Thursday, September 11, 2008

Divorced Men CAN Serve as Pastors, Elders and Deacons

(This post is based on the exegesis that has gone on in previous posts. Reading those might help in completely understanding this one. There might be one more post on this subject in the near future, dealing with some specific situations and issues.)

What About Ministry?

The genesis of this tome was a discussion that took place with my church leaders a couple of months ago. It is one I have had for several years in several churches. Should divorced men serve as deacons? In my last association, several of the pastors were divorced and it was a hot topic there – can divorced men be pastors?

I should make it clear that this is not some sort of personal defense or justification. I just celebrated my thirtieth wedding anniversary to the “wife of my youth” I am not arguing for myself, but for those whom I feel have been excluded from Christian service within the church without biblical justification.

The question of whether divorced men can serve as deacons, elders, or pastors is based almost exclusively on one small phrase that appears twice in 1 Timothy 3 and once in Titus 1. In verse 2, overseers (elders, pastors) were required to be “the husband of one wife.” In verse 12, the same phrase is set as a requirement for being a deacon. Titus 1:6 repeats the requirement for elders. What does that phrase mean? Many have assumed that it is a blanket prohibition of divorced men serving in church leadership positions. Others have explained it as a condemnation of polygamy. But all would agree that the proper interpretation of this passage is determinative on this issue. Figure out what that passage means and you have answered this question.

A word of warning is appropriate here. To compromise the Word of God is a serious sin. In Revelation 2, Jesus rebuked both the Pergamum and Thyatira churches for tolerating evil and false doctrine. If God’s Word prohibits divorced men from serving as deacons, we should not ignore that prohibition. However, we sometimes forget that there is another side to this warning. In 1 Corinthians 4:6, Paul warned the people not to “go beyond what is written.” In Revelation 22:18-19, John gives this warning about the prophecies he has written. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” Note that severe penalties attach to either adding to or taking away from the words of the prophecy. It seems clear that the warning is specific to Revelation, but the principle is instructive for us.

It would be deeply damaging to the Body of Christ to allow divorced men to serve in leadership positions if the Scriptures prohibit it. But it would be just as serious a sin to prevent men from serving without biblical warrant. It is not acceptable to either take away from the teachings of scripture or to add to them.

I would suggest that the burden of proof is on those who would restrict the divorced from serving. If any redeemed person is eliminated from positions of service, it must be on the strongest of biblical evidence. If it cannot be clearly proven that Paul had divorce in mind when he set this standard, then divorced men should not be restricted from service. Advocates of the prohibition must clearly prove their point.

One more thing; it seems that since the same prohibition is directed at deacons and overseers, there should be no distinction between these positions in regards to divorce. If divorced men are allowed to serve as deacons, they are also eligible for the role of elder or pastor. There is no difference, on this point, between the requirements. Either divorced men can serve in all of these roles, or none of them.

There are other issues of scripture that we will deal with, but the crux of the issue is the phrase mentioned above. We will look at that phrase in depth. It is clear that three little words that Paul used make all the difference in this debate.

Husband of One Wife

There have been two majority opinions on the meaning of this verse. First, many commentators, at one time most, saw this as an absolute prohibition of divorced men serving in ministry positions at churches. Since Jesus prohibited divorce and said that remarriage was adultery, it seemed pretty clear. A divorced and remarried man is seen in the eyes of God as an adulterer and has two wives; the one he is currently married to and the one he divorced. If this interpretation is correct, the discussion is over.

There are a couple of major variations within this group. Some prohibit all divorcees from serving. Others only restrict those whose divorce happened after their conversion. How, they would say, can we hold someone accountable for their sins before they met the Savior? If the divorce occurred before salvation, they do not restrict that person from service.

The second major view holds this passage as a condemnation of polygamy, not divorce. This seems likely from the English phrasing. “Husband of one wife” seems to naturally stand in opposition to “husband of more than one wife.” Cased closed, right?

But there are glaring problems with this view. First, it is generally agreed that while polygamy was at times prevalent in Jewish society, it was not commonly practiced in the Roman Empire. If this had been written to Jewish congregations, the argument would hold more weight. But if polygamy was not a huge problem in Roman culture, it seems unlikely that Paul was focusing on it in a letter to establish leadership parameters for a Gentile church.

Polygamy, by definition, means a husband has more than one wife. Polyandry – a woman with multiple husbands – has not been practiced widely in any culture. It was certainly not a practice in either Jewish or Roman cultures. But in 1 Timothy 5:9, Paul reversed the requirement for deacons and elders and applied it to women who were going on the list of widows who were to be supported by the church. (Actually, there are various suggestions about this list, but what the list was for is not germane to the point.) 1 Timothy 5:9 requires that these women have been “the wife of one husband.” The phrase is identical to the ones we are studying except that the genders are reversed. So, in an identical construction to ours, it is absolutely clear that polygamy cannot be in view. If “wife of one husband” does not reference polygamy, then “husband of one wife” probably does not either.


It is my contention that neither divorce nor polygamy is the primary focus of this passage. I believe that Paul is requiring that a man must demonstrate himself as a faithful and devoted husband before he is ready to lead God’s church.

The translation “husband of one wife” may not be the best translation of the passage. The Greek phrase in 1 Timothy 3:2, μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα (mias gunaikos andra), could be literally translated “one-woman man” or “a man of one woman.” The last word, man, appears in a slightly different form in each of the three passages, but the meaning is the same. An overseer or elder, and a deacon, are to demonstrate themselves to the church as a “one-woman man.”

