When I was growing up, hardly anyone was divorced. At least it seemed like that. Divorce was especially rare for people who were in the pews on Sunday mornings. Divorce in the church community was usually swept under the rug. The Church handled divorce by ignoring it or condemning it. It was looked down on. It was seen as a failure.

Until the Sixties and Seventies, most couples stayed together whether they should have or not. Divorce was still fairly rare despite abuse, affairs, alcoholism and other misery. The “Free Love” generation of the 60s started changing things, sometimes for better, but looking back now, mostly for worse.

Members of the “Me” Generation decided they weren’t about to stay in relationships that weren’t “fulfilling,” or in relationships where couples found out that they weren’t “compatible” after all. The impact of divorce on the church was being felt because more and more people in the church, like the population at large, were getting divorced.

So religious groups of all kinds were forced to ask themselves, “Does the Church allow divorce?“ and then “How should the church handle divorce?” Those are theological questions that churches are still arguing about.

Statistics show, for the past 20 years or so, one in every three or four adults in any church service on any average Sunday morning is dealing with divorce on some level. That’s a discouraging reality.

It’s common knowledge that close to 50% of all first marriages end in divorce. 75% of second marriages don’t make it; and by the third marriage, the percentage of divorce is something like 83%. The figures are about the same for church-goers and atheists. That’s sad. As many people in the church are divorcing as those who hold no religious beliefs at all.

Does The Church Allow Divorce?

The consensus about divorce in most Christian churches these days is that divorce is allowable. When I was growing up, divorce was uncommon. Now it’s too common. Many churches in the 40’s and 50s … and some still today … would not allow divorced men to hold any positions of leadership in the church. “As one divorced preacher said, ‘I could have murdered the head deacon or had an affair with the assistant pastor’s wife and survived, but because I’m divorced, my ministry is finished.’” Lauri S. Moison Hall.

I remember when anyone in Church leadership (preachers and even Bible class teachers or music ministers) couldn’t be divorced. It was a black spot on your character, and I think that feeling still exists in some churches. In the past, divorce was allowed only in cases of adultery. Soon that was expanded to include other examples of “unfaithfulness” like abuse, abandonment, and addiction as well as adultery.

Some Catholic Churches will still not allow a person who is divorced and/or remarried to take part in the communion services as well as not holding any kind of leadership role. Because of those barriers to acceptance, divorced people in a church often feel like second class “citizens.” Not worthy of being a full participating member of our spiritual family is so hurtful, especially when divorcing or divorced people need the comfort and companionship and acceptance of other believers more than ever.

Rubel Shelley’s book Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology, published by Leafwood Publishers/ACU Press is a great resource for individuals worrying about the theological implications of divorce, but also for church leaders figuring out how to address divorce in their congregations as well. Leafwood Publishers/ACU Press also published my book Radical Recovery: Transforming the Despair of Your Divorce into an Amazing Good.

Going To Church After Divorce

I pretty much cried quiet tears through church services every Sunday morning for about a year after my divorce. I was sad knowing that my family was now what people called a “broken” family. When I saw all of the couples and families worshipping together, I hated that my ex-husband wanted to be with someone else instead of with our family…or at least with me.

Being in church services reminded me of all my heartbreaking losses. And I felt like I had somehow disappointed God. After divorce, we are struggling to survive the despair and devastation, and then, we sadly often have to navigate the ordeal of how to find our place again in our church family as well. The Church should be a place of wide open arms of welcome and refuge instead!

How Should The Church Handle Divorce?

I heard a leader at one of the international Christian conferences where I was speaking say, “We have a place for recovering alcoholics, and ministries for those released from prison or dealing with financial difficulties, redeemed prostitutes, kids in trouble…but help for those going through divorce? Not so much. He continued, “Most church budgets for help during and after divorce are less than $250 per year. Usually there is no budget for divorce help at all.”

That needs to change! Here is a resource that can be helpful for any spiritual person who is struggling with divorce and how to deal with it as a person of faith. (Read more about Christian Divorce Recovery)

When I spoke at another conference of Church leaders back in 2010, the latest figures then showed that:

  • 11% of the adult population was currently divorced
  • 25% of all adults have had at least one divorce during their lifetime

Divorce among evangelical Christians was higher than for other faith groups including atheists and agnostics. (Those figures were challenged because they were based on someone simply saying they were Christian vs actually being an active, practicing Christian. There is a big difference!)

The study also found that “Even more disturbing is that when individuals experience a divorce, many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing.”

Many divorcing individuals find that the climate in their church is “very negative towards divorcing couples,” so many “either move to a congregation with a more accepting view of divorce or are unaware of their marital status.” One church divorce ministry leader said that in his own personal experience, “90% of divorcing Christians leave the church and never come back.”

The statistics available at the time said that:

  • 30% of Jews have been divorced
  • 27% of born-again Christians have been divorced
  • 24% of other Christians
  • 21% of atheists and agnostics

Those statistics are very disturbing. With about one in three or four adults in our pews on Saturday or Sunday morning either divorcing or divorced, what are we as Jewish worshippers or the body of Christ called to do about these hurting people? Ostracize them? Judge them? Condemn them? Or … are we called by God to support and encourage and love them?

To be blunt, most churches don’t know what to do with divorced people. Spiritual congregations don’t want to look like they are encouraging divorce, and they are also busy trying to help their congregants build strong marriages and strong families.

But the Church is exactly where divorced people need to be welcomed and embraced. Churches have everything divorcing people need.

The church is the perfect place to heal after the trauma of divorce. There is never a time when someone feels more alone and isolated than during and after divorce. After divorce, all of what we thought was solid ground in our personal life is suddenly gone or changed. That’s where the church can step in. Where we must step in! For the whole family involved in the divorce.

We (The whole Church body – not just the leadership) are called to be the presence of God to those who are suffering. First, church leaders need to realize the unbelievable pain and hurt of divorce. After speaking at another Conference of Church ministers and ministry lay leaders, several women told me they felt “very alone at church”. They felt “isolated and useless.”

Churches must recognize the need, recognize the pain and recognize the role they can play in helping divorcing or divorced people heal and become welcomed and productive members of the body of believers after divorce. 

Here are some of the things churches need to provide for divorcing or divorced people in their congregations:

  1. Hope
  2. Recovery resources
  3. A place to belong
  4. Comfort and encouragement
  5. A place to serve

The Church (all of us called by God) should be the very place where people can find refuge and revival during the struggles of life. We as the body of Christ in the world are supposed to be the light and the comfort and the help and the actual presence of God himself wherever we are. Until we fully accept and help people going through divorce, we are failing our calling and the people who desperately need us!

Let us know if you want details about how you personally or your church or community center or even your home can become a place of hope and healing for those who are going through divorce. We have personal and small group recovery resources so that each one of us as believers can be that “welcoming, comforting, healing presence of God” to those who are going through that often devastating experience of divorce. We can also find hope and healing if we are individuals facing divorce ourselves.