Ecclesiastical Trials Are NOT Pastoral Care

The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day.

-Acts 4:1-3, NIV

Spring 08 in New Haven 027

Did the Jewish priests put Peter and John on trial to “care” for them or to protect their own power?

While I can see how actions taken during an ecclesiastical trial can be pastoral, I do not view the actual trial as about pastoral care for the adultery victim. Personally, I find it disingenuous for church leaders to sell the trial as such. If it is pastoral, it is such in spite of the trial and not because of it.

Having one’s most intimate life exposed and subjected to the scrutiny of nearly complete strangers who are about to render judgment upon your character and your future–including your future livelihood, if you’re a minister–is far from an ideal scenario for healing.

And make no mistake:

You put someone on trial to obtain some sort of judgment and/or to assign blame.

I remember a well-meaning denominational official telling me about a “process” being “available” to me following news of my divorce. He was referring to the horrific ecclesiastical trial I endured while associated with my former denomination. This trial was required in order to clear my name/credentials as an evangelical minister since divorced ministers in that denomination apparently are held in suspicion of having disqualifying sin until proven otherwise. (Sadly, I discovered this prejudicial suspicion persisted in leadership in that denomination even after a “not guilty” verdict was rendered.)

Now, I understand from a denominational, administrative standpoint that one does not want to endorse pastors whose personal lives are complete, sinful wrecks. In fact, I think more adulterers/adulteresses ought to be “defrocked.” However, I feel strongly that a process is seriously flawed when it treats an innocent victim of adultery worse than the adulterous spouse who is allowed to not even participate in the process. Such was the process I endured.

But I digress…

Trials are meant to mete out justice.

I am sick of hearing church officials say the trial is about caring for the victims. This is not the primary purpose of a trial. It is to render judgment. To those ends, the experience can be extremely traumatic for the victim of the heinous sin (or crime in the case of civil matters).

We do not treat a trial of a rapist as primarily about healing the victim. If justice is rendered, it may help in the healing process–true. However, the actual trial forces the victim to relive the traumatizing experience and opens him/her to cross-examining that may even cause more damage.

So, let’s be honest about why ecclesiastical trials really happen following divorce. Ecclesiastical trials exist:

1) To ensure quality control in the ministers the denomination endorses.


2) To ensure quality control and theological enforcement in what marriage unions the church is willing to support–i.e. think annulment processes or laity remarriage inquires.

I insist here on this honesty because communicating that the trial is about pastoral care adds confusion to an already confusing time especially when/if the trial becomes re-traumatizing for the adultery survivor.

If any institution ought to be forthright and honest about the purposes of its processes to laity and ministers alike, it is the church.

3 thoughts on “Ecclesiastical Trials Are NOT Pastoral Care”

  1. DM, I’m truly sorry for the unfair trials you had to endure to prove yourself worthy of your title following your divorce. Unfortunately, those of us who divorce, particularly on the grounds of adultery, face harsh trials, judgements and treatment, even if it’s only in the court of public opinion. I come from a denomination where in my opinion, those in leadership aren’t scrutinized enough when their marriages fail, and again, I’m NOT advocating how your situation was handled AT ALL. What I will say and encourage you to recognize and remember is how this experience in retrospect has been in a way edifying for you, and contributes to YOUR cistern story and YOUR trajectory. Well done.

    1. Deacon B,

      No offense taken here. And I am thankful for where I am today; plus, the person God has shaped me to be. I’ve had many experiences of how NOT to care for others. This is just another one.

      My issue with the trial was how it was framed–i.e. as pastoral care when it obviously wasn’t—and the ill-gotten focus on only divorced pastors in essence. I am of the mind that only having a denominational divorce policy and procedure for pastors is lazy oversight, which will result in hurting innocent people. It is much harder work to actually focus on Biblically disqualifying behavior like committing adultery than simply using divorce as the trigger clause for an investigation. And I agree–as I hoped I communicated in this post–that the other extreme is bad as well. A pastor who is a serial cheater should NOT be in the pulpit!


  2. There are deacons and pastors in my church who ‘were’ cheaters.They don’t get involved in my business and I’m glad they don’t.I got a gift and a calling.I will never stand in front of the church until I am divorced.They either accept me as a divorcee or not.Their choice.My pastor accepts that I’m divorcing as for the other members of the church, don’t know,don’t care.I used to worry so much what will people say until I realised that what God says outweighs anything because he loves me and he has my best interest at heart.God’s approval is all that’s needed not mans.Some people gossip and slander with their lips, talking about things that they do not understand.They never seek God’s guidance on this matter.They judge.I have become very cautious of who I share my story with and how much.One thing I realised if you overshare your pain,hurt and anger they label you as bitter,rebellious and sinful.This apparently caused your partner to cheat.The people I feel more comfortable with are people that have been through because others just don’t get it.Sad though.

Comments are closed.