1977 Marriage and Divorce

Marriage and Divorce

1977 Church of the Brethren Statement

Following the 1975 Annual Conference action on the paper presented by the Study Committee on The Ministry: Ordination and Family Life, a related action was taken as follows:

In a matter related to the concerns of the original committee, it was felt that the Church of the Brethren needed to take another look at the issues of divorce and remarriage as they applied to all persons, not just to ministers. It was decided to elect a committee of five to study divorce and remarriage. The persons elected are: Steve Reid, Helen Evans, Beth Glick-Rieman, John Gibble, and Robert Neff.

1976 Report of the Committee

The committee has met twice since receiving the assignment at the 1975 Annual Conference. Time has been used to assess the crucial areas, gather background information, read and study biblical materials and contemporary sources, and receive concerns of interested persons. We look forward to a hearing session at the Wichita Annual Conference.

The committee has not yet completed its task and asks for more time to prepare the written report which will be made to the 1977 Annual Conference.

Beth Glick-Rieman, Chairwoman; Helen Evans; John Gibble; Robert Neff; Stephen B. Reid

Action of 1976 Annual Conference

The report was presented by Beth Glick-Rieman, chairwoman of the committee. The request for an additional year of study was granted.

1977 Report of the Committee

I. Relationship in the Faith Community

As a committee, we reaffirm the policy set forth in the Divorce and Remarriage study document which was passed by Annual Conference in 1964, and has been attached to this committee’s report. We understand our task as one which addresses the role of the church as it faces the distressing circumstances of broken family relationships of pastors and lay persons alike. We see our primary focus as (1) encouraging the church to actively nurture marriages and families, and (2) exploring ways to deal with families who experience alienation, separation, and divorce. We found we could consider divorce and remarriage only in the context of what is meant by marriage. Our approach to our task has been to view marriage, divorce, and remarriage within the faith community. Although the focus of the paper is on married life, we affirm the wholeness of single life. The faith community is responsible for nurturing all members of the community, whether persons choose single or married life.

Families reflect the needs and crises of the society. No family is an island which can escape the demands and pressures of that society. Yet we in the church live with the mistaken idea that all that needs to be done is to strengthen the family as the fundamental building block of our life together. This mistaken perception asks too much of the family and adds to the burden of family life without providing the necessary context for its health and wellbeing. The key to strengthening both single and married life is the faith community.

God calls persons into a covenant community which informs the lifestyle and relationships of all those who hear that call. In the Old Testament the rules of social life are set within the framework of the covenant community (Ex. 19-24). Without this larger fellowship the individual or the family could not cope with life itself. In the New Testament Jesus sets marriage in the context of the kingdom (Matt. 19), which informs the character and structure of marriage. The stability and vitality of marriage and family life is the responsibility of the community of faith who provide the nurture and care for all human relationships. Before we could make statements about the family, marriage, divorce, or remarriage, we first needed to consider life in the body of Christ, the church. The health or lack of it in marriage reflects the health or lack of it in the fellowship of believers. The loss of contact between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister reflects our life as it is lived together in the faith community. The call to renewal and the strengthening of the family first comes to the church which should provide the nurture and care for the family.

Christian community witnesses to the character of life. At the heart of this relationship is a God-given love for one another and ourselves. This love reflects an unwavering care and trust for one another and requires a continuing self-giving to the other. This love is exemplified by Christ who gave everything for us. Growth comes when we have the security of knowing that we are unconditionally loved by another. When our relationship is bound by Christ, we feel accepted, loved and cared for. Love promotes growth.

Jesus’ life thrust was toward growth; he looked at people in terms of what they could become. Growth experiences are needed today in our inner lives, our marriages, our churches, and our world. Jesus said his purpose in coming was to enable us to find life “in all its fullness.” (John 10:10 NEB)

Our relationships can be authentic only when we honestly and openly share with one another our true thoughts and feelings. We have been called to speak the truth in love. There is a risk in personal honesty and in openly facing our own faults and feelings; when we begin to see and acknowledge our own shortcomings, we likewise become more accepting of others. At that point, we can truly begin a relationship freed from the barriers of mistrust and deception. Our relationships can then be rooted in the wholeness and perfection that Christ has brought to us.

We become free by knowing that Christ is alive within us and by choosing and receiving this bond of togetherness. For the Christian, authentic relationship has its roots in Christ. True freedom comes in the recognition of our relationship to God and our interdependence on each other. Freedom is accepting who we are, and whose we are in Christ.

We must acknowledge that we are called not to be perfect, but to strive for a Christlike perfection in our relationships. At the same time, we must know that God’s total and unconditional care and love for us is ever present. Only as we accept this gift of love can we truly pass it on to those around us.

