Navigating Abuse, Divorce, and Building Marriages in a Culture of Marital Breakdown; Pastors Weigh In

wedding, marriage, couple

For most sincere Christians, hesitancy abounds as to whether it is ever permissible to recommend divorce. 

Yet many Christians found it appalling that one of the Southern Baptist Convention's leading figures, Paige Patterson, said that he never counseled couples to get a divorce even in abusive situations (though he advised temporary separation in severe cases). 

In the wake of the controversy surrounding Patterson's comments as well as the #metoo movement — exposing the epidemic of sexual misconduct and domestic abuse — that began escalating last fall, The Christian Post spoke with an Illinois pastor, a marriage counselor, and a Methodist layman who facilitates DivorceCare in his church to find out how they advise couples who are having marital problems. 

They addressed Scripture, relational dynamics, and the challenges and general messiness of ministering in a culture ravaged by abuse, divorce, and family disintegration.

Illinois Pastor on Scripture misunderstandings and connecting with the heart of God

Neil Schori, 42, who pastors a Edge Church in Aurora, Illinois, believes Christians hesitate when it comes to when divorce is allowed partly because of the high rate of divorce in the U.S.

"We rightfully have a concern as Christians, who are called to forgiveness and reconciliation, and it makes a lot of sense that we would be contending for marriage. I think where it gets a little skewed is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding scripturally, about what God calls our marriages to be," he told CP.

In addition to misunderstanding, a misapplication of Scripture often appears on this issue, he explained.

While most evangelical Christians will sincerely say they want to be people who live by what the Bible says, a "deeper dive into the text" is needed to examine the intent of the author and its context, Schori stressed.

Neil Schori
Neil Schori, pastor at Edge Church in Illinois. |

"We can say we are orthodox believers, that this is orthodoxy, but we often forget about orthopraxy. If we don't understand in a deep way, in a way that truly connects with the heart of God and His heart for people, then the way we live that out, our orthopraxy, will be flawed as well.

"And I think what happened for many is that we are holding people hostage that Jesus wants to set free."

For many Christians, the only permissibility for a divorce that Jesus approved of is found in Matthew 19, when the teachers of the law confronted Him about it directly.

Usually when people ask Schori about divorce, they are doing so from a personal place, he said.

But it is vital to remember that when asked this question, people are not looking for a cut and dry "Bible Answer Guy" kind of response because "usually there is a question behind the question," he noted.

"Pastors will say things like 'Well, Jesus said that the only way you could get divorced is if there is [marital] unfaithfulness, if there is adultery," he said.

Yet Jesus often artfully answered the question behind the question, the Illinois pastor continued.

"What Jesus was referring to, He was actually responding to a newer idea that had been going on several decades and it was this idea that a particular sect of the Pharisees had, basically, kind of what we do today. They wanted to make things easier [to divorce]. They didn't want people to have to feel ashamed in court, and they essentially said 'hey, we're going to look at the Old Testament and we're going to make it mean what we want it to mean.'"

That is not different than what many Christians do today, who cherry-pick something and say that it could mean this or that, he continued. These Pharisees did so with regard to divorce in their day, giving the men a more favorable interpretation at the time, that is, "the idea that any reason for divorce was reason for divorce."

"They took Deuteronomy 24 and they focused on the word 'any' and said 'Oh, so what God means is that if a man just decides that he wants to be divorced, that is a cause in and of itself.'"

Jesus, being aware of what was going on within them, affirmed the other Pharisees in their traditional take of the Old Testament.

"What Christians forget today is that Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Testament. He came to fulfill it. The Old Testament gave very, very clear teachings on what was expected within a marriage," he said, pointing to the requirements listed in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 24, expectations affirmed and expounded upon by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.

"Just because Jesus didn't address those particular issues that were brought to Him doesn't mean He was negating what was widely accepted Old Testament teaching straight from God."

Schori made a point to disagree with Andy Stanley's recent sermon that Christians need to "unhitch" their beliefs from the Old Testament and focus more on the New Testament.

"It is important for us to say: What is true of the whole of Scripture? And then give counsel on that foundation."

Schori once had an experience that no amount of seminary could have prepared him for. A "baptism by fire," he calls it. He was the pastor of Stacy Ann Peterson, whose husband turned out to be a murderer.

