There were only two occasions in my life as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that required disciplinary ministry with a church member. One was gossip; the other was sex.
The first didn’t get beyond private admonition by the pastor, me. That’s what the pastor does in instances of “persistent trouble making”—he makes a visit. In this instance it was a Euodia and Syntyche sort of thing (Phil 4:2); one conversation with both and, surprisingly, it was all over, piece of cake.
The other, sex, resulted in forbidding an individual from receiving Holy Communion until stated conditions for readmission were met. That went south; there wasn’t any other direction for it to go.
We had just returned from vacation and I had barely finished bringing the suitcases into the parsonage when the congregational president, frantic on the phone, told me that Georgia (I’ll call her) had left her husband, “running off” with (not his real name) John. Also married, John happened to be the senior deacon at the neighboring Missouri-Synod Lutheran church. He had the foresight to resign.
The news—apparently I was the last person to hear it—was a shock. It was a small town, small enough to embroil family members across two Lutheran congregations, plus a couple United Methodist bystanders. There may be fifty ways to leave your lover; this was the fifty-first and worst.
The congregational president was a little more than livid; he was vindictive. He was related to one or the other of the aggrieved spouses. You can’t commune her if she shows up, he insisted. I pointed out that disciplinary action had to be taken by the board of deacons; nothing unilaterally could be done by me or anyone else. Still, I fervently hoped she would not show up. I was even more afraid she would show up with John.
Geography matters. If Georgia had belonged to a large ELCA congregation in a metropolitan area, I question if anyone would have suggested she be denied Holy Communion. But in a town of less than two thousand, her abandonment of marriage for another man guaranteed profound scandal and great offense. Had she separated from her husband and obtained a “no fault” decree (which might have taken all of three months), and then remarried, denial of Communion would never have been an issue. That’s the way it rolls these days, for mainline Protestants at any rate.
The culture of divorce, its prevalence almost to the point of social irrelevance, and the redefinition of marriage have left the Protestant mainline disarmed. There is no longer a Protestant theology of marriage that can account for life-long God-given togetherness. Of the high purposes of marriage I recently read: “Marriage . . . is intended to protect the creation and nurturing of mutual trust and love as one foundation of human community.” It is one of the “social structures that enhances social trust.” Not much about becoming “one flesh” in that version, especially since the statement was written to account for gay relations as well.
Reformation churches never quite regarded marriage as having met the requirements for being a sacrament. Where each one stands depends on the constituent definition of a sacrament. Lutherans, with a narrow definition, have only three proper sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, and Absolution. Roman Catholics, more generous in their definition, have seven. But whatever the reformation churches said about marriage, and once it was theologically very robust, they were happy enough to leave the administration of it to civil magistrates. That confusion is catching up with us, I think. Now there is discussion in America in some churches for clergy to remove themselves from any state officiate role.
I called the deacons together, getting back to Georgia. They stipulated she should absent herself from communion as long as she, married, lived with another man married to someone else. Once she and John divorced their respective spouses to marry each other, there was nothing to prevent readmission to the sacrament. When I presented this as a pastoral practice case to a ministerial class I was teaching, my students thought it was harsh. The opinion was no one should ever be denied the sacrament, ever.
There is a part of me that wants to see in some instances an easier path for restoring divorced and civilly remarried Roman Catholics to the Eucharist. There is also a part of me that wants to see Protestants tighten things up. I cannot say which possibility is the more likely.
I paid my pastoral call to Georgia, feeling like I was pronouncing an Amish shunning. But I never had to say she could not commune. All I had to do was summarize the depth of the scandal; she knew all that already. How could she not? She had tried counseling with her husband but never with any resolution. She despaired, and found John, equally despondent in his marriage. They had known each other for years and had worked on civic projects together, only friends, until, well, friendship tipped to something unexpected.
She and John both were desperate for an ever-elusive happiness; they hoped to find it with one another. Separating from their respective spouses and in the manner they did it, they ratified their shared sense of desperation. Without regard for the desolation they left, they committed a form of matrimonial suicide. I have not heard if their lives turned out better.