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.
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.
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?
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.