Ready to Be Real
Opening up the discussion about divorce in the church
The sound of glass shattering startled me from my sleep. Mommy and Daddy were fighting again.
I tucked my knees under my chin and closed my eyes. This was nothing new. In a few minutes it would all be over. My father would yell something to assert his final authority, then slam a few doors, and I would hear his tires screech as his car pulled out of the driveway.
No one would ever believe that just a few hours earlier he had stood at the pulpit to thank the entire church for an award of commemoration while my mother beamed proudly from the pews.
Growing up with what felt like two sets of parents was confusing. At home they were the brawling couple I was once forced to call 9-1-1 on, but at church they clung to each other like a pair of newlyweds. When I tried to ask about this transformation in front of saintly company, my mother dug her fingernails into the skin on my forearm and twisted. The pain was enough to stifle my curiosity, but not enough to teach me the lesson.
So if I told someone that Daddy slept on the dining room floor last night, I got pinched. If I mentioned that he just bought a new apartment in New Jersey, I got pinched. If I insinuated that I hadn’t seen or heard from him in three years, I got pinched.
It wasn’t until I outgrew my mother’s punishment that I finally understood what she was trying to communicate:
This is church. Marital problems are more than taboo. They are not allowed.
Looking at the Facts
It’s no secret that marital problems exist in the church. A 2010 study by the General Conference Family Ministries Department revealed that 25 percent of Adventist marriages end in divorce. While these numbers are not as staggering as the divorce rate in the rest of the world, it does not mean that we are shielded from the pain caused by the end of a marriage.
Why Don’t We Talk About It?
Stephen Bauer, a former district pastor in two conferences in the United States, discovered the hard way the reason martial problems are not discussed in church. During one of his sermons he took two minutes to point out that as he spoke, there were probably, in the congregation, a number of sexual offenders who hadn’t been caught.
“Three families with kids got up and walked out,” Bauer said. “They didn’t like hearing matters of sexuality from the pulpit.”
Some people believe we don’t talk about marital problems in the Adventist Church simply because we don’t want to hear about them. But the issue goes deeper. Bauer addresses several reasons we don’t want to hear or talk about the problems in our marriages.
Admitting we have problems could mean opening our families, churches, and religion to the ridicule of others.
“Some people are afraid of the embarrassment factor of bad press,” Bauer said. “It’s bad publicity. It gives the church a black eye.”
We’re in denial
Many times we are so embarrassed to admit there is a problem that we pretend it’s not there. If we don’t see it, then we don’t have to feel bad about it.
“People don’t like to feel bad,” Bauer said. “We’re addicted to feeling good. If we admit it, it’ll make us feel bad, and that would be negative. We’re in a fantasy world.”
Some Adventists refrain from sharing their problems because they fear the reactions of their church family.
“They say, ‘I’m an elder in the church. I’d lose prestige among the church if they knew what was really happening,’ ” Bauer said.
We see no point
The church is not always therapeutic toward the hurting. We have many divorced couples in our congregations, but we do very little to help them. We pretend we don’t have divorce while the divorced suffer silently. Why would anyone want to ask for help?
Why Should We Talk About It?
We often think we’re protecting the church by keeping our issues to ourselves, but in reality we’re hurting it. There are two reasons we should talk about marital problems—reasons that are more important than any others, because they determine the future of our church.
To save our marriages
Darlene Karst, a licensed counselor with her own practice in Tennessee, hears the same worry from couples again and again: “We’re having conflict, so we must be doomed.”
“When people have unrealistic expectations, they go into the relationship thinking that it’s going to be easy and that they won’t have to do a lot of work,” Karst said. “It sets them up for disaster.”
Many couples fall into this trap because they have never seen a real relationship in action, and sadly, our churches do not always provide the best examples.
“In the Adventist Church we put up this front on Sabbath that we are well put together and everything is fine,” Karst said. “We look nice, we sit in our pews, but it doesn’t actually portray an accurate picture.So someone who is really struggling looks at that picture and thinks they don’t have enough faith or are not good enough.”
