By Dean Whitfield
I believe in the inspired inerrancy of Scripture in the original manuscripts and all that implies; which includes that (1) Scripture does not contradict itself (Luke 16:11), (2) Christ fulfilled the Law (Matt. 5:17), (3) our God is a god of logic, not confusion (I Cor. 14:33), and (4) the truths of Scripture are available to everyone without prior need of special education or intellectual capabilities (II Tim. 3:16-17; Jas. 1:5).
Any discussion concerning the divorced and the church must of necessity begin with an understanding of God’s position on divorce.
In seeking God’s position, too often we start out with a preconceived conclusion and force the Scriptures to conform to that end. The result almost always includes confusion and contradiction. I would ask only one presupposition at this point: that Scripture does not contradict itself, and in fact confirms itself. Also, this confirmation takes the form of individual verses being confirmed by the whole of Scripture, not the whole of Scripture being confirmed by individual verses. In other words, let us stay within the context of the entire body of Scripture.
The Old Testament
The generally accepted central passage in the Old Testament dealing with divorce and remarriage is Deut. 24:1-4. We usually come to this passage as a cross reference from Matt. 5:21-32 and 19:3-12. The quick conclusion we come to is that Jesus is showing the Pharisees the error of their interpretation of this passage; that Moses didn’t command men to give their wives a writ of divorce when “putting them away”, but only permitted men to do so because of the “hardness” of their hearts and then not for just any reason as was common at the time, but only for “uncleanness”. This view is widely respected. It also leads to the first of our contradictions.
In Matt. 19:3-12, Jesus clearly states the only non-self-incriminating reason for divorce is “fornication” (KJV). The Greek word used is porneia; meaning harlotry, adultery, incest, idolatry, unlawful lust including but not limited to physical actions (Strongs). The “uncleanness” (KJV) of Deut. 24:1-4 is from the Hebrew word ‘ervah meaning nakedness of a thing, shame, or blemish (Strongs). The definition implies the idea of disfigurement, scar, or wound. In any event “uncleanness” does not mean fornication because the Law is clear that an adulteress was to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:22), while the woman in Deut. 24:1-4 is allowed not only to go free but also remarry. This seeming contradiction between Deut. 24:1 A and Matt. 19:3-12 comes because we make the same mistake that the Pharisees made; we assume the woman in Deut. 24 has done something immoral or unclean causing the man to want to divorce her or giving him grounds for divorce. Is that really the case? This passage merits a more careful reading.
First, we should look at what the passage is not talking about. Deut. 24 is not talking about a man who has reason to suspect his wife has committed fornication, but lacks the evidence. Num.5:11-31 already takes care of this situation of suspected adultery. The man cannot divorce her unless the Law of Jealousy (the test for suspected adultery) convicts her. It is interesting to note that a woman convicted thusly is not stoned, but is cast out as a curse among the people. This may be because there are not the two witnesses required under Mosaic Law.
Nor is Deut. 24 talking about a woman caught in the act of adultery. It is Deut. 22:13-30 that takes care of this situation. She is to be stoned to death along with her partner in adultery.
Num. 5 and Deut. 22 take care of the only possible adulterous scenarios: (1) you are either guilty of adultery or not, and (2) if guilty, you are either caught in the act or not. Since Christ says fornication is the only justifiable grounds for divorce, Dent. 24 cannot be talking about Scriptural justification for divorce. Deut. 24 is, therefore, not a passage of the Law giving the husband a Scriptural option for divorcing his wife.
I submit that Moses was not sanctioning divorce, as the Pharisees thought, on the grounds of “uncleanness”, but is acknowledging that men are getting divorced from their wives for insufficient, capricious, and I might add, non-Scriptural reasons. It seems that the Pharisees were partly right, Moses did tell those men who were divorcing their wives on grounds other than adultery to give them a writ of divorce. This was for the protection of the woman rather than legitimizing the actions of the man. Marriage, in addition to its covenantal contract, is a public legal contract. Divorce is also (to a degree) a public event whether that is desired or not. With adultery being the only Lawful grounds for divorce, a divorced woman, without a writ giving the grounds for the divorce, could unjustly be stigmatized an adulteress in the vein of Num. 5 and thus be a curse among her people. (Note: she could not be assumed to be an adulteress as described in Deut. 22 for she would have been stoned and the husband would not have needed the divorce; he would have been a widower.) Num. 5 and Deut. 22 also protects the woman from false accusation of adultery, therefore the writ had to be for the real (non-adulterous) reasons for the divorce; none of which could be Scriptural. This is confirmed by Matt. 19:8. Christ tells the Pharisees that Moses indeed commanded a writ of divorce because men, through the hardness of their hearts, insisted on divorce for other than adultery, and that divorce for other than adultery was not the way God had intended from the beginning.
