Churches that Excommunicate for Divorce
And How to Protect Yourself and Your Children


About Me: If you're new to my blog, read this first.  I started leading Christian divorce recovery groups in Evangelical churches in 1998. I write about "life-saving divorces," those divorces that are for very serious reasons. "Life-Saving divorces" make up nearly half of divorces in the United States. Read the definition HERE.  If you want to know why you should should have a nuanced view of divorce, see THIS. And here is the biblical rationale and the Bible passages for condoning divorce. Although I believe many divorces are treacherous and/or sinful, I also believe a loving God gave divorce to protect the lives of his beloved people, who are made in his image, by allowing them to get out of destructive marriages.

If your church tries to put you under church discipline for getting a divorce, you can resign (in writing), even if you are already under church discipline and have signed a membership contract. Church membership is voluntary under the United States First Amendment. This blog post contain several links (and I will update with new information): (1) to an actual case, (2) answers to your questions, (3) sample resignation letter, (4) some survivor stories, and (5) Reformed pastor Jeff Crippen's insights on how the Church can handle physical and emotional abuse cases better.

 

  • What if the church threatens to excommunicate me?  You can resign before they excommunicate you, even if you have a membership contract that requires you to submit to church discipline. Once you resign, they may still be able to remove you and tell the congregation the reason, but you don't have to obey them, meet with them, speak with them, or answer their communications. Also, there is a line they cannot step over. They cannot use violence, force, or threats of physical force, "intentional outrageous conduct," or fraud. They cannot engage in criminal behavior such as hacking, stalking, vandalism, false imprisonment or involuntary servitude.  Also if the church attempts to harm you in other ways "outside of the church's interest in its own institutional integrity," for example, to spoil your chances as a candidate in a political election, (or presumably to defame you to your secular employer), that may be out of bounds, according to West Virginia Law  Review, Vol. 89, pp. 103-111.

 

  • Is a church membership agreement binding? No, not according to Church Discipline, Jan 11, 2008, "The court held that binding commitments to a church had no effect in law."

 

  • Has anyone won a lawsuit against a church that was trying to discipline them?  Here's a rare case where a woman was disciplined by the elders of the church, despite the fact that she had resigned her membership. The elders also told four other congregations about her private life. "In a much publicized trial, the jury awarded Guinn $827,000 in actual and punitive damages. This amount was reduced by the trial court, and judgment was entered in the amount of $390,000" for invading her privacy. http://thewartburgwatch.com/permpage-how-to-resign-from.../ also the legal verdict. and a discussion of the case here.

 

  • Don't sign membership contracts. If you have, you may want to resign. Some churches wish to exert control over your life, some are aggressively harassing and defaming divorcing couples, stepping over the line of acceptable church discipling. At the bottom of this blog post, you'll see a case study.   You may want to resign, or let your membership lapse, or switch churches before you tell anyone at the church you're considering divorce.

 

  • Can my church stop me from getting a divorce?  In the United States, churches don't have a say legally about whether you divorce or not. They may choose not to remarry you on their premises, but they cannot block you from divorcing. They also cannot block you from remarrying.

 

  • Do my pastors have a say about me getting a divorce?  Many pastors are well-meaning and caring, but they are completely naive about the deceit and tactics of charming spouses who abuse, cheat, or are addicted.  Many pastors love the Lord and believe in miracles, but they are unaware of the health dangers and safety dangers (to you and your children) of living long-term with such a person. They are idealistic and optimistic and convey a confidence that God will fix all highly destructive spouses, if you just pray and try harder. These pastors are often very good and moral people themselves, and often they lack discernment about abusers, addicts, and others with characterological problems.  Many pastors also live with the misconception that only a small handful of marriages are highly destructive. They were never told that about half of divorces in the U.S. are for very serious problems. As much as we love our pastors, some pastors are Pollyanna-ish, unsophisticated, and unsafe. (40 devout Christian divorcees tell their good and bad pastoral counseling stories HERE.) It's easy for them to show you Bible verses, but it's YOUR life. Alas, even the kindest pastor has no skin in the game. It's not the pastor's life that's in danger. It's not their sanity, their reputation, their body, their children, their financial stability, or their safety. Safe churches are like the Good Samaritan, they don't look away. They side with the victim, get involved, run the risk of criticism, and help them get away.