While on staff at a church in Bolingbrook, Illinois, Schori was the counseling pastor focusing mainly on pastoral care. After one Sunday service in late 2005, Peterson approached him for marriage counseling. They ended up meeting several times, together with her husband on a few occasions, and separately on others. He soon realized their marriage was an extremely unhealthy relationship. Her husband was approximately 30 years older than she was and he was deeply controlling and manipulative, though he never physically abused her. This was, as Schori described it, a crash course in learning the breadth and depth of what domestic violence is.

In August 2007, Stacy Peterson called Schori with what sounded like an emergency. They agreed to meet at a Starbucks and after about 30 minutes of chatting, she told him "he did it."

She went onto explain that her husband had recently murdered his previous wife.

"I said 'Stacy, what do you want me to do with this information?' And the reason I asked it like that was because she was married to a high-ranking police officer. And he had officers following her."

In fact, that very day a local police officer slowly passed by them as they were finishing up at Starbucks.

He told her, "You live with him, so I don't want to be presumptuous to say what you should do since you're the one who has to live with this man."

She replied, "I don't want you to do anything. I just want you to know."

Schori, feeling conflicted, agreed to that. She then supplied details of how she knew of the murder.

Stacy Ann Peterson went missing two months later. As soon as Schori found out, he called the state police and they did not call him back. He went to the state police office and they would not take a report.

But as it happened, he was serving on a grand jury duty and ended up speaking with the authorities. Schori ended up testifying in the trial of Drew Peterson, who has been convicted of murder and is now in jail. Stacy Ann Peterson has not been seen since she disappeared.

"Since then I've had a lot of women from around the nation contact me for help," Schori told CP.

And he continues to hear stories of how women in these kinds of crises go to their own or other churches for help and they do not receive it. Many of those women have had pastors tell them things like, "Well, God hates divorce, so you don't have an option to divorce if you want to be in good standing with God and your church."

"So I've had to do to a whole lot of study on marriage and divorce, on God's intention toward the oppressed and the marginalized. And what that has done has given me a foundation to speak to groups and other churches about this."

"But more than that, it has given me such confidence in God that He is for victims, and He wants churches to stand with them too," he said.

Schori never recommends that women who are in abusive marriages stay in them, nor does he believe God would have them stay. He expressed that his hope is to see church leaders be willing to learn about this and create emergency response and rescue teams to help victims of abuse escape.

"Not just say 'Well, I guess we can theologically support you but after we study Scripture more.' I want to help people be people of action. Christians should be on the leading edge of liberating people from the mess that abuse creates in their lives," he said, pointing out that three women are killed daily by their intimate partners every day in the United States.

"That means, our churches have work to do. It means if you're in that place [of being abused] you can call us, we will believe you, we will help you out of isolation, we will help you tell your story."

Pennsylvania counselor never recommends divorce: Marriage is part of discipleship

Richard Hoffman, clinical director at Christian Counseling Associates in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, offered that Christian counselors can be a vital help in reconciling troubled marriages but the foremost need is for churches to be environments where healthy marriages can be built to last.

Hoffman told CP in an interview earlier this month that the greatest threat to marriages these days is "erosion" in the belief in marriage, specifically "the belief that it is a covenant union between a man and a woman."

While rapid legal and cultural shifts in past decades such as no-fault divorce have undoubtedly undermined the institution of marriage, far too many churches still seem inhibited from making marital commitments at any age a priority, he said. And because it is not a priority, churches routinely fail to provide the necessary support to prevent divorces from happening in the first place.

He noted that he is a member of a solidly Bible-believing evangelical church and they only recently have launched an initiative to make equipping and empowering 250 marriages a main focus, in order to "make the church a place where nobody ever gets divorced again."

"But the average church that I see, they may talk about marriage a couple of times a year while they lose a significant portion of families every year to divorce. And the people are just going to leave, go somewhere else because they need to reintroduce their family or they're not going to go back at all," he said.

"The Christian community has been devastated by our inability to see marriage as part of the path of discipleship, and the commitment that you make as a Christian regardless of how you feel or circumstances that happen. And we've had a very difficult time providing resources for helping people live into that and make that a priority."

