A Message from Pastor Hale
Pastors are called by God into a divine office. This is a heavy responsibility and great honor. However, they are merely servants of Christ. They have no authority to go beyond Christ’s written Word, the holy Scriptures. Where they do not speak for Christ, but depend on their on their own authority or knowledge, apart from the Scriptures, they are as worthless as salt that is no longer salty. Certain pastors in the LCMS love to extol the office and boast about their learning and achievements, but this does not, in itself, honor Christ. Pastors who actually do what Christ gave them to do – to preach the Word faithfully, use the keys of heaven to bind and forgive sins, and faithfully give the sacraments to repentant sinners – do extol the office of the minister in the best possible way. This is the true way to bring honor to the office – to do what Christ actually called the pastor to do: to be His mouth and speak for Him. An empty office, where the Word of Christ is not at the forefront of what is preached is no office of Christ at all. The man God called is irrelevant to a large extent, since the Word is to dominate, so that Christ Himself speaks in the office through His Word. Man, as a sinner, can only get in the way of Christ’s Word. As St. John the Baptist said: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). But where the authority of Scripture is lost in confession or practice, the status and personal authority of a pastor is often offered as a substitute. This poor replacement for God’s own authority is endemic in our circles, even among the most conservative of pastors.
One case is in the doctrine of marriage. God creates the one flesh union of man and woman, which exists until God parts them in death, or man destructively breaks this union by adultery. Christ’s own word confirms that marriage is no human arrangement: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt. 19:6). Man cannot create this one flesh union, he can only break it. So the “no divorce policy” in the church is not merely a rule or arbitrary guideline – it is God’s express will, which the Christian will respect. It may mean suffering and anguish, but the Christian should see this as a cross to bear in hope. A legal divorce, where the marriage is unbroken by adultery, seems like an easy way out of earthly difficulty, but the marriage union remains intact in this case, despite what government paperwork or society says. A husband and wife remain one flesh – joined by God Himself directly – until God breaks it in death or man does so by the sin of adultery. So to pretend the marriage union is not there by obtaining a civil divorce, which is a public confession to the world, is sin and unchristian, if the other party is willing to remain married. Jesus explicitly says this legal action is tantamount to adultery, since it leads to it in practice: “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Mt. 19:9).
While plenty of people do get divorced for selfish reasons and fall into sin, causing adultery, which is by definition a breaking of God’s martial uniting, this is not God’s will. That is also what the command says: “You shall not commit adultery.” It is Christ’s will that husband and wife love and honor each other. God hates divorce because it directly infringes on His personal work of uniting in marriage, which is also for our good and protection. Marriage is not about happiness and fulfillment. It is protection from sexual sin and a divine vocation into which the Lord Christ places each husband and wife to give them opportunity to serve Him in love, and also so He may multiply them and fill the earth with people to hear His Gospel. Although not a mandate, it is a practical necessity for most people to be married: “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2).
The sin of sexual immorality, unlike sins of the heart and mind, directly affects our bodies, which for the believer is the temple of the Holy Spirit. So this outward sin goes against the Holy Spirit in the body and is incompatible with true repentance and faith. “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.... But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6). One cannot love the Lord and also hate and willingly destroy His uniting work, in which He has personally joined the two into one. And the Lord also says through St. Paul that every act of sexual immorality, imitating marriage, physically creates a new one flesh union between male and female, but outside of God’s order, Word, and blessing. Our marriage ceremony proclaims: “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” Every marriage union is a holy thing, a divine creation. The Christian who submits to Christ and His works will respect this and not sin against it in his own body, thereby grieving the Holy Spirit he has been given.
