Divorce, Ministry and The Tragedy of Interminable Non-Restoration

Earlier this evening I spent time with my friend Tim, with whom I’ve become reconnected after several years of being apart. Tim still goes to the same Assemblies of God (“A/G”) church in which we met and I was baptized in 1991. Since that time I’ve left Pentecostalism in the late 1990’s for Evangelicalism, and then moved to the Reformed faith in 2003 (shortly after Tim and I broke contact).

Now, with Tim in a church with Pentecostal holiness heritage—and all the baggage that goes with it—I wondered how we would relate as brothers. Not only would the Reformed-vs.-Arminian angle become an issue, but Pentecostalism’s notorious mistreatment of divorce persons would rear its head at some point. But God had worked in him to impart a level of Gospel-grace that transcends the self-righteous religiosity in which his denomination operates.

To give him an idea of how I viewed religion vs. Gospel, I played Mark Driscoll’s outstanding “Why I hate Religion” sermon clip. He loved it, so I played the Tolerance Rant, too.

This evening, the divorce issue came to a head; for him because he’s considering dating a divorced woman, for me because some day I would like marry again. So I went to the official Assemblies of God website to show him where his church stands, where his money is going, what he’s up against and how his best friend is viewed by his church organization. A quick site search on “divorce” returns an August 10, 2001 news item: 49th General Council report: Divorce/remarriage resolution passes. The resolution is supposed to “permit men and women who were divorced before conversion to pursue ministerial credentials with the Assemblies of God.”

We analyzed the article together.

Like many Christians, he’s not well versed on how his church stigmatizes, punishes and mistreats divorced persons. At first he didn’t know what to make of it, so we went over it.

On “divorced before conversion“… I pointed out the this approach effectively gives more grace to the unsaved (now Christian) person rather than to the believer who is actually in Christ.  By making this distinction for restoration, the church sends the unequivocal message that God’s mercies are not new every morning, but rather that the slate is wiped clean once only (at “conversion”) and that thereafter sin debts re-accumulate; or at least for certain sins. This flies in the face of the redemptive nature of the true Gospel and is clearly religion.  Further, this grace-before-the-faith-but-not-after approach also set up believers to do the unthinkable: retroactively deny Christ.  By simply saying, “Oh, uh, you see I wasn’t really a true Christian when I got a divorce,” the ministry candidate may get his credential, but at the expense of the truth.

The rest of the news article is a case study in religious traditionalism versus Sola Scriptura reliance in the Bible for guidance.

“Is this a response to correct an error in our theology, or a response to our culture?” one pastor from Minnesota asked during Wednesday afternoon’s debate. “Our culture should be shaped by our theology, not our theology being shaped by our culture. This is a road that we can’t afford to go down because it’s going to cost us way too much.”

What is lost here is that whether the church is trying to follow the culture or overtly working to rebel against it, either way the church is allowing culture to drive the doctrine.

“Let’s give our brothers who already make these decisions on annulments the same latitude on pre-conversion divorces,” said John McLaughlin, the California pastor who authored Resolution 15. “We’ve either overlooked or ignored this principle.”

Let me mention something else they’ve overlooked: annulments aren’t in the Bible. You see, in a Pharisee-like process of proclaiming one thing while secretly practicing another, the A/G has allowed remarried men to serve as pastors if their previous marriage could be annulled by the church. “That’s Roman Catholic,” I pointed out to Tim. “It’s not Biblical and you know it.” He nodded, both of us knowing that a previous Bethel pastor had remarried after an “ecclesiastical annulment” from his first (mentally ill) wife so he could marry the blond bombshell that would complete his ticket to the pulpit.

Supporters based many of their arguments on the principle that when the sin of divorce occurs before conversion, a person is not aware of the consequences of that sin. Salvation then, in essence, gives a person a second chance. “Our fractured relationship with God has been restored,” said Glen Cole, superintendent of the Northern California-Nevada District. “The record of our sin has been totally washed away. The potential of our new life in Christ is therefore limitless.”

I see four errors here:

  1. Whenever someone refers to “the sin of divorce” they’re saying all divorce is sin, thus God is a sinner (cf. Jer 3:8; Isaiah 50:1-3).
  2. Whether or not a person was aware or unaware of the “consequences” of their sin has absolutely no Scriptural bearing on the whether or not they should be forgiven or restored. That comes from repentance. (In fact, how many of us are truly aware of the fully consequences of our sin? Right.)
  3. Second chances aren’t just for unbelievers coming to Christ for the first time; Mercy is for every believer to confess and repent every day and thus God will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
  4. The “consequences” to which Mr. Cole refers (i.e., lifetime barring from credentialed ministry) are imposed consequences, no Biblically prescribed. What Cole is saying is, “Look, an unbeliever didn’t know that the consequence of their divorce could make us bar them from ministry for life, so let’s not hold it against them.” Cole’s reference to “consequences” is not framed in the redemptive/restorative motivation upon which Biblically-based Church discipline is carried out. Paul emphasizes in 2 Cor. 5-11 that the repentant sinner—almost certainly referring to the man in 1 Cor. 5—is to be forgiven, comforted and our love for him reaffirmed [v.8] so that he is not “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (v.7) and that the church “would not be outwitted by Satan” (v.11).  Paul clearly states that the “punishment” inflicted was “sufficient” (that is, had gone on long enough) and restoration was to begin. Therefore, the Scriptural opposite would be interminable (e.g., lifetime) punishment without the possibility of restoration which in turn provokes excessive sorrow and thus plays into Satan’s plan. Which approach seems more like the A/G? Right.

