Should Divorcees Be Forbidden to Teach or Lead in Local Churches?

The constitutions and bylaws of independent Baptist churches commonly include language that forbids divorced persons from teaching Sunday School or holding church office. The restriction is so common that of the dozens of church constitutions I’ve read and filed, only one or two lack some version of it. Since many churches with these restrictions have some history of conflict over them, the topic also tends to be seen as a minefield—best to fence it off and leave it alone.

But these same church constitutions and confessions of faith also strongly emphasize the authority of Scripture, and one question should always be welcome: Is what we’re doing biblical? Is it compatible with Scripture and the revealed nature and purposes of the church?

Let’s consider some arguments pro and con.

Pro

1 Discouraging divorce

Surely we all agree that churches ought to do what they can to discourage divorce and nurture thriving marriages. I’ve frequently heard this laudable goal cited as a reason for restrictive church policy on divorcees. The desire is that the church be perceived as univocal and consistently uncompromising on this point so that the message is unmistakable: God’s design for marriage is one man, one woman, for life.

2 Prevention by shaming

Cynical readers might be quick to suggest an alternative version of argument #1: “All these churches really want to do is scare people out of getting divorced by endlessly shaming those who are divorced.” Sadly, the cynics are probably more right than wrong on that point.

At the same time, the local church discipline passages in the NT do indicate that (a) some behavior is truly disgraceful and (b) churches can fail by being too accommodating of conduct that ought to be seen as shameful (2 Cor. 5:1-2, Ephes. 5:3).

3 Rejection of social trends – “easy divorce”

It would be difficult to research, but it seems likely that many of the divorcee restrictions were added to church constitutions in a period when divorce rates were dramatically increasing in the US. Part of this trend was the relaxing of requirements for divorce proceedings, leading to the creation of family courts and culminating in no-fault divorce laws. California became the first no-fault divorce state in 1970.

Biblically-informed Christians with a high view of marriage were appalled by this trend. Many saw the principle, “be not conformed to this world,” as requiring them to stake out a counter-cultural stand in this area. “We’re not joining this mad rush toward the destruction of the family.” Who can fault them for that?

4 The “husband of one wife” passages

Constitutions with divorcee restrictions sometimes footnote supporting passages that include 1 Timothy 3:2, 12 and 5:9 along with Titus 1:6. Though most of these passages refer to qualifications for elders, 1 Timothy 3:12 does apply the standard to deacons as well.

Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. (ESV, 1 Tim. 3:12)

How are these passages relevant for restricting Sunday School teachers and other non-deacon leadership roles? The reasoning is that these passages establish the principle that those who are leaders the church should be exemplary individuals with exemplary families.

Con

1 The value of participation

Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12, and many other passages, emphasize that each member of the body has a unique contribution to the life and growth of the whole. In Ephesians 4, the language is “joints” and “parts” that must work together (Eph. 4:16). In 1 Corinthians, Paul likens individual believers to hands, feet, eyes, etc. Nobody can be what someone else has been put there to be (1 Cor. 12:14-16).

None of this adds up to, “Divorced people must be allowed to be ministry leaders,” but it does add up to a sobering principle: preventing people from serving in ways they ought to be serving is a serious injury to the body—and therefore, a serious offense against Christ who is the Head.

Whatever case we make for excluding an entire category of people from multiple categories of ministry roles had better be a strong one. Does such a case exist? If such a case does exist, the “husband of one wife” standard for pastors and deacons is not it. Not only is it less than certain that the phrase was meant to exclude all divorce-and-remarriage scenarios, but we also have no Scripture indicating that this standard was intended to extend to roles other than pastors and deacons.

2 How divorces happen now

If LegalZoom has it straight, pure no-fault divorce is the law in 17 states and the District of Columbia. In these jurisdictions, no blame for any kind of wrongdoing may be identified as the reason for divorce proceedings. In the remaining 33 states, no-fault is an option.

In practical terms, this means that if either spouse wants to end the marriage on a no-fault basis, the other spouse has no say at all in the matter. A whole lot of legal process can go into dividing up property, custody, etc., but there is no legal basis for “fighting the divorce.”

At least one conclusion should be clear: it is possible to be a divorcee and have contributed nothing, either actively or passively, to the ending of the marriage. Should individuals in this situation be excluded from ministry leadership?

