Over half of marriages in America are ending in divorce and the church is not immune. Statistics inside the church are just as bad as outside the church. “But we did pre-marital counseling!” I hear someone say. Churches are filled with pre-marital counseling ministries, post-nuptial marriage ministries, and the like. America has no lack for marriage books, ministries, or resources telling you how to have a great marriage. So why aren’t they working? The answers may surprise you.
- The first reason we’re failing is because we’ve overdone it.
We’ve given marriage too much attention. The church in general in America, just doesn’t know what to do with single people. Therefore, if you’re a single adult in a church in America, you feel great pressure to get married or else you will not have value. It’s sad, but true. We, as a church, need to value and love people in every stage in which the Lord has called them. I had a godly older woman tell me at age 24, “you need to just marry this guy because you’re getting old.”
Not only that, but we’ve overdone it once people get married. We as the church have set marriage expectations so high, everyone will be disappointed. “Marriage is great! It’s God’s gift! You need to get married. God can work any marriage. Go on weekly dates together. Don’t have sex until you get married. Then have it all the time. Your marriage should be your top priority, I mean, aside from your relationship with God, that should only require 15 minutes of your day, but your marriage should be 2 hours of your day!” Unbeknownst to us, in focusing on marriage ministries, we’ve set aside our relationships with Christ. That leads us to our second point.
2. The second reason we’re failing is because we’re not focused on Christ.
All ministries should first and foremost be evangelism and discipleship ministries. Jesus’ last words to His disciples were the great commission, “therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19-20). If that’s our highest calling, every other ministry needs to fall under that command. The marriage ministry needs to be making sure those involved know Jesus, and if not, how they can know Jesus. If someone’s not walking or growing in their walk with Christ, no marriage book or teaching is going to help, no matter how great. Once someone knows Christ, they need to be being discipled and growing in their walk with Christ. If that’s not happening, no marriage ministry will be effective. Those involved in marriage ministries need to be discipled, not just attending classes, but sitting down with someone, sharing their praises and struggles, and praying together.
3. Another reason we’re failing is because we’re avoiding teaching about divorce.
If you just preach, “God hates divorce,” jerks will take that to mean they have an allowance to do whatever they want without consequences, especially if they’re married to Bible believing church going people who will be involved in these types of ministries. Unfortunately, evil exists, and so do horribly evil people, who end up getting married. To ignore this fact is to ignore what the Bible says about evil and sin. Unfortunately, not every person in church is a believer. Some are even there for the purpose of bringing others down (Jude 4, 18-21).** But the church doesn’t like to talk about that. It’s negative. Why be a Debbie Downer?
The church shouldn’t just teach, “God hates divorce,” but teach the biblical allowances God gives for divorce, and warn people to stay very clear of those things. Sure, divorce isn’t God’s original plan, but He did divorce His firstborn Son, Israel. Because the Israelites rejected Him, He sent them into exile and a way was made for the Gentiles. Divorce isn’t encouraged in the Bible, but for good reason, under certain circumstances, it is allowed. It’s never required, but allowed. An effective marriage ministry will give the Biblical reasons for divorce in depth.
-Abuse (more than physical)
-Adultery (porn, fantasies)
-Abandonment (emotionally, spiritually, etc)
I’ll go over these briefly, but you should check out the following for more in depth explanations.
-Divorce and Remarriage book by Tony Evans
-Enough is Enough book by David E. Clark and other resources by him
–Sermons about marriage from January-February of 2021 by JD Greer
Abuse:a Biblical allowance for divorce
Anyone can have abusive tendencies and not be abusive. What makes someone abusive is when their behavior becomes a pattern and increases in severity over time. One incident might make someone abusive. One hit, one hold, one inappropriate physical contact, equals abuse. But as far as abuse that’s not physical, it’s a lot harder to determine. That’s when the increasing in severity becomes important, and seeing a pattern. Study abuse. Study the cycle. Teach what it is, how to confront it biblically and safely, and what the Bible says about it. Most importantly: don’t think that by avoiding the topic, it won’t happen. You’re wrong. It’s the opposite. By avoiding the topic, you’re allowing it to continue.
Adultery: a Biblical allowance for divorce
“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). When you teach about not committing adultery, talk about porn. Talk about what men should do to get help if they’re addicted. Talk about how a wife should handle it if she catches her husband in it. Talk about a person needing a desire for God’s holiness more than a love for his/her own sin. Talk of how if someone continues in this sin, it is adultery. Talk about not just being pure physically, but also mentally, not giving into thoughts of being with others. Overall, teach what the Bible says about adultery and purity. Teach ideas of how to keep the marriage bed pure.