Because we refuse to talk about marital problems, young couples don’t know where to go when they have issues. They think that no one else is having problems in their relationships and are embarrassed to mention even small disagreements with their spouses. They’ve been taught that only sinners have these problems, so they do what the older couples are doing: they put up a front while their marriages disintegrate in secret.
To save our children
While preaching at the Collegedale church, Pastor John Nixon met with middle school- to high school-aged kids and young adults to ask them why their friends and relatives were leaving the church.
“One of the things they said was that the church was inauthentic,” Nixon said. “It’s not real. It doesn’t talk about real issues; the things they talk about don’t help them in real life, and the relationships aren’t genuine. It doesn’t really fit for real life, so it’s not helping them deal with real life.”
We do the youth a disservice by sheltering them from real-world problems—especially marital problems. Not only do we risk ruining their future relationships with unrealistic expectations—we also leave them confused. When they see the difference between the ways their parents interact with each other at church and at home, they realize that church is not fostering long-term change. And if the church can’t help with the small disputes, how can they trust the church with the bigger issues?
How Can We Start the Discussion?
Bringing up controversial topics is hard, and it hasn’t gotten any easier for Nixon, pastor of 34 years who has counseled thousands of couples while doing marital seminars all over the country. One Sabbath Nixon decided to talk about divorce at the Collegedale church.
It was one of the quietest sermons he’d ever preached.
After the service a woman stopped Nixon at the door. “Why would you talk about that?” she asked him. “Now I’ve got to explain to my son why his father and I are getting a divorce!”
In spite of this challenge Nixon believes his position gives him a responsibility to talk about the taboo.
“You’re going to have to talk about it if you’re a spiritual leader,” Nixon said. “People are going to get upset, people are going to get angry at you, but that’s the price of leadership. You’re going to be unpopular, but you’re going to help people who are ready to be real. You’ve got to think about them.”
While pastors have an obligation to discuss controversial topics, the responsibility should not rest on their shoulders alone. There are several ways we can help those who are ready to be real about marital problems in the church.
Start small groups
The whole church may not be ready to discuss the hardships of marriage, but there are always a few people who are. Get a group of interested couples together, make a list of specific things you want to talk about, invite an expert or someone who knows about the topic, and do biblical research. Create authentic relationships with the members of your group by being open and vulnerable, and act as accountability partners to one another.
Organize seminars that teach willing couples what to expect after marriage and skills to help resolve conflict. Focus on opening the conversation for topics that would not be discussed otherwise.
Treat each other like family
When we are not genuine in our relationships with each other, it becomes easy to hide our problems. If we were truly intimate with our church family, we would be able to tell when someone is hurting.
“If I’m having marital problems, it’s impossible for me to hide it from my family—they’re gonna know,” Nixon said. “I want them to share in it so we can get help. Of course it’s shameful, but I’m not going to be ashamed in front of my own family. If I’m ashamed in my church family, then that’s a sign that our relationship isn’t as close as it should be.”
Know how much to share
While we should be open with our marital relationships, disclosing specific problems can be counterproductive, as they create prejudices against the opposing spouse. We should try to be open about needing help instead of forcing people to pick sides.
“I might be able to say to you, ‘Listen, I need some prayer right now. I don’t need to tell you all my details, but my wife and I are having some struggles, and we can use your help,’ ” Nixon said. “It doesn’t need to go any further than that.”
Karst believes that sharing is also helpful because it reduces the need to put on a “church face.”
“Sharing with the people you feel you can trust and you’re closest to is very beneficial, because then you don’t have to use energy that is needed to resolve the conflict in trying to put up this front that everything is OK,” Karst said.
Talking about marital problems in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is important because they are becoming more and more frequent. The divorce rate rises each year, yet we continue to turn a blind eye because we don’t want to believe horrible things happen in the Adventist home. Unfortunately, religion will not shield us from the problems in our relationships—even one of Christ’s disciples divorced Him, and there is no better partner than Jesus. Instead of hiding behind denial and shame, we need to help each other and teach the younger generation how to avoid the same marital mistakes. We need to open the discussion, and we need to do it soon.
Because my mom is going to kill me when she finds out I wrote this article.
For more information, go to the General Conference Family Ministries Department Web site at family.adventist.org.
Ron Matthews is a pseudonym.