Divorce and Remarriage:
Ministering to Those Who Have Experienced This Trauma
Interview with George O. Wood
Churches have always stressed the importance of strong marriages and need to continue to do so. But when pastors and churches minister to young and single adults today, they often encounter those who are single because of divorce. If a pastor is not careful, he can inadvertently make those who have been divorced feel like second-class citizens. Also, some pastors are in a quandary concerning what kind of ministry positions those who have been divorced can have in the church. Gary R. Allen, executive editor for Enrichment journal, sat down with General Superintendent George O. Wood to discuss how the church can minister to those who have been divorced. Wood also shares insight into how those who have been divorced can hold ministry positions in the church.
In light of so many people divorcing and remarrying, what can pastors do to encourage strong marriages in the church?
Wood: He starts with children and young people. Talk to them honestly about things that pertain to the home, marriage, and sexuality from a Christian perspective. Society bombards our young people with sexual messages from the age of 10 or 11 on, and the church has been too silent. These young people do not get solid guidance.
This is changing, however. Many of our churches are giving help and focus to young people and families on this subject.
Pastors need to preach on what it means to be a Christian husband, a Christian wife, a Christian parent, a Christian child, and how people can have a solid Christian family. The church also needs to develop a program for couples that are considering becoming engaged or who are engaged.
When I was a pastor we began an engaged couples seminar. A couple did not need to be engaged to attend, but we required any couple getting married in the church to attend this seminar. At times a couple would realize they were marrying their fantasies rather than the real person. Their personalities, outlooks, and interests were so different they realized they had been in the heat of romance and had overlooked reality.
When there is distress within a marriage, the church needs to have compassion, especially toward those who are the victims of another person’s abuse or infidelity. When a person is the victim of another person’s misbehavior, we need to be careful that we do not brand this person like a leper.
When a couple comes to a pastor and one or both of them have been divorced and want to remarry, what can pastors do to help that couple?
Wood: Our bylaws permit a minister to perform a marriage if a marriage has ended because of adultery by an unfaithful spouse. Our bylaws also say a minister can decline to marry this couple.
The bylaws do not mention specifically about ministers remarrying somebody who was divorced prior to conversion, and as a Christian is seeking remarriage. Given the action of the General Council in permitting a person to hold credentials if he has been divorced prior to conversion, by inference a minister would have that latitude.
But there are cases where a marriage has ended not because of infidelity, but because of other reasons. As a pastor, I used biblical principles and my conscience as a guide. For example, if there had been severe abuse, I might perform that remarriage. But if I felt the marriage did not meet biblical conditions, I would refer that marriage to some other minister. That was my personal way of proceeding.
Today we have men and women wanting credentials who have had marriage entanglements prior to their conversion. How are we dealing with that?
Wood: I have had a deep-seated feeling since I became a pastor in 1971 that our Assemblies of God position needs to more accurately reflect where I felt the Scriptures stood on the issue. In the past our position represented more our tradition than it did Scripture.
Incrementally over the years, we have gradually brought our position to a careful and closer alignment with Scripture. I say this because some believe our changes on credentialing were simply an accommodation to existing culture. I never looked at it that way. I felt that some of our positions prior to 2000, even prior to 2007, were based on a narrow understanding of the phrase, “husband of one wife,” found in Timothy and Titus.
In hermeneutics we teach not to build doctrine on obscure texts or texts that are capable of a multitude of interpretations. “Husband of one wife” is one of those texts. In fact, we have already worked around that text in a number of ways because we credential women who are not the husband of one wife. We credential single persons who are not the husband of one wife. We credential remarried widowers. So we have in effect worked around that text.
In my first year in seminary one of my professors was in a dialog with a group of other first-year students. He believed that “husband of one wife” meant one wife for a lifetime. If your wife died, the Scriptures forbade you to remarry. If you remarried, you should lose your ordination. I was 22 years old, and I thought that was extreme. By the end of the second year, his wife had died. By the third year he had remarried. His position on that Scripture changed 180 degrees.
We need to interpret “husband of one wife” the same way we interpret Acts 2:17: “In the last days, … I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.” We claim Peter’s use of Joel as our basis for credentialing women. If we believe the phrase “husband of one wife” means one wife during a lifetime, we say this phrase does not apply to somebody who remarries after a spouse dies. So we use this interpretation and allow ministers whose spouse has died to remarry and keep their credentials.
What about those who are single? The apostle Paul was single. Obviously, then, the phrase “husband of one wife” was not meant to exclude single persons. So this is how we interpret this text as our basis for credentialing singles.
My position is this: Why then do we not interpret “husband of one wife” according to 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come”? Why do we not interpret it by Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:31,32 concerning the persons who have been the victims of somebody else’s infidelity and the fact they are no longer bound? Why do we not interpret “husband of one wife” using this as a basis for credentialing those who were divorced prior to conversion?
The General Council has developed a process for persons who have been the victims of a spouse’s infidelity or who were divorced prior to their conversion. This is a separate process from credentialing. If a person wants credentials, he or she must go through the application process, but there is a separate application process for those who have been divorced. They must present documents and testimonies from persons who knew the circumstances. The presbytery interviews these people. We are seeing people who were already being used in ministry in our pulpits and in our churches, but we would not give them credentials.
Often, we said to a person who graduated from one of our schools, “We trained you, but we cannot credential you.” I had a problem with that ethically. We let that person invest his time and money preparing for ministry and treat him as though he is qualified for the ministry, but when it comes time to cinch the deal, we say, “Sorry. Go to another church.” We have made progress in opening the door and being scriptural at the same time.