Because she is innocent and being “put away” unjustly, Deut. 24:1-4 allows the woman to remarry. Her only restriction is that she not remarry her first husband again should her second husband die or also divorce her unjustly. Please keep in mind we are talking about an unrepentant, undisciplined, and hard-hearted man. Jeremiah 3 and 4, and Ezra 9 and 10 talking about God’s willingness to “remarry” a repentant Israel, gives me reason to believe that when the guilty party is properly repentant and disciplined, with their hearts turned (softened) back to the Lord, a remarriage to the first husband would be permitted. To assume otherwise is to conclude that some things (other than unrepentance) simply cannot or will not be forgiven by God (clearly, non-Biblical).
In Mal. 2:16 we read, “‘For I hate divorce’, says the Lord”. Seemingly with logic, we then conclude that God hates all divorce without exception. Usually, we then turn to the divorced person and say “because you have done something God hates, etc., etc.”. I see a contradiction; how can God hate something he clearly sanctioned in the case of adultery (Num. 5; Deut. 22; Matt. 5 and 19)? I submit that the contradiction only exists because we have read Mal. 2:16 out of context.
Mal. 2:16 is talking about a specific kind of divorce; a treacherous one (v.14). Nowhere does Scripture indicate that putting a spouse away for actual adultery is treacherous behavior. One accepted view (Wycliffe) is that Malachi is talking about the men divorcing their own Hebrew wives simply to be free to many heathen women and not because of adultery. This kind of divorce is treacherous and God hates it. We conclude then that Mal. 2:16 is not an indictment of divorce in general, but rather an indictment of adultery in general and the non-Scriptural divorces found in Deut. 24 and condemned in Matt. 5 and 19 in specific.
Old Testament Conclusion
Deut. 24:1-4 does not sanction divorce for “uncleanness”. It, rather, is talking about the need to protect women with writs of divorce because hard-hearted men were practicing divorce on non-Scriptural grounds. This is the only position in, my opinion, that conforms to the entire body of Scripture. To adopt another position leaves us right where the Pharisee Hillel and Shammai left off: (1) groping for a workable definition of “uncleanness”, (2) fruitlessly searching for some Scripturally substantive reason to prohibit remarriage to a previous spouse after a second marriage is terminated and (3) in the uncomfortable position of implying that the Old Testament Law is a lower ethic than the New Testament. The latter point begs the question of inerrancy.
Mal. 2:3-16 confirms that God hates the kind of divorces described in Deut, 24:1-4. It does not condemn divorce on the grounds of fornication. Again, to assume otherwise forces a conclusion on Scripture that cannot be logically supported by the whole of Scripture, and indeed contradicts the Lord Himself in Matt. 5 and 19.
It is also necessary to point out that the Old Testament does not support the popular belief that “there are no innocent parties in a divorce” that “both spouses share in the guilt”. God’s discipline under the Law was directed only at those who committed adultery or were putting their wives away treacherously. Indeed, no stigma was attached to those who divorced an adu1terous spouse or to those who were divorced unjustly. They were permitted to remarry if they desired and to get on with life. To conclude that when one party, in a marriage, commits adultery, resulting in divorce, that both are guilty, negates the concept of individual free will and ultimately makes a mockery of the justice of the Law. The Old Testament is clear: we should not stigmatize or exclude those who are unjustly divorced or those who have divorced an adulterous spouse from any aspect of the full fellowship of believers.
