Previous article in this series: April 1, 2009, p. 292.

Marriage is the God-ordained institution that bonds one man and one woman for life. God determined that this unique relationship of love and fellowship would picture His glorious covenant of grace between God and His chosen people in Christ. The wickedness of man has developed to the point that man despises this fundamental relationship, this “creation ordinance.” In Western countries, and increasingly about the world, divorce is common and acceptable—if young couples even bother to get married.

God is not mocked. Man pays the price for this rank rebellion—the heaviest of which is the oft denied and covered up price, namely, the toll on children.

The last editorial highly recommended two books that describe the effects of divorce on children. The first is Child of Divorce, Child of God: A Journey of Hope and Healing by Kristine Steakley. The second, written by Elizabeth Marquardt, is Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. The recommendation is not an unqualified endorsement of everything they contain. The latter book is by an unbeliever. The former is written by a believer who does not share the Protestant Reformed Churches’ conviction that Scripture forbids the remarriage of divorced persons so long as the spouse is living.

Yet both women, themselves children of divorce, strongly oppose divorce due to the damage perpetrated on children. They document their shared conviction that all children of divorce are deeply affected by divorce. They reject the notion that a divorce can be “good” or that some kinds of divorces do not scar the children for life. Divorce is permanently life altering for the children. They do not simply “get over” the divorce of their parents.

It is worth our while to consider some specific ways that divorce does damage to children.

First of all, a child of divorce has an inner life of turmoil and uncertainty hidden from the casual observer. Not only is the initial breakup of his or her parents’ marriage earthshaking for the child, but divorce causes a restructuring of childhood. The children grow up in two worlds, which “creates endless and often painful complications for the child” (Two Worlds, 21). Marquardt describes one such complication arising out of the fact that children resemble their parents.

As children of divorce, we became insiders and outsiders in each of our parents’ worlds. We were outsiders when we looked or acted like our other parent or when we shared experiences in one world that people in the other knew little or nothing about. And, in a powerful piece of symbolism, we could also have a different last name. By contrast, we were marked as insiders by whatever traits we shared with the family members in one world—physical characteristics, personality, and name—as well as the experiences we shared with that family. We always had at least some traits and experiences in common with the family in each world. Yet because we grew up living in two worlds we never fully belonged in either place. At any moment, without warning, one of our distinguishing traits could mark us as an outsider” (21, 22).

Steakley likewise reminds divorced parents:

Biologically, half of our DNA comes from the other parent. When you criticize our other parent, we feel the sting ourselves. We fear that, along with our freckles and the ability to curl our tongue, we might have inherited the dishonesty or slovenliness or whatever it is you comment on each time our other parent’s name comes up in the conversation (Child of Divorce, 163-4).

Marquardt reminds us that when two become one in marriage, two lives, or worlds, come together. Every husband and wife knows how very difficult it is to bring these two lives together. Some couples have a more difficult time than others of welding these two lives together. But everyone recognizes that it is the parents’ job to make one life out of the two. However, with a divorce, the two parents are no longer trying to resolve differences between their two lives. In fact, their lives become increasingly diverse. This will be particularly true when one of the parents is a believer, and the other turns his back on the faith.

Consider what this means for children who are shuttled back and forth between these two worlds. They must figure out the different rules in each home and try to adapt. They must try to remember what “secrets” from the other home they should conceal, and what is acceptable to reveal. They wonder whether they look or act too much like dad, or mom. The children are forced to adjust themselves to both parents, shaping habits and beliefs to imitate the particular parent with whom they are living at the moment.

The believing child has the added dimension of seeking to live the antithesis in a home that allows and perhaps promotes ungodliness. At every visit to the home of the unfaithful parent, choices have to be made, mind you, by a child, of whether to go along with watching the movie that the parent watches, or turn from it. And should he go home and tell the believing parent of the ungodly entertainment that the unfaithful parent provided, or keep it to himself to minimize the dreaded conflict between father and mother?

Imagine the turmoil in the soul of the child! Children learn their beliefs and lifestyle from their parents. But what a warfare goes on in the soul of a child when the parents are divorced and teaching conflicting beliefs and morality! And how Satan must work in such a little one.

Children of divorce are also forced into the role of adult much younger than children in intact families. This arises partly out of the terrifying experience of seeing one or both parents scared or hurt. In a strange kind of role reversal, the children often try to protect their parents from anything else that would distress or hurt them. They pretend that they are fine, and that they are able to handle the turmoil. They become quite independent, often being left home alone for long periods of time. Many are model children—well behaved, kind, and amazingly mature. Marquardt, however, gives the perspective of children of divorce: “We might look ‘fine’ to everyone else, but talk to us about our inner lives and you will find, just beneath the surface, a potent mix of loss and confusion that haunts us to this day” (39).

She also makes this perceptive comment. “Children have to grow up too fast for all kinds of reasons: poverty, or a parent who dies or has a chronic illness. But divorce is different. Children know that it’s the result of at least one parent’s choice” (34).

