How Bad is Bad Enough? Most Pastors Favor Violence over Divorce

11 - Violence (iStock_000002292405Small)Just how bad does a marriage have to become before you would support someone’s decision to pursue divorce?

Most everyone applies an unconscious standard when judging the relative merit of someone’s decision to leave a bad marriage. In other words, we all have a “line.” And when someone crosses it, we’re emotionally willing to clear the offended partner for take-off. For some, the “line” is easily crossed. For others, the “line” exists somewhere beyond the asteroid belt. But we all have one; it’s just a matter of where we choose to draw it, either consciously or unconsciously.

Think about the last time you heard someone tell his or her divorce story. We’ve all experienced this. As the newly emancipated soul explains the events leading up to the final decision to leave, we smile politely, thinking, I don’t know. Perhaps this person gave up too easily. Then, a particular detail triggers a response. Somewhere, down in the deep recesses of intuition, a signals goes off telling us that a “line” has been crossed. Perhaps the trigger was infidelity, or substance abuse, or dishonesty. Suddenly, we’re nodding in outraged approval, wondering why he or she waited so long to divorce.

During the late 1980s, a pair of researchers, James and Phyllis Alsdurf, wanted to know where church leaders drew their lines based on their firsthand experience. They sent a questionnaire to more than 5000 Protestant pastors in the United States, asking about their personal encounters with spousal abuse. One question in particular yielded opinions that some would consider disturbing. The leaders were asked, “How intense must marital violence be in order to justify a Christian woman leaving the home?” Study the results. Continue reading “How Bad is Bad Enough? Most Pastors Favor Violence over Divorce”

Legal Myth #5

Those who find themselves the sole caretaker of a dead marriage almost always struggle to overcome feelings of guilt for even considering divorce. And should they actually follow through with divorce, they typically struggle with shame for the rest of their lives. Moreover, these feelings of guilt and self-doubt are often reinforced by family, friends, and church leaders, who sincerely share a strong aversion to the divorce decree. That’s because myth #5 is perhaps the most compelling of all.

Myth #5: A legal decree of divorce separates “what God has joined together.”

 

The truth is, a divorce decree doesn’t end a marriage any more than a death certificate kills a person. Unrepentant sin renders a marriage null and void. The decree is merely a formal declaration in writing of what has already occurred in life.

Consider this letter received from “Karen.” (Naturally, I have altered her name and masked any details that would identify her.)

A little more than two years ago, my husband left me and our two small children Luke and Joy. He moved to a family member’s house in the same town while he continues to see his mistress, who lives in a nearby state. He helps to support her but he doesn’t provide financial support for our children.

What should I do? The people in my church family say that I should be patient and let the Lord convict him of his sin. They have discouraged me from going to court. Should I file for child support? Should I file for divorce?

Please help me pray. I need the Lord’s help. My husband needs to do what is right. Please pray that his mistress will realize what she’s doing to our family. My children deserve a normal life instead of this.

Karen

In truth, Karen is divorced in every respect except in the eyes of the government. In the eyes of God, she has been abandoned and is, therefore, “not under bondage” (1 Corinthians 7:15). That is to say, she is morally free to move on with her life and to remarry if she chooses, just as a widow is no longer “bound” to her husband and “free to remarry” (1 Corinthians 7:39).

Filing for divorce does nothing more than inform the state, “This marriage is over because at least one person, by virtue of his or her actions, has decided to end it.” This document also helps to protect the upright spouse from the consequences of the wayward spouse’s immoral or illegal behavior. Furthermore, it safeguards the interests of the children, who have the least control of anyone involved.

In most cases, and by most standards, the marriage is “over” long before anyone declares it to the state. The mystical union has been treated with contempt, and the covenant has been run through the shredder. Unfortunately, we place such significance on the divorce decree that, if we are not careful, we can allow it to become an instrument of denial instead of a possible means of redemption. Imagine how absurd it would be for a community to refuse a death certificate merely because no one wanted to accept that a person is dead. Meanwhile, the family of the deceased cannot move forward, feeling guilty for “giving up,” yet left alone to care for a corpse as though it were alive. How much better it would be if the community could surround the upright spouse and affirm the reality that the marriage is over, and then commit themselves to helping their wounded brother or sister face the future.

