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.

However, divorce is not sin and is valid, and it is permissible for someone who has divorced to remarry. Therefore, the second marriage is valid and is not bigamous.

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])

27 thoughts on “Can a Divorced Person Hold a Church Office? — by Joe Pote”

  1. I also believe the circumstances in divorce should play a role. If a person was deserted, how is that thier fault? Or adultery? I also thin the ‘husband of one wife’ isn’t coming across correctly. You can only have one wife at a time. If you are divorced, you only have one wife, you aren’t married to the first one anymore!

    1. If you are divorced, you only have one wife, you aren’t married to the first one anymore!

      Exactly! I agree completely, Lynnette. I see no basis, at all, for interpreting this passage as applying to an individual who has divorced and remarried.

      I also agree that it is the circumstances of the divorce, not the divorce, itself, that should be considered.

      If someone has a history of comitting adultery, abuse, or other violations of covenant vows, those factors should be carefully considered before appointing that person as a church elder or deacon. While there is certainly room for grace, such grievious sins should not be lightly overlooked without serious consideration of clear repentance, accompanied by humility and a consistent turning away from.

      Divorce, itself, however, should not be treated as a sin at all, much less as a sin so offensive as to forever disqualify one from church leadership. As you have pointed out, so clearly, one can experience divorce while remaining completely innocent of any wrong in regard to the divorce.

      Thank you, for the insight!

  2. To be honest, I get a little concerned at how this passage is dealt with in general. Was the point Paul was trying to make “here’s a checklist of what a leader needs to be”, or was it more “you need to have leaders with strong traits of faith, and this is a picture of what those leaders look like”? I say that, because it strike me that the “husband of one wife” requirement is more likely to mean “not a polygamist” than a man with a specific married state. The same with relation to children later on. Is Paul requiring leaders to have children, or that the areas of influence in their lives (which would certain include children if they had them) to show the outworking of the Holy Spirit?

    It would seem very strange to me that Paul would give a list of eldership that he would be disqualified for (being not married and having no children).

    1. LOL! You think like I do, Jeff S!

      At the church I have attended for the last 20+ years, the head deacon happens to be a bachelor. I have sometimes joked (though serious enough to hope to make a point) that based on this passage I am more qualified than he, as I am the husband of one wife, and he is not.

      Yes, I completely agree with you, that this is not intended as a comprehensive list of qualifications (nor disqualifications), but rather as an exhortation of the need for godly, responsible, wise individuals of faith in leadership positions.

      And yet…this passage is often misapplied as though it were a list of required qualifications…except the only qualification receiving focus is the one about “husband of one wife”…and that one is intentionally misconstrued to mean something it does not say.

      It seems to me a classic case of someone having made up their mind in advance what they believed and then finding a scripture appearing to possibly lend support to their position.

      Except, in this case, the indefensible position has been held by enough people for enough generations for it to have taken firm enough root in church culture to be treated as a plausible position that should not be argued with…

      1. the indefensible position has been held by enough people for enough generations for it to have taken firm enough root in church culture to be treated as a plausible position that should not be argued with…

        Yes…the traditions of men.

  3. Thanks for bringing more light to these verses, Joe. I do think that there are many circumstances of divorce where one party did not choose the divorce, so how can we hold them accountable for a sin related to that choice by their spouse? Also there are verses that give exception to the decision to divorce as well.

    I think the Christian community has found it easy to lump all divorces in the same boat without the grace and precision you’ve brought out in your many writings. I certainly don’t have clarity on all of these issues, but I truly appreciate your heart to offer hope and healing to those who’ve walked where you’ve walked. And I would rather err on the side of grace (which I feel is more reflective of Christ’s heart) than on the side of legalism.

    1. Beth, I always so appreciate your input!

      Your heart of grace, your passion for strengthening the marriage covenant, and your practical understanding of the messiness of human relationships give you a very strong voice.

      Thank you, for your input and encouragement!