The New Testament
This is the first of four Gospel passages (Matt. 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12, and Luke 16:15-18) that largely parallel each other. Our traditional impulse is to look at Matt. 19:6 and Mark 10:9, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate”, as indicating that Jesus forbids all divorce as contrary to God’s will and Word. We usually throw in our “out of context” understanding of Mal. 2:16 as supporting evidence for this conclusion. Of course, again, this contradicts Matt. 5:32 and 19:9. Some would write off Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 as “exception” clauses to God’s view of divorce. I submit that they can only be considered “exceptions” if we start out with an inaccurate prior idea of God’s view of divorce. As far as Deut. 24 is concerned, I don’t believe a contradiction exists because I don’t believe Deut. 24 is talking about “sanctioned” divorces. What then are these passages in the Gospels teaching us?
Let’s deal first with Matt. 5:21-32. In context, Matt. 5 is talking about the rewards of a Godly character and admonishing us to be concerned about the message our “witness” is giving to the world about God and His Law. We are being told to obey the spirit of the Law as well as the application of the Law. The example of divorce and remarriage is used because the Pharisees, while being able to recite the Law, had missed both the spirit and the application of the Law. The Law clearly established that adultery severed the marriage either in death (Deut. 22) or in being put out as a curse (Num. 5). Christ is telling the Pharisees that in their rush to self-serving legalism, they misrepresented God’s Law. In the first half of verse 32, Christ does not dispute the issuing of a writ of divorce, but does say that if you divorce your spouse for other than adultery (the only grounds under the Law) you “make her commit adultery” (NAS). In the Greek the passive infinitive is used, thus giving the sense of the woman being ‘adulterized’ or stigmatized (Dr. William Luck, Moody Bible Institute, Professor of Christian Ethics). So here again we are told not to cause a woman to be unjustly labeled an adulteress. The second half of verse 32, “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (NAS), is the middle infinitive in Greek (same source), and is appropriately understood to mean, ‘whoever marries a woman, who herself has divorced, commits adultery’. The “divorce” in the second half of verse 32 refers to the same kind of divorce in the first half of verse 32 (keeping everything in context) and thus means a woman who has divorced her husband for other than fornication (ref. the marriage between Herod and Herodias). Verse 32 is therefore not an exception clause, but rather a confirmation of the Law. It also confirms the understanding of Deut. 24 as commanding a writ of divorce to protect the unjustly divorced form a treacherous spouse. The Scripture is clear that a man who marries a woman who has herself unlawfully divorced her husband is condemned an adulterer. But we still find no stigma attached to the one who is unjustly divorced or to the one who divorces because of an adulterous spouse.
In verses 4-6, Christ spells out God’s will for the marriage covenant to be permanent. When the Pharisees asked, “why then Moses commanded a writ of divorce?”, Christ did not deny that Moses commanded a writ, but rather confirmed it by responding “Because of your hardness of heart”(v.8). Some have interpreted verse 8 as Jesus saying that while Moses permitted divorce under the Law for uncleanness, that all divorce was never God’s will from the beginning. That begs the question: Did God have Moses put something in the Law that later Christ contradicted? I think not. Here again Matt. is talking about the treacherous divorces of Mal. 2. Indeed, in verse 9 Matthew identifies that Jesus is talking about anyone who divorces his wife on grounds other than fornication. It is this man who divorces for the purpose of remarriage that commits adultery and not the unjustly divorced wife. It is important to note that it is not the remarriage that causes the adultery. The divorce for the purpose of remarriage is the culprit, not the remarriage. Again, I point out that the only person stigmatized with condemnation of adultery is the spouse seeking a treacherous divorce. No mention is made of the unjustly divorced spouse sharing in the discipline, and we would be adding to Scripture in suggesting discipline or exclusion for the innocent party.
This passage in Mark supports what we have just seen in the Matt. passages. In verse 5 Jesus confirms that Moses did, in fact, give them a commandment to issue a writ of divorce, given the treacherous divorces of Deut. 24. Verses 11 & 12 (keeping in context) refer to the Deut. 24 divorces. Verse 11 also supports the passive infinitive interpretation of Matt. 5:32a. It is the hard-hearted husband who is committing adultery, not the innocent wife. And verse 12 supports the middle infinitive interpretation of Matt. 5:32b. It is the woman who treacherously divorces her husband that commits adultery, not the innocent husband. Yet one more time, Mark supports and confirms that Jesus is saying that God saw adultery as dissolving the marital bonds. And since divorce on any other grounds, without a writ, would stigmatize the innocent spouse, a writ was commanded. A divorce on any grounds other than fornication was never God’s intent, but if hard-hearted men and women are going to divorce innocent spouses (thus committing adultery) then God will protect His unjustly abandoned sons and daughters. Again, we still have not seen any evidence to justify our placing a stigma on or excluding the innocent spouse from any aspect of our fellowship.
