Thursday, September 11, 2008

Divorced Men CAN be Pastors, Elders and Deacons

(This post is based on the exegesis that has gone on in previous posts. Reading those might help in completely understanding this one. There might be one more post on this subject in the near future, dealing with some specific situations and issues.)

What About Ministry?

The genesis of this tome was a discussion that took place with my church leaders a couple of months ago. It is one I have had for several years in several churches. Should divorced men serve as deacons? In my last association, several of the pastors were divorced and it was a hot topic there – can divorced men be pastors?

I should make it clear that this is not some sort of personal defense or justification. I just celebrated my thirtieth wedding anniversary to the “wife of my youth” I am not arguing for myself, but for those whom I feel have been excluded from Christian service within the church without biblical justification.

The question of whether divorced men can serve as deacons, elders, or pastors is based almost exclusively on one small phrase that appears twice in 1 Timothy 3 and once in Titus 1. In verse 2, overseers (elders, pastors) were required to be “the husband of one wife.” In verse 12, the same phrase is set as a requirement for being a deacon. Titus 1:6 repeats the requirement for elders. What does that phrase mean? Many have assumed that it is a blanket prohibition of divorced men serving in church leadership positions. Others have explained it as a condemnation of polygamy. But all would agree that the proper interpretation of this passage is determinative on this issue. Figure out what that passage means and you have answered this question.

A word of warning is appropriate here. To compromise the Word of God is a serious sin. In Revelation 2, Jesus rebuked both the Pergamum and Thyatira churches for tolerating evil and false doctrine. If God’s Word prohibits divorced men from serving as deacons, we should not ignore that prohibition. However, we sometimes forget that there is another side to this warning. In 1 Corinthians 4:6, Paul warned the people not to “go beyond what is written.” In Revelation 22:18-19, John gives this warning about the prophecies he has written. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” Note that severe penalties attach to either adding to or taking away from the words of the prophecy. It seems clear that the warning is specific to Revelation, but the principle is instructive for us.

It would be deeply damaging to the Body of Christ to allow divorced men to serve in leadership positions if the Scriptures prohibit it. But it would be just as serious a sin to prevent men from serving without biblical warrant. It is not acceptable to either take away from the teachings of scripture or to add to them.

I would suggest that the burden of proof is on those who would restrict the divorced from serving. If any redeemed person is eliminated from positions of service, it must be on the strongest of biblical evidence. If it cannot be clearly proven that Paul had divorce in mind when he set this standard, then divorced men should not be restricted from service. Advocates of the prohibition must clearly prove their point.

One more thing; it seems that since the same prohibition is directed at deacons and overseers, there should be no distinction between these positions in regards to divorce. If divorced men are allowed to serve as deacons, they are also eligible for the role of elder or pastor. There is no difference, on this point, between the requirements. Either divorced men can serve in all of these roles, or none of them.

There are other issues of scripture that we will deal with, but the crux of the issue is the phrase mentioned above. We will look at that phrase in depth. It is clear that three little words that Paul used make all the difference in this debate.

"Husband of One Wife"

There have been two majority opinions on the meaning of this verse. First, many commentators, at one time most, saw this as an absolute prohibition of divorced men serving in ministry positions at churches. Since Jesus prohibited divorce and said that remarriage was adultery, it seemed pretty clear. A divorced and remarried man is seen in the eyes of God as an adulterer and has two wives; the one he is currently married to and the one he divorced. If this interpretation is correct, the discussion is over.

There are a couple of major variations within this group. Some prohibit all divorcees from serving. Others only restrict those whose divorce happened after their conversion. How, they would say, can we hold someone accountable for their sins before they met the Savior? If the divorce occurred before salvation, they do not restrict that person from service.

The second major view holds this passage as a condemnation of polygamy, not divorce. This seems likely from the English phrasing. “Husband of one wife” seems to naturally stand in opposition to “husband of more than one wife.” Cased closed, right?

But there are glaring problems with this view. First, it is generally agreed that while polygamy was at times prevalent in Jewish society, it was not commonly practiced in the Roman Empire. If this had been written to Jewish congregations, the argument would hold more weight. But if polygamy was not a huge problem in Roman culture, it seems unlikely that Paul was focusing on it in a letter to establish leadership parameters for a Gentile church.