That accurate translation seems to almost explain itself. What is in view here is the man’s heart. It involves much more than just being sexually faithful to his wife. A one-woman man is faithful in body, yes, but also in soul and spirit. He is devoted to his wife. His relationship with his wife demonstrates that he knows how to be a servant leader. If he is not faithful and devoted to his wife, it is unlikely he will be faithful and devoted to his church duties.

This is a much higher burden than some other interpretations require. Since we do not have polygamy (at least officially) in our nation, it would be an empty requirement if that meaning is accepted. If the command is simply a prohibition that a man never has been divorced, all that is required is that a man has avoided divorce. But this command is more significant than that. I have known men who have never been divorced and have never cheated on their wives, but show little devotion to their wives. They may be technically “the husband of one wife” but cannot by any means be called a “one-woman man.”

It is my belief that this kind of character is what is in view in this command. If Paul had wanted to say that a man who had ever been divorced was not qualified to serve as an elder or deacon, there are ways he could have said that in Greek. Paul spoke clearly and it is clear what he meant in this passage. He was saying that men who lead the church should be men who have demonstrated their abilities to lead their homes and demonstrate faithful servant leadership to their wives.


The meaning of Paul’s phrase here will always be open to discussion and interpretation. It seems highly likely he was not speaking of polygamy. Since polygamy was not a common practice in Roman culture, and since the same construction is reversed as a requirement for a woman, polygamy is almost certainly not the primary focus. Certainly, polygamy would be inappropriate for church leaders, but it is not the chief intent of this verse.
In reality, those who use this as a prohibition of divorce are also assuming the passage refers to a form of polygamy. They believe that the first marriage was not ended and so, by the second marriage, the man has become a kind of polygamist, married in God’s eyes to both his former wife and his current one.

My quarrel with this view is two-fold. First of all, I think it makes a blanket generalization about the teachings of Jesus on divorce that is, in many cases, not warranted. A man who is divorced on biblical grounds is freed from his marriage covenant and is free to remarry. When he remarries, he is the husband of one wife and one wife only – his new wife. The former marriage is over. We will examine this in more detail later.

My second problem with this view is that if Paul was intending to prohibit divorced men from serving as deacons or elders, there are ways he could have stated that more plainly. “An overseer must never have divorced a wife and remarried.” He could have given words that would clearly and unequivocally say what he meant. Paul was never one for veiling his words. He said what he meant. If he had meant divorce here, he would have said it.

The obvious meaning of the phrase is a reference to fidelity and commitment. A husband must demonstrate to all that he knows what it is to be a servant leader by being a good husband who loves his wife and devotes himself to her. Context, linguistics and logic all seem to support this viewpoint.

It is an unwarranted stretch to use this phrase as a blanket condemnation of divorced men as serving as deacons, elders, pastors, or in other leadership positions. There is no biblical grounds on which to deny all divorced people from serving. To do so, in my mind, is to violate the clear teachings of Scriptures.

Divorce and Remarriage

God’s intent was that a marriage would last until one of the parties died. Sin’s effect on human behavior and relationships shattered the ideal. Permanent and fulfilling marriage is still possible if a couple is well-matched and if they rely on the power of God to see them through. But a marriage depends on both parties fulfilling their vows, and that sometimes does not happen. And so, divorce has become an unfortunate reality in this world. Jesus told his disciples that God permitted it because of the sin, the “hardness” of human hearts.

In all of the discussions on divorce in scripture, there is not a single prohibition against remarriage when a divorce is granted on approved grounds. Deuteronomy prohibited a man from remarrying a woman after he had remarried another wife. But there was no restriction on remarriage in general. Jesus restricted remarriage except when the divorce was because of adultery. But the implication was that when there were biblical grounds, remarriage was not adulterous and was acceptable. Paul set forth a new solution for women whose husbands were cruel or abusive of their authority. They could separate (not divorce) and live single or return to their husbands. The assumption is that remarriage is the intended result of divorce. Paul clarifies in 1 Corinthians 7 that when believers remarry, they should remarry only other believers. Remarriage was assumed, but limited to those who shared faith in Christ.

We previously looked at the certificate of divorce that was historically granted in Hebrew culture. It sent a woman away to remarry whomever she wishes. That concept – that remarriage was assumed when a divorce too place – was never corrected in any of the prophets who called Israel to repentance for sin. Remarriage after divorce was widely practiced and would have certainly been confronted if it was offensive to God.

The necessary conclusion is that if a divorce is granted on approved grounds, the divorcee has the right to remarry. A biblically acceptable divorce ends the marriage just as death does. God’s intent and purpose was to have marriages end one way – death. But He graciously allowed marriages to end by divorce, if the circumstances were right and certain conditions were met.

So, if a man has been divorced on biblical grounds (as I have defined it; adultery by his spouse (as Jesus taught) or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (as Paul added), he is free to remarry. His first marriage is over in the eyes of God; the marriage covenant having been broken by the sinful actions of another. When he remarries, he is the husband of one wife and one wife only. So, even if the prohibitionist position on the “husband of one wife” phrase is correct, he is still qualified to serve.

New Creatures in Christ?

I have never understood how someone could believe 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come,” and still advocate eliminating people who were divorced prior to salvation from service. Do not misunderstand. I am not accusing my opponents on this issue of willfully denying scripture. I just believe that their position on divorce is in conflict with this verse.

When a man comes to Christ, he becomes a new creature. His sins are washed away and God sets out to conform him to the image of Christ. Yet, some would restrict that man from serving as a church leader because of something that happened before he was saved. How can we hold a man accountable for those things which took place prior to his conversion? A redeemed man held liable for what he did before his redemption? That is inimical to our concept of transformational grace.

