Abuse, Divorce and Memorial 52

The General Conference of The Wesleyan Church met June 2-4 in Lexington, Kentucky. This quadrennial event is a gathering of Wesleyans throughout North America and the world in order to celebrate what God has done in the past four years, be challenged about God’s vision for the next four years, and to discuss how we operate as a church, revisiting some of our positions on what it means to be the church in the 21st century.

Memorial 52 (Membership Commitment Addressing Family Violence and Desertion) was one of the items that precipitated lengthy debate among the delegates. The memorial was eventually passed by the conference and according to our Discipline must then be approved by a 2/3 aggregate vote of all of the North American district conferences.

The memorial was intended as a statement against domestic violence and the great pain that spouses and families face when violence or desertion threaten the safety of marriage and home. The memorial gives pastors and churches the freedom to counsel spouses—let’s be honest here, primarily women—that abuse in its various forms are legitimate reasons for ending a marriage. Here is the wording of the memorial’s resolution:

To preserve the sanctity of the home by honoring Christ in every phase of family life and by demonstrating Christlike love, always avoiding spousal or child abuse, violence, including physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse toward one’s spouse or family members, as well as sexual infidelity or desertion, any of which warrant church discipline for the offender and may justify separation or divorce if true repentance and appropriate counseling cannot bring about reconciliation, and by living peacefully with one another, thereby building up one’s spouse and family members through word and deed, and encouraging the nurture and education of the children in the Christian faith so as to bring them early to the saving knowledge of Christ.

Two weeks ago, at the meeting of the Western New York District, this memorial occupied a significant amount of the afternoon session. More than a dozen people spoke to the memorial—about half for and about half against. I listened intently to the discussion, agreeing with some comments; disagreeing with others. No one who spoke against the memorial seemed to underestimate the pain and seriousness of abuse; they did, however, clearly state that passing this memorial would weaken our position on divorce, which would be, in their opinion, detrimental to the church. As I pondered the memorial and the discussion, my mind drifted back to my childhood and my memories of the civil rights movement.

Our church was firmly on the side of equal rights for blacks. Though we didn’t have many people of color in our church, we welcomed those who were. As far as I know, they were treated with respect as brothers and sisters in Christ. I often heard my parents talk about treating all people with kindness and love. Nevertheless, our church joined the evangelical church in general in refusing to support the civil rights movement, or at the very least to remain silent about the movement. As far as I can tell, the church’s unwillingness was rooted in our disagreement with the theology of the leaders, particularly Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s theology was too liberal for the evangelical church. I got the feeling that we were afraid that if we joined him in the movement for civil rights, people might think that we agreed with his theology. In order to keep from being misunderstood when Dr. King was marching through the streets of Selma and Montgomery, the evangelical church was conspicuously absent. Ironically, however, my cousin’s wife’s Catholic father from Jamestown, New York was right there, sacrificing and marching. Even though his theology was far different from Dr. King’s, the potential misunderstanding was worth the opportunity to let the world know that he wasn’t going to stand for segregation and injustice and violence against God’s loved children.

I hope that we as Wesleyans and as the evangelical church look back on that decision with shame. We should have been there, shoulder to shoulder with our black brothers and sisters. We should have been willing to endure fire hoses and imprisonment and violence and shame in order to protect them and support them even at the expense of people misunderstanding our theology.

Now, confronted with the opportunity to stand up for vulnerable people in dangerous and painful situations, we are once again concerned that our theology might be misunderstood. Theology is important. Our theology shapes who we are. Theology matters. Nevertheless, I hope that this time we don’t let our fear of disturbing our desire for perfect theology to keep us from doing what is—at least in my opinion—right. When push comes to shove, Jesus says, “They’ll know that you’re my disciples if you love one another,” not if you have pure theology.