NOTE: I have just released a book which compiles (and edits and expands) these posts. It is called “Disqualified? What the Bible Says about Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry.” It is available on Amazon.com. The Kindle version will be released in the next couple of days – not sure what the hold-up is there. This book reviews the biblical evidence on divorce and remarriage, beginning with the cornerstone in the Old Testament – the twin principles of God’s intent of marriage as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman and the understanding of the brokenness caused by sin. It then lays the foundation with an examination of the passage in Deuteronomy 14:1-4 which necessitates a “grounds” for divorce. Jesus builds the structure in his teachings, reiterating the intent of God’s creation – lifelong covenant – but also establishing the divorce exception as a grounds for divorce. Then Paul puts the finishing touches on the structure with his extensive teachings in 1 Corinthians 7, adding abandonment as a second grounds and dealing with other significant issues. I also address the issue of abuse and how that should be handled. Having surveyed the biblical evidence, I then turn my attention to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, examining what the phrase, “Husband of one wife” means, and give advice both to the divorced who want to serve in the church and to churches dealing with this issue.
If you are reading these posts, I think you will find the book “Disqualified?” helpful.
I have asked the question in previous posts, “Is a divorced man disqualified from ministry?” (or variations of that question).
The answers have proven the difficulty of framing the question as I did. It implies that there is a yes or no answer, a single blanket policy that covers all men everywhere. I do not think that is accurate to the scriptures or fair to the people involved.
Bart Barber asked me a question in one of the previous discussions that gets at the heart of the problem I am writing about now. I said that I did not believe that being divorced was an automatic disqualifier for service as a pastor or deacon, based on the “husband of one wife” requirement in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Bart asked me this question (currently comment 59):
Suppose a man has been married and divorced fifteen times, and is now married to his sixteenth wife. He’s had opportunities (boy, has he!) to learn a thing or two about relationships, and now, in his sixteenth marriage, he is the IDEAL husband.
Is he qualified to serve as a pastor?
I think Bart was using an absurdity to point out what he believed to be the flaw in my argument. But it seems that in much of discussion people have assumed that there are only two positions in the debate.
- All those who have been divorced are precluded from service as elders/pastors or deacons by the “husband of one wife” requirement.
- The “husband of one wife” requirement does not specify “never divorced”, so all divorced men are eligible to serve in these positions.
I not only reject both of those positions, I reject the idea that there is a blanket policy that can be applied here.
We love blanket policies – they cover all circumstances, all situations, and they relieve us of the stress of having to make a hard call. If we have a policy (all divorced men are ineligible) or what amounts to no policy at all (all-comers are welcome regardless of the past) we don’t have to make difficult judgments and defend them.
Hey, pastor, Wilfred is divorced and he gets to serve, how come you are saying that I am not qualified?
To avoid these hard choices and the accusations of inequity that would follow, we adopt blanket policies. They are easier on us, but I do not believe that they are biblically justified. Obviously, if you take the position that “husband of one wife” means “never divorced” then a blanket policy is biblically justified (or in the case of Bart’s univirae concept which is even stricter). I do not believe that the phrase was intended to mean “never divorced” (I’ve opened that discussion, but I’ve got more coming on that). But that doesn’t mean that I believe that every divorced man is qualified to serve or that there is no divorce standard. I will argue these more in future posts, but in this post I only want to argue the vanity of blanket policies.
Is there not a difference…
- Between a man who leaves his wife for another woman and a man whose wife is unfaithful and leaves him, even though he does all he can to forgive, restore and rebuild his marriage?
- Between a man (or woman) who is divorced before he is saved and one who is divorced as a believer in disobedience to the Bible and to the work of the Spirit within?
- Between a man who was divorced once many years ago and has a 25-year marriage to demonstrate the he is faithful, devoted, and perhaps, “the husband of one wife” and a man who has had three or four divorces?
We want to treat all situations alike and develop a blanket policy. And that blanket policy not only does not reflect scripture as I understand it, but it has several other problems.
Blanket policies lead to gross inequities, even hypocrisies when applied.
Here’s a situation that is not out of the realm of reality.