There is no other sin we do that with. Should we only allow those who remained virgins until their wedding night to be church leaders? Those few of us who meet that standard might find ourselves worn out with leadership duties. When an ex-con comes to Christ, we rejoice in his growth and have no compunction when he demonstrates transformation to put him in leadership positions. The divorced? That is a different matter. Regardless of the time or circumstances of the divorce, we ask them to sit on the sidelines and stay there.

But even if the divorce happened after salvation, it seems contrary to the ways of Christ to make that a permanent death mark for service. Mark had a gross ministry failure (not moral, but serious nonetheless) that caused Paul not to want to work with him in Acts 15. But later, he lavishes praise on Mark’s service for the gospel. He was restored. David fell and was restored. Peter denied Christ then proclaimed him boldly. God specializes in taking failures and guiding them to success.

Again, why would we distinguish divorce from other sins and declared it unredeemable? In fact, even if someone is divorced on biblical grounds (and is therefore not guilty of sin), we eliminate that person from service? A person who is the victim of another’s sin is held liable for that sin in perpetuity? Can anyone else see the logic in that? I cannot.

It seems to me to be contrary to the whole thrust of the gospel to tell people that a sin that happened in the past will forever eliminate them from service in the church.

What about Our Testimony?

One of the common arguments used to eliminate divorced men from leadership positions is the need to “uphold standards” in the church. We need to uphold the highest standards of godly behavior in the church and our leaders need to serve as examples to others. What kind of example does it set if we allow divorced men to lead? Does not that tacitly endorse divorce?

If a pastor had premarital sex 25 years ago, and you make him a pastor today, does that promote premarital sex? One of the best deacons I ever had was the town drunk before God got hold of him. Did allowing him to be a deacon mean that we were promoting drunkenness? Does a redeemed drug dealer advocate drug dealing with his service to the church?. The idea that divorced men in leadership positions advocates divorce does not make sense to me. What they do is demonstrate that God can rebuild a broken life. What better testimony is there than that?

If a man in the middle of a divorce were serving, that would be one thing. If we failed to discipline a man who divorced his wife for unbiblical reasons, that would be a bad testimony. But a man who was divorced several years ago, has remarried, and is an exemplary husband and father; there is no shame in that.

What is the church? Is it the society of the spiritually superior? Is it the domain of those who have never failed or done anything wrong? No! The church is the gathering of the redeemed; sinners whose lives were broken by sin and put back together by the grace of God. We are the cleansed, not the unsullied.

What better testimony could there be than a man whose life was shattered by sin, who walked through the brokenness of divorce, and whose life has been redeemed and put back into order by Christ? Does he not tell the sin-broken people who come into a church that there is power in the blood?

Paul told Timothy that he was “the worst of sinners.” But he said that God had granted him grace so that he might display “his unlimited patience” to others. Paul saw himself not as a superior, but as a trophy of God’s grace. At the risk of offending, those who advocate that we must uphold standards by not allowing those divorced in the past to serve are in danger of being more like the Pharisee than the publican whom Jesus approved. We are broken people, rebuilt by Jesus Christ.

So, am I saying that it doesn’t matter how leaders live? To the contrary, I think church leaders should be people of the highest character and spiritual passion. Our lives should be examples of godly behavior. What I am saying is that what matters to God is what we ARE, not what we once were. Leadership is based on character and reputation. God specializes in taking the depraved and infusing his righteousness into them, transforming them to be like Christ. It is maturity in the process of sanctification that matters.

If the church is a “Society of Superior Saints” then by all mean, eliminate from service those who have made mistakes in the past. If the church is a hospital for sinners, where people come to find the redemption and remission of sins and have their lives rebuilt by Christ, then we cannot hold peoples’ pasts against them. We cannot eliminate people from service on the basis of who they were ten or twenty years ago. We promote to leadership in the church on the basis of who we have become – our present character and reputation in the church.

My experience tells me that divorced men and women can become shiny testimonies of the life-changing power of Christ.


Leadership in the church is based on character and Christlikeness. It is incompatible with that to eliminate someone from service because they were divorced in years gone by. If someone is currently going through a divorce, or has been recently divorced, that person should not serve. Even if I am the “innocent” party in a divorce, I must take responsibility for my failings in the marriage that contributed to that divorce. Divorce seldom is totally the fault of one person, even if only one breaks the covenant. I need to time to heal and rebuild my life. But a man who has been divorced and remarried, who has rebuilt a new life and is genuinely the “husband of one wife” and who has demonstrated that over time, is biblically qualified to serve in leadership roles. He is a great testimony of the life-changing power of our Savior.

There is no biblical basis on which a general prohibition against divorce men serving as church leaders can be made. It is, to me, an act of “adding to what is written” to do so. Those who want to follow Christ and His Word, and not cultural traditions would do well to exclude only those the Bible excludes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Palin, Politics, and Hypocrisy: A Suspicion

Before I say what I am going to say (and duck) let me make something clear. I am planning to vote for Sarah Palin and her running mate (name escapes me). I thought her speech was brilliant. It was the first time I have been excited about politics in a long time. So I am not some closet Obama guy.

I also have no problem with a woman being VP - or President, for that matter. If I were British, I would have voted for Maggie enthusiastically. Hillary - not so much.

So, having established that, here's my thesis: our reaction to particular events and people is clouded by our politic views.

