Church Membership and the Tough Cases: Reflections on Divorce and Remarriage

W. Jackson Watts

In a prior article I discussed the centrality of church membership to our evaluations of where we are as churches at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic. The truth is that church membership touches all aspects of church life and Christian experience.

I have an exercise I often do when meeting with churches, leaders, and others who may be skeptical about the relevance of church membership. I ask them to name some things that frustrate them about their experience in the local church, then I start jotting them down all over a dry-erase board. The list is predictable: people who frequently skip worship, too few people doing too much of the ministry, a lack of conflict resolution, a failure of people to tithe, not enough leadership development, etc. I then I ask this: “What if I told you that there is an underlying biblical principle that unites all of these, and which, if addressed, would begin to improve all of these?” Suddenly people are all ears. I then disappoint them by writing this phrase in the middle of the board: “Biblical church membership and discipline.” I circle it, then draw connecting lines from that circle to all the phrases they’ve provided.

I only partly mean “disappoint them” because Christians certainly want to learn helpful, new biblical insights. However, people aren’t easily persuaded that biblical church membership and discipline are the answers. This is largely because we have a truncated view of both.

We tend to reduce membership to the specific act of coming before a congregation and being voted into a church family. We tend to reduce discipline to a corrective effort that likely ends with people just going and finding a new church to escape such accountability.

However, we need to expand our vision of membership to refer not simply to the public act of committing—often at the time of baptism—to a church body, but to the full experience of belonging to a church in a committed, accountable relationship. Similarly, we need to recognize that most church discipline isn’t solely corrective; most of it is formative. Remember the spiritual disciplines? Bible study. Prayer. Fasting. Meditation. These are part of the regular experience of growing Christians. Corrective discipline arises when a breakdown transpires in obedience.

Now the question is, if our churches embrace this robust, dual vision of membership and discipline, what difference will it make? Over time, we should expect spiritual progress on all fronts, even in difficult cases.

The Tough Cases

This may seem like a lengthy preamble to the subject of divorce and remarriage, but it’s necessary. Nearly all our congregations have members, or at least attendees, who have been divorced. Many have remarried. Many are struggling in their first marriage. Many are living with someone and/or have a sexual relationship with someone who isn’t their spouse. Frankly, given our current cultural environment, even more arrangements are likely present. But it’s important to recognize the competing experiences of and perspectives on marriage present.

Perhaps one of the two or three most pastorally challenging situations is when we encounter marital conflict late in the game. What happens when people come to us after they’ve decided to divorce? Or when a divorced or widowed person comes to inform us that they are suddenly getting remarried? All pastors have been deflated more than once by being the “last to know.” Yet our faithfulness isn’t contingent on what we would have done had we known; we must act faithfully today.

Congregational Cultures and Expectations

Before considering how these situations relate to church membership, we need to step back and consider what kind of church culture we’re seeking to form.

Congregational cultures give rise to certain ideas about what’s a private matter, and what’s a matter for corporate discernment. Quite simply, does the 25-year-old in our congregation expect members to encourage him to remain chaste while he’s single, but pray for a godly spouse if he desires to marry? Has the recently widowed woman been taught the many instructions and cautions found in 1–2 Timothy concerning widows? Let’s face it: some of the problems that land on our doorsteps are inevitable if we aren’t cultivating congregations that know and love the whole counsel of God.

Taking a whole-congregation perspective on spiritual formation means that our preaching, teaching, and personal discipleship considers the full range of life situations and experiences. Not everyone is at the same place, and certainly everyone didn’t start at the same place. The various points of encounter between people and their church are quite diverse the larger the congregation, which includes different marital circumstances. The apostle Paul addressed this directly in 1 Corinthians 7. He saw a church filled with different types of people who had come to faith amid different life circumstances. And people’s spouses often hadn’t arrived there simultaneously.

Now envision the Corinthian Church receiving this correspondence. The assembly heard Paul’s apostolic counsel read, and individual members heard that counsel speak to their specific situations. They had to receive this word and work towards its application in their lives, at that time. How was that possible? What did it look like? What did it require?

If we believe that Paul’s words from chapters five through six about church discipline and holiness are inspired, as are chapters twelve through fourteen about the church as members of a community of love and service, how should that shape how these situations are sorted out in the experience of the church? A church’s formal and functional perspectives on and practice of church membership and discipline are foundational to how we help singles, marriages, divorcees, widows/widowers, and remarried people.

This argument has two, complementary components. First, if we don’t foster a congregational culture where there is a robust understanding of how members value and care for marriages, then it will be nearly impossible to resolve many of the problems people often experience. Second, if we haven’t prioritized membership as a biblical target for all Christians—married or unmarried—then it makes biblical accountability especially impossible because we’re trying to encourage vow-keeping in a context where no one thinks they’ve made a vow to anyone around them.

The Unfolding Conflict

Let’s return to the study. “Pastor, we’re getting a divorce.” Or, “Pastor, I want to reconcile, but my husband doesn’t. Does this constitute abandonment?” Sometimes pastors have assumed that the entire burden of the situation is on their shoulders. While perhaps well-intentioned, they fail to appreciate the responsibility of the entire church to help and keep members accountable, including those in downward-spiraling marriages.

Let’s establish this key principle about marriage in the church: when married couples who are both believers and members of our churches struggle, the entire church has an obligation to them. Members must pray proactively for the spiritual vitality and health of married people. They have an obligation to value their churches’ marriages, even if they themselves are called to celibacy or are widowed. Moreover, one of the keys to pastoral discernment during and after divorce proceedings is for the church’s leaders, namely its pastors, and eventually its members, to come to an understanding of what has happened.

I think of a specific situation in my past. I realize that one reason why I had difficulty counseling a young lady who belonged to another church who had questions about divorce and abandonment is because she and her husband weren’t in a situation where pastors were actively involved. There was little pastoral or congregational engagement that would have helped adjudicate things. Such discernment eventually helps reveal the hearts and actions of who was truly walking away from their marriage, and perhaps even some who had been spiritual pretenders all along.

These are complex issues which require theological integrity, biblical discernment, and pastoral sensitivity. I raise this subject because it’s sadly common, and we should work for it to be rare. One of the essential ways we do this is by committing ourselves to meaningful, biblical, church membership and discipline. If we do, this will (1) strengthen some marriages, (2) save some marriages, and (3) better support some innocent parties when the worst happens. Moreover, such a commitment will help the entire congregation understand that choosing a spouse, feuding with a spouse, or divorcing a spouse aren’t merely private matters. Instead, it’s the proper domain of the family of God to which we belong.

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