Mailbag #34: How to Respond When a Pastor’s Wife Leaves; Pastoring Regular Attenders Who Refuse to Join; Help with Cleaning Up Our Church’s Past Mistakes

Mailbag
03.25.2016

A pastor’s wife left him; is he disqualified from ministry? »
How do you pastor a couple who enjoys attending regularly, but refuses to join? »
How can I minister to a member of our church, who was hurt by us 10 years ago and hasn’t since been back? »

Dear 9Marks,

When a pastor’s wife leaves him, can he continue in that position? If so, can he ever take up the office again?

I have a dear friend who pastors a small church. His wife left him five years ago (after 16 years of marriage). After the time of separation required by their state, she divorced him and remarried. As far as I know, there was no adultery by either party before or during the separation, and she continues to maintain that she is a believer.

When this storm began I attempted to sympathize with him and point him to the Scripture. I also encouraged him to take some time away from the pulpit to work towards their possible reconciliation, his well-being, and the health of the church. He did not step down and has admitted that the congregation became his therapy group. To this day he remains pastor of the church.

Advice needed for a burdened brother!

—James, Maryland

Dear James,

I am reluctant to say that a pastor whose wife has left him must always, always, always step down. Can I say such a pastor should almost always step down? And frankly, I have a hard time envisioning when he should not.

The simple reason is, a wife’s departure calls into question whether he meets Paul’s requirement that an elder “must manage his own household well” (1 Tim. 3:4). And “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (v. 5)

Now, it may be that he was an exemplary husband since day 1 of the marriage. But her departure at least casts doubt on his overall husbanding. He may have his stalwart defenders in the church, but many will find it more difficult to trust him. This in turn means they will have difficulty receiving God’s Word from him. And they need God’s Word!

Worse still, these people might in fact stay in the church, but now they’re living out their Christian lives under a preacher whose Bible words they no longer trust. How exactly, then, does his staying serve them?

These are the questions I would want to press on him: “Does your staying serve the church or you? Do you perceive your own preaching ministry to be indispensable in their lives? Another man couldn’t do it?” On a related note, I would ask whether he can envision not being a pastor and, if not, could it be that he has made an idol of it? That his identity depends too much upon the office? Or, could it be that he cannot trust God to provide for him financially in some other way?

I have known fellow elders quickly submit themselves to me and the whole group of our elders when a question of far less consequence arose about their qualification. One brother wondered if his housing debt disqualified him. He placed his entire financial portfolio in front of several of us, and offered to step down if it was our judgment. Other brothers have offered to step down over the busyness of their schedules, or the wayward spiritual lives of their adult children.

Now, maybe your friend has sought counsel and volunteered to fall on his sword if a consensus emerged among the people he trusts. But if he hasn’t actively sought such counsel or shown such willingness to resign, that worries me almost as much as the fact that his wife left him. Is he uninterested in wisdom? Is he unwilling to submit to anyone? Why is he clinging so tightly? Maybe he is just naïve, but on the face of it, an unwillingness to even ask others for counsel sounds dangerous and deeply self-interested. That’s hardly the example a pastor should set. Didn’t Christ set aside far more for the sheep?

I’ve probably said as much as I should say. I don’t know the man. Yet these are the questions that arise in my mind that may be worth pursuing further. In the final analysis, brother, remember that you are only to speak faithful words; you are not responsible for manufacturing an outcome. Plus, you and I could be wrong! So after you have spoken, leave it with the Lord, and let go of your burden. Rest.

Blessings.

P. S.: I do think a pastor whose wife left him can be restored to office. The timing of that would need to be judged on a case-by-case basis, based on at least two criteria: (i) he needs to demonstrate that he manages his household in such a fashion that other Christians could be advised to emulate him in this area; (ii) and he needs to recover the congregation’s trust in this area.

Dear 9Marks,

A couple has been attending our church for three years now. They are well-liked, and they enjoy being a part of our church family. The church has been pursuing meaningful membership, however, yet this couple has repeatedly resisted joining (they came from a church that does not affirm formal membership).

I met with the husband recently. He said he would never join a church and that membership is a man-made tradition. He said he is part of the universal church body and already a member of it. And he said that they have not given a penny to our church since they’ve been attending for three years. They give to other ministries because churches abuse money and they would rather just give their money directly to whomever they want. They are “led by the Spirit,” he says.

They also move around from small group to small group in our church, and recently pulled out because they want to spend time meeting with Christian friends from other churches on Friday evenings.

He did ask, “If we don’t become members, will we be asked to leave?” I told him, “No, but not formally committing in membership will affect your ministry responsibilities and the like.”

How would you proceed with this couple?

—Anonymous, California 

Dear Anonymous,

It sounds like his mind is pretty made up, and as a general principle I don’t push very hard—if at all—on people whose minds are made up. It typically hardens them further still.

Were I having an initial conversation with this man, I might ask him about his view of Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. How do Jesus or Paul envision “removing” (Paul’s word in verse 3) someone who is not “inside” (v. 12)? I might also ask how he believes the invisible universal church becomes visible on Planet Earth if not through our concrete inclusion in the local church (just like our positional righteousness in Christ must express itself in a life of pursuing righteousness).

Maybe I would ask if he would want someone to bar him from the Lord’s Table should he ever, say, begin preaching a false gospel or abusing his wife or slandering a church member. And would he view such an act of discipline as an act of love or malice?

