A Troubling Situation
Over the past year I have been troubled by a number of occasions of marriage and divorce by people in leadership. One was a renewal leader who was reported to lead gatherings with great healings, signs and wonders. It was discovered that this leader was having an affair with a female worker. A group of leaders sought to intervene, but as reported, the renewal leader was unwilling to break the illicit relationship, divorced and then married the worker. Another prominent leader took him under his wing and restored him to ministry. To my knowledge, there were no biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage.
Today, such a situation is not at all unusual – even in the Messianic Movement. Often the final arbitration in these situations is left to the conscience of the minister. There is no final accountability to a group of senior leaders who are charged with investigating the matter and determining a judgment. Some years ago I wrote the book, Due Process, A Plea for Biblical Justice Among God’s People to address these kinds of issues. In this article, I want to revisit some of the most important themes of this book. The Body of Believers is in a crisis of moral failure due to a misunderstanding of the Gospel and of the nature of the covenant community that is to be formed from the preaching of the Gospel.
Rightly Understanding the Gospel of the Kingdom
Sadly, there is still some confusion regarding the Gospel in its full New Testament meaning. The Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom. It is the good news that the Kingdom of God has broken into this world. It is the invitation to enter the Kingdom and to live in and from the Kingdom. The way into the Kingdom is through Yeshua, primarily as expressed by baptism in water, where we experience a co-death and resurrection in Him as taught in Galatians 2:20 and Romans 6:11. It is the good news of transformation and the gift of the Holy Spirit whereby we are enabled to be conformed to the image of Yeshua. The parting command of Yeshua in Matthew 28 was that, on the basis of entering the Kingdom, we are to disciple people to obey all of His commandments. We find in the teachings of Yeshua that the standards of the New Covenant are more exacting than in the Mosaic order. This is especially the case with the preclusion or severe limitation of divorce and remarriage in the New Covenant order. Because we are in Yeshua and have the power of the Spirit, this is no longer an option. This is one example of many where the standards of the New Covenant are more demanding.
Entering the Kingdom is expressed by becoming part of Covenant Community. It is not only about a prayer response to Yeshua so we will go to heaven. In the New Covenant Scriptures, New Covenant communities are the primary expression of the Kingdom of God. It is the way we live our lives together – in love, service and integrity, with high moral standards, with healing, signs and wonders in sharing the Gospel – that shows that the Kingdom is here. Wherever people are submitted to the rule of the King, there is the Kingdom. Though the New Covenant community is central to the manifestation of the Kingdom, the Kingdom is to be manifest in all the realms of human life.
Mutual Accountability Among Communities
New Covenant communities are linked in mutual support and accountability. We see this in the council that makes a universal decision in Acts 15. We see it in the offerings taken for the needy in the Jerusalem Messianic community. We see it in the apostolic letters that teach and rebuke multiple congregations that are accountable to them. Apostolic leaders tie together cities, believers numbering thousands are overseen by an eldership of the city as reflected in Jerusalem Congregation in Acts and in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2, 3.
Part of covenant community, to which all are called, is to recognize submission to a teaching eldership that is also a judiciary. This is the very meaning of eldership as an office rooted in Israel. The “elders who sat at the gate” were required to adjudicate judicial matters. The eldership is charged with maintaining biblical standards in their communities. This is the sense of Matthew 16 and 18 where Yeshua teaches on the nature of enforcing standards. The Keys of the Kingdom given to Peter and the Apostles is the judicial authority to bind and loose, that is, to forbid and permit behavior. It is the authority of judicial decisions backed by heaven. All members are required to maintain basic standards according to Matthew 18:15 ff and Galatians 6:1,2. We are to correct a brother or sister if they fall into sin. If they do not repent, they are to be removed from the fellowship. This is all part of showing the reality of the Kingdom in our midst. If we do not do this, the power of God will be withdrawn. The blessing of God will be lost to us.
Illegitimate divorce and remarriage is serious sin. Malachi shows God’s great hatred of such divorce and the consequences in the removal of His blessing from the corporate community. Because it is essentially covenant breaking and has devastating effects on children, it is worse than many other sins. The marriage covenant should reflect the relationship between Yeshua and His Church. I believe that one who commits such an act can be fully restored to fellowship if there is real repentance and a commitment to give effort to dissuade others from the same sin (this is restitution). However, eldership or significant leadership is forever precluded. One can never fulfill the requirements of a good testimony and marriage to one wife laid out in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
How Moral Violation is to be Handled
The only way such a standard can be enforced is if each local congregation has an eldership that will handle such matters judicially and if all believers understand that they are called to be submitted under such an eldership. In addition, an eldership of the city and inter-congregational accountability structures of eldership are crucial in maintaining standards so that one does not simply gain affirmation by running to another group. All believers should honor eldership judiciaries. This is the standard of the historic churches and the Jewish community. Such a judiciary is not only for divorce and remarriage, but also for all the issues of serious moral violation that require intervention.
We must discover this as a key to the unity for which Yeshua prayed. It is not the only key, but an important one. In addition, it is crucial that we begin to exhort and pray and move the Body to become a real Body manifesting the Kingdom of God and not just collections of individuals that meet in various places. We want the blessing of God and the extension of the Kingdom, not a “religious event” manufacturing corporation. As with the case above, an eldership is needed to judge this matter and to call on others to support the decision. Even an ad hoc eldership would be a great step forward. When we speak about recovering Jewish roots in understanding the Bible, this is a key part of it for the whole Church.