Does Divorce Eliminate One From the Ministry?
This presents a real issue of concern facing many members of the Body of Christ, and many also who are called to the ministry. Questions regarding divorce and re-marriage are numerous, but the real issue is reason for the divorce—the sin that led to the dissolution of the marriage. Unfortunately, that is the part that is rarely addressed, and the issue of “re-marriage” becomes the target of judgment. For unknown reasons, some have made re-marriage the “sin which can never be forgiven,” and permanently locked these individuals out of service to the Church. Without going into detail about the causes and issues involved in divorce, let’s look at the concern and the implications that it raises.
1 Timothy 3:8–10 Likewise the deacons are to be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of ill gain,
9) having the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.
10) And let these also first be tested, then let them minister without reproach.
11) Even so their wives are to be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.
12) Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and households well.
Now, we’re pretty good with the material in verses 8–10 and 12, although that “husband of one wife” thing is troubling to some (we’ll get to that later). These verses simply put forth the basic qualities that should be present in one who is to serve as a “deacon” in the Church. Now, please notice that these are not “requirements” as if they had to be absolutes in the life of the person. If that was the case, then according to verse 12, no single men could serve at all. The same statement is made regarding the “bishop/elder” in 1Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:6. If these were absolutes, Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, and Titus also would be eliminated from all aspects of ministry.
God does not demand that we be perfect, but that we are in the progress of applying godliness and righteousness to our life. The word translated “blameless” in 1 Tim 3:2; 10; and Titus 1:7 does not mean perfect. It is better translated “un-chargeable” indicating one to whom nothing can be attached. We all have mistakes, failures, and shortcomings in our life, both before salvation and afterward. The issue is not what we have done, but have we made it right—are we making every effort to correct the deficiencies in our character and witness. Whether someone stands as a Bishop/Elder (this would also include all the offices of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, and Teacher), or as a Deacon serving the local Church character is important—but not perfection.
“Even so their wives…”
Let’s move to this issue. Because of the common acceptance of the wording of the King James Version, this has been seen by many as a reference to the “wives of the deacons”, and to the requirements that they must fulfill if their husbands are to serve as Deacons. There are several problems that are raised here so we will develop them one at a time. (I hesitate to become too technical with this, but there is no better way to enlighten the subject.)
1) The literal wording from the Greek does not indicate the subject to “wives”. The Greeks had one each word to speak of woman/wife, and of man/husband. The difference must be understood from the context. For example, the wording in verse 2, “…the husband of one wife” is literally, “…of one woman the man”. But that is awkward to us. We can derive the words wife and husband from the obvious context, and so we translate it as such—it makes sense for the way we speak. In fact, people would consider it crude, even offensive, for me to say, “I am the man of one woman”, but it would be correct in Greek.
2) Now, the problem with verse 11 is that the literal wording is, “Even so women…”, not indicating a specific relationship to the Deacon. Paul would have used the pronoun “their” if he wanted to make specific reference to the wives. Although the word “their” has been provided by the KJV, it is not in the original language—it was a matter of interpretation by the translator.
3) In addition, the use of the word, “even so” indicates that Paul is making reference to another “class” that is similar to the one which he was talking about: the deacons. This would imply, then, that he is speaking here about “women, who are deacons” not “the deacon’s wives”. It is certainly well-accepted that the Church at the time of Paul’s writing had not only developed a ministry of “deacons”, but also a ministry of “deaconesses”. In fact, Romans 16: 1, 2 specifically mentions “deaconess Phoebe”. Also, in 1 Timothy 5:5, 10 the “work” of a deacon is applied to the widows who are qualified to be supported by the local Church.
4) Finally, the principle that a deacon’s wife must also be subject to qualification before he can serve is not supported elsewhere in scripture—neither to the office of Deacon in Acts 6:1-6, nor to the offices of Bishop/Elder in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, and Titus 1:5–9. In fact, nothing at all is said about the qualifications of the family of one who was chosen by Jesus to be one of the Twelve, nor later of those set forth as Apostles (Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, James the Lord’s brother, and others). Further, the wording of 1 Corinthians 9:5–6 may indicate that some of the Apostles wives were not even believers. If the “qualifications for the “wife” do not apply to these offices, it is reasonable that they would not apply to the deacon's wives either. And, since the better translation allows for this application, we can accept that as correct.
In summary, this 11th verse is not a reference to the deacon’s wife being held to the same level of “qualification” as their husband. Is it good that as a family they are growing together in their Christian walk, that they are both attaining a level of spiritual maturity? Of course it is! But the wife’s maturity/character does not necessarily eliminate the man from being able to serve. Not all husbands and wives mature at the same rate (and often, it seems, it is the women who are more advanced).
