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How the Church Can Respond to Africa’s Divorce Crisis

Editors’ note: 

This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of The Divorce Dilemma: Equipping You to Minister with Grace and Truth by Ron Misiko and Ray Motsi. From their different African contexts, the authors explain how to navigate the challenges marriages face today. With the help of this practical handbook, you can become a champion for God’s grace and truth about divorce in your church and community.

Traditional African Structures

One factor that contributes to our divorce crisis is the cultural and societal disruption that most African nations have undergone within the lifetimes of our elders. Comparing our current reality with the traditional setup can help us acknowledge just how much stress our families and communities are experiencing.

We are facing a divorce crisis.

Our cultures had clear paths for people to follow from birth until death—and even life after death. Rites of passage marked the transitions between life stages. Peers shared these experiences, and mentors prepared people for the next stage in life. Successful completion of one stage led to honour for one’s family or clan; failure to do so brought shame and disgrace.

The Divorce Dilemma: Equipping You to Minister with Grace and Truth

The Divorce Dilemma: Equipping You to Minister with Grace and Truth

Oasis. 192 PAGES.

Divorce is rising throughout Africa. We are seeing broken marriages leave families in pain. The church faces a dilemma. We are not sure how to connect what the Bible says with the person in front of us. We may be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, so we avoid talking about divorce at all.

But divorce isn’t going away. Instead, struggling people are going away, fearful or frustrated about turning to Christians for help. How can we respond as the body of Christ? Two wise church leaders share all they have learned in a practical handbook, The Divorce Dilemma.

Their book will equip you to understand what the Bible says, what divorced people go through, and what Christians can do to navigate these challenges with God’s grace and truth.

Oasis. 192 PAGES.

Marriage within African Communities

In many societies, getting married involved the exchange of gifts between families, often in the form of livestock. For instance, a man’s family commonly made payments to a woman’s family in appreciation for raising their daughter, since she would be considered part of her husband’s family after the marriage. This strengthened the bonds uniting communities and spouses, teaching both the man’s family and the wife to value each other. (Unfortunately, this practice has been used to justify domestic abuse, claiming that a man has “bought the wife”; defenders of culture say this is a distortion of the custom’s original intent.)

Traditional society had strong communal structures, that were designed to keep couples together.

The economic and social ties between the families made disentangling a marriage very complex and difficult after several years. Among the Shona and Ndebele peoples in Zimbabwe, a man had to pay a rejection token to divorce his wife. A wife typically ran away to her village, but her parents would then attempt to reconcile the two, or the husband’s family would need to return some of the dowry.

Childbearing was one of the main purposes of marriage and solidified the marriage bond. Children’s work supported the family’s survival. It was also seen as a way to achieve immortality. So Hatendi writes in Shona Marriage and Christian Churches: “A man who had no child would consider himself dead and finished. His life has come to an end: it has no continuation.” Without handing life on to the next generation, ancestors would cease to be venerated and would experience an eternal death. Since the whole family’s survival was at stake, they were highly concerned with preserving marriages and bearing children.

The Divorce Crisis: An Opportunity for the Church

Traditional society had strong communal structures, reinforced by economic and spiritual incentives, that were designed to keep couples together. The pressures of modern life, confusion around values, and rapid changes have left people floundering without clear direction. Failing to find support from other sources, troubled couples find themselves in the courts of law to address their problems.

While we are not necessarily saying that traditional marriages were all good either, identifying and understanding the current gaps in our society can equip us to address the divorce crisis today on a broad scale. The church is a community and family that offers moral guidance and affirms the dignity of men and women. As such, we have a huge opportunity and role to play.

Our churches can offer strong structures that support couples.

We need an understanding of the spiritual and communal aspect of marriage. The Bible teaches that our marriages reflect God’s covenant character and our vows made in the presence of God and our communities are sacred and serious. Instead of a motivation to avoid offending the ancestors with divorce, our motivation should align with Jesus’s values when he pointed out that we need to be wary of separating what God has joined (Matthew 19:6).

Drawing on our African values of community and relationships, our churches can offer strong structures that support couples as they prepare for marriage, helping to set expectations, clarify roles, and provide mentors. As a church community, we also need to invest in sustaining marriages.

A Responsibility to Speak Clearly—and Boldly

In a society awash with confusing messages about marriage and sex, the church has the unique opportunity to be a clear, reliable, and loving source of moral guidance. We can begin by talking publicly about relevant issues people are facing, even though these subjects may be uncomfortable for us. If people do not hear from us, they will easily be led astray by other sources of information. We can honestly portray the real challenges of marriage while still showing the hope and blessing it can bring. We also need to hold people accountable, especially our leaders.

In some cases, we need to proclaim countercultural biblical truth. God’s ideal for marriage is one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24). Sexual acts of all types outside marriage are sin (Leviticus 18–20; Hebrews 13:4). Even when one avoids physical or social consequences such as pregnancy, infection, or shame, sin is not fun and harmless. It is destructive physically, emotionally, and spiritually (1 Corinthians 6:15-20).

We have a marvellous opportunity to bring light, truth, and hope to a hurting world.

We need to proclaim that children are a gift from God, but childlessness is not a curse. The many stories of barren women in the Bible remind us that God bestows children at his discretion and in his timing (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Elizabeth). We achieve eternal life through trusting Jesus, not childbearing.

Our people need to know that men and women are equally made in God’s image. Husbands are to love their wives as they love themselves and wives are to respect their husbands—both out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21-33). God is concerned about justice (Psalm 99:4; Micah 6:8), hears the cry of the oppressed (Exodus 3:7-10; Psalm 10:14-18), and holds people accountable for abusing power (Amos 1:13; 2:6-7). At the same time, men and women were designed for companionship and to fulfil God’s mission by working together (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15-25). Men and women are not independent of each other (1 Corinthians 11:8-12). As Christians, we can’t say to another member of the body, “I don’t need you” (1 Corinthians 12:21).

We are facing a divorce crisis in our time. Many factors have conspired to place tremendous stress on African families trying to live out Christian values. Yet we also have a marvellous opportunity as a church to bring light, truth, and hope to a hurting world. Perhaps we have been called to ministry for such a time as this.

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