Abandonment: a Biblical allowance for divorce
1 Corinthians 7 talks about abandonment. If you were to study the passage in depth, you would see that the word for abandonment doesn’t simply mean physically leaving the house. While it does mean that, it could mean more than that too. If a spouse abandons his wife emotionally, sexually, financially, parentally. Please understand, I’m not promoting divorce or giving reasons for divorce if you’re simply unhappy in your marriage. I’m calling spouses to stay close in all areas of your relationship. Stay close to the Lord and close to each other. Refuse the enemy’s attempts to separate you or get a foothold in any area of your life. Refuse to give in to separateness in the relationship, even in the slightest. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you (James 4:8). Similarly, draw near to each other. Don’t zone out in the TV or dive into a hobby all alone instead of dealing with issues in your relationship. Draw near!
4. Fourthly, marriage ministries are failing because we’re in denial and don’t want to deal with the mess of our failure.
If fifty percent of marriages end in divorce in America,* then that’s half of the church-going population. How many divorce ministries do you know of? If half of married Americans are getting divorced and divorce is hard, that’s half of the population dealing with a struggle that the church is simply ignoring. While I love the church, a divorced person in America is more likely to get sympathy from a lawyer than from the church. There’s one, very good ministry, called “Divorce Care.” I highly recommend it, but more churches need to offer it. And we need more resources like it. It’s Biblically based and simply walks people through the issues they’re dealing with, like grief, finances, legal issues, co-parenting, anger, etc. If a church marries people, they need to offer a divorce care group, because half of those marriages, yes half of the marriages at YOUR church (and MY church), are ending in divorce.
5. The final reason marriage ministries are failing is because they’re teaching ALL statements as opposed to conflict resolution
Any good marriage requires two people working at it. Marriage books assume two people are trying. Marriage ministries need to recognize the challenges when this is not happening. ALL statements can be confusing and misleading. Stay away from “all statements…” and standards like…
No marriage is perfect
Every marriage has problems
Have sex at least once a week
The woman needs to stay home. The woman needs to work.
The man needs to work.
Go on dates at least once a month
Your priorities are God first, spouse second, kids last.
Your kids come after you spouse
Never say anything negative about your spouse
Let me give you an example really quickly to illustrate why these seemingly harmless statements could be a big problem. Let’s imagine a girl who didn’t grow up in a Christian home, married a man whom she thought was a Christian. They had kids and then things got bad, really bad, like he beat the children and abused them. Let’s say the family was in church, trying to be good Christians. The woman was home with the kids, not working. She would say things to herself like, “no marriage is perfect. He’s just a sinner, like me. Every marriage has problems. It’s probably because we didn’t have sex last week. I’m to blame. I can’t leave him because I don’t have a job. Besides, stats for kids in divorced homes are awful. Don’t want my kids to end up like them! Oh, it’s sinful even to consider divorce! How could I?! If my priorities are God and then my spouse, I can’t call CPS, because if they take away my kids, my obligation will be to my spouse. No, better not tell anyone else about this. Can’t say anything negative about my spouse. That reminds me, I’d better go praise him for what he’s done well today.”
That might sound like an extreme example, but it’s a real one, not a hypothetical one. And unfortunately, statistically speaking, the boys of abusive fathers grow up to become abusers themselves. The daughters of abusive fathers grow up to marry abusers. That wife needs to hear what qualifies as abuse. She needs to know Biblically how to handle it and that the church will help her to confront that sinful situation. She needs to know that it’s safe to share something her husband has done without feeling like it’s sin or like she’ll be condemned for “talking bad about her husband.” When a person in abuse begins to speak about their abuse, the first things they share will not even sound abusive, because the most painful things will be too painful to share. The church needs to be educated about this and know how to handle it. Yes, people can change and God can do miracles. But for those who refuse, the remaining victims need help and healing. If that healing isn’t coming from the church, it’s not sufficient.
Therefore, instead of ALL statements, the church should encourage generalities and emphasize that every person and every marriage is different. Encourage things like…
If it matters to your spouse, it should matter to you
If it’s a big deal to your spouse, make it a priority for you, no matter how ridiculous you feel it is
Make time to meet each other’s needs, even if you don’t understand them (physically, sexually, emotionally, for conversation, etc)
What works for your marriage might not work for everyone, and visa versa.
If you have an issue, you should feel free to share that in a loving way with your spouse and pray about working through it together
Don’t expect your spouse to be Jesus or meet needs that only God can fill, but Spouses, you do have a God given role, responsibility, and opportunity to meet your spouses’ needs.
Expect your spouse to follow God and encourage them in their walk
Find a way to regularly pray together and/or read and discuss the Word together
Discipleship should be happening in your marriage and your family
With all of these generalities, teach conflict resolution. Teach the importance of working through problems together as opposed to a dictatorship. Disagreements and conflicts are normal. But they should lead to resolutions, not continued conflict or issues that remain unresolved. Any couple that gets conflict resolution right, just increased their stats of staying married by a million.
If you feel called to a marriage ministry, please, by all means, start one. But please don’t just be another sounding gong failing the multitudes. Be a beacon of hope, teaching the WHOLE word of God. Amen!