Good ministry flows from good theology. We start with the Word of God and then figure out how to love those around us and share His truth. Good ministry to stepfamilies must also begin with good theology.
Many blended families are formed after the death of a spouse (a child’s parent). Most occur when one or both partners break their promise to love, honor, and cherish the other. Breaking a marital vow is sinful. (Note that the breaking of vows happens while we’re still married; occasionally this leads to divorce.) Most ministry leaders have no objection to ministering to blended families formed following the death of a spouse, but when a divorce and remarriage has occurred, what are we to do? How does the church respond? And how are we to think about helping under these circumstances?
Again, good ministry should flow from good theology. So, let’s begin with some Biblical underpinnings to ministry with individuals and families with less than ideal family narratives.
Mercy and Grace: Theological Underpinnings of Ministry to Blended Families
Sin is messy. Don’t you agree? It leaves a wake of spiritual, relational, economic, social, and physical consequences, and on and on. One sin is all it took and humanity and the earth were changed forever. One sin, and Adam and Eve were cast out. One sin, and they put on clothes. They immediately converted from “naked and unashamed” to “clothed and hiding” (and we’ve been hiding from one another and God ever since). One sin, and the trajectory of mankind shifted from humble, transparent fellowship with God, to prideful hostility toward God. From sharing life with others, to striving to dominate.
Sin is messy! But it is no match for God’s unfathomable grace in Christ.
You see, the meta-narrative of Scripture is a love story about a God who goes to great lengths to pursue reconciliation with his messed-up creation. Just one sin, and God immediately begins pursuing Adam and Eve. Satan leaves them, but God pursues them. “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) He moves toward the sinful.
And He keeps moving toward the sinful. God moves toward Cain and cautions him against sinning against his brother. Through Noah He moves toward all humanity. Through Abraham He establishes a covenant of grace. But the pursuit continues, through Jacob, through Joseph, through Moses, through the kings, the judges, the prophets, and ultimately through one member of the Trinity that would give up His glory to become a man, teach us about what it is to be Kingdom people, and die an agonizing death while carrying the weight of our sin.
Sin is messy.
But if you only look at the sin story of Scripture, you do two things: First, you miss the love story of God. You see the “trees” of sin, but you miss the “forest” of God’s passionate pursuit of the creation He loves. And second, you begin to focus on the law instead of grace. The natural trajectory of theology that only focuses on the commands of God is one of legalism. But that wasn’t what Jesus did. John 1:14-17 tells us Jesus was full of grace and truth.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth … For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
What did this combination of grace and truth look like? He ate with sinners and prostitutes. He goes to the home of Zacchaeus (see Luke 19) before Zacchaeus has shown any signs of repentance. Peter denies Jesus three times in John 18, and in John 21 Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Through the conversation, Jesus conveys Peter is forgiven and he is restored as a leader.
Wait. What is that? Was it somehow okay that Peter denied him?
And then there’s the woman at the well in John 4. A woman with a sordid past who has been thirsty for love—and looking for love in all the wrong places. She’s now given up on marriage, choosing rather to cohabit with a man.
And what does Jesus do? He points to her relational thirst to show her what she’s really thirsty for only He can give her. He doesn’t shame or embarrass her because of her past, He looks through it to see her thirst—and her potential—and shows her mercy. The next thing we know, she’s an ambassador for the King.
(Before continuing, it’s worth noting that in John 3, John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the ultimate Bridegroom. And then in chapter 4 we meet a woman desperately looking for a bridegroom. She has had six lovers so far, six being the imperfect number in Scripture. Then she meets Jesus, her perfect Bridegroom, perfect number seven! The message from John is unmistakable: Jesus is the ultimate “husband” for the world.)
But in receiving this woman as His bride, is Jesus saying her past is okay? Her serial marriages and broken promises are excused? Is John’s broader message in this story that anyone is marriage material? Anyone?
And what about the woman caught in adultery in John 8? She is a sinner caught in the act. Justice should be served. Pick up a rock! But after reminding the scribes and Pharisees of their sin, Jesus lets her go.
Wait. What message does that send? It’s okay to commit adultery? Doesn’t mercy belittle the law? Won’t others see this and think, “Ah, I can commit adultery, too, and get away with it?”
Maybe you recognize the “slippery-slope” mentality here. Apparently, Jesus wasn’t paralyzed by the thought that someone would use it to justify their actions. But if we are afraid of the slippery-slope mentality in others, when can we ever show mercy? Won’t someone, somewhere abuse grace?
Even further, how can we love showing mercy to others? Micah 6:8 says to “love mercy” (or loving-kindness). Not just tolerate it. Love it! Celebrate it! Pursue it! Especially to those who least deserve it. In Luke 6:35-36 Jesus echoes the prophet Micah, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” God is kind and merciful to sinners, therefore, be like Him.
Sometimes I think we want to show mercy but believe that law works better than grace. The fear of the slippery slope reveals our suspicion that the fear of judgment motivates people toward righteousness better than the warmth of love and mercy.