The Husband of One Wife…
Now, here is the issue that causes the most confusion. There are a number of denominations and individual Churches that see in this phrase a reference to the fact that the man who serves as a Bishop / Elder / Deacon (and any other ministry office) must not have been divorced. And, by extension, the “deacon’s wife” must meet these same standards (that is if you interpret vs 11 as a reference to the deacon’s wife). However, that is not necessarily what this phrase says.
As I have already mentioned above, the literal wording of this phrase is, “of one wife (woman) the husband (man)”. Any good commentary that presents the meaning of the original language will tell us that the subject of this phrase is “husband”, not “one”. The most important aspect of this quality of a minister is that he is a true husband, in the Biblical model (if he is married). This is further developed in 1 Tim 3:4–5 “…[leading] his own house well, having children in subjection with all honor. (For if a man does not know to [stand as a leader in] his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” Leadership in the local Church is directly related to the man’s leadership in his home. If all that Paul had wanted to establish was that he must be married only once, that would have been easy to say. Instead, he emphasizes the fact of being a husband.
Let’s deal with a number of issues that are raised by this question of divorce and ministry:
1) What does Paul mean by “…one wife”? It is readily acknowledged that during the Old Testament period God had allowed men to have more than one wife. He had even blessed some of these occurrences by using them in the work of the Kingdom, or in the lineage of the Messiah (Leah bore Judah to Jacob; Bathsheba bore Solomon to David – the royal line to Joseph; and Bathsheba bore Nathan to David – the Messianic line to Mary). This in no way implies God’s consent to polygamy, but God used it. As fallen creation, mankind can never live up to God’s perfect design. One of the beauties of the Biblical record is how God uses people's failures to His eternal purpose. And, if in the Old Testament, under the Law, how much more under our Covenant of grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
In regard to the question: How can we doubt that God can, and will, redeem the mistakes, failures, sins of our past. He makes us new and restores all that has been taken from us. The same God who used an imperfect David, and Jacob, can certainly use us and turn our situations to His glory.
One wife: Most commentaries will acknowledge that this is a reference to the man in leadership having only one wife. Polygamy was not widely accepted, nor practiced in the Jewish community at the time of the New Testament. However, it was a commonly practiced in the Greek societies of “Asia”, which is where Ephesus was located, and where Timothy pastored the Church. Multiple wives were seen as a means among the wealthy and ruling classes to maintain status. If one wife could not produce an acceptable heir, then a second wife or a mistress was an acceptable alternative.
Paul is here stating that this is NOT acceptable for any man who is to stand in a position as Deacon, Bishop, or Elder. These men were coming out of pagan religions, and an immoral culture—they must make a change in order to take a place of ministry. The image God has established for marriage was: One man—One woman. This was set forth at Creation, verified by Jesus, and taught by the Apostles.
2) Is divorce the sin? In a word, NO! The sin is what led to the divorce, whether it be adultery or the abandonment of the spouse for selfish interest. True repentance, on one or both parts, can heal these issues and allow the marriage to be restored and saved. But, as stated before, we’re not working with perfect people. Even after the New Birth, we still bring our flesh into our situations, and people can and do yield to sin instead of righteousness. Through counsel and prayer, these things can be resolved—but only if both parties are committed to saving the marriage. If not—divorce results. This divorce is the result of uncommitted and unrepentant attitudes. But, divorce is not the sin.
What about Malachi 2:16? This verse states: "Jehovah, the God of Israel, says He hates sending away [divorce]; and to cover with violence on his garment, says Jehovah of Hosts. Then guard your spirit, and do not act treacherously". A careful study of the entire passage, not just this verse, will reveal the very principle we have been stating. Beginning in Mal 2:10 God is rebuking the Priests for the way they have dealt with their wives—putting them away [divorce] so that they can give themselves to foreign/pagan women. God hates the treachery in which they have done this, using the “cover” of the Law to accuse their wives of adultery and thereby obtaining divorce. They have “profaned” His holiness, and dealt violently with the wives God gave them. Their “sin” was not so much the divorce as it was the evil manner in which they had treated their wives.
There are 3 direct examples of God commissioning divorce in the Old Testament.
a. In Ezekiel 16:8 God declares that Israel is his covenant wife. In Jeremiah 3:8 He gives her a “writ of divorce” because of her unfaithfulness and adulterous idolatries. This is a picture of God’s reaction to the continued rejection of the covenant by the nation of Israel. And, He states that Judah is following in the same path. Yet, in response to their future cries of repentance, God will redeem them from Babylon and bring them back.
b. Hosea 2 presents a similar picture. God gives Hosea the command to divorce his unfaithful wife, Gomer. Again, this is a type of His relationship to Israel.
c. Ezra 10:1–3; 10–11; 19 presents another picture. The people had married foreign (pagan) wives upon their return from Babylon. They were bringing the religions of these people into the nation and were rejecting the true worship of God (compromise in the name of tolerance). God commanded, through Ezra the Priest, that they were to immediately put these wives away [divorce].
