Hope College, Lynn Japinga

Holland, Michigan

To explore the history of policies and practices regarding divorce in the Reformed Church in America, and to study how these policies have shaped worship practices such as Scripture reading, public prayer, and preaching, and affected divorced people.

Researcher(s): Lynn Japinga
Academic Discipline: Religion

Project Summary

This project explores the history of policies and practices regarding divorce in the Reformed Church in America, and the ways in which the growing acceptance of divorced people resulted from both biblical and theological reflection, and social/cultural pressures. The project also explores the broader context of the history of marriage, divorce, and divorce laws in the United States. How have churches and religious people tried to influence divorce laws? How have views about divorce changed from fault/sin to a social problem to a lack of individual fulfillment? How have churches treated divorced people, and how might worship services be more welcoming? How might sermons deal more realistically and honestly with marriage/divorce? 

What questions have you asked about worship in the past year? List at least two questions that have generated theological reflection and have helped shape your project.

If nearly half of marriages in the United States end in divorce, how can the church encourage honest self-assessment, extend grace, avoid shaming, continue to welcome people, and offer constructive help before, during, and after divorce? 

Divorce is complicated. Some divorced people leave and others are left. Some feel bereft and others feel relief. How can churches be sensitive and supportive of people with very different experiences? 

To what degree is worship focused on families? 

In what ways has or will your project strengthen the worship life of congregations?

In the past, churches have disciplined, shunned, judged, and ignored people who divorce. These strategies have not reduced the number of divorces but discouraged divorced people from coming to church. Churches have also romanticized and spiritualized marriage. I propose instead that churches be far more honest about the messiness of human life, especially in relationships. People are flawed and stressed and have often been wounded by their own families. Marriage, parenting, work relationships and friendships are not easy, and yet churches do not provide much help. The Bible is full of stories about flawed people, and honest sermons about dysfunctional families could be far more helpful than a quick resolution of grace and healing. 

What have been your greatest challenges (or challenging opportunities)

  • How to affirm marriage and acknowledge its challenges without excluding single people. 
  • How to encourage people to seek help earlier in their marriages.  
  • How to equip pastors to be a trustworthy, honest, perceptive presence for people struggling with relationships. 
  • How to deal with biblical texts about marriage and divorce which are rooted in very different cultural expectations? 
  • How to rethink some of the Christian virtues of suffering, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and persistent faithfulness that have often been misused to keep people in bad marriages. 
  • How to deal with both the ideal of marriage as an unbreakable bond with the reality of human frailty? 
  • How to help people move on after a divorce. 

What advice would you like to share with other Teacher-Scholars? 

I would encourage people to explore interdisciplinary approaches to their topic if possible. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the history of divorce was that it involved legal, political, and religious history, biblical studies, constructive and pastoral theology, psychology, sociology, church polity and women's studies. The variety of sources kept the research interesting, and offered different slants on the issues. 

Don't settle for easy answers. Look for the complexities in the topic. Look for the complexities in human nature. Think about why people do what they do. The better your diagnoses, the more likely the find constructive solutions. Good news will be more meaningful when it is honest about human limitations. 

What products will emerge from your project?

"When the Bonds Break: Reflections on the History of Divorce in the Reformed Church in America." Forthcoming 2021 in a festschrift for Russell Gasero, RCA archivist 

"Coming to Terms with Divorce"  March, 2020. The Gnade Lecture in RCA Women's History, New Brunswick Theological Seminary. (divorce among RCA clergy women) 

Article for the Reformed Journal, forthcoming June/July, 2021. 

Possible article comparing RCA, CRC, PCUSA policies on divorce. 

Possible book: To Halve and to Whole.