In this passage in Luke, the issue of Deut. 24:1-4 is hit right on the head. In verse 15, Christ tells the Pharisees exactly what they were doing; namely using the Law detestably to justify divorce in the sight of men (for “uncleanness”). In verse 16, He is saying that not only was this done under the Law, but also now that they were under “the Gospel of the Kingdom of God”, men were still trying to “force” a self-serving interpretation on the Word. In verse 17, Christ tells us that without exceptions, the Law will not fail. This seems rather strange if we hold to the popular view that Deut. sanctions divorce for “uncleanness”, only to have Christ tell us that wasn’t God’s intent from the beginning. And in verse 18 Christ tells the Pharisees that any divorce initiated on their understanding of the Law results in the person initiating the divorce committing fornication. It is the adultery or the unjust divorce that breaks the marital bonds (resulting in fornication), and not the remarriage that is sinful. It bears repeating that no condemnation is leveled at the innocent party.
Some have called this the “law of the husband” passage and taken it to mean that a wife is bound to her husband for as long as he lives; divorced or not. As we have seen the Law clearly indicates that fornication severs the marital bonds and frees the innocent party to remarry. I hesitate to call this a contradiction because the solution is so obvious; a “husband” is a “husband” only so long as the marital bonds are intact. Rom. 7 is simply telling the woman that so long as the man is her husband, the Law has jurisdiction. Unless he commits fornication, she has no grounds for divorce. Any involvement with another man would make her an adulteress. This passage has nothing to do with the woman being under some “special” law concerning divorce that doesn’t apply to the man. All we see here is God protecting the faithful husband from an unjust divorce. Again, there is no stigma attached to the innocent party in these verses.
I Cor. 7:1-40
Verses 10 and 11 are cited by many as the Apostle Paul forbidding a believing couple to get a divorce. Is this another contradiction of the Lord (Matt. 5 and 19, Mark 10, or Luke 16)? If we take verses 10 and 11 to be talking about leaving (divorcing) for other than fornication, no conflict exists. First, Paul would never contradict the Lord (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Second, Deut. 24:1-4 allows remarriage while Paul forbids it. The only non-contradictory solution to this is that while the husband in Deut. 24 is “hard-hearted”, the husband in I Cor.7 is the innocent party. In I Cor. 7:10 the wife is the one who would be “hard-hearted” if she left. Third, Paul tells the woman to be reconciled to her husband. Would God have a woman return to a fornicating husband – I think not. The last half of verse 11 says that the same applies to a “hard-hearted” husband.
Verses 12-15 deal with marriage to an unbeliever. Verses 12 and 13 indicate that as long as the unbeliever wants to be married to you, you should not leave him or her. This implies a scripturally lawful marriage (v. 14). It does not command you to remain the innocent party in an adulterous triangle. In fact, verse 15 says that if the unbeliever wants to leave (divorce), you are to let them go.
If you are married to an unbeliever, you are not to be the one searching for reasons to divorce (v. 27). If your spouse has unjustly divorced you, it is better not to seek a new one, but if you do remarry it is not a
sin (v. 27, 28). This is a suggestion, not a command. Verse 39 confirms Rom. 7, and adds a command that if you do remarry, make your new vows to a believer.
Paul is quite clear, if you are in a marriage with an unbeliever who is content to abide with you and your faith in Christ, it is the same as if you were married to a believer. Fornication is the only grounds for divorce. If a hard-hearted spouse, including an unbeliever, divorces you, you are free of the marriage. Some would suggest that I Cor. 7 is talking about separation and not divorce. I submit that they come up with the concept of separation because they have misunderstood at least Rom. 7:1-3 and probably Deut. 24:1-4, thus seeing a conflict between those passages and I Cor. 7. Why must the church keep inventing conflicts that don’t exist? Besides, I would challenge them to find one historical reference to “separation” as a first century concept. Separation is a modern legal condition unheard of in first century Corinth. They might have a better argument if they said “desertion” instead of “separation”. But then I would ask, what is the difference between putting a wife away without a writ and the term “desertion”? Again, in all of this we find absolutely no reference to being called to stigmatize the innocent party in the divorce.