Polygamy, by definition, means a husband has more than one wife. Polyandry – a woman with multiple husbands – has not been practiced widely in any culture. It was certainly not a practice in either Jewish or Roman cultures. But in 1 Timothy 5:9, Paul reversed the requirement for deacons and elders and applied it to women who were going on the list of widows who were to be supported by the church. (Actually, there are various suggestions about this list, but what the list was for is not germane to the point.) 1 Timothy 5:9 requires that these women have been “the wife of one husband.” The phrase is identical to the ones we are studying except that the genders are reversed. So, in an identical construction to ours, it is absolutely clear that polygamy cannot be in view. If “wife of one husband” does not reference polygamy, then “husband of one wife” probably does not either.


It is my contention that neither divorce nor polygamy is the primary focus of this passage. I believe that Paul is requiring that a man must demonstrate himself as a faithful and devoted husband before he is ready to lead God’s church.

The translation “husband of one wife” may not be the best translation of the passage. The Greek phrase in 1 Timothy 3:2, μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα (mias gunaikos andra), could be literally translated “one-woman man” or “a man of one woman.” The last word, man, appears in a slightly different form in each of the three passages, but the meaning is the same. An overseer or elder, and a deacon, are to demonstrate themselves to the church as a “one-woman man.”

That accurate translation seems to almost explain itself. What is in view here is the man’s heart. It involves much more than just being sexually faithful to his wife. A one-woman man is faithful in body, yes, but also in soul and spirit. He is devoted to his wife. His relationship with his wife demonstrates that he knows how to be a servant leader. If he is not faithful and devoted to his wife, it is unlikely he will be faithful and devoted to his church duties.

This is a much higher burden than some other interpretations require. Since we do not have polygamy (at least officially) in our nation, it would be an empty requirement if that meaning is accepted. If the command is simply a prohibition that a man never has been divorced, all that is required is that a man has avoided divorce. But this command is more significant than that. I have known men who have never been divorced and have never cheated on their wives, but show little devotion to their wives. They may be technically “the husband of one wife” but cannot by any means be called a “one-woman man.”

It is my belief that this kind of character is what is in view in this command. If Paul had wanted to say that a man who had ever been divorced was not qualified to serve as an elder or deacon, there are ways he could have said that in Greek. Paul spoke clearly and it is clear what he meant in this passage. He was saying that men who lead the church should be men who have demonstrated their abilities to lead their homes and demonstrate faithful servant leadership to their wives.


The meaning of Paul’s phrase here will always be open to discussion and interpretation. It seems highly likely he was not speaking of polygamy. Since polygamy was not a common practice in Roman culture, and since the same construction is reversed as a requirement for a woman, polygamy is almost certainly not the primary focus. Certainly, polygamy would be inappropriate for church leaders, but it is not the chief intent of this verse.

In reality, those who use this as a prohibition of divorce are also assuming the passage refers to a form of polygamy. They believe that the first marriage was not ended and so, by the second marriage, the man has become a kind of polygamist, married in God’s eyes to both his former wife and his current one.

My quarrel with this view is two-fold. First of all, I think it makes a blanket generalization about the teachings of Jesus on divorce that is, in many cases, not warranted. A man who is divorced on biblical grounds is freed from his marriage covenant and is free to remarry. When he remarries, he is the husband of one wife and one wife only – his new wife. The former marriage is over. We will examine this in more detail later.

My second problem with this view is that if Paul was intending to prohibit divorced men from serving as deacons or elders, there are ways he could have stated that more plainly. “An overseer must never have divorced a wife and remarried.” He could have given words that would clearly and unequivocally say what he meant. Paul was never one for veiling his words. He said what he meant. If he had meant divorce here, he would have said it.

The obvious meaning of the phrase is a reference to fidelity and commitment. A husband must demonstrate to all that he knows what it is to be a servant leader by being a good husband who loves his wife and devotes himself to her. Context, linguistics and logic all seem to support this viewpoint.

It is an unwarranted stretch to use this phrase as a blanket condemnation of divorced men as serving as deacons, elders, pastors, or in other leadership positions. There is no biblical grounds on which to deny all divorced people from serving. To do so, in my mind, is to violate the clear teachings of Scriptures.

Divorce and Remarriage

God’s intent was that a marriage would last until one of the parties died. Sin’s effect on human behavior and relationships shattered the ideal. Permanent and fulfilling marriage is still possible if a couple is well-matched and if they rely on the power of God to see them through. But a marriage depends on both parties fulfilling their vows, and that sometimes does not happen. And so, divorce has become an unfortunate reality in this world. Jesus told his disciples that God permitted it because of the sin, the “hardness” of human hearts.

