Does your church allow men who have been divorced to serve in key leadership roles (pastors/elders or deacons)? This has been a hot topic at my church. Is it God’s will that the divorced be allowed to lead or be excluded from those key positions in the church?
In our discussions, I was provoked by the dogmatic statements some of those leaders made. “I want to stick with the biblical standard (that divorced men cannot serve as deacons) and not compromise with the world.” “The Bible says that divorced men cannot serve.” The problem is, I don’t believe the Bible prohibits divorced men from serving and I do not believe that it is compromise to allow them to do so. Frankly, being called a compromiser did not sit well with me.
So, I went back and studied every scripture I could find in the Bible related to the subject of divorce. I wrote several long blogs on the subject (which you can read here and here and here and here and here and here). I have compiled these into a paper which I will gladly email to anyone who requests it.
I do not have a personal stake in this issue. I will celebrate my 31st wedding anniversary next month with the only wife I’ve ever had (or ever will – at my weight, my chances of outliving her are pretty slim). I just hate to tell fine men in my church that they are not eligible to serve as deacons because of rules I believe are based on misinterpretations of scriptures and traditions that are not textually based.
The Scriptural Evidence
This issue is based almost exclusively on one small phrase that appears twice in 1 Timothy 3 and once in Titus 1. In verse 2, overseers (elders, pastors) were required to be “the husband of one wife.” In verse 12, the same phrase is set as a requirement for being a deacon. Titus 1:6 repeats the requirement for elders. What does that phrase mean? If you figure out what that phrase means, you have settled this issue.
A word of warning is appropriate here. To compromise the Word of God is a serious sin. If God’s Word prohibits divorced men from serving as deacons, we should not ignore that prohibition. However, we sometimes forget that there is another side to this. In 1 Corinthians 4:6, Paul warned the people not to “go beyond what is written.” In Revelation 22:18-19, John attaches severe penalties to those who add to the words of prophecy in the book. It is clear that the warning is specific to Revelation, but the principle is instructive for us.
It would be deeply damaging to the Body of Christ to allow divorced men to serve in leadership positions if the Scriptures prohibit it. But it would be just as serious a sin to prevent men from serving without biblical warrant. It is not acceptable to either take away from the teachings of scripture or to add to them.
I would suggest that the burden of proof is on those who would restrict the divorced from serving. If any redeemed person is eliminated from positions of service, it must be on the strongest of biblical evidence.
Husband of One Wife?
Many commentators, at one time most, saw this as an absolute prohibition of divorced men serving in ministry positions at churches. Since Jesus prohibited divorce and said that remarriage was adultery, it seemed pretty clear. A divorced and remarried man is seen in the eyes of God as an adulterer and has two wives; the one he is currently married to and the one he divorced. If this interpretation is correct, the discussion is over.
Some prohibit all divorcees from serving. Others only restrict those whose divorce happened after their conversion. But they see this phrase as a clear reference that divorced men should not serve in key leadership positions.
The second major view holds this passage as a condemnation of polygamy, not divorce. This seems likely from the English phrasing. “Husband of one wife” seems to naturally stand in opposition to “husband of more than one wife.” Cased closed, right?
But as I understand it, polygamy was not widely practiced in New Testament times, especially in Roman culture. If that is true, it seems unlikely that Paul was focusing on it in a letter to establish leadership parameters for a Gentile church.
1 Timothy 5:9 dismantles the polygamy argument. In that passage, Paul is discussing women who will be put on the widow’s list. They must have been “the wife of one husband” – an identical phrase with genders reversed. While polygamy has been practiced in many cultures, polyandry (multiple husbands) is rare. There is no way that polyandry is in view in 1 Timothy 5:9. If that is so, I am convinced that polygamy is not in view in the leadership passages.
It is my contention that neither divorce nor polygamy is the primary focus of this passage. I believe that Paul is requiring that a man must demonstrate himself as a faithful and devoted husband before he is ready to lead God’s church.
The common wording “husband of one wife” may not be the best translation of the passage. The Greek phrase in 1 Timothy 3:2, μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, could be literally translated “one-woman man” or “a man of one woman.” An overseer or elder, and a deacon, are to demonstrate themselves to the church as a “one-woman man.”