More specifically, conservatives in the blogosphere and in the political world have been very quick to show their support for Sarah Palin and to justify her place on the ticket. We have given her a pass on her daughter's pregnancy, absolving her of all blame in the matter.

But I have a deep suspicion that if the tables were reverse and Sarah Palin was a pro-choice member of Obama's tickets, our views on her personal life might be a little different.

I can imagine a blogger or two wondering why, if she was such a good person and mother, her 17 year old daughter is pregnant. I wonder if leaders like James Dobson would be questioning why the mother of 5, including a special needs kid, would be leaving the home to run for an incredibly family-unfriendly job. I am afraid that conservatives might be taking a very different stand on the "Palin issue" if she were not one of us.

Imagine what we would have been saying if Chelsea Clinton had gotten pregnant at age 17. Come on, now. Be honest!

Maybe I am wrong. I don't think so.

I have seen it too often. A blogger is outraged because someone ridicules on of his friends, but laughs along when the same thing is applied to someone he doesn't agree with (or like). Too often, our view of issues and events is colored by our beliefs. We who champion inerrancy are sometimes practical relativists as we deal with real-life and political issues. Remember, right is right regardless of who is doing it. And wrong is wrong even if it is done by someone we like.

Look, again, I am a Palin-guy all the way. This is purely a theoretical exercise. The next time a democratic politician's child does something similar (or a theological opponent for that matter) I hope we will be as gracious to that person as we have been to Sarah Palin.

Again, maybe I'm wrong.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Paul and Divorce

(We continue to wander through the biblical evidence concerning divorce, to eventually answer the question whether divorced men can serve as deacons, elders, pastors, or in other church leadership positions.)

The New Testament epistles have a lot to say about marriage and family relationships, but there is very little focus on divorce. There are several passages, all from Paul’s letters, that we must deal with. Paul uses divorce as an illustration in Romans 7:1-6. He then discusses divorce at length in 1 Corinthians 7:10-24, his most significant teaching. The other significant passages are those in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that discuss the qualifications of elder and deacon. Paul said that these church leaders should be “the husband of one wife.” That is the heart of the question here. Does that prohibition mean that anyone who has been divorced is disqualified from these levels of service within the church?

Is Paul’s Teaching Scripture or Opinion?

There is a significant issue that must be dealt with before we look at what Paul taught. Much has been made of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 7:10-12 about some of his statements coming from the Lord and others coming from him and not the Lord. “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.”

Paul gives a charge to the married to stay in their marriages and make them work. He states that this command comes not from him, but from the Lord. Then, in verse 12, he states that the rest of the teaching comes from him, and not from the Lord. Some have indicated that this was Paul’s way of saying that his advice on this issue was just personal opinion and not a direct command from God. The teachings in this passage, then, would be Paul’s suggestion and would not have the force of inspired Scripture.

That view must be rejected by anyone who believes that “all Scriptures are breathed by God and used for teaching…” There is a very simple way to understand this statement. Paul is not saying that some of this is inspired and some of it is not, but that some of it was addressed directly by Jesus in his earthly ministry and some of what Paul teaches goes beyond what Jesus taught. He is not saying that this is just his opinion, but that he is adding these teachings to what Jesus said in addressing the subject.

Here is a fact that many people fail to realize. The inspired words of Paul are just as true, just as authoritative and just as inerrant as the words of Jesus himself. The Spirit that worked in Jesus was the same Spirit who guided Paul’s thoughts and words. It would be a mistake to assume that the words in red letters in your Bible are somehow more important than the other words. All Scripture is inspired. Old Testament. Jesus’ words. Paul’s words. Every verse is as much God’s Word as every other verse.

So, Paul’s teachings here are founded on what Jesus said, but they go beyond and add new teachings to what Jesus taught when he was on earth. Paul’s teachings are inerrant and authoritative, and what he says in this passage is binding on all believers.

Paul’s Teachings

Paul made it clear in the passage mentioned above that his teachings were based on Jesus’ and in line with them. He is going to add some new teachings to what Jesus said, but they were meant to augment what Jesus said, not contradict it. He affirms the permanence of marriage. Christians should make their marriages work and not seek an easy out when problems arise.
We will now examine Paul’s teachings on divorce in Romans 7 and 1 Corinthians 7. We will then summarize the biblical teaching on divorce. After that, we will address whether a divorced man can serve as a deacon and deal with what Paul said in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus requiring elders to be “the husband of one wife.”

Romans 7:1-6

This passage is not about divorce, but uses it as an illustration. The passage is actually about how those who have come to Christ have died with Him and have been released from their slavery to the law. He affirms that a marriage only ends when one of the partners dies and that when one partner dies, the other is free from the marriage vow and can remarry.

He uses this to illustrate to us that once Christians have died with Christ to the law they are no longer under obligation to it. Having died to the law, we are free to join with Christ and live in His freedom and joy.

It is interesting that some have seen this as Paul’s definitive statement on divorce and used it to nullify what he said in 1 Corinthians 7. This is a statement of the ideal of a permanent marriage broken only by death, used as an illustration. It deals with marriage and does not address whether there is ever a biblically acceptable cause for divorce. It is easy to make too much of this passage in the discussion of divorce.

I Corinthians 7:10-24

This is the most complete teaching in Scripture on the subject of divorce and remarriage, even more complete than Jesus’ statement. It is authoritative, inspired and true.

