Cover Story

Rethinking divorce

Is America's love affair with divorce nearing an end? New legislation strengthening the legal bond is slowly gaining acceptance among policymakers, but church leadership is the key. Churches can show the way by defending Christian marriage, not by looking the other way "every time a hard case or an unhappy spouse walks into the room."

Issue: "Rethinking divorce," June 13, 1998

in St. Louis - Doug Hayward last June knocked out much of the back wall himself. He bashed through sheetrock and wood, wheeling out the debris and the dust. He pulled up worn carpet and vinyl and, with his contractor's help, carefully laid in sturdy new hardwood flooring. Mr. Hayward was reconstructing not just his small suburban St. Louis house but his life. He had shared the house with his first wife and small children. Then came a decade of divorce. Then, in April, 1997, came remarriage and a filling of the house with a large, melded family that included new wife Lynn Camp and her three children. "The funny thing is, she wasn't ever afraid of my five, but I was afraid of her three," says Doug, a bright-eyed man with hair just beginning to gray. "You know there are going to be problems. But eventually, you have to pick yourself up from the devastation and do what you can. Because of this terrible thing, divorce, so many things that God intended can never be. But that doesn't mean other good things can't happen. God is still in control, and God is good." Both Lynn's and Doug's divorces were biblical, in that their spouses had committed adultery, and they themselves had sincerely sought reconciliation. Their churches gave them the green light to remarry. But that didn't make divorce any easier. "It's hard to describe the pain," Doug says. "I can remember the night, in June of '87, I found out about my wife. I drove over to my pastor's house. I kept repeating out loud, 'It's too hard. It's too hard.' I must have said that a thousand times. I didn't think I could go on living." Things are better now. "There are still some open wounds," Doug says. "But we're moving forward." Adds Lynn, "Trusting God is easier now. When you've been down so far, when you've had nothing, when you know how God provided and carried you, you begin to realize his love never fails." Just as things are looking up for the Hayward family, America is rethinking its generation-long commitment to easy-out marriages. In recent weeks, Arizona has followed Louisiana in enacting a "covenant" marriage law (see Louisiana story, page 22), enabling couples to choose a stronger marriage license not so easily broken. And the Florida legislature has passed a bill requiring couples to take minimal marriage counseling before they're granted a license. That Arizona law, signed May 27 by Gov. Jane Hull, creates a second kind of marriage license. Couples who choose a covenant license would have to go through premarital counseling. To qualify for divorce, they would have to live separately for two years. There are exceptions for adultery, imprisonment, physical abuse, and addiction. Naturally, the law was unpopular in the press. The Arizona Republic chided Gov. Hull, saying she could have "struck a strong blow for freedom and reaffirmed the status quo of no-fault divorce." Its reasoning revived the old arguments for no-fault divorce, including amiable partings. "Artificially keeping two people married when they no longer love each other does not make those situations any better." The weaker action in Florida is designed to give couples a choice: Either take a class or be a tiny bit patient. The classes, run by clergy or counselors, are four-hour sessions covering communication, parenting, and finances. If couples don't attend, they have to wait three days between getting the marriage license and getting married. Plus, the license will cost $32.50 more if they don't attend a class. Lamar Alexander, who ran for president in 1996 and may run again, urged Republicans last week to make divorce reform an issue. Republicans, he said, should promote a government "that encourages marriage instead of penalizing it," and he specifically advocated "making it harder to divorce." Significant and symbolic actions alike attest to what Doug Hayward has learned: "I don't think anyone believes the lie anymore. Divorce is harmful, and everyone at least knows someone hurt by it." One thing Doug and Lynn shared long before they knew each other was St. Louis-area attorney Terry Jones, who handled both their divorces. He at first appears to be somewhat oxymoronic-a divorce lawyer who is also a committed Christian and an elder in a solidly Reformed church-but he says that there is no conflict: "I don't think this is an area of the law that we have to abandon to non-Christians. This is precisely where biblical counseling and perspective is most needed." Around the office and among some in his church, Mr. Jones is known as Noman-as in, "what therefore God has joined, let no man separate." About half his practice is devoted to divorces involving Christians, which he takes on with "two guiding rules." First, "I will apply the biblical principles. If I'm going to bring the divorce, I want to know there are biblical grounds for it. And second, I want to make sure the church is involved, that the pastors or elders are consulted. And if the church says no, I don't file." Though churches teach divorce is wrong, he says, attitudes of individual churchgoers toward divorce often seem identical to those within the general culture. "I can tell in that first phone call," he says, leaning back in his chair. "It's going to start when I ask why. I hear things like, 'We have grown apart,' 'The love is gone,' or 'We're fighting all the time.' The worst is when people say they're doing it for the kids. No, they're not; the kids are going to be hurt horribly." Realizing that, "The first thing I do is I'll try to get the church involved." In theory, at least, most churches he deals with recognize only two valid reasons for divorce: adultery, and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (see Matt. 19:7-9 and 1 Cor. 7:15-16). They recognize divorce as abhorrent to God and devastating to families. Mr. Jones notes that the disciples responded to Christ's strictness concerning divorce by saying, "'Then it's better not to get married.' They were thinking of all the lousy, stinking marriages out there, where the spouses have gotten good at hurting each other. Jesus knew about those marriages, too. His point was, this is serious stuff. Don't take it lightly." In practice, though, many churches fail to respond appropriately to divorce. "Lots of times, it's a church with a low view of Scripture, but other times, it's a church that just doesn't want to deal with it." When churches echo conventional rationalizations, he says, it damages families and denies justice to a wronged spouse. Church