Thursday, September 20, 2012

No Scarlet Letters


Recent circumstances have brought the subject of divorce to our collective minds and discussions.  Specifically, the question has been whether a person who has ever experienced a divorce, even when not sought by that person, and occurring in a situation of unrepentant, continuous adultery on the part of the "leaving" spouse, can ever meet the "husband of one wife" qualification listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 in order to serve a church as a pastor/elder/overseer or as a deacon.  Past pastors here have taught, along with other Bible teachers I respect, that the answer is "no, he cannot."  I teach, along with a significant number (and what appears to be a majority) of conservative Bible teachers among evangelicals, that the answer is "yes, he can."  I will make that case in coming weeks, most likely in a sermon series on a number of important matters, sometime early next year.

Unfortunately, this has caused some here who went through the pain of divorce to experience the reopening of wounds, and wonder if this is somehow a statement that we hold "divorced people" under some sort of reproach that will forever mark them as less than full participants in the life of the church and the experience of grace.  One person mentioned that, in churches, one never escapes the label of "divorced"--as if wearing the scarlet letter (since most people don't read books anymore, that's a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel of the same name.  I aim to educate as well as exhort). And it is not treated as a neutral fact, but as a negative deficit.

This is wrong.  When we say, by way of describing someone, "he was divorced" or "she is divorced," we are labeling someone with a tragedy, not an identity.  If you were mugged five years ago, and the way I describe you is, "he was beaten to a pulp" every time someone asks about you, I have a pretty warped view of who you are.  There may be isolated circumstances where that information might come up, but it should not be equated with who you are.

Now sometimes a Christian may have divorced for reasons the Bible doesn't say are acceptable.  I would argue that what I just said in the previous paragraph still applies.  If you were dismissed from a job for stealing company property, repented, and now are living a godly life, it would be wrong of me to describe you as "that guy in the church who got fired for theft."  It is a true statement, but it is not your identity in the Body of Christ.

We don't ignore the realities of our past.  We may have to deal with some very real consequences of our past in our present.  But it is not the place of fellow Christians to make sure that someone's past continues to define them in the present.


I suppose this isn't the only "scarlet letter" that churches might apply.  In the novel, it was an "A" for adultery that the heroine had to wear on her clothing.  Her baby was not, apparently, proof enough of her sin.  In our day, we have other sins that make us uncomfortable enough that we don't do a very good job of showing the forgiving grace of God when redeemed sinners from a certain past are around.  Adultery is certainly one of those--however, if a divorce did not occur, and a couple stays together, we tend to use a lower case "a" and we seem to be willing to let time prove repentance, and as we do, the letter can disappear, or at least fade.  Frankly, it should be banished whenever, as Spurgeon said, a person's "repentance is as notorious as his sin."

Perhaps the greater "A" today would be abortion.  A sad fact that you can learn from our Miami Valley Women's Center is that a number of young women who come to them with an unplanned pregnancy and who may be considering abortion are from Christian homes.  They know that pregnancy outside of marriage is evidence of sin that we do not easily forgive, and rather than pursue confession and forgiveness, these girls often feel as if abortion is their better option for any sort of future.  And undoubtedly, our church family has women who have experienced abortion and feel guilt so great that they do not feel free to share their story because they doubt our ability to forgive.


These three letters are some of the hardest for evangelicals today.  It stands for "same sex attraction," and doesn't refer only to those who act upon it, but those who struggle with it.  Let's face it, churches are not easy places for a man or woman to say, "I am battling same sex attraction--I know what the Bible teaches, but these feelings have been with me as long as I can remember."  While we know that with God all things are possible, we also have lots of studies and data that indicate that for a person to move from same sex attraction to the biblical ideal of full and exclusive heterosexual attraction is uncommon, though not unheard of.  It is possible, but not always achieved, and sometimes it may not be achievable.  How do we show love and acceptance to a Christian who acknowledges such a struggle, wants to live in holiness, and desires accountability and fellowship in the church?  Right now, it seems that they can only have that fellowship as long as they struggle in secret.  An open struggle brands and isolates in most churches.  

