Can a Divorced Person Hold a Church Office? — by Joe Pote
The Myth of Disqualification
Many people in today’s church hold an erroneous view, that “anyone who has ever experienced divorce is forever disqualified from consideration for a church leadership role.”
This myth goes hand-in-hand with other unbiblical church myths related to divorce. If we (erroneously) assume that divorce is sin, that divorce is always the fault of both parties, that a person who has experienced divorce has missed God’s best plan for their life and is forever labeled “divorced,” and that a second marriage is an invalid adulterous relationship, then it is very easy to conclude that such a person should never hold a position of leadership in the church.
The biblical reference used to defend this disqualification myth comes from the Apostle Paul’s letters to the church, starting with 1 Timothy 3:2, “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…” and similar passages from other epistles written by Paul.
Defenders of this myth interpret “husband of one wife” to mean the man cannot have remarried after experiencing a divorce. In other words, they are holding the biblically unsubstantiated view of the Roman Catholic Church, that the divorce is not valid and, therefore, that the second marriage is a bigamous relationship.
I have experienced divorce. I have married again. I am married to one woman, my wife, Sherri. Therefore, the phrase “husband of one wife” includes me, as well as others in similar circumstances.
In the first century, however, polygamy was relatively common, especially among the gentile nations to whom the Apostle Paul was writing. At that time, and in those cultures, it was not unusual for a man to be simultaneously married to multiple wives. As might be expected, these polygamous relationships often led to dissension and jealousy within the home. Therefore, the caution that a church elder should be “the husband of one wife” makes perfect sense in light of the culture to whom it was written.
Most Bible commentators indicate that the phrase “husband of one wife” might be better interpreted as “man of one woman,” and is intended to address the importance of a husband’s fidelity to his wife. In context of the overall passage, this interpretation really makes the most sense, and is certainly the most pertinent, today.
In either case, the overall emphasis of this passage is on the need for a leader in the church to be above reproach, to be responsible, to be a good manager, to be of good reputation, etc., and has nothing at all to do with prior marital statuses.
If Paul had wanted to exclude people from church leadership roles based on prior marital status, he possessed the necessary vocabulary to be specific about his intent. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul discussed marriage and divorce, as well as a variety of marital statuses. In doing so, he used specific words for a person who has never married (parthenos), a person who has been widowed (chera) and a person who has divorced (agamos). We can expect he was equally specific in his multiple discussions of qualifications for church leadership roles, and would have been plain about excluding on the basis of prior divorce if that had been his intent.
For a specific biblical example to illustrate the absurdity of the all-too-common misinterpretation that the criteria “husband of one wife” means “anyone who has ever experienced divorce is forever disqualified from consideration for a church leadership role,” one need look no further than the life of the Apostle Paul, himself, as recorded in the book of Acts.
Paul, prior to his conversion to Christianity, had been a zealous persecutor of the Christian faith. He had stood by, approvingly, as Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death (Acts 22:20). Paul (then known as Saul) personally pursued believers in Christ, for the specific purpose of seeing them thrown in prison and possibly put to death (Acts 8:3 and 9:1-2).
After his conversion to Christianity, Paul was, understandably, treated with suspicion by the church leaders, in Jerusalem. They were concerned that Paul’s claim of a conversion experience might be simply a trick to learn more about the church, for the purpose of continued persecution. Yet, they did accept Paul, after much urging and prompting by Barnabas (Acts 9:26-30), and Paul eventually became both an apostle of the church and one of the most effective Christian missionaries of all time, not to mention the most prolific author of the New Testament.
If there was anyone who should rightfully have been permanently excluded from consideration for a church leadership position, it was Paul.
Paul, himself, said, “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9).
So, Paul, prior persecutor of the church, responsible for the imprisonment and death of many Christians, became not only a church elder, but an apostle of the church.
Would the Apostle Paul, being so very aware of his own prior guilt and his own lack of fitness to be called an apostle, instruct the church to disqualify someone from ever holding a church leadership position on the basis that they had remarried sometime after a previous divorce experience?
Would Paul, who became an apostle after having committed crimes against the church and having encouraged the murder of Christians, require that someone with no known violation of God’s law be excluded from church leadership because of something that had happened in their past, a divorce over which they may or may not have had control, and which was completely within the boundaries of God’s law, as recorded in the Old Testament?
Clearly, the answer is no! Clearly, this all-too-common interpretation is, in fact, a misinterpretation…a myth.
Many churches, today, understand the correct interpretation of these passages, and do not exclude people from leadership positions on the basis of prior marital status. However, for a large number of churches, this is an on-going issue that is routinely considered in the selection of deacons or elders.
We are not likely to see attitudes of others within the church change very quickly, nor would it likely be constructive to stir up unnecessary dissension by challenging your church on leadership selection policies.
However, this is only an issue if it is a high priority for you to be in an official church leadership position. For me, personally, it has simply become a non-issue. Although I may not agree with the policy, I feel no compelling need to be ordained a deacon. So, I have simply found other avenues of ministry.
My advice is, don’t sweat it! “Accept the things you cannot change,” unless the Holy Spirit specifically leads you to lovingly strive for changes in policy. Recognize that you do not need man’s approval to be a minister of the gospel. Ask God, and He will open ministry opportunities for you.
In some ways, it is sort of freeing, really. Having recognized I’m not likely to have man’s approval in an official church-ordained leadership position, I am freed to pursue whatever ministry God may lead me to, without worrying about the approval of others.
What ministry opportunities has God opened for you to serve others?
(This post is largely composed of excerpts from my book, So You are a Believer Who has been through Divorce: A Myth-Busting Biblical Perspective on Divorce [*Affiliate link])