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.