Let us set aside the myth that a divorce degree separates what “God has joined together.” A marriage license does not make a marriage. God joins people together, not the State. Likewise, a divorce decree does not end a marriage; unrepentant sin does that.

Why do you think this myth remains so persuasive in the body of Christ? What can we do to dispel such myths? Until we do, local church bodies will remain powerless to deal with the real problems of people. Let me know what you think.

Legal Myths #3 and #4

Americans, by nature, resent governmental intrusion, especially when bureaucrats start meddling in personal relationships or religion. Because marriage involves both of these two sensitive matters, Christians especially resent the idea of a judge ruling over what they consider sacred and private. Therefore, believers feel betrayed when they discover their partner has invited government involvement in a relationship that has been sealed by God and should be governed by Him alone.

This perspective, while admirable on many levels, rests on two myths that frequently place the upright partner in danger, along with his or her children. (I invite you to reread Eva’s letter in the earlier post, “Five Court System Myths and the Truth about Justice.”)

Myth #3: Marriage is a sacred matter in which the government should not be involved.

I suspect most people would affirm this statement. It sounds reasonable, were it not for a particular misconception. The truth is, the state has no desire to involve itself in the details of anyone’s marriage, and will only become as involved in marriage as we allow.

A couple submits to a small amount of government involvement when they obtain a marriage license before the wedding ceremony. This formality does nothing more than satisfy the state’s need for documentation. Its purpose is to inform the government that two people are married and should be treated that way with respect to the law. For example, taxes are applied differently once two people merge their lives; two individuals have become one legal and financial entity in the eyes of the state.

Similarly, a parting couple must file for, and receive, a decree of divorce confirming that the state no longer recognizes them as married. All other matters concerning divorce or separation can be settled by mutual agreement, mediation, or some other means. The court has no other involvement unless the couple insists on fighting it out before a judge.

Many Christians avoid the courts altogether, fearing that in giving an inch, the government will take a mile. Moreover, they want to honor the apostle Paul’s exhortation to avoid taking disputes with fellow believers before the courts. (We will examine 1 Corinthians 6:1–8 in detail in another article). Decent, reasonable people always try to resolve conflict in person without dragging another before a judge. Therefore, even in extreme cases of abuse, infidelity, criminal behavior, and even abandonment, Christians steadfastly avoid any contact with the courts, leaving themselves legally vulnerable. That’s because they unconsciously believe myth #4.

Myth #4: Filing a petition for divorce is an unnecessary and cruel formality.

In an ideal world, everyone would be reasonable and we could settle our disputes honorably. Unfortunately, it is impossible to reason with unreasonable people. Furthermore, Christians frequently underestimate the lengths to which a wayward spouse will go to defend his or her sinful choices and are frequently surprised to find themselves on the defendant’s side of the courtroom. Because the legal system can become a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands (as Eva disovered), the upright partner must secure it and then place it out of reach so the wayward partner has less opportunity to hurt someone.

Filing a petition or complaint for divorce with the court protects the upright spouse in several important ways. (Keep in mind that the petition can be rescinded at any time.)

Legal Protection. Simply packing up and leaving could constitute abandonment unless the upright spouse had to move out to preserve his or her own safety or the safety of the children. Even then, credible proof may be required later. In many states, the sinning spouse would have a strong case for a “fault” divorce. Furthermore, in some states, the person initiating the complaint enjoys greater control over the agenda, timing, and tone of the entire divorce process. If the upright spouse does not use the legal system with wisdom, he or she could forfeit significant legal power or even become legally powerless despite how “right” he or she may be.

Financial Protection. Whatever physical and financial situation exists during separation commonly becomes the basis for the terms of the divorce. For instance, if the upright spouse vacates the home and, out of good conscience, provides one thousand dollars each month to cover bills, it will be almost impossible to convince the court that the living and financial arrangements should change after the divorce is final, especially if changing the existing arrangement affects the children in any way.

Filing a petition and using the courts will provide structure for the financial arrangement from the very beginning.