But egotistical pastors who are sympathetic to the plight of those who suffer want to go beyond God’s Word to offer a comfort that is not in the Gospel. An LCMS pastor who fancies himself a true Lutheran recently defended legal divorce to me, apart from adultery or desertion. But he was unable to make a case on the basis of Scripture. He generally advised against divorce, in theory, but could not say: “It is God’s will for you to stay married and if you wish to be considered a Christian, you must not divide what God has joined together or pretend that you are no longer married by obtaining a legal divorce.” His conclusion was that marriage and divorce is “complex” in practice. This is not God’s Word, but contrary to it. A pastor, no matter how smart, decorated, or respected, is not God Himself. And where he speaks beyond or besides God’s Word, he is nothing and should not be listened to. A pastor who cannot explain his action and support it by Scripture is a false shepherd and should not be listened to. You can only have one master, so listen to Christ's voice alone. This requires a firm knowledge of Scripture by laymen. Faith holds to the Word of Christ, not the flimsy and changing precepts of men.
Divorce is not a matter of “casuistry,” which is defined as “a process of reasoning that seeks to resolve moral problems by extracting or extending theoretical rules from a particular case.” If “no divorce” is a vague and general guideline open to exceptions, then it is assumed God has not spoken explicitly on the matter. This is a lie. No doubt there are very difficult circumstances that tug at a pastor’s heart strings. But pastors do not get to make exceptions to God’s Word or speak new words for Him. Separation of a married couple for a time is permissible, but the goal must always be to preserve a marriage union, since it is God’s work and calling. It takes two to remain married, to be sure, but the Christian will not willingly and gladly abandon a marriage union into which Christ has placed him. In fact, Scripture says that only an unbeliever will leave a marriage which is unbroken by adultery: “if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him…. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so” (1 Cor. 7). Nowhere does Scripture say that a Christian may go against Christ’s physical work in marriage. So “no divorce” is not a rule to be bent or made vaguely “complex,” even by a respected pastor, but a consequence of God’s holy union to respect. No word of man can nullify the Word of God or His work of marriage.
The Gospel does not give earthly relief from suffering or permission to sin against the holy God. So no matter how much horrible drama occurs or how bad a pastor may feel for a struggling parishioner in an unhappy marriage, God’s marriage union – the one flesh bond itself – remains a divine work the Christian and pastor must respect. God will end every marriage in His own time, but not ours, unless we sin. St. Paul, regarding marriage in 1 Cor 7, confirms that the Gospel and our hope in Christ require no outward change at all, not even in marriage status, but only inward repentance by the renewing Spirit: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches…. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” Pastors must bind consciences regarding marriage and call sinners to repentance, even the divorced, in the name of Christ.
The Gospel does not prevent sin, divorce, and great harm, even by one’s own spouse, but it does give hope of a better world, in which there is no marriage. However, Christ who gave the Gospel never gives permission to sin against marriage, which is always a sin against the Holy God. “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband,” just as Christ Himself also commands: “the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10, 11). It is not a different god who creates each marriage, than the One who also forgives sinners by the Word. The sin of man surely occurs in this cursed world against marriage, but it can only be grieved and preached against, not excused or defended in the name of Christ. Divorce, which Christ says implies an act of adultery, is a direct sin against the Lord who died for our sin and rose for our justification.
Some pastors play god in another way. They take the place of government and try to regulate marriage by having a marriage ceremony for those who are not intending to be legally married. But there are not two different types of marriages, one spiritual and one worldly. Marriage is always a fleshly, bodily thing, and so it is regulated among us by government, which has God’s authority. But the work of every marriage remains God’s own. Civil laws cannot nullify the command and work of Christ. So a pastor who does not require a couple to legally marry, but preforms a mock wedding ceremony anyway, is approving and blessing fornication. We ratify our public commitment by fulfilling the government’s obligations. Marriage is a public act and institution, not a private decision or spiritual choice. Pastors may not make a new form and way of entering marriage. There is only one institution of marriage, which is a natural right, from God the Father, who created man male and female for this purpose.
Another common error among both conservative and liberal pastors is to think that church fellowship, and therefore Communion fellowship, is entirely their domain and prerogative. This is sometimes well meant, but it is extremely arrogant. A particular pastor may think his opinion and verdict of visitors or other pastors and churches determines “his” fellowship – who he is joined to publicly. But Christ’s Church does not revolve around a single pastor and his personal judgment. So to think the pastor alone in his judgment may decide arbitrarily who may commune, or the minister who leaves it completely up to the unknown visitor as to whether he should to take Christ’s most precious body and blood, is wrong and unfaithful.
