to four kinds of communication: the public space, in which we maintain a distance of 10 feet or more from the persons we are addressing; the social space, which allows communication to take place within the 4- to 10-foot range; the personal space (1-1/2 to 4 feet); and the intimate space, which occurs at a distance of 18 inches and closer.

Hall's theory gave Myers the framework and the vocabulary he was looking for. We all need to belong, Myers said, but we need to belong to all four spaces. All four are important, and only a very small number of our relationships can be intimate. Small groups fail so often because of the assumption that all relationships within the Christian community must ideally be intimate or nothing at all.

Myers does a fine job of using illustrations and anecdotes to make the case for many kinds of belonging being essential for human thriving and for healthy life in community. Some of the discussion can feel a little forced—he devises a formula to describe what he claims is the equation for healthy belonging—but even the formula and its accompanying graph help to make the point that we experience belonging in many ways, and that intimate belonging is probably always going to involve a significantly smaller number of ongoing relationships than any of the other kinds of belonging.

Myers notes that all of our relationships tend to change over time; a person who was for a long while in the personal circle may gradually transition out to the circle of social belonging. He is willing to admit that his relationship with God moves through the various kinds of belonging, and that his experience of intimacy with God is rare—but that he stays in some kind of belonging relationship with God, regardless.

The implications for survivors of divorce who are trying to re-establish healthy relationships with fellow church members are pretty straightforward. Fellow Christians will exist in many kinds of belonging with the members of a family that has experienced the trauma of divorce, but a close, intimate belonging will be quite rare. This is normal and healthy; to try to force persons into personal friendships as part of the healing process is not the act of kindness and healing that the local congregation might assume it to be.

This book is ultimately about appropriate boundaries, about allowing ourselves to grow and move among the four spaces described in the book. In any crisis, all four spaces are disrupted, and people's needs in terms of which space they want to be in, and in what context, change accordingly. Problems occur when the church fails to recognize this. For example, you might need to be in an intimate space in the midst of the crisis with certain people, but then as you become healthy you move out of it. On the other hand, those that are going through a divorce may need to belong through sharing the less intimate but safer social space. Congregations need to be conscious of these different spaces and ask people what they need at any point in time. People understand themselves at least at a gut level—they know when they are uncomfortable. Congregants must ask how they can be helpful without invading space or, alternatively, being too distant.

Intimacy and personal relationships don't automatically happen when you put people together. Myers' initial desire to explain the limitations of the small-group movement led him to explore a much larger subject: the realities of belonging in human communities, including a Christian community, are rich, complex, and dynamic, and the implications for traumatized brothers and sisters in Christ are similarly complex and dynamic.

No survey of literature about divorce is complete without considering its impact on children. Elizabeth Marquardt's Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce draws on a research project which involved 1,500 young men and women and 71 in-person interviews. Marquardt makes a distinction between high conflict divorces (in which children do better after the divorce) and so called "good" divorces. Her argument is that the children who have experienced a "good divorce" of their parents often fare poorly in comparison even to children whose parents remain in an unhappy marriage, so long as that marriage is low-conflict. Thus Marquardt is urging parents to face the reality of their decisions' impact on their children.

Marquardt describes several ways in which children are affected by divorce. She describes how in an intact family the child is allowed to be focused on himself or herself, and his or her own struggles and joys, knowing at a deep level that the parents are "taking care of the big stuff." After a divorce, the task that once belonged to the parents—to make sense of their different worlds—becomes the child's. Children become absorbed by their parents' needs rather than being able to focus on discovering who they themselves are. She argues that, in intact families, the children are the nucleus and the parents protectively surround them, whereas after divorce, adult vulnerabilities become evident and turn the family structure inside out. Parents move to the center and children often are moved to the outside, a tendency that is intensified when a parent becomes focused on meeting someone new.

Another effect of divorce is that children grow up divided between two homes, often creating a less secure sense of home. Marquardt points to the data on children living with stepparents, a powerful predictor of severe child abuse, arguing that children become more vulnerable after a divorce, especially if there is a family history of addiction, abuse, or mental illness. Another aspect of this vulnerability comes from the changed context. When conflict arises with a child, a parent can raise the option of the child going to live with the other parent, or can in anger identify the child's behavior with the absent parent. These types of situations cause increased insecurity among children. Divorce can also lead to the problem of secrets, where children are told to not share information with their other parent, or conflicting stories are told related to why the divorce took place.

