The need for church courts

The president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church has made revival and reformation the watch words of his administration and the goal of his policies. “The Holy Spirit is urging us to join together" and plead "for revival and reformation in our personal lives and as a corporate church,” wrote Elder Wilson in Adventist World. This quarter's Sabbath School lessons are devoted to revival and reformation. As a church, we have decided to focus on, and pray fervently for, revival and reformation. 

A revival of true religion is always accompanied by a reformation in morals and practices. When Josiah found the long-lost book of the law, and had it read publicly, it led the young king to tear down sites devoted to false religion (2 Chron. 34:3-5). In the time of Ezra, the reading of the law led to a reformation of practice regarding the unlawful marriage of Hebrew men to idolatrous pagan wives (Ezra 9-10). In the time of Nehemiah, reforms regarding tithing, Sabbath-keeping, and unlawful marriages (again) were found to be necessary (Nehemiah 13).

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America is currently in need of a reformation with regard to our handling of divorce and remarriage. In former times, the spouse at fault in a divorce and/or an unlawful remarriage was subject to church discipline, typically disfellowshiping. But when, about forty years ago, a regime of “no fault” divorce became the law, the civil courts typically ceased to determine who was at fault for a divorce. Partly as a consequence of “no fault” divorce, the church has allowed discipline in divorce cases to fall into disuse. The result has been an almost imperceptibly slow decline in the moral tone of the church with regard to divorce and remarriage, touching both laity and clergy. 

The civil magistrates of a post-Sexual Revolution America do not care who is at fault for the break-up of a marriage, but the fecklessness of the secular authorities does not relieve the church of its responsibility to deal with open immorality in its midst. Christ was clear that divorce is appropriate only in cases of adultery/fornication (Mat. 19:3-9) and that remarriage after a divorce with no biblical grounds is itself adultery. (Mark 10:2-12). Our SDA Church Manual, even after being liberalized over the years (most recently at the 2000 General Conference Session in Toronto), still plainly contemplates church discipline in cases of unlawful divorce and remarriage. But how shall the church effectuate its standards of morality when the secular authorities grant divorces for any reason and no reason?

The answer is obvious: The SDA Church must put in place a system of ecclesiastical tribunals to find facts and make rulings in divorce cases within the church. Ecclesiastical courts were very common in the middle ages, with jurisdiction over canon or church law, family law, and many other areas. Even today, some Protestant bodies, such as Methodists and Presbyterians, have ecclesiastical courts. The United Methodist Church has a Judicial Council that functions as its supreme court (it even has nine members). The Judicial Council interprets the Methodist Book of Discipline, and determines whether actions of local churches, annual conferences, church agencies, and the bishops are in accordance with church law. The Presbyterian Church USA has an elected Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC), composed of ministers and elders, for each synod, presbytery and the General Assembly. The PJC of the General Assembly functions as an appellate court for the other PJCs. 

In our church, discipline may be imposed not by the pastor acting alone, nor by the church board in a closed meeting, but only by the entire congregation in a church business meeting. But although a final decision on discipline must be taken by the entire congregation, it is not practical for the whole church to act as fact-finder. What is needed is a panel of three “judges” with effective subpoena power within the church; they would be called upon to determine why the divorce was obtained, and whether one spouse was innocent and the other at fault. The panel should consist of elders and respected church members of longstanding, with at least one woman on each panel to provide a female perspective. The panel would examine the witnesses and evidence, and then send a ruling, with findings of fact and conclusions of church law, to the board and minister of the church where the divorced couple are members. The matter would then be referred to a church business meeting with the panel's recommendation with regard to discipline. 

