“As a divorced person, I feel like I’m a second class citizen in my church and around my Christian friends. Why is the church so tough on divorce? It’s not the unpardonable sin, is it?”
“You’re right”, I tell them. “Divorce isn’t the unpardonable sin and Christians don’t always handle those who’ve been divorced well and I’m sorry about that. However, there are some very human, and also some very biblical reasons why divorce gets both God’s and the church’s attention, more than many other sins. And, it has to do with vow breaking.”
Vows to God
In most Christian’s lives there are only three times any of us have likely made a vow directly to God:
1. When we came to faith, we pledged our life and allegiance to loving and obeying Jesus Christ. We made a vow to follow Jesus.
2. When we got married, each person made a vow directly to God and in front of witnesses that this vow would last, “until death do us part”.
3. When and if we had children, when they were baptized or dedicated, we, both parents made a vow to God that we would do whatever we could to assure that our children were raised to love and obey God.
I’ve never made a vow directly to God to never lust, be greedy, or never lie – perhaps I should, but I haven’t. But, I did make all three of these vows to God and he expects you and me to keep them whether we’re happy, or fulfilled or not – Period. God takes vows made to him very seriously.
“When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” Numbers 30:2
“… The Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. The man who hates and divorces his wife, says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.” Malachi 2:14b-16
The person who causes a divorce and if they have children has broken at least two of their vows to God – serious business.
(By the way, these warnings do not apply to a spouse who is presently, or has resisted an unbiblical divorce and fought for your marriage. While the vow was broken, it was not broken by you. Bless you!)
But, doesn’t God want me happy?
This is a question – I get often. My answer; “Not necessarily. God never wants us to be happy while in disobedience. He wants us faithful. If and when any of us are happy in disobedience, something is seriously wrong. We’re deluded and grieving the Spirit.” (Eph. 4:30)
A Son’s Letter to His Father
Ten years ago, I helped a college student craft this heartfelt letter to his father.
I have watched your relationship with mom deteriorate for some time. It makes me angry, sad and frustrated all at once. While there is never one truly innocent person and one truly guilty person, it’s clear that lately you have made some seriously bad choices which are destroying our family. If you have any biblical grounds for divorcing mother I would appreciate you sharing them with me.
Dad, I’m writing to you not just as your son, but because we are both Christians that also makes you my brother in Christ. As a father I have always expected you to show me Christianity not just tell me about it. Dad, you made two promises directly to God. The first was to Mom to love, honor and cherish her until you die. The second was to me when I was baptized. I’m told that you promised God you would do everything you could to make sure that I knew what it meant to follow Jesus Christ.
Dad, it appears to me that you are willing to break both of those promises and turn our life upside down, just so that you can be happy. This isn’t just about you and Mom. Beyond the hurt, you’re causing our family; you are hurting the name of Jesus Christ. What do you think non-Christians think about Jesus when they look at what you are doing? How about other guys who are Christians, who are waiting to see if you get away with it so they can dump their wives and families also? Dad, this is way bigger than between you and Mom.
I have been reading the Bible and there are several passages such as Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 5 that talk about what to do if brothers and sisters in Christ are disobedient. While I want to honor you as my father, I also need to warn you as my brother in Christ.
Here’s one of the realities you are going to have to face. I’ve decided that I never want to meet your new girlfriend. Even if you divorce Mom, she’ll never be your wife before God. This isn’t a forgiveness issue for me. It’s really about me not wanting to honor something God hasn’t.
That means if you continue on this path, it’s Christmas’ either with me or with her. This means Thanksgivings with her or me. Please don’t show up at graduations or sporting events with your girlfriend. Don’t kid yourself, I won’t get use to it – I shouldn’t have to get use to it. I should always be disgusted with disobedience mine first, but also yours. If your girlfriend claims to be a Christian, then she should leave you immediately and free you to come back to us. Dad the choice is very simple for me. You either care about God and us, or you care more about her. I’ll be waiting for your answer in your actions, not words or excuses.