Marquardt asks us to get honest about the impact of divorce. As anyone knows who has been close to a divorce, it is agonizing and disorienting and at the top of life's most stressful events. And divorce hurts many more than the two who are going through the legal process. Having agreed with Marquardt on these points, we were nevertheless disturbed by many of the unexplored assumptions that underlie her arguments. She idealizes intact marriages, middle-class values, and the nuclear family while associating "bad parenting" with single parents. How often, she asks, do married parents send their child away from home for long periods of time? How often do married parents spend routine, non-work-related nights apart from their kids? How often do they put children on airplanes for long trips alone, divide financial responsibility down to the penny, and take each other to court? How often do they sleep with someone besides the child's parent in the home when the child is present? She claims that these behaviors are more common among divorced parents; "it is almost unheard of for married parents to do any of them."

But what follows from this? Many of these behaviors reveal a lack of parental maturity and a high degree of narcis-sism—qualities that were not necessarily caused by divorce but rather contributed to the breakdown of the marriage in the first place. Though Marquardt wants to give parents agency in terms of a decision to seek a divorce or not, she fails to give equal agency to parents working to put their lives back together and provide a stable environment for their children. Rather, single parents are portrayed as forever deeply wounded, needy, and unhealthy.

Marquardt's worldview is also clearly seen in her image of the family: child-centered, protected from trauma, and safe. How many families in the world and throughout history can live up to this ideal? Marquardt confuses general trauma in a family, which could come from any number of things, with divorce. Can we reasonably hope to protect our children from all trauma until adulthood? And if we fail to do that—whether from a parent dying from cancer, or war, or economic hardship—will we have failed and will our children be irreparably damaged? Even the trauma of blended families is nothing new in history. Review statistics on multiple marriages in the 1800s, or revisit the Brothers Grimm.

Should we purposefully create trauma for our children? Of course not. Can or should we protect children from all trauma? No. But when we face trauma in our lives, we can model for our children how God is faithful. To this end, the strongest section of Marquardt's book is the one that deals with religious themes, because here we see the challenge of the church to give meaning to the trauma and pain of the real lives that we experience. As Marquardt finds, the children of divorce rarely find religious leaders who reach out to them. These children "deal early and alone with profound losses and confront big questions of meaning. [They] search for explanations in a culture that too often denies [their] loss, dismissing [their] questions as cute or precocious or ignoring [them] altogether." They are "child-sized old souls" as Marquardt says, asking deeper questions for their age than their peers.

Rather than honor the experience and the questions of these children, Marquardt says, churches too often continue to portray God as parent without any thought. Parishioners are told to honor their parents without instruction on dealing with the complexity of that commandment in the context of difficult relationships. Marquardt gives a poignant example of the differing perspective of these children through the story of the prodigal son: "People from intact families … tend to focus on the end of the story, when the son finds himself loved in spite of his mistakes. But children of divorce often think about the beginning of the story instead. The idea of someone leaving home resonates for us, though not necessarily the idea of a child who leaves home." Recognizing these complexities helps all in the congregation. How often do we have members of a congregation who have difficulty with Mother's Day or Father's Day, not because of a divorce, but due to estrangement, or their inability to become a mother or father while that state is idealized? The children of divorce have much to teach us about recognizing and being honest about complexity and loss.

Marquardt makes it clear that children are often invisible to the church while a family is going through a divorce. But how should the church reach out to them? We encourage direct discussions—ask them! And we need to have conversations with healthy adults whose parents divorced and let them share what was important to them. (For example, one of our group had a friend who told her that it was important for her to see her father as she was growing up, no matter how messed up he was!) We need to tap the wisdom of these people rather than focus on their being broken or damaged.

Between Two Worlds is a book that seems to want to use fear to keep people in low-conflict, bad marriages. Gushee makes a deeper argument. Staying in a marriage that is not perfect is a spiritual discipline that shapes your character. And through this process of shaping, marriages can move to a new stage in which they are stronger and deeper. It is parental character that shapes the experience of children.