External church fellowship is based on mutual recognition of the teaching of the Gospel. One person does not decide the bounds of the visible church or the confession of another. No one gets to decide what another believes. His confession alone – his words and actions – speaks to his doctrine. So the person a god-like “conservative” pastor likes, feels a bond with, or personally knows is in their “fellowship” – or conversely those who they don’t personally know, sympathize, or agree with are not in his own clique of “fellowship.” Church membership, official confessions, and the other party must take a back seat in this scenario, and therefore the actual confession of Christ. It is selfish and puts the pastor in place of Christ.
While there is a place to discipline false doctrine and rebuke actual sin, by refusing the Supper to the unrepentant, pastors do not mentally delineate and manipulate church boundaries based upon their own subjective emotions. The pastor’s thoughts are not more holy than the layman’s. To think the pastor determines the bounds of fellowship is as absurd as saying, “I personally set the boundaries of all countries, by merely thinking thoughts in my mind.” So church fellowship is much bigger than a pastor and his limited vantage point. It must be based on and related to the tangible and public Word of Christ, a public badge of confession. An individual pastor alone assuming he determines fellowship himself makes as great an error as those refusing to consider public fellowship at all when inviting everyone to Christ’s altar, abdicating the responsibility to be Christ’s faithful shepherd.
Connected with this error is thinking that a synod (a church body united around a particular teaching of Christ) and its inherent public confession of unity around the Word doesn’t mean anything. I heard the comment at a conference this summer that a synod and her implied fellowship is like a teacher’s union, so that it is merely the price of admission for having a congregation. This might sound practical and relieve somewhat the personal anguish of dealing with heterodox congregations and pastors in one’s fellowship, but it makes the confession of a synod, and what it says about Christ and His doctrine, to be nothing. To say we are united in a synod around the teaching and sacraments of Christ has to mean something, if confessing the teaching of Christ is to mean anything. It can be a false union and denied in practice, but the public confession of unity in the Word of Jesus still counts for far more than the personal thoughts of any pastor or layman.
To be in a synod is itself a confession to everyone, even the unbeliever, so to denigrate the very idea of external fellowship within an individual church body is inconsistent, but also duplicitous. It also conveniently allows one to think, do, and practice anything he wishes with impudent freedom and without the constraint of maintaining church unity, as if each expert pastor were his own church body, and perhaps even divine being. But pastors are not the oracles of God, the Scriptures are (Rom. 3:2).
To say being part of a synod, in itself, means nothing is to confess one thing, but to actually be in a synod says the opposite. Our public confession to the world in giving the name and appearance of unity is an important thing. That is why, no matter how flawed, church fellowship must be based on tangible things, of which nothing is more official than congregational membership. It matters to what church we belong. So to ignore that public aspect of confessing Christ, and prefer one’s own private opinions and ideas, is to arrogate divine status to oneself. Pastors do not admit to communion on their own whims or feelings, but on behalf of the public confession of Christ, whose Supper is being served. The Supper belongs to no sinner, even the pastor, nor should anyone demand the right to take or modify what is God’s gift and institution. As Communion is always a public act, with implications of public fellowship, so communion admittance should be based on something public indicating fellowship – not simply the personal thoughts of a pastor, who is not Christ.
Pastors must be kept honest by their parishioners, who in turn must actually know what God has said in Scripture. It does no good for a pastor to play the expert and to think he is above questioning. He is then only preaching his own, sinful idea of Christ, not Christ Himself. Conversely, laymen should not think they are automatically Lutheran, and above correction by the divine Word, because of their experience, tradition, or voting power. It is Christ’s church. All Christians need to be continually reminded that we do not need a substitute for Christ. He is not dead; He is risen. Amen.