Divorce, the Church, and Men

The local church tends to not handle divorce very well.  I don’t mean the issue of divorce, though it doesn’t handle that very well either.  I mean the reality of divorce.

When a couple in the local church get divorced, most often only one of them gets custody of the church, and most often that person is the wife.   That would be acceptable if the local church worked to hook the husband up with a neighboring parish, but they don’t.  The reason they don’t is that the local church takes sides when a couple within it gets divorced, and the side they most often take is that of the woman. Never mind the old truisms about “it takes two to tango,” in the eyes of most local churches the husband does everything wrong when a marriage ends and the wife is a hapless victim.  In reality, there is seldom a relationship that is broken in which both parties don’t have something to do with the breakup – nor is there a relationship that lasts in which both parties aren’t responsible for it lasting.  It’s also true that when a relationship ends both parties experience loss, no matter how lousy the relationship, and so both parties need pastoral care.  Generally speaking, the man is out of luck.

I knew a man who belonged to a mainline church some years ago.  His wife had a psychological problem with rage, and so he spent a summer allowing her to beat him black and blue.  She would grab his upper arms, his chest and stomach, anywhere that couldn’t be seen while he was dressed, and pinch and twist.  He believed in his heart of hearts that it was wrong to hit a woman, so he just took the abuse.  They were seeing a marriage counselor, but his wife had told him that she would hit him more if he told the counselor.  Finally, seeing no other way out without abandoning his values, he left home one day while she worked.  He had been the one more involved in the church, working with the youth group, serving as a lay reader, involved in Bible study groups, but when he left the pastor called and scolded him and told him to go back to his wife because she was depressed.  When he explained the situation to the pastor, his advice remained unchanged.

Of course, more often than not, if anyone is violent it is the husband.   In cases where a woman is victimized, I believe the church absolutely must take a stand on her behalf and the husband has to be asked to leave that expression of the local church – but, again, he needs to be referred to another church.  It isn’t the job of the local church to serve as divorce court, or any other kind of court, for that matter.  The job of the church is to love people and support them – most especially in times of loss.

I don’t pretend that it will be easy to make these changes, but if we really believe what we say when we teach that God loves all people then the church has to prove that it loves all people as well.

One of the biggest reasons, in my opinion, that the institutional church is dying in the west is that is has chosen not to be self-reflective.  It became accustomed to doing things a certain way, and never bothered to ask anyone if those ways were still effective.  When it became obvious that the “tried and true” methods no longer worked, rather than change the methods they blamed the people for whom they weren’t working.  You don’t have to be genius to see the problem with that choice!

As a people, we need to get over our obsession with determining who is right and who is wrong and focus instead on the truth that we all make mistakes, we all have blind spots, we all have situations we wish we had handled differently – but we also all do the best we can with the information we have to work with at the time we make our decisions, even the ones that we later wished had turned out differently.  The one constant is that we all need love.  The church needs to provide that love, and leave the judgment to the courts and God.

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