I’ve read three articles recently about the topic of pro-marriage, church and pastors not addressing the issue of difficult marriages well:
1. “Help!” by elisabeth klein corcoran
2. “Enough with the Divorce Shame” by Chump Lady
3. “Pastors: Send a Different Message to Struggling Wives” on Crosswalk (also by elisabeth klein corcoran)
All three articles are written about one overall theme: the pro-marriage community…the Christian community…is not dealing with adultery, addiction or abuse in marriages. The messages perceived by those who are hurting are “Pay me $199.99 and you can save your marriage all by yourself!”, “If you tell anyone what’s really going on, you’ll be judged for it”, “Asking for help results in you being blamed for your spouse’s choices”, and “If you only ____ more (fill in the blank with prayed, submitted, cooked, had sex, or forgave) then your spouse wouldn’t ____.”
As a nouthetic counselor, I wanted to look at these articles and ask myself two things. First, I want to do an honest assessment: Do we–the Christian, pro-marriage community–do an injustice to those who come to us, hurting and in a difficult marriage? How do we need to change? What do we need to learn? I want to take an honest look in the mirror and see what we need to do differently … and better! But second and MOST IMPORTANTLY, I want to look at the Bible and what God says in the Bible, because I am duty-bound to obey God and encourage others to do the same. It has been my experience that obeying God and doing what He wants is not always easy and is not always painless, nor is it usually what we want to hear!
The first thing that I’d like to address is the pastor himself. I’ve heard many times of people going to their pastor or their counselor as if the person is a mind-reader and can magically tell what is “the truth” and what is a lie! So I want to remind everyone who does go to a pastor, preacher, minister, or spiritual leader…they are a human being with the same human limitations that you have. Can you just “detect” what is the truth and what is a lie? No. And neither can they. Furthermore, they often only have one side of the story, and my guess would be that your version of what has occurred differs GREATLY from your spouse’s version of what has occurred. Even in strong, godly marriages, each individual in the marriage has a different personality, different personal strengths and weaknesses, and the way they view things is entirely different–so it is just common sense that in a painful marriage that differing point of view is even more different! Finally, any pastor or church is an imperfect, SINFUL representation of what God intends His bride, The Church, to be. Pastors can have their own (sinful) agendas; churches can be anything but Christian and just be basically social action committees, and sometimes people are afraid to stand up strongly against a sin because they don’t want to be accused of being judgmental–especially if the sin is a popular one! So part of the issue here is that we expect “the pastor” to be a lie detector and then basically scold the cheating spouse (and come down on your side) — and those expectations are unrealistic.
The second thing that comes to my mind is that when one spouse goes to any kind of professional–whether they are a coach, minister, counselor or therapist–people who are professionally-trained are going to address the person in the room with them. Your spouse is not there; you are. Your spouse didn’t make the effort to make the appointment, figure out childcare, and get their behind end to the office; you did. And the professional person (who is not a lie detector and can not just tell “the truth”) is not going to tell you “how to get your spouse to do it your way” or scold them if they don’t. Again, that is an unrealistic expectation. On this same topic, it is just one of those universal truths that no one can control another person. Period. The only person at the appointment is YOU and the only person you can control is YOU. So the professional is going to help you look at and address YOUR issues…not your spouse’s. What I’m trying to say is that as a pro-marriage Christian coach, when I have a loyal spouse in session with me whose disloyal spouse is wantonly flaunting adultery in their face, I can show the Loyal in the room how a loving spouse “should” act according to the Bible, but there are no magic words to MAKE the Disloyal do that. We may be in complete agreement that a godly spouse would not do X, Y or Z, but if their Disloyal is bound and determined to sin–I can’t stop them and neither can the Loyal who took the time to come talk to me! I can’t even change the spouse who came to me! The only person who can change is the person who came can change themselves and even then it’s with God working in them, not through sheer will. Thus, I can maybe confirm for the Loyal “Well, when your Disloyal expects to be able to sin with no natural consequence, that’s unrealistic, so you are okay in acting in a way that allows consequences.” But otherwise my options are limited to addressing the person in front of me: what ways they may have contributed (if any), how they handle it, how they decide to act, tools they can use to understand, and what they do to grow as a person due to this circumstance.