Until we as individuals, as partners in marriage and as a community of believers are rooted in Christ, we cannot serve God or one another. For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1).

When we recognize this dimension of church life, we will avoid another pitfall, namely, retreating from the family or marriage which experiences crisis. If we truly follow the model of Jesus, the one who gives to the other in time of need, we will not back away from those who experience alienation in marriage or family life. The church often reinforces the feeling of rejection that families experience in crisis by separating itself from those who already feel hurt. Or the church and its representatives come in at the last moment to proclaim all participants guilty of sin, again reinforcing the sense of alienation and loss that persons have in crisis. Unless we have been with one another in the fullness of relationship, we are in no position to support or confront at the time of difficulty. The church as the faith community is called by God to provide the context of nurture for personal and family life. Without the day-by-day caring for one another, we will not be able to minister to one another in times of crisis in marriage.


In order to deepen the faith community and to work at personhood in relationship to the living Christ,

  1. Congregations, clusters of churches, and/or districts should provide growth experiences in the area of human relationships. This can be done through Bible study, study of books relative to relationship issues, retreats, workshops, small groups, and growth counseling.
    1. Study male/female relationships in terms of sex role stereotyping and liberation issues.
    2. Strengthen interpersonal communication through experiences designed to deal with intergenerational dialogue, family enrichment, marriage enrichment, communication skills, conflict management and values clarification.
    3. Foster relationships between single persons (including formerly married) and married persons in the life of the church.
    4. Encourage study of legislation that has a direct effect on relationships such as ERA, Welfare, etc.
  1. The faith community needs to address itself to the fundamental growth and relationship issues related to the sexual dimension of our lives. We urge the General Board to appoint a committee to address itself in a comprehensive way to the basic issues of human sexuality from a Christian perspective.

II. Marriage

A. A Theological View of Marriage

We affirm that all of creation is good. We further affirm that human beings have been created in the image of God. Therefore, we have the capacity to live in growing and meaningful relationships with others and with God. To do so is to fulfill the purpose of our creation. To have been created female and male with possibilities for creative union is a precious gift from God.

We are a covenant people. God’s covenant was made real to us in Christ. In our covenant relationships with each other, we are bound together by agreement and by the blessing of God. For the Christian, marriage is intended as a lifetime commitment to intimacy and continuing growth for both partners. Creative marriage has an enduring and covenantal quality.

Marriage as a lifelong commitment has the potential of being that arena of life in which the central truths of the Gospel of Christ may be discovered and lived out. Ideally, it becomes a relationship of creative growth, mutual support, communion and fellowship, dedication and commitment—that place in which both partners come to a realization of their potential as having been created in the image of God. As such, it is possible for marriage to become the most creative, productive, empowering and exciting relationship of all of one’s life. It is recognized, however, that marriage is only one way to wholeness of persons.

In marriage, what one partner does affects the other, so that there is need for commitment freely given and contracts clearly understood. In our day of rapid change in societal systems and social relationships, there is also need for continuing (perhaps frequent) renewal of that commitment and contract.

In making a social-legal contract, two persons agree on the terms and conditions, and are bound by these until they mutually agree to change them. If marriage is only a legal contract, it follows that it can be altered or revoked easily and with little struggle or questioning. For the Christian, marriage is seen from the deeper perspective of our potential as people of the Spirit. In the faith community, the legal contract is widened and deepened to include covenant commitment and lifelong meaning. In such a marriage, the fulfillment of each partner is dependent upon creative interaction and growthful interdependence.

Possessiveness and dependency are destructive of intimacy, and wholesome marriage cannot be achieved apart from the participation of each partner in the wider community. There is need in marriage for inter-action between friends, groups and events outside of the marriage. Forms and phrases which denote paternal possession, inequality of the sexes, and a narrow view of relationship should be deleted from the marriage celebration.

It is time to claim for marriage a wider vision of fidelity than that which focuses only or primarily on sexual expression. We need to think of fidelity in the biblical image of righteousness, as faithful and responsible commitment to one’s covenant with another and with God. Fidelity in that sense would be open, honest, responsible and caring action in relation to the uniqueness of the other and of the relationship.

The faith community can and must play a significant part in supporting and challenging individuals within the marriage. The church can provide the place in which assessment and renegotiation of the relationship can be achieved with a minimum of pain and hurt. The wedding service should incorporate and encourage the participation of the community of faith in the life of the couple. The church shall affirm its continuing relationship and involvement, establishing a climate in which the marriage can develop and grow.