Many leaders in the church still use fear to scare others out of sinning. “Let’s stone her so others will be afraid of committing adultery.”
Jesus shows us that mercy is a far better motivator than manipulative fear. Fear may temporarily push some people away from sin, but it hardens their heart toward the manipulator and creates spiritual insecurity at the same time (e.g., the feeling that one can never be good enough for God). But grace and mercy soften the heart and invite someone to move toward righteousness out of gratitude and trust. Fear may change external behavior momentarily, but mercy transforms the heart.
Grace and Truth
Let’s go back to John 1: 16-17. “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Did Jesus teach Truth? Absolutely! Read the Sermon on the Mount and see if you don’t feel convicted. God’s standards are high. Jesus didn’t drop the standard … ever. But at the same time, He loved mercy. Consider Matthew 9:10-13.
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Here’s a thought: Churches, like hospitals, are for the sick! That’s who belongs there. Why would we quarantine the sick from the hospital? If we did, no one would be there.
In case we need reminding, we are all delivered and redeemed from something, right? And, just for the record, so have God’s people throughout history. Many of the people through whom God worked to pursue us with His steadfast love and mercy—Abraham, Joseph, King David, and others—had complex families, much like modern-day blended families. Even Jesus had a stepfather! And did this keep them from getting listed in Hebrews 13, that great “faith Hall of Fame”? No. Imperfect husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, leaders, and families get included in the list of faithful, righteous people. Why? Because of their goodness? No! Because of God’s mercy and grace. They were delivered and redeemed. You and I are delivered and redeemed. By His grace, we belong in the hospital.
Putting Grace and Truth Together in Ministry
Here’s what I’m saying: We need to teach God’s commands so people know what is right and at the same time love applying mercy to the messiness of their lives.
For example, we should teach God’s plan for the home with fidelity, including teaching people to honor their commitments. So, when working with struggling spouses who are considering divorce, strive to bring reconciliation to their marriage. Encourage them to trust God with their marriage even when they don’t trust each other. If a couple separates, call both people to repentance and reconciliation. But if a couple comes to you and divorce and remarriage is already part of their story, don’t cast them into outer darkness. Love mercy.
Will there be consequences because of their actions? Yes. Will there be pain? Yes. Sin is messy. But move toward them with grace the way our Father has moved toward us since the Garden of Eden. (Remembering God’s reckless grace-pursuit of us is the key to not becoming like the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 who, though had been forgiven much, turned to someone who owed him little, and tossed him into prison until he could pay his debt. When we forget how much we have been forgiven we suppress mercy in ourselves.)
You see, ministering to blended families is—at the end of the day— really no different than any other ministry we do with imperfect people, couples, or families. The church is a hospital for sinners. Welcoming or ministering to them is not condoning sin. We welcome them, then teach them God’s Truth and how to live faithfully from that point forward.
In many ways, we have already figured out we can be pro-hospital without being pro-illness. Post-abortion ministry is not condoning premarital sex. Single-parent ministry does not ignore divorce. Recovery from porn addiction does not excuse porn abuse. Adoption ministry does not bless irresponsible parenting. And Celebrate Recovery does not celebrate addiction! It celebrates the grace of God. And then teaches delivered and redeemed people to live in light of that grace.
But fear of the slippery slope still haunts many. After listening to the FamilyLife® Today version of my podcast interview with Don Peslis and his wife Sandi Patty (listen here), one listener wrote and accused us of “celebrating adultery.” At the height of her gospel music and recording career, Sandy Patti had an affair with Don that ended both of their respective marriages. More than 25 years later they recounted in my interview their journey into repentance, how they submitted to the restoration process of their church, and the steps they took over the years to make peace with their children and former spouses.
And with great humility, they shared how much more than two decades later, they still fight picking up guilt and shame, even while choosing to rest in God’s grace. But there’s one more thing: in testimony to God’s abundant mercy, they shared the joy and blessings God has brought to their marriage and family through the years and the ministry He has given them. Today, Don is a worship pastor and Sandi still sings of God’s grace to audiences around the world.
The listener who wrote to us, however, could only see the “trees” of sin while missing the marvelous “forest” of God’s grace and redemption in their lives. The podcast was not “celebrating adultery,” it was celebrating mercy and grace.
Now, if you’re still afraid of the divorce and remarriage “slippery slope,” let me caution you about doing ministry at all. Don’t minister to the porn addict, the alcoholic, the constant liar, the gossip, the person cheating on their taxes—and, come to think of it, don’t sing praise songs in worship about grace or preach about the Cross, because someone might get the idea that they can sin and be forgiven for it! The next thing you know, all kinds of sinners will be coming in the front door of the hospital—and we can’t have that!
Or can we?
Ministering to blended families is not celebrating any sin that may have contributed to them being a blended family. But it does celebrate the grace of God. And isn’t that the gospel?
Copyright © 2020 by Ron Deal. All rights reserved.