Reviewing the recent policy changes in the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) regarding credentialing divorced individuals
Link to the revised policy document (click here).
The EFCA is a denomination with Scandinavian origins started in the United States in the 1880s. It became the current denomination under the name the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) in 1950. Today, the denomination boasts of having over 1,300 churches with over 370,000 people attending them weekly in the United States (see here).
In 1982, this denomination adopted a policy towards divorced individuals that would bar them from holding EFCA ministerial or even missionary credentials from the denomination. Mercifully, they offered exceptions to this policy–including adultery as one–but still required all divorced EFCA ministers or potential ministers to go through a process to obtain an exception to their divorce default policy of barring all divorced individuals from the EFCA pastorate simply on the basis of their divorced status.
The process to obtain an exception was called the Divorce Policy Exception process. It was essentially an ecclesiastical trial replete with required submission of affidavits and interview of the candidate seeking such an exception. A national board–called the Board of Ministerial Standing (BOMS)–would take all this gathered information and make a ruling on whether or not a candidate satisfied the requirements to obtain an exception to the divorce policy. This process was also required if a pastor married a divorced spouse.
The revised policy document is written as a proposal pending a vote in June 2015. For clarity, I have been told by several creditable sources within the denomination that this proposal passed. So, I think it is fair to assume it is now the operating denominational policy.
Before I engage in my review of the actual revision document, I want to share a few important remarks:
First, I am not writing this to attack the EFCA or disparage individual leaders in the EFCA. I see some good and some areas needing challenging in this policy. Just as Paul was not threatened by thoughtful and Biblical engagement with his teachings (Acts 17:11), I hope those within the denomination who read my review–if they do–realize this is written in that spirit.
Second, I have relationships with people very involved in this denomination. My own father is an elder in an EFCA church, and I have other relatives who are EFCA pastors. Further, I count two EFCA congregations, in particular, as forever family in my heart for the way they rallied around me when I needed support. So, while I am not exactly an insider in the denomination, I speak as one who is tied to the denomination through bonds of blood as well as brotherly, Christian love.
Third, I have intimate knowledge of the old Divorce Policy Exception (DPE) process as one who successfully negotiated it. (“Successful” means I obtained an exception based on my former spouse’s adultery.) I was a licensed minister with the EFCA prior to my divorce. So, I had to go through this ecclesiastical trial to retain my ministerial credentials. While I am no longer with the EFCA–due to a variety of reasons going beyond my DPE process experience–I remain connected to this denomination via common membership with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which happens to be my professional chaplaincy endorser.
I am engaging in a review of this policy as the EFCA is a major evangelical denomination. Its view and stance on divorce and adultery has a major impact in the evangelical world as such. Some may even argue that the denomination and its policy on these issues act as a mirror reflecting where a significant part of the evangelical world stands on such matters in the USA at this time.
All of these are reasons for why I believe it is important for me to provide my own insights on the DPE policy changes. After all, this blog is about processing evangelical attitudes towards these two subjects and presenting sound Biblical teachings on such matters.
This first part is going to focus on the good things this policy change did and the good things this document said. As you will see below, a lot of good took place in the document and change. I want to give the denomination and its officials credit for making these changes, which is not an easy thing to do at a national level.
1. The denomination chose to repeal as opposed to edit the current Divorce Policy.
“The recommendation is that the current policy, adopted by the Conference in 1982, be repealed” (1).
They correctly–in my professional pastoral opinion–surmised that the current policy from 1982 was unbiblical. That policy stated that default position of the EFCA was to bar all divorced individuals from EFCA credentials. I applaud the denomination for taking a courageous stance in repealing such an ungodly policy.
2. The denomination publicly acknowledged the old DPE process itself was a graceless one for applicants.
“Both the policy and the process of reviewing applications for exceptions to the policy, have at times seemed harsh and condemning, too much like a legal deposition, assuming guilt until innocence is proven….Adjustments to the process have improved this significantly, but in the view of BOMS [Board of Ministerial Standing], not adequately, because of the impact of the policy itself” (7).
I agree with this assessment wholeheartedly. The assumption of “guilt until innocence is proven” is a good summary of my personal experience of the old process. So, I appreciate them naming it and pointing it out as a problem.
3. The denomination publicly acknowledged the old DPE was not aligned with Scripture–i.e. was unbiblical.
“Our assessment is that the current policy contains some argumentation that goes beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6) and impose/assumes standards that at the time were deemed societally/culturally appropriate but were supra-scriptural. Thus, the current policy cautiously reflected cultural standards of the time, but were not based solely on timeless biblical principle” (8-9).
They point out how the evangelical culture surrounding the 1982 document writing originally took a stance assuming all divorced pastors were permanently barred from ministry. Further, the document explains how divorce status itself is not listed in the Bible as such a barring circumstance–at least, not explicitly–for leaders in the church. I agree with this assessment of the policy and interpretation of Scripture. The original policy from 1982 was unbiblical in its default stance against all divorced individuals holding pastoral or missionary credentials.
4. They did not err in the opposite extreme of enabling unrepentant adulterers/adulteresses hold credentials in the denomination.
“Depending on the details, BOMS [Board of Ministerial Standing] may uphold/reaffirm the individual’s credential or, if biblical standards have been violated, may implement disciplinary action requiring that one’s credentials be surrendered. In some cases, BOMS may take action to revoke the credential” (14).
The easy path for the denomination would be to simply make divorce a non-issue in regard to EFCA credentials. That would have been unbiblical in the opposite direction of the old policy. I applaud the denomination for holding fast to Scripture in recognizing that divorce for some is sinful–e.g. to commit adultery (see Mt 19)–and therefore a disqualifying matter for a church leader.
5. The denomination made divorce history part of a larger assessment of a pastor’s general character in regards to obtaining and retaining credentials.
“….we would no longer give exceptions [to the old divorce policy] based on justifiable divorce, because whether justifiable or not, the issue is not divorce history but current qualifications according to the New Testament” (11).
Let me translate this a little: Essentially, they are saying that an exception process would no longer be needed because issues of character would be examined more broadly and include marital history issues if still a problem. With the change, they have made the character of the individual per Biblical directives (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9, etc.) the issue as opposed to a person’s marital history or status. That history really only comes into play as far as it speaks to the person’s character–or lack thereof.
I like this change for several reasons. First, it helps to de-stigmatize divorce making the correct issue a matter of marital faithfulness as opposed to marital status. Second, it makes it possible for truly repentant cheaters to find mercy and grace after a process of restoration (and they still, thankfully, require a restoration process for adulterers). This strikes me as a godly change.
6. The denomination reaffirms divorce is Biblically permitted and the option to remarry is assumed in such cases.
“1. Divorce is permitted for two reasons: adultery (porneia) Matthew 5:32; 19:9; and desertion by an unbeliever 1 Corinthians 7:15
2. Divorce that is biblically permitted assumes the right of remarriage” (3).
I agree with these two exceptions minimally. Also, I agree with the conclusion that the option to remarry is assumed in granting these as Biblical divorces. I might include more than these limited examples for ending a marriage Biblically or not recognizing said marriage (e.g. annulment). However, I do applaud their stance as Biblical and appreciate it.
As can be seen above, I see a lot of good done by making this policy change and statement. However, I also see pieces in the document needing challenging. In “Part II,” I will bring forth my constructive criticism on those matters.