There are several essential ingredients of a healthy marriage: trust; mutuality; respect and equality (shared decision-making); commitment, devotion and loyalty; nurture; freedom, flexibility and autonomy; clear communication, including open and honest confrontation and expression of positive and negative feelings; sexual pleasure; creative conflict management; and joy, fun and excitement. In a sense, these are the conditions within which it is possible for two people to grow into intimacy. Within these conditions, each partner is free to negotiate the problems that arise over the use of money, the use of time, role expectations, differing value systems, and the impingement of outside persons and activities upon their common life.

Wholesome marriage is a dynamic, changing, growing relationship, characterized by movement and vitality, by pain and struggle, and by reconciliation and peace.

B. Recommendations for Faith Community

  1. That the churches establish structures to assure a continuing relationship with marriages within their membership.
  2. That the marriage service be rewritten to delete archaic forms and phrases which denote paternalism, inequality of the sexes and a narrow view of relationship.
  3. That the service incorporate active participation of the faith community in the marriage celebration of the couple.

C. Barriers to Fulfillment in Marriage

No longer can the church assume that couples will remain married because of the expectations of the family, church, and community; they are likely to stay together in the future because their relationship is fulfilling to them as individuals and as a couple. In order to get a clearer picture of the church’s responsibility in helping couples achieve this kind of marriage, it is important to look first at some of the barriers to fulfillment in marriage.

There are crucial periods in the establishment of a stable marital relationship. In the initial period the couple must learn to carry out a new set of responsibilities and to achieve enough competence in them so that the needs of each are met. If they fail to understand these responsibilities, fail to make mutual decisions about them, are unwilling or unable to enact them effectively, then the marriage is never firmly established.

Sometimes because the two persons “go their separate ways,” an unhappy marriage appears to be a reasonably happy one. If the marriage takes care of physical comforts and community responsibilities, the couple may be content to maintain a marriage with which they are neither fully satisfied nor actively dissatisfied; they may accept the emotional drabness of their lives and never discuss or even think about divorce. The idea that marriage is a dynamic, constantly changing process of interaction has never occurred to many such husbands and wives, nor has the concept of “growing” their marriage to make it more vital.

There are two major obstacles to marital health to which the church can relate. The first is the taboo of privatism, a “protective” device which prevents a married couple from disclosing, even to another caring couple, what is going on inside their marriage. The resulting frustration commonly leads a man to talk to men, a woman to women, about how unreasonable their mates are. Such sharing, even in organized groups, may tend to make the problems bigger and less manageable. There are good reasons for adhering to the taboo of privatism. Marriage is an intimately personal relationship. However, strict maintenance of the taboo deprives couples of the help and support they might receive from one another. Often couples feel enormous relief to discover in the context of a caring and supportive community of couples, that other couples experience many of the same struggles which they had felt were uniquely their own. Consequently they are freed to face and work on those issues in their relationship.1

The second, and perhaps the most important obstacle to marital health today is the myth of naturalism, which has deceived us into believing that people who marry “just naturally know how to live together happily.” Naturalism obscures the fact that marriage is the most complex relationship any two people will ever have, for which they usually receive less preparation than for driving a car, and to which they usually give less creative attention annually than they give to their job weekly. In many fields, our nation is proud of its continuing education, refresher courses, and on-the-job training. Naturalism has kept us from educating in marriage for creative use of conflict, ability to communicate and knowledge of human sexuality.2

Relationships are as intricate as machines and as difficult to keep in running order. Because of the myths and taboos surrounding marriage we have failed to provide support and education for married and engaged couples. Churches have been as negligent as our schools and the whole society.

There are numerous other factors which are contributing to the breakdown of marriages:

  • Many have married for the wrong reasons: to escape from home, for financial and emotional security, overemphasis on sexual attraction, premarital pregnancy, romantic notions, unrealistic expectations, etc.
  • Many have been pressured by friends or family and have been led to think they must marry and have children in order to be moral, normal and/or Christian. Some are not mentally and emotionally capable of living a normal married life or being parents. Others do not have the interest or willingness to assume the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood.
  • Some have married at too young an age.
  • Many of us have thought we must fill all of each other’s needs, enjoy all the same friends, etc. This concept has contributed to our failure to understand that differences in emotions, beliefs, and preferences are inevitable and to be expected.
  • During the lifetime of a typical marriage, couples move through a number of distinct stages which are characterized by special problems and tasks; these have led to crises of various intensities for which couples frequently have had little preparation or help.
  • We have failed to realize the importance of self-esteem in the marriage.
  • Crisis points have been thought to be reason for divorce rather than opportunities for growth.
  • Rather than encouraging the use of conflict as a means for growth of the relationship, we have encouraged avoidance or denial.
  • Rigid gender-roles have resulted in the belief that certain roles are for one sex or the other, regardless of the individual’s competence or preference.
  • Many of us have failed to expect a mate to change through the years.
  • Conflicting interpretations of the biblical messages on the man-woman relationship have led to difficulty for many couples.
  • Human sexuality has been shrouded in misinformation.
  • Many persons have been unable to express their feelings, both positive and negative.
  • The support from the extended family has been lessened and we have not developed support systems to take its place.
  • There is much misunderstanding and misuse of men’s/women’s liberation issues.
  • People are living longer, are spending more years in marriage; there are fewer children, and less attention is diverted to child care. These factors have contributed to difficulties that previously were not present for most couples in the later married years.

