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Preaching on Divorce: How can we preach hope to lives impacted by broken marriages?

The pastoral reality of divorce is very complicated here. And our preaching has to reflect that.

Peter Scazzero: These "difficult topics" are people's everyday life. Well over half the people you preach to have been impacted by divorce. It's a deep pain. It's a death for people. They feel a lot of vague guilt and failure. And we don't address it clearly enough. I knew that I needed to address a larger series on singleness, sexuality, and marriage. But I couldn't ignore divorce.

I grieve at two extremes I hear in the church. One treats divorce as no big deal. That's a minority position, but it's out there. The other extreme takes the two "exemptions" mentioned in Scripture and makes it a new legalism. Both positions miss the heart of what Jesus said on marriage and divorce. It's theologically, in my humble opinion, wrong, and it's a misuse of Scripture. The practical result of both positions is bondage. It grieves me.

I've met women in domestic violence situations. Because that's not mentioned specifically in Scripture, they're told they must stay and take the beatings. Or a husband who's in an addictive relationship with severe emotional abuse. We miss what God is saying there. Not that I'm for divorce. I am not at all. But there's the temptation to become a legal expert at the expense of people. It's more complex than that.

It's obvious from your sermon, though, that you have a very high view of the marriage covenant.

Yes and so does Jesus. In Matthew 19, he goes back to the beginning to make the point that divorce is permitted because of hard hearts. We live in a fallen, broken world, and that's a reality. So that has to be taken into account in applying the heart of Scripture to this. That's what Jesus was doing.

Divorce is such a loss. The last thing people need is to feel shamed from the pulpit. They need the good news—that in that dark night of the soul, God will meet you.

So the high view of marriage is necessary before engaging the divorce question. Only two specific exemptions are given in Scripture to allow divorce: adultery and desertion. Our question is how to take that and apply it today. The perspective that these should be very narrowly and legalistically interpreted has sad fallout. I know a situation where the guy was abusing the children. Since that's not mentioned in Scripture, the wife's pastor told her she had to stay in the marriage. And what about severe physical abuse, severe emotional abuse?

The pastoral reality is very complicated here. And our preaching has to reflect that. We uphold Scripture. But that doesn't mean that we use Scripture as a club and swallow a camel while straining a gnat.

You didn't cover remarriage in your sermon. Was that intentional?

Yeah, it was. I actually had it in my notes, but couldn't address it at that time without cutting out something I felt was essential. I don't have a problem with remarriage. I'm not one of those people who say you can never remarry. But at the same time, I have a theology of celibacy that elevates a calling to celibacy or singleness, because we're all married to Christ.

If I were going to preach this message again, I'd probably put a stronger emphasis on the doctrine of marriage to Jesus. It's a foundational and relevant concept for anyone, regardless if they're married, single, or divorced.

How did people respond to your sermon?

They really appreciated it. They appreciated the fact that I didn't minimize marriage. Even those who had been divorced, those who had been through it, value the marriage institution. At the same time, they can't be treated as second-class citizens at church. They're not "damaged goods" in a gospel-oriented community. And that's a dicey dynamic.

I often wonder how Jesus did it. How did he have dinner with tax collectors and sinners, you know, and yet stand for something? He had values yet was able to communicate such love and grace to everybody he was with. That's our great challenge. The church should be the place that people hurting from divorce run to. But many of them are rightfully afraid of being judged there.

Many people who get divorced would not have gotten divorced if we as pastors and leaders had equipped them as singles and as young marrieds with better preparation on how to be married, because we usually don't. We frequently act as though healthy marriages just happen or they just don't. That's absurd. It's a key discipleship issue, but weak within our evangelical tradition.

This is personal for me. I didn't get discipled on how to get married. I went to seminary and all the best leadership conferences in the county. No one discipled my wife and me about how to be married. Our first eight years were a disaster. They were really painful. And by the grace of God we made it. But there are many people who got divorced because they didn't have any tools. They weren't equipped. They just got stuck, and the church wasn't able to help them get unstuck.

It's as absurd as blaming the gay community for broken marriages in the church. We have such poor theology in most of our churches for marriage and sexuality. Only nine percent of people have exceptional marriages. Most people are stuck. They're not joyfully experiencing the taste of the kingdom of God in marriage.

I preached this sermon in the context of a serious marriage equipping ministry going on in our church. We were already asking the big questions about marriage and how it relates to discipleship. That helped give a backdrop for the divorce issue.

Rather than wait for the marriage crisis to come, and then needing heroic intervention to fix it, we're working as a church to develop a thorough course with a theology of the body, and practical skills for living that out—"Emotionally Healthy Skills 2.0." It applies to both married and single people. We expect our married people to master these skills. So my sermon comes in the context of that kind of church culture.

Tell us more about the pastoral link between divorce and resurrection.

Well, I think that when you preach about divorce you have to end with resurrection. There are people in our churches that are divorced, and they were the ones mostly at fault. Just like I have people in my church today who were sex offenders and went to jail for years. There's forgiveness and resurrection, though. They're not lepers. My life is filled with failures that God has redeemed and resurrected.

Christians bear the seeds of resurrection. Awful things happen to us, and we do things that we deeply regret. Divorce impacts people like death. Divorce is such a horror. It's such a tearing. It's such a loss. In that context, the last thing people need is to feel shamed from the pulpit. They need the good news—that in that dark night of the soul, God will meet you. God will take great evil and bring great good. And so the whole Christian story is a story of resurrection. Death was there, but life came. That's especially meaningful to those impacted by divorce.

Peter Scazzero is Teaching Pastor/Pastor-at-Large at New Life Fellowship in Queens, New York and the author of The Emotionally Healthy Leader. Follow him on Twitter @petescazzero.

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