  4. I agree with your overall conclusion, Joe, that a divorced and remarried man may take leadership in the church, so long as the reasons for his previous marriage breakdown are considered, and if he was the guilty party in the divorce he has shown strong and lasting evidence that he’s turned away from his former sins.
    However, I respectfully would like to disagree with you about the idea that ‘husband of one wife’ is about ruling out polygamy. I did quite a lot of research on this topic when writing my book. Not that I’m an expert in the history of the social-cultural picture in the 1st Century Roman Empire and all its vassal territories (Greece, Israel, Macedonia, etc). but I did try to read what the experts had concluded, and I obtained (I think) a reasonable picture of the current state of thinking on what ‘husband of one wife’ must have meant to Paul’s audience.

    The conclusion of the cutting edge scholars is that ‘husband of one wife’ did not refer to eschewing polygamy. The reason they conclude that is that (contra to what you said in your post) Gentile men could not legally have more than one wife at once, and Jews living in Asia conformed to this practice. Jews living in Israel were permitted polygamy, but most did not have multiple wives because of the expense of supporting them. The Romans tolerated Jewish polygamy in Israel because it had been an age-old practice (though not necessarily all that common) among the Jews. But they did not tolerate it for Jews living in the diaspora: Jews living in Gentile parts of the Roman empire areas were expected to conform to the marriage laws and customs of the area in which they resided. Paul, writing to Timothy who was in Asia, would therefore not have had polygamy in mind when he said an elder must be ‘the husband of one wife’.

    However, Paul could have had in mind any or all of these scenarios or poor sexual morality that were commonly shown by men:
    – having affairs with high-class courtesans
    – keeping a mistress
    – having sex with slaves, and keeping slaves as concubines
    – having sex with prostitutes
    – having sex after dinner with the wife of the host who had invited you to his banquet (believe it or not, this was not uncommon among the Roman upper classes!)
    – and last but not least (because it parallels closely our modern culture), indulging in sexually borderline behavior like flirtation and seductive innuendo, brushing up against a woman’s body accidentally-on-purpose, arranging to have moments of seclusion with vulnerable females, etc.

    You can read more on page 60 of my book Not Under Bondage, and also in the notes that are referred to where I cite the ancient historians I used as my sources.
    The phrase “husband of one wife” seems to closely resemble our idiom “he only has eyes for one woman”, meaning he has exemplary sexual morality and doesn’t have a roving eye.

    1. Barbara, thanks for that- that is really good information. Some day I will have read your book (soon I hope!) and will be more informed 😉

    2. Barbara – Yes, as I stated in the post:

      “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.”

      I personally believe this is the more accurate interpretation, and is more in keeping with the literal word-for-word translation of “one-woman-man.” I also agree with your statement that this was likely a common phrase used similar to our phrase “has eyes only for his wife,” and like how you explained this in your book.

      I usually provide, as a first explanation, the one that best fits within the text of the most common English translations (KJV and NAS), even if I personally believe the translators didn’t quite hit the best conveyance of intent. I do this because I have found many people will simply stop reading if I lead off by first trying to convince them they cannot trust the text of their Bible.

      Thank you, much, for the more in-depth discussion of the translation and background!

  5. Joe, great insight. I’ve heard this discussed for years. I believe the reason most churches won’t look deeper into issues like this is poor leadership and the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. As John Maxwell says, everything rises and falls on leadership.

    One of the things I cover in my leadership seminar is the more times you say “if I did it for you I’d have to do it for everyone”, the easier it is to replace you with a computer. Computers can’t reason or use logic and its a shame but many leaders are getting away from it also. The best way to look at these things are “I’ll do for you what I hope I can do for everyone”. That is to be fair with everyone.

    You have made a great case using research, reason and logic. It is a much better argument than “but that’s the way we’ve always done it.”–

    1. “One of the things I cover in my leadership seminar is the more times you say “if I did it for you I’d have to do it for everyone”, the easier it is to replace you with a computer. Computers can’t reason or use logic and its a shame but many leaders are getting away from it also.”