We also read two books that were more devotional and reflective: Barbara Shlemon's Healing the Wounds of Divorce and Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer. Shlemon's book comes out of the Catholic tradition and approaches spiritual recovery through the lens of the self-reflective process of annulment. Each chapter covers an individual topic such as denial, grief, anger, and forgiveness, and includes a prayer at the end. Shlemon's book was poorly edited, and, from our experience, mislabels emotions. For example, in the chapter on loneliness, Shlemon describes what we would clearly identify as depression, typical in the context of the trauma of divorce. The reason this becomes a major flaw is that it doesn't lead to more clarity, but rather more confusion. Many who are divorced would say that loneliness is being in a difficult marriage with the expectation but absence of partnership and mutual caring. Congregants who do not recognize this loneliness-in-marriage may assume that the divorced individual is lonely because of the divorce. They are identifying with what they would experience in the absence of their spouse. Clear definition is necessary to bridge the gap between experiences.

Divorce is not like death because it does not have closure. Circumstances, especially when children are involved, change weekly or over the course of many years. Several suggestions for congregants trying to bridge that gap of understanding include: 1) Call the divorced individual regularly (once a week) and say, "I'm just checking in" or "I'm doing a mental health check." Most of us, as we went through the divorce process, had people who called almost daily to do just that. Long conversations are not what's needed. Many of us continue to provide and receive this kind contact—one short adult conversation each day with someone. 2) Send a card every week or so over a very long period of time, recognizing that the struggles related to divorce are ongoing. 3) Ask the individual going through the divorce, "How can I pray for you?" 4) The crisis stage of a divorce is so disorienting that individuals going through it may not even know what they need. Here are several effective way of approaching them: Say to them, "We want to do something for you. Which of these (list four or five possibilities) could I do?" Don't give a vague offer of help, but rather say, "I need to do this for you." Each of these approaches provides safety for the person going through the divorce but also creates an opening for deeper understanding.

Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer is in a class by itself. Nouwen illuminates the role of suffering in spiritual growth and wisdom. In our context, perhaps he would ask how congregations can move toward seeing those who are divorced as assets and wise people rather than simply as needy people.

The book presents a model that is useful for congregations desiring to minister to others at all stages of their journey. Nouwen calls for those in authority to be rooted in compassion: Christians must first articulate the truth of the pain and suffering in the world—face it and say it. This truth-telling is grounded in a theological understanding of the nature of reality—that we are in a world that is fallen, yet we hope for the coming shalom with the return of Christ.

What Nouwen says here applies powerfully to our subject. Congregations need to provide safe places and invite transparency and truth-telling around the issue of divorce. We need not be fearful of the complex reality of the fallen nature of our present world; our hope is strong. Second, Nouwen calls us to be transformed by stories of people's lives. Stories transform our understanding of reality and deepen our understanding of our faith because they are concrete examples of both the present state of reality and the embodied, earthy form of the gospel. When we listen to stories and ask questions for clarification, we begin to be able to articulate the truth of the pain and suffering in the world, always checking back with the people whose stories we are attempting to capture, to ensure authenticity. Finally, Nouwen says, we should move our reflection into intellectual understanding. In many ways, this was the purpose of our reading group—to move our reflection into intellectual understanding that might be useful to congregations, enabling them to better understand and serve those who have gone through divorces. But this understanding in turn must move us to action.

Books discussed in this essay:

Francine M. Deutsch, Halving It All (Harvard Univ. Press, 2000).

David Gushee, Getting Marriage Right (Baker, 2004).

David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Eerdmans, 2002).

David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities (IVP, 2003).

Elizabeth Marquardt, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (Crown, 2005).

Joseph R. Meyers, The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups (Zondervan, 2003).

Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (Doubleday, 1972).

Barbara Shlemon, Healing the Wounds of Divorce: A Spiritual Guide to Recovery (Ava Maria Press, 1992).

All the members of the reading group have positions at Calvin College. Janel Curry is professor of geography; David Crump is professor of religion and an ordained CRC pastor; Debra Freeberg is professor of communication arts and sciences; Cynthia Kok is Director of the Broene Counseling Center and adjunct faculty in psychology; Christina Van Dyke is associate professor of philosophy; and James Vanden Bosch is professor of English.

Most ReadMost Shared