Does Divorce Disqualify?

written by Neal Thornton, Senior Pastor (August 20, 2022)

As a Christian first and a local church pastor second, I am continually reminded that Christians are in the “people business.” To be a follower of Christ means to be in the church and serving in ministry at some level (Ephesians 4:10-11). That means you deal with—people. I have often defined ministry as, “filling gaps in people’s lives towards their spiritual success.” Well, one is not involved in ministry long until they understand ministry means people, and people means mess. Years ago, I heard one well-meaning, seasoned pastor quip, “Ministry would be a lot easier if it weren’t for people!” Yes, we do appreciate the comedic relief, but truth be told we all have our share of mess. Yet God has placed us in the community of the local church for our good. He has given us one another, as well as ministry leadership to pastor us through the messes of life and on to greener pastures (cf. Psalm 23). Until then we await “the chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4) when all mess will be gone.
I begin in such a way because with this post I aim to address a particular facet of mess: divorce, particularly in the context of church leaders. I’ve been around long enough to know that divorce is as sticky as it is sensitive. It deserves the grace and truth of Scripture and the same from those providing recovery care. However, divorce is an unfortunate reality of living in a fallen world, one which the church must meet head on with the gospel. In the space below, we think together about divorce in terms of the qualifications of pastors and deacons. Let’s begin.
(For a brief treatment on marriage and divorce, see the excursus provided at the conclusion of this post).
Qualifications for Pastors and Deacons
People take their social and moral cues from those in leadership positions. Paul, therefore in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 (also found in 1 Titus 1:5-9) sets forth a list of qualifications for church leaders: pastors and deacons. His aim is to picture the exemplary Christian life, one that is surely to splash upon the congregation for their good. Ministry runs on relationships, and those in leadership have a unique ability to influence those under their care. Thus, it is imperative for pastors and deacons to demonstrate a life ever being transformed by the power of the gospel—a life worthy of imitating.
[1] The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. [2] Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, [3] not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. [4] He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, [5] for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? [6] He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. [7] Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
[8] Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. [9] They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. [10] And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. [11] Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. [12] Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. [13] For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Perhaps most notable is the ordinariness of these qualifications. Paul is not laying on a higher standard of Christian living for those in leadership. Rather, he is requiring those in such offices to set a high watermark of Christian character worthy of the church’s following. Every qualification set forth for pastors and deacons are understood as indicative for Christian discipleship.
One does well to mark a few key observations from this passage: that character is the priority for both pastors and deacons. Character is the qualification by and large; that Paul sets only one competency qualification “able to teach” for the overseer only, and not for the deacon; and, that, although Paul gives more attention to the pastors in his articulation, the nature of the qualifications is very similar across the offices.
One Issue of Debate
In regards to the qualifications of both pastor and deacons, two issues have been debated through history: Can women be deacons, and what does Paul mean by “the husband of one wife?” Earlier this month I published an article on our church website to address the former issue. Its title, “Can Women Be Deacons?” You can find it here. But as for the second, the interpretation of “husband of one wife?” I will address this one issue of debate below. Indeed one character qualification having caused much interpretive consternation within churches has been Paul’s phrase in verses 2 and 12, “the husband of one wife,” which he applies to both pastors and deacons. The debate in short: “What does Paul mean?” Through the years, churches have held one of five historical positions. I provide each of them below along with an explanatory comment for the position’s validity.
1. No polygamy | The qualified man must not have multiple wives. He must be legally contracted in the covenant of marriage to only one woman.
There is no other prohibition against polygamy in surrounding texts. It seems as though it was not an issue in Ephesus among Christian men, or polyandry among women (cf. 1 Tim. 5:9).
2. Must be married |  The office of pastor and deacon is reserved for married men. Thus, those who are single do not meet the qualifications.
Though helpful in many contexts, nowhere in the New Testament is marriage presented as a qualification for ministry. In fact, Paul himself alludes to his singleness in 1 Corinthians 7:7.
3. Only one wife | The qualified man is to have (or had) one wife. Thus, a second marriage for widowers would be disqualifying for diaconal service.
Paul endorses second marriages of widows in Romans 7:3-4. Given that his illustration seems principial, one could assume an endorsement to widowed men as well.
4. Never divorced | Divorce, with this position, assumes remarriage and thus consequential adultery (Mark 10:11-12).
This position seems to miss the intention of the apostle. If Paul wanted to simply exclude divorced persons, he likely would have said so: “He must not be divorced.”
5. Sexually pure | The qualified man lives a life free from sexual immorality, fornication, promiscuity and the like. He is committed to “one woman” in both his mind and marriage.
Such a position seems to best interpret the language of the original Greek text which reads, “a one-woman man.” He therefore sets the example for the church to follow both in marriage and leadership of his family. With such a man, there is no question as to whether he is committed to both.
Below are two credible and conservative evangelical voices who have sought to provide a similar interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:12.
John MacArthur writes, “The overseer or elder [or deacon] must first be above reproach in relation to women. He must be the husband of one wife. The Greek text literally reads ‘a one-woman man.’ Paul is not referring to a leader's marital status, as the absence of the definite article in the original indicates. Rather, the issue is his moral, sexual behavior. Many men who are married only once are not one-woman men. Many with one wife are unfaithful to their wives. While remaining married to one woman is commendable, it is no indication or guarantee of moral purity.” (John MacArthur, 1 Timothy in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 104.
