With far too common frequency we receive letters and emails from abuse victims who have been ex-communicated from their churches because they have separated from or divorced their abusers. These victim/survivors have come to see that divorce is indeed permissible for abuse even though their pastors and elders and fellow church members insist that it is not. These enlightened victims understand that God does not require reconciliation in every situation and that genuine forgiveness does not necessarily include such reconciliation. In fact, Godly wisdom dictates against a resumption of relationship and trust in these kinds of cases. And yet, for walking in these truths with full freedom of conscience before the Lord, these oppressed people are further oppressed by their churches, even to the point of ex-communication.
I would like to speak to this travesty of justice (and mercy) in regard to two points:
- A reminder of just what biblical ex-communication is, and
- Two character qualities required in an elder or pastor that seem to be lacking these days in so many church leaders.
What is ex-communication? Is it a revocation of one’s membership in a local club of some kind? Is it an informing of an individual that they are no longer permitted to attend a particular church? It appears to me that these are the very kinds of things that church leaders have in their minds when they enact this “putting out of the church” step in church discipline. Yet these answers are not the biblical answers to our question. These kinds of attitudes treat ex-communication far too lightly and as a result ex-communication is used in cases that it should not be. Listen to the Word of God:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1Co 5:1-5)
I have no doubt that the churches who are ex-communicating abuse victims because they leave or divorce their abusers would stammer and stutter if they were asked “so, it was your intent to hand this woman over to Satan for the destruction of her flesh, is that right?” Well….uh…. Notice the gross and rank nature of the man’s sin here in 1 Corinthians 5. Openly and shamelessly fornicating with (perhaps) his step-mother and bragging about it by coming to church with her! And notice carefully where the arrogance lies, according to Paul. It is with the church! With the pastors and elders who have not only refused to deal with this rank evil, but have arrogantly embraced it. Let’s see, that sounds a whole lot like what is happening in our churches in respect to the abuser. We boast about how merciful and gracious we are and point to the wicked man sitting in our midst as an example!
But, to the nature of ex-communication. Listen again —
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Mat 18:17-20)
Once more we see the very sobering nature of ex-communication. The two or three witnesses (God’s rules of evidence) testify to the guilty person’s sin, it is announced to the church, and the church’s verdict is given Jesus’ own authority. The decision is bound in heaven. Among other things, this means that JESUS Himself has rejected the unrepentant person and not only fully concurs with the verdict but acts as the supreme court that validates the sentence. So ex-communication is not merely dismissal and exclusion from a local church. It is the New Testament equivalent of being put “outside the camp” and under the Lord’s own curse. As the decree is bound in heaven, it cannot be side-stepped by merely going down the road to another local church as if nothing had happened. [One of the frequent problems we experience in genuine, biblical exercise of church discipline in cases of notorious, open, evil sin is that the process of ex-communication, intended among other things to protect the church and to bring the guilty one to repentance, is short-circuited by churches who unquestioningly announce “everyone is welcome here”].
We have heard of pastors and elders telling an abuse victim “you cannot come to this church anymore because you will not reconcile with your husband.” But do we all understand that there is NO biblical basis for such an action? A divisive person is to be rejected after a first and second warning (Titus 3:10-11) and rank heretics are to be pronounced anathema (Galatians 1). People who claim to be Christians but who habitually live in wickedness, we are not to even eat with (1 Cor 5). But will anyone argue that an abuse victim who leaves her abuser and who refuses to be duped into reconciling with him fits any of these categories? I think that the answer is obvious, and I also believe that this is one of the reasons that half-measures of discipline are used by churches to send victims away.
Other churches, let’s say ones that hold to the “permanence view” of marriage – no divorce for any reason at all and no remarriage as long as the spouse is still alive – practice their PV doctrine in their own circle and tell people they discipline for divorcing for ANY reason that “well, you can go down the road and find another church that will allow you to be there, but you can’t be here because we don’t cotton to what you did” are also taking a non-biblical view of church discipline. Either the ex-communication is biblical, is endorsed by Jesus Himself, and is therefore binding upon ALL true churches, or it is not. You can’t pronounce someone anathema or say they are handed over to Satan only in your own local church, yet advise them to seek fellowship in some other church.
Alright then, now to the second point I wanted to discuss and which is the basis for the title of this article. This concerns the biblical character qualities for the office of pastor and elder. Here they are:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1Ti 3:1-7)This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you — if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Tit 1:5-9)So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1Pe 5:1-3)
It is apparent to me that something is very wrong in many if not most of our local churches. You can’t study this subject of abuse and talk with scores of abuse victims who are genuine Christians and hear the stories one after the other about how they were treated and even ex-communicated by their churches when they sought help in dealing with their abuser and not eventually come to realize that something is very, very wrong with the leaders of many churches. As I have looked over the three passages quoted above, I have concluded that the dealing of injustice to victims is a sure sign of an absence of at least three character qualities that are indispensable for the pastor/elder. These are:
- Not arrogant
- Not seeking shameful gain
- Not domineering
These are all very much related. And the tie that binds these three together is PRIDE. We are not seeing Godly humility and a servant’s heart in the leaders of churches that shamefully treat abuse victims, but quite the opposite. Any single one of these three negative qualities disqualifies a man for service as pastor/elder and in fact will necessarily result in such an officer dealing out injustice to the weak and oppressed. An arrogant, gain-seeking, domineering man is not going to deal out the mercy and compassion and justice of Jesus Christ.
I must conclude that any pastor or elder who insists that divorce for abuse IS definitely and without question sinful and un-biblical is arrogant. Why? Because so many Christians all through church history have held a different position on the biblical grounds for divorce. For any of us to rise up and announce that we are so certain WE are right, even to the point of being willing to hand a person over to Satan and place them under the condemnation of the Lord himself, is rank arrogance. Can you see that? I hope so.
In regard to shameful gain-seeking, a pastor or elder motivated by a lust for material gain or for self-acclaim because of his office is never going to stand with the weak and oppressed. It is too costly. And cost is not what such a person has in mind. It is far more profitable to stand with the abuser in so many of these cases because that is where the power and money and assets are.
And finally, this business of domineering or lording it over the flock. This is the Diotrephes of 3 John. It is a love to be first. It is an abuser who has obtained office in the church. The lover of power and control. Such a person issues decrees and pronouncements and demands that all bow the knee to what he says. He is one who “talks down” to the people of Christ and exalts himself above them. Domineering is arrogance in action.
In contrast, the Lord Jesus sets the example of how He expects His flock to be shepherded. It is a laying down of one’s life. It is loving and serving the bride of Christ. It is standing with the weak and opposing the wicked. It is dying to oneself and walking in the footsteps of the Chief Shepherd.
Today I received a refreshing report of a pastor who IS eminently qualified for his office. He announced to his church that he has been ignorant of the nature of abuse, that he has mis-handled some of these cases in the past, and that he has resolved to set himself to correcting these deficiencies. Now there is a true shepherd of Christ’s people.