Big comfort

Why has something that hurts so much become so popular?

Issue: "Back to no future," April 22, 2000

You probably have seen the recent polls suggesting that the divorce crisis may be easing a bit: Five years ago, more than half of all U.S. marriages were ending in divorce. Now there are signs it may be just under half.

Big comfort.

That's like taking encouragement from a report that in 1995, a 747 airliner crashed somewhere in the world every single day, but that by 1999, while the general pattern continued, there were no crashes at all on five different days during the year.

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Among the ignominious records set during the last half of the 1900s must certainly be included the fact that the incidence of divorce raced from "rare" to "routine." Even among those who call themselves evangelicals and biblically based Christians, the rates have soared.

Glance discreetly around your own church sometime, and try to spot the family untouched by a broken marriage or two. Even for the best of us, the record is gloomy. One poll last month indicated that among Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, the divorce rate is roughly one in four, while Lutherans and Roman Catholics tend to do better at only one in five.

Once more: Big comfort.

So why? Why has something that hurts so much become so popular? It's easy to blame the bad guys-the terribly secularized media, Hollywood, the public schools, the demands of big business-and to censure them for paganizing and destroying marriage and the family as we used to know them. And indeed, such parties deserve a big share of that criticism. But maybe the biggest blame rests on God's own people. For while we are the ones who ought to be showing to all the world a really distinctive picture of marriage and the family, the picture we in fact offer is often barely distinguishable from that offered by the rest of society.

Is this just an unavoidable cultural drift? Or are there specific actions God's people might take to reverse such a terrible trend? There are-but like most medicine, such actions will almost certainly produce a little gagging and screaming. Here's what I suggest:

  • God's people need to resist divorce when it is threatened. More and more, we've acquiesced-not happily, to be sure-but going along, just the same, because it seems there's nothing we can do. But there is something we can do. The officers of our churches can assume their God-given authority and proclaim that those responsible for ending any marriage, apart from biblical grounds, will be separated from the church. Sometimes, when one partner simply deserts another, that task is fairly simple-although you might be shocked to discover how few churches take any action at all, even when scandal reigns, other than to wring their hands. Almost everyone has witnessed divorce; almost no one has seen someone actually put out of the church. But sometimes, it may not be easy to discover who's responsible for ending a particular marriage; in such cases, a second difficult assignment awaits the church officers:
  • God's people, and the innocent party in a broken marriage, deserve to know who is chiefly responsible for ending the relationship. Too often, that isn't made clear when a marriage breaks up. The information is important if the guilty person is to be held accountable and the innocent person is to be properly supported. Some will understandably argue that nobody's totally guilty and nobody's completely innocent-and that is partially true. But to push such thinking too far is a cop-out. Almost always, one spouse wants to preserve the marriage, while the other wants to end it. In terms of Matthew 19, the church officers bear the task of sorting out those facts. And their failure to take that task seriously does nothing but press the accelerator on the Divorce Express. Being publicly proclaimed as the responsible party won't dissuade everyone-but if such embarrassment prompts even a few folks to think twice, wouldn't that be good?
  • Finally, and perhaps most difficult, the officers in churches that want to discourage divorce must also be careful on what terms they welcome into their membership those who carry the guilt for breaking up marriages in earlier times and in other venues. This is ticklish, since we're all squeamish about being accused of "shooting our wounded." But when a man can walk away from his wife, children, and church, marry someone a little younger and trimmer, and immediately be received as a member in good standing in some neighboring evangelical church, the message seems pretty loud and clear: Divorce is not something we really hate, but just a minor detour in life's sometimes winding road. God understands divorce, and He lovingly forgives divorced men and women. But so long as the church equates divorce with fibbing, padding an expense account, or cheating on your diet, God's people will be just as devastated as the rest of society by this awful plague. And we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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