Divorce: the Unforgivable Sin?
The Keeper of Many from the Ministry
by Jay McMullan
If I were to ask “Is divorce the unforgivable sin?” most Christians would probably answer that it is not. However, in many Christian churches and denominations people who have been divorced are kept from certain ministry positions.
I knew a man who had a call on his life to be a minister. He was passionate about that call but his church would not let him become a minister because of a divorce that had occurred in his life when he was young. Not too many months after he was married, his wife left him with their baby daughter and divorced him.
Some churches will not allow a person to be a pastor or a church deacon if they have been divorced. Some churches will. Obviously there is a large difference of opinion on this matter but what does the Word of God say?
There are two passages of scripture that deal with this issue. Let’s examine these passages to see what the Bible says about being divorced and being a pastor or a deacon.
1 Timothy 3 (New American Standard Bible)
Overseers and Deacons
1It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.
2An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
3not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.
4He 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?),
6and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil.
7And 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.
8Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,
9but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
10These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.
11Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.
12Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.
13For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Biblical Criteria to be a Minister
Obviously, Paul, the author of this epistle differentiates between deacon (bishop) and overseer even though both words come from the same Greek word “episcope”. It is my opinion that anyone desiring any leadership role in the church should have to pass the same qualifications. Why would an elder (deacon, bishop or overseer) be allowed to be any less qualified than an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor or teacher (Ephesians 4:11-16)? From the passage of scripture above, there are a lot of qualifications that one must pass in order to be in a position of spiritual oversight.
Let us begin our study with the Biblical definition of “deacon.” The King James version of the Bible uses the word “bishop” instead of deacon. The word comes from the Greek word, “episcope” which means, overseer, bishop or preaching elder. We see the same word translated as “overseer” in the following passage of scripture:
Acts 20:28 (King James Bible)
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
The same word is also translated “overseer” in the following scriptures; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25.
The other scripture that deals with “the husband of one wife” is Titus 1:
For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:  If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.  For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;  But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate;  Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.
Biblical Qualifications to be a Minister
First of all, let’s list each of the qualifications set forth in the previous passages of scripture:
1. Must be above reproach. (So good as to preclude any possibility of criticism.1)
2. The husband of one wife.
3. Temperate. (Exercising moderation and self-restraint.2)
4. Prudent. (Wise in handling practical matters; exercising good judgment or common sense.)
5. Respectable. (It would make sense that he should hold respect from those in and out of the church.)
7. Able to teach.
8. Not addicted to wine.
9. Not pugnacious. (Combative in nature; belligerent, quarrelsome.)
12. Free from the love of Money.
13. One who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with dignity.
14. Not a new convert (novice).
15. Must have a good reputation with those outside of the church.
16. Must be men of dignity.
17. Not double tongued.
18. Not addicted to too much wine.
19. Not fond of sordid gain. (Morally unfit)
20. Hold the mystery of faith with a good conscience. (Have a deep desire to know the things of God.)
21. Must have been tested.
As you can see, there are a lot of qualifications that one must fill in order to have a leadership role in the church. To answer our question about divorce, we must, first of all, ask, “Why did Paul give the lists of qualifications that he did in these epistles?” Obviously, it is so that these people can serve the church without these many things being a hindrance to his service. Paul told of the many persecutions he went through because of the revelations he received from the Lord. After Paul listed several of the horrible things he had gone through, he said that a thing even harder than those was the care of all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:23-28, 12:7)
Plural Marriage vs. Divorce
“The Old Testament mentions plural marriage as an acceptable variation for the Hebrews, and many of the Abrahamic prophets and patriarchs had multiple wives, including Lamech, Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Gideon, Saul, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Elkanah, Ashur, Abijah and Jehoiada. Some interpretations also suggest Moses had a second wife in Tharbis.”1
Even though polygamy was allowed among the Hebrews, God commanded that when a king was set up over Israel that the king could not take multiples wives and He explained to them why:
Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.
When a man has one wife, there is a lot of responsibility in that marriage relationship. When you add more than one wife, the responsibilities multiply. If a bishop or overseer has been divorced and remarried, he still only has the responsibility to one wife. A polygamist has the responsibility of more than one wife which could definitely get in the way of walking in the ministry. Polygamy was a problem among the gentiles who were becoming Christians where Paul was taking the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The same reasoning applies to a candidate who’s children are unruly or who’s wife is a gossip. These situations would take the candidates time away from serving in the church. Polygamy would take away from the overseers time and concern for the church but being divorced and remarried would not. How many churches that refuse to allow a person to operate in a ministry gift in their church, takes a look at their minister’s family’s lives? Unfortunately there are lots of preacher’s kids that run wild and that pastor remains in the ministry.
One prominent church in central Florida sends out a letter to prospective deacons. In that letter the qualifications listed above, they list the husband of one wife followed by their own addition to the qualifications, “having never been divorced.” There are obviously other things that would preclude a person from becoming an overseer. If a person were a convicted felon who had paid his debt to society, I wonder if the churches that refuse divorced people to be overseers would allow them to be one.
Another question that should be asked is, if a person has lived with a live-in partner for years, living in fornication and having never married any of those partners, then repents and leaves those relationships, would that person be allowed to be a church overseer?
The Bible is clear that God hates divorce but the Jewish law provided ways for a person to divorce. The New Testament also gives some reasons for divorce although not an all inclusive list. The Bible teaches that God forgives us of our sin if we ask for forgiveness. There is only one unforgiveable sin and that is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Churches that disallow people to be in church oversight due only to divorce are in direct contradiction to God’s Word and are walking in judgment. These churches need to repent and re-evaluate their Biblical doctrine.
Romans 8:33 (NKJV)
33 Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
There is another view by some churches on this issue. They set forth a requirement that a man must be married. Many of them do not distinguish whether the man has been divorced or not. They just believe that the man must be married to one wife to be a minister. Although, I still think these churches are missing the mark, I believe they are closer than the aforementioned churches.
The Holy Roman Catholic Church has experience problems with this due to the fact that their priests cannot be married men. Although the Catholic Church claims that the Apostle Peter founded their church, they seem to ignore the fact that Peter was married. We are told in Mark 1:30 that Peter had a mother-in-law. In order to have a mother-in-law, you have to be married.
If a man becomes a pastor and has never been married, common sense will show that there are many situations in which he would be called upon to use his ministerial duties in which he would have no experience. It would be hard for a man that had never married to be able to minister to a married couple. I won’t say it is not impossible but just more difficult. As a pastor, you should be able to counsel those who have drug problems, for instance, even though you may have never had that same experience.
In the case of single ministers, there are those who have never married and there are those who are widowed (since we are not talking about divorce now). Certainly a widower would have much more experience in understanding what married couples go through. It is widely believe that the Apostle Paul, even though single as we get to know him in the New Testament, was previously married. Paul had been a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin and one of the requirements to be a member was to be a married man.
That a man must be married to be in the minister seems to fall short to me in the area of Biblical doctrine although it is more believable than the divorce issue.
It is easy to conclude after a search of the scriptures that to keep someone from being in active ministry is totally unscriptural. How many good men and women have felt a call to the ministry and have had those hopes and desires squashed due to some religious organization that ruled by their beliefs instead of by the holy scriptures? If you are called to the ministry and a religious organization is preventing you from walking in that ministry, you should prayerfully consider if your church’s doctrines on divorce and ministry are doctrinal. If they are not, you need to move on and not let man’s tradition stop the work of God. Ultimately, you will be held accountable for what God has called you to do.
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