What About Divorced Preachers?

by William Nicholson

There is no argument among Chris-tians on whether divorce is a human tragedy. But our agreement stops here. Issues linked to beliefs about divorce are complex and divisive. None ignites more emotional fireworks than the questions regarding divorced preachers. Debate about pastors and "justified divorce" or "continuing ministry" or "restoration" beg an answer.

But spirited gentlemanly debate forces us to search the Word, defend our beliefs, and take a stand. This is good!

In any spiritual issue, each Christian and every church must search out the truth-the will of God on the matter. But tempering this privilege is the plain warning that "no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation." Sound exegesis does not murder one text to support another.

We must be able and willing to recognize and reject the "commandments of men" masqueraded as doctrines of God. Long-held traditions or interpretations should not be venerated as "the final word" simply due to their antiquity. Conversely, neither should we discard settled biblical precept due to the pressure of current popular opinion or charms of a proponent.

Guided by the above, a clear, consistent, and defensible biblical position on the questions of "if" and "how" divorced leaders may serve Christ and His church is possible.

The Lord, unequivocally, states twice in Matthew [5:32 and 19:9] that sexual misconduct [porneía] is just cause for divorce. Such divorce is as efficacious as death in ending a marriage. Concurrent with this right to divorce is the right to remarry without censure or restriction of service. Moreover, many conservative expositors include abandonment as additional "just cause" for divorce (1 Cor. 7:15).

Christians generally agree that 1 Timothy 3:1-7 is the main text for determining qualifications for the office of pastor. This portion of Scripture lists sixteen specific moral dicta that a pastor must meet. Grammatically, the single verb phrase "must be" connects all sixteen requirements. Moreover, the use of the present tense indicates the preacher's natural bent is toward regular compliance. Ministerial disqualification occurs when there is repeated and ongoing failure to live up to these standards. It certainly does not mean that a single or isolated failure in one or more of these items mandates permanent disqualification. If it does, then who can qualify to pastor?

A misapplication and/or inordinate emphasis on three specific items listed in this text, along with an obvious neglect of the other thirteen has been the root of much confusion about what disqualifies a minister. The point is this: How may we take a single requirement from a group of sixteen that refer to the same verb, and, willy-nilly, make it of greater significance than the rest? This unjustified and arbitrary manipulation of the text will always result in a spurious interpretation. Namely, it is the contention that every divorce [regardless of the cause] precludes the possibility that a preacher is "blameless," or "the husband of one wife" or one that "ruleth well his own house."

The claim that divorce for any reason precludes a preacher being "blameless" is unreasonable. "Blameless" implies there must not be a "handle" with which the enemies of Christ and the church can readily grab to refute or cloud the message of the pastor. How does a divorce for just cause violate this injunction? Blamelessness is not forfeited by the status of divorce, only by its grounds. It is when a preacher seeks divorce without biblical cause or has been divorced by his spouse for a just cause that he is no longer qualified as "blameless."

Moreover, the stipulation in verse two that a pastor must be "the husband of one wife" is not even referenced to a marital failure. This is a warning about bigamy or polygamy-not divorce and remarriage. The intent of this verse is the requirement a pastor be a "one-woman type man." One that is true and content with the wife he has. He cannot be a "skirt chaser"! There is not a single verse in the whole of Scripture that teaches a person who divorces for just cause and remarries has more than a single spouse.

What about the allegation that divorce, at the least, disqualifies a minister since he has failed to "rule well his own house?" This is a valid issue that must be answered. Every preacher is required to be faithful in managing his home. Any pastor who allows his wife to boss him, dominate him, and rule him, or who allows his children to run wild is disqualified.

But conservative Christianity has a selective myopia in identifying and dealing with ministers failing this requirement. Who has ever heard of a pastor being barred from the pulpit for this reason when his marriage is intact? It is only the divorced preacher who stand condemned of failure to be "blameless" or "to have his house in order."

Furthermore when the truth is known, many godly men are divorced because they did rule well in God's eyes. It is because they loved Christ more than a carnal wife and insisted on biblical standards in their homes that they now are divorced. This is the plain teaching of the Lord on several occasions (cf. Matt. 19:29; Mark 10:29; Luke 14:26, 33; Luke 18:29, 30.) In some cases a pastor's marriage is intact, not because he "rules" well, but only because he does not "rule" at all.

Divorce for any reason other than allowed by Scripture is wicked. It is this writer's belief that some sin is of such an egregious nature, that even if forgiven, it precludes further leadership function (cf. Proverbs 6:33.) In such cases, alternate places of service may be available but always under careful supervision and precaution.

And who is to judge when the circumstances require such restriction? Christ has bestowed on the church this jurisdiction and authority. Though He has left His churches in the hands of fallible men, He has given them an inerrant Bible and an infallible Guide in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Every biblical church possesses a unique capacity and divine wisdom for deciding such issues. It is their right! It is their duty!

William Nicholson is the author of Making a Difference, a Call for Justice for the Christian Victims of Divorce. He has served 25 years as a pastor, Christian school administrator, and church planter.