      This is a FANTASTIC insight. As I’ve contended before, evangelicals do not like to get involved in the grey or messy. We want codified rules that tell us exactly what to do in any given situation, and regard the Bible as the rulebook. The thing is, the Bible is about real people in grey areas and has quite a bit that is messy.

      I would slightly disagree with your exact works, because all computers CAN do is use reason and logic. What they cannot do is fully understand the complexity of human beings, nor use intuition in problem solving. Humans were designed with many ways of gathering information and the ability to make descions using intuition (which some preachers will label as based in emotions, but that’s not the same thing).

      This idea of humans behaving as computers is a very compelling line of thinking; I am a software developer so I am well aware of the limitations of what computers can do.

      Thanks so much for sharing this.

    2. Thanks for the insights, Greg!

      Yes, the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mind-set is easy to fall into. It falls right in place with the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” slogan.

      In businesses, these mindsets interfer with innovation and improvements, resulting in losing competitive edge.

      In churches, the consequences can be even more devastating. Because churches exist for the purpose of gathering together of like-minded individuals with deeply held religious beliefs, “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is often seen as sufficient justification in and of itself. Though it’s usually worded more like, “that’s what my daddy and grandaddy believed, and that’s what I believe.”

      It tends to be a discussion stopper. How can one discuss best practices with someone whose only goal is to not change, who feels completely justified in that position, and views any opposing views as sacreligious?

      I was at a concert a few months back, where the lead singer made a series of emphatic statements starting with “God hasn’t changed his mind about…” The final statement was “…and God hasn’t changed his mind about…ahem…divorce!”

      I just sat there thinking, “What does that even mean? Of course God hasn’t changed His mind. However, God’s consistency on a given subject has no bearing, whatsoever, on whether or not you have correctly understood His position!”

      The guy never even said what his view on divorce was. He didn’t have to. The fact that he could make such a statement and consider it sufficient explanation and defense of his position told what his position was.

      Somehow, we must move past these entrenched beliefs to asking what is God’s heart in this matter, and what does the Bible really say?

      The sad part is that the defenders of the man-made traditions really believe that their beliefs are biblically based. They’ve simply never actually read the Bible closely enough to realize those taken-out-of-context verses have a completely different meaning when read in context, in the natural progression of reading.

  6. “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.”

    Amen. Man will never get it right every time, but that can’t/won’t prevent God from using us anyway. Great perspective. Thanks, Joe.

  7. Joe, being a divorced woman myself, I am so glad that God has not discounted me or my husband (it’s a second marriage for him as well) as church leaders. 🙂

    1. Mindy, knowing God’s heart of love allows us to cover a multitude of human errors, doesn’t it? Somehow, once we know how God feels about us, we can accept and love ourselves, regardless of the perceptions of others.

      Thank you, for sharing your wisdom and experience!

  8. When I originally commented I appear to have clicked
    the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now
    on each time a comment is added I recieve 4 emails with
    the same comment. Perhaps there is a means you can remove me from that service?
    Appreciate it!

    1. Khat – I found the following info. I will keep looking to see if I can find a specific solution to your multiple notifications problem.

      Managing Post / Comment Notification

      If you want to stop receiving comment notification or start receiving notification on all comments on a particular blog,

      click the “Subscription Options” link at the bottom of the notification email.

      Full details on managing the posts/comment threads that you follow can be found on the Follow feature support page.

  9. Another great post and discussion about divorce, Joe. I’m currently reading your book and I’m comforted and humbled by your sound and biblical perspectives regarding divorce. You are helping to crush some of the myths and misguided attitudes that have existed entirely to long among many people in the church. Thanks.

    1. Good to see you here, Dan! I appreciate your kind words and encouragement…they mean even more knowing your own valuable insights and powerful voice.

      Blessings to you, my friend!

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