3 Example of what?

The reasoning that says “let’s make sure our leaders are exemplary individuals with exemplary families” has much to commend it. But given the realities of an easy-divorce society, the question arises, “Exemplary in what ways?” In a society that exalts and empowers individualism to an extraordinary degree, it may well be that a “good example” is sometimes a man or woman who is faithfully living the Christian life in a situation beyond his or her control. Can a divorcee be exemplary at holding to biblical attitudes and obedience while making the best of a tragedy he or she was was not able to prevent?

4 The kinds of people God uses

When we look through biblical history at the kinds of men and women God has chosen to use, even in leadership roles, we don’t find that they are always “exemplary people with exemplary families”—especially in reference to past transgressions. Badly checkered histories are common, and those histories include far worse offenses than failed marriages.

In some of our churches, as far as their constitutions are concerned, you can be a former axe murderer and teach Sunday School, but you can’t be a divorcee. Can this really be the intent of the biblical teaching?

It’s past time for churches to re-examine these policies. Yes, we want to obey Scripture. Yes, we want to discourage divorce and nurture strong marriages. Yes, we want to be counter-cultural. But is a rigid ban on divorcees in leadership really helping further these goals?

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There are 102 Comments

Greg Long's picture

Thank you, Aaron, I was taught a similar perspective to the one you are arguing against in my pastoral theology classes in Bible college, and I served in a church with similar restrictions in my first ministry. The reasoning given by those who taught me these things (who are beloved by me to this day) was well-intentioned. However, the more I examined Scripture on the issue of divorce and remarriage (and, frankly, came to know godly divorced people and to understand their situations), I began to look at it as "fencing the Torah"--in other words, putting extra laws in place in order to avoid breaking clear commands of Scripture. As well-intentioned as that is, it is also wrong.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Bert Perry's picture

I'm guessing that a lot of the rigidity really derives from the simple issue of establishing whether a divorcee is a one woman man.  If we've done--as many/most churches have--more or less a lecture/listen format, we simply do not have the information to determine this.  Hence the blanket bans that really don't consider whether the prospective leader committed adultery, or whether his divorce really relates mostly to his ex-wife's sins.  

We want to be careful as well with the notion that the church is wronged when people are "prevented from serving in ways they ought to be serving"--that very argument is, of course, a staple of evangelical feminism.   It's certainly true as far as it goes, but it tends to be...shall we say...rather over-applied.

Personally, I've been on a deacon board and have been taught by a divorcee--he married a nonbeliever as a young believer and paid the price when she decided she wanted to go.  Definitely a one woman man, though.   So count me firmly in the camp of "do we know him well enough to know he's a one woman man?", and quite uneasy with blanket bans.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

You and I actually agree! This is a good day. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

David R. Brumbelow's picture

The issue of a divorced person leading, especially pastoring, in a local church is a thorny one.  Frankly, you can make a great argument on both sides of this issue.  

Perhaps the best argument against a divorced man serving as pastor is the admonition that he “rules his own house well.”  As well as the argument that the church needs at least a few examples of one man and one woman married for life.  

David R. Brumbelow

TylerR's picture

Editor

A few thoughts:

  • What if he was married and divorced before he was a Christian?
  • What if he was already married, he became a Christian, his wife did not, and she left him afterwards (1 Cor 7)?
  • What if he is a Christian, married, and his wife is unfaithful, and leaves him? What fault does he have?

In each of these circumstances, the man is totally disqualified from leadership? Really? I've never bought it. And, there is the conundrum of what a "one woman man" actually means. I've always thought we're running up against tradition, not Scripture on this "divorce/remarriage/leadership" issue.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

The issue of a divorced person leading, especially pastoring, in a local church is a thorny one.  Frankly, you can make a great argument on both sides of this issue.  

Perhaps the best argument against a divorced man serving as pastor is the admonition that he “rules his own house well.”  As well as the argument that the church needs at least a few examples of one man and one woman married for life.  

David R. Brumbelow

The last statement in bold is a great example of a cultural, but not a Biblical, imperative.  Scripture says no such thing, nor does it suggest that further, the pastor must be one of those examples.  Big gaps in logic there.

The first statement about ruling his own house well, however, I consider to be Biblical.  The trick with it is even in a divorce situation, the outcome is not necessarily an indication of how well the man has ruled his home.  Again, imagine an immature Christian marrying a nonbeliever who goes her own way.  Is he forever disqualified, while the murderer Paul was not?  Seriously?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

I have a dear pastor friend - goes back 40 years.

