Mailbag #46: Tricky Membership Question about Immigration; Pastoring a Church with Lots of Divorcees

Mailbag
12.23.2016

A woman who came to the United States under false pretenses wants to join our church. What should we do? »
How should a pastor proceed when he inherits a church with several divorcees? »

Dear 9Marks,

We have a young lady (age 19) in the membership class. She came to the United States three years ago with her father. Her father was able to come with her and her sister through a false marriage. They came so the daughters could get an education here. They have all the proper documentation, but obviously they broke the law by faking the marriage—a law that has heavy penalties ($250,000 fine and/or 5 years in prison).

The lady seeking membership (who was 16 at the time she came) said the only lie she told was saying that her father didn’t actually live with her mother. I’ve done research and it seems if the false marriage is discovered, like when they might apply for citizenship, there could be problems. The father has already divorced the women in the false marriage.

So here’s the question: should our church allow the daughter to join? What does repentance look like? Am I obligated to report anything?

—Randy, Pennsylvania

Dear Randy,

I’m pretty sure you’re not obligated to report her. The tougher question is the pastoral question of what repentance looks like in this situation. I asked one of my fellow elders who works on immigration. His reply is below.

Guys,

This is a tough question. Randy, you’re right that marriage fraud is a serious offense. Five years means it’s a felony, and divorce doesn’t fix it. In addition, this will certainly will pose problems for seeking any future immigration benefits down the road.

I tend to agree with Jonathan that you don’t have a duty to report her or her father. Also, she seems to be a victim in all this due to what her dad did, not her. Everyone tends to be sympathetic with DACA kids. But before I reach that conclusion, I’d want to know, what were the circumstances of her “only lie”? Was she lying to an immigration official in order to facilitate the marriage fraud? Then that’s a more serious situation. Or was it after the fact?

You might ask her that question. In general, however, it’s hard, at least in my mind, to hold a teenager under her parent’s authority fully accountable for actions her parents initiated and carried out. How much choice did she really have at that time? And if she didn’t have much of a choice then, why should she take actions that would essentially amount to her turning her father in? It all feels a little too much like Mao-and-the-cultural revolution-y for me. Even if one day we discover that she should have reported her lie, the lack of certainty in my mind keeps me, as a pastor, from feeling like I can bind her conscience and tell her what she “must” do here and so make it a condition of her repentance. Instead, I would present the dilemma to her and then pray with her through it. If you get the sense that her conscience is instructing that she must confess, don’t get in between the Holy Spirit and her conscience by trying to stop her.

Either way, you’re right to think carefully about what repentance looks like. I’m honestly not sure. At a minimum, it means not lying going forward. Which will be tougher than she expects. She’s 19, right? So I assume she’s in school, which means she might be able to get by without lying now. But it’ll get messy once she tries to get a job or U.S. citizenship. Given the current political climate, I would be surprised if an employer didn’t ask careful questions. And she will certainly be asked if she ever tries to naturalize.

So I guess my short answer is, if you think she’s a Christian, take her into membership. But let her know that you expect her: (1) not to lie about her immigration situation if she is asked; and (2) that she should be willing to accept the consequences of telling the truth. That’s where her discipleship will really be tested. Right now, she’s just a kid and has very little to lose. But one day, maybe in a few years, if she has a house, a family, and a job, and an immigration official asks what really happened, will she be willing to lose it all to honor Christ by telling the truth?

Tough question and situation, brother. I will pray for wisdom. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help.

Dear 9Marks,

Have you written anything on how a pastor should proceed when he inherits a church with several divorcees? I assume these are unbiblical divorces that happened either years ago in another church or under the watch of a former pastor who didn’t teach clearly or expect repentance.

How should the new pastor categorize such divorcees? Are they qualified to serve in leadership? If not, what does repentance look like for them?

—Matt

Dear Matt,

Your question falls under the broader topic of church revitalization, which basically means you move forward doing your best neither to affirm or continue bad patterns nor picking all of your fights at once. Only do good, but that doesn’t mean you have to immediately clean out all the bad.

So, first, don’t do anything to affirm or continue bad patterns. Only do good. That means, you don’t downplay or explain away difficult texts on divorce, as previous pastors may have done. I often recount the story of an interim pastorate I did in which I preached about divorce because it was the next passage to preach in the book I was preaching. The elders told me afterward no one had ever preached on divorce in that church. What?! Well, that’s a bad pattern, and it needs to change. I’m not going to go out of my way looking for divorce texts to preach, but neither am I going to avoid them.

Also, when it comes to appointing new church leaders, I’m not going to make compromises on biblical qualifications for leadership positions in the church. If a man does not have a reputation for being a faithful one-woman man, or if he has not repented of an unbiblical divorce, then I am not going to put him forward for elder or deacon, or ask him to teach a Sunday School class or small group. (See a longer discussion on this topic here.)

Second, all this doesn’t mean you have to immediately clean out all the bad. You don’t walk up to every person in the church who has unbiblically divorced and confront them out of the blue. Each situation will have to be dealt with on its own. In its own time. In its own way. For instance, is the person who has unbiblically divorced now remarried, or is his or her former spouse remarried? Or is the divorce recent and both remain unmarried? The latter strikes me as a little more urgent, but any pressing I do will be in the context of spending one-on-one time together and asking questions about a person’s spiritual life generally.

How hard I can press in the context of such a conversation will be affected by the health of the church more broadly. The church I mentioned a moment ago was actually a decently healthy church, at least as measured by the people’s general response to biblical teaching. So if I had chosen to confront a situation of divorce, I know it would have made the leadership nervous to back me up, but I suspect they would have done so. And the congregation, too.

At the same time, I hear stories regularly of churches that refuse to be contradicted by God’s Word. And they’d rather dismiss the pastor than change their ways. That, to be sure, is an unhealthy church. Clearly, a new pastor’s ability to act will depend on whether he is in an otherwise healthy or unhealthy church.

Suppose, however, that it’s one of your deacons or a Sunday School teacher that has been unbiblically divorced. Well, again, I want to know if either party is remarried, and I want to know about the health of the church more broadly, because all of that is going to affect what I can and cannot do. I will say, under ordinary circumstances, I don’t think I would accept the pastorate of a church where the leadership was living in unrepentant sin and nobody was doing anything about it. But, assuming a new pastor simply discovers this about a fellow leader, then he needs to step carefully. He will need to press the individual; he will read through the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 with the individual; and he will need to encourage the person to step down, assuming there is no repentance. Yet assuming there is resistance, the pastor will also have to work to make sure the other leaders are walking in lock-step with him.

Here’s the main thing I want you to hear: The most powerful tool of a new (and old) pastor is the general teaching ministry of the pulpit. If the church has not been receiving a steady diet of expositional preaching, it’s probably unhealthier than it realizes, and the body won’t well receive any attempts to cut out a tumor. Such is a common legacy of topical preaching or moralistic preaching. A church that has been trained to enjoy the Bible is more likely to receive tough challenges from the Bible. A church that’s been trained on sermons that “meet their needs” or “inspires them” is more likely to reject such challenges.

So, before a new pastor rushes out to confront all the “big sins” that still abide in a congregation, he needs to spend time teaching the whole body to enjoy a healthy diet. As he does this, he’ll discover the congregation’s spiritual receptors will probably become more acute. They will become better able to receive spiritual challenges and may even, from time to time, start to step up themselves and offer some of those challenges. Such is the legacy of the Spirit as he works through the Word.

I hope this helps.