Pastors and Christian Counselors Weigh In on Domestic Abuse, Divorce, and Building Marriages in a Culture of Marital and Familial Breakdown

For most sincere Christians, hesitancy abounds as to whether it is ever permissible to recommend divorce. 

Yet many Christians found it appalling that one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s leading figures, Paige Patterson, said that he never counseled couples to get a divorce even in abusive situations (though he advised temporary separation in severe cases).

In the wake of the controversy surrounding Patterson’s comments as well as the #metoo movement — exposing the epidemic of sexual misconduct and domestic abuse — that began escalating last fall, The Christian Post spoke with an Illinois pastor, a marriage counselor, and a Methodist layman who facilitates DivorceCare in his church to find out how they advise couples who are having marital problems.

They addressed Scripture, relational dynamics, and the challenges and general messiness of ministering in a culture ravaged by abuse, divorce, and family disintegration.

Illinois Pastor on Scripture misunderstandings and connecting with the heart of God

Neil Schori, 42, who pastors a Edge Church in Aurora, Illinois, believes Christians hesitate when it comes to when divorce is allowed partly because of the high rate of divorce in the U.S.

“We rightfully have a concern as Christians, who are called to forgiveness and reconciliation, and it makes a lot of sense that we would be contending for marriage. I think where it gets a little skewed is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding scripturally, about what God calls our marriages to be,” he told CP.

In addition to misunderstanding, a misapplication of Scripture often appears on this issue, he explained.

While most evangelical Christians will sincerely say they want to be people who live by what the Bible says, a “deeper dive into the text” is needed to examine the intent of the author and its context, Schori stressed.

“We can say we are orthodox believers, that this is orthodoxy, but we often forget about orthopraxy. If we don’t understand in a deep way, in a way that truly connects with the heart of God and His heart for people, then the way we live that out, our orthopraxy, will be flawed as well.

“And I think what happened for many is that we are holding people hostage that Jesus wants to set free.”

For many Christians, the only permissibility for a divorce that Jesus approved of is found in Matthew 19, when the teachers of the law confronted Him about it directly.

Usually when people ask Schori about divorce, they are doing so from a personal place, he said.

But it is vital to remember that when asked this question, people are not looking for a cut and dry “Bible Answer Guy” kind of response because “usually there is a question behind the question,” he noted.

“Pastors will say things like ‘Well, Jesus said that the only way you could get divorced is if there is [marital] unfaithfulness, if there is adultery,” he said.

Yet Jesus often artfully answered the question behind the question, the Illinois pastor continued.

“What Jesus was referring to, He was actually responding to a newer idea that had been going on several decades and it was this idea that a particular sect of the Pharisees had, basically, kind of what we do today. They wanted to make things easier [to divorce]. They didn’t want people to have to feel ashamed in court, and they essentially said ‘hey, we’re going to look at the Old Testament and we’re going to make it mean what we want it to mean.'”

That is not different than what many Christians do today, who cherry-pick something and say that it could mean this or that, he continued. These Pharisees did so with regard to divorce in their day, giving the men a more favorable interpretation at the time, that is, “the idea that any reason for divorce was reason for divorce.”

“They took Deuteronomy 24 and they focused on the word ‘any’ and said ‘Oh, so what God means is that if a man just decides that he wants to be divorced, that is a cause in and of itself.'”

Jesus, being aware of what was going on within the them, affirmed the other Pharisees in their traditional take of the Old Testament.

“What Christians forget today is that Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Testament. He came to fulfill it. The Old Testament gave very, very clear teachings on what was expected within a marriage,” he said, pointing to the requirements listed in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 24, expectations affirmed and expounded upon by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.

“Just because Jesus didn’t address those particular issues that were brought to Him doesn’t mean He was negating what was widely accepted Old Testament teaching straight from God.”

Schori made a point to disagree with Andy Stanley’s recent sermon that Christians need to “unhitch” their beliefs from the Old Testament and focus more on the New Testament.

“It is important for us to say: What is true of the whole of Scripture? And then give counsel on that foundation.”

Schori once had an experience that no amount of seminary could have prepared him for. A “baptism by fire,” he calls it. He was the pastor of Stacy Ann Peterson, whose husband turned out to be a murderer.

While on staff at a church in Bolingbrook, Illinois, Schori was the counseling pastor focusing mainly on pastoral care. After one Sunday service in late 2005, Peterson approached him for marriage counseling. They ended up meeting several times, together with her husband on a few occasions, and separately on others. He soon realized their marriage was an extremely unhealthy relationship. Her husband was approximately 30 years older than she was and he was deeply controlling and manipulative, though he never physically abused her. This was, as Schori described it, a crash course in learning the breadth and depth of what domestic violence is.

In August 2007, Stacy Peterson called Schori with what sounded like an emergency. They agreed to meet at a Starbucks and after about 30 minutes of chatting, she told him “he did it.”

She went on to explain that her husband had recently murdered his previous wife.

“I said ‘Stacy, what do you want me to do with this information?’ And the reason I asked it like that was because she was married to a high-ranking police officer. And he had officers following her.”

In fact, that very day a local police officer slowly passed by them as they were finishing up at Starbucks.

He told her, “You live with him, so I don’t want to be presumptuous to say what you should do since you’re the one who has to live with this man.”

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Brandon Showalter