In all of the discussions on divorce in scripture, there is not a single prohibition against remarriage when a divorce is granted on approved grounds. Deuteronomy prohibited a man from remarrying a woman after he had remarried another wife. But there was no restriction on remarriage in general. Jesus restricted remarriage except when the divorce was because of adultery. But the implication was that when there were biblical grounds, remarriage was not adulterous and was acceptable. Paul set forth a new solution for women whose husbands were cruel or abusive of their authority. They could separate (not divorce) and live single or return to their husbands. The assumption is that remarriage is the intended result of divorce. Paul clarifies in 1 Corinthians 7 that when believers remarry, they should remarry only other believers. Remarriage was assumed, but limited to those who shared faith in Christ.

We previously looked at the certificate of divorce that was historically granted in Hebrew culture. It sent a woman away to remarry whomever she wishes. That concept – that remarriage was assumed when a divorce too place – was never corrected in any of the prophets who called Israel to repentance for sin. Remarriage after divorce was widely practiced and would have certainly been confronted if it was offensive to God.

The necessary conclusion is that if a divorce is granted on approved grounds, the divorcee has the right to remarry. A biblically acceptable divorce ends the marriage just as death does. God’s intent and purpose was to have marriages end one way – death. But He graciously allowed marriages to end by divorce, if the circumstances were right and certain conditions were met.

So, if a man has been divorced on biblical grounds (as I have defined it; adultery by his spouse (as Jesus taught) or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (as Paul added), he is free to remarry. His first marriage is over in the eyes of God; the marriage covenant having been broken by the sinful actions of another. When he remarries, he is the husband of one wife and one wife only. So, even if the prohibitionist position on the “husband of one wife” phrase is correct, he is still qualified to serve.

New Creatures in Christ?

I have never understood how someone could believe 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come,” and still advocate eliminating people who were divorced prior to salvation from service. D not misunderstand. I am not accusing my opponents on this issue of willfully denying scripture. I just believe that their position on divorce is in conflict with this verse.

When a man comes to Christ, he becomes a new creature. His sins are washed away and God sets out to conform him to the image of Christ. Yet, some would restrict that man from serving as a church leader because of something that happened before he was saved. How can we hold a man accountable for those things which took place prior to his conversion? A redeemed man held liable for what he did before his redemption? That is inimical to our concept of transformational grace.

There is no other sin we do that with. Should we only allow those who remained virgins until their wedding night to be church leaders? Those few of us who meet that standard might find ourselves worn out with leadership duties. When an ex-con comes to Christ, we rejoice in his growth and have no compunction when he demonstrates transformation to put him in leadership positions. The divorced? That is a different matter. Regardless of the time or circumstances of the divorce, we ask them to sit on the sidelines and stay there.

But even if the divorce happened after salvation, it seems contrary to the ways of Christ to make that a permanent death mark for service. Mark had a gross ministry failure (not moral, but serious nonetheless) that caused Paul not to want to work with him in Acts 15. But later, he lavishes praise on Mark’s service for the gospel. He was restored. David fell and was restored. Peter denied Christ then proclaimed him boldly. God specializes in taking failures and guiding them to success.

Again, why would we distinguish divorce from other sins and declared it unredeemable? In fact, even if someone is divorced on biblical grounds (and is therefore not guilty of sin), we eliminate that person from service? A person who is the victim of another’s sin is held liable for that sin in perpetuity? Can anyone else see the logic in that? I cannot.

It seems to me to be contrary to the whole thrust of the gospel to tell people that a sin that happened in the past will forever eliminate them from service in the church.

What about Our Testimony?

One of the common arguments used to eliminate divorced men from leadership positions is the need to “uphold standards” in the church. We need to uphold the highest standards of godly behavior in the church and our leaders need to serve as examples to others. What kind of example does it set if we allow divorced men to lead? Does not that tacitly endorse divorce?

If a pastor had premarital sex 25 years ago, and you make him a pastor today, does that promote premarital sex? One of the best deacons I ever had was the town drunk before God got hold of him. Did allowing him to be a deacon mean that we were promoting drunkenness? Does a redeemed drug dealer advocate drug dealing with his service to the church?. The idea that divorced men in leadership positions advocates divorce does not make sense to me. What they do is demonstrate that God can rebuild a broken life. What better testimony is there than that?

If a man in the middle of a divorce were serving, that would be one thing. If we failed to discipline a man who divorced his wife for unbiblical reasons, that would be a bad testimony. But a man who was divorced several years ago, has remarried, and is an exemplary husband and father; there is no shame in that.