His wife left him about 15 years ago. He stepped out of the ministry for several years. He remarried and now pastors a moderately sized (300+) in the upper Midwest.

I know the situation completely. There is no "innocent party" here. Wife # 1 had issues ... he had issues. 

Way back when I served along side him, he was adamant that a divorced man was disqualified from the pastorate. Funny how his view changed when he himself got a divorce.

My own view: some sins have consequences that are long. I think divorce is one of them. I don't think he should be pastoring. I'm not even sure his new church knows about his divorce (they may). 

I don't think there should be a blanket ban on divorced serving in positions, but for the offices - why not the highest standard!

 

 

John E.'s picture

The day after I began repenting of my sins and placing my faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I called my ex-wife and told her that I thought that we should remarry. She laughed at me.

I made that phone call because of the bad teaching in this area that I had heard while growing up. I thought that as a Christian, God expected me to remarry my ex-wife. Thankfully, the church that the Holy Spirit placed me in was pastored by a man (a BJU board member) who had much wisdom in this area. He told me that remarrying an unbeliever, even if she was my ex-wife, would be in direct disobedience to God's Word.

By God's grace, my "new" wife and I just celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary. We are blessed to serve God together in our local church (I'm on staff).

Thank you for writing this, Aaron.

 

 

Bert Perry's picture

...is Charles Stanley.  When he and his wife divorced, she noted that he had his priorities, and she simply didn't happen to be one of them.  Now of course, I don't know exactly what the ins and outs were on the deacon board's decision to retain him, but if that perspective was known before the divorce (big IF, yes!), I would dare suggest a good look at his work and travel schedule might have been appropriate.  If he was putting in 80 hour weeks and traveling > 50% of the time, I would dare say his ex-wife had a point--and the deacon board should have worked with him to rein that in.  

Same thing with Jim's friend, really.  I don't know what the issues are, and of course it would be wrong to discuss them here, but if some issues were known a priori, it's time for the deacons to step in.  And that presumes, of course, a closer relationship between church leaders than I've sometimes seen.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

1 Corinthians 7:10-11, "To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife."

Does this passage still apply?

  • It strikes me that at least for believers - a marriage should be able to work! Issues should be resolvable
  • While the passage does not address the husband not separating, my take is that this would also be true: "A husband must not separate from his wife. 11 But if he does, he must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to his wife. And a wife must not divorce her husband."

What I see and it concerns me and should concern us all:

  • EZ divorce standards for believers.
  • Christians think they can walk away from marriage with no consequences
  • And the above is very very wrong

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"As well as the argument that the church needs at least a few examples of one man and one woman married for life."

This is not a cultural argument. It's at least an application of biblical principle... in any culture.

I don't disagree w/Jim's last either, but there are distinct issues we should try not to lump together:

a. Discouraging divorce & nurturing thriving marriages
b. Punishing all divorcees regardless of the situation

Finding a practical way to accomplish a. without doing b. is what I'm arguing for. Would love to hear of some policies that have attempted this and seem to work well.

On the "not keeping people form serving who ought to be serving": the principle is valid regardless of what groups may abuse it.

 

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Greg Long's picture

Jim, that's what I was taught, but may I humbly suggest that your perspective is being stricter than Jesus and Paul (yes, of course I know there are different perspectives on Mt. 19 and 1 Cor. 7:15, but after considering all of those arguments it seems quite clear to me that biblically there are POSSIBLE exceptions for adultery, abandonment, and abuse).

I would honestly prefer to take your approach as it would make things much easier in my church setting. It is much, much messier to try to work through the details of a past marriage to see if it qualifies as a biblical exception so that a new marriage might take place, but I believe that is the biblical approach. I have said "no" to marrying a couple with divorce in the past, but I have also said (after much discussion and even investigation) "yes."

Of course that's not really the subject of Aaron's OP, but related.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Jim's picture

To the original point ... "Should Divorcees Be Forbidden to Teach or Lead in Local Churches?":

  • No but ...
  • The "but": what is their current view of divorce? Must be known! The sanctify of marriage must be held high

Answering Greg Long who said: "it seems quite clear to me that biblically there are POSSIBLE exceptions for adultery, abandonment, and abuse)." Agreed that there are Biblical grounds for divorce!

