The church can no longer take lightly the state of marriage in America. I have come to believe that on this issue we face nothing less than a mission-field situation.While we have never been a "Christian" country, our culture once generally accepted a Christian consensus on sexual morality, marriage, and divorce. That has changed completely.Immoral lifestyles, lax divorce laws, and our amoral media have combined to create a society that sees marriage as provisional rather than permanent. We now have a pattern that sociologists call "serial monogamy": an individual is married to one person at a time, but over a lifetime will have several consecutive marriage partners. This leads to situations almost as complex and difficult to resolve as those that faced missionaries to Asia or Africa when they encountered polygamy. Sometimes the destructive effects on the family—and children, in particular—are even worse.Because the church upholds standards vastly different from those of society, because conservative Christians are increasingly countercultural in convictions about marriage and divorce, it is time to think strategically. We need the mindset of the missionary. And we must be transcultural as well as countercultural, lest we lose an opportunity to shape and transform the standards of our culture.

Lessons from the field

When I was a missionary in India, the most complex problem was polygamy—what to do with a man who sought baptism but had more than one wife. I shall never forget the first time I baptized a man and his two wives. Even though Silas was the first convert from Hinduism and the one most responsible for winning almost the entire village to Christ, it was still a spiritual trauma to my biblically trained, evangelical, and—I now realize—culturally conditioned American conscience.I wrestled with how to proclaim the Christian gospel amidst a non-Christian culture while also lifting the patterns of the culture to Christian standards. If the church insisted on the Christian ideal of monogamy and required Silas to "get rid of" all but one wife, the only option in that culture for the other wives would be prostitution. In addition, destroying relation ships with children, in-laws, and a whole social network seemed to nullify the gospel message.The sanctified wisdom of the early missionaries in India had led almost all denominations to agree on a policy: They would take an absolutist stand against adultery, but would make a concession to existing polygamy by baptizing the husband along with his wives.This was only for first-generation Christians, however. Strict monogamous standards were applied to the next generation of believers. As a result, polygamy among Christians in India was almost wiped out in a relatively short time. Contrast this with Africa, where the majority of churches insisted that the man choose one wife and get rid of the rest. Many sincere believers were kept from seeking baptism, church growth was impeded, and little impact was made on the evils of polygamy. Only later did some groups (such as the Lutherans in Liberia) change their policies.What about the situation in America? Divorce and remarriage here also requires a missionary approach. Just as the polygamy of the Old Testament patriarchs was only reluctantly tolerated but never approved by God, we may need to think of divorce in the same way. Jesus explained Moses' divorce and remarriage regulations in Deuteronomy as concessions to people's "hardness of heart." His own "exception" clauses regarding "marital unfaithfulness" (Matthew 5:32; 19:9), and Paul's extension of Christ's principle to include desertion by an unbelieving partner (1 Corinthians 7:15), are all concessions to the incredible and irresolvable complications that can result from the impact of sin upon marriage relationships. None of these instances lowers God's standard or his perfect ideal for marriage. Rather, they reaffirm it, while making exceptions for certain situations. Why? Because sometimes, in this area of fallen human life, the most tragic consequence of sin is the loss of the option of ever achieving God's originally intended ideal. The concessions are to let God's mercy and grace redeem the situation as much as possible and create circumstances that will ultimately raise the culture's standards.Restoring Christian ideals of marriage and family within our present pagan American culture will require a unique combination of grace, adherence to biblical standards, and pastoral realism. The church must continue to teach, preach, model, and nurture the highest scriptural values of sexual morality, marriage, and family life. Because of the deadly and demonic effects of TV and other entertainment media, this will have to begin with the very young and continue at all age levels. We must underscore commitment to these ideals as an integral part of life in Christ. In this sense, we will create a moral and marital counterculture for the coming generation.My wife, Helen, and I have spent over 30 years in this kind of ministry. We have led over 1,200 couples through various forms of Marriage Preparation weekends. I have also given hundreds of hours to counseling hurting married couples. We have an extremely high view of marriage and will do everything possible to save or rebuild marriages.But because of the cultural situation, the church must go further. We cannot be content with sitting in ivory towers or standing behind insulated pulpits propounding the meaning of Bible verses on divorce and remarriage, turning them into precise laws that shut people out of our churches. Doing so assumes a moral, legal, and cultural consensus that no longer exists and is as ineffective for American serial monogamists as the hard-line approach was for African polygamists. It is time we recognize our mission-field situation. We must become deeply involved with those whose marriages have failed: the separated, the divorced, those contemplating remarriage, and remarried couples with struggling "blended" families. Without compromising scriptural standards, we must take the risk of asking the ultimate missionary question: How can we work with broken people and shattered marriages in this particular setting? How can we do it in ways that lead to repentance and forgiveness, that let people understand the sins and pathologies that destroyed their previous marriages, that help them make right choices if and when they remarry? Only then will families break the present generation's patterns of divorce, and thereby eventually cause culture to change.This article originally appeared in the December 14, 1992 issue ofChristianity Today.

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In that issue, we identified David Seamands as professor emeritus of pastoral ministries and counselor in residence at Asbury Seminary. He is also the author of several books, including Healing for Damaged Emotions.

Related Elsewhere

Other stories from the 1992 CT Institute on divorce and remarriage include:CT Institute: Divorce and Remarriage | An introduction to our 1992 series on what divorce means for families, churches, and our country. Sex, Marriage, and Divorce | Results from a 1992 Christianity Today reader's survey. By Haddon Robinson Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli | How Christian understanding about marriage has changed—and stayed the same—through history. By Michael Gorman Can One Become Two? | What Scripture says about Christians and divorce. By H. Wayne House Remarriage: Two Views | Two New Testament professors debate whether remarriage is acceptable for Christians. By Craig Keener and William A. Heth How Not to Fail Hurting Couples | We need a kind of shock therapy to become alert to missed opportunities. By Thomas Needham Becoming a Healing Community | How the church can develop a climate of help to the hurting.