Thoughts of a Country Preacher

The Monday morning ruminations of a pastor.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Pastor and His Divorce

Any time we apply for a job or a duty, there are qualifications that we must meet. If you want to be a lawyer, you need a law degree and you need to pass the Bar exam. If you want to be a soldier, then you need to be 18 or older, have no past felonies or drug use, and be below a certain weight.

Now this begs the question: what are the qualifications of a pastor? Typically when this question is asked, there are two passages of scripture that people tend to turn to. They are:

1 Timothy 3:1-7 It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. 2 An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. 4 He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity 5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), 6 and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. 7 And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.


Titus 1:6-9 if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. 7 For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, 8 but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.

There are many things in these passages we could discuss, but for our discussion today, I would like to focus on that one phrase "the husband of one wife." What does this mean? Does that mean that a pastor cannot be divorced? Or does it mean something else?

For the sake of discussion, I will show my cards early – I do believe that this means that a divorced man is indeed disqualified for pastoral ministry.

Now I know the first argument that people usually raise against this interpretation. They will say "Oh no, these passages don’t forbid divorce, they forbid polygamy – having more than one wife at a time." And no, that is simply not true.

Let’s consider the context that Paul was writing in for a moment. Paul was writing to Timothy & Titus, both of whom were living and ministering within a Roman context. They were in the Roman empire, and bound by Roman laws, and one law that the Romans were very serious about was that there was to be no polygamy in Roman lands – it was strictly forbidden, in fact, it was a capital offence. The Romans were so serious about their ban on Polygamy, that in 34 BC when Mark Antony, a member of the Roman Triumvirate, went to Egypt to marry Cleopatra, the Roman Senate clamored for war if he did not first divorce his Roman wife. If you were subject to Roman laws, you were married to one woman at a time – there simply was no polygamy, and if there was, you had better make sure that no one found out about it.
With this in mind, why on earth would Paul write to Timothy and Titus, warning them against polygamy? The answer is that he wasn’t, he was writing to warn them against divorce, which was a major problem in the Roman Empire. In fact, some estimate that the divorce rate in the Roman Empire was somewhere around 80-85%.

Given the context of Paul’s writing it is fairly easy to deduce that Paul is not arguing that pastors should only have one wife at a time. Instead, he is arguing that they should only have one wife – period.

Another argument against my position is that it somehow cheapens Christ’s atonement. The question is asked, "What if a person was divorced before they got saved? What if after they were saved they felt called to be a pastor? If Christ has forgiven them, shouldn’t we?" At first this argument sounds very noble and holy, but on a closer examination it turns very hollow. First off, who is arguing that Christ’s atonement cannot cover a divorcee? I have yet to see that argument made, and I am certainly not making it here. We’re not talking about salvation here; we’re talking about qualification for service. The one thing that people forget when they make this argument is that while sins may be forgiven, they still have consequences. I have seen drunks find a wonderful salvation in Christ – which was followed by years of struggle with alcohol and its physical side effects. I have seen people hit the bottom of the barrel in jail, only to turn and trust in Christ – but that doesn’t mean that they should then just be let go. At the same time, yes a person can be divorced and forgiven – but that doesn’t mean that they are qualified for service. You may feel some inner turmoil over this, and believe me I can understand it – this argument almost moved me away from the no divorce position. But Christ’s forgiveness of sin does not alone qualify one for service, and if you don’t believe me then just wait until the ex-pedophile comes to your church wanting to serve in your children’s ministry.

Finally, the question must be asked, why is this such a big deal? Why would God not allow divorcees to serve as pastors? I believe the answer lies in the phrase "must be above reproach." If you will notice, divorce is not the only sin that disqualifies a man from pastoral ministry. These passages are clear that a pastor should not have any serious, public, ongoing sin in their lives. A person may be greedy in life, but if they want to be a pastor, then they must expunge that sin from their lives, and stop loving money. A person may be an alcoholic in life, but if they want to be a pastor, then they have got to turn away from that sin, and stop being addicted to wine. And herein we find the problem with divorce. If you are divorced, you cannot turn away from that sin, and stop being divorced. Once you’re divorced, you will continue in that sin for the rest of your life.* You may remarry, but that does not change the fact that you are divorced. You may get saved, but that does not change the fact that you are still divorced. Divorce by its very nature is a serious, public, ongoing sin. And any serious, public, ongoing sin in a person’s life disqualifies him for the pastoral ministry.

*Disclaimer: You can actually stop being divorced. This is done by going back to your wife, being reconciled to her, and remarrying her. I have a friend who has seen this in his own life. He was divorced, got saved, and came to realize how bad he had been to his wife. He went to his then ex-wife to be reconciled; she forgave him, and because neither had remarried, were able to restore their marriage to each other. Today he serves as a pastor, and Biblically speaking does so with integrity, as he has lived up to Paul’s call on the pastor to be the husband of just one wife.


Blogger Bro. Heath said...