That accurate translation explains itself. What is in view here is the man’s heart. It involves much more than just being sexually faithful to his wife. A one-woman man is faithful in body, yes, but also in soul and spirit. He is devoted to his wife. His relationship with his wife demonstrates that he knows how to be a servant leader. If he is not faithful and devoted to his wife, it is unlikely he will be faithful and devoted to his church duties.
This is a much higher burden than some other interpretations require. Since we do not have polygamy (at least officially) in our nation, that interpretation would render the requirement meaningless. If it is a blanket prohibition of divorce, all a man has to do is avoid divorce court and he is eligible. But this command has more significance than that. I have known men who have never been divorced and have never cheated on their wives, but show little devotion to their wives. They may be technically “the husband of one wife” but cannot by any means be called a “one-woman man.”
Paul’s standard is very high. He requires that men who lead the church demonstrate their fitness for servant leadership in the church by being models of faithful servant leadership in the home.
The meaning of Paul’s phrase here will always be open to discussion and interpretation. It seems highly likely he was not speaking of polygamy. Since polygamy was not a common practice in Roman culture, and since the same construction is reversed as a requirement for a woman, polygamy is almost certainly not the primary focus. Certainly, polygamy would be inappropriate for church leaders, but it is not the chief intent of this verse.
In reality, those who use this as a prohibition of divorce are also assuming the passage refers to a form of polygamy. They believe that the first marriage was not ended and so, by the second marriage, the man has become a kind of polygamist, married in God’s eyes to both his former wife and his current one.
My quarrel with this view is two-fold. First of all, I think it makes a blanket generalization about the teachings of Jesus on divorce that is, in many cases, not warranted. A man who is divorced on biblical grounds is freed from his marriage covenant and is free to remarry. When he remarries, he is the husband of one wife and one wife only – his new wife. The former marriage is over. We will examine this in more detail later.
My second problem with this view is that if Paul was intending to prohibit divorced men from serving as deacons or elders, there are ways he could have stated that more plainly. “An overseer must never have divorced a wife and remarried.” He could have given words that would clearly and unequivocally say what he meant. Paul was never one for veiling his words. He said what he meant. If he had meant divorce here, he would have said it.
It is an unwarranted stretch to use this phrase as a blanket condemnation of divorced men as serving as deacons, elders, pastors, or in other leadership positions. There is no biblical grounds on which to deny all divorced people from serving. To do so, in my mind, is to violate the clear teachings of Scriptures.
Divorce and Remarriage
God’s intent was that a marriage would last until one of the parties died. Sin’s effect on human behavior and relationships shattered the ideal. Permanent and fulfilling marriage is still possible if a couple is well-matched and if they rely on the power of God to see them through. But a marriage depends on both parties fulfilling their vows, and that sometimes does not happen. And so, divorce has become an unfortunate reality in this world. Jesus told his disciples that God permitted it because of the sin, the “hardness” of human hearts.
In all of the discussions on divorce in scripture, there is not a single prohibition against remarriage when a divorce is granted on approved grounds. Deuteronomy prohibited a man from remarrying a woman after he had remarried another wife. But there was no restriction on remarriage in general. Jesus restricted remarriage except when the divorce was because of adultery. But the implication was that when there were biblical grounds, remarriage was not adulterous and was acceptable. Paul set forth a new solution for women whose husbands were cruel or abusive of their authority. They could separate (not divorce) and live single or return to their husbands. The assumption is that remarriage is the intended result of divorce. Paul clarifies in 1 Corinthians 7 that when believers remarry, they should remarry only other believers. Remarriage was assumed, but limited to those who shared faith in Christ.
The certificate of divorce that was historically granted in Hebrew culture specifically permitted remarriage. That concept – that remarriage was assumed when a divorce took place – was never corrected in any of the prophets who called Israel to repentance for sin. Remarriage after divorce was widely practiced and would have certainly been confronted if it was offensive to God.
The necessary conclusion is that if a divorce is granted on approved grounds, the divorcee has the right to remarry. A biblically acceptable divorce ends the marriage just as death does. God’s intent and purpose was to have marriages end one way – death. But He graciously allowed marriages to end by divorce, if the circumstances were right and certain conditions were met.