One of the most horrendous legacies of divorce is the abuse it fosters. Writes Marquardt,

Tragically, it is well documented that children are at significantly greater risk of abuse after their parents’ divorce. More than seventy reputable studies document that an astonishing number—anywhere from one-third to one-half—of girls with divorced parents report having been molested or sexually abused as children, most often by their mothers’ boyfriends or stepfathers. A separate review of forty-two studies found that “the majority of children who were sexually abused…appeared to come from single-parent or reconstituted families.” Two leading researchers in the field conclude: Living with a stepparent has turned out to be the most powerful predictor of severe child abuse yet.”

Clearly God judges this wicked perversion of His will concerning marriage. God hates divorce, but man will pursue his lusts regardless that he does lifelong damage to his most precious earthly possession—his own children.

That the world of the ungodly ignores the judgment of God on their lifestyle and continues to divorce is to be expected. But it is unthinkable that the churchwould allow this reckless destruction of marriages, if only for the sake of the children. Nevertheless, both of these books demonstrate that by and large this is exactly what the church is doing.

The church of Rome loudly proclaims that she prohibits divorce. Less well known is the fact that Rome rather easily grants annulments of marriage. That is convenient for the adults who refuse to keep their oaths of marriage, and it is clean and neat for the church. But what does this do to the children of divorce (annulment)? One such child responded, “That is something that I don’t think I have really come to grips with. In college I touched on it a bit because once I learned what annulment meant I thought it was ridiculous. I said, ‘How can I not exist? If the marriage didn’t exist, who am I? What am I?'” (Two Worlds, 152).

Kristine Steakley rightly criticizes churches that, in her experience, did not give solid teaching on divorce from Scripture. After describing the confusing array of views on divorce and remarriage found in various Protestant churches, she wrote,

Making matters worse, none of this teaching came from the pulpit. Sure, if you scheduled an appointment with the pastor, he would be happy to sit down and discuss what the Bible has to say about divorce. But teaching from the pulpit on the subject of divorce was conspicuously absent (Child of Divorce, 151).

She points out the obvious, namely, that Scripture is hardly silent on the subject of divorce.

Her most pointed criticisms are of churches that are tolerant of divorce. One passage in particular is most instructive.

If one segment of the church is too quick to condemn and exclude families in which a divorce has taken place, another segment is perhaps too welcoming. There is a fine line between a “come as you are” mentality and an “anything goes” standard of behavior. 

The “anything goes” philosophy sounds good when we are the sinner receiving abundant grace over and over again. Such cheap grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed it, is shallow and detrimental to spiritual growth, but it feels good to be able to do whatever we want under the cover of forgiveness. Paul anticipated such a response when he taught about the magnificent grace of God in his letter to the Romans: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!”

Rom. 6:1-2.

Churches should be places of grace, but sometimes they become places where grace is used to excuse sin. Pastors may even encourage divorce for people in unhappy marriages. That’s what happened in the family of Rob Evans. Evans has his own line of Christian CDs and videos for kids, setting Bible stories to music as the Donut Man. He appears in churches all over the United States and Canada, singing his songs and teaching children about God. There was a time, though, when Evans was not a churchgoer. In an interview with National Catholic Register, Evans said, “When my parents divorced when I was 6, the church in Paoli (Penn.) told [my mother] that divorce might be the best thing for her in this situation because she found ‘true love’ with another man and that she had her whole life ahead of her. The church did not fight for the unity of our family…. So we stopped going to church.” 

Churches that take a lax view of divorce—allowing it for trivial reasons or even encouraging individuals to seek divorce outside of biblical parameters—not only corrupt grace, they hurt the children of divorce. They cheapen marriage, making it disposable, and in the process tell the children of divorce that what happened was perfectly fine and normal and sometimes just happens when grownups cannot get along. This is a wholly unsatisfying answer to a child, teenager or adult whose family has just been ripped in two. 

When the church fails to hold us to a higher standard—whether in business dealings, sexuality, marriage or any other facet of life—we lose what makes the church distinctive. God tells us again and again in Scripture that we are set apart and holy, and that we are to live holy lives. We need the help of the church in this quest. We need pastors and church leaders who will call us to be holy and who will let us know when our lives are meandering outside the boundaries of holiness. We need shepherds who are willing to tend the flock and keep us in the fold, not letting us wander aimlessly around the mountainside peering over cliffs and into lions’ dens. 

Addressing the sin in our lives is an acknowledgment of our brokenness. We are fundamentally broken before God. Our relationship with him has been severed by sin, and only his grace can restore it. Any child of divorce will tell you about the brokenness of a family torn apart. We even use the term “broken home” to talk about divorce. We do not come from “a home where things just did not work out” or “a home different from other people’s homes.” We come from broken homes. Sweeping divorce under the rug of grace and embracing everyone without telling them about God’s requirement of holiness minimizes the brokenness that children of divorce feel when they look at their families (152-154).

This casual attitude toward divorce is exactly what the Standard Bearer has inveighed against for years. The rampant divorce rate among “evangelical churches” indicates that God’s judgment rests on the churches that take this tolerant view of divorce. And this tolerant attitude means that the church is unable to condemn even such sins as adultery, desertion, remarriage (of guilty or innocent parties), and more. In such churches, the covenant of God is profaned, and the children are damaged, even spiritually destroyed.

In the face of this, the church of Christ has a high calling. Christ demands that she preach the full truth on marriage and divorce, and in this way also set forth real hope for the children of divorce.

… to be continued.