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Can a Pastor, Deacon, or Their Wives Be Divorced and Remarried?

2015.09.16 - just-the-two-of-usThe titled question is difficult to answer. When divorce happens, there has been a failure and breakdown somewhere by one or both people in a marriage. Tears, frustration, and pain are the result. Nonetheless, each church has to answer this question for itself, and below is the answer by me for my own church on the matter.

Let me clarify that I realize that many topics below are debated:

  • Whether or not divorce is permissible beyond the Pauline privilege in 1 Cor 7:15
  • Whether or not remarriage is permissible in the case of biblical divorce
  • Whether or not a church’s officers can be divorced and remarried
  • The meaning of “a one woman man,” a phrase from 1 Tim 3:2
  • Whether or not Acts 6:1–7 actually speaks about deacons
  • How to understand the Mosaic Law for believers today
  • Baptist polity

This being said, my conclusions below may just be appreciated by no one but me, but I charitably put them here for the sake of those in my church and others to think of at least one way to apply the truth as it concerns a difficult topic.

To begin, it is helpful to remember the unique situations in which a Christian is permitted a divorce. Consider these three:

(1) sexual infidelity by the spouse (Deut 24:1; Matt 5:32; 19:9)

Moses allowed men to divorce their wives who had intentionally sexually sinned in some way (cf. “indecency” in Deut 24:1 with Matt 19:7; Mark 10:4), and Jesus did the same (Matt 5:32; 19:9). At the same time, we should remember that one’s first goal should be to forgive a spouse when sin has taken place, difficult though it may be. Jesus teaches us to seek how a marriage can last for life, not to seek loopholes for how it can end (Matt 19:3–6; Mark 10:6–8).

(2) denial of food, clothing, or marital relations (Exod 20:10–11)

Exod 21:10–11 instructed Israel about a female servant who became a man’s second wife. She was expected to be treated as a wife and nothing less, complete with the husband’s provision of food, clothing, and sexual relations. Otherwise, she was free to divorce and leave him (Exod 20:11).

(3) the desertion of an unbelieving spouse (1 Cor 7:15)

From 1 Cor 7:15, Paul allowed a believer to let his or her unbelieving spouse to desert the marriage if the marriage could no longer be peaceful in light of the believer’s conversion.

To clarify, the verses above from the Law of Moses are not technically binding on NT believers today (cf. Rom 10:4). At the same time, when the NT has not clarified the mind of God further on a given matter concerning marriage, the Mosaic Law can be informative for us today, allowing us to make the conclusions above. Added to these conclusions is this: if someone has divorced on biblical grounds, such a one is no longer bound to the previous marriage and is free to marry again (see 1 Cor 7:15 with 7:39).

Given the incredibly short summary of the view above (which would have a book’s worth of clarifications if given the space and time―please don’t assume the worst from the above), when it comes to answering the question of whether or not pastors and deacons or their wives can be divorced and remarried (assuming the divorce and remarriage were biblically permissible), we should respect another church’s decision to answer this question with a yes.

My church’s standard as a whole is to have faithful divorcees (who may or may not be remarried) serve as much as possible but not in the capacity of being an officer in the church. There are at least two reasons, biblical and practical, that allow us to make this conclusion.

First, officers must be above reproach in the life, which includes their marital situation, past and present (Acts 6:3; 1 Tim 3:1–13).

Since it is such a significant issue, it is best to include one’s marital circumstances in considering whether one is “of good repute” and “above reproach” or not (Acts 6:3; 1 Tim 3:2). To clarify, one may believe that he himself or another has been divorced and remarried on biblical grounds, but others may not. To be safe, a church may choose to hold a high standard in this regard in order to avoid controversy and unnecessary slander by those who fail to understand the circumstances of a given divorce and remarriage.

Similarly, pastors must be “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim 3:7), that is, unbelievers. With this qualification in mind, it seems wise to include one’s marital circumstances in consideration of whether or not such a one could be slandered and disgraced by unbelievers, though their divorce and marriage were permissible by biblical standards. Given the fact that a deacon’s requirements are so similar to that of a pastor, though being “well thought of by outsiders” is not explicitly repeated as a requirement for deacons in 1 Tim 3:8–13, it seems safe to assume that deacons should be “men of good repute” (Acts 6:3), both in and outside the church.

Second, caution protects the church and candidate from controversy.