And: "try to work through the details of a past marriage to see if it qualifies as a biblical exception so that a new marriage might take place". My take on the bolded above: As a pastor I frankly did not feel that I had either the authority or the resources to truly evaluate this!

  • The pastor does not have a private investigator NOR
  • The ability to subpoena 
  • It always seemed to be "he says" ... no  "she says"
  • Considering my own calling and directives for pastoral ministry - I do not see that outlined anywhere in the Scriptures

 

Greg Long's picture

Jim wrote:
Answering Greg Long who said: "it seems quite clear to me that biblically there are POSSIBLE exceptions for adultery, abandonment, and abuse)." Agreed that there are Biblical grounds for divorce!

And: "try to work through the details of a past marriage to see if it qualifies as a biblical exception so that a new marriage might take place". My take on the bolded above: As a pastor I frankly did not feel that I had either the authority or the resources to truly evaluate this!

  • The pastor does not have a private investigator NOR
  • The ability to subpoena 
  • It always seemed to be "he says" ... no  "she says"
  • Considering my own calling and directives for pastoral ministry - I do not see that outlined anywhere in the Scriptures

I totally understand Jim, and respect that position. Let me give you some examples of where I'm coming from:

  • One couple came to us asking to be married. She had never been married; he was divorced. He said his first wife left him for another man. He referred me to his previous pastor. I called him and confirmed the details of what I had been told. The other pastor sympathized with this man but had a personal policy of not marrying divorced people. Because I was able to verify his story I felt comfortable moving forward with pre-marital counseling.
  • A woman in our church had a husband who started exhibiting bizarre and dangerous behavior towards himself and others (not going to share many details). She finally divorced him. The authorities were involved at several points including a restraining order and then ultimately some jail time. I was not in the church when all this happened but when she approached us about the possibility of remarriage we are of course able to verify all of that not only with pastors on staff here at the time who worked with her, but also if need be with the documentation from the legal system. Because of this, we are willing to consider the possibility of remarriage for her (she has agreed to submit to pastoral counsel and counseling regarding any possible mate).
  • On the other hand, one time I had a couple who was fairly new to our church ask about getting married. At least one of them had been divorced. Their salvation testimonies were iffy, her story changed after I mentioned the biblical exception clauses, and I just didn't think it was worthwhile to pursue any further so I declined their request. They left the church.

I totally agree that if it simply "he said/she said" that any pastor would do well to be extremely wary.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Bert Perry's picture

It's worth noting something a good friend of mine told me when I expressed surprise at something she knew:  "it's amazing what you find out when you ask."  I don't know the "full story" of everybody at my church by any means, but I'm just amazed at some of the things people tell me; sexual assaults, domestic issues, you name it.  I'm afraid that I've actually bobbled a few things where I should have acted, really. 

With regards to divorce or adultery, same basic thing.  A man with genuine sorrow will describe his divorce in completely different terms than a man trying to justify himself.  Recently went up to a guy where I'd approached him in the parking lot--he was angrily talking with his wife and I wanted to make sure things were OK--and when I'd apologized for being suspicious, he just opened up about some of his difficulties and admitted he wasn't "ruling his own family well."  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

Four issues on divorce and remarriage:

  • What the state permits
  • What one's individual conscience "permits" [eg ... not that I am "looking". I'm 43 years of happy marriage. God forbid if my wife precedes me ... my personal decision is that I would never marry a divorced person]
  • What a church permits
  • What a pastor will permit. I personally will not officiate at 2nd marriages where divorce is involved. My own conscience will not permit it! People have gotten very ticked off at me because of this and I personally have not condemned the 2nd marriages of the divorced. 

As an aside: there is no Biblical mandate for any pastor officiating at weddings. 

Kevin Subra's picture

Thanks, Aaron. Great topic and you did a fine job in such a brief space.

I think that people overlap issues. If it belongs to 1 Timothy 3, then "a bishop must be" concerns what he is (present tense "be"), not what he was (or all other qualifications would be contingent on one's past as well).

The concern that people bring up is that there may be other issues. Divorce (as I understand it) does not automatically disqualify, but neither is it irrelevant. It must be investigated. There may be other issues that complicate matters, such as "having a good testimony with those who are without," or "having one's household in subjection." There is also the issue of "no guilty party" claims, which some question. It might be also that there is just enough "baggage" that comes from divorce oftentimes that it causes ongoing issues, just because the ex and the kids are part of life. 