Soooo…we’ve addressed two unrealistic expectations: 1) Pastors/professionals can tell “the truth” and will do a perfect job doing the godly thing, and 2) Pastors will come down on my side when I tell them the sin my spouse is committing, and they will tell me how to get my spouse to stop it.
Next, let’s address some major errors I think the Christian community is making, and what we can do differently.
One of the MAJOR mistakes I see is when a hurting spouse comes to their pastor/priest/minister and reveals that there is adultery, abuse or addiction, and the pastoral response is basically a cliché…something like “Well you go right on back there and just submit more.” Yes, as I said above, when you go to a professional they realize you can not change your spouse, so they may focus on you and what you can change, but it’s my experience that by the time someone gathers the courage to say “Ummm…I think something is wrong here” they are usually hurt so badly you better react as if you’re in the emergency room and they just came in with a gunshot to the head. When it’s just “somewhat bad” people keep trying, keep their mouths shut, wonder if it’s just them, and try to just bear it (of course, not EVERYONE is that way, but many/most). And when someone makes all the effort to set up an appointment and get to the office and says “It’s not going very well” that really means much, MUCH more. Sending someone back into a home that is harming them via mental, emotional, spiritual or physical abuse is cruelty, frankly…and both adulterers and addicts DEFINITELY employ abuse!
Thus it seems to me that one area pastors REALLY need to do better, is to take the time to find out if it is a case of adultery, abuse or addiction, and if it is… to protect the spouse who is being abused! Now, this does not mean “end your marriage immediately” or encouraging divorce even–but it does mean taking the time to do true investigation, because often abusers are masters of deception. And it does mean giving the abused spouse–whether that is a man or a woman–the support of finding safety. As much as Malachi 2:16 is used to force “God hates divorce” down people’s throats, listen to the WHOLE VERSE: ” ‘The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. “
One thing that is extremely important–and I mean EXTREMELY–is that the shepherd should “take the time to find out if it is a case of adultery, abuse or addiction”. The reason that is so important is because there are times when a spouse will claim “abuse” when their spouse disagrees with them…or claim “abuse” as the justification for why they are doing the sin they are doing! Since pastors are not lie detectors and do not live behind closed doors with you, they can’t “just tell” that one spouse is sitting in their office lying their head off, and outside the office they are a completely different person. But too often I think one spouse comes in, the pastor hears one side of the story and does not investigate, and just believes whatever is told to them.
I’ll give you one crazy example … and then another the other way. Once a lady came to her mentor and told him all about how her husband screamed at her last night for THREE HOURS and then threw some china at the wall that smashed it to smithereens. Naturally the mentor told her the husband was abusive and no way was it acceptable for him to scream for three hours and break things…and the mentor encouraged her to leave him. Only problem? The wife didn’t mention that her husband screamed for three hours BECAUSE HE HAD FOUND HER IN THEIR MARITAL BED WITH ANOTHER MAN!!! She “forgot” that little detail and when asked why she didn’t tell him, she told the mentor she didn’t think it was relevant!
Okay here’s the second example. A spouse goes to her pastor and tells the pastor her husband has been drinking, been abusive and calls her names. The pastor calls a meeting with the husband and tells him how wrong he is to be abusive and that calling your wife names is sinful and that he has to stop drinking immediately. Well obviously “abuse is sinful” and “drinking is sinful,” right? And they are…but what the wife didn’t tell the pastor was that she was having an affair and finding fault with everything about her husband, telling him he didn’t earn enough money, he wasn’t a good father, he wasn’t a good husband, having him do literally all the housework all the while screaming at him…and to escape the pain of being told how worthless he was, he would drink so he’d feel numb. Okay not a SMART solution but it was a way to cope. And finally, after getting abused all night long, he’d tell her, “Leave me alone you witch!” and off she run to the pastor waving the “abuse”word …who then called the husband and told him how wrong he was without ever investigating or dealing with the real issue: the affair.