"Thanks for recognizing that we're not the church’s dirty little problem."
“John, what do you mean?” I asked.
"I just never thought I could go back to church again, after the divorce and all. And to top it off, I went and got remarried. Everyone at church knows my past and it just feels like we’re considered second class or something."
John’s statement captures the spiritual struggle of many Christian stepfamily adults. Some truly feel like they are "the church’s dirty little problem” because of guilt over decisions or actions that contributed to a divorce. Others are treated as though they live in a “less than whole” family situation” by those who have not experienced divorce themselves.
The result? Too often an overwhelming feeling of unworthiness. One that creates spiritual barriers that distance remarried couples and stepfamilies from God’s healing power.
Christian stepfamily adults are often caught in a holding pattern around God and His church, unable to touch down in His love. Is it any wonder that ministry in a local church can be so challenging?
I responded to John's sense of spiritual guilt and shame by suggesting that even though he didn't live in an "ideal” family configuration, he wasn't a second-class Christian in God's kingdom. In our own way, each of us has fallen short of God’s glory, and each of us needs His grace. God's plan of one man and one woman in marriage for life does bring greater harmony to the home, but living in an intact family does not determine worth in God's eyes, nor ability to receive God’s forgiveness.
I reminded John of the truth about many of the characters of the Bible who were men of great faith, but whose families were far less than ideal. For example, look at Abraham. He lied on two occasions, saying Sarah wasn't his wife. He was afraid for his life so he publicly disowned her. Now that’s not behavior you’ll find encouraged in your local men’s ministry.
As women living in a multiple-marriage household, Sarah and Hagar fought over which of their sons would be the most important in Abraham's family. Much like a modern-day stepfamily, there was jealousy, bitter rivalries, and loyalty conflicts between Abraham and his two wives (see Gen. 16 & 21). And the problems didn't stop with his generation.
If we analyze the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, often referred to as the Family of Promise, we see power struggles, family secrets, exploitive and coercive relationships, marital game-playing, manipulation, and parent-child alliances for selfish reasons.
The dysfunction continues to mushroom through the family of David, who is called a "man after God's own heart,” but whose household included a premeditated murder to cover an affair, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a son who replicates his father's disgrace by raping his half sister, and a brother who avenges her humiliation by murdering his brother.
I pointed out to John that God loves stepfamilies and the individuals who live in them, too. Apparently you can have a less-than-ideal family and still be acceptable to God. John was beginning to feel a little better about his current stepfamily.
Forgiveness and redemption for all
Stepfamilies and church leaders alike need to understand this critical message: There are no second-class citizens in God's kingdom simply because there are no first class citizens. We're all just sinners in need of a Savior. If God could use imperfect men like Abraham and David with complicated family households for His purposes, why can't He use people in stepfamilies? If God can bring redemption to the houses of Isaac and Jacob, can't He bring redemption to yours?
The exciting message of the cross is this: God loves and forgives the imperfect people in stepfamilies just like He does the imperfect people in biologically intact families. He is ready, willing, and able to welcome stepfamilies into righteousness. The only question is: Will you step up to receive his forgiveness? Will you step up to renew your relationship with Him or remain paralyzed by your guilt and shame?
His door is always open ... step on in.
How your church can communicate grace and redemption:
- Acknowledge the stepfamily experience from the pulpit. For example, at Mother’s Day honor “mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, etc.” This communicates an awareness of their presence and validates their acceptability to your church.
- Don’t force stepfamilies to tell their story when they first visit your church. They might already fear judgment; allow them to share once they belong.
- Address the common challenges of stepfamily life when conducting general parenting or marriage sermons and classes. Expect that 20-30% of your audience could be living in a stepfamily.
Messages to avoid (they inadvertently communicate a “second class” perspective toward stepfamilies):
- Refusing to let all divorced people participate in church ministries. The message is this, “You’re good enough to be a member and we trust that you’ll tithe each week, but you can’t teach fourth grade Bible class. You’ll still get into heaven some day, but you can’t serve here.”
- Teaching God’s design for marriage without also teaching His grace to receive those who have divorced.
- Penalizing children for not attending Sunday school each week when their visitation requires them to be elsewhere on a regular basis.
If you’re worried being a bad example to your children:
Not all stepfamilies are the result of sinful behavior of the adults, but frankly some are. If you or your ex’s life choices have not been the best model for your children, try the following:
© 2008 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.
- Don’t create a false past while trying to hide your sin. Acknowledge your choices and use them as teaching opportunities to share with your children your regrets and how you now see the wisdom of God’s admonition that we avoid sin.
- If your ex-spouse is the poor example, resist the temptation to him or her as “evil” to your children, but feel the freedom to speak the truth about the past. As children mature give them more expansive doses of truth, but do so with a gentle and compassionate spirit. Never try to alienate them from the other parent (this makes you appear hypocritical). Be sure to discuss the role of forgiveness in your situation.
- If your ex-spouse continues a sinful lifestyle, teach biblical values and model a faith perspective to life. With your children, pray for their other parent. Over time gently try to influence the other home toward the Lord.