We must do more, however, than re-introduce discipline in cases of unlawful divorce and remarriage. The church should try to forestall unlawful divorces. The ecclesiastical tribunals should have an apparatus to provide counseling to troubled couples that may be headed toward divorce. There is much biblical advice applicable to marriages. Husbands are the servant leader of the marriage, charged with loving their wives, and protecting and sacrificing for them just as Christ sacrificed himself for the Church (Eph. 5:25-33; Col. 3:19). Husbands must live with their wives in an understanding way—as the woman is the weaker vessel—and grant them honor as co-heirs of eternal life (1 Peter 3:7). Wives are called upon to submit to and respect their husbands (1 Peter 3:1-6; Eph. 5:33; Col. 3:18). Both spouses are commanded not to withhold sex from each other, except for a short season of fasting and prayer; the husband is to treat his body as belonging to wife, and vice versa (1 Cor. 7:2-5).

A neutral third party would remind spouses of these biblical guidelines, but not only of these; sometimes, common sense advice can help a marriage over a rough patch. The biblical foundation of sound counseling is that men and women are very different: “male and female created He them” (Gen. 5:2; Mark 10:6; Mat. 19:4). Both men and woman are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), but they have different brain structures, different ways of thinking, different ways of approaching problems, different priorities and concerns, and different world views. Men and women have different needs; men have a heightened need for respect and for regular sexual fulfillment, whereas women have a heightened need for companionship, emotional support, and financial and physical security. Sound counseling often consists of helping each spouse see life through the eyes of the other.

When one spouse has invoked the counseling apparatus, the other spouse should be compelled to cooperate on pain of church censure. It is not good enough to say “you're the one with the problem, you go to counseling.” If one spouse is unhappy enough to seek church intervention, with the embarrassment usually attendant thereupon, the other spouse has a problem, and he should be sufficiently solicitous of his spouse's happiness to participate. If one partner refuses to participate in counseling, or to follow the advice given by the neutral counselors, this fact should be noted by any panel subsequently inquiring as to who was at fault in the dissolution of the marriage. 

Church-sponsored counseling may not only prevent needless divorces, it may also prevent or ameliorate injustices in cases where one spouse is having her reasonable marital expectations frustrated, even in the absence of adultery or abandonment. Allow me to lay out the facts of one such situation:

Wendy is an SDA wife who ceased attending church, but remains a member and a believer. Wendy became reclusive and did not want to attend social events that her husband, Max, wanted her to attend with him. Max conducted Bible studies in their home, but Wendy would not even come down from their bedroom. Max was a leader in their local congregation, and it pained him to attend church alone, year after year. Max was justly upset and chagrined by Wendy's selfish, anti-social way of living. Max finally separated from Wendy, but he had no biblical grounds for divorce. After about a month, Max returned to Wendy, but the marriage remains unhappy.

If a neutral counselor clearly communicated to Wendy that her anti-social behavior was aberrant, unnecessary, and painful for Max, Wendy might be motivated to get serious about tackling her reclusiveness. If Wendy refused to participate in the counseling process, it would lead to immediate church censure and also be noted by any church tribunal subsequently examining the cause of the dissolution of the marriage. Max may not have biblical grounds for divorce, but that doesn't mean he should be forced to suffer without intervention, any more than a wife with an alcoholic or physically abusive husband should have to suffer with no intervention. Adultery/fornication and abandonment are biblical grounds for divorce, but they must not be the sole criteria for seeking ecclesiastical intervention.

Frustration of reasonable marital expectations commonly takes the form of sexual defrauding, where one spouse ceases to have sexual relations with the other, in violation of the plain biblical admonition in 1 Cor. 7:5. Either spouse can defraud the other but, because male sexual nature is different from female sexual nature (I discussed this in my article, The Myth of Male Homosexual Monogamy), it is more likely to be the wife who defrauds her husband. Typically, when a husband meets his wife's emotional and security needs, she will enthusiastically meet his physical needs. But her obligation to do so is not contingent upon her personal fulfillment. “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Cor. 7:4 NKJV). Sexual defrauding will be one appropriate reason for invoking the counseling apparatus of church courts.

