Columns Opinion Richard Mouw: Civil Evangelicalism

Divorce is tragic — but there is hope

Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan Tatum at a premiere of "Kingsman: The Golden Circle" in London on Sept. 18, 2017. The couple has separated after nine years of marriage. Photo by Star Max via AP

(RNS) — There have been — or so it seems to me — an unusual number of announcements of celebrity divorces recently. And several of them have been reported with a tone of surprise, even bordering on shock. Here is a headline I just saw on HuffPost: “Channing Tatum And Jenna Dewan Tatum Split, And People Are Worried Love Is Dead.”

As has been often the case in these reports, the couple in question try to reassure us that it is not about the loss of love between them. Here is the statement by Channing and Jenna: “Absolutely nothing has changed about how much we love one another, but love is a beautiful adventure that is taking us on different paths for now.”

I have a hard time believing that there is not more pain there than they are letting on in their rather glowing comment about a love between them that endures as they go their separate ways. And I do hope for some healing for each of them in that pain. I prayed for that — and for their 4-year-old daughter, Everly, as well — when I read the story.

Divorce happens. I am no hard-liner on the subject. The late Rev. Richard Neuhaus once remarked that there is at least one good sign in our growing divorce culture these days: Not only are there a lot of divorces, but there are also a lot of remarriages. Commitment is a serious matter, and when it breaks down between people who had promised to stay together “for better and for worse” it leaves wounds. But it also often leads to a deep desire to try it again.

A friend of mine went through two divorces before entering a marriage that flourished. He told me about his very different experiences with churches when his first two marriages failed. The first time, he and his wife belonged to an evangelical congregation that frowned upon divorce. When he went to his pastor to tell him about the impending breakup of his marriage, the pastor told him that God was going to have a very hard time forgiving them if he went through with the divorce.

The second time my friend faced a marital breakup he belonged to a more liberal church. When he went to this pastor with the news of the intention to get a divorce, the pastor basically said: “No problem. Things like this happen. You still have a good future ahead of you.”

My friend’s assessment of these two pastoral approaches was memorable for me. “What I really needed,” he said, “was a combination of the two. I needed a pastor to tell me that I was experiencing a horrible thing. Divorce is a real failure — a violation of what God intends for two human beings who have claimed to love each other. But then I also needed the pastor to tell me that there is hope — that God wants healing for both of us as we go our separate ways, and that love can happen again in our lives!”

My friend had it just right. Divorce is a deep failure. But people can find healing and the renewal of love.

The HuffPost story about the Tatums goes on to report that in spite of the couple’s positive spin on their breakup, their fans are saddened. The sadness is appropriate. This is one of life’s tragedies. But it is not futile to lift up prayers of hope.

About the author

Richard Mouw

Richard Mouw is Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also served as president for twenty years. He is the author of twenty books, including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. He earned his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.


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  • Richard Mouw’s best RNS article so far.

    Good, well-balanced essay, featuring both biblical compassign and biblical clarity.

    Both grace and truth. Showing pastoral love & care without sugarcoating the situation. Worthwhile.

  • I won’t attempt to hold the broader culture to the same standards that I would hope for from the Church, but I confessedly have little patience with Christians who take the road of divorce. In the majority of instances I have observed such divorces by Christians have been self serving with little thought to the vows made before God and humanity. God will assess each case on its own “merit,” but it ought to be noted that God hates divorce, presumably even more when practiced by those putatively devoted to Him.

  • I would think that if there is a God he would hate spousal abuse and the abuse of children more than he hates divorce. Sometimes divorce is the BEST option for some women and children. Failure to recognize that there are many reasons/causes for divorce is a serious flaw with some folk and some churches and their leaders.

  • Little patience? How does that manifest itself? Do you chastise such people? Witness to them? Disassociate with them?

    Divorce is a sad fact of life. I recognize that, do what I can to maintain health in my own marriage and try to love and minister to those in my life who’ve been wounded by divorce. But lack of patience doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly useful response.

  • Recognizing that divorce is tragic isn’t the same as believing that people should stay in abusive relationships. You have to do what you have to do to protect yourself and those under your care.

  • I would posit that in every divorce, there is an underlying tragedy. In some cases, the ill-advised marriage itself might be that tragedy.

  • Why do non-Christians get married in the first place? What a joke. Saying some magical words joins two people in marriage? I think not.

  • Did you read what you wrote? Magical words, like verything that happens in every religious marriage service ever?

    Non Christians get married for all of the reasons Christians do. the difference is that sometimes they get divorced and don’t pretend that in this one case, god is just fine with it.

  • As you know, Jesus mentions a specific circumstance in which divorce is not a sin, and the Apostle Paul cites an additional specific circumstance. God still hates divorce — and even if you meet the exemptions, you’ll likely find out why He hates it. I did.

    But Mouw’s right. Repentence is there. God heals. God helps. God gives hope. God guides your steps if you let him. Worked for me.

    Meanwhile, as RCW and SusanH point out, it’s just better to divorce and leave an abuser. Rare exception: I know a woman who was severely abused by her husband one night. But what he didn’t know was that she was was raised in the country, and trained in MULTIPLE skill-sets with household tools.

    That night Hubby agreed to stop bullying her and be a decent hubby to her. After he woke up off the floor, yes.

  • Yes. As you know (from me previously sharing this with you), I informed my senior pastor & senior clergy of my situation and divorce (voluntarily informed). As you said, “one of those two.” Suffice there.

    ….So I submitted my case to the people over me, really trustworthy. For biblical evaluation, counseling, correctives. And also to decide if I was still qualified to serve in one or two areas, or if some — changes –needed to be made. I did not want a divorce or even a sep, but I wasn’t without my mistakes.