New Testament Conclusion
Jesus Christ came to fulfill the Law, not contradict or deny it. In the Gospels He tells us that the only Scriptural ground for divorce is fornication. The passages in Matt. 5 and 19 are not “exception” clauses. To say that Christ has to take exceptions to the Law is to say that the Law is not perfect. I submit that it is man’s ability to live under the Law that is not perfect and that the Law is indeed perfect. Mark 19 and Luke 16 are restatements of the same confirmation of the Law, only from slightly different perspectives. They all make the same points though: (1) the Pharisees while “knowing” the Law misused it, (2) that Moses did command a writ of divorce be given, because (3) hard-hearted spouses were divorcing their mates on grounds other than fornication, (4) and that it is the hard-hearted spouse who is on the receiving end of God’s discipline. Christ, just like the Law, never called for any sanctions against the spouse unjustly divorced or divorcing a fornicator.
In Rom. 7 and I Cor. 7 Paul also supports the Gospel passages and the Law. As long as the man is your husband or the woman is your wife, you are not to seek a divorce. With the act of fornication, either by adultery resulting in a divorce or by an unjustified divorce, the hard-hearted spouse is no longer your husband or wife, and you are free. The central focus of Paul’s writing deals with the marriage of a believer to an unbeliever. This theme is not unique to the New Testament. We find it earlier in Deut. 7:1-4 and Deut. 21: 10-14. God doesn’t want you to marry an unbeliever in the first place, but if you do marry an unbeliever you are not to seek a divorce from your unbelieving spouse as long as; (1) he/she is willing to be married to you and (2) as long as he/she does not fornicate against your marital bonds. If they give you Scriptural grounds to be free of them, let them go. But if you remarry, make sure it is to a believer (I Cor. 7:39).
Again, as in the Old Testament there is absolutely no call in the New Testament to support the stigmatization or exclusion from any aspect of the fellowship a treacherously divorced believer or one divorcing as adulterous spouse. Indeed, the writ of divorce was issued to prevent just that from happening. I think Heb. 13:4 says it best, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge”(NAS).
Leadership and Divorce
The passages most often referred to concerning leadership as it relates to divorce are Lev. 21, I Tim. 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. The popular and traditional interpretation of them has been to exclude divorced persons from positions of leadership in the church.
In its list of general rules concerning priests, Lev. 21 says a priest should not marry a harlot or a woman who has been divorced from her husband (v.7). In verse 14 it says again that a priest should not marry a harlot or a divorcee, but also adds a widow to the list. In fact the only acceptable bride for a priest was an Israelite virgin (v.13). Some take this to mean that today priests (pastors) and by extension deacons (elders) are not to be married to divorced women. I don’t think any of us would question why the priest should not many a harlot and I think a very convincing case can be made that the divorcee (at least in v.7) is the hard-hearted woman of Mark 10:12, but what wrong has the widow done to be placed on this list?
It is just this kind of reasoning that leads us to misinterpretation of Scripture concerning divorce in the first place. We have an “a priori” feeling that the women have done something deserving of the “black list” and search the Scriptures looking for their sins. Lev. 21 has nothing to do with the sins of the women. The priest cannot marry such women simply because they have had previous sexual relations, (and except for the harlot, not necessarily adulterous sexual relations) and therefore, the women were no longer pure virgins. The priests were to be a living distinction to the people of the difference between the holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean, the pure and the imperfect (Lev. 10:10, 11:47, and 20:25). Keep in mind that “imperfect” and “unclean” are not necessarily referring to sin. A woman menstruating is unclean, but menstruation is not a sin. A man with a broken foot is imperfect and cannot be a priest (v.19) but having a broken foot is no sin. No longer being a pure virgin, but yet a virtuous women, may make a woman ceremonially unclean or imperfect, but certainly not a sinner. The point of Lev. 21 is not to exclude anyone from church leadership if they are married to a divorced person. The point of Lev. 21 is talking about preserving the ceremonial purity and physiological perfection of the Levitical priesthood.