D. Recommendations

1. Congregations and/or districts should provide a variety of experiences, both instructional and experiential, so that each engaged and each married couple can lower the barriers in their relationship and create a fulfilling marriage. There are numerous ways to nurture marriages, such as marital growth groups, instructional programs about marriage, study groups, elective church school classes, workshops, retreats, etc. Following is a list of suggestions for possible activities:

  • Long range preparation for marriage—beginning with youth before they are approaching marriage
  • Preparation for marriage experiential activities (held frequently enough so that each couple has opportunity to attend before marriage)
  • Growth-oriented pre-wedding counseling for each individual couple
  • Growth groups bringing engaged couples together with couples who have satisfying marriages.
  • Post-wedding counseling with each individual couple (3 or 4 sessions over a period of a year or two)
  • Marriage Enrichment for the newly married
  • Bible study classes for spiritual enrichment and growth for couples
  • Couples’ spiritual growth weekend retreats
  • Marriage Enrichment retreats at regular intervals for couples of varied ages
  • Human sexuality seminars for couples
  • Workshops on conflict management and utilization
  • Communication skills workshops
  • Human awareness events
  • Prospective parents enrichment groups
  • Young parents enrichment groups
  • Parent-teen communication workshops (parent-child)
  • Family clusters
  • Family enrichment events
  • Workshops for developing parenting skills
  • “Middle-married” enrichment retreats
  • “Empty-nest” enrichment weekends
  • Creative retirement education for couples
  • Ongoing Marriage Enrichment such as can be provided through the Association of Couples for Marriage Enrichment (ACME) with which Life Cycle Ministries is affiliated.
    (At the present time a new and promising program for nurturing marriages in the Church of the Brethren is called Marriage Enrichment. It is a weekend experience led by a couple who have been trained to co-lead a variety of experiences. This couple should receive training in programs sponsored by or approved by Life Cycle Ministries. Marriage Enrichment grows out of the Brethren biblical framework. It is not for troubled marriages, but is designed to build on the strengths and successes of the marriage. It does not employ “encounter group” tactics or sensitivity training.)

2. Each pastor andnurture commission should have an up-to-date list of competent and certified counselors so that no couple goes without counseling because they do not know where to find a counselor.

3. New initiatives and approaches need to be taken in order to implement the above activities, such as the following:

  1. Congregations are urged to make time available, even on weekends if necessary, for the pastoral couple’s own marriage enrichment, even though the marriage is apparently already strong. This time should not be taken from vacation time or professional growth time. Nor should this imply that the pastor and spouse have serious problems in their marriage.
  2. Pastoral couples are encouraged to seek training to co-lead marital growth events in local congregations. (Seminary and/or post-seminary training.)
  3. Districts are encouraged to appoint (through their Nurture Commissions) a married couple who will promote marriage enrichment on the district and local level. In order to fulfill their task, this couple should receive training for Marriage Enrichment activities as well as learning how to promote a variety of marital growth events. Life Cycle Ministries is available to provide such training and can work with these couples to provide resources and ongoing support.
  4. Congregations are encouraged to select a married couple to promote marital growth activities in the local church, seeking help and resources from their district and/or from Life Cycle Ministries. In order to fulfill their task they should be aware of marital growth possibilities through participation in a variety of activities including a Marriage Enrichment Weekend.

III. Divorce and Remarriage

A. Divorce

When we view marriage as a covenantal relationship, the legal implications of a divorce are ultimately of lesser consequence. If a couple determines that divorce is the only solution to their marital stress, the civil law provides the means for this. But the Christian community must understand that this law can deal only with the civil contract and not with the implications of a broken covenant. We must realize that there are binding aspects of the covenant that will always be with those who entered into the relationship. There is no way to withdraw the effect one person has had and continues to have upon another—in this sense there is no such thing as divorce.