So, if a man has been divorced on biblical grounds (as I have defined it; adultery by his spouse (as Jesus taught) or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (as Paul added), he is free to remarry. His first marriage is over in the eyes of God; the marriage covenant having been broken by the sinful actions of another. When he remarries, he is the husband of one wife and one wife only. So, even if the prohibitionist position on the “husband of one wife” phrase is correct, he is still qualified to serve.
New Creatures in Christ?
I have never understood how someone could believe 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come,” and still advocate eliminating people who were divorced prior to salvation from service. Do not misunderstand. I am not accusing my opponents on this issue of willfully denying scripture. I just believe that their position on divorce is in conflict with this verse.
When a man comes to Christ, he becomes a new creature. His sins are washed away and God begins to conform him to the image of Christ. Yet, some would restrict that man from serving as a church leader because of something that happened before he was saved. It seems contrary to the concept of transformational grace to exclude a man from leadership based on his pre-conversion behavior.
We don’t do that with other sins. Why don’t we exclude everyone who engaged in premarital sex from serving? We rejoice when ex-cons, drug addicts and assorted sinners are redeemed and become leaders. But not the divorced. Regardless of the circumstances of the divorce, they must sit on the sidelines and stay there.
But even if the divorce happened after salvation, it seems contrary to the ways of Christ to make that a permanent death mark for service. Mark had a gross ministry failure (not moral, but serious nonetheless) that caused Paul not to want to work with him in Acts 15. But later, he lavishes praise on Mark’s service for the gospel. He was restored. David fell and was restored. Peter denied Christ then proclaimed him boldly. God specializes in taking failures and guiding them to success.
What makes divorce worse than any other sin? It seems to me to be contrary to the whole thrust of the gospel to tell people that a sin that happened in the past will forever eliminate them from service in the church.
What about Our Testimony?
Those who restrict the divorced from leadership argue that we must do so to “uphold standards” in the church. Our leaders must be great role models. If we allowed the divorced to lead, doesn’t that tacitly endorse divorce?
If a pastor had premarital sex 25 years ago, and you make him a pastor today, does that promote premarital sex? One of the best deacons I ever had was the town drunk before God got hold of him. Did we promote drunkenness by allowing him to be a deacon? Does a redeemed drug dealer advocate drug dealing with his service to the church? What better testimony can we give to the world than the truth that God can change lives?
If a man in the middle of a divorce were serving, that would be one thing. If we failed to discipline a man who divorced his wife for unbiblical reasons, that would be a bad testimony. But a man who was divorced several years ago, has remarried, and is an exemplary husband and father; there is no shame in that.
What is the church? Is it the society of the spiritually superior? Is it the domain of those who have never failed or done anything wrong? No! The church is the gathering of the redeemed; sinners whose lives were broken by sin and put back together by the grace of God. We are the cleansed, not the unsullied.
What better testimony could there be than a man whose life was shattered by sin, who walked through the brokenness of divorce, and whose life has been redeemed and put back into order by Christ? Does he not tell the sin-broken people who come into a church that there is power in the blood?
So, am I saying that it doesn’t matter how leaders live? To the contrary, I think church leaders should be people of the highest character and spiritual passion. Our lives should be examples of godly behavior. What I am saying is that what matters to God is what we ARE, not what we once were. Leadership is based on character and reputation. God specializes in taking the depraved and infusing his righteousness into them, transforming them to be like Christ. It is maturity in the process of sanctification that matters.
If the church is a “Society of Superior Saints” then by all means, eliminate from service those who have made mistakes in the past. If the church is a hospital for sinners, where people come to find the redemption and remission of sins and have their lives rebuilt by Christ, then we cannot hold peoples’ pasts against them. We cannot eliminate people from service on the basis of who they were ten or twenty years ago. We promote to leadership in the church on the basis of who we have become – our present character and reputation in the church.
My experience (in line, I believe, with God’s Word) tells me that divorced men and women can become shining testimonies of the life-changing power of Christ.
There is no biblical basis on which a general prohibition against divorce men serving as church leaders can be made. It is, to me, an act of “adding to what is written” to do so. Those who want to follow Christ and His Word, and not cultural traditions would do well to exclude only those whom the Bible excludes.