Over 300 years ago, the phrase “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” was penned by Alexander Pope. While there is a modicum of conventional wisdom stored within the pithy phrase, there is also the reminder of the dilemma facing every shepherd: when do I intervene and when do I wait?
This problem in discernment applies across the board in virtually every situation in assembly life. Many problems solve themselves with time. Sometimes an aggressive approach can turn something minor into a major issue. In contrast, who among us has not looked back in regret that we did not address a problem sooner?
Now add another layer of complexity and danger to your decision making. The problem involves a relationship between two believers. You risk being accused either of meddling on the one hand, or of being insensitive and ignoring their needs on the other.
Now compound the difficulty by those two believers being married to each other and the issue involving their marriage. You may be thinking about the wise man’s admonition about meddling in others’ affairs and worry that the “dog” is going to bite you (Pro 26:17). But Christian love and shepherd care reminds you that the welfare of others is something which is your concern. Paul exhorts us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) out of love. We cannot “ostrich-like” pretend that disaster is not looming.
We would all prefer those having marital problems to approach the oversight rather than one of the shepherds having to take the initiative. Sadly, we are often not aware of any problem until the awful “D” word begins to circulate among us. Then it is too late!
If it is obvious that there is marital strife, the brother who takes the initiative should be someone who already has a connection with the couple. They should know that you care because of a history of caring. If there has been no interaction, or no attempts to nurture them as believers, it is very unlikely that your sudden interest will be met by a warm welcome.
Confidentiality is crucial. If your involvement into their personal lives is welcomed, then you must maintain strict confidentiality. There are limits to this, however, and they must be made clear. There may be issues of such a nature that the oversight needs to be made aware of them. Aside from that possibility, what is discussed must be held in sacred trust.
Solomon exhorted anyone involved in counseling to be very careful to hear both sides of a story (Pro 18:17). That necessitates the skill of listening. If you are a person who has all the answers, it is likely you will not be able to “listen” as you should. Listening involves patience. It also involves the awareness that you are not likely to hear the full story the first time through. You, as a counselor, will likely be tested by the couple. They may divulge some of their problem and watch to see if you listen and are able to keep confidences. Are you empathetic? Is your concern about them, or about the reputation of the assembly? How genuine are you?
Be cautious, as well, that you do not rush to a quick, one-verse solution! The problem with which you are becoming acquainted is the result of a long history of distancing and difficulty within a marriage and will not yield to a quick solution.
Neutrality is crucial; you cannot take sides. Once you take sides, you add to the problem rather than nurture a solution. Paul modeled this in his handling of the difficulty in the Philippian assembly (Php 4:2,3).
What, then, do you want to accomplish in an initial session and in subsequent sessions? It is obvious that you need to gain the confidence of the couple. But beyond that, you want to eventually help the couple identify the problem. That is not as easy as it sounds. You may say that ultimately the problem is sin and the selfishness and self-centeredness it creates. Correct! But it can wear many hats and appear in many guises. Your goal should be to help them identify the problem.
As well, you need to incentivize change. Bringing a couple back to God’s scriptural plan for marriage and the potential of experiencing the kind of marriage God intended for His creatures is vital. You cannot tell the husband that he must love his wife, and that the wife must submit. You can only direct them to Scripture. You are not there to impose a solution. Your goal is to help them to arrive at a scriptural solution to their problems. Ultimately, every problem is solved by a Christ-like attitude!
It may be helpful, from the very beginning of your time with the couple, to try and inculcate a “we” mentality into their thinking. They need to begin to view themselves as a couple who have problems attacking their marriage. They need to disabuse themselves of viewing the spouse as the problem. As they reframe the issues to view the problems as “external” to their marriage, yet having the capacity to ruin their marriage, it may enable them to address the issues with less of a “win-lose” mindset.
I state once again that your goal is not to dictate solutions. Your solutions will soon prove powerless. Your goal is to instruct in what the Word of God says, leaving the couple to implement it.
Counseling a Christian couple is far easier than counseling unsaved friends. You can remind the Christians that they have everything on their side for resolving the conflict, which an unsaved couple do not have. They have the inspired Word of God to instruct them, a High Priest above to intercede for them, and the Spirit of God indwelling to empower them. Every resource is available to them.
That being said and appreciated, it is wise to realize when you are facing a situation beyond your abilities. One of the spouses may have a serious mental or emotional problem which needs to be addressed. One may have an addiction such as pornography which requires professional help. You may reach an impasse in your attempts to counsel and may need to find additional help for the couple. It is helpful for you to have some resources to which you can direct a couple in those circumstances. You are not abandoning them by getting them the level of help they require.
It is helpful if each oversight has resources in the community, preferably Christian, for referral when marital problems require additional help.