Not that you need my endorsement, but this is a great post. I came across some of that information regarding the Roman empires lack of "tolerance" for polygamy. As long as disqualified men are ushered into spiritual authority, the debate will rage.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Pastor John said...

Heath -
I may not need it, but I do appreciate it. How's everything going for you and yours?

10:30 AM  
Blogger Eloquorius said...

Un-be-liev-able. I feel like Jesus when He said, "Haven't you read?" Haven't you read in Jer. 3:8 that God is divorced (from his former wife, Israel)? There is no question on that one. People who argue from your position ignore Jer. 3 like the teetotalers bend and spin around John 3. When you say, "If you are divorced, you cannot turn away from that sin, and stop being divorced." then you might as well say of our (divorce) Lord, "And herein we find the problem with [God's] divorce. If [Father/Son/Holy Spirit] are divorced, God cannot turn away from that sin, and stop being divorced." Calling all "divorce" as sin is to call God a sinner and to debar a man from ministry for something that's not a sin. Thought 1 Cor. 7 would prohibit Christians form divorcing their unbelieving wives simply for being unbelievers, DO remember that the returning remnant of Israel divorced their foreign wives as part of their repentance (Ezra 10:11,19, etc.). (Yes, "put away" was functionally the same as divorce in that "putting away" meant legally getting rid of her, ergo, divorce).

BTW, you are completely wrong on your Roman history regarding polygamy in the first century AD. Dr. D.A. Carson notes, "Herod the Great had ten wives. Now, he didn’t have them all at once because he murdered two of them, but he had several at a time." See Josephus, who mentions this openly. Carson continues, "Both in the aristocracy and in the borderlands of the Empire – places like Lystra – polygamy was not all that uncommon." Whereas in the pagan world throughout the Mediterranean having more wives gave one more social stature (e.g., leadership), the opposite was true in the Church. So common was polygamy in the first century that Roman marriage contracts of the day -- that survive to this day -- often regulate the husband in regard to taking another legal spouse. All cultural and historical evidence demonstrates that polygamy was common and met with quiet tolerance or even approval. Your reference to Mark Antony and Cleopatra must be understood in the context of Roman aristocracy and marriage. Marriage was often used as a form of international treaty-making, thus Antony's marriage to an Egyptian queen was (discounting his personal feelings) deemed a treaty-by-marriage with Egypt.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Pastor John said...


I will have you know that I am quite familiar with Jeremiah, and I have heard this argument from this passage before. But to be honest with you, it has been so roundly refuted that I didn’t realize that anyone actually tried to make it any more. But for your benefit…

What you find throughout the book of Jeremiah is highly alliterative and symbolic language. God referring to his action as a “divorce” is a personification of his divine action. We find this literary device throughout the scriptures. Though God is a spirit (John 4:24), 2 Chron. 16:9 states: “the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” This passage does not mean to tell us that God has physical eyes, but rather is all seeing in his divine omniscience.
Again, God’s ways are perfect, as such there is no need of his repentance (Num. 23:19). However, after the fall, the Bible states: “it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. (Gen. 6:6). Did God actually repent? Numbers 23 says that it is impossible for God to repent, so what was going on in Genesis 6? God is using common and understandable language to disclose his word to man.

Equally, in Jeremiah 3, God uses the language of divorce to explain his divine actions regarding Israel. What is going on in Jeremiah 3? God is demonstrating the fact that Israel has broken the Deuteronomical covenant (Deut. 30). As such, God was removing his protection from them, so that they would be conquered by a foreign enemy as a means of discipline. However, if you read on you will find that this punishment (i.e., the “divorce”) is not a final separation. Jeremiah 23:3 notes: “Then I Myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. 4 "I will also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing," declares the LORD.” Though they were scattered, they were none the less “God’s flock.” There was never a separation between God and his people, as evidenced by his providential care during the exile, Israel’s return, and ultimately the coming of Jesus Christ “through the line of David.”

God was never divorced. The scripture is using human language to describe a divine act.

You charge that my argument places God in a state of sinfulness because of this “divorce.” Unfortunately, you have failed to see that your argument does as well. Malachi 2:16 states: “For I hate divorce," says the LORD, the God of Israel.” If you are correct that God is divorced, then you must admit that God has done something which he himself hates – the ultimate contradiction for the God that “does not change.” (Malachi 3:6)

As for your arguments from history, I would suggest to you a wider reading than just Carson. We can sit here and play he said she said with scholars all day long, so I’m not going to start that game with you. I like Carson, and I respect his work, but his B.S. was in Chemistry & his Ph. D was in New Testament – both of which are worlds away from Classics or Roman history. He is outside of his field, which explains why he is dead wrong.

His use of Herod the Great is a perfect example. Herod was installed by Rome as a vassal king. As a vassal of Rome, he was expected to send money, but not much else. Palestine was not fully incorporated into the Roman Empire until after Herod’s death. Roman laws concerning polygamy would not have been applicable during Herod’s reign.

12:02 AM  

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