If we ignore that Christ perfected the priesthood and that we are all priests in Christ, by insisting on adhering to the Levitical restrictions, then we are obligated by Scripture to eliminate from church leadership:
1. Anyone who had held a friends hand as he died. (v.1, l l)
2. Anyone who has had his head shaved at boot camp, or trimmed his beard, or has a tattoo. (v.5)
3. Anyone who is married to a harlot, or a divorcee, or a widow. (v.7,14)
4. Anyone whose wife was not a virgin when he married her. (v.13, 14)
5. Anyone who is blind, lame, has severe acne, or a withered arm/leg. (v.18)
6. Anyone who has a broken foot or hand. (v.19)
7. Anyone with a spinal defect, excessively short of stature, a need for eye glasses, a skin disorder, or a genital injury. (v.20)
Indeed, this list is probably only representative, so there would be no limit to our “justifications” for excluding people from church leadership. God forbid we should ever use Scripture this way. It is also worth noting that Lev. 21 does not preclude the priest from marrying a second virgin should he become a widower or scripturally divorced from an adulterous wife.
I Tim. 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9
These two passages are used more than any other passages to justify the exclusion of anyone who has been divorced, or married to a previously divorced person, from positions of church leadership. I Tim. 3:2 states that among other things, an overseer (elder /bishop) must be the husband on one wife. Verse 12 says the deacon must also be the husband of one wife. Titus 1:6 also says that the elder should be the husband of one wife. The popular conclusion is that anyone who has been married twice is not the husband/wife of one spouse and therefore not eligible for church leadership. Not only does this line of reasoning cause conflict with other Scripture, it also is illogical in light of how we interpret the context of the verses immediately surrounding those in question.
The most obvious conflict with this line of reasoning is that it would preclude the remarriage of a church leader after the death of a spouse or after divorcing a spouse on grounds of adultery. Do we really want to be in the position of telling a church leader to stay a widower or to remain the innocent party in an adulterous triangle? Paul was explicit: remarriage is permitted, and sometimes recommended (I Tim. 5:14; I Cor. 7:9, 39). In addition, the Law did not preclude remarriage for a priest (or anyone else, for that matter) whose spouse died or who was unjustly divorced, or sought a divorce from a fornicator. The passages in I Tim. and Titus are not concerned with the issue of divorce, but rather with the character of a man’s current walk before the Lord. The phrase seems to speak to the issue of polygamy, mistresses, and any unbecoming attitude, irresponsible behavior, or desire for other women. The passages are talking about a “one gal kind of a guy”.
Having come to this understanding, some still conclude that while Biblically sanctioned divorces and remarriages meet the “one wife” standard, they still violate the “above reproach” standard and the “good manager of his household” standard (also cited in I Tim.; Titus). A very strong case can be made that the married/unmarried fornicator and the hard-hearted divorcer violates all of these standards, but what Scripture has the unjustly divorced or the widow(er) violated? To avoid violating the “above reproach” standard, would we have the Godly spouse stay married to an adulterer and thus violate the “good manager of his household” standard? Or would we have the Godly spouse divorce the adulterer and violate the “above reproach” standard? To assume that the Godly spouse can persuade or force the sinning spouse to repent and seek forgiveness is to deny free will to the sinner. God’s Word is not a thing of confusion. Clearly, the unjustly divorced and remarried are not violating any standards; they may actually be exercising them.
Part of our problem is a misunderstanding of the “above reproach” phrase. To assume the “above reproach” is one in a list of qualifying standards (temperate, prudent, respectable, etc.) is to disqualify all of us from church leadership, “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Even the Apostle Paul, a persecutor and murderer of Christians, would be disqualified (I Tim. 1:15; Acts 8:3; 26:10-11). Indeed, the past history of Christ’s disciples indicate that He did not employ an “above reproach” standard. “Above reproach” is not a standard, but rather is a descriptive overview of a life commitment that has as its standards; (1) husband of one wife, (2) temperate, (3) prudent, (4) respectable, etc. “Above reproach” speaks to the manner in which an individual responds to the events in life that he faces, and not to the forgiven sins of his past. While “free will” keeps “above reproach” from meaning that we can control our spouse’s or children’s responses to life’s circumstances, it does demand that we respond to their decisions in a manner consistent with our Christian faith and witness. The passages in I Tim. and Titus are saying that how we respond to the fiery trails of life (Godly or worldly) determine whether we qualify for church leadership. They are not saying we must obtain some level of perfection. Our failure under the Law and the need for Christ’s atonement support this conclusion.
