The journey after the vows

Ministers concerned over the rising cases of divorce in Kenya, which involves a sizeable number of Christians

On September 5, while presiding over a wedding ceremony at a Nairobi church, Bishop Matthew Monde advised lovebirds Winnie Mbavata and Paul Musyoki to stick to their marriage vows no matter what. Looking at the bride and groom, who sat facing each other at the altar of the Redeemed Evangelistic Fellowship (REF) headquarters, Monde warned: “This is not leisure you are entering into, but a lifelong marital commitment. It is one thing to vow ‘Yes, I do’ during a wedding ceremony and another to live it out in marriage. If either of you is not ready, please speak up now so we can stop the ceremony and go home.” The couple replied in unison that they were ready for the journey ahead. 

The bishop expressed concern over the high rate of divorce in Kenya, which also involves a sizeable number of Christians, and urged the couple to be different. He then led them through their marriage vows as their guests celebrated.

“Today you have called us to be witnesses as you start life as husband and wife. If you reach a point where you decide to separate, although I am not for that, please call us all again to this place and let us know. Don’t rush to court to file for divorce while leaving us in the dark,” he advised.

There is no doubt that the rate of divorce and marital breakdown in our society is high. A recent nationwide survey by Infotrak showed that about three-quarters (74.4 per cent) of respondents said today’s couples do not take marriage seriously. And according to a February 29 article in the Business Daily, 149 divorce cases were filed that month at the Milimani Commercial Court’s civil registry in Nairobi. In January, about 95 people petitioned the court to dissolve their marriages. When the register was closed on December 31 last year, 1,108 people had filed petitions to dissolve their unions, up from 909 two years earlier.

Part of the reason for the growing number of divorce cases is the ease with which couples can do it now following a ruling by High Court judge Reuben Nyakundi in September last year. The ruling quashed a section of the law that previously barred couples from getting a divorce before three years of marriage.

In a previous interview with the SHEPHERD, Bishop Daniel Matheka said Christian couples must stick at all times to what the Bible says rather than what the law or the aggrieved parties say. He said the main reason for rampant divorce today is what Jesus Christ told the Pharisees: hard heartedness; hearts that are unwilling to forgive any wrong-doing and unwilling to pay whatever price it takes to ensure that the marriage union lasts.

Matheka, the senior pastor of Kangundo Redeemed Gospel Church, said handling marital conflicts is complex even for pastors and cited the case of Jackline Mwende, the woman from Machakos County whose hands were chopped off by her husband in 2016. Mwende’s pastor was said to have advised her to remain in her turbulent marriage.

“Some of these issues are thorny and once you hear that a couple has irreconcilable differences, apart from prayers, tell them to do what is safe while ensuring they live in accordance with biblical teachings, which prohibit remarriage while the other partner is still alive,” he said.

According to Lois Kagwe, a lecturer and counselling psychologist at International Leadership University (ILU), infidelity is mostly to blame for divorce because human beings are controlled by nature and nurture.

“By nature I mean conflicts arising from one’s inherent features, character or qualities as well as inborn or hereditary characteristics that influence or determine one’s personality. Nurture has to do with upbringing,” she told the SHEPHERD.

Kagwe said most premarital counselling programmes never go deep enough to prepare couples for stable marriages. She said some churches have given counselling a bad name, maybe due to a lack of experts who can handle marriage-related issues.

In her career spanning about two decades, she has realised that most people who come from broken homes do not take marriage seriously.

“They don’t attach much value to the sustainability of a marriage perhaps because their parents got divorced and life went on. A slight disagreement is enough to make them want to part ways. Those who come from stable families tend to value every counsel they get. That shows how much marital break-ups affect generations,” she said.

Kagwe has counselled several divorced or separated couples, including gospel ministers. She normally advises them to practise patience and self-control. “Even if your husband or wife leaves you, don’t rush to remarry. You need self-control and time to heal. Some couples end up realising their mistakes and seeking counsel on how to restore their marriage.”

She told a story of a couple she once counselled and who remarried after being divorced for 15 years. The divorce had been caused by infidelity on the part of the husband.

In a November 2018 article in The Standard, Bishop David Oginde said any pastor officiating a marriage ceremony must ensure that every step the couple takes is in their long-term interests, although this may not always be appreciated especially by young people who tend to be caught up in feelings and focused on the wedding event.

Since love is blind, he said, it is the duty and responsibility of the officiator to open the eyes of the blind by pointing out potential threats to the future of their marriage.

“Thus, where there are significant areas of potential discordance, the couple must be helped to make sober judgement and take actions that are not blinded by the fleeting feelings of love,” he wrote.

He said when a couple appears before a marriage registrar in a government office, the wedding is often a simple legal event executed in a matter of minutes, and what the couple does before or after the wedding is irrelevant to the registrar provided the law is adhered to.

“In contrast, the couple that stands before a pastor is, in most cases, well known to the pastor. Therefore, the pastor, as a priest, has a shepherding responsibility over these two individuals, which begins well before the wedding day and often extends into the couple’s old age,” he said.

Oginde observed that major differentials in age, education or social status can be a challenge in marriage if not carefully handled, especially when the man is the younger, less educated, or lower in social ranking. He said during courtship, many couples gloss over these issues, presuming that their deep love will compensate for them.

“For a couple seeking to enter marriage under such circumstances, the pastor must have a frank talk with the man and woman to ensure that they are not only alive to these realities, but are assisted on how to navigate them,” he said.

As Mbavata and Musyoki settle into their marriage, one can only hope that they realise their words “… for better or worse, till death do us part” will be put to the test again and again.