“How Can You Be Our Pastor?”

“How Can You Be Our Pastor?”

“You’re divorced. We don’t believe in divorce. How can you be our pastor?”

The words came unexpectedly but not as a surprise. There was a time I would have wondered the same thing. I don’t believe in divorce either. With very few exceptions, I want to encourage you to stay married and to continue to help build your spouse. Just the sound of the word “divorce” makes me feel sick.

I will forever remember May 23, 1999. It was the day I said “I do.” And I meant it. I never thought I would get divorced. Yet…here I am. My marriage lasted 14 years. Many of those years were happy. Even though my marriage ultimately did fail, I wouldn’t call it a failure…from this union, we have 2 children together of whom I am very proud. I guess the better question is “What have you learned from your divorce?”…but no one seems to be asking that one. So…I generally answer the question asked in hopes that one day we might get to the better question.

Jesus had an opinion on divorce. One might basically say he was against it and he was…and is. Divorce is not God’s idea. Matthew 19 records Jesus’ most full and most blunt accounting of divorce and it does not look good for the many people like me who have experienced the pain of divorce…and divorce is very painful in a way that you wouldn’t wish it upon even an enemy. So, Jesus said that if a man divorces his wife for any cause, he isn’t divorced in God’s eyes. How then can I be a pastor when I am divorced?

My off the cuff response is very short. I am divorced because, after several years of counseling (we worked with at least 3 counselors) and many failed efforts,  my wife wasn’t happy and decided to end the marriage.  Now, this was many years in the making and I know I played my part too. But, I did not want to give up…I continued to work on the marriage until the very end. In fact, I continued to wear my wedding ring long after my house was empty. Even these many years later, I still feel like something is missing from my left ring finger. Maybe “they” are right that one’s ring finger is connected to one’s heart.

But what about Jesus? Since I know I wasn’t unfaithful, and I don’t believe she was unfaithful, how can I be divorced? As I shared in Sunday’s message, I prefer the plain reading of the text and am not in favor of theological gymnastics to twist a passage into saying whatever “I” have pre-decided it should say and mean. I take what Jesus said very seriously. Going back to the conversation recorded in Matthew 19, it was with a group of Pharisees who were unfriendly to Jesus. They came to goad him into saying something they might use against him in the future. Many of them were practicing a type of disposable marriage that left the dismissed wife destitute and sometimes homeless. They had created a legal “loop hole” using theological gymnastics to grant a divorce for “any cause” a man might think up. It became a convenient, “divorce on demand” that worked only in the man’s favor and it was quite popular. Imagine then, that they came to Jesus to ask what he thought of their “any cause” divorce. When pressed, he told them exactly what he thought of it…and of them. He called them adulterers, plain and simple.

But what about me…how can I be your pastor if I have been divorced, especially if I seek to marry again (and I am…June 9th to be exact)? I don’t have a divorce for “any cause.” I am divorced because of many factors including the many times my wife was verbally assaulted by church members (of a congregation long before I came to Asbury…or Holly Springs) and I did not adequately defend her. Another factor that played a role in our divorce is the “church hurt” my ex-wife endured which led to her inability to connect and be an active part of the congregations I subsequently served. Ultimately, it came down to my refusal to leave ministry that played a large role in our widening gulf leading to divorce. Feelings of rejection, infertility issues, and loss of love became overwhelming. Our children began to suffer for her unhappiness in the marriage and they would act out the emotions that we thought we had concealed. It was late in 2011 in a therapy session for one of our children that the therapist uncovered the deep unhappiness…and suggested, for the health of our children, we fix it. We could not.

Sadly, it all came to a end in 2012 when she had enough and moved out and it was 2013 before the divorce was final. There is a lot more pain than will fit into these words…and I am sure she has her story too. This is my story and I’ll be glad to share more with you in my office or over coffee, if you want. I have regrets…and things I would do differently if I could. Ultimately, I think we started on the wrong foot in the beginning. Maybe like Abraham, I got ahead of God.Jesus categorically rejected the idea of a “any cause” divorce as the clever, legal loop hole created by the Pharisees’ forbears. Jesus did not reject the Old Testament or the grounds for divorce found in Exodus 21:10-11. It was common grounds for divorce if one of 3 things were withheld or denied a spouse: food, clothing or affection. We were not designed to live in abusive relationships. With sadness and because of our hard hearts, God granted an “out” to protect his people. God would prefer we not divorce. God prefers that we love and honor each other…but in the case of abuse (and neglect is a form of abuse), we are granted a release. Other supporting texts include 1 Corinthians 7, where the Apostle Paul too frowns on divorce but acknowledges that it happens, even to followers of Christ. Taking into account these 3 texts (Exodus 21, Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7), divorce is a sad reality and granted under 3 circumstances: marital infidelity, emotional or physical neglect, and outright abandonment or abuse.

I repent for my role in my marriage failing. I could have been a better husband. I could have better defended her. I could have responded differently. Ultimately, I don’t know how different the outcome would have been. I do know where we are now. We have both moved on with our separate lives, tethered only by the children we share. I saw no use in pining away with the hope that she will one day return to me.  Fast forward 5 years later, God has led me to a healthy, nurturing relationship with a devoted Christ follower who, after a 20+ year marriage, also found herself divorced. I believe I am called to journey through life in partnership with my soulmate. Although we share many things in common, it is most important that we follow Jesus together and have an enormous love for the Church. We feel called to serve and we believe we can better do so together. We have known each other for about 6 years, and have dated for 4. We come together with much caution and self examination. We seek to follow Jesus together and we hope you will join us as we seek to be faithful to Jesus.

So…I am divorced…and about to remarry…and I have been appointed to be your pastor. Thank you for allowing me the privilege of serving Jesus in partnership with you. I believe there is much for us to do together. Thank you for extending to me a portion of the grace God has extended to each of us. I have learned much in the ups and downs of the past decade. When you are ready, I’d love to share answers to the other question I mentioned…because…it might be that I am actually a better pastor for you because of my divorce…and…what I learned in it, through it and after it…

Peace & Partnership,
Tom Newman

For more reading on divorce, I recommend an article “What God has Joined Together” by David Instone-Brewer which was published in the October 2007 issue of Christianity Today.