The Church and the “No-Win” Marriage

Wall (iStock_000008479366Small)

“I don’t believe in divorce.” As Diane responded to the pleas of her non-Christian friends, the waver in her voice only dignified her desperate resolve. Some might have even called it heroic. Her husband of sixteen years, however, had demonstrated all too clearly by his love of alcohol and rage that he did not share her perspective on marriage. The sacred covenant she entered as a young woman had become his license to drink and hurl insults with no accountability. And after a thousand broken promises and countless wasted hours in counseling, Diane was at the breaking point. For the sake of her children’s safety and sanity, and for the survival of her own withered soul, something had to change. Unfortunately, her family, her church, and her own Christian conscience spoke in heartbroken, anguished accord: “I don’t believe in divorce.”

Like Diane, many conscientious believers find themselves hopelessly trapped between two intolerable options: divorce or continued misery. These weary guardians of dead or dying unions remain convinced that divorce is a sin; however, they find it increasingly difficult to ignore the conviction that tolerating the destructive behavior of a wayward mate is not the lesser evil. Meanwhile, the implied message of well-meaning family, friends, and church is, We know you’re enduring unimaginable pain and may even be risking bodily harm, and we don’t know what you should do about it. But for goodness’ sake, don’t seek a divorce! Not only does this fail to offer hope or provide leadership, but it also creates an incubator for sin, not only for the unrepentant partner but also the suffering spouse.

A person can endure this no-win scenario for months, even years, but not forever. As James Dobson so eloquently put it, “The human mind cannot tolerate agitated depression and grief indefinitely. The healthy personality will act to protect itself in time, throwing off the despair and groping for stability. One method by which this is accomplished is by turning pain into anger.”[1] Given enough time, people in situations like Diane’s reach a breaking point and often make destructive or unwise choices. And the intensity of their emotional backlash can be frightening, especially against the offending spouse and anyone who had encouraged them to “remain faithful to their vows.” Feeling forsaken by friends, family, church, and even God Himself, some abandon themselves to an adulterous affair and desert their families, ironically giving their sinning spouse biblical grounds for divorce. Many others eventually decide that while God may not approve of their divorce, they cannot continue to exist in this moral limbo and then finally choose to pursue a divorce their loved ones and church friends do not support. They eventually console themselves with the quiet conviction that a lifetime of guilt is better than what they endured in marriage.

To be perfectly fair, leaders in Christian ministry face the no-win scenario on a grand scale. For them, the implications extend far beyond the suffering of just one person and his or her family. Also at stake are the institution of marriage and the authority of Scripture. 

Protecting Marriage

For many decades, Christian pastors, teachers, counselors, and sociologists have lamented the steady, undeniable erosion of marriage and feel compelled to shore it up, even if it means that some individuals must suffer. As the divorce rate climbs, church leaders elevate the institution of marriage. The more the world profanes marriage, the more sacred it becomes in the minds of those who defend it. As more people freely discard the marriage covenant at will, the response has been to proclaim the inviolable, unbreakable nature of the one-flesh bond  more fervently and more rigidly than before. This progression has escalated to the point that we now place such high value on marriage that we are willing to sacrifice almost anything to avoid divorce, including the safety and spiritual well-being of individuals. This may explain the disheartening results of a survey conducted by James and Phyllis Alsdurf. They questioned pastors to determine when they would support a battered woman’s decision to separate from her abuser.

One-third of the respondents felt that the abuse would have to be life-threatening. Almost one-fifth believed that no amount of abuse would justify a woman leaving, while one in seven felt a moderate expression of violence would be justification enough. The remainder interpreted “occasional” violence as grounds for leaving.

However, only two per cent of the pastors said they would support a divorce in situations of violence.[2]

 We must ask ourselves, was man made for marriage, or marriage made for man? (Mark 2:27). Are we becoming guilty of venerating the institution of marriage over its original design, like the Pharisees obsessed over the Sabbath? Have we lost sight of the purpose of marriage in God’s ultimate program to make us more like Christ? 

Obeying God’s Word

For Christian leaders, the debate over divorce also impacts the authority of Scripture. Jesus, when asked about divorce, stated that a husband and wife “are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6) and “Whoever divorces his wife, except for [sexual] immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).[3] The interpretation of these words is a proving ground for how one will interpret and apply Scripture in general. And it’s a particularly difficult issue because it seemingly places two of God’s primary attributes, love and righteousness, in direct contention.

Many people correctly argue that God’s love would not want to prolong Diane’s domestic torture, but their arguments typically set aside His righteousness. And the arguments against taking the words of Jesus at face value are legion.

 * “Jesus answered a specific question, so we can’t apply His statement universally.”

* “Jesus didn’t mean what we think He did.”

* “Cultures and contexts are no longer the same. That was then; this is now.”

 Some of the arguments are intriguing—even compelling at first blush—but they all accomplish the same result. They effectively render the words of Christ meaningless, which leaves many believers feeling uneasy. And rightfully so. Any solution to this moral dilemma must not ignore the words of Jesus or rob them of their meaning.

On the other hand, many Christians correctly take the words of Scripture at face value and understandably reject any attempt to avoid a straightforward interpretation. But their dogged desire to honor the righteousness of God too easily dismisses His compassion, or, at the very least, they see God as holy first and loving second. 

Looking Up

At present, much of the evangelical world has battled itself to a stalemate on the issue of divorce and, as a sad consequence, has left many suffering believers isolated and directionless. Clearly, something must be done. But what? How do we resolve the no-win scenario?

In the early 1960s, Thomas Kuhn wrote a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he coined the term “paradigm shift.”[4] When scientists can no longer make sense of their data using the established theories, someone stumbles upon a new perspective that sparks a scientific revolution. The facts don’t change; we just change our way of looking at them.

To use a word picture, think of a path leading to a wall. In the past, we may have turned left or right to go around something blocking our progress. Turning left or right always worked in the past because the obstacles were relatively small. So we’ve never needed any other way of thinking. But now we’ve come to a wall that stretches for miles in either direction. Turning left or right will no longer solve the problem. We need a new solution. We need a new dimension to our thinking: up. We must climb over the wall, something we never thought to do before.

Our present theological path has led us to an impasse. To turn left, we must either compromise righteousness or bend the Bible to sanctify our desire for mercy. To turn right, we must hold high the sanctity of marriage at the expense of compassion, forcing many thousands to choose between sin and survival. We need a new perspective. A paradigm shift. A way to view the issues in three dimensions instead of only two.

Clearly, our present solutions do not work. Marriages continue to fracture under unbearable stresses. But rather than blame the couple, or blame society, we must look to ourselves as members of Christ’s body and ask, What can we do differently to give real meaning to the words “sanctity of marriage” instead of the mere lip service we offer now.

We need an “up” kind of solution to the challenges marriages face. And that is the primary purpose for this forum.

Will you join me?


[1] James Dobson, Love Must Be Tough: New Hope for Families in Crisis (Dallas: Word, 1996), 153.

[2] James and Phyllis Alsdurf, Battered into Submission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1989), 158.

[3] The Greek word translated “immorality” in the New American Standard Bible is porneia, from which we get our word pornography. The term refers to sexual sin.

[4] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, rev. ed. 1996).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s