The spread of the gospel brought a new phenomenon not dealt with in Jesus’ teachings. When the gospel spread into the pagan world, marriages were often strained. An idol-worshiping husband might suddenly find his wife wanting to burn the idols and serve only a new God named Jesus. A wife, happy in her pagan beliefs, suddenly has a husband evangelizing her and asking her to change her beliefs. Also, passionate Christians began to wonder if it was offensive to God for them to share their lives and beds with people who served other gods. They may have heard passages like the one we discussed from Ezra which tells God’s people to divorce their foreign, idolatrous wives and assumed that the way to honor God was to divorce unbelieving husbands or wives. So, Paul needed to address the concept of Christian marriage and how new Christians should deal with unbelieving spouses.

There is also a radical new teaching here. Paul not only talks about husbands divorcing their wives, but also the concept of wives initiating divorce. This is a marked departure from the Old Testament teaching which only dealt with a husband divorcing a wife.

The orientation of this passage is in line with what Jesus taught. The New Testament is full of passages that extol marriage and explain how marriage can honor God. From that, we can make a couple of generalizations. First, God’s desire is that every marriage last a lifetime. That is why He gave us so much good advice on home and family in Scripture. Secondly, it is clear that through dependence on Christ and his Word, any marriage can be saved. It is only blatant sin, rebelliously held on to that sometimes necessitates divorce. ‘‘Incompatibility’’ is not a marriage problem, it is a spiritual problem. Its cure is repentance and persistent love, not divorce.

The General Rule-v.10-11.

Paul first gives a general rule that is simply an interpretation of Jesus’ earthly teaching. Christians should not initiate divorce because they are unbelievers. This prohibition is absolute for the man; under no circumstances may he separate from his wife. The wife is allowed to separate from her husband if she finds it unbearable to live with him, but her only options are to either reconcile with him, or to remain unmarried. He is assuring Christians that God is not displeased with a believer who is married to an unbeliever. To the opposite, a spouse has a unique opportunity to be a force for the evangelism of the spouse.

There is a clear distinction made here between what a husband is allowed to do and what a wife can do. The husband must always stay with his wife and never initiate divorce. The wife may not divorce her husband, but if he abuses his authority over her, she can separate from him. This recognizes that the husband has authority in the home and has the ability to set the moral and spiritual tone of a home. The wife is under her husband’s authority and he might use that cruelly or abusively. If she cannot live to honor God while living under her husband’s authority, she has the right to separate from him. If she does that, she has two options; be reconciled to him or live single. If she leaves him without clear biblical grounds, she is not freed from her marriage covenant and must not remarry. In reality, what we are dealing with in this passage is not divorce, but separation. The marriage is not over, but suspended while the wife tries to reconcile or while she waits for God to change her husband’s heart.

One note must be made here. Many pastors have told women in cruel and abusive relationships that they must submit to their husband’s cruelty and remain in the marriage. That is a teaching in direct conflict with what Paul says here. If a man abuses his authority, a wife may separate for the sake of herself or her children.

It is interesting here that Paul specifically says that in this case of a wife leaving her husband without biblical grounds, remarriage is prohibited. The implication is that the right of remarriage is assumed when the divorce is on biblical grounds. Remarriage here and in Jesus’ words is only prohibited when the divorce takes place without biblical grounds.

Difficult Situations

Paul then turns his attentions to several difficult situations that a believer might face in applying these truths. He makes it clear with his statement in verse 12 that this is new ground, not covered by Jesus in the gospels. The situations did not exist when Jesus was speaking to his disciples. There are three situations which Paul addresses that we need to look at here. The first two address problems that arise when a person becomes a believer and is married to an unbeliever. The last situation deals with divorce that takes place before a person is saved.

Situation #1: The Unbeliever Stays-v.12-14

As mentioned above, some of the believers may have been wondering if it was necessary for them to divorce their unsaved spouses as an act of faithfulness to God. It is possible they had Ezra 9-10 in mind. Paul says that if the lost spouse wants to stay, let him (or her). In a very special way, the presence of one Christian in a family sets the whole family apart for God. One saved person in a family becomes a beachhead through which God can invade the entire family.

My dad was saved out of a very religious but largely unsaved family. Over the years, many others in his family came to Christ. He was the agent of God who “sanctified” his family. The use of that word here is a little strange. The word usually refers to making someone holy, but is also used to refer to something being set apart for God. That is probably the main meaning here. When one member of a family, or one partner in a marriage is saved, it sets apart the whole family for the activity of God.

The teaching here is clear. The believer should not initiate the divorce. As we discussed above, the wife may separate for the purpose of reconciliation, but is not free from her marriage vows. God does not vitiate the marriage vow.

Situation #2: The Unbeliever Goes-v.15-16

The believer might not initiate divorce, but if the unbeliever leaves, the believer is freed from the marriage vow and may marry another. Some unbelievers will simply not accept the spiritual changes that have gone on their believing spouse’s life and insist on leaving.

God has called us to live in peace, Paul says, if the unbeliever walks out of the marriage, the believer is free. A saved wife does not guarantee that the husband will come to Christ. As Christ unites believers, he separates believers from unbelievers. There is no guarantee that an unsaved spouse will come to Christ.

When the unbeliever leaves the marriage, the believer is not “bound” according to verse 16. Literally, the word means ‘‘not enslaved’’. Romans 7 talks about how a woman is ‘‘bound’’ by the law of marriage. It compares this to being bound by the law, enslaved to sin. When we die to the law, we are free from that which bound us, free to serve the new way of the Spirit. Just so, a believer is not bound to a marriage that the unbeliever leaves. The believer is freed from the marriage just as if the spouse had died. Though every attempt ought to be made toward reconciliation, it is clear that the believer may not be able to save the marriage.

