A divorced, remarried man leading the church?

The questions were raised to our Elders Council several weeks ago: Is a man who’s been divorced, or divorced and remarried, disqualified from the role of pastor, elder or deacon? Is he automatically out? Does he fail the one-woman-man test of 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6? May he serve the church just as any other man?

We believe the Scriptures say that No, he is not necessarily disqualified and No, he does not necessarily fail the one-woman-man test and Yes, he may be qualified to serve the church just as any other man.

I wanted to share our view. It's shown below. Our view also has been incorporated into our Principles of Doctrine, Governance and Practice.

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The Bible teaches that marriage is designed by the Lord to form a lifelong, singular relationship between one man and one woman. Divorce is a human invention that was instituted because of the hardness of heart of both men and women. Divorce destroys the Lord’s vision for marriage and its benefits; divorce damages families; divorce destroys marriage’s illustration of the gospel (Ephesians 5:23); divorce weakens the fabric of society. Despite these consequences, the Lord also offers abundant grace and mercy to overwhelm the sin of men and women.

Although marriage is designed by the Lord to be a permanent earthly bond between one man and one woman, the Scriptures also teach that marriage is dissolvable. Death of one of the marital partners, for example, dissolves the marriage and frees the living spouse to remarry (Romans 7:1-3; 1 Corinthians 7: 39).

The Scriptures also describe two exceptions that allow for divorce:

1.    God allows a husband or wife to divorce and remarry if his or her mate has committed adultery. Divorce in that case is not required, but would be allowed. The marriage could be reconciled despite sexual unfaithfulness. However, reconciliation is not always possible (Matthew 19:3-12). 

2.    If a believer is married to an unbeliever, and the unbeliever divorces (abandons the marriage) rather than continues in the marriage, the marriage would be dissolved. The believer would be free to remarry (1 Corinthians 7:12-15).

In both exceptions, the innocent spouse has not committed adultery. Also, the innocent spouse either has not sinned in any way or has not sinned in a way that should destroy the marriage.

Despite the simple specifics of these two exceptions, it is clear that sinful men and women sometimes manipulate and posture in order to feign innocence and seemingly fulfill one or both of these exceptions in order to impersonate the innocent party. A spouse, for example, may use sinful means to drive the other toward an adulterous affair. Or a spouse may make it impossible to live peaceably at home, and thereby eventually drive the marital partner to abandon the marriage. Nonetheless, the Scriptures affirm the exceptions cited. Responsible pastors and elders must prayerfully, thoughtfully discern the specifics in each circumstance and reach justifiable and right conclusions.
The Bible requires a pastor-elder to be a one-woman man, but a man divorced and remarried under one of the two exceptions has not committed adultery. It is permissible for a man divorced and remarried under either of these two exceptions to serve the Lord in the local church as a pastor or elder or deacon.

In addition, a man who has been divorced outside of the two exceptions is not automatically disqualified from serving as a pastor, elder or deacon. If, for example, the man in question has remarried and has remained faithful to his wife, he could qualify as a pastor, elder or deacon despite a history that included an unbiblical divorce. If the man is repentant for his role in the original marriage's dissolution, has demonstrated repentance and is faithful to his wife, he could fulfill the qualification from Titus 1:6 as a one-woman man.

If a man is disqualified from church leadership because he was divorced or in other ways sinful before his salvation to Christ, then the Apostle Paul also should have been disqualified from spiritual leadership in the local church. Paul said of himself in 1 Timothy 1:12-14: I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Before his conversion, Paul certainly was neither peaceable nor self-controlled.

What about an existing elder whose marriage is falling apart to the point of divorce? The elders obviously must hear from both the elder and the elder’s wife and perhaps others regarding the details and specifics of the circumstances that have done such severe damage to the marriage. It is likely that the elder in question would be required to step down at least for a season in order to free him and his wife to save the marriage. The elders hold the responsibility and the authority to discern what is best for the church and, secondarily, what is best for the marriage and for the man serving in the elder role. The church elders’ first responsibility to both the man and woman is to help them preserve their marriage.

Each man who desires the elder role must be willing to have his life examined for qualification. The qualification of being a one-woman man may seem the sole focus in the issue of marriage, divorce and re-marriage. However, perhaps equally important is a discussion connected to the requirement that a man be a good manager of his own household (1 Timothy 3:4). As Paul notes in 1 Timothy 3:5, . . . if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? A man who has been divorced may need to consider whether his leadership of his family in the home contributed to the divorce. Did his sin drive his wife or his children away from relationship? Rather than presume the answer to be Yes, the answer must be discerned through thoughtful and compassionate examination of the man’s life and conduct.
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Comments  3

  • David Jones 29 Oct

    Thanks for the article, Gordon.  All of the qualifications for elders in 1 Tim 3 and Tit 1 refer to the elder's pattern of life at the time, not at all times in his life. Would a man who got drunk frequently during his college years, but then found Christ and got discipled over the next twenty years, be disqualified from being an elder because of his previous experience with alcohol? What about a person who had anger issues or greed, but then grew in grace and now no longer struggles with those things?

    If one had to manifest the character qualities for elders at all points in a person's life before being eligible to be considered for the role, who would be able to be an elder? It must refer to their current pattern of life--a pattern that has been observed long enough to be known as a genuine pattern and not just a blip.

    So if I had a man at my church who currently met all of the qualifications, but he had a divorce in his past twenty years ago, but he has been happily remarried to his second wife for the past fifteen years, I would not immediately disqualify him for that alone. Also, the details of the case would matter. Did he mistreat his first wife? Did he cheat on her? Does he currently have a strained relationship with her, so that they cannot stand each other? Or was he the "innocent party," fighting for the marriage, even while his former wife was doing everything in her power to get away from him? Did all of this happen before the person became a believer? The circumstances matter.

    Now if I had a candidate that turned out to have been divorced three years ago, then I would hold off. Not enough time would have passed to discern where he is at, spiritually.

    In the the current cultural climate, this is something that every pastor has to reckon with at some point.
  • Gordon 29 Oct

    Good insights, David. Yes, as you said, circumstances matter. Agree that 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 refer to the pattern of the man's life, not to the entire history of the man's life. Otherwise, no one would qualify. The apostle Paul himself would have been disqualified.
  • Chris 13 Nov

    Remember also the context of Paul's words to Timothy. Pastor Tim was planting in Ephesus. There was not a man among those early converts who had not spent the first half of his life visiting the temple prostitutes. If life prior to justification was to be considered, Tim would have zero men to choose from. That is why Paul is careful to instruct both men and women in chapter two of the letter how to live life with "holy hands" and actions.
    Given this context it would be most difficult to not focus on the tested and matured life of a potential elder rather than on previous sin prior to being transformed by Christ.
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