Dad, it’s not too late to still be a hero in my eyes. I’ll admire you forever if you have the guts to make the tough choices and turn your back on disobedience and commit yourself to loving Mom before it’s too late.
Dad, I don’t have kids yet, but when I do I want to be able to point to you as an example of a godly man. I found this passage in Luke 2. The angel was talking about the mission of John the Baptist and he says, “And he will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.” Dad, that’s what I’m praying for you.
In the interest of full disclosure, one of our children had a biblical divorce that she didn’t want. Divorce has touched almost every family I know. I’m simply giving you some possible tools you can use to remind those who call themselves Christians of why God hates divorce. So should we.
Question: What other ideas have you used to help turn the hearts of fathers (or mothers) to the Lord?
(You may be as moved by this YouTube as I was. Please watch it twice – once for someone else. The second time for you.)
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“I’ve had it! Our marriage is a sham. I really believe it would be better for the kids to not be exposed to the constant tension in our home. I just want to be done with it.”
I’m guessing that you’ve also heard these pain-filled words from a family member or friend and found yourself at a loss as to what to say. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be passing to you some ideas others and I have used to help our friends make wiser and more biblical choices.
Setting aside for a few minutes what the Bible has to say about divorce, and who’s to blame for the disintegration of the marriage. Here’s my response to this statement; “I just want to be done with it (or her, in this case) and move on.”
I know what they mean when they say that, because whether they are the primary cause of the divorce or their spouse is, the pain, the cost, the sleepless nights, the emotional rollercoaster and relational limbo they find themselves in often just becomes too much. They no longer have any hope that the relationship can be put back together again and so they just want “to be done with it”. But, here’s the “rest of the story” I want them to hear.
The Rest of the Story
“The truth is as long as you live, if you have children, you will never be done with it. For the rest of your life, every holiday, every birthday, every graduation and every wedding involving your children will be a negotiation. You not only will have to negotiate the shared custody schedule with your spouse, as your kids get older they will be increasingly reluctant to continue to be pawns in this game and will generally want to spend less time with both of you. While this is difficult for you to imagine, it occurs with enough frequency, particularly among teenagers, that it is almost always detrimental to your relationship with your child.
They will feel guilty on holidays because one of you is alone. They will feel pumped for information about your ex and violated if that information is used by you against her. They feel helpless and they resent being put in that position. As a result, they will talk less to both of you and you’ll truly wonder – “why?”
Let’s take another look at the future. Someday your ex-spouse, your wife will remarry a guy we’ll call, Bill. Bill may not be a bad guy, but the truth of the matter is he’s with your children 80-90% of the time more than you are. In essence, he will have more time to influence your children than you have, both for good or bad. If he’s a great father and loves God, then that might actually be an advantage. It may help your children to heal. On the other hand if he’s not, it will be a significant disadvantage because subconsciously your children will be thinking, “I would not have to live with this guy, if my father and mother hadn’t had a divorce.” Resentment almost always occurs over this issue in children of divorce.
The Blended Family
Let’s assume Bill has two children from a previous marriage, not divorce, but perhaps his wife has died. The chances of your children getting along well with his children are very slim, so not only is there a new father in the house, a new man in the house, but there are now other children that either live with him permanently or occasionally on the weekends. Your kids now have to share “their” bedrooms either with each other or with this new blended family, which they will resent; and, eventually your children will be dragged off to Christmases and Thanksgivings with Bill’s family, which is even more foreign and uncomfortable for your children.
Now Back to You
Let’s leave Bill and your ex for a few moments and think about your life… Someday you are likely to meet and marry the new love of your life – Mary. Mary has one daughter from a previous marriage, but that’s OK because you’re fully in love with Mary and you actually like her child.
