Monday, May 08, 2017

Skipping the Church

This post over at A Cry for Justice is indicative both of what I like about the site and of what makes me deeply uncomfortable about it.

The site has published an open-letter type response to an allegedly real letter from a pastor to an abuse victim (non-physical abuse).  I am not defending the pastor’s letter in any way.  I don’t know enough to say anything about the pastor’s situation at all.  So don’t misconstrue this as an endorsement of his letter. 

What I appreciate about the open letter is how clearly the real pain is communicated.  First, I do think pastors need to realize that often when a person speaks about a spouse’s emotional manipulation (I prefer that word to the term “abuse” so that we can keep the distinction between the crime of physical abuse and the sin of spiritual tyranny), he/she is already at the end of the rope.  The sufferer has reached the tipping point.  It is not a new problem in the marriage but a long-standing pattern.  Hope has been lost.  Second, I’m thankful for the reminder that when a pastor approaches marriage counseling, he ought to consider that one of the marriage partners could very well be a rank pagan.  Pretenders and hypocrites exist within our churches.  Pastors are probably the easiest to fool since we see the people the least.  Spouses witness the hypocrisy the most.  Third, divorce is a biblically acceptable outcome in some situations.  Divorcing couples are not a sign of a failing church or ministry; sometimes they are just the by-product of the depravity of man.

What I find deeply troubling about the open letter is its low view of the church.  And it’s regarding this point that I find myself unable to endorse this open letter (much less A Cry for Justice overall).  This letter begs the pastor to listen.  And he should.  But what the author basically is saying is, “I tried all the Christian stuff already, please grant me a divorce, now.”  Just as the pastor needs to understand that the wife (or whoever is the offended party in the marriage) is at the end of her rope, that person needs to understand that the church has only just now been apprised of the situation.  The church cannot jump straight to the end and just say, “I am sorry for you, here is your divorce.”  We can’t do that because ours is a “ministry of reconciliation.”  We can’t do that because Jesus Christ’s grace is real and can change lives.  It changed Saul into Paul.  It can change anyone.  We can’t jump to the end because, while the wife may have tried everything by herself, she has not tried anything with the backing and support of the church.  That fact is important.

The open letter makes clear that pain and suffering are real, and the husband in that case needs to repent.  He is acting sinfully.  However, the author’s efforts to change her husband are not the same as the church’s.  The church can add its voice to the call to repent, the call to recognize how much the husband’s behavior has hurt his wife and his kids, the call to turn to Jesus and away from sin.  One of the important lessons from Matthew 18 is that the one who refuses to listen is not to be treated as an unbeliever or a tax collector until after he has failed to listen to the church.  I do not see that attitude in the letter.  And that concerns me. 

Ultimately, what I am arguing for is to involve the church much, much earlier in the process.  Go to your church well before you reach the end of your rope.  If your spouse gives you the silent treatment at home, don’t endure it for months, involve the elders and pastor right then.  Is he yelling and screaming and blaming you for financial problems that are not your fault?  Call the pastor.  Did he kill a beloved family pet?  Tell it to the church.  Did he hit you or wave a gun at you or threaten to kill you?  Call the police.  The church understands and will support you.  Physical abuse is a crime and should be reported.  You and the church can work out the details of divorce later.
The open letter is right: pastors should listen.  The letter is right: the pastor was not aware.  But that is because he was never told.  And that is part of the problem.