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.
There is both remarkable consistency and a clear progression in the biblical teaching on divorce. Moses, in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 laid a foundation which Jesus built on in his teaching, presented in Matthew (19:3-12), Mark (10:2-12) and Luke (16:18) . Then, Paul put the finishing touches on that teaching, developing it to its most complete treatment in 1 Corinthians 7. There is a core set of principles that weave through and are developed in these passages.
The ultimate purpose of this study is to deal with the question of whether me who have been divorced are disqualified from positions of service such as pastor, elder or deacon. Before that subject is explored, though, a full understanding of the biblical teaching is necessary, which is why the passages mentioned above were dealt with in such detail.
So, before we get to the thorny issue of divorce, remarriage and ministry, it would be helpful to review the basic principles that have been set forth to this point
1. God intended marriage to be a lifelong covenant. This was the divine ideal from the beginning of time, clear from the Creation accounts in Genesis. God created us male and female and designed us to share a life together – one man and one woman commitment in a lifelong covenant, which would provide pleasure, blessing and companionship from both. Divorce was never part of God’s pre-fall plan and it should not be viewed as an easy option when a marriage gets tough.
The divine ideal had been almost completely abandoned in Hebrew culture to which God gave the law. Gone was the ideal of a mutually beneficial marriage relationship, replaced by a patriarchy that went well beyond what God intended and permitted men to seek divorce on a whim. Moses raised that bar. Jesus reinstituted the highest ideal of marriage – a lifelong covenant. Though he permitted the divorce exception, Jesus made it absolutely clear God had never wavered from the design of creation. Paul may have added another exception under which divorce was permissible, but he also clearly taught the concept of partnership, even giving women rights that had previously been reserved for men only.
The divorce pendulum has certainly swung in the American church. Once, people who had been divorced found themselves treated as outcasts, ostracized from not only leadership but often from full fellowship in the church. Today, many churches have basically relaxed all standards. A type of serial monogamy has been sanctified under loose views of marriage and divorce. Those who would be biblical in their treatment of this subject must never compromise on this foundational truth. God intends for marriage to be permanent. Even in extreme circumstances, it is always to the greater glory of God to seek healing and restoration rather than divorce.
2. God makes allowance for human sinfulness. Sin has done many terrible things to this world. Among the worst is the degrading effect it has had on relationships and marriages. God intended for marriage to be a covenant relationship between a man and his wife which was a blessing to both. While lifelong marriage was God’s intent and is still his desire, the effects of sin sometimes render that ideal impossible. Lifelong marriage is the divine ideal; divorce is a reality foisted on the world by human sin.
Divorce is not commanded by God today, and it is always better to seek to heal the marriage than to end it. But divorce is permitted in certain circumstances when one partner has broken the marriage covenant.
3. The New Testament specifies two grounds for divorce. Divorce is permissible in the New Testament for two reasons. Moses tightened the standards of his culture by requiring that men have some grounds for divorce and give their wives an official certificate. Jesus raised the bar when he declared that there is only one ground for divorce. Paul added another exception; similar in nature to the one Jesus gave but based on a circumstance that did not exist among Jesus’ hearers.
First, Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality. Unless the divorce took place on this ground, the divorce was not divinely approved and remarriage would be an act of immorality. Then, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, established another exception – abandonment. He allowed divorce when an unbelieving spouse abandons the believer. In this case, the believer is not bound to the marriage covenant and is free to remarry a Christian.
The exceptions actually prove the sanctity and importance of marriage. A husband and wife join together in a covenant before God. The covenant is based on promises and commitments made by both parties to the covenant. Husband and wife agree to be absolutely faithful to one another and to reject all sexual immorality. And they become one flesh, joined together not only physically, but emotionally, psychically, and spiritually. When one member breaks this covenant by a lifestyle of unrepentant sexual immorality or by abandoning his or her spouse, this breaks this holy bond. It is no small sin to break the bond of marriage, but God recognizes that when one partner voids the covenant, the other is released from it.
4. The Grounds for Separation – Paul, in recognition of the authority the husband has in the marriage, and the tendency of some husbands to abuse that authority, gives to the believing wife the right separate from her husband and live as a single woman or to seek reconciliation with her husband (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Women who separate from their husbands on the grounds that he is impossible to live with, that he is abusive of his authority or that he treats her unkindly, have no right to remarry. This same right is not granted to a husband, who has the authority and responsibility to demonstrate the proactive love of God and lead his home in the right ways.
5. There is a distinction made between divorce and separation. Paul, in the 1 Corinthians 7 passage just mentioned, makes an important distinction. Divorce, permitted on the grounds of abandonment (and adultery under Jesus’ teaching) is the end of a marriage. When the marriage covenant is broken by one party, the marriage is ended as completely as if the offending spouse had died. The innocent party, the one who did not abandon the spouse or commit adultery, is freed from that marriage and may remarry. Separation, permitted to women if living under the authority of the husband became unbearable, does not have the same effect. Separation suspends the marriage, but does not end it and remarriage, under those circumstances, is not permitted. Paul recognizes that separation may be necessary for a time to restore the marriage, but the marriage is by no means over.
6. We must remember the redemptive power of Christ in dealing with the divorced. The Bible is all about God’s redemptive work in Christ, taking sinners deserving of hell and making them fit for heaven by the Blood of the Cross. That includes the divorced. Those who have been divorced and repent of whatever sin they committed in that divorce are fully restored to fellowship in the church. We assume the role of the Pharisees and Sadducees when we make divorced persons feel unwelcome in our fellowship, or somehow imply to them that they are of a secondary status in the fellowship.
But the question of whether divorced men are fit for leadership in the church must be established by biblical teachings. Sometimes there are consequences to sin that survive even the repentance for that sin. King David is certainly an example of this. I believe in the redemptive power of Christ, but that, in and of itself, does not settle the issue of ministry.
7. The church must balance two competing truths in handling the divorce issue. We must be careful never to compromise the biblical ideal or forget that it is God’s desire that every marriage last a lifetime. We must also avoid the tendency to add to the Bible’s commands, making them harsher than God himself makes them. This was Satan’s tactic in the Garden of Eden, and this attitude, often thought heroically faithful and uncompromising, is not pleasing to God. We must neither compromise biblical principles nor enforce that which is not biblical.
Now, having set forth what I believe is the Bible’s teaching on this subject, we can begin to look at the specific question, “Can a divorced man be a pastor, elder or deacon?”
Part 1 of this series “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: What Does the Bible Say?” introduces the topic and sets forth three different approaches to the topic.
Part 2 of the series, “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: The OT Foundation: Does God Hate All Divorce?”, examines several OT passages that set the foundation of the biblical teaching. It especially examines the Malachi passage that has been interpreted as a general statement, “God hates divorce.”
Part 3 focuses specifically on Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the key OT passage on the subject. “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: Deuteronomy 24:1-4 – Establishing Grounds for Divorce.“
Part 4 focuses on the teachings of Jesus on the subject. “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: What Did Jesus Say?”
Part 5 examines Paul’s teachings on the subject and lays the groundwork for the study of 1 Corinthians 7, the pinnacle of biblical teaching on the subject of divorce and remarriage. It especially examines the question of whether Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 7 were just Paul’s opinion or were they inspired scripture. “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: Were Paul’s Views Scripture or Opinion?”
Part 6 examines 1 Corinthians 7:10-24, a post entitled, “Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: Paul’s Groundbreaking Teaching.“