Several points must be made here. First of all, Paul adds a second exception to the biblical law of permanent marriage. Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of adultery. Paul, inspired of God, established a second exception. If a believer is abandoned by an unbelieving spouse, the believer is freed from the marriage vow.

Secondly, and perhaps fundamentally, a biblically permissible divorce is a release from the marriage vow. The believer is no longer bound by those vows. This will be a significant point when we examine the phrase “husband of one wife.” If a man is divorced on biblical grounds and remarries, he is the husband of one wife, and one wife only. He is not bound to the first marriage covenant, because it was broken by the other. Therefore, while he may have been married twice, in God’s eyes he is only the husband of one wife.

It is clear in this passage that remarriage is the right of those who are divorced on biblical grounds. They may only marry believers, but the teaching is clear. Biblical grounds for divorce nullify the marriage covenant and free the innocent party to remarry.

One more thing is implied here. The church tries to make blanket divorce policies, but that is a biblical mistake. A biblical view of divorce requires a situation by situation review of the circumstances of each divorce. If I left my wife for another woman, I am still bound in God’s eyes to my first wife and my new marriage would be adulterous in God’s eyes. If my wife left me for another man, or if she was an unbeliever who refused to stay married to me, I am free from my marriage covenant and also free to remarry. You cannot fashion a “one size fits all” divorce policy and remain biblical.

There is one more possibility I would mention. The situation dealt with here involves a believer being abandoned by an unbeliever. Is it possible that the principle used here might be transferable to other life situations? For instance, if a believer were abandoned by someone who was a professing believer, would the principles applied here carry over? I cannot speak with biblical certainty, since I am extrapolating from a clear teaching to a situation not dealt with by Paul. Still, I think it is possible that the principle would apply in such a situation. Was this passage directed only at a very narrow situation, or do the principles that are at work here have a broader application. I would suggest that they do, while realizing that many will argue just as strongly that they do not.

Marriage is a covenant between two people and God in heaven. It is meant to be permanent and anyone who wishes to honor God will seek to make it so. But, Scripture recognizes that man is sinful and hard-hearted. Because of this, God provides exceptions to the rule of permanent marriage. Jesus spelled one out – adultery. Paul spells another out – abandonment. In both of these situations, one partner has broken the marriage covenant. A marriage is a joining of two people into one. When one of the two people sins and breaks the covenant, God in His grace releases the other person from the broken covenant. We know that this is true in the event of adultery or abandonment by an unbeliever. I am holding out the possibility that the principle might have a more general application. When one party breaks the marriage covenant and refuses to be reconciled or to work to preserve the marriage, God will grant release to the other party.

In every situation, a Christian who honors and wants to please God will do everything he or she can to preserve the marriage. A godly person never looks for an excuse or justification for divorce, but looks for ways to show love and seek the transforming power of God. Such a person would only take the divorce exceptions as a last resort, never as an easy way out.

Situation #3: Divorce before Salvation-v.17-24

These verses establish an important principle. A person should remain in the marital position he or she was in at the point of salvation. In other words, salvation is a washing away of the past and implies a new, fresh start. All past sin is forgiven and the person is given a second (or third, or fourth) chance by God.

Paul tells believers that “In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” Were you married? Seek to make the marriage work? Divorced and remarried? Accept God’s forgiveness and the fresh start of grace. This principle probably also applies to polygamy, though that is not a significant issue in America.

The key point that Paul seems to be making here is that what happens prior to salvation should not be held against that person after salvation. How can someone who is enslaved to sin he held liable for sinning? Divorce that occurs pre-conversion should not be held against a person once they have been redeemed.

Summary of Paul's Teachings

1. Divorce is restricted heavily by Paul. He affirms Jesus’ teaching which only permits divorce on the basis of adultery. To that exception, he adds another. If an unbeliever abandons a believer, the believer is not bound by the marriage and is free to remarry.

As always, if a divorce is granted on these biblical grounds, the right to remarry after is clearly affirmed.

2. Husbands, given authority in their homes, are never allowed to initiate divorce or separation. They are to mimic the unconditional love of God and seek to rebuild the marriage.

3. Wives, living under their husbands’ authority, are permitted to separate from unbelieving husbands who abused them or treat them cruelly. If the wife cannot live under her husband’s authority, she is allowed to separate from him. She is not released in this circumstance, from her marriage vows. She must either reconcile to her husband or live singly without remarriage. The husband is not given this option. Unless there is infidelity or abandonment, he must stay in the marriage and attempt to change it with God’s power.

4. Paul addressed new situations that arose in the life of the church that did not exist when Jesus was teaching. He applied the principles Jesus taught to this situation and came up with a new application. Marriage is a covenant between two people and both must participate to make the marriage work. Both the adultery and abandonment exceptions recognize that if one party leaves a marriage, the other cannot be bound to that marriage. When one partner breaks the marriage bond, the other is free from it as well.

We sometimes find ourselves counseling people whose life situations do not fit easily into the categories described above. Our job is to follow the principles here and apply God’s standards to every situation. There may be situations in which people disagree on the application of these principles. It would be a serious thing to remarry wrongly; the Bible calls it adultery. It would also be a serious sin to tell someone who has God’s blessings on their remarriage that they are sinning. Each person must be fully persuaded, after careful searching of God’s Word, prayer and Godly counsel, that what he or she does is in God’s will.

