Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Divorce (Continued)

I assume that divorced ordinands are required to explain their theology of divorce, and the advice they would give for troubled marriages, because it is regularly observed that people's experiences influence their theology. As a Wesleyan denomination, we do value experience as part of the Quadrilateral, as it is held in tension with Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. It is much harder to be dogmatic and graceless for events that one has personally experienced. No one comes to the conversation about divorce objectively, whether or not they have experienced a divorce personally.

I believe that divorce is always a tragedy. It always results in and from people's brokenness, sin, and pain. Even when divorce is the best course of action in a particular situation, it is only better than some greater evil and not the best possible outcome for a marriage. Divorce breaks a covenant - a sacred vow - and the consequences within one's own soul and within one's community are far-reaching and devastating for such an action.

The Church traditionally sites two circumstances in which divorce is acceptable for a Christian - when one's spouse has committed adultery, and when one's spouse has abandoned the marriage. Recently, many Evangelicals have also come to accept divorce in cases of spousal abuse. While I affirm all three of these circumstances as justification for divorce, the decision to seek a divorce remains a highly contextualized decision that should be made with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with the counsel and support of Christian community. Even in 'justifiable' circumstances, the possibility for healing and reconciliation should not be ruled out quickly. Many marriages that seemed past hope have been restored, and as a pastor I hope never to give up too soon on the broken marriages of those I may counsel. In each situation, I will pray, listen, and seek understanding and the guidance of God's Spirit before ever lending my influence to someone's decisions in regard to marriage and divorce.

For those who are faced with the reality of the divorce, I hope to offer the grace of God and the hope of Christ. Divorce is both a tragic end, and a new beginning. As Christians we rejoice in the grace of God that brings healing to our broken lives and hope for new seasons of life following divorce. I hope to encourage people who have experienced divorce to throw themselves into healing, forgiveness and restoration as they seek God and discover God’s will anew in their lives. I am also passionate about the care of children who have experienced the divorce of their parents, and will encourage parents to attend to their children’s grief and recovery. As with others, those who are or have experienced divorce, need the community of believers to support and care for them, nurturing their faith, meeting their needs, and equipping them for the future. As a pastor who has gone through divorce, I am grateful to be able to offer the encouragement of personal experience as one who has been down the roads of both recovery and single-parenting with its tremendous joys and challenges.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Theology of Marriage and Divorce

At the beginning of Genesis, we find the story of Creation. According to the narrative, God created a human being. This person had a beautiful relationship with God, untroubled by any sin in which they would walk and talk together in the cool of the day. In spite of such peace with God and Creation, this person was deeply lonely and God recognized that this loneliness was not good. The result is the creation of the first woman, (at which time Adam is first identified as male). God created them for relationship with another - different and yet so similar that Adam declared "This one is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!" The post-Fall writer of this scripture chose to describe the essence of their relationship in this way, "They were naked and not ashamed."

The unity and un-selfconscious vulnerability and intimacy of this relationship contrasts sharply with the post-Fall reality. From that point up to the present day, relationships between women and men are now regularly characterized by shame, fear, hiding, and conflict. We are far from God's Creation ideal. "Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you." Power struggles are now part of the problem too, and from them emerges violence, oppression, and manipulation.

Marriage is intended to be the beautiful relationship described in pre-Fall Genesis, in which the pain of loneliness subsides in the beautiful union of husband and wife, who work, play and love alongside one another without fear and without shame. But since we are scarred by sin, we do experience pain, selfishness, fear, and shame. We hide parts of ourselves from one another. We hurt one another - sometimes deliberately. We struggle for power and control. And all these things make it difficult to trust, be vulnerable, and to live in forgiveness. Some of us have a harder time than others, but successful marriages always require the best we have to offer along with heavy doses of forgiveness since our best will still be far from perfect.

From the Creation account, we learn God's intention for relationships between men and women, and we learn how that intention has been distorted by sin. This should both inspire us, and give us pause to reflect on how we can live and love in this way. It should also humble us, as we realize how dependent we are on God's grace to live in this way.

Trinity and Marriage
From the Creation account we also learn that human beings are created in the image of God. Trinitarian theology teaches us about perichoresis - the divine dance in which the Creator, Redeemer and Comforter are both three and one. Each one is distinct in personality and cannot be subsumed into a single identity. And yet their unity is so complete that Christians are monotheists. We worship one God - a unified, three-person God.