If a church does allow for an officer to be divorced and remarried, it would seem necessary (in keeping with congregational authority) that the whole church should know the circumstances of the potential officer’s divorce and remarriage in order to knowledgeably affirm that such a divorce and remarriage were biblically permissible, all in order to be able to knowledgeably vote that such a one should indeed be an officer of the church. Bringing the details of a divorce before the church can be unsettling for its members, especially if they are not unanimous in their beliefs on divorce and remarriage, let alone the situation at hand. Caution here, it seems, is to side with wisdom. Not only does this caution protect the church from potential controversy, but it also protects the potential candidate or his wife from having a significant disappointment explained to the church in detail.

In closing, while some may believe that such a standard unnecessarily excludes one from being an officer of the church, an answer to this tension would be that, if such a one truly desires to serve as much as possible in his church, he will find ample opportunity to do so whether or not he can be a pastor or a deacon.

As I pointed out above, my application of Scripture above is simply one way to answer the question of whether or not a pastor, deacon, or their wives can be divorced. I obviously prefer the conservative end of the spectrum for how to answer this question, but I respect the position of those who knowledgeably disagree.

David Huffstutler

About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, serves as a chaplain for his local police department, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Bob Jones University. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.

9 Responses to Can a Pastor, Deacon, or Their Wives Be Divorced and Remarried?

  1. Thanks Dan for these words. This is an incredibly tricky issue. I have made the same connection with the idea of being above reproach. In my experience, divorce is never a one sided thing. There are issues in both spouses. There are many ways in with divorced people can serve faithfully for the glory of God and for the edification of the saints.

  2. I agree that this is a tricky issue, and I appreciate Dave’s care in treating it.

    A little devil’s advocate question for both Dave and Taigen: If there were a 60 year old man in your congregation who had a wonderful reputation in your church and community as a mature, spiritual leader, but when he was 21 he had relations with a woman before marriage, but then later repented and is now happily married to another woman, would you apply the same logic in this post and not allow him to be a deacon?

  3. Scott, from your scenario, a major factor for me is that the man was not actually married to the first woman. With no divorce and remarriage in view, I would certainly be open to the possibility of his being a deacon.

    The difficulty with sexual sin is that, generally speaking, such “disgrace will not be wiped away” (Proverbs 6:33; cf. 6:20-35). It would seem to me that 40 years of faithfulness and a good repute would certainly open the door for him to serve.

  4. I agree with Dave on this. This is a serious issue regarding sexual immorality. All throughout the Scriptures, God views this sin with great abomination In all its forms. the man in your scenario was not married. He sinned, yes, but the issue at hand for a minister of the gospel is regarding his marriage testimony. Divorce at the very least is an issue of discussion in three of the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 4.

  5. The biggest question I have is why divorce is somehow the unpardonable sin when it comes to eligibility to be a deacon, when somehow we are willing to forgive other serious sins, even fornication, if enough time has past.

    I recognize that certain kinds of sins, like divorce, have longer lasting consequences than others, but I fail to see how divorce has longer term effects than fornication.

    I also find this even more interesting for those who believe that there are some legitimate cases when divorce is permissible. If there are cases where in a divorce one of the parties is without guilt, as you seem to indicate above, then why is that party punished by not allowing him to serve as deacon (or even elder) if it happened a long time ago and the individual’s current reputation is that of a “one woman man”?

    Again, I recognize that this is a fuzzy issue, and I am even willing to err on the conservative side; I’m just pushing back a bit. :) I have seen church situations where an older man in the church was a faithful, godly servant, had been faithfully married to the same woman for over 50 years, and was well known as a “one woman man,” but a divorce 60 years ago prevented him from being a deacon (even though he pretty much served as one anyway!). There were two other men in the church with very similar histories and current reputations, although they didn’t have quite as much distance after their divorce as the first man. Ironically, the extra-biblical “office” of trustee was created so that men like this could serve in a leadership position! Really, the deacons in the church served as elders, and the trustees served as deacons, providing a loop hole where divorced men with noble reputations were allowed serve.

    I think we all recognize that “one woman man” does not explicitly mean “not divorced.” That could be a natural implication of the phrase perhaps, but if that phrase prohibits one who has been divorced from being a deacon, they I would think it would also prohibit one who has committed fornication in the past as well.

