Recently, I have been asked about the issue of divorce and whether or not it ultimately disqualifies one from ministry, especially the pastorate. Even though I know there will be many of you who disagree with me on this, here are my thoughts on the subject. Please understand that I did not come by them lightly.
I will never forget the phone call I got from a church in Rome, GA about 16 years ago. Someone on the other end of the line was part of a search committee looking for a new pastor. They had gotten my resume and were impressed enough to give me a call. Everything was going well until they asked a very pointed question, “Bro. Anthony, does your wife have a spouse that is still living?” I responded coldly, with squinted eyes and through clinched-teeth, “Yes, ME.” Unfortunately, this would not be the last time something like that happened.
What I encountered on the telephone that day was not unusual, nor unexpected, but it stung, nevertheless. I had chosen to marry a woman who had been divorced and it cost me. But even though our (then) pastor told me marrying Valerie would “put the final nail in the coffin” of my ministry hopes, I was aware the scripture (1 Tim. 3:2) being used against me was lacking in exposition, and it was ultimately up to God whether or not I pastored a church. So, after much study, I felt peace that what I was doing was right (but it didn’t hurt when the late Dr. Spiros Zodhiates gave us his approval).
But let me be clear about a few things…
First, I have never been divorced, so for me the whole argument of 1 Timothy 3:2 should be moot. Second, my wife was left with no choice but to divorce; furthermore, it happened before she was a believer. Third, my wife’s ex-husband remarried and divorced again before I even met her. By all accounts my wife was free to remarry, so both she and I were clear from any “adultery” issues.
Also, I am “the husband of one wife,” and Scripture NEVER said a bishop “must be the husband of one wife who was the wife of only one husband, ever.” Just a minor observation.
So, what DOES the Bible say?
1 Timothy 3:2 says, “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife...” Also, verse 12 says, “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife...” The difficulty with these verses is not what is being said, but how it is interpreted.
Is Paul telling Timothy that in order to be a pastor, deacon, or elder in a church, you must have only been married once? Could it even be possible that Paul is saying that a man of God MUST have a wife, because being single would disqualify one from ministry? These are things that have been debated for centuries.
Some believe that a pastor, deacon, or elder should have never been divorced (or married to a divorcee) . Others believe that in order to be a proper leader, one must be married. Still, many commentators believe that the proper rendering of the Greek is “one-woman man,” implying faithfulness and character over the number of wives. In reality, what the Bible says is one thing, but as William D. Mounce put it, “The Greek gives us a range of possibilities, but our theology is going to determine our interpretation.”
I think there’s another way to look at it…
Take a look at 1 Timothy 3 and read through verse 12. The best I can figure is that there are between 16 and 17 qualifications for the bishop, and between 6 and 8 for the deacons. All of these are preceded with a literal or an implied “must be,” as in “must be blameless,” or a “must have.” How does this affect the argument that an elder “must have” only been married once, never remarried, or never divorced?
Think of any great man of God you know that has stood behind the pulpit and faithfully proclaimed the Word of God. Has he always been blameless? Has he always been on his best behavior? Did he ever get drunk, covet, lose his patience, or curse his wife or children in anger? Was he ever a novice, a beginner subject to pride? If so, then according to the logic of some, he should never be able to preach or lead in God’s church, for just as a man “must be the husband of one wife,” so he also must be “blameless, vigilant, sober, well-behaved, given to hospitality, patient, never greedy, and always in control of his house and children.”
Do you see it? If your interpretation leads you to believe that the bishop must have only had one wife – ever – then the same hermeneutic (the study of the principles of interpretation) should apply to the other “must be’s.” “Must be the husband of one wife” = never divorced. “Not a novice” = never been a beginner in the faith. Doesn’t make sense, does it?
1 Timothy 3:1-12 is in the present infinitive tense (i.e., must be / dei einai). The requirements listed are ones that describe a man of character and faithfulness, of sobriety and gravitas; not a beginner or one untried and unproven. What I see is a list of requirements that may not have always been present in a man, but should be NOW, after God has done a verifiable work in his life. In other words, the Bible says a bishop “must be,” not “must have always been,” or “must have never done.” Paul said, “and such were some of you: but ye were washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” – 1 Corinthians 6:11
Here’s my point…
I believe that there are plenty who are sitting back or hiding out because someone has convinced them that they are used up and un-usable. For example, I can think of men right now who, for whatever reason, are divorced. Yet, these men, now Christians, are sold-out, God-fearing, faithful, Spirit-filled fathers and husbands with proven testimonies and unimpeachable character. Sadly, however, because of mistakes made when they were young, unsaved, and stupid, they cannot serve as deacons, much less as pastors.
On the other hand, I can think of several pastors today who were once murderers, drug dealers, fornicators, extortioners, and abusers of mankind (do I need to explain that last one?). Yet, only because they don’t have “divorced” to add to the list of past sins, they are accepted and given full reign as leaders in the church.
It’s time the body of Christ re-examine this issue in the light of GRACE.