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.
Red Letter Authority
Most of the Bibles I had when I was a kid had the words of Jesus in red letters. That can be a helpful study tool if you are looking to find something Jesus said in the gospels, but it can also cause problems in Bible Study. Every word Jesus spoke was perfect, but the high view of inspiration that we hold extends that same perfection to the scriptures written by Paul, or Peter, or James, or John. The red words in John are no more inspired and no more true than the black words of Paul.
This becomes significant as we deal with the topic of divorce. Jesus spoke an authoritative and clear word on divorce, but it was not the final word. Paul expanded on Jesus’ words in his writings, especially in 1 Corinthians 7. Those words are just as true and just as authoritative as the words spoken by the Savior himself.
It is also clear that there is a progression in the revelation of the biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage. Marriage was meant to be the union of a man and a woman that lasted for life, but because of the sinfulness of human beings, an allowance was made for the ending of a marriage. The Law of God and the teaching in Deuteronomy 24 laid the foundation for the teaching on this topic. Women were not to be treated capriciously or as simple property, but with respect and dignity as wives. Men must have a reasonable cause to divorce a wife, not just a fleeting whim or desire. This teaching sounds strange to us today, of course, but it was radical in its day. Jesus took the teaching of law and narrowed it. Moses said a man must find some “indecency” in his wife to divorce her. Jesus allowed divorce only on the grounds of adultery. But Paul expanded on this teaching, and in 1 Corinthians 7 allowed divorce on broader grounds than Jesus did.
Paul’s teaching, which is the final in scripture, represents the full revelation of God on the subject. He did not counter Jesus’s teachings, just expand on them. It is important to know that Paul wrote what he wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. His words, like Christ’s, are fully inspired and true, just as if they were written in red.
The New Testament epistles have surprisingly little to say about marriage and family relationships. In Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-19, and 1 Peter 3:1-7 all instruct husbands and wives on their biblical roles. The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and the wife is to submit to her husband in obedience to Christ. This is a consistent teaching throughout the New Testament. There are a couple of other mentions of marriage issues in other passages, but it is actually not a major focus of NT teachings. There is also very little about divorce in the Epistles. In Romans 7:1-6, Paul uses divorce as an illustration of a believer’s “divorce” from sin. In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, leaders in the church are required to men who are “the husband of one wife,” a statement that clearly has some applicability to the divorce and remarriage issue. But there is little question that the primary teaching on divorce in the NT, perhaps in the entire Bible, is Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10-24. As we study the teachings of Paul, there will be two areas of focus. First, we will study 1 Corinthians 7 to see the full counsel of God on the subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Then, we must study the teachings on leadership in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to define what “husband of one wife” means, so we can answer the original question of this study: are the divorced disqualified for positions of leadership and authority in the church of Jesus Christ?
Is Paul’s Teaching Scripture or Opinion?
First, though, we need to deal with a significant issue that has arisen among some interpreters of 1 Corinthians 7. Some have taken Paul’s statements of 1 Corinthians 7:10-12 to indicate that his teachings here lack inspirational authority. Paul is addressing a problem that evidently was occurring in Corinth; believers were being abandoned by their lost spouses who did not like the changes Christ was making in them. Paul was giving instructions on how Christians should respond when abandoned by a spouse.
Paul says, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.”
When Paul says, “not I, but the Lord” was he admitting that these were his opinions and not authoritative and inspired teachings? Do these teachings carry the same force as other scriptures or are they simple an apostle’s personal opinions? Some have suggested that Paul’s teachings here, in fact, are not at the same level of authority as other scriptures. Generally, but not exclusively, those who hold this view are those who hold more strict teachings on divorce and remarriage and therefore do not see Paul’s exceptions in 1 Corinthians 7 as consistent with other biblical teachings, especially those of Jesus. They see these teachings as Paul’s opinions without the force and authority of scripture.
I do not think this was what Paul intended to convey here. 1 Corinthians is sacred scripture and all of it is “breathed out by God” and is “useful” to us. There is a much simpler explanation for this passage which does not shuffle this text into the discard pile. Paul was not saying “this is my opinion, not inspired scripture” but was simply identifying the fact that his teachings went beyond what the Savior said. Jesus addressed marriage and made a single exception to the permanence of marriage in the case of adultery. But Paul was now addressing something that had not happened yet when Jesus spoke. He was, under the inspiration of the Spirit, going beyond what Jesus said and adding a second exception to what Jesus said. In fact, in verse 40, Paul makes it clear that he believes his instructions to be given by the agency of the Holy Spirit. This is scripture, and Paul’s teachings here are as authoritative as if they were spoken by Jesus Christ himself.
What Paul is saying, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-12 is, “In addition to that which Jesus told you when he was here, I have further revelation from God on this subject that Jesus did not address.”
Paul’s teachings, except insofar as they expand on Jesus’ teachings are very much in line with them. He affirms the permanence of marriage and exhorts Christians to do all they can to make their marriages work. Divorce is never an easy way out. He expands Jesus’ teachings but does not contradict it.
Paul’s teachings represent the final step in the process of the revelation of the full counsel of God on marriage, divorce and remarriage. Moses laid the foundation in Deuteronomy 24, Jesus’ teachings erected the building and Paul then put the finishing touches on the construction in 1 Corinthians 7. He applies this teaching to church leaders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. So, let us examine the teachings of Paul on divorce and remarriage.
There is not much in Romans 7:1-6 that advances the topic of divorce and remarriage. The passage uses divorce as an illustration of how those who have died with Christ are released from is passage is not about divorce, but uses it as an illustration. People born in sin are bound to sin as a woman is bound to her husband. She cannot leave her husband until she dies, then she is free to remarry.
An illustration is given to make a point and it is generally a mistake to try to take an illustration beyond the point it is intended to make. The point here is clear. Verses 5 and 6 tell us that while we were once bound to the law and the sinful passions it aroused (as a woman is to her husband), we have died with Christ and our bondage to the law is broken by that death. Having died to the law, we are free to marry Christ and be bound to him and to live in his freedom and joy.
It is interesting that some have seen this as Paul’s definitive statement on divorce and used it to nullify what he said in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul uses the ideal of permanent marriage here to make a point about how Christians are freed from the law when we die with Christ and raise to walk our new lives in him. Marriage and divorce are only illustrations here.
This passage does not really add much to the discussion. We have already established the principle Paul uses here as an illustration. Marriage is meant to be permanent. It is God’s will that a man unite in marriage with a woman and that the two of them make life together until death separates them.
This is an important principle to remember in a discussion of divorce and remarriage. While divorce may be permitted at times, it is always the best thing to do all we can, in the power of the Spirit, to make our marriages work. The failure of a marriage is never something to celebrate, and while it may be permitted at times, it is never something desirable or joyful.
Next time, we will explore 1 Corinthians 7, the key NT teaching on divorce and remarriage.
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?”