    Full disclosure: Ironically, I personally do not believe there are any cases where divorce is permitted. I believe it is always wrong to divorce (and to remarry). However, (and here’s the irony), I also do not believe that divorce is the unpardonable sin, and I interpret “one woman man” to refer to current reputation rather than past history! I know; I’m odd. :)

  6. In responding to your comments, like you, I understand “one woman man” to refer to present faithfulness. I myself would refrain from calling a divorce sin unless it was under sinful circumstances. In at least one instance, all sides of the debate would agree that Paul clearly allows for an unbeliever to end a marriage to a believing spouse who remains righteous in the divorce (1 Cor 7:15). For the sake of argument, we could assume that this alone is under consideration.

    As you mentioned, my experience is that, in general, divorce has long-lasting consequences, whether permissible or not. It’s not a question to me of whether or not the affected parties are being punished but whether or not it is wise to put someone as an officer in the church when these consequences linger on, intended or not, permitted or not. Lingering consequences should certainly be considered for any past sin, sexual or otherwise. Because of its civil formality and social nature, the breaking of a marriage typically has long-lasting consequences, again, whether permitted or not.

    At the end of the day, for me, it is a wisdom issue and not based on theological technicality. And rather than face a “who’s in and who’s out” scenario of judging between each instance of divorce (when a congregation may not even agree on the permissibility of any divorce), it is admittedly easier, and safer, I believe, to just operate according to a standard that the church has chosen for this matter. At the end of the day, I have to agree to disagree with others who choose otherwise, and I have to acknowledge that their application of what they perceive to be wisdom is theologically valid.

    While I’m not quite in a position to offer a public commentary on my church’s past or present, I would at least agree with the general notion of one of the situations you presented – faithful people tend to serve in greater and greater capacities over time, whatever their marital circumstances and a given church’s standard on this issue may be.

  7. I am glad we as friends can bat this topic around without viewing each other as being “unbiblical” or “liberal” or “legalistic.” This is a serious issue that has been a question for hundreds of years. I did some research on this question of whether the qualification of “one woman man” included divorce. I checked with the 12 commentaries I have for the Pastoral Epistles, from Adam Clarke in the 1700’s to several more modern men. Of the 12, six addressed that specific question, and all saying that this would prohibit divorced men from being in office. Hiebert added the qualification of “on insufficient grounds.” There was unanimity regarding the idea of polygamy (that is a no-brainer), and seven specifically mentioned the notion of it meaning faithfulness/fidelity in the marriage. What this told me is that men who ministered 300 years ago had to make these same calls, and even came down on the side that stipulated that no divorced men should be pastor/deacon. And yet, there are good and godly pastors who will differ with that position. For whatever reason, God has chosen not to give perspicuity in this area, or at least as much as we would all like. Thanks for the interaction in this.

  8. I agree; this is a great conversion. I appreciate allowing me to push back a bit.

    I especially appreciate your research Taigen. Being the conservative I am, what other in past eras have said and done carries a significant amount of weight with me, so that’s very helpful.

    And, for the record, I full respect and appreciate those who prohibit those who have been divorced from serving as deacons. I completely understand the logic.

    Thanks again!

  9. Hi, Scott. I normally don’t jump in, but in many ways this topic is personal for me, which I understand can shade my point of view. :) Divorce is such a painful thing no matter what the circumstances; if one hasn’t experienced it personally in some way, it is difficult to see how it affects the life of the divorcees and it’s “victims” in so many ways. You said, “I recognize that certain kinds of sins, like divorce, have longer lasting consequences than others, but I fail to see how divorce has longer term effects than fornication.” Maybe my personal experience with divorce’s long-term effects can be helpful. I have a close relative who was married before salvation, had two kids, divorced, remarried someone else, then got saved and had kids. I’ve come to understand–through personal experience as well as others’ experiences–that divorce (even that between two unsaved individuals in the past) almost always does have long-term consequences–consequences that typically are more long-term than a sin like fornication. There is often children involved (thus alimony until the children of the first marriage are 18), difficult relationships with former in-laws and current family who still interact with former in-laws, once-shared property/bank accounts, difficulty in coping for the second spouse/children. . . just to name a few. Typically, fornication does not have these kinds of long-term consequences (although some might apply). My purpose here is not to say whether or not one should be a deacon/pastor if one (or his spouse) has been divorced. My purpose is merely to answer your query about the longer-term effects of divorce as opposed to fornication. Hope my little anecdote helps in that regard! :)

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