Physical Protection. Temporary restraining orders are more easily obtained when they ask for reasonable protections in connection with a petition for divorce (the first official step in any divorce case). For instance, if the upright spouse is worried that his or her partner might become violent, disappear with the children, or deny access to bank funds or the family car, a temporary order can provide stability until the circumstances become less volatile.

Ironically, when a marriage experiences such crisis that separation is imminent or becomes necessary, filing a petition for divorce is the best way to minimize government involvement . . . but only when the upright partner does the filing. Who better to be in control of the legal process than the partner who wants the marriage to continue?

Have you or someone you know been victimized by malicious use of the legal system? How were you or this person affected?

Next, discover how Myth #5 hides the real cause of divorce.

Legal System Myth #2

Abandoned partners are often heard to say, “I don’t believe in divorce.” This, of course, is merely the summation of a complex system of belief. Here is what they really mean to say:

My spouse may not intend to honor our vows, but I will. If this marriage ends in divorce, I will not be the guilty party. Furthermore, this dispute doesn’t belong in court; therefore, I will not enable my spouse’s sin by participating in legal action. Besides, I command the moral high ground in this situation, so I don’t have to worry about the outcome if this eventually lands in court. Any judge will see that the truth is on my side.

 Consequently, abandoned partners feel no need to contact an attorney or to respond to their mate’s legal action. Yet, eventually and without exception, they find themselves bewildered and victimized once the judge taps the gavel and signs the final decree. That’s because their entire rationale is founded upon a common myth.

Myth #2: Courts care about who is at fault in the breakup of a marriage and will favor the innocent party.

At one time, courts would only grant a divorce when one partner could prove the other to be at fault for the failure of the marriage. The grounds for divorce differed slightly in each state, but most recognized the obvious: infidelity, abandonment, abuse, or extreme neglect. Furthermore, the court would consider the severity of these grounds when awarding spousal support, child custody, and property to the innocent party. That’s because the courts considered marriage a covenant—a contract—between two people. In order to divorce, one partner had to show that the other was “in breach of contract” or “at fault” for breaking their agreement, the terms of which had been spoken before witnesses at their wedding ceremony.

Of course, the partners could mutually agree to dissolve their contract. However, unless both of them agreed to divorce, “fault” would have to be proven.

In 1970, the advent of the so-called “no-fault” divorce changed everything. As of 1985, nearly every state recognizes some form of “no-fault” divorce, which allows one party to divorce the other without having to prove “grounds.” In fact, one doesn’t even have to gain the consent of his or her spouse. The court merely declares the marriage dissolved because at least one partner claims the union is irretrievably broken and beyond hope of reconciliation.

Because neither partner is considered at fault for the failure of the marriage, neither can be punished when dividing property or deciding the fate of any children involved. All financial and practical matters of the divorce settlement depend on a number of other factors, such as how long the couple was married, the potential earning ability of each spouse, how much each partner contributed to the family’s financial status, and who provided primary care for the children. These “no-fault” statutes require the equitable distribution of all property; therefore, any settlement that divides property in such a way as to punish either spouse will not survive if challenged in court. Unfortunately, this means that someone can be guilty of infidelity, abuse, abandonment, or any number of marriage-killing behaviors, yet emerge from divorce court completely unscathed.

We can bemoan the unfairness of “no-fault” statutes—in fact, many have acknowledged that they have caused more harm than good—however, they are not likely to change soon. Therefore, we are better to deal with life as it is. At present, the courts depend upon both parties fully engaging in the process. The judge has no choice but to act on the information he or she has, so if only one partner presents his or her case, then the judge will use that that information as the basis for all decisions . . . even if that information is deceitful or incomplete. It is not uncommon for the morally guilty spouse to emerge from the courtroom with an unfair share of the family’s money, property, and even custody of the children, all because the victimized spouse failed to engage in the legal process.

It is a sad fact that we must accept as the better part of wisdom: the legal system doesn’t favor the person who is right; the legal system favors the person who is better prepared.

Look for Myths #3 and #4.

Five Court System Myths and the Truth about Justice

InjusticeEva’s letter broke my heart. Unfortunately, her tragedy is not uncommon among Christians. I have altered her letter to protect her identity; however, her story could be one of many others who have written to us after reading Redemptive Divorce.

