Several months ago, when I left my church, my pastor and elder couple prayed me off and I cried my way through most of it. But just before I walked out, I asked – somewhat jokingly – if I could have a plaque with my name on it hung up somewhere at church for Most Matthew 18s. He laughed and said no, but I would’ve earned it.
But here’s the thing. I have always interpreted Matthew 18 as something to be used solely between two fellow church-attending people. Like, friends in a difficult spot, or acquaintances who don’t like each other and say inappropriate and cruel things to each other. But I’d like to submit that Matthew 18 can and should be used as a model for couples in difficult marriages.
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the passage, Jesus speaking:
“Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen or a tax collector.” –Matthew 18:15-17 (NKJV)
This passage is almost staggering in its simplicity. Difficult and time-consuming, yes. But super clear in the steps to be taken. And why wouldn’t we apply this to our marriages? The marriage is the core relationship of the family, of society, of the Church.
Let me add, though, this will take tons of courage – not only to say the hard words with kindness, but to follow through to each next step if your words aren’t heeded. You must prepare for this like you’re preparing for battle, because that’s what it is. You’re fighting for your marriage. If you’re not in counseling or a recovery group or in a mentor relationship at this point, I’d get in one and surround yourself with prayer warriors who can keep you lifted up through this season.
So, let’s break it down.
Step one: talk to your husband on your own and tell him how he has sinned against you. You are allowed to do this. You are not only allowed, you are supposed to do this. For some odd reason, I never felt I was allowed to point things out to my spouse. I have no idea where I got this idea, because it’s not Scriptural, but for the most part, I did not do this; instead I hoped that somehow, someone in our church would notice we were imploding and breaking apart into little shards and this person would ride in and save the day. Didn’t happen.
So, pray and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal your part in the situation at hand, and repent of your poor choices first. Ask yourself if this is a hill you want to die on (Socks left on the floor? Let it go, man. Drinking every day and it’s scaring you? Take that hill.). I’d suggest writing out what you want to say, keeping it clear and simple and non-blaming. Put it in the form of a concern and a boundary, not nagging ultimatums. For example, probably don’t say, “You’re a drunk; I’m sick of you; stop drinking or I’m outta here.” Umm, that’s not going to help anything. Instead try, “It seems to me that you’re drinking more frequently and it scares me. I’m scared for your health, I’m scared for our family, and I’m scared for us. I would really like you to talk to someone about it. I can’t make you do so, though, but if you don’t, I need to because I need help in trying to figure this all out. Please let me know by the end of the week if you’ve made an appointment with someone.”
If your husband listens to you, wonderful. There is hope. If he doesn’t listen, move on to the next step.
Step two: bring someone with you that you trust to talk with your husband again. Pray through who this person will be. I suggest the husband of a close friend or an elder at your church that you know well, that you feel truly gets the gravity of your situation. If you are brushed off or blamed when you share your situation, this is not the right person to help you with this, and so you’re going to need to keep looking.
If your husband listens to you and this friend, great. There is hope. If he doesn’t listen, move on to the next step.
Step three: tell your situation to the church. This might mean bringing in your pastor and elder board and making this matter a more official church discipline issue. If you get to this point, it means that you are pretty desperate for change in your marriage and you must be willing to splay yourself out there. Again, this will not be easy, but we must trust the process that Jesus set in place for things like this.
Also, if you’ve gotten this far, odds are, your husband is not going to be too thrilled, and you must be ready for things in your relationship to go one of two ways: the emotional terrain may shift to escalating of the problem at hand, or, ironically, the problem may seem to stop altogether. Say, if the issue is drinking, you may notice that your husband doesn’t seem to be drinking at all. Be very careful. This choice of behavior could be a means of getting you off his back. It’s hard to argue with, “And when was the last time you saw me take a drink?” You’ll have to fight the urge to give up if this is the case, because know this: things like addiction and abuse do not get healed overnight; they can be stopped for a time when the person wants to (depending on the depth of the addiction, of course), but they can only be healed when the problem has been acknowledged and openly addressed.
If your husband listens to you and the church, fantastic. There is hope. If he doesn’t listen, then move on to the final step.
Step four: this one is scary for me to even touch on. First of all, because I’ve gotten to this step and it’s life-changing in really awful ways (awful at first; healing comes later). And it can feel mean. And it can feel like a non-Jesus-y thing to do. And yet, it’s right there in the Bible, being spoken by Jesus himself, so it must not be non-Jesus-y. To me this step means a therapeutic separation. However, I do not know every situation of every person reading this blog, so I would defer you to the group of hopefully godly people who have been walking you through this up to this point.
I will say this though: if you get to this point, and the group of people who are helping you say something like, “Well, we tried; and your marriage circumstances don’t fall into biblical grounds of divorce, so…” and their voices trail off and they basically send you right back into your marriage exactly the same as it was when you started this harrowing process, something’s not right. And I’m going to be so bold as to say: start the process all over again with another group of people, OR – gulp – institute a therapeutic separation on your own. (Let me stress again, dear ones: we do not leave our marriages over annoying habits or forgotten birthdays or lack of romance…no. We’re talking physically, emotionally, or spiritually damaging life choices that are affecting you in horrible ways.) Scripture isn’t always light and fun and super-encouraging. It’s also rough and tumble and it divides marrow from bone. It says hard things and expects us to do what it says. So, don’t just stop at verse sixteen…verse seventeen is key.
If you have come upon a hill worthy of you dying on, then girl, you can do this. It will be difficult, but I believe that Jesus will bring you the help you need and he will show you the way.
If this post helped you, I would encourage you to check out “Surviving in a Difficult Christian Marriage”, found here.