"The two shall become one flesh." Scripture's description of marriage also describes a tension - a dance between unity and individuality within marriage. There are two people with distinct personalities, gifts, names, and bodies. And yet marriage makes them one - an unbroken mysterious unity that transcends their individuality without obliterating it.

Human sexual desire and our longing for marriage is rooted in our identity as beings made in the image of a tri-une God. Too much individuality in marriage, and the unity of the relationship may be compromised. Too little, and a person may be lost and de-humanized in the relationship. Healthy marriages are relationships of unity that respect the unique individuality of the persons within the marriage, and which manage this dynamic tension. Unhealthiness in marriage happens when one person tries to dominate or overpower the other person, or when either person is not free in the relationship. Brokenness also happens when either person becomes consumed with self-centeredness and destroys the unity of the marriage bond. As fallen ones, we all struggle with this tension between unity and individuality, between freedom and control, and between self-sacrifice and self-centeredness.

Covenantal Relationship
Marriage is a covenantal relationship - the most sacred of vows that a human being can make. In the Old Testament, making a covenant involved sacrificing an animal, cutting it into two pieces, and then walking between the halves of the animal. If one party broke the covenant, they were agreeing to share the fate of the animal. Obviously, such covenants were not entered into lightly and were broken only with disastrous consequences. Shockingly, God chooses to enter in a covenant relationship with Abraham and his offspring. When they broke the covenant over and over again, God remained faithful and eventually came as a human being to be sacrificed for them, to take on himself their consequence of breaking covenant with God.

Marriage is also a covenant relationship and in our culture we have no context for understanding the gravity of such a commitment. But scripture teaches us that there is a mysterious revelation of Christ's relationship to his Church within the relationship between a married couple. They are both covenantal relationships. Christ teaches us that faithfulness, forgiveness, and sacrificial love are marks of living in a covenantal relationship. And he teaches us that even when the other party fails, we must choose forgiveness and reconciliation. However, even Christ does not force others to love him or live in relationship with him. He offers everyone the freedom to accept his love, forgiveness, and sacrifice - or to reject him and all that he offers. The covenant is still a relationship of freedom, and marriage must also be a relationship of freedom. But where there is freedom, some will use it to break relationship. From this reality springs the tragedy of divorce. More thoughts on this to come...

Divorce Clearance

Since my last post, I became engaged to my wonderful fiance Josh, who I met in seminary. I could write at length about how wonderful he is, how fabulous our relationship is, and how great our engagement has been, but I'll try to stay closer to the topic of this blog, which is theological discussion, and spare you the mushy stuff. :o)

Josh and I have begun to build our future lives together and for us this includes dreaming shared dreams of ministry. These dreams include church-planting as co-pastors and we are excited for the day when we will be able to launch that adventure together. But for the time being we are focusing on serving wholeheartedly at Josh's church while we work toward ordination. For me, this has meant recently jumping back into the ordination process with my former (and now current) denomination. The ordination process is more complicated for me because I have to go through a process known as "Divorce Clearance." I can definitely understand why the denomination wants to know the circumstances of my divorce and why that has bearing on my fitness for ordination. However, it does seem that this process is flawed and unfair in many respects. Divorce is the only life event that is isolated for special consideration in the ordination process. I could have murdered, embezzled, smuggled drugs or prostituted myself, and the regular processes of ordination would be sufficient for me. But since I have gone through a divorce (which I did not want or choose and did everything in my power to prevent), I'm going to experience a much higher level of scrutiny than other ordinands. Josh has suggested that I wear a red letter "D" on my chest when I go for my DC interview with the bishop. :o)

One thing that I'm being asked to do, that other candidates are not asked to do, is to write an explanation of my theology of marriage, and how I would counsel others who are in difficult marital situations. I've decided to share this in my blog, even though it's probably too lengthy for this venue. But before I do, some questions to ponder about divorced people and ministry...

  • What should irrovocably disqualify a person from pastoral ministry? What makes these disqualifiers more significant than other possible disqualifiers?
  • Why does the Church single out divorce as it does? What is the Church communicating by doing this? (Nikky Cruz - made famous by David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade - was guilty of murder, drug dealing, leading a violent inner-city gang, and generally living a life of complete depravity prior to his conversion. He is ordained in good standing with a denomination that refuses to ordain any divorced person under any circumstances.)
  • If the church takes divorce so seriously, why is the divorce rate higher among Christians?

Just some food for thought, and now I will try to express my theology of marriage and divorce in the next post.