If, and to whatever extent, the church manual section on divorce and remarriage adopted at the Toronto GC Session purports to postpone church discipline from the time of the unlawful divorce until the event of a remarriage, it must be corrected. Biblically, divorce and remarriage are not separate issues, but one issue; a biblical right to divorce entails a right to remarry (Mat. 19:8-9; Mark 10:10-12). As a practical matter, the panels must investigate the dissolution of a marriage while the witnesses' memories are fresh; postponement of investigation and discipline until remarriage means postponement for an indefinite time, often running into years or even decades, which renders any investigation and disciplinary process a farce. It is for just such practical reasons that there are statutes of limitations requiring that civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions be brought within a certain period of time. 

The SDA Church Manual states that, “marriage has both divine and civil aspects. The divine aspect is governed by the laws of God, the civil by the laws of the state” (152). But marriage was a divine institution long before it was a civil one (Mat. 19:4-6), so ecclesiastical adjudication should precede civil adjudication. The church should adopt disciplinary rules requiring members to seek a ruling from an ecclesiastical court before invoking the jurisdiction of a state civil law court. Only if the church panel has issued a certificate of biblically lawful divorce should a member be allowed to file for a divorce in civil court with immunity from church discipline. This will save many marriages that would otherwise fail, as the panels would advise many would-be family law litigants that they do not have biblical grounds for divorce. 

The panels would obviously be called upon to determine whether there was adultery, as adultery is an indisputable biblical ground for divorce. But because the revised SDA Church Manual adds abandonment of a believing spouse by a non-believing spouse (1 Cor. 7:15), that would also be an area for investigation and fact-finding. Suppose a tribunal found that:

  1. two non-Christians married,
  2. one of them was converted, and 
  3. the unconverted spouse refused to live with the new convert, insisting on divorce even though there had been no unfaithfulness. 

In this scenario, I believe it is perfectly permissible for the Christian spouse to remarry without church discipline. She or he “is not bound,” just as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:15. 

I will pose second scenario: 

  1. a girl grows up Adventist,
  2. she rebels in adolescence/young adulthood, and eventually marries a non-Adventist, 
  3. about 10 years later, after she's had 2 or 3 kids, she returns to the faith, 
  4. her husband doesn't like it and is sullen and non-cooperative, but stays in the marriage, and 
  5. she divorces him even though there's been no adultery. 

In this case, she should not be allowed to remarry without church discipline, because remarriage would constitute committing adultery according to Mark 10:12. Moreover, Paul spoke to this very situation in 1 Corinthians 7:13: “And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.” If she obtained a divorce in the civil courts without first going to a church panel, I would add that as another ground for discipline.

Now I will describe a third case, a slight variation of the second: Suppose that in the previous scenario, number (4) is changed to: “her husband doesn't like it and is sullen and non-cooperative, and eventually divorces her even though there's been no adultery.” Should she be allowed to remarry without discipline? Arguably this case is abandonment within the parameters of 1 Cor. 7:15. But, having been raised an Adventist, she should never have married a non-Christian (2 Cor. 6:14). Should she now be given a free pass, despite having knowingly and willfully entered into a forbidden marriage? I would suggest a way out of this conundrum: She must seek the intervention of a church panel, which could then contact the former husband or otherwise keep track of him. If he remarries, or admits to having moved in with another woman, then this would amount to adultery on his part, and our hypothetical wife should be given permission to remarry. 

It might be asked what the panel would do in a case where one of the spouses does not cooperate with the investigation, since the panel would lack coercive governmental power. If both spouses were church members, the refusal of one to cooperate with the panel would function as a default—the non-cooperating spouse would be deemed to be at fault in the divorce and subject to discipline. In a case where the non-cooperating spouse is not a church member, the panel would simply have to do the best it could in finding the facts without the cooperation of the non-member spouse.

I know that the concept of church courts will seem alien to most Seventh-day Adventists. However, revival always entails reformation, and a reformation of morals in the SDA Church cannot take place without the re-introduction of meaningful church discipline. Church discipline is, in turn, impossible without a system for finding facts in divorce cases. Adventists will quickly get used to a system that allows both sides to be heard, and enables the church to remain free from the taint of open immorality.