Reviewing EFCA’s New Policy Regarding Divorced Ministers
***This is a continuation of series of posts regarding a change in divorce policy with this prominent evangelical denomination. To view the first post that comes with important background to the discussion click here.***
As stated in Part I, I am writing this review in order to engage in the discussion regarding how evangelicals treat faithful spouses–particularly faithful ministers–and not to disparage a denomination. Even as short as five years ago, I may have missed much of the issues I believe are missed in this new document.
I would have missed certain things as I had not yet gone through my own experience of having a (now) former wife cheat and leave me plus the added experience of having to negotiate a denomination’s relationship with me as a divorced minister. Those experiences have help open my eyes to Scripture as well as have sensitized me pastorally in ways that pure intellectual exercise cannot.
Yesterday, I wrote on the good pieces of this policy change. Today, I going to highlight areas of needed growth.
1. The document proposing the policy changes largely ignores the fact that some pastors are actual victims of adultery and/or abandonment. Faithful spouses are largely left unseen.
“But it does not seem to be a biblically defensible position that one’s divorce history; a past divorce, is an automatic disqualifier. Nowhere in Scripture is one’s history of sinful failure an automatic and permanent disqualifier for leadership in the church, whether pastoral or lay leadership” (7, emphasis mine).
I could share other quotes. However, this quote encapsulates the problem well.
Notice that all divorced people are cast into the category of having a “sinful failure” in their past. This is offensive to me as a victim of adultery and spousal abandonment via divorce. It was my former spouse’s sinful failure that led to my divorce and not mine (I even have a letter from this denomination saying as such).
If they had followed up this statement with an acknowledgement that adultery victims exist and ought not be judged for their divorce in anyway, then I might have been alright with such a statement. In other words, no steps are taken to defend the reputation of adultery victims here. Instead, this statement leaves the impression that all divorced pastors have failed sinfully simply because they are divorced. This is incorrect and an ungodly impression to leave.
Furthermore, I want to point out how the concern here (and elsewhere) seems to be more focused on restoring cheating pastors than on protecting pastors who happen to be victims. Preciously little ink is spilled in this document mentioning the injustices faithful pastors experience at the hands of the old policy and unbiblical prejudices against divorce in the evangelical community.
This is a major oversight.
I am sadden that this corrective policy did not take the statements about the graceless former process to the logical conclusion about how that further led to traumatizing actual adultery victims having to submit to such processes. It was a missed opportunity.
2. The document mishandles Malachi 2:16 as a blanket prohibition against divorce reinforcing an unbiblical understanding that divorce is as bad or worse than adultery.
“Because of God’s design that marriage be honored until death, some of the strongest language in all of Scripture addresses the evil of divorce. The most familiar passage is I hate divorce. Malachi 2:16″ (3).
As I have made it clear on this blog, the context of this strong statement against divorce is about Jewish men essentially abusing divorce to commit adultery. Further, the idea that divorce is “evil” does not bear out in Scripture whereas it does for adultery (see Deut. 22:22).
God never commits adultery–even metaphorically. However, God initiates a divorce from Israel over adultery (Jeremiah 3:8). The theologically consistent idea here is God’s stance against adultery and its evil. The problem arises with divorce as far as it is connected to adultery.
Certainly, God would not sin–i.e. violate His own commandments–and God is incapable of evil–even metaphorically. So, I strongly object to this interpretation of Malachi 2:16 and suggests more context is needed plus provision for pastors who–like God–are divorced as a result of their spouses’ adultery.
(As a side note, I would point to Matthew 1:19 as New Testament example of a righteous response involving divorce in the face of apparent sexual unfaithfulness. The Bible is consistent on this matter of allowing for divorce and treating faithful spouses who divorce over adultery as righteous individuals–i.e. not morally flawed).
3. The document presents a wicked juxtaposition regarding adultery and divorce.
“God designed marriage to be a covenantal relationship, a sacred commitment for life. The essential sin of the adulteress is that she left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God. Proverbs 2:17 The grievous offense of divorce is because you have broken faith with her though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Malachi 2:14, 15″ (2).
Once again, this juxtaposition totally ignores the context of Malachi 2 where the prophet is saying these things to Jewish men actively committing adultery with their new pagan wives. Further, this juxtaposition conveys the idea that all divorce and adultery are on the same level as far as God is concerned. They are not!
This is to treat a victim of adultery the same way as a perpetrator of that evil. That is not godly or just (e.g. Ezekiel 18:20). And it is highly offensive to read as an adultery victim.
4. Continued referral and conflation of divorce as a “marital failure” is problematic as it reinforces “The Shared Responsibility Lie.“
“What are the attitudes about past marital failures?” (11).
First, I do want to give the writers credit for explicitly mentioning faithful spouses once in regard to this area of failure. They correctly point out that such failure can be on the part of the pastor’s wife and not the pastor (see pp 10).
That said, I am concerned about the preponderance of references the conflate “marital failure” with divorce. This comes across as a subtle blameshift onto faithful spouses who are implied as party to said failure when that is not how God views marriages ended via adultery.
The death penalty in the Old Testament was leveled at the adulterous parties (mercifully abridged to an option to divorce, in my opinion, today) who were viewed justly as the destroyers and defilers of the marriage covenant (e.g. Deut. 22:22, Lev. 20:10). Further, God is viewed as responsible for his failed “marriage” with Israel (see Jer. 3:8). Also, I do not see such a teaching given in the New Testament disparaging Joseph’s character when he resolved to divorce Marry over perceived sexual infidelity (see Mt. 1:19).
I point this out as another example of the evangelical sub-culture overpowering the Biblical witness on such matters. In no way ought Christian leaders aid in perpetuating “The Shared Responsibility Lie.” Jesus is clear that sin flows ought of the heart of the individual alone who sins (e.g. Mark 7:20-23).
Further, even secular social science warns us about making the wrong assumption that infidelity–and therefore divorces resulting from such infidelity–are caused necessarily by bad marriages or deficiencies in the marriage relationship (see Dr. Shirley Glass, an infidelity researcher, in NOT “Just Friends” who calls this erroneous assumption “The Prevention Myth”–see pages 39-40).
This semantic problem is exacerbated by keeping faithful spouses–i.e adultery victims–mostly invisible in the document (see point #1). With the faithful spouse population in mind, the authors could easily have rephrased such questions with words less laden with judgment and blame. They could simply ask about what was learned through the divorce like asking a widower what was learned through the loss of his wife.
As a side note, I want to be clear that I am not saying faithful spouses are sinless beings. Of course, we are not. Nor are married pastors (Romans 3:23). However, I think it is wise to keep the Biblical distinction between sin in a marriage and sin–as viewed by God–as marriage ending like adultery (e.g. Jer. 3:8, Mt 5:32, etc.).
Language matters as does holding a distinction between different populations. It is not just to treat every divorced person the same. Further, the document–through its acknowledgment that some pastor wives are the sinfully responsible parties on page 10–recognizes this distinction but fails to carry it through with consistency, in my opinion.
As can be seen by my writing in Part I, I have far more good things to say about this policy change than constructively critical. That said, I do believe more ought to be done in the evangelical community to care for faithful spouses who happen to also be ministers. In my next installment, I am planning on writing about what corrective pieces I would preposed in order to fix the errors present as I see them.