    As I mentioned to you before, he / they decided that it was “one or two areas” according to Bible, and informed me of it.

  • I strive to treat all people with due courtesy even when I disagree with them profusely, whatever the context. If I may make a variation on an old non-politically correct joke: Some of my best friends have been divorced. But I also do not shie away from declaring to members of my own faith community where I differ from them in matters of faith and spiritual practice. The proverb says, “Iron sharpens iron.” It is my sense that the “Church” has failed in recent years to confront its members with the totality of the “costs” which attend divorce including how it harms the witness of the Gospel. We all have our pet peeves or hobby horses, few if any that I have seen are immune. This is one of mine.

  • Clearly I would not advise anyone to remain with a spouse who threatens or perpetrates physical harm. However, though it may seem impractical, within the church (absent adultery) the scriptures teach explicitly in my reading that divorce is essentially prohibited. My aunt in her own practice of the faith remained married to her husband through many years of separation. When he passed away she then felt free to remarry, thus fulfilling her natural need for companionship while remaining true to what she had vowed to God. It takes a deep measure of spiritual, emotional, and physical discipline to order one’s life in that way, and she has always had my admiration for it. To those outside the faith I hold no brief, but what happens in the faith community means a great deal to me.

  • I don’t believe in marriage “ceremony” Ben. Why not just get a Civil Contract and skip all the stupid rituals.
    Vows mean squat. No one keeps them.

  • I agree that “civil unions” are the way to go in a progressive society. But you should have been more explicit with your first post. You aren’t against the union of two people–the social contract–you are against the “religious” overtones.

  • Marriage IS a civil contract. Religion is completely optional. If, however, the legal rights and responsibilities mean nothing, things like missing the legal establishment of next of kin, then the civil contract aspect is unnecessary. Go with the religious only, but don’t complain if you are barred from a hospital room.

    Vows don’t mean squat to people for whom they don’t mean squat. Religion or rituals don’t make them mean something, just like religion or rituals don’t make people moral. But people do make them mean something.

    I’m sorry that you and/or your wife were unable to keep yours. That hurts, I’m sure. But it doesn’t mean others can’t or won’t. One has to decide whether the person, the promise, or the marriage mean more than convenience, infatuation, orones own issues.

    Do you know what amazes me? The sheer number of gay and lesbian couples that stay together for years despite all of the forces arrayed to keep them apart. I’ve known couples devoted to each other for 40, 50, and more years.

    Equally amazing are the heterosexual couples that can’t stay together despite all of the forces arrayed to keep them together.

  • Ben — I’m sorry that you and/or your wife were unable to keep yours.
    I said nothing about my wife or “a” wife. I’m simply saying 1) Ceremony does not make a Christian man married to a Christian woman.
    2) “Ceremony” is inherently a product of White/Christian/Western Civilization.
    So why do non-Christians and those who hate White Culture, do it?
    Just get a Civil Union if you want to protect yourselves Legally.

  • Mary and Joseph is that example. Mary violated her Betrothal Contract (covenant), as she was not a virgin (perceived). Deuteronomy 22:13.

  • You said that no one keeps their vows. If I misunderstood your implication, I apologize. But you are also wrong about that.

    Othernon white, non Christian, non western Civilizations have marriage, and had it long before white people started worry about white people, prchristians declared it was theirs and theirs alone.

    A civil union is exactly what we got. It’s called a civil marriage license. We had it presided over by a friend of ours, most assuredly white and Christian.

  • I would be interested in reading/studying “Ceremony” from other Cultures. Do you have any recommendations for books; websites etc., etc.?

  • Here’s a thought-experiment of mine after reading everyone’s comments. The 2 that stick out in a face-off over the puck (metaphor for divorce) come from, unexpectedly of all people, my brothers Edward Borges-Silva & floydlee:

    On the one hand, God divorced Israel because of her adulteries against Him. Yet He’ll remarry her one day in glory, i.e. in the Millennial Kingdom.

    On the other hand, Christ Jesus remained a Happy Bachelor all His earthly life. (Sorry, Mary Magdalena cultists, He never was into her in that way. DUH.) And yet, and yet, He’ll get Himself married off in the end by God the Father to the Bride, whose name is Miss Nueva Jerusalem, to usher in the Kingdom of God over the new heaven & earth. Because, see, she kept her State of Virginia I mean Virginity all this time until His 2nd Coming. (There was another potential bride, to be sure, but she lost her Virginity to the Devil. And so Jesus shall cast her into the Hell that, according to an Italian atheistic journalist, Pope Francis never believes exists at all.)

    ERGO: Look afresh at Marriages & Divorces in these 2 Thought-Experimental Lights!

  • I don’t compare tragedies. Each has its own unique character. But, yes, divorce is tragic. To fail to understand that is to fail to understand the nature of marriage, which is part of the problem in society today.

  • To see it as a tragedy is the problem. It is called histrionics! Or as Shakespeare put it “it is much ado about nothing”! Syria is a tragedy. Hurricanes, wildfires, mudslides are tragedies. School shootings are tragedies. The recent bus crash in Canada that killed half of a hockey team was a tragedy.

    A divorce is unpleasant, it is difficult, uncomfortable, sad BUT it is NOT a tragedy.

  • It’s also not “much ado about nothing,” and saying it is is a ridiculous misrepresentation of Shakespeare.

    You seem to be under the impression that only large events can be tragic. That’s not true. Divorce represents the failure of an intended commitment of two lives. I consider that tragic.

    Moving on. Peace.

  • And sometimes men need to divorce the women they live with. Last I checked, neither sex had a monopoly on virtue.