Also, why is it that a parachurch ministry (an institution not established by God) is less likely to abuse money than a church (an institution established by God)? On and on I could go with these kinds of questions, and I trust you already did some of this. Yes, you could talk about his flagrant disobedience to passages like 1 Corinthians 9:14, 1 Timothy 5:17-18, or Hebrews 13:17. But it sounds like he has already convinced himself that he is upstanding and guileless.

Very well, then. Let him be. All you can do is teach, brother. If they do not accept your teaching, there is not much more you can do. Except . . .

One other thing: Your first line was, they have enjoyed being a “part of the church family.” In the same way that I advise my daughters not to let young suitors receive the benefits of marriage until they commit to a marriage, so I think it’s your pastoral responsibility to encourage commitment by withholding the benefits and responsibilities of belonging to the “family” until professors commit to the family. Don’t just give me pious-sounding Jesus-y words, give me actions.

My own church does not allow non-members to join small groups or participate in ministries. And your situation would qualify as a text-book case study on why. Small groups work best when characterized by trust, transparency, and teachability, and the commitment of membership helps to foster those things. But this couple has been allowed to use small groups for their own purposes—a little nibbling here, a little grazing there, never mind the effect they have on other people. Isn’t that what wolves do? For the sake of other sheep, then, I would not let them continue to join small groups or participate in other ministries of the church.

Bottom line: encourage them to find a church they can join, where they better trust the pastors. Discourage them from taking the Lord’s Supper until they do since they’re basically the captains of their own ship and not a part of the body (see 1 Cor. 10:17; 11:18,29,33; also, question #2 here). Don’t let them join small groups or participate in any ministry. But certainly tell them they can continue to attend the church’s public gatherings (as you did). Smile when you see them, shake their hands, love them in your heart, pray for them whenever they cross your mind. But ultimately, leave them to the Lord and spend your precious pastoral time with people who want to learn and are teachable.

Dear 9Marks,

We are moving to meaningful membership and will adopt our new covenant soon. We have taught and re-taught on membership, discipline, and eldership. Things are moving along well. However, the inevitable has happened, and we are finding old members who have not attended in some time.

Nadine was/is a member but hasn’t attended for ten years. She was at a low point in life, before my time here, with several personal, financial, and health related problems. At her breaking point, she went and bought some wine coolers to take the edge off. Matt, a deacon, saw her getting out of her car at home. The next Sunday, the church took communion. Matt approached Nadine and instructed her to examine her heart and refrain from taking the supper because of the wine coolers. This crushed her. Not only was she at a low point, but her church family had done nothing to reach out to her. She has never been back to our church and is still struggling after ten years.

Question: Where do I start? I feel responsible to Nadine, to shepherd her in hopes of her being freed from this pain.
—Bill, Arkansas

Dear Bill,

I appreciate your shepherd’s heart. Yes, I do think the church has some responsibility here. My first question is, what sin did Matt think he was confronting? Was she evidently drunk? If not, then I assume Matt believes it is sin for a Christian to drink at all. Is that right? How you handle this moving forward will depend, to some extent, on whether both you and Matt believe drinking alcohol is sin.

For my part, I do not believe it is, which would mean if Matt were a deacon in my church, I would exhort him to go and apologize to her. But I recognize that Matt’s convictions may run deep here, and maybe yours do as well. So I guess I see three paths forward, depending upon your and Matt’s convictions on that matter.

Path one: if Matt can be persuaded that it is sinful to divide the body of Christ at the Lord’s Table where the Bible does not divide it (as I personally think is the case), then you and he together can ask to meet with her and apologize.

Path two: if you don’t think drinking is sin, but Matt does, then you need to have two conversations—one with her in order to invite her back; and one with him challenging him to no longer divide the body here, even if this remains his conviction. He needs to accept her back into fellowship.

Path three: if both you and Matt remain convinced that all drinking is sin (or if she was in fact drunk, which is a sin), I still would maintain that you try to meet with her, inquire into how she’s doing, seek to care for her, and invite her back. There is no need to prosecute her for something that happened ten years ago.

Now, to switch directions, the biggest issue here, pastorally speaking, is hardly what she did or didn’t do with wine coolers ten years ago. It is that she has divided herself from the body of Christ for the last ten years (or maybe she’s gone elsewhere?). I’m not yet assigning blame. I’m just saying that that should be your major concern, whether you take paths 1, 2, or 3. Frankly, if she doesn’t bring up the wine coolers, I doubt I would.

Instead, I would begin by asking whether she has been attending any other churches. Then I would invite her back, or ask her if you can help her find some other church where she would be comfortable. If she is harboring a grudge toward Matt or your church, express understanding, but gently remind her that the grudge will continue to hurt her more than anyone and that Jesus offers her freedom through forgiveness.

Perhaps she is the victim in her own mind. And, yes, she may have been sinned against. Still, you know as a pastor how proficient we sinners are at manufacturing still more sin when we’ve been sinned against. One of the greatest naiveties of our victimization culture is that victims are all good and perpetrators are all bad. Anyone with a halfway decent anthropology knows better. In fact, such a supposition hurts the victims even further because it refuses to deal with them and lets them harden into a kind of Pharisaical self-righteousness.

I mention this to say, your pastoral posture in any conversations with Nadine should balance sympathy with not conceding too much. There is such a thing in Scripture as misjudged and ill-calibrated sympathies. Express genuine sorrow, but don’t treat her as a victim. She let one bad conversation (?) drive her from the body of Christ for ten years, and she bears some responsibility for that.

All this means, I would start with a lot of questions. Seek to understand. You’ll be able to better assess if you do! And go from there.

May God grant you wisdom.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.