What does this discrepancy mean? Are our churches just excellent at supporting marriages? Perhaps. But I also suspect that many who are separated/divorced feel they are not welcome at our churches.
In recent years, with the same sex marriage plebiscite, there has been a renewal of adversity to the church and its ‘antiquated’ attitudes to marriage. The general non-believing populace sees us as odd and not moving with the times. At worst they see us as uncaring, with a sanctimonious attitude to real people and real problems.
What makes this harder is that, often, a divorced person is highly sensitive to any sense of rejection, moral failing and stigma. The whole separation and divorce journey is often fraught with negative feelings, loss of self-esteem and confidence, anger, frustration, disappointment, grief, shame, embarrassment, depression, anxiety and loneliness. So even if your church has no demonstrable attitude to divorce at all, a divorcee is often so hyper-vigilant in these emotions that they may take silence to mean lack of care.
What we need to understand
For Christians—and I speak from personal experience—it’s often hard to walk into a church as a single-again person. I was acutely aware of being a lone parent checking my kids in at kids’ church. I was super paranoid that people could see the paler band of skin on my finger where my wedding ring used to be.
And if someone is new at church, one of the first questions is usually about your family situation. What do you say? The fear of judgement may be very real.
There is a lot at stake. If people are even remotely cold or seeming to lack in grace, the separated/divorced person may well go running for the hills.
We really must help people to know that they have a place in our church, that they are welcome there, that they belong. And as we care well for separated and divorced people inside our churches, we will hopefully draw in those from outside too.
How do we do this?
1. Avoid judgementalism
There is a biblical phrase that has often been bandied around very unhelpfully: “God hates divorce”. It comes from Malachi 2:16, in the context of a rebuke to covenant-breaking priests. Notwithstanding this particular context, the verse provides a clear indication of what God thinks of divorce.
But here’s a thing everyone should know: divorced people usually understand completely why God would hate divorce. Because they know first-hand that it’s so often terrible. It’s painful and torturous. It hurts whole families. It is horrible for the children. It tears up families, friends and can even split communities.
We see in Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:8 that divorce was never the plan. Perfect harmonious relationships were God’s intention—but we are human and sinful. So divorce is a gracious provision in the face of our human frailty.
Now that doesn’t mean we should be like the world and dash about marrying and divorcing with impunity. It does mean that we need to treat each other with grace because we are all imperfect.
Here’s what Kevin deYoung helpfully says of divorce: “Is every divorce the product of sin? Yes. Is every divorce therefore sinful? No.”
All this to say: we can never assume what the story is. Undoubtedly there has been sin somewhere but we do not know what and by whom. We cannot and ought not to assume guilt. Assuming guilt throws shame on the broken. If there is sin, then surely we must walk with people to help them repent. People don’t repent because they’ve been judged by other humans. They repent because their hearts have been moved by God. Our role is to warmly love all people and point them to Jesus.
2. Consider a specific ministry to divorced people
If it hasn’t already, perhaps your church could start (or publicise an already existing) ministry to separated/divorced people. DivorceCare is a great ministry and churches are really benefitting from it. It’s a 13-week course focused on leading people, from a Christian perspective, through structured time, discussion and personal reflection. It helps anyone going through separation or divorce to work on the deep emotions, including anger, loneliness, grief, hurt and fear, as well as covering topics like financial practicalities, single living, recovery and hope. The aim is to care for the whole person and, in meeting them in the chaos and brokenness, walk with them to strength and wholeness. It is open to and accessible for both Christians and non-Christians.
Running or promoting a local DivorceCare sends the message that our churches recognise the reality of divorce and that we value people who are separated/divorced. We sympathise with what they are going through and want to help. It is also an effective outreach as often those in the broader community looking for help and support will attend.
The main thing is to make whatever you do public—not because we do things to curry favour, but because we need to start overcoming assumptions that the general community often has about church. We need to help people understand that at the darkest times in their lives, the place they can go is the church.
3. Consider how you care for affected kids
In my experience, kids’ ministers and leaders can be really key in helping our children cope with their parents’ separation/divorce. One common implication for kids who are regular at church is that they might only be able to attend every other week. You could give them Sunday school materials from weeks that they have missed or are going to miss. This also empowers the parent to lead their child(ren) spiritually and helps both the parent and kids know they are valued and important members of the congregation.
For my boys, the thing that keeps them strong at church is having friends there. Anything you can do to support kids making and strengthening peer friendships would be so helpful too.
For the parents, open a communication channel with them. Most single-again parents worry about their kids and how they are going. It could be really helpful for leaders to feed back how the kids went in kids’ church in a way that shows care, interest and concern.
Love in action
I don’t have all the answers. But it seems wise to me that we think specifically about care to the separated and divorced so that we can show love at what is often a time of crisis. With divorce a very tragic and prevalent reality of our society, it is such a key way to show love in action to those inside and outside our churches. We want everyone to know that church is a safe space for all kinds of people to find belonging in the arms of Jesus.
A version of this article was first published on Ruth’s blog, Meet Me Where I Am.
 Malachi 2:16 is translated either as: ‘“The man who hates and divorces his wife” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect”’ or as ‘“I hate divorce” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “because the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence”’.
 Kevin de Young, ‘A sermon on divorce and remarriage’, The Gospel Coalition, 3 November 2010 (viewed 11 December 2020). https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/a-sermon-on-divorce-and-remarriage/