How can the Christian church not only uphold God’s good plan for marriage, but also witness to his grace when marriages fail?
What are our guiding metaphors about God?
- Some see God primarily as Creator, Law-Giver and Judge. The question of divorce, then will be approached in terms of moral rules and the need for discipline.
- Others will focus more on the grace of God in Jesus Christ. They will not only take seriously the reality of sin, but the promise of a new start in the gospel, and to the possibility of good consequences.
- Still others will major on a sense of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and will tend to approach each situation on its own merits, seeking to discern God’s will in this particular situation.
Each of these approaches has its merits, and it will be the part of wisdom to see how they relate to each other in the light of Scripture and in the light of the realities of the human situations before us.
If we understand marriage as a covenant, then the breaking of that covenant in divorce is a serious and sinful matter. But it also allows us to accept that sin traps us in various ways and that divorce may not only be viewed as the better of two evils, but that a new beginning is offered to the penitent even when no excuse can be offered for his or her sin. The book of Hosea shows us that even sexual unfaithfulness may be the occasion for forgiveness and reconciliation.
So, there are two principles to be held in tension: God’s wise will for marriage as a permanent covenant, and his grace, which extends to those who sin by breaking that covenant. Divorce always falls under the shadow of a broken covenant.
What are some pastoral implications?
- We need to find ways of helping one another to develop characters that are capable of faithful covenant relationships. The building of such characters begins in early childhood, and is facilitated by strong and stable relationships within the family. How can the church help and support families as they work (and sometimes struggle) to raise their children?
- The Christian community needs to be known for helping families to become environments of healing and growth, rather than of pain and destructiveness. The trend in some churches to offer support groups for parents and their children, along with material and emotional support, is to be welcomed.
- When marriages are broken, the church needs to find ways of acceptance (as opposed to judgment and rejection), while witnessing to God’s purposes for marriage. Some who experience divorce are victims more that they are culprits. And even a person who may be the primary ‘culprit’ in a divorce needs to be shown acceptance as a person, as he or she is pointed towards an experience, or a renewed experience, of God’s grace in Christ. The church should also look for ways to support the divorced person. This will mean recognising the losses that may have been incurred (home, status, social approval, friendship, children sexual partner, income, and so on) and the complex emotions that may accompany such losses (grief, anger, guilt and so on). It may also involve helping the person to seek a wise course regarding any remarriage.
(Based on David Atkinson, Pastoral Ethics, ch. 3)