But, one day you try disciplining that child she will look at you and say, “You’re not my father.” Once you get over the shock of that rebuke, you’ll go to your wife Mary, and demand that she talk to her daughter about giving you more respect, which of course she really can’t do and probably won’t do because her daughter has already been traumatized enough by the past divorce and remarriage. She doesn’t want to risk damaging her already fragile relationship with her daughter, so she tries to reason with her and the daughter slowly realizes that her mother is not willing to risk her relationship with the two of them and she now has POWER! Now, you begin to resent your wife’s unwillingness to back you up and you feel powerless and disrespected by her.
On top of the tension with your new stepdaughter, you get your children every other weekend, which they are not happy about, leaving their friends and familiar bedrooms and toys, and they’re watching their new stepsister – the premadonna, do pretty much what she wants. They, too, eventually discover that they can disrespect their stepmother because like her, you won’t risk your relationship with them either. While all of these scenarios may not play out, many, if not most of them will.
If you hear yourself saying to others, “I just want to be done with it” realize that you never will be, nor will your children. Will time heal some of these wounds and relationships? Generally, after the kids leave home, “yes.”
A Final Thing
Unless you are the victim of a divorce you never wanted, another comment I hear very often from men and women who have divorced and whose married children are now contemplating divorce themselves is this; “Don’t give me your advice. You couldn’t save your own marriage.” Once you choose to end your marriage, you lost the moral high ground to encourage your kids do the tough spiritual, emotional and counseling work necessary to save their marriage. While the experience you went through because you were divorced may be helpful in helping them think about the dangers that await them, it’s like giving others advice about how to exercise when you yourself don’t. They know it’s probably good advice, but it will seem shallow coming from you.
As you contemplate this decision, these are just a few of the unintended consequences that you probably intuitively know are true, but you’re in such pain you’re trying to convince yourself they will not happen to you or your children. You and they will be the exception! For the sake of your children and your relationship with God, commit yourself to doing whatever it takes to reconcile and heal your relationship with your spouse. Trust me; your children will love you forever for loving them that much.”
“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Ephesians 6:4
Your Next Step
Consider sending this blog to a friend contemplating a divorce. Please pray before you do, that the Holy Spirit will pierce through the pain, weariness, or the infatuation with a new love to remind them this is a lifetime long and perhaps even an eternity long decision. (I’ll explain why next week.) Urge them to verify these stories with another divorced Christian, if they have any doubt about this future reality.
My daughter, Megan, posted a wonderful blog on this subject. Go to http://meganvos.blogspot.com/2012/04/fortress.html April 25 post entitled, Fortress.
Question: If you have been divorced, or are close to a divorced person, has what I described been your experience?
Next Week’s Blog: Vows and Vow Breaking
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Ten years ago a group of us ex-communicated, or exercised Christian discipline on a close friend.
Yes, you read that correctly! It came to our attention that a married Christian man who we’d all known for years, with whom we’ve been in Bible studies, vacationed and even done ministry together was apparently having an emotional affair with another woman. He (I’ll call him John.) and his wife weren’t technically members of any church, although they faithfully attended church. Rather than let this problem fall through the “who’s responsibility is this?” crack, we, “the church” around them stepped into his life. Here’s the story…
Wanting to respect this couple’s privacy, I’ll be purposely vague and brief on the details of this emotional infidelity. However it was clear to his wife and those who saw John with the other woman in public that something clearly inappropriate was going on. This was way more than a business relationship!
His wife approached several of us men she trusted and expressed her concerns and asked for our help. For over a year, a number of us individually and in pairs confronted John with his wife’s concerns and the reports that came our way from others and our own observations. He denied any romantic interest at all. We never accused him of actually committing adultery because we had no proof, but for sure his wife was being humiliated and Christ’s reputation was taking a hit.
Finally, in the spirit of Matt. 18 and I Cor. 5, the group asked John to meet with our group, which he refused to do. We then individually wrote or met with him and gave him a 30 day ultimatum: either he breaks off this relationship completely, or we would end our relationship with him. To further get his attention, we also told him that we and some of our wives would fully support his wife if she decides to temporarily separate from him, but not file for divorce.
