Editor’s Note: It is not the intention of the writer of the article to review the doctrinal stand-points on the matter of divorce, but to shed a light on the needs of saints and shepherds, who are often forgotten in such ‘awful’ situations. As with a previous article on suicide, I am sure that it will be understood by our readership why this article is anonymous. We do pray that as it is read there will be an increased awareness of such difficult issues, and a deepening exercise amongst believers to prayerfully support the work of true shepherds amongst the Lord’s people.
Author’s Note: It is accepted that before any marriage it might be advisable and helpful to seek the guidance of the elders of the assembly in which one or both of the couple fellowship. The writer is conscious that when the couple considering marriage do not have believing parents, some spiritual input and perspective on the union should be regarded as essential. See the short Precious Seed series: https://www.preciousseed.org/article_detail.cfm?articleID=2776.
The Daily Telegraph recently reported, ‘Overall 111,169 couples in England and Wales divorced in 2014’.1 The sad reality is that many of us in local churches are beginning to see the effects of the numbers, although the trend may appear to be downwards – the break-up of marriages in society has begun to filter into Christian marriages. With the possibility that people of the world often ‘live-together’ rather than marry, it could be argued that the impact of divorce upon Christians may be greater than elsewhere.
Whilst elders may have discussed and decided on what their policy may be in relation to couples who have divorced and remarried, the polarization of views has meant that the victims of divorce may be neglected. In this short article, I want to raise the needs of those who are caught up in this awful situation and who need the pastoral care of the people of God.
When one of the partners in a marriage leaves the family home permanently, the impact upon those that are left is huge. Whether, in the sight of the law, it is a ‘no fault’ divorce, or a situation where one partner has reneged on their marriage vows, the consequences impact upon the individuals both financially, practically, and spiritually. To whom should the affected believers turn?
The simple teaching of Paul was that if ‘one member suffer, all the members suffer with it’, 1 Cor. 12. 26. Similarly, in Galatians chapter 6 verse 2, Paul encourages the believers, ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’. The real difficulty is, as Robertson states, this scripture means ‘Keep on bearing’.2 We may not feel able to offer advice and guidance of a technical and legal nature, but there is practical and prayerful support we can offer in such stressful times. Perhaps all we need to do is just listen. However, let us beware of human inquisitiveness which is often drawn towards the matter of ‘who is to blame?’ It is so easy to focus upon the cause of the break-up without realizing that such discussion is often unhelpful and potentially destructive, especially when it is the presentation of only one side of the issue.
In a case where one member has been betrayed by their partner the real danger in supporting is that of bitterness. Coming to terms with what has been done, and how long the individual has been deceived, can breed anger which quickly develops into bitterness. Divorce and its background can eat away at the individual and mar their spiritual life and testimony. Although the context of the verse is one of Jewish apostasy, the writer of Hebrews states the need to beware, ‘lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled’, Heb. 12. 15. Whatever the source of the root of bitterness, it is the task of fellow believers to ensure that it does not spring up. To fail in this respect is to put at risk ‘many’. Says the Apostle Paul, ‘Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice’, Eph. 4. 31. This is an area where fellow believers can help and advise, encouraging the individual not to look back and dwell upon what has happened in a way that would engender resentment and acrimony.
Equally, there is the issue of guilt. Whilst others may look on with sympathy at the fact that an individual has been forsaken by their marriage partner, it is possible for the individual to become consumed by a sense of guilt, feeling that in some way they contributed to the breakdown of their marriage. Such feelings of guilt can also become a destructive spiral into self-pity and ought to be tempered by the need to cope with the immediate effects of the new situation.
The psalmist recognized the importance of self-examination but called upon the Lord to accomplish a far more productive process, ‘Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart’, Ps. 26. 2. A consideration of what the Lord sees and knows might preserve all of us from self-righteousness, self-pity, or self-destruction.
It is interesting that in the context of the Lord’s teaching on divorce in Mark chapter 10, ‘they brought young children to him’, v. 13. The psalmist wrote, ‘Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is His reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth’, Ps. 127. 3, 4. The family is a divine concept and the context in which children are to be raised for God. This is one of the reasons that the devil has attacked and continues to attack Christian marriages.
Where a marriage that has been blessed with children breaks down and ends in divorce there is a need for believers to support the parent, and, as appropriate, support the children. Custody battles, access rights, housing issues, and school bullying could all impact upon the children, who are caught up in a situation not of their making. Rationalizing the new relationship that exists between their parents, and their own position, is difficult for a child of any age. Although we may argue that children are resilient and cope with things better than adults, there is a real danger that it can impact upon them spiritually. Failure in the spiritual lives of their parents needs to be set in perspective. Through the care and support of others within the assembly, it is possible to demonstrate love and respect within a Christian home and marriage. This may help to show such children that our failure to live as God would have us should not detract from the fact that God’s will is best. Where human love and affection may change, God’s love does not and any spark of spiritual interest or faith within the child or children should be the focus of fellow saints.
A marriage in the Lord brings together two individuals and also two families. We are aware of the preciousness of Christian fellowship, and that fellowship can be developed through the marriage of their children. When that marriage that once brought such joy fails, the ripple effect can be catastrophic. The issue of guilt and blame is destructive. Although the scripture clearly teaches, ‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife’, Mark 10. 7, often parents are somehow held responsible for the behaviour of their child.
The same bitterness that might afflict the betrayed partner can afflict his/her parents. Relationships between individuals can also spill over to affect relationships between assemblies. There is a need for wisdom, grace, and patience in handling such complex and distressing situations. What we must not do is ignore the problem in the hope that it will somehow resolve itself.
In the compass of such a short article it is impossible to do justice to every aspect of this sad issue. What the writer hopes is that thought might be given to the care of those who are, or who might be, caught up in the situation, and that saints might pray the more earnestly for Christian marriages, and the couples and families within their fellowship.