 

 

  • Do you have an examples of people who've been excommunicated after a divorce — and went on to survive and thrive?  Yes. Read the story of Natalie Hoffman, a Christian wife (and mother of 9) who was excommunicated by her church. She went through with her divorce from an emotionally abusive husband and is now very happily remarried. She loves the Lord and has no regrets. She is thriving. She shares her story on her blog in several posts: HERE and  HERE and HERE and HERE.  She is now a blogger and runs a special group for women in abusive marriages. I interviewed her and she told her story on the video embedded below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCuLn_6joDc

 

  • Another woman's story, Stephanie's, is told in 6 parts on Pastor Jeff Crippen's anti-abuse blog UnholyCharade.com.  Stephanie is an emotional and physical abuse survivor who was excommunicated from her church. Today she is thriving. Reformed Pastor Jeff Crippen tells her story and points out the evil the church has done to Stephanie. He takes Stephanie's side, and offers churches a better way to handle these situations, complete with biblical rationale.
    Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6

 

  • Switching churches before you file for divorce.  See the image below. It shows that more than half of churchgoers who divorce switched churches, and are no longer at the church they attended before the divorce, according to a LifeWay Research survey conducted in 2015 for Focus on the Family. Many people aren't comfortable staying at their old church, so changing churches is very common.  I was leading a divorce recovery group at a church that supported people who needed divorces for emotional abuse. A woman came to me and said she had had checked her church's website. Her church rejected abuse as grounds for divorce. So did her denomination. So she switched to another church before she filed. She didn't want to deal with criticism on top of going through the divorce process in court. It was a matter of picking her battles. She knew that the divorce itself would demand time and money and emotion. She needed support to get away from her deeply disturbed husband, not condemnation from her church. She didn't want to fight two battles at once. She's happy she switched churches to a loving and supportive church with a good pastor.
LifeWay Research: Marriage Ministry and the Cost of Divorce on Churches , 2015.  Done for Focus on the Family.
LifeWay Research: Marriage Ministry and the Cost of Divorce on Churches , 2015. Done for Focus on the Family.

"

  • Be careful what you say to anyone at your church. It is not legally confidential.  "... churches are not required to maintain confidences [and] there is no expectation of privacy.... This is something that comes up again and again in discussions regarding church discipline so its worth commenting here, that a member that talks within a church to another member has no legal rights of confidentiality. Readers here should note that if they want to maintain their legal rights, they should not discuss things in church or in a church capacity!" per the Church Discipline website.

 

  • See licensed therapists who are not connected to your church. Churches that hold the "permanence view" do not condone divorce for any reason. Churches that hold the "two-reason" view (adultery and abandonment by an unbeliever) prohibit divorce for physical or emotional abuse. (Sadly, they won't tell you this up front. So I created a chart so you can look up your denomination's official list of condoned and prohibited reasons for divorce.) They will refer you to in-house or affiliated counselors who agree with the church's view. These churches have policies that are dangerous to anyone who is depressed or suicidal or who fears for their life or safety. Divorce saves lives. See the next image.
TSMI No fault divorce suicide

 

 

For further reading:

  • Lawsuits over church discipline: http://www.bpnews.net/3880/72597-lawsuits-over-church-discipline-among-new-challenges-to-churches
  • Discipline of Religious Groups' Members: https://www.pewforum.org/2011/03/31/churches-in-court4/
  • A woman got sued by her pastor for defamation (leaving a negative online review). She won and the pastor had to pay her legal fees: Beaverton Grace Bible Church vs. Smith. https://spiritualsoundingboard.com/about/bgbc-defamation-lawsuit-archive/

Is Your Church Safe? [INFOGRAPHIC]

Is Your Church Safe? [INFOGRAPHIC]
Is Your Church Safe? [INFOGRAPHIC]

Video of Natalie Hoffman, devout Christian and homeschool mother of 9 kids, telling her story of being excommunicated by her church, Bethlehem Baptist Church, for divorcing on the grounds of abuse. After she divorced, she went on to thrive, remarry, and now runs a very active group for Christian women (and other devout women of faith) who are experiencing control, abuse, or confusion in their marriage.

 

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