To say John was not a happy camper is an understatement. “You self-righteous hypocrites…” Our response was, “That may be true, but right now we’re concerned about you.” Most of us agreed to meet with John only if he was willing to discuss this issue. Several of us met with his wife’s attorney to make sure she was taken care of and felt supported.
The Power of a Faithful Spouse
John’s wife was amazing! All she wanted was her husband’s love and faithfulness and her family back together. They lived apart for nearly a year but finally, by the grace of God, he powerfully moved in John’s heart to admit his emotional attachment, end the relationship, and ask his wife’s and his teenage children’s forgiveness.
Six months after his reconciliation, I asked to meet with John to ask what we, the group, could have done differently to be more helpful to him. We truly wanted to learn. Aside from some frustration over how an older child found out what we were doing from one member of our group gossiping, he had this to say.
“I truly just couldn’t see the problem. It’s hard to imagine, but I was simply blind to it and there’s nothing you could have done painlessly to get me to understand. I wanted you to accept my decision, stay out of our business and your refusal was an affront to me. I was hurt and angry. But, I’m so thankful you loved me enough not to let me destroy my family and embarrass God. Thank you.”
The Rest of the Story
Today John and his wife have a personal ministry working with other couples in similar situations. He’s become an elder in this city, courageously calling men right out of the blue, who he’s heard have made similar, sinful or foolish choices and helping them realize their offense to God and the potential damage to their families. He is one of my heroes and a great friend.
I wish every attempt at discipline was as successful. But, it’s not. Over the years, whenever our church tried to formally exercise discipline, when it got almost to the point of severing a person from membership, most people would simply resign from the church, begin going to another church and effectively ending the process.
However, in my church where I’ve been an elder, we try to gather family and friends and urge them, rather than the formal church, to warn, pray, encourage and eventually, if necessary, to exercise discipline first, before the church gets too involved. They are “the church” in their friends’ lives and it’s been our experience that this method of exercising discipline is far more effective than our formal church discipline. When family and friends are involved, the pain of loss of friendship is a constant reminder of their sin and hopefully, they’ll be brought back to the “wisdom of righteousness”.
Question: What has been your experience with this method of exercising discipline, if any, or are there questions you have about it?
Next Week: Unconventional Conversations on Divorce
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A personal note: For the next two weeks, I’m traveling in Europe with a group of college seniors teaching and helping them interpret history and life in the light of a biblical worldview. Therefore, I may not be able to respond to your comments or questions readily. But, please comment, nevertheless.
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“I really don’t think Christians should judge each other”, said the middle age couple I met with a few months ago. “I disagree.” I said, “In fact Christians are actually commanded to judge one another.”
It is true that Jesus warns us about judging others in the oft quoted, “Judge not lest ye be judged” passage in scripture. But, then Jesus in Matt. 18:15-20 and Paul in I Cor. 5 not only commands us to do it, but then instructs us how it’s to be done. So then, how do we reconcile both teachings?
To begin with, both tell us only to judge those who call themselves believers – never non-Christians. And if we must judge, it’s to be done in the context of the community of believers – the church, not individually. Given those pre-conditions, there appears to be three reasons given why we’re called to judge:
1. Our goal ought to be the repentance and restoration of the one who has sinned, both to God and the community. It should never be punitive or done harshly. (However, the process will usually feel punitive by the person being confronted.) “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” Galatians 6:1
2. To guard the integrity of the church and the reputation of Christ. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” I Peter 2:12
3. Serve as a warning to others who may be contemplating or committing serious sin. “You must purge the evil from Israel. All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not be contemptuous again.” Deuteronomy 17:12b-13
First, A Warning
Wisely, God has given us several checks and balances to keep us from judging too quickly, harshly or unfairly. Matthew 7:1, 2 says, “Do not judge or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7 is a warning. Before you judge another, first examine yourself to make sure your life is relatively free from major sin and certainly free from the sin for which you are confronting another.