Much has come from the misunderstanding of equating "one woman man" with "married only once." That both downplays moral behavior and raises marital status inappropriately.

I believe that divorce does not automatically disqualify someone from ministry at any level. With all of that said, I would still hesitate to be under a pastor (placing myself in that scenario) who has had a failed marriage for whatever reason (which may indicate unfounded bias, maybe from the way I've been taught). Mine is not a biblical objection per se. Simply put, I would want to know that a man has exemplified himself in conduct as a divorcee over an extended period of time before placing him in some lead role.

BTW, Greg Long, Dr. Walton shared the hilarity of this issue. He stated (in a seminary Pastoral Epistles class) that divorce was seen by many as the unforgivable sin (which he did not appear to embrace), but that murder was somehow something that people would forgive after repentance. He, tongue-in-cheek, suggested that the logical path forward was murdering one's spouse (to be clear - all in jest and illustrating the absurdity of such a view). <grin>

Again, Aaron, thanks for the post.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Rob Fall's picture

More than once, I've heard the jest from the pulpit, "Divorce never, murder maybe."

Kevin Subra wrote:
SNIP

BTW, Greg Long, Dr. Walton shared the hilarity of this issue. He stated (in a seminary Pastoral Epistles class) that divorce was seen by many as the unforgivable sin (which he did not appear to embrace), but that murder was somehow something that people would forgive after repentance. He, tongue-in-cheek, suggested that the logical path forward was murdering one's spouse (to be clear - all in jest and illustrating the absurdity of such a view). <grin>

Again, Aaron, thanks for the post.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks for the discussion.
Another entry for the pros column occurs to me now: the alternatives are just too difficult/complicated.

It is certainly easier to just ban all divorcees from a, b, and c, period. Much harder to evaluate, case by csse. And who should be included in the evaluating?
... and how much "investigating"?
So I do see the practical problems.
But I wonder if blanket banning might actually be more difficult in the long run, just in different and more subtle ways.

But what's practical vs. what's right - - two different questions!

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

JohnBrian's picture

“I Fear You Will Die and Go to Hell”

At that point, I felt that I needed to warn him about the danger of his soul. I said, “If I’m completely honest with you, I believe that you might follow through with this divorce. If you do, I think you just might achieve your goals. You might reach a place of happiness apart from your wife and achieve satisfaction in the remaining years of your life. You might enjoy it—however temporal it might be. The problem is, when you close your eyes for the last time, you will open them in eternity—in a place called hell.” He looked shocked. I said, “I fear you will die and go to hell.”

CanJAmerican - my blog
CanJAmerican - my twitter
whitejumaycan - my youtube

Jim's picture

It’s through the covenant keeping marriage commitment that the gospel is put on display without words.  If we’ve ever been given a command to preach the gospel without words, it’s within the marriage covenant.  In a land saturated by no-fault divorces, the church of Jesus Christ puts on display the doctrine of Christianity through marriage faithfulness.  When the sanctity of marriage is upheld among God’s people, the echo of the gospel is heard and the beauty of the gospel sparkles in the world.

We (my wife and I) know something about those vows: for better for worse, in riches or poorer, in sickness and in health.

  • In our 43rd year
  • Kathee has seen:
    • A husband break his neck and become paralyzed. Her parents said "ought to leave him"
    • Three neck surgeries
    • Two back surgeries
    • Two rounds of C-Diff with 6 months of missed work
    • Cancer surgery - now Stage 3
    • She's managed to keep her vows
    • And I have too
TylerR's picture

Editor

Not moved by the article John Brian provided, though I understand it. However, the context is clearly different. The man in the article is being selfish and evil, and Buice suspected the man wasn't even a Christian. His approach there was sound, and I agree with it. Buice suggested:

Can I be brutally honest with you today?  If you’re a Christian who’s planning your divorce, you could be planning the biggest mistake of your life.  Why not run to God today and plead for Him to restore your marriage?  Divorce is not commanded.  Divorce is a decision.  Why not choose to keep your marriage vows and work passionately to restore your marriage for the glory of God?

I don't think anybody here is suggesting otherwise.