Summary of Biblical Teachings on Divorce

1. The Divine Ideal - From the beginning of time God’s standard has been a marriage between a man and woman that is lifelong and is a blessing to both. Moses held to that standard, though making several allowances because of the hardness of heart of sinful man. Jesus reasserted that standard clearly in his teachings, raising the bar considerably from the teachings of the law. Paul, while expanding on Jesus’ teachings, held to the same ideal standard.

The ideal of permanent marriage is still possible today, though the original ideal of perfect marriage is not. Permanent marriage can only be accomplished by a commitment to Christ and the principles of the Word.

2. The Human Reality - While God’s ideal remains a possibility, man’s sin has ruined many marriages, and is now gnawing at the very structure of the institution itself. Sin ruins marriages when it is not confessed; when there is no repentance. God, in His love and mercy has made allowances for the presence of human sin in marriage.

Divorce is not commanded by God today, but is permitted in certain circumstances when one partner has broken the marriage covenant.

3. The Grounds for Divorce - Divorce is granted in the New Testament on two specific grounds. Moses tightened the standards of his culture by requiring that men have some grounds for divorce and give their wives an official certificate. Jesus raised the bar when he declared that there is only one grounds for divorce. Paul added another exception; similar in nature to the one Jesus gave but based on a circumstance that did not exist among Jesus’ hearers.

First, Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of (a lifestyle of) sexual immorality. Unless the divorce took place on this ground, the divorce was not divinely approved and remarriage would be an act of immorality.

Then, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, established another exception – abandonment. He allowed divorce when an unbelieving spouse abandons the believer. In this case, the believer is not bound to the marriage covenant and is free to remarry a Christian.

4. The Grounds for Separation - Paul also adds the right for a believing wife to separate from an unbelieving husband if he makes living with him unbearable. She must either reconcile or live single, but she does not have to live under the abusive authority of a cruel man. This same right is not granted to a husband, who has the authority to demonstrate the love of God and lead his home in the right ways.

5. Divorce vs. Separation - There is a critical difference between divorce and separation. Divorce is the ending of the marriage bond, separation is its suspension. A divorce on biblical grounds ends a marriage contract just as death does. Separation does not. Therefore, a divorce brings the right to remarry, while separation does not. It is important to note that in the two biblical grounds for divorce, fornication and desertion, the offending party has essentially ended its participation in the marriage. The divorce is simply a recognition of what the spouse has already done. In the separation, the problem is compatibility. Paul recognizes that separation may be necessary for a time to restore the marriage, but the marriage is by no means over.

6. Forgiveness and Restoration – The Bible message is one of forgiveness and restoration, even to those who have sinned in terrible ways. Christians assume the role of the Pharisees and Sadducees when we make divorced persons feel unwelcome in our fellowship, or somehow imply to them that they are of a secondary status in the fellowship.

7. Biblical Standards – The Church must avoid the twin dangers described earlier. We must not lessen the biblical commands and forget that it is God’s desire that every marriage last a lifetime. Just as serious is the tendency of Christians to add to the Bible’s commands, making them harsher than God himself makes them. Once again, this was Satan’s tactic in the Garden of Eden, and this attitude, often thought heroically faithful and uncompromising, is still more pleasing to Satan than it is to God. We must neither compromise biblical principles nor enforce that which is not biblical.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jesus' Radical Teachings on Divorce

The Words of Jesus

If anyone doubts that Jesus’ teaching on divorce was shocking and new, look at the response of the men who listened to him give it. In Matthew 19:10, the disciples heard Jesus’ teaching and responded that if that is right, “it is better not to marry.” They had trouble conceiving of a marriage in which the husband did not have the right to send away a wife who no longer met his expectations.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce built upon, but was also a radical departure from the Deuteronomy passage. Prior to the law, divorce was based on the whims and desires of the husband, unrestrained by any stricture. The standard of divorce was subjective, based on the will of the man. Deuteronomy limited that capricious standard. The man was required to find “something indecent” in his wife – some moral flaw that justified the divorce. Divorce was still a matter of the husband’s will, as all he had to do was give his wife a writ and send her away, but now he was required to have some grounds for the action.

How was Jesus’ teaching different? He took divorce out of the whimsical subjective control of the man and gave an absolute standard. Christian men were only allowed to divorce a wife on the grounds of marital infidelity. Adultery broke the bonds of marriage and was the only exception Jesus gave to the standard of marriage.

There are four passages in which Jesus refers to divorce, and all carry the same basic prohibition against divorce and remarriage. This is Jesus’ first radical teaching – he reestablished the original intent of marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and woman. We will examine each passage, and then draw conclusions for our study.

Why the Differences?

The first question to address is why only Matthew records the divorce exception. In Matthew 5:31-32 (part of the Sermon on the Mount) Jesus lays down the standard that divorce is not permissible, except on the grounds of infidelity. Then, in Matthew 19:1-12 we see a lengthy exchange between Jesus and some Pharisees in which they discuss the Deuteronomy passage. Again, Jesus includes the adultery exception to the law of permanent marriage. Mark 10:1-12 is a separate account of what is clearly the same discussion. The two accounts are nearly identical, except that no divorce exception is granted, even on the grounds of adultery. Luke 16:18 repeats the teaching of Mark 10:11-12 but does not include the context of the discussions, simply including the teaching in a series of statements that confront the Pharisees. Our question is why there is an adultery exception only in Matthew.

We can dismiss some of the more common solutions, if we accept the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. We cannot accept that either Matthew nor Mark or Luke got the teaching of Jesus wrong. Any solution we have must take seriously the truth of each passage.

One solution has been to say that the adultery exception was a textual error. It was not part of the original text and was added later by a scribe to “clarify” the text. The problem is that the textual evidence is pretty clear that Matthew did, in fact, include it in the original manuscript. The textual evidence does not support a textually-based explanation.