In his counseling practice, he does not recommend divorce because he considers it a hurtful and destructive act and in most cases there are other people involved.

"We see the Christian counselor's role as providing an opportunity for reconciliation. And for that reason, we are ethically bound not to involve ourselves in any way in encouraging a couple to move toward divorce. And this is consistent with the American Association of Christian Counselors code of ethics that we choose to follow," he said of his approach.

In Hoffman's experience, the reason why many Christians seek divorce is not so much because of adultery but about differences they say they cannot resolve. Beset by "arguing and incompatible lifestyles," they often avoid dealing with the commitment that they have made instead of working it out, he explained.

But "sophisticated interventions" are what they employ to help people feel safe and supported in horrendous marital situations where abuse is present, he continued, noting he has seen several of those in his over 20 years of practice.

"If there is someone that is being victimized in a marriage, we are going to take steps, including therapeutic separation, to help them keep a distance from one another while re-establishing a functional way of dealing with each other that minimizes vicitmization," Hoffman said.

"And we need to limit the probability that people are going to hurt each other, even when there is not a victim [of physical abuse], when the relationship moves towards bitterness and hatred."

People often come to his counseling practice because there is nowhere else where they can receive such support.

He reiterated that if Christians are serious about preventing divorce, they must "acknowledge that marriage is a reflection of our relationship to the Lord and that makes reconciliation in marriage a priority we would seek after with all of our life when we're in conflict in marriage.

"Because when we find ourselves in conflict with the Lord, our greatest hope is that in the end He will offer mercy and reconciliation through Jesus Christ. And we need to reflect that in our relationships first with the people who we're married to, our spouses, and then, through that, we learn how to offer that kind of mercy to others who are seeking, ultimately, reconciliation with Jesus Christ."

Yet the unfortunate reality is that indeed some sincere Christians get divorced.

Lay minister: Meeting people at their point of need

Bob Pedersen, who is an auditor by day but also coordinates DivorceCare as a lay minister at his church, Burke United Methodist in Burke, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., wishes Christians would think before they speak to persons going through it.

"If I could get people to understand one thing is that if they have not been through separation and divorce themselves they really do not know what it is like. It is unlike anything that anybody has ever been through," Pedersen said in a recent CP phone interview.

That lack of understanding often leads to non-divorced people giving unwanted and unhelpful advice to people who are in the midst of this deep pain, he said.

People who come to his DivorceCare classes range from avowed atheists, Jews, Muslims, and believing Christians, to people who profess nothing as it pertains to faith, known today as "nones."

"People who profess Christ are often bewildered at the fact they are going through divorce. It's very difficult for them," he said.

"My view is that Jesus met them at their point of need. And He didn't define their need for them. Their need was defined by their circumstance and the decisions they made and whatever else and He met them at that point of need. And that's what I try to do. Offer people hope."

His first aim is to create a safe, confidential environment each week where people are free to share whatever is on their mind, a space where people can process their bewilderment and trauma with others in similar situations in a tumultuous time in their lives.

"And the second part is that somehow in the turmoil they would come to see hope, and see rays of light to grasp onto and to know that they can get through this."

The most difficult divorce journeys are ones that were brought about because children were being abused by one of the spouses.

"Those folks are really hurting. And some people have a tough time because if you look at the Scripture, the ink on the paper, there are only two legitimate reasons for divorce. People are often wrestling about how closely they can follow the Bible. And they're often wrestling with what constitutes a 'nonbeliever' leaving," he said, referring to 1 Corinthians 7:15.

When asked what he would say to the church in America if he had a few minutes to stand in front of every congregation in the United States on Sunday and talk to them about ministering to divorced or divorcing people, Pedersen emphasized keeping a few important things in mind.

"Number one, we are all sinners. Please keep that in mind. And the other thing I would say to that is that God wants our proximity a lot more than He wants our performance. So my view is: Get your heart aligned, get your heart in the right place, and your behavior will follow. If you hammer people just with the behavior, how does that make you different from the Pharisees?"

He urges Christians of good will to table their differences to work together to minister to these hurting people.

"It is true that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. And grace is mentioned first. It's a very difficult balance, and it's not one that I pretend to always get right."

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