Respond to those who might believe we have diminished the office of pastor, elder, and deacon by allowing divorced and remarried people to become ministers.
Wood: First, I respect that position. There is room for a variety of understanding of Scripture, and I realize some of my friends believe the opposite on this in terms of how they look at Scripture. We need to respect one another’s viewpoints.
My experience has been that persons who have been through this trauma are more committed to marriage and upholding the standard of marriage than many persons who have never known that pain. In the 17 years I pastored, three members of our board of elders had gone through divorce because of the infidelity of a spouse and had remarried. This did not happen while they were elders, but before they became elders. They were godly men. Their present marriages were an incredible example of the Christian life. These were men of faith and good reputation. According to our previous policy, they could teach a Sunday School class, be an usher, work with Royal Rangers, but they could not be a deacon.
When we allowed them be deacons, we removed the stigma and allowed them to develop in ministry. We would have been missing an ingredient of spiritual contribution had we not opened the door to include their gifts. They were not at fault in the breakup of their marriage. They did not have that choice; their wives forced this upon them. So why should we revictimize the victim, which is what we had been doing?
How can a pastor who might have a prior marriage be influential in standing against divorce?
Wood: A pastor who has experienced divorce can stand against divorce because he knows the trauma connected with divorce. But I need to make this distinction. Recently there have been some high-profile individuals in the charismatic movement who divorced without biblical cause. They have simply divorced and acted like nothing is wrong. They continued their ministry, and those in their congregation are clapping. When this occurs, it gives license for every marriage in trouble to crack up.
In the Assemblies of God, we provide some narrow grounds for ministry for those who have had a prior marriage. These narrow grounds are clearly specified as infidelity or an ecclesiastical annulment before, at the time of, or immediately after the marriage. We have had that policy for about 70 years. We have recently added the unbeliever aspect. If a pastor and his spouse divorce because they do not get along, our policy would allow a minister to keep his credentials as long as he does not remarry. But if he remarries and has no biblical reason for the divorce, then he must yield his credentials.
What can we say to encourage pastors in smaller communities and congregations who struggle to have qualified individuals who meet their bylaws, constitution, or tradition in this divorce and remarriage issue?
Wood: As a pastor, you use wisdom. If you have a major block of people who are unalterably opposed to reconsideration of this matter, then you must wait. I never tried to force anything when I knew it would bring major disunity. If the pastor senses it is going to be a volatile issue — I imposed this rule no matter what the issue — there would be a calm presentation of the pros and cons. I did not allow personal attacks against the people who held a different position. I did not allow clapping or booing or any physical manifestation signaling agreement or disagreement. After the discussion I conducted a secret ballot. We agreed this would not become a fellowship issue. We need to give laypeople more credit. If we give them a reasonable chance to do things in an orderly, Christlike manner, they will behave rather well.
What is our process on annulment?
Wood: For ministerial credentials, we do not take into account legal annulments. Even if a person had a marriage that has been legally annulled, we still require a credential applicant to go through an ecclesiastical annulment process. The ecclesiastical annulment is something that has been with the Assemblies of God since the 1930s. It is based on fraud or deceit prior to, at the time of, or immediately subsequent to a marriage. Fraud or deceit can involve matters like homosexuality that the spouse hid, affairs that the spouse did not disclose, or severe psychiatric issues the spouse did not disclose. Those are some things that go into an ecclesiastical annulment. There is no provision for dealing with annulments for laypeople; these only relate to credentials.
A pastor needs to use judgment when a person says he has had a legal annulment. If the marriage was not consummated, it does not even biblically qualify as a marriage.
A pastor would need to look at the basis of this legal annulment. To get a legal annulment means non-consummation or immediate abandonment after the marriage. This would probably qualify a person for remarriage.
What are some practical ways a church can be more inclusive and supportive of divorced people in its congregation?
Wood: A church must look carefully at its message. For example, if a church bills itself as a family church, it is telegraphing a message to single parents that is probably negative. Pastors need to be sensitive when they preach on marriage. Since single people or divorced people will be in the audience, the pastor must be inclusive in his preaching. He can say, “These are principles that apply to a husband and wife, but there are broad principles here that apply to us all.”
On Mother’s Day — which is one of the toughest days of the year for some — I took into account that there were single mothers in my congregation who had bad experiences. Christmas is another season. As a pastor you need to continually look at what you say from the pulpit and in publications. You must be careful not to use terms that would not be inclusive of those who have gone through marital distress and divorce.
In what ways has the church inadvertently or intentionally made divorced individuals feel second class, damaged, or like irresponsible persons?
Wood: Times have changed. When I was growing up, there were no divorced people in the church. If you were divorced, no matter the cause, you were stigmatized. That has changed today. But attitudes also vary from size of church and region of country or culture. If a small church is going to grow, it must create a climate of welcoming people, from wherever they are coming.
Any final comments?
Wood: An analogy that helps me is the ark of the covenant. The ark of the covenant contained the Law, but it also contained the mercy seat. The Ten Commandments and the mercy seat represent God’s righteousness and God’s love. When they are together, His righteousness and His compassion meld into His justice.
In the ark of the covenant, God chose to physically represent those two aspects of His nature that are equally strong. He put mercy over the Law. I keep that in mind when I am dealing with people. Rather than trying to get a pound of flesh or simply be a Judaizer or legalist, I take compassion and mercy into account. If I am forced to choose, if it is possible biblically and conscience wise to elevate mercy above the Law, I will elevate mercy, because that is what God did.