What is the church? Is it the society of the spiritually superior? Is it the domain of those who have never failed or done anything wrong? No! The church is the gathering of the redeemed; sinners whose lives were broken by sin and put back together by the grace of God. We are the cleansed, not the unsullied.

What better testimony could there be than a man whose life was shattered by sin, who walked through the brokenness of divorce, and whose life has been redeemed and put back into order by Christ? Does he not tell the sin-broken people who come into a church that there is power in the blood?

Paul told Timothy that he was “the worst of sinners.” But he said that God had granted him grace so that he might display “his unlimited patience” to others. Paul saw himself not as a superior, but as a trophy of God’s grace. At the risk of offending, those who advocate that we must uphold standards by not allowing those divorced in the past to serve are in danger of being more like the Pharisee than the publican whom Jesus approved. We are broken people, rebuilt by Jesus Christ.

So, am I saying that it doesn’t matter how leaders live? To the contrary, I think church leaders should be people of the highest character and spiritual passion. Our lives should be examples of godly behavior. What I am saying is that what matters to God is what we ARE, not what we once were. Leadership is based on character and reputation. God specializes in taking the depraved and infusing his righteousness into them, transforming them to be like Christ. It is maturity in the process of sanctification that matters.

If the church is a “Society of Superior Saints” then by all mean, eliminate from service those who have made mistakes in the past. If the church is a hospital for sinners, where people come to find the redemption and remission of sins and have their lives rebuilt by Christ, then we cannot hold peoples’ pasts against them. We cannot eliminate people from service on the basis of who they were ten or twenty years ago. We promote to leadership in the church on the basis of who we have become – our present character and reputation in the church.

My experience tells me that divorced men and women can become shiny testimonies of the life-changing power of Christ.


Leadership in the church is based on character and Christlikeness. It is incompatible with that to eliminate someone from service because they were divorced in years gone by. If someone is currently going through a divorce, or has been recently divorced, that person should not serve. Even if I am the “innocent” party in a divorce, I must take responsibility for my failings in the marriage that contributed to that divorce. Divorce seldom is totally the fault of one person, even if only one breaks the covenant. I need to time to heal and rebuild my life. But a man who has been divorced and remarried, who has rebuilt a new life and is genuinely the “husband of one wife” and who has demonstrated that over time, is biblically qualified to serve in leadership roles. He is a great testimony of the life-changing power of our Savior.

There is no biblical basis on which a general prohibition against divorce men serving as church leaders can be made. It is, to me, an act of “adding to what is written” to do so. Those who want to follow Christ and His Word, and not cultural traditions would do well to exclude only those the Bible excludes.


Rob said...

Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing your view. I am a man that committed adultery in 2002, but my wife forgave me. We moved and now I am an Elder. Sometimes Satan brings up my past to try to persuade me that I am not worthy of the office of Elder.

Dave Miller said...

Rob, I am not a big fan of Carman's theology, but I like what he says in one of his songs.

Next time the Devil reminds you of your past, remind him of his future.

I am glad you have found not only God's grace, but also your wife's. I hope the church will also grant you its.

Anonymous said...

Rob what do you think of a Church saying you cannot be a Deacon because your married a divoreced woaman

Anonymous said...

Hi Pastor Dave,

I have a couple of thoughts about this. I would very much like your input! I have never seen it taken into account when discussing this topic WHO these two letters (1 Timothy and Titus) were written to. The reason for addressing these issues to the people at Ephesus and the people at Crete seems as obvious as the nose on one's face but, again, I have never seen it mentioned! Timothy was in Ephesus. This is where the Temple of Artemis was located. Although this was a Roman province these people WORSHIPPED women! Prostitution was rampant, women were voices of authority and relationship roles were undoubtedly frequently reversed. The issue of being a "one woman man" HAD to be addressed in to the people in Ephesus to let them know that marriage was sacred and important to God. The exact same logic is followed in Titus. The Cretans (the book was written to Titus as he resided in Crete) were from the ancient Minoan culture. Why is this important? As one website states, the Minoans were "polytheistic and matriarchal, that is, a goddess religion; the gods were all female, not a single male god has been identified until later periods." Again, there was a purpose for addressing this to these people. God is holy and so is marriage between a man and a woman. This is so obvious that I have a hard time understanding why it is never mentioned in these discussions!! What do you think about this being the reason for addressing the importance of being a "one woman man"? Paul is saying, things are not like they used to be in your culture - marriage is important and that committment is important. To me this had to do with addressing Christianity and marriage in the context of the peoples' former religious beliefs! Yes? No? God Bless. I very much enjoy your blog!!