Dealing With Divorce Within The Church

I am part of a Facebook group for pastors within my particular denomination. The group exist for a number of reasons, but one of the purposes is for pastors to bounce ideas and questions off of other pastors.

The other day there was a pastor that posted a question that I thought would be of benefit to others so I am now posting it here. The question was about how to deal with a married couple, both leaders within the church, that are now getting a divorce. The short story is that the wife wants out of the marriage. However both people want to stay involved with the church and within their leadership positions. One of the responses to the question seemed to be very helpful and thought out. After reading it I thought that it would be a great resource for other pastors or lay people that are dealing with similar situations. I asked the writer if I could post his response here on my blog and he agreed. His name is Jeremy Geerdes and he is the pastor or Debra Heights Wesleyan Church in Des Moines, Iowa and below was his response.

First off, Satan attacks families whenever and wherever churches are pursuing God. I can count on it happening in our church whenever we try something new and faithful. And knowing just what I do about what’s been going on at Heartland, I am surprised you haven’t seen this before now.

That said, the first response from you must be to redouble your prayer coverage of families. Pray, specifically, for this couple, but also for the other families in your church, including your own. Do this at least daily, maybe even hourly.

And sadly, especially if they are not willing to even pursue reconciliation, your second response must be to remove both of them from their ministry positions. Make clear that you want them to remain in the church; indeed, it is essential that they remain in the church for the support and counseling. But if we are truly committed to Biblical teachings on marriage and family, then we can’t have leaders who will openly defy that teaching.

And without knowing the details of the situation, there is some defiance going on. If this was a mutual decision, then they are both in direct disobedience. If she just left, then she is. If there is abuse or unfaithfulness involved, then the abuser or unfaithful party is.

Which brings up another, equally important issue. There is a symbiotic relationship between broken relationships and broken people. Broken people produce broken relationships, and broken relationships produce broken people. As I often tell couples I’m counseling, the Bible speaks of how husband and wife become one flesh or essence. Generally, singular objects don’t just break apart; they’re damaged first. And you can’t divide one and still get something whole. So each of these individuals is broken and hurting right now, even if they don’t realize it. They need healing and wholeness before they can lead the church or ministries again.

So here is what I would suggest. Personally affirm your love for each of them individually, but ask them to step down from leadership and ministry through this season of their lives so that they can focus on their relationship. Invite them to participate in counseling so that you can try to dig into the root causes of the split and, assuming it’s appropriate (i.e., there is no unfaithfulness or abuse involved), work toward reconciliation and restoration.

If they are both as committed to the church as they say they are, they should understand and readily agree to both of these things. Operate on the assumption that this will be the case. However, if that doesn’t happen, then you will need to take someone else to make the same offer. If they still don’t agree, then you will have to pursue discipline at the board level, or even with the entire church.

The frustrating thing here – and the reason it’s so tempting for us to compromise, especially in a small church – is that there may not be anyone else to immediately step in and fill such big shoes. And indeed, some things might fall. But we can’t afford to even appear to validate sin. Remember what Jesus said to the church in Thyatira in Revelation 2: the thing He had against them was that they tolerated sin, validating it either explicitly or implicitly. And Jesus’ prescription for them was to defend the truth and invite the offending parties to repent.

Rest assured that, if you respond in a Biblical manner, it will still be painful, but God will continue to bless you and your church.

I found his response to be refreshing in a world that sometimes would rather please people than deal with sin from those within the church.  My hope is that this will both encourage and at the same time can be used as a resource if you ever experience anything like this within your community of worship.