Reviewing the EFCA’s Policy Regarding Divorced Ministers
When the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) revised their policy regarding divorced ministers in 2015, they did much good while leaving a few things left undone (see current approved policy document here). My attention to this denomination’s process is born in part from an awareness that the EFCA is a major player in evangelical Christianity, and so, it matters that they get their approach to adultery/divorce victims correct.
In my final review installment, I will make a few proposed further changes that would help correct errors and oversights–as I see them–in the revised policy.
1. Explicitly acknowledge that adultery and abandonment victims exist in the pastorate (and by extension, in the pews).
I fail to see how any policy regarding infidelity, divorce, and ministerial credentialing can be just and godly without starting from this basic axiom. One has to see victims and perpetrators in order to have any hope of properly applying Scripture justly and wisely.
And make no mistake, adultery victims do exist!
When a pastor survives his spouse’s adulterous betrayal and/or abandonment, he has suffered greatly and unjustly at the hands of someone who had promised him lifelong fidelity. He is not at all responsible for her sins against him as Scripture clearly teaches (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:10). Spiritually speaking, he has survived soul rape and likely feels dismembered by the traumatic loss of his spouse.
Not explicitly seeing and treating such people as victims is another way of denying their pain and enabling further injustices.
It is a pastoral care failure.
Further, leaving this category of pastors–i.e. faithful spouses–in the metaphorical dark sends a signal to other faithful spouses throughout the denomination that they will not be seen either.
It conveys a calloused disregard for their well-being as if God is silent as well regarding their pain and the injustices they have suffered. Fortunately, that is not God’s heart on the matter, which is even more reason to change and acknowledge the existence explicitly of such victims.
2. An apology to faithful spouses from the denomination is in order and especially to those who endured the old DPE process.
The old process was hellish for someone who is an adultery and abandonment victim. I know as I went through it as such.
While the old DPE process is no longer in effect, that does nothing to address the wrongs committed through over three decades of putting faithful spouses on trial for the sins of their former spouses.
In the reviewing document, the authors characterized the old process as lacking in grace as well as “assuming guilt until innocence is proven” (7). This is very true about that process. Now, consider the implications of that as it is applied to adultery and abandonment victims.
Instead of treating a faithful spouse who lost his wife due to her adultery and abandonment as a brother in need of solidarity and protection from Satan’s assault, the denomination played into Satan’s tactics of discouragement and destruction. They put ministers who lost their wives via adulterous betrayal on trial with the threat of revoking their credentials and ending their careers (in the denomination, at least). That was wrong.
Not explicitly naming such as wrong while making changes to the old process is a major oversight.
Can you imagine the denomination treating widower ministers in this way? Do you think they would be shocked if a widower pastor protested against an official denomination-wide policy that put him on trial with the threat of revoking his credentials and ending his career simply because his wife died? Would we not condemn such a policy as cruel and ungodly?
Now, I understand some might want to say this is a false analogy between a divorced faithful spouse and a widower pastor. It is not. In fact, this is precisely how the church leaders who wrote The Westminister Confession of Faith (1646) viewed spouses who survived their partners’ infidelity.
“In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and after the divorce to marry another, as if the offending party were dead” (WCF, CH XXIV, SECT V).
In other words, to deny the analogy is to stand outside the mainstream of Protestant orthodoxy as articulated for over three hundred years! And we are not even talking about all the Scripture that backs up this wise stance by authors of the WCF (e.g. Deut. 22:22, Lev. 20:10, etc.).
I am thankful the old DPE trial system has been abolished. Further, I am thankful the denomination has officially recognized the unjust nature of that system. However, I wished they would have gone further to acknowledge their failure to properly love and protect those brothers–i.e. faithful spouses–who were treated unjustly and cruelly by the old system.
Furthermore, patting themselves on the back for providing a way for faithful divorced pastors to keep their credentials is absolutely shameful (see page 8). If they wanted to take credit for this, they may as well as say they deserve credit for providing a way for widower pastors to remain ordained in their denomination (albeit after submitting to a hellish ecclesiastical trial that presumes disqualification until proven otherwise). That is what consistency demands.
3. Change language from “marriage failure” or simply “failure” to less wording with less morally judgmental or condemnatory connotations when speaking about all divorces.
Did God fail when Israel chose other gods over Him and God divorced them (Jeremiah 3:8)? Did Hosea fail because his wife Gomer left him repeatedly having sex with other men?
Condemnation is out of place when speaking of divorce with adultery victims. They did not cause this. That said, we all can learn from life’s experiences including a divorce prompted by adultery. Asking about what was learn through experiencing the divorce is fair game, in my opinion, just as one might ask a widower what he learned when he lost his wife to cancer.
This change would have likely made the document longer as it would have pressed the writers to create semantic room for pastors who weren’t sin perpetrators in divorce as well as for those who were/are adulterers. That said, I believe the lack of sensitivity in language is a function of the larger problem cited in point #1–i.e. not explicitly seeing and acknowledging the existence of adultery victims.
4. Make provisions to equip and sensitize local district officials executing the new policy.
The new policy kicks much of the vetting responsibility down to the local districts. While I applaud this change, I am concerned that this does not address the problem sufficiently. The process can still end up being “harsh and condemning” if executed by officials who have not properly trained and made aware of typical false, unbiblical assumptions in these areas.
In my personal experience, the officials tasked to handling my DPE trial were woefully ignorant of basic dynamics and practical theology relating to situations involving infidelity. This ignorance is problematic in both ways. It can result in a condemning experience for a faithful spouse while failing to catch an unrepentant, adulterous one.
Either requiring pastors to go through Divorce Care® or providing seminars teaching on these matters are ways of addressing this skill-level and sensitivity gap. I suspect many pastors would jump at an opportunity to receive such practical training in such matters as they are often not covered in seminary.
The revised policy regarding divorced credentials individuals in the EFCA is a good start. I applaud the denomination for making the changes they have made. And I encourage them not to stop but to continue to seek Biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy in such matters.