Two candidates apply for service at IMB, which has such a blanket policy. Horace was a good boy and eschewed sexual immorality right up until he married at age 20. Just 18 months later, something changed in his bride who got involved with some folks at her workplace, started drinking heavily, and left her husband for another man. He did all he could to win her back, to offer forgiveness and a fresh start, but she was adamant and the marriage ended. A few months later, he met another girl and they were married. Mortimer was a hellion who bedded half of the girls at his school. After high school, he moved in with one girl, then cheated on her and moved in with another. At the age of 22, he was saved and gave his life to the Lord. At church, he met a young Christian girl, one who had a past not unlike his before her conversion, and they were married.
Now, both Horace and Mortimer sense God’s call to missions and apply to the IMB. Horace has slept with two women in his life – his first wife and his second – and that only within the boundaries of marriage. Morty has been with dozens of girls, lived with a couple of them, but now, is redeemed and a faithful husband to his wife.
By our current standard, Mortimer is “qualified” because he never married any of the women he slept with or lived with. Because he “lived in sin” instead of getting married, he is still eligible to serve in the church or on the mission field. Horace, who has never had sex outside of marriage is disqualified.
Am I the only one who thinks that stinks a little?
Let’s try another situation in which the inequities appear.
Two men are seeking pastoral positions. Ferdinand was married, divorced and remarried by the time he was 26. At that age, he and his wife come to Christ and develop a deep interest in the Word. He serves as a volunteer in church, leads out effectively in ministries, goes to seminary in his spare time and lives as an exemplary husband and father – a role model for all. At age 40, over 15 years removed from his divorce, he decides to seek a ministry position. Then, we have Xavier. He was saved as a young man, grew up in the church, went to college, to seminary, and went into the ministry. He was an effective servant of God’s church until age 30, when a young lady joined his church and came to him for some counselling. One thing led to another and he left his wife and kids and moved in with and eventually married the new wife. He is now 40 as well and is deeply repentant of his sin. He has repented to the church he served, to his ex-wife and kids, to his current wife and is growing in grace. He, too, would like to go back into ministry.
Is there one policy that can cover both circumstances? One man was divorced before he was saved and the other betrayed the sacred trust of his family and his church. I’m going to deal with situations like this in future posts – reflecting on how God’s grace and high standards mesh together.
But my only point here is that having a blanket policy that covers these just seems a little silly to me.
Here’s one to think about.
What if my wife leaves me and I do not remarry? I’m still the husband of one wife, right? Doesn’t that mean that even though she might have gone, I am still qualified to serve in ministry positions, as long as I do not remarry?
Blanket policies lead to conundrum.
David Brumbelow (below) asked a question that led me to make this edit to the post. He asked about the blanket policy many of us have about women in ministry – based on the scriptural admonition. Both David and I believe that the Bible restricts the role of pastor to men (I have some issues about deacons, but they aren’t significant here). So, I endorse a blanket prohibition on women in ministry, but not relative to divorce.
There’s a reason for that. The teachings in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 seem clear to me, as well as the qualifications passages in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Pastors (and deacons, in the Baptist sense) are to be men. But, the teaching on divorce is not clear like the teaching on men and women. “Husband of one wife” is not synonymous with “never divorced” and so I do not think blanket policies are warranted here.
And, as I mentioned in my comment, there are some issues the prohibitionists (divorced are prohibited from all service as elders/pastors/deacons) have to face as well.
- The prohibitionist oftens holds a man accountable for sins committed prior to conversion if the divorce happened before a man comes to Christ.
- The prohibitionist elevates divorce above other sins. A man can be a murderer, get saved, and go into the ministry (if he gets out of jail). He can be an alcoholic, get clean and go into ministry. A homosexual who gets saved and renounces his sin can go into the ministry. Someone who pays for his girlfriend’s abortion can get saved and go into the ministry. But someone who was divorced, even before salvation, can never enter ministry.
- What about a man who has only ever been married once, but his wife was divorced? He is clearly “the husband of one wife” but is he qualified to serve under the prohibitionist view?
- What is a wife leaves her husband, they divorce and then she dies? What happens then?
- What is a man and wife divorce, then remarry each other? Does the remarried and reconciliation nullify the divorce?
Things are never quite as black and white as we’d like them to be.
If you understand the requirement “husband of one wife” as I do (or as anything less than a strict prohibition of divorce) you are going to have to make some tough calls. You cannot simply take the other extreme and allow all divorced men to serve. That would ignore scripture. We have to take every life, every divorce, every man case by case and scripturally analyze their qualifications for service.
To fall back on a blanket policy is lazy and ultimately, unbiblical.