Until recently, divorce has been a subject of non-discussion. Throughout history, divorce was outright banned, only allowed under the rarest of circumstance, or it was allowed but considered highly taboo. While divorce has become a common thread in society, in certain communities divorce is still frowned upon or discouraged. In no place is this more evident than in where divorce and religion intersect.
Many religious leaders explain that their guiding principles do not allow for divorce. They believe these principles and their supporting texts dictate that marriage is defined as being a union of a man and a woman before God and that the marital union should not be broken for any reason (less a few specific reasons that allow for divorce). Some religions teach that divorce is a sin, some do not allow divorce in any circumstance.
For many people, their religious community is a source of support, guidance, solace and friendship. For those who grew up in the church – or found religion later in life – religion can provide them with a guideline to live by, and a higher power to help explain the unexplainable. Religious ceremonies and traditions are deeply ingrained in our culture. Even in the traditional marriage ceremony.
So, what happens when a religious couple decides to end their marriage? In the best of circumstances, their church leaders and community will be accepting and supportive of their decision. In the worst of cases, they may be excommunicated from the church. Or they may find themselves remaining in a marriage far past its expiration date for fear of how the church may react to the divorce. In some cases, it may lead the couple to question their own personal relationship with their church and their interpretation of God.
Michael and Elizabeth Hall are a Christian couple who grew up in the church in small-town Kansas. High school sweethearts, Elizabeth and Michael married young, started a family, and were active members of their church community.
The Halls each have strong personal faith, and within the church found an extended family of friends, pastors, and ministry. Elizabeth worked with church youth, and Michael often did handiwork and maintenance around the church building. The church gave them, as individuals and as a family, a system of support.
That support system crumbled when Elizabeth and Michael broke some big news to the church: they were getting divorced.
For Elizabeth and Michael, mitigating the effect of the divorce on their young children was of the utmost importance. Even as their divorce progressed, the family continued to live together and to present a united front. They decided to reach out to the church leaders to inform them of the divorce, hoping to continue to receive the support they received as a married couple.
“When we told the pastor we were getting divorced, the pastor basically told us that the church supports us, but cannot support us getting a divorce,” says Michael of a meeting the couple had with one of the pastors at their church. “I felt like he didn’t understand where we were at.”
The Halls planned on continuing to attend church together with their young children during their divorce; however, the church tried to dissuade them from attending together.
“They took the stance that divorce is bad and wrong. We tried to say that we are protecting our son and wanted to remain as a united front,” says Elizabeth. “We were told we were living in a fantasy.”
Adds Michael, “he said it would be a facade, that we’d be saying that we were ok when we weren’t.”
After the meeting with the pastor, the couple was left reeling. Elizabeth was no longer allowed to serve in the middle/high school youth group and Michael lost his maintenance position. The couple decided to stop attending church.
“At the end of the day, this is a heartbreaking event,” says Elizabeth, “because there is nothing broken about our family.”
The Halls now find themselves at the intersection of faith and divorce, and they are not alone. For many couples going through a divorce, breaking the news to their church community can cause anxiety and unease. How will the church react? Will they, like the Halls, lose their support system? For some couples, the fear of the church’s reaction may cause them to remain in their marriage much longer than the relationship’s expiration date.
“Your relationship with Jesus is about hope. So when you find yourself in a marriage that is crumbling and you are told that what you are doing is wrong, it’s hard,” explains Elizabeth. “But I keep telling myself that we received a human response, this was not Jesus’ response.”
The Halls are still in the midst of their divorce story, but they have advice for others who may be going through something similar:
“Be firm in your relationship with Christ and that hope the relationship brings and Christ’s love for you. Just know that any condemnation that comes to you is not Christ, and it’s not okay,” advises Elizabeth. “If you can stay and work on the relationship, great; but if you need to walk away, that’s okay. Remember, the people in that building are humans, they are not Jesus.”
Stay tuned as we continue to follow the Halls story while they navigate divorce and faith.