Also, there is an important distinction between evaluating another person’s actions and passing judgment. The first is assessing a situation or sin in light of scripture. The second is actually confronting another Christian about your evaluation of their behavior. Therefore, we should begin with the evaluation process, using the process Jesus gives us in Matthew 18.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:15-17
Why These Steps?
While scripture isn’t clear, it may be that the reason for this multi-step process is this: First, to give the person every opportunity to admit the problem and do something about it. You might also discover that there isn’t any sin at all, or it’s not as great as you were led to believe. The second reason may be to guard the reputation of the person being accused, so if they repent, or are found innocent, they are not subject to public humiliation. Humiliation makes it far more difficult for people to feel accepted and loved back into the church or Christian community.
Remember the purpose for any confrontation is to help someone understand the nature and consequences of their sin, along with your pledge to do anything possible to forgive or help them, if they stop sinning and truly repent. In fact, apparently the man who sinned in I Cor. 5, repented and so Paul in II Cor. instructs the Christians to “back off” and forgive.
“The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” II Corinthians 2:6-8
Should only churches exercise discipline?
Is judging and discipline something only the organized church can do? I don’t believe so. The early church to whom Paul addressed his letters were generally small groups of believers who gathered in homes – home churches. Therefore, I believe this is a command both to organized churches and to groups of spiritually mature believers who see a fellow believer committing a serious and apparently unrepentant sin, especially if the sin is harmful to that person, others, or is robbing God of his glory. My blog next week will detail how a group of us exercised discipline and actually, “ex-communicated” a friend. God used this and number of other factors to bring our friend to repentance.
But, what happens when you and a small group of believers or church leaders, have done everything Jesus and Paul taught and there is no change in their behavior? Jesus says, “treat him as an unbeliever” (Matt. 18:17) and Paul says we should have nothing to do with him. “Don’t even eat with him” (I Cor. 5:11). What does that mean?
First, it means that person should be asked not to worship with other believers so as not to confuse non-believers or the spiritually immature. Secondly, we’re not to associate with that person socially. However, when meeting them on the street we should be kind and gracious.
While some of these steps seem harsh, these are commands directly from Jesus and Paul. To not obey, simply because it seems unloving, is to question the wisdom of God.
Jesus is concerned for the purity of his church. While it is true that Jesus loves each person individually, he never values the rights of an individual, over the spiritual health of the larger Christian community – his church. The same was true in Old Testament Israel. When a person makes a conscious, willful decision to sin and refuses to stop even when warned, the Bible really doesn’t give us another option. To do nothing is to disobey scripture.
What if they walk away from the faith?
I’ve talked to good Christians who are very concerned that those who are disciplined may “walk away from the faith!” And, that’s obviously a serious possibility. However, if they do, that’s their choice and they’ll have to live with that decision. But, we don’t have the option to violate a clear command of scripture just because we are fearful of the possible outcome. When we begin to think like that, we may have forgotten the obvious solution: All the guilty person has to do is repent and cease doing the thing they’re being disciplined for!
I’m proud that my church of nearly 5,000 people still exercises discipline, although I wish we didn’t have to. We have been called every name in the book by people who believe this practice is outdated, unloving and even unbiblical.
Other churches have gone a different direction. In an effort to be more loving and accepting, they sometimes unintentionally, actually encourage disobedience. When other believers see sinful behavior ignored or accepted, it becomes just that much easier for them to make similar choices. I believe Jesus’ church, like any loving family, has to exercise reasonable and measured discipline and risk holding each other accountable for actions which bring dishonor to God.
Next Week: Ex-communicating a Friend
Questions: Does your church exercise biblical discipline? Please share any ideas you or the church have used successfully to guard Christ’s reputation.
Free: Guidelines for Churches Restoring a Christian Who Has Sinned and Repented of It. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and request “Guidelines for Restoration” and we’ll email them right out to you.
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