Here we see divorce is not the sin, but it is the result of the sin of the partners. In Matthew 19:1–12 (especially verse 9), we have Jesus direct words on this issue. When he was tested on the subject, in an attempt to get him to violate the Law, Jesus was careful to keep the issue in context. The violation was theirs, not the wives. It was not the divorce that would make them adulterers it was the deceit in their own action. This is almost exactly the issue of Malachi 2. The Pharisees had adopted a practice of obtaining divorce by accusing their wives of adultery, or of simply not being pleasing to them. Jesus declares that they are not truly “divorced”. They are in fact, “adulterers”! (Now, I’m sure that really pleased these men.) They would then carry this sin into their next “marriage” because they were in sin—not because they were divorced, or had re-married. Notice in this passage Jesus makes no reference to the “innocent” wife. In his sight, she is guiltless, while in the world’s sight she is a “sinner”. This is brought out in Matthew 5: 32 "But I say to you that whoever shall put away his wife, except for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever shall marry her who is put away commits adultery". When the woman is “put away” it is automatically assumed that she has committed adultery. Therefore, in the view of society, she carries this stigma with her into any relationship which she has—even though in God’s sight she is the innocent victim of the treachery of the former husband. On the other hand, if she truly had committed adultery and her husband desired a divorce, she would truly carry that sin into her next marriage, unless she repented—of the adultery, not the divorce.
Is this not the same thing we often do to the “divorced” in our Churches? If they are the innocent victim of the sin or treachery of the former spouse, in God’s sight they are not responsible/guilty. And, if they were the guilty party the most important thing is that they repent of their sin, and let God make their life new. 1 John 1:9 tells us, “…if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sin, and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” There really is no reason to treat those who have received the New Birth, who have repented of their sin, and have been restored to God through the forgiveness of sin as if they are the modern “untouchables”. Of course, those who arrogantly continue in their former ways need one thing: a heart of repentance. That is the only remedy for their condition.
3) Is re-marriage acceptable to God? Finally, we come to this issue, and by now the answer is fairly obvious. Those who have been divorced through the treachery of their partner are certainly candidates for remarriage. And, so also those who have been the responsible party but now, have been restored to righteousness through repentance and the forgiveness of sin.
A careful study of the subject of divorce from the Old Testament will reveal some interesting conclusions. (This can be done through the use of Nave’s Topical Bible or a Bible Encyclopedia)
a. There is actually very little mention of divorce in the Law of Moses
b. The right to divorce is assumed
c., There is little importance placed on either the formalities of divorce or the consequences
d. Reasons for divorce are mostly vague, even ambiguous
e. Divorce was never a matter of the Jewish courts
f. There were no civil nor ecclesiastical penalties for divorce (although there may have been for the adultery that was the cause)
g. There was no social custom of ostracism for the divorced party
h. The right to remarry was assumed—even expected
i. Those who obtained divorce were not “put out” of the congregation
j. A person's standing within the Covenant with Jehovah and their rights within the Nation were not jeopardized by their divorce
k. There were no threats of judgment from God upon the parties involved in a divorce, except, again, for the un-repented sin that was the cause
One final issue that relates to this subject is illustrated in the experience of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. In John 4:16–18 Jesus asked the woman about her husband. Her response brought this reply from Jesus: “…for you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” That is a rather astonishing statement if God does not recognize divorce and re-marriage! In fact, Jesus did. He acknowledged that she had five failed marriages, and the relationship which she now had was not a marriage. He didn’t say she had been married once and was in five “affairs”. And, even then, He didn’t condemn her! Instead, He offered her salvation through believing He was the Messiah. What a beautiful story of forgiveness, salvation, restoration, and grace. Oh, and by the way, she went back to the city and led the multitudes out to receive Jesus as Messiah also—so much for the myth that God will not use someone who is divorced.
Marriage is a wonderful gift to mankind. God has used marriage for a pattern of His relationship with the Nation of Israel, and for the Church. Certainly, counsel and direction should be sought by any party who has been divorced and is now seeking remarriage. But, that is true of all who seek marriage, even for the first time. For the most part, our parental education, and certainly our public education, does not prepare us for marriage. Godly counsel before marriage allows the partners to concentrate on the individual issues that will make their future union successful. God can and does bless marriages—but His ways must be sought, and followed.
Divorce is seldom good (there may be a few times when it is truly the will of God, as illustrated above, but that would be very few). Many people get hurt: children, parents, friends, and of course the partners themselves. But God can, and does heal. As the Church Body, we should be doing everything in our power to help marriages succeed. We need to offer prayer, counsel, support, direction, correction, and even warning to individuals who are involved in issues that can damage their marriage. But we help no one by condemning the divorced. If they have done wrong, lead them to repentance and salvation and/or reconciliation to God. If they are a victim pray for them, accept them, and help them get their lives restored to productivity in their personal, public, and spiritual life.