The article continues:

Assistant General Superintendent Charles Crabtree spoke against the resolution because of the increased burden it would place on the Executive Presbytery, which is the final authority on ecclesiastical annulments.

Again, no Scriptural basis for the unbiblically interminable punishment, just that it would be, you know, kind of sticky to deal with.  As for “annulments,” well, show me chapter and verse and we’ll talk.

Interesting trivia: Charles Crabtree is the former pastor at Bethel, under whom Tim used to sit.

Opponents also reminded the General Council that similar measures were rejected in 1983, 1991 and 1997. “I believe as A/G people, we have something to bring to a culture that is rampant in divorce,” Paul E. Grabill, assistant superintendent of the Penn.-Del. District, said earlier in the day during debate over a related resolution that would have allowed the credentialing of a minister whose spouse was divorced prior to marriage.

As an opponent, what Grabill is advocating is that the A/G continue to try to win souls to a non-restorative, limited-for-life, second class citizenship among the brethren (a caste system foreign to the New Testament).  But what Grabill misses is that if God is divorced, and we have a High Priest in Christ who able to sympathetic (Hebrews 5:7-10), then we can offer a Lord and Savior who sympathizes with those who have unfaithful spouses and those who are divorced! But the opponents of this resolution would make sure that only Jesus, not the pastor, could sympathize with such pain and loss.

“We have held the line with credential holders on this issue, and I believe we should do that. I believe that the Holy Spirit has spoken to us again and again, and I believe that we ought to let this issue rest, and let God use us.”

Grabill’s opposition boilerplate Pentecostalism at its pseudo-gnostic finest: “We heard from God, no need to further consider the matter.”  This is not opposition based on Scripture, but based on those who claim the authority derived from that “still small voice” they listen to when they pray.  I have no idea what “credit holders” are.

A pastor from Florida echoed that sentiment. “Our church’s credentialing requirements have served us well, and now we have somehow been told that we were out of will of God that whole time,” he said during the Resolution 15 debate.

Let me translate: “We’ve always treated people like this.  If we pass this resolution we’d intimate that we might have been *gasp* wrong! No way I say!”  Again, no Scripture here, just defense of tradition based on the fear of acknowledging fallibility. At this point I have to remind us all that we aren’t taking to a Roman Catholic.

But some say those requirements haven’t served the Fellowship well, especially for men and women from inner cities who have been miraculously saved. Those converts frequently carry the baggage of divorce and remarriage but cannot fulfill callings to become ministers if they remain in the A/G. “We must not keep these blood-bought, born-again children of God from this noble task (pastoral ministry),” McLaughlin said. “The scriptures do not, and we must not.”

Unlike McLaughlin’s anti-redemptive opponents, McLaughlin stand upon no less than the blood of Christ as the basis for restoration. Praise God!  Also, I pointed out the “who have been miraculously saved” line. I used this point to show Tim how Arminianism fails to acknowledge salvation as a miracle.  Why?  Because in churches based on hyper-Arminian doctrine, a man coming to faith is well within our in-born natural abilities, thus salvation is not super-natural or miraculous. One again, A/G and Rome stand shoulder to shoulder here.

The use of a secret ballot may have been a factor in the passage of Resolution 15. Earlier in the day, the General Council by an 879-1,049 vote defeated Resolution 14, the measure that would have allowed the credentialing of a minister whose spouse was divorced prior to marriage. But that vote wasn’t conducted by secret ballot; delegates and ministers stood to display where they stood on the issue.

In other words, when not having to uphold a Pharisee-like image of legalism, these men are willing to vote for grace and restoration. Sad.

The bottom line message from the A/G:

  • Second chance? Clean slate? Only for the unsaved… and only once.
  • Divorced in the pulpit? No way, that would be unbiblical. Annulled?  Oh, sure, that’s fine.

After I layed this out Tim said, “Why bother repenting at all?” He’s starting to see.

2 thoughts on “Divorce, Ministry and The Tragedy of Interminable Non-Restoration

  1. Craig

    I am seeing this in an even more personal manner in my life right now. Although I was raised Southern Baptist, I have been attending some A/G churches for the last several years. I also started back to obtain my master’s degree at an A/G college. I am a practicing lawyer and was asked to teach a class or two. It appears that because of my divorce, I will not be able to teach. This is not even about being credentialed. Why must the church categorize sin and when did we stop giving grace?

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