To apply the biblical texts on divorce legalistically is to deny the spirit and tone of Christ’s teaching. We all fall short of the expectations of God for us, but the gospel provides a way to confess our failure and find forgiveness. “. . . the church does have a word beyond judgment to announce to those caught in divorce . . .” (—Eugene F. Roop, “Brethren Life and Thought,” Summer, 1976).

To point to divorce as the “problem” is to fail to realize that, as a church, we must focus our attention on the breakdown of the marriage relationship, whether or not that breakdown results in divorce. In dealing with brokenness the church is called upon to help the husband and wife to comprehend the interpersonal dynamics involved in their relationship and move toward forgiveness and understanding. This can best be brought about through counseling. The church should assume more responsibility at this point, either in providing counseling or referring the couple to qualified counselors. Most divorcing persons need and want the support of their pastors. Some pastors have had special training and are good counselors; it is important, however, that a pastor feel free to refer persons for counseling.

After a thorough exploration of the factors involved in their relationship, including an acceptance of their individual responsibility for the brokenness, and in light of their faith, a couple may decide that the most responsible action for them is to separate rather than to continue to live in a broken and increasingly destructive relationship. In some cases the well-being of all family members requires the legal termination of the relationship through divorce.

When it seems impossible to restore wholeness to the relationship, referral can be made so that divorce counseling can be obtained. Comprehensive divorce counseling includes pre-divorce, divorce, post-divorce, and “grief work” counseling. Divorce counseling is a therapeutic process by which those who are experiencing the trauma of divorce can be helped toward personal growth and adjustment; the techniques vary from supportive to intensive therapy.

The general goal of divorce counseling is to provide the couple with insight into their personal and marital conflicts so that they can deal more responsibly with the problems involved in the dissolution of the marriage. The “grief work” of divorce is the process of looking at and handling one’s feelings in relation to the important loss that has occurred. Divorce counseling is a means of providing a growth-producing experience for the individuals; this too often has not been the case in the typical legal processing of the divorce. However, legal advice is necessary and the church should also be able to recommend competent and sensitive attorneys. The task of individual church members is to surround the divorcing persons with love and concern. Divorce as a tragedy is not to be judged, but is to be seen with sorrow and compassion. It is hurtful to take sides. Our best efforts are to be concentrated in helping those who are suffering through divorce to find forgiveness and healing.

It is basic to our faith that suffering need not be destructive. By the grace of God redemption and forgiveness can become the means to a new life. That’s what death and resurrection are all about. It is important for divorced persons to stop blaming themselves for past failures, to move beyond feelings of humiliation, and once again to value themselves as persons of worth.

The church has not always responded to divorce helpfully. Congregations are encouraged to discover ways in which the church can support, sustain, and redeem the brokenness of the people involved. The faith community needs a way to relate to the couple meaningfully in the context of their corporate life and common faith. It is important that the couple be given opportunities to affirm the positive aspects of the broken marriage, make confession, ask forgiveness, and recognize their continuing responsibility to any children.

B. The Remarriage

The 1964 decision of the church regarding remarriage was that there is “freedom to enter a new marriage with the guidance and blessing of the church.” We reaffirm this decision and urge members of the church to be loving rather than judgmental with regard to remarriage, both of the laity and the clergy.

Remarriage is a reality in our society. It does, however, carry trauma with it and some new problems for the divorced persons. It does not in any way hinder reconciliation and the building of a new and different relationship with the previous spouse. Such reconciliation is important to the future of the new marriage.

The church is responsible for those persons who remarry after divorce in all the ways it is responsible for those who marry for the first time. The remarrying couple, of course, will have additional issues resulting from the relationship to the former spouse and to the children from the former marriage, so that the issues may be more complex. Therefore the church’s responsibilities include all those listed in the marriage and divorce sections of this report. In addition, help is needed to establish the new relationship in such a way that it will not be hampered and unduly strained because of unresolved problems left over from the previous marriage.

C. Recommendations

1. For Ministry to Divorcing Persons

  1. Provide short term emergency child care, financial aid, transportation, housing, etc., if needed.
  2. Maintain an up-to-date list of those persons in the community who are qualified through professional training and experience, and who can provide counseling in these areas:
    1. Divorce counseling (see definition in section III.A)
    2. Parenting
    3. Financial
    4. Legal
    5. Spiritual (dealing with faith, doubt, guilt, loss of self-esteem, etc.)
    6. Counseling for children of divorced parents
  3. Establish support groups for personal, emotional and spiritual support during the time of stress and continuing as long as needed and/or desired. Provide opportunities for singles to meet with all members of the faith community, both married and single.

Provide workshops and/or structured programs of education for the purpose of:

  1. Helping divorced persons m