03 March 2014
Till death us do part?
Richard Woodall explores the Church's response to rising rates of divorce among Christians.
"To love and to cherish, till death us do part." We all know the vows. Couples on their wedding day will have proclaimed them aloud, and what a commitment those words speak of.
The Bible tells us marriage is intended to be a picture of Jesus and the Church.And yet stubbornly thrown into this perfect image is the D word: divorce. Lawyers say the beginning of each year produces a tide of inquiries about the financial cost of a divorce, with experts claiming £2,000 is the minimum you can expect to pay – but this is without taking into account of the cost of setting up a new home.
Within the Church, we think we know wha tour own opinion of divorce is until it affects someone close to us. And statistics suggest the Church is only too familiar with it.
"For quite a while I hung on to the hope that God would restore what was broken."
Eight per cent of the adult population in England and Wales were either separated or divorced in 2008. In the evangelical Church latest figures from the Langham International Partnership show 4.5 per cent of the total evangelical population in England were either divorced or separated.
For the past 15 years Holy Trinity Brompton Church (HTB) in London has run its Restored Lives course for divorced or separated couples. With a central theme of forgiveness, it is geared towards those in and outside of the Church.
Rev Nicky Lee, associate vicar at HTB, said the course originally launched in response to the "break-down" in marriage across society. Now other churches across the UK are starting to run the course.
But does the availability of such a course imply that divorce is ok and feed unrealistic expectations of a fast spiritual an demotional recovery? And does it also risk alienating divorcees, marking them out as special cases in need of a course? This appears not to be the case, according to Rev Lee.
"Feedback from the course has been really positive," he said. "Not everyone on it is divorced. Some on Restored Lives are still married. As a result of doing the course they feel in a position to have another go at restoring their marriage. It is in no sense promoting divorce, it's quite the reverse."
Phil Green, aged 34, married his first wife, Rebekah, at the age of 22. She was 20. Five years later they separated; the separation ended in divorce.
"The first year of marriage was great – that came as a surprise as everyone had said it was going to be really difficult, and it wasn't. The second year was pretty good too. It was the third year when the cracks began to appear.
"In our case at least it was a mixture, of unwise expectations and a growing number of issues that we failed to deal with. We changed, and instead of ensuring we grew closer, we let ourselves grow apart."
Phil added: "At first divorce wasn't an option either of us were prepared to consider. However, as time went on, it seemed like the least-worst option-for me at least, I know Rebekah disagrees with me on this. That's not to say I thought it was okay– I do believe, that in our particular case, my choice to divorce was a sinful choice.
"Although I certainly don't blame our church, or the Church-at-large for this, I do believe that it is absolutely essential that churches provide the space and safety to enable people to hold up their hands and say: 'Hey, our marriage is a mess – we need help!'"
UK law allows five reasons for a divorce: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion if you've lived apart for two years and both parties consent, or five years of living apart if one party doesn't consent.
According to Grant Thornton research in 2011, the most common reason for a marriage to end was couples claiming they had fallen out of love and grown apart. But what has the Church got to say about marriages ending? Even among evangelicals, there is no consensus.
Neil Powell is pastor at City Church in Birmingham. "There is only one ground for initiating divorce," he said. "Jesus says that a Christian may initiate a divorce on the single ground of porneia which I take from Matthew 19 to be sexual immorality after marriage.
"Jesus does not say that people cannot divorce but that they should not divorce. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament teach divorce is permissible but only as a concession to sin."
Others take a different view of when divorce is permissible. Dan Steel, pastor at Magdalen Road Evangelical Church in Oxford, believes biblical divorce can be permitted for marital unfaithfulness, abandonment, and circumstances of abuse. Even in a case of unfaithfulness, divorce is not always necessarily the right thing and "reconciliation should be sought initially".
Phil – who is now married to Hannah – said: "I was overwhelmed with the support and love I received from my church and Christian friends and family. There were people who challenged me. However, with the benefit of hindsight I wonder if it would have been good for more people to challenge me sooner. That said, I take full responsibility for my actions. I'm not trying to pass the buck."
His first wife, Rebekah, is on staff at The Forge Church in Suffolk. She said: "For quite a while I hung onto the hope that God would restore what was broken. We have to remember God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). It's dangerous to have divorce as an option as at times the temptation to separate will be so strong. But we shouldn't demonise divorce as there are some legitimate reasons for it.
"No matter how we interpret the Bible on divorce, there's the underpinning theme of grace that goes far beyond the rightness or wrongness of such a controversial debate."
How would the wider Church family react to couples getting divorced? Neil Powell again: "We would seek to counsel a member of our church a longtime before divorce. We want a culture in church where we teach and equip all married members to recognise unhealthy patterns in a marriage. If all else fails we would institute some form of church discipline against a guilty party."
Dan Steel noted each situation was different but showing love and care wasalways important.What does this all mean for couples who'fall out of love' or are unhappy in theirmarriage? Should their church be prayingfor the restoration of their marriage?Dan Steel said: "Happiness is aninteresting concept that can be unhelpfullyfoundational in our modern culture.Marriage is not necessarily abouthappiness. I would urge people to workhard and stay together in this situation."Neil Powell agrees: "Staying marriedmay indeed be painful and lead tounhappiness but the gospel is bigger thansin. Marriage points to Jesus in that it is acovenant where we make a 'bindingpromise of future love' (Tim Keller, TheMeaning of Marriage) and that of course iswhat the gospel is."Does he think evangelicals are becomingmore accepting of divorce? "Yes andespecially on the grounds of irreconcilablebreakdown. Increasingly the church willdecide to let divorces simply happenwithout challenging people."