discipline is vital, he says: "The church should intervene as soon as possible, and if there's a refusal to repent, then there should be excommunication, or disfellowshipping, or whatever that particular church terms it." Lynn's church did excommunicate her wayward spouse after extensive efforts to bring him to repentance. But Doug's church failed to find any fault with his spouse. "That's a real problem because extending forgiveness to an unrepentant person is something even God doesn't do," he says. Mr. Jones adds that he sees little teaching, even in Bible-believing churches, about remarriage: "If we tell someone they can't remarry, we must be sure we're basing it on the biblical mandates." He notes that if one member of a divorcing couple has been disciplined and refuses to repent, "that person should be treated as an unbeliever. And that frees the other to remarry." Mr. Jones was an usher in Lynn and Doug's wedding, which he remembers as "the definition of ambivalence. I was joyful to be there, and I knew it was a marriage that would honor God. But I knew all about the brokenness and pain they each went through to get there." Seminars for troubled marriages are spreading. Marriage Encounters is a program used in 13 different denominations, ranging from Southern Baptists to Episcopalians. A small program called Retrouvaille, unaffiliated with a denomination, has shown success. Marriage Savers, founded by Michael and Harriet McManus, has expanded with particular speed. When Peoria, Ill., pastors signed the Community Marriage Policy authored by Marriage Savers in 1991, divorces dropped by a fifth in the first year, and the decline has continued. Marriage Savers classes, which assign couples to older "mentor" couples, can save 80 to 90 percent of troubled marriages, according to Marriage Savers' studies. But there are few Christian ministries to those who are already divorced. Doug and Lynn Hayward met at one of those, a program for the divorced and separated called Fresh Start. One of Fresh Start's organizers, Illinois pastor Tom Jones-who was himself divorced in 1971-says the group's rapid growth shows the need in evangelical churches for ministry to "single-again" adults: "Churches can tend to overlook these folks." Fresh Start has all the earmarks of a typical "recovery" program: It uses the five-stage grief model, and its literature is full of terms such as co-dependency, denial, social networks, and self-esteem. But Fresh Start turns out to be not psychological fluff, but a biblically based program that draws a clear line between American culture's view of divorce ("natural") and God's view of divorce (always results from sin). Marriage is a covenant, Fresh Start teaches, and divorce is a violation of God's plan. "In no way are we endorsing divorce as a legitimate way to solve problems," says Mr. Jones, a regional director and frequent lecturer for the group. "We make it very clear that divorce creates more problems, and usually doesn't solve the ones people hope. Some marriages are so painful that divorce might feel better at first, but that feeling won't last." Fresh Start's guidelines for biblical divorces are slightly wider than the traditional two: "A spouse can sin so gravely that a marriage covenant no longer exists." Mr. Jones states: "When there's physical abuse, or cruelty, when the spouse is unwilling to change, the church can say that no legitimate covenant exists anymore." There's a temptation, he admits, to widen those guidelines every time a hard case or an unhappy spouse walks into the room. That's why, he says, the church must make the call. The church has other duties, too, he adds: Repentant Christians who have endured divorce are in great need of a healthy measure of mercy. "Most churches are pretty severe on the divorced," Mr. Jones explains. "But if [repentant] divorced people know anything, they know God hates divorce. What they need to hear is that God still loves them." Fresh Start focuses initially on the struggles of the divorced: depression, shame, re-entry into single life. There's practical advice dealing with anger, forgiveness, finances, kids, and sex. But participants are not coddled: "We're all sinners," Mr. Jones says. "No one is completely innocent in these things." He adds, "Sexuality is a particularly tough issue. To have known a sexually fulfilling relationship, and then to go to complete celibacy, can be a real challenge for people." Along those lines, Doug Hayward tells of when he met a pastor for lunch a couple of years after the divorce. "How are you, Doug?" the pastor asked. "Terrible!" Doug responded. "I want sex! I really want sex! There! I've said it! That feels better. Now, how are you?" "The church is awfully uncomfortable discussing this," says Tom Jones, who has written extensively about the subject in his book, The Single Again Handbook. "But that's what people are dealing with. I have so much respect for men and women who are really seeking purity. In many ways, it's tougher for them now than when they were teenagers." Lynn and Doug Hayward say they've experienced countless problems related to divorce, single parenting, dealing with exes, and blending two families. "The problems turn up in areas you might not expect," he says. "Lynn's kids are in Christian schools, and they felt like oddballs because they had a single mom. My kids were in public schools, and it was seen as pretty normal there." Doug's toughest task was cooking: "I made do, and I always got something on the table. It wasn't always something I would eat. But I did my best." Lynn says her first husband's deceit was the worst part for her. Her husband, a salesman who traveled often, had essentially established a whole new family in another state. Learning to trust a man again took time. "And then there were the kids," Doug grins. Lynn just shakes her head. "When we were considering remarriage, a friend sat me down," Doug says. "He drew a diagram, with me and all my kids, and Lynn and all her kids, and then began drawing lines from each person to every other person. 'Now, this one will have an issue with that one, and then will have a conflict with this one.' By the time he was done, the paper was a solid mass of lines. 'So you see,' he said, 'there's plenty of potential for interpersonal conflict.'" For the most part, the kids get along fine. Little things can pop up; Doug's boys are huggers, while Lynn's boys aren't. And because Doug's kids had grown up in this house, at first there was a natural feeling of being invaded. It's not just the kids. "For me, there was a little adjusting," Lynn says. "You know, I was pretty used to doing things myself, making the decisions by myself. Now, there's someone else." Doug adds, "No one said this was going to be easy, but I think we can honor God, and honor marriage. God is good-always."

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