I am writing to you because my family and I need prayer. About four weeks ago, my husband assaulted me in front of our three children, after which I filed charges for domestic violence. The trial is still four months away and, until recently, I felt sure he would be convicted. However, he has filed a countersuit accusing me of abusing alcohol, alleging that I am mentally and emotionally unstable, and wanted the court to declare me unfit to care for our children. While none of this is true, he was able to convince the judge, who has a reputation for siding with husbands, and now he has been awarded custody of our children. The judge also declared that he can live at home, while I find somewhere else to live. And, I have to pay child support, despite the fact he makes a six-figure income and I will be lucky to make minimum wage. I was a stay-at-home mom for our entire marriage.

Our youngest son has been diagnosed with hypoglycemia, which requires careful management of his diet as well as medication to help him fight his ear infections. But my husband isn’t consistent and our son is growing weaker and sicker as time goes by. Now our other two boys are beginning to suffer severe anxiety.

My only hope is to convince another judge to reverse this decision and gain custody of our sons, perhaps based on neglect. But my husband has changed all our bank accounts and cancelled our credit cards, so that I can’t even afford a place to live, much less the cost of an attorney. I don’t even have enough to pay the child support I owe by the end of the month. How could this happen? I’m not the one who beat and choked my partner. I’m not the one who’s neglecting our children. He should be living on the street, yet I can’t go into my own home without permission.

I have never felt so alone. I have never faced such injustice. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

Eva

Earnest Christians desperately trying to resolve impossible situations frequently do everything possible to avoid the legal system, usually because they believe that seeking an attorney’s help is somehow wrong. Unfortunately, the sinning spouse is all too willing to use any means necessary to retain control and to preserve his or her pattern of sin. Sooner or later, though, the matter nearly always lands before a judge, who typically hands the short end of justice to the least prepared spouse. And no one suffers more than the children.

This sadly common scenario can be avoided, but only if we dispel some common moral and legal myths surrounding divorce and the court system. Jesus commanded us to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Therefore, we must study the divorce process from a legal standpoint and then prepare to stand strong for what is right as we submit to the authority of Scripture.

In this article, we will examine the first of five legal system myths.

Myth #1: You don’t need to involve the courts if you just do what is right.

Eva thought if she simply did what was right, the courts would behave like a watchful parent and move to protect and support her. It’s a common misconception. Those of us who do not have regular interaction with the judicial branch of our government tend to think of the court system as an entity—that is, a mission-focused agency of the government whose sole purpose is to fairly and impartially safeguard the rights of people, particularly the downtrodden and defenseless. While the American judicial system is perhaps the finest in the world, it is not an organization in this sense. It is, instead, a meeting ground, governed by rules, where people who disagree on the definition of right and wrong try to convince the government to take their side in a dispute. Therefore, the judicial system can be capable of accomplishing great good or perpetrating astounding evil, depending upon who’s involved in a particular case.

Our system of laws and courts is neither good nor evil. We are much better to think of the judicial system as a powerful tool that can be utilized for either good or evil, depending upon who wields it. And in the hands of Eva’s abusive husband, it became a weapon.

Next, Myth #2: The courts care about how is at fault in the breakup of a marriage and will favor the innocent party.

Abandoned . . . Bewildered . . . and Searching for Answers

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The following letter from a reader illustrates a very common problem among Christians.

I am facing divorce. I want to reconcile with my wife but she is unwilling at this point. I believe as followers of Jesus that there is no room for not seeking reconciliation and so I am not wanting to even participate in divorce proceedings, mostly out of hope that she will reconsider. So I am not sure even what to do. There is no adultery or abuse or any grounds. She just wants a different life without me.
 
Even if the worst happens, I want to do my best to honor the Lord, my commitment, and to offer love and forgiveness in the hope of reconciliation.

Blessings,
Steve

Naturally, I changed the man’s name to protect his identity; however, I didn’t alter the details of his circumstances. I didn’t have to. His situation is so tragically common, this letter could have come from any one of a thousand different men or women over the last couple of months. He finds himself abandoned, bewildered, and timidly trusting that no response is the best response.

Continue reading “Abandoned . . . Bewildered . . . and Searching for Answers”

The Church and the “No-Win” Marriage

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“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).