I'm saying the ​context matters, in each individual case. At this point, any pastor can bring out a whole truckload of anecdotal stories, so I'll share mine:

  • Woman with three kids from two marriages begins going to church. 
  • She drags husband along. He is a loser, a drunk and he beats her. She desperately hopes church will reform him.
  • They attend faithfully. I meet with them often. She is not a Christian. He claims he is. He keeps beating her. She often calls me at night, crying and asking for advice. She doesn't want to go to the police. She's not interested in pressing charges. I've been in law enforcement, so I understand the futility of even calling the police if the wife won't cooperate.
  • He leaves her for another woman and abandons the children. He robs another church and goes to jail
  • I meet with him in jail several times. I tell him I won't believe he's a Christian until he starts acting like one. I tell him to repent. Etc., etc., etc.  
  • He promises he's sorry. But, his girlfriend is on the visitor's list, and the wife accidently runs into her while she carts their kids to see the daddy in jail.
  • Meanwhile, as she lives through this hell, the wife repents, believes the Gospel, and becomes a Christian
  • The husband writes a letter from jail, saying he will never return to his wife, and saying he actually loves his girlfriend.
  • Wife wants divorce and asks me for advise.
  • I advise her to get one.

Some time later, she meets a Christian man and wants to marry him. I marry them. Later, I am approached by an elderly, nasty man in the church who tells me:

  • Her divorce wasn't justified.
  • Her remarriage isn't justified.
  • I don't know the Scriptures
  • I'm a novice.
  • He tells me he almost objected at their wedding.

My response? A polite, pastoral version of, "bite me."

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

In that context, I couldn't ignore 1 Cor 7:15. I'm willing to live with the advice I gave. Never lost an ounce of sleep over it. I don't think a spouse ought to be trapped in a hopeless situation. This context was bad. Just to throw gasoline on the fire, I also once agreed to marry a couple who weren't even Christians. I did it so I'd have a chance to do biblical marriage counseling and give them the Gospel over the course of 8 weeks.

In situations like these, my thought process often goes like this:

  • Step 1: Knee-jerk reaction according to "the way I've been taught."
  • Step 2: Immediate introspection, as I'm sometimes forced to actually apply something in real life I've never been entirely comfortable with in theory to begin with.
  • Step 3: I search the Scriptures and consider, "forget my traditions - what does the Bible actually say on this issue?"
  • Step 4: I sometimes end up ditching tradition for what I believe is Scriptural.

I've honestly wondered whether I'm meant to be a Pastor. I can be interpreted as being unduly pragmatic on some points. I've always been willing to toss tradition into the trash if I didn't feel it lined up with Scripture. I suppose that's better than unyielding stupidity. I once knew an elderly Pastor who told me that because a Pastor had to be "blameless," a certain man wasn't qualified for pastoral ministry any longer. I asked, "what, exactly, do you think 'blameless' means?" The man replied, "it means 'blameless!'" I pressed, "it can't mean 'sinless,' can it?" The man shook his head angrily, "No, but 'blameless' means 'blameless.'" Cue the Twilight Zone ​theme-song . . .

Bottom line, I think the divorce/remarriage issue is a land mine because of inherited traditions. I suspect many Pastors privately have other interpretations, but are afraid to even touch this third rail with a ten-foot pole. Their doctrinal statements have it, and it'll stay that way until hell freezes over. To touch it is to invite death and dismissal - perhaps even both.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

John E.'s picture

As a divorced and remarried man, I've hesitated to re-wade back into this. As TylerR said, "the divorce/remarriage issue is a land mine." I've one-ish thought and one question.

Some have mentioned the difficulty Elders face if called to "investigate" past divorces. That's true. I would think, though, that a man who has been divorced in the past will be exhibiting fruits of the spirit and continued growth in the grace and knowledge of  Jesus Christ. If a brother is living a "blameless" life in other areas, why assume that he's not telling the truth about his past divorce? Or, rather, if you are going to assume something, why not assume that he's telling the truth? Obviously, by God's grace, we should do our best to never assume anything when affirming Elders or calling pastors. Since we can't see each other's heart, this is easier if affirming Elders from among men who have already been members of your church for years. Observing their lives, their love for Jesus, their commitment to the pursuit of holiness, etc. will be much easier if affirming from within the church. If the church is hiring a new "lead" pastor from outside the existing church membership, it's more difficult. Even in those instances, the norm, I think, should be that the pastoral candidates are intimately connected to sister churches. In those instances, shouldn't the church leadership (and members) be doing due diligence in seeking counsel from wise, mature believers who know the brother in question?