With the exceptions of the hard-hearted divorcer and the fornicator, automatically excluding divorced persons from church leadership positions is simply not supported by the Scriptures. Scripture is clear; the unjustly divorced and those divorced from an adulterous spouse have committed no sin (as relates to divorce) that should preclude them from any aspect of the fellowship, including leadership.
As concerning the hard-hearted and the fornicator, as long as they are unrepentant they are to be treated like any other open and willful violator of God’s Word. Indeed, it would be folly to include them in Fellowship, let alone leadership, while they stood in open rebellion of God. Should they repent and seek reconciliation with the Lord and with the fellowship, Scripture is again clear – restore them (II Cor. 2:6-11, 5:17, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, Hosea, Jer., Ezra). Just as Scripture tells us that a new (immature) Christian should not be chosen for leadership (I Tim. 3:6), for both his own good and that of the fellowship, I think it consistent to expect the repentant Christian to spend time witnessing to the sincerity and the maturity of his recommitment (Jas. 2:14-18), before being considered for leadership again.
One other situation needs to be addressed; what to do about a leader in office while going through a divorce. If he is the hard-hearted or fornicator, Scripture gives him no immunity – remove him from the fellowship (I Cor. 5, Matt. 18:15-17) and pray for his repentance. If he is the unjustly divorced or divorcing an adulterous spouse, he should seek a temporary leave of absence’ from his leadership position. The very character traits that qualified him for church leadership compel him to give undivided attention to achieving a Scriptural resolution to this dire situation. We should support, with love and prayer, the leader, who has been our servant, during his time of trial. Otherwise, we are not worthy of his fellowship.
We should charge our nominating committees to seek from among us men and women who, by their very lifestyle, give evidence of their commitment to God’s Word in its entirety. We should charge the nominating committee to prayerfully search God’s Word as to what qualities constitute this evidence. I object to any resolution that gives the members of the committee a church approved list of “do’s and don’ts” and therefore relieves them of the necessity of seeking God’s will in the Scriptures. I do not deny the important role that expository writing has in the fellowship, but I do object to interpreting the Bible based on the conclusions of “recognized” authorities, rather than interpreting “recognized” authorities based on the truths of the Bible. That is just the situation that has clouded our understanding concerning the divorced and church leadership. It would be better for us to follow the leadership of one man whose walk testifies to a deep intimate relationship with Christ and His Word, though unjustly divorced, than a hundred Godly men of less maturity but never divorced.
Repentance and Forgiveness
To those who would argue that forgiveness does not release us from the consequences of our sins, only from the condemnation, I agree. But then again, Scripture is clear, it is not the unjustly divorced or those who have divorced a fornicating spouse who have sinned. They must live with consequences foisted on them by spouses in rebellion to God’s Word. Scripture calls for the protection of the innocent; not the persecution.
Concerning those who are guilty in this matter, indeed they must live with the consequences of their sins, but unless they repent and seek forgiveness, they also live with the condemnation. Scripture tells us very clearly that we are to put them out of our midst until they are truly repentant; nothing more, nothing less (Matt. 18:15-17, I Cor. 5). We are never called to enforce the consequences of the condemnation on the guilty. The laws of society enforce the consequences and the condemnation is God’s (Rom. 13:1-2, Jude 14-15). We seldom have any debate concerning the Cross’s ability to wash clean (forgive) all confessed and repented sin; God’s grace is sufficient. But yet, like the Pharisees in John 8 we try to enforce the consequences. Christ did not allow the adulteress to be stoned by her accusers because none of them was without sin. Which of us is qualified to throw the first stone? It is important to note that we are not called to enforce the consequences on either the repentant or the unrepentant. The adulteress in John 8 did not repent and was not forgiven. She was admonished to sin no more and sent on her way. It may seem that she escaped the consequences through mercy, but Scripture is clear, her condemnation was waiting for her at the Great Throne of Judgment. We are not called to sit on that throne. This letter does not deny God’s intent for marriage.
Next to my relationship with the Lord, I hold my relationship with my wife and our marriage above all else.