Have you noticed that all of these "scarlet letters" have to do with sex?  I haven't even listed all of them that fit the same general category--sex outside marriage, unwed pregnancy, pornography, and the list goes on.  So does that mean that other sins are not as serious as sex sins?  Well, 1 Corinthians 6:18 does warn that immoral sex does have unique and hurtful personal consequences as opposed to all other sins.  Some also point to Malachi 2:16 and say that it says the LORD hates divorce.  That is a disputed translation, and the better rendering does not say that (look at it in the ESV, NIV, or HCSB for what I believe is the more literal and better translation).  However, look what God clearly says he does hate:

      There are six things that the LORD hates, 
      seven that are an abomination to him: 
            haughty eyes, a lying tongue, 
      and hands that shed innocent blood, 
            a heart that devises wicked plans, 
      feet that make haste to run to evil, 
            a false witness who breathes out lies, 
      and one who sows discord among brothers. 
      (Pr 6:16–19 ESV)

Now, there is no sex anywhere in those verses.  But there is pride, deceit, violence, evil plans and evil actions, false witness against others, and divisiveness.  I've seen all of these in church, but seldom had someone pointed out and be told, "oh, he's a false witness" even if he has borne false witness in the past.  And when was the last time someone was disciplined in church for causing people to become angry with one another?  

Please hear me, I am not looking to label liars or prideful people, or even divisive people who are repentant and seeking to live in holiness.  The whole point of grace is that sin is forgiven and no longer enslaves or holds us.  In the same way, these sins that we have elevated should not be labels of repentant believers, either.

One more thought.  If you have been a liar all your life, and now you are repentant and seeking to be a truth teller, does one failure after days or weeks of truthfulness mean you are still the same liar you have always been?  Should we give up on you as someone who will never change?  Should we get out a scarlet "L" for you?  Of course not.  Change is often slow, and seldom perfect.  Perhaps we should be equally tolerant of repentant sinners still seeking to walk in the Spirit, but whose flesh occasionally gets the upper hand.

We need to work hard to overcome the human (fallen) tendency to label people by their past when God does not.  Scarlet letters must be banished from the church.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pain, Unity, and Change

These past few weeks have been tough for me as a pastor--the kind of weeks that help me understand the providential timing of a sabbatical just before them, and that make me even more dependent upon God to supply the wisdom I lack.  I want to share with my church family some of my thoughts about this, and use this as a time for us to learn.  I also think these lessons may help others beyond our setting, so I'm using the rather public venue of this blog.  Because of this, and not wanting to cause more pain, I will refrain from using   names below, using descriptions instead.

I confess that I've run a gamut of reactions and emotions as I discovered that a flawed search/interview process--led by me--did not bring forward the fact that a chosen candidate for a pastoral position had experienced a divorce in his background. He thought we had discussed it (he was in numerous interview processes at the same time and it was discussed in those), but we did not learn of it until after our process was completed, when the question appeared on our membership application and he called me to confirm in his mind that we knew.

That divorce was not his doing or his fault, and fits any understanding of biblical "grounds" that would free him to remarry in the Lord.  My understanding and teaching position based on Scripture is that this does not disqualify him from being a pastor, but it is the kind of matter that needs to be discussed with a candidate. Good Christians have differed with my view in terms of qualification.  In fact, this disagreement exists within our church and we have not spent time working out together our operating position on this issue when it comes to pastoral and deacon leadership.  So a man we voted to call found himself offering his resignation before he started, and all of us are left in varying levels of pain and confusion.

The pain begins in thinking about the family of our candidate, newly moved here to begin their service, now wondering what God's plan is for them.  We have all been blessed by their graciousness in this situation, but grieve that we have unintentionally brought them into this confusion.  I find comfort only in knowing that our sovereign God works his will in everything, including our faults.  He is ruling, sometimes by overruling our intentions, and he makes no mistakes as he guides those who trust him.