John Stott writes, “Paul is excluding all those guilty of married unfaithfulness. Or better, he is making a general and positive stipulation that a candidate for the pastorate must be ‘faithful to his wife’ (NEB), ‘a man of unquestioned morality, one who is entirely true and faithful to his one and only wife’ (1 Cor. 7:8ff, 25ff. 40), or ‘a man who having contracted a monogamous marriage is faithful to his marriage vows.’ This explanation seems to fit the context best. The accredited overseers of the church, who are called to teach doctrine and exercise discipline, must themselves have an unblemished reputation in the area of sex and marriage.” (John Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus, 94)
Application for the Church
When selecting candidates for pastoral and diaconal service, the typical question asked in relation to Paul’s statement “husband of one wife,” is simply, “Can the candidate be divorced?” Though well intended by many, I would like to suggest that such a question is not the best question to ask. Based on the context of verse 12, it seems that Paul is taking the moral temperature of a man in addressing his married life: Is this man committed to one woman in both his marriage and his mind? Thus, thoughtful congregations do well to ask a better question, “Can this person (pastoral candidate) serve as an example to us in the area of marriage and family?”
God has invested the church with congregational authority and discernment (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:5-7). It is thereby the responsibility of the church to survey qualified candidates for service, and thus approve of their appointment. Such a process of selection, approval and installation of pastors and deacons should always be done with the most Christ-like care and biblical-minded consideration.
Regarding divorce, evidence suggests no reason to disqualify a divorced man from service on the ground of his divorce alone. As an alternative to disqualification, thoughtful congregations, with the aid of elders and deacons, do well to consider such candidates given they meet the remaining qualifications of their respective office. In sum, when interviewing such a candidate, instead of asking of him “Can this divorced man serve?” it may be better to ask of him “Should this divorced man service?” It is my optimistic position that the candidate himself will help the congregation determine the right answer for the time.
What are some factors that congregations should consider when interviewing a divorced man for service? Here are six questions to consider that may help determine if a candidate should serve, or is ready to serve in the office of pastor or deacon.
1. Past | What was the nature and quality of his marriage prior to the divorce?
2. Sin | What was the catalyst that led to the divorce?
3. Time | How much time has passed since the divorce?
4. Ex-wife | Where is she, and how is she, in terms of how she could influence both the candidate’s reputation and ministry?
5. Family | Is there any left-over baggage that could cause a distraction, or a need for him to minister outside the church?
6. Marriage | Does he currently exemplify faithful leadership? (Which really gets at the crux of Paul’s intent of “husband of one wife.”)
For many divorced men there may be unique pain still felt from their past. Divorced candidates should therefore be counseled with special care. It may be that a man is not ready for service now, but will be in due time. Wounded men need a concerted effort of discipleship from their fellow brothers in Christ. In the most ideal situation, divorced men can be helped by others back into the field of service.
It is my experience that many divorced men can still meet the qualification of being “a husband of one wife.” I find it a special blessing to serve along men who know well the transformative grace of God in their lives. Those who have experienced unique heart-break and sorrow are sometimes used as the Lord’s special instruments of services. The church therefore will do well to not quickly disqualify divorced men, but examine them thoroughly to find them faithful, and if so, thus installing them to service
For use within a recent candidate survey developed by our deacon body, I have drafted the following statement:
“Married men: The deacons at Coats Baptist Church (CBC) do not believe divorce, as a single issue, disqualifies a man for diaconal service. Having surveyed the historical interpretations of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3:12, the deacons understand his phrase “the husband of one wife,” to mean a “one-woman man” as the Greek text literally reads. Thus, the qualified deacon is one who exemplifies marital and sexual fidelity in both his mind and his marriage. Fitness for diaconal service, therefore, depends more on a candidate's ability to demonstrate a life of marital faithfulness as an example for the church to follow, than his past experience would suggest.” (August 1, 2022)
Excursus: God on Marriage and Divorce
Divorce is sticky and complex and equally painful. No two divorces are exactly the same. Each case is unique, packaged with a myriad of unfortunate consequences. A dialogue on divorce best begins therefore with a biblical view of marriage. Such provides a true north to navigate the conversation and thus provide a sufficient ministry of care. One cannot rightly analyze the complexities of divorce until the nature, design and purpose of marriage is rightly understood.
Scripture sets forth marriage as a creation mandate (Genesis 2:24-25) designed by God with his specific purposes in view: the joining of man and woman; the procreation of children; the establishment of the home and society. We fast forward into the NT to see God’s purpose for marriage is not limited to his creation of humanity. Rather, marriage is to picture the gospel, as Christ is to the church so is a husband to his wife. (Ephesians 5:22-33) As the gospel makes much of God, so marriage makes much of the gospel.
Enter divorce. Seen in Scripture as God’s gracious provision to dire situations, it is the fire alarm, the ejection seat, of marriage. It is an emergency move of sorts. Though never promoted, it is permissible as Jesus instructed (Mark 10:1-12). Adultery, along with special cases of abuse, addiction, abandonment are those unfortunate emergency contexts where divorce can be considered. Each case is different, deserving of custom pastoral attention.
Yet this tragic event unravels God’s design for marriage and his baked-in related purposes. Divorce always comes with pain, both personal and public. Divorce assumes the adultery of at least one spouse, either prior to or a consequence thereof. Divorce mars a public gospel witness as it was originally designed. Further, divorce can damage an opportunity for service as it leads to a complex life, as it rarely simplifies a situation. However, divorce is not beyond the reach of God’s reparative grace.
Divorce signals that we are not yet home. In this life we remain broken people in a broken world, from divorces to migraines. But there is sure hope in Jesus, our true husband who has purchased his bride with his own blood. He will never leave us or forsake us. He will restore your joy in this life and forever more. He alone can put the pieces back together, right the wrongs of this world, redeem our past and use us again.