During this global pandemic, one of the obvious results has been an increase in divorce. Relationships that were already weak are having a hard time sustaining the extra pressure. What can a church do when it becomes obvious a marriage is in crisis?
Over the last few years, I have faced more of these relationships than any other time in ministry and therefore have spent a significant amount of time thinking of strategies of intervention. What can a church do? Is church discipline the only option?
Before we get to some suggested steps, I’ll attempt to define a crisis marriage.
What is a Crisis Marriage?
I am not discussing a relationship that is having brush fires break out. The marriages I have in mind are full-blown wildfires. Divorce is threatened or papers have actually been filed. Violence has become public. An affair has been revealed. A struggle with a secret sin has become known. In a crisis marriage, something has happened that is now life threatening for the relationship.1
I would like to clarify though for the purposes of this article that abuse is a heartbreaking category of crisis marriage that needs its own strategy.
Because marriage represents Christ’s relationship to His Church it is worth intervening sacrificially. A lot is on the line here, like the name of our Lord and the welfare of children. There are many other reasons. Therefore, the love of Christ constrains us… (2 Corinthians 5: 14).
Principles to Help
Remember the advantages of having a one anothering culture in the church. When these crises happen, it is much more natural to have the conversations and harder for the people involved to resist if there has been investment in relationship. Maybe the first thing you need to work on in ministry is one anothering as a long-term solution to many soul care issues (see Romans 12:4-21). Your appeal to work on the relationship will be potent in the context of personal relationship.
Offer key Scripture and key questions. Please consider how these questions and passages could be used with the couple. How could Philippians 2:3-14 change the way you are dealing with the relationship? How can our Lord’s example of washing feet (John 13:1-17) impact the way you relate to your spouse? What personal rights do you believe are being violated? What are the two or three big issues that are perpetually unresolved that have built barriers between you?
Offer hope through Scripture, through resources, and through loving support. This doesn’t just have to happen through the church leadership. All members of the body are responsible for other members of the body (Ephesians 4:3).
Ask them to stop whatever they are doing to handle the situation. Stop talking to others, stop divorce proceedings. Stop adding fuel to the fire!
Move towards them through personal contact. You may need to go find the person (Matthew 18:12-14). Make it as personal as possible. Face-to-face is best, but it may also be helpful to use email, text, and phone messages. Be lovingly persistent. The biblical thinking here is that God in Christ moved toward us even while we were still sinners. The tone of this pursuit is love, not harshness.
Offer alternatives. There are other options than just assuming divorce; for example, mediation. Biblical mediations are ideal for crisis marriages, especially if the couple will not do more long-term marriage counseling. (For more on this topic, see my article, “The Beauty of Mediation as a Ministry Tool” and consider attending First Baptist Church of Jacksonville’s School of Mediation to learn another method to add to your counseling tool belt. This training leads to ACBC’s reconciliation specialization and also teaches how to lead mediations.)
Listen equally. Build a loving, hope-filled relationship with both spouses and be very careful to not take a side on an issue that is dividing the couple. I am not talking about clear sin issues, but issues of preference they have fought over like the cleanliness of the house or how often they should have sex. There are always two sides (Proverbs 18:17)! If you take a side on an issue you just positioned yourself with one spouse against the other. Objective neutrality sets you up to minister to all involved.
Give loving warning. For years I have been struck by John Bunyan’s advice, “we woo and warn.” I tell them what to expect in court and the results of divorce. I use two resources. The first is a secular article on the devastating effects of divorce on America. You can find many of these articles online. I also use a great chapter from Men Counseling Men, written by biblical counselor and lawyer Ed Wilde, which gives a realistic picture of divorce court. The purpose is to send a message that divorce court is worse than what you think and to give hope-filled alternatives.2 I also make clear that if they are claiming to be Christians, they are violating 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 that admonishes brothers and sisters not to sue one another.
Negotiate for time. I ask, “How long have you been married?” Let’s imagine he or she says, “Ten years.” I then say, “How long did it take for your marriage to get to this point?” He might say, “Ten years.” I then say, “How about giving the Lord ten sessions of marriage counseling to see if He can breathe some hope back into your marriage?” If he says he can’t do that then I’ll say, “How about eight?”
Remember this is more than a one-person job. Get the body mobilized to listen, pray, plead with, and warn. Crisis is always more than a one-person job.
Don’t forget the family. Often families in this situation can benefit from very practical help. Imagine the husband has left and the mom is depressed—who is feeding the kids and who is cleaning the house?
Finally, pursue church discipline. Some churches think this is the first thing to do, but please notice I have it last on my list. It is to be utilized when your brother “refuses to listen” (Matthew 18:16-17). Threatening church discipline ought to be a last trigger pulled, not the first shot fired. As the procedures of Matthew 18:15-20 are patiently and precisely followed, please remember that the ultimate goal is restoration (see vv. 12-14) and abundant forgiveness (vv. 21-35). It should break our hearts if we have to finally “tell it to the church” when our professing brother or sister will not repent and must be treated as an unbeliever (verse 17).
- It is the assumption of this article that we are counseling professing Christians.
- Wilde, Ed. “When Marriage Problems Become Legal Problems.” In Men Counseling Men, edited by John D. Street, pages 333-349. Eugene: Harvest House, 2013.