Pain intensifies when I think about the hurt and confusion of my brothers and sisters in the church, especially those who have been through divorce themselves or have loved ones in such situations.   Let me be as clear as I can be: our church has taken as its practice and belief that marriage is meant to be permanent (Matthew 19:6), but that divorce sometimes occurs (Matthew 19:7-9, 1 Corinthians 7:8-16, 25-40).  Divorce is life-altering, but it is not grace-limiting.  Victims of divorce (those whose partners "break" the marriage by breaking their vows) are no different than the victims of other sins, and should not be treated differently.  And those whose divorces may not have the clarity of such a biblical "breaking" are able to discover the riches of God's grace in forgiveness, healing, protection, provision, restoration, service, and hope through submission to God's will and Word.  There may be long-lasting consequences to be dealt with, but it is not the church's role to create consequences that God does not.  There was only one facet out of many related to divorce our leaders wrestled with in this decision, and that was how to interpret "husband of one wife" in leadership qualifications in relation to a person's ability to serve (see 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 for elders/pastors/overseers, and 1 Timothy 3:12 for deacons).  We were not reconsidering whether divorce and remarriage are ever allowed or if they somehow limit a believer's ability to participate fully in the life of the Body of Christ.  I plan to address the issue of marriage, divorce, remarriage, and service in leadership later.

A third pain that I want to speak to now is the pain that comes when the unity of believers within the church is threatened.  Frankly, I feel like we have dodged a bullet, but there is a hail of gunfire still coming in.  Our leaders faced a difficult situation requiring them to act with speed due to circumstances.  They did so with amazing grace (to borrow the hymn title).  There was no rancor in our discussions, abundant charity, clear humility, a lot of struggling as we all had to think out loud, and great sobriety as we considered what to do.  Our decision was driven, as has been said in other places, by seeking to bring glory to God, to protect the unity of the church, and to protect the candidate's family.  We felt God's glory was best served by humbling ourselves and taking responsibility for the errors made, and based on our lack of clarity and unity on the qualification issue, ask the candidate to resign, something he had already said he was ready and willing to do for the sake of church unity.  He had expressed his understanding that his ability to minister effectively among us would be hindered without such clarity and unity among the leaders and congregation.

I know that this issue could have been forced through, ignored (for a time), or simply ended and swept under the rug--strategies churches have often used in embarrassing or potentially divisive situations.  But these approaches only poison the environment and never yield desirable results.  Disunity and division would almost certainly have been the result.  And on this matter, the Scripture is very clear: unity is to be preserved (Ephesians 4:3) as we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).  

Our leaders were unified, even though we do not yet have a united position on this subject.  We know we must come to that position, but what encourages me right now is that there is a willingness to engage in such a process.

I have also been blessed by a number of church members contacting me with their questions, and asking me if I am going to teach on these matters.  I have in the past, but I will do so even more diligently in coming days--I'm still trying to work all of that out.  This situation exposes our need to examine these subjects. 

Which brings me to the subject of change.  Wrestling with any controversy demands that we go back to the Scriptures and study them with renewed passion, and with a willingness to set aside preconceived notions about what we should believe, or what we feel based on our past.  We should all be thankful that the church at large no longer believes that celibacy is to be preferred in all ministers over marriage (at least we pastors should be thankful for that).  Protestants all used to teach that the Pope was The Antichrist.  We may have strong differences with Rome, but most of us no longer hold that particular view.  Such changes have come ever since the time of the apostles by continued study of the Scriptures by prayerful leaders seeking the illumination of the Spirit.  This task falls primarily to pastors/elders/overseers, who are to be devoted to prayer, study, and guarding sound teaching, and such leaders are accountable to God to provide such teaching (Hebrews 13:17b, James 3:1).

No generation of Christians has gotten all doctrine all right.  Essentials have been agreed upon, but beyond that there has been much disagreement.  This means we start with the assumption that we are probably wrong on some things and right on others, and must use the means we have (prayer, study, and dependence upon the Spirit to guide our thinking) to seek answers, and then to apply them.

We can count on this: there will be change that will come to us all.  Some of us will need to change our understandings.  Others of us may need to change our reasoning for an understanding we continue to hold.  As a church, we will have to submit to a process that says, "Together we are going in Direction A, even if I personally think the evidence is better for Direction B."  Unless that distinction is over essential matters the Bible teaches that submission is better than separation (Hebrews 13:17).

So, what does the Bible teach?  Who is responsible for such decisions?  How should we apply this?  Such questions deserve answers, and I hope to work on them in coming posts, and other teaching venues as well. Stay tuned.