I know that from a human standpoint, that's all easier said than done. This is why, whenever I'm encouraged to pursue being  "lead" pastor, I usually respond that my divorce is too big of a stumbling block for too many. Even though I don't believe that my divorce/remarriage disqualifies me from ministry, I realize that many Christians do believe that. Although, on one hand, hypothetically, if I were a "lead" pastor, I would feel as if I would have to announce my divorce to every visitor. I would hate to mislead someone into knitting their heart to the church and pursuing membership, only to discover that the pastor is guilty of something that they believe is disqualifying. On the other hand, I don't believe that I should necessarily have to do that. Almost no one expects me to disclose my other past sins, some of which would land me a book/movie deal in certain circles. Sin has consequences, and I prayerfully understand that I can't take it personally when others believe that I have disqualified myself from the pastorate (or even from teaching). That being said, it's never easy to experience the change from warmth to coldness that happens from time-to-time when a brother or sister in Christ finds out that I'm divorced.

One final thought along those lines before my question - the Elders of my current church (as well as my previous church) are aware of my the ins-and-outs, so to speak, of my divorce. At my membership interview, they asked me very pointed questions. Since then, I have had one-on-one conversations with them about it. However, I do not go into details about my divorce with the other members (much less other Believers who are not members of my church). When asked, I usually say something like, "Neither one of us were Christians, and there was more than enough sin to go around on both sides." I don't go into detail for two reasons - 1. Two people were involved, and I'm not comfortable discussing the sins of another person. Although, I understand the necessity of it in certain situations, like when discussing it with my Elders. 2. Because two people were involved, and because of the specifics, it's too easy to inadvertently give the impression that I was more innocent than I actually was.

Which brings me to my question:

Out of curiosity, for those of you who have expressed reticence at allowing divorced men into ministry, is your perspective different if the divorce happened before the man became a Christian?

JBL's picture

I've appreciated the group's insights into the divorce/re-marriage/and wedding officiating issues.

My take on the situation is this.  If we're unsure on whether to have a church officiated ceremony, ask ourselves... Were this same proposed couple to go somewhere else and get married, would we welcome them as a couple into the church fellowship without discipline or sanction?  If the answer is yes, I don't see any reason that the church should object to the ceremony.  If the answer is no, than the marriage and the officiating of the ceremony would be unbliblical.

In other words, the biblical validity of the marriage determines the willingness to perform the ceremony.

Obvious example is the case of homosexual marriage.  No orthodox church would recognize the union, regardless of who performed the ceremony.

What's interesting is to consider cases of two previously divorced people who won't receive a church ceremony, but when they eventually do get married (by third party), they come into fellowship and are fully recognized as Mr. and Mrs. ______.  In my mind, that is simply not consistent.

John B. Lee

TylerR's picture

Editor

You wrote:

What's interesting is to consider cases of two previously divorced people who won't receive a church ceremony, but when they eventually do get married (by third party), they come into fellowship and are fully recognized as Mr. and Mrs. ______.  In my mind, that is simply not consistent.

That's why I had no problem marrying the divorced Christian woman, or offering to marry the non-Christian couple. I won't marry them, but I'll welcome them into the church with "Christian love" if they head off to the courthouse and get married there? Sure, that's consistent . . .

I know folks here have a lot more experience than I do on these matters. I'm willing to be corrected, and to listen. But, I do believe churches treat this issue as a defacto unpardonable sin. We do things a certain way because "that's just the way we have ​to do it." Parallel example:

  • I transferred to a new duty station. A young military police officer, at her first duty station, was my section's field training officer. THat means I had to have her sign off on the location-specific training topics to get my qualifications there.
  • This woman indignantly corrected me because, after I took a statement from a victim, I drew a SOLID LINE under the last paragraph, and wrote "end of statement." She shook her head. "That's WRONG," she said. "It has to be a dashed line, not a solid one!" I told her, "It doesn't matter, trust me." She insisted, "Legal won't accept it if it's a solid line." I told her, "You're just blindly accepting what you've been told, but you're wrong. It doesn't matter what the stupid line looks like."
  • My point? She didn't exercise critical thought, she just plunged ahead with a script she'd been given, not realizing how foolish her inflexibility made her look to a rational person.

I think our knee-jerk reaction on this issue ("NO! They CAN'T be in leadership. They're . . . they're . . . DIVORCED!!!!!") is more about conditioned reactions and inherited tradition than Scripture.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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