The simplest explanation is probably the best one. Matthew and Mark both recorded accurately the teaching of Jesus, but neither was attempting to give a full transcript of the message. Jesus gave the adultery exception in his teachings. Matthew recorded it. Mark did not. Mark was not trying to correct Matthew’s teaching. Both texts are correct. Jesus said the words recorded in both. Matthew just records more what Jesus said.

The conclusion of all this is clear. Jesus did, in fact, include the adultery exception as a part of his teaching on divorce.

The Words of Jesus

We now turn our attention to the four passages in which Jesus teaches about divorce.

Passage 1: Matthew 5:31-32

This passage occurs in a series on how Jesus Christ has both fulfilled and surpassed the Law of Moses. He raised the standard on murder and adultery. The law prohibited murder; Jesus said hatred in the heart was just like murder, and just as sinful in God’s eyes. The law prohibited adultery; Jesus prohibited lust in the heart. He was raising a higher standard than the Mosaic Law had; a standard of the heart not just the outward behavior.

In the passages that follow, Jesus deals with Old Testament and traditional Jewish teachings on making oaths and on retaliation. He replaced the Lex Talionis (eye for eye) with the “turn the other cheek” and “go the second mile” standard. He then gave the teaching on loving your enemies. All of these are explicitly raising the bar on the teachings of the law.

That is precisely what Jesus has done in Matthew 5:31-32. He has taken the teaching of Deuteronomy 24 and substantially raised the bar. His ways are higher than the way Israel lived under the law.

He mentions the certificate of divorce; then promptly does away with it. A follower of Christ could no longer just give his wife a piece of paper. Unless the bond of marriage had been broken with infidelity, he must remain married to his wife. Jesus did not outlaw divorce, but he severely limited it.

Passage 2: Matthew 12:1-10

We will look in depth at the passage in Matthew, and then briefly mention Mark 10:1-12. They cover almost exactly the same ground and put forward the same teachings. We will not give special mention to Luke, since it only repeats the teachings of Matthew and Mark and gives no new perspective on the discussion. The most significant difference, as we have already established, it that Mark did not choose to include Jesus’ adultery exception as part of the teaching.

Jesus has left Galilee and gone down to the region of Judea, across the Jordan River. Large crowds followed him and he healed many. The Pharisees, always looking to undermine Jesus or trap him in some misspoken word, posed a question to him. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any reason?” They were, essentially, asking him if the Shammai or Hillel schools were correct in their teachings. Jesus responded much like the angel did when Joshua asked him whose side he was on. The angel said, “I’m not on either side, I’m in charge.” Jesus said that he was not on the side of either group, but was establishing a new teaching that would render the discussion pointless. Rather than argue over what “some indecency” means in Deuteronomy 24, he established a new and clear standard.

His first response was to take them back to Genesis 2:24 and reestablish the divine intent of marriage. Divorce was not normal to God’s plan. He intended a man and woman to join together and stay married as long as they both lived. God takes this man and woman and joins them together as one. They are not two separate people anymore but one. That is when Jesus lays down his fundamental, revolutionary, shocking teaching. “Do not divide what God has joined together.” God joins two people in marriage. We should not divide them. As a Christian I should not seek to or initiate the breaking of my marriage bond. It should be sacred to me. Again, this was a radical departure from anything that was being taught in any branch of Judaism.

The Pharisees responded by going back to Deuteronomy 24. They realized that Jesus was teaching something very different from what that passage taught. Look carefully at how they worded their question. “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” To them, this was a command of God, an expression of the way that things should be. Jesus corrected that very quickly. Moses gave that teaching “because of the hardness of your hearts.” Moses did not “command” divorce, but “permitted” it in special circumstances because of the effect of sin on human life.

He then makes a very clear point. “From the beginning it was not so.” Moses and the law may have permitted a man some freedom in seeking a divorce, but that was not the original intent of God when He created us male and female and ordained marriage on this earth. Divorce never pleases God, but is permitted in cases in which sin has destroyed a marriage covenant.

Then, Jesus lays out his radical new teaching. If you divorce and remarry except on the grounds of adultery, you become an adulterer yourself. Mark adds that if your wife remarries, she will become an adulterer as well.

It should be noted here that since Israel was no longer a sovereign nation, the Old Testament requirement of execution for adultery was no longer widely in place. The Jews could not execute without the permission of the Romans, though what is today called “honor killing” may well have taken place from time to time.

The disciples understood what Jesus was saying, but they did not like it. Jesus was saying that no matter how annoying, or undesirable, or bossy a wife becomes, marriage is ended only by death, except in the case of adultery. If a man married, it was a permanent decision and they did not much like that.

Jesus responds with a very strange discussion of being a eunuch. A eunuch, here, is one who chooses not to marry. Jesus seems to be laying the groundwork for the teaching on marriage that Paul later laid down in full. Marriage is blessed by God, but singleness has its advantages as well. Jesus also makes it clear that this teaching is meant to be understood and applied by “those for whom it is intended” – the people of God, those who have the Holy Spirit’s power to make marriage work.

As mentioned earlier, Mark’s discussion is nearly identical to Matthew’s, though he leaves out a few details, most notably the adultery exception. Luke uses the words of Jesus in Mark, but leaves out all the details.

What Constitutes “Adultery”?

If Jesus permitted divorce only on the grounds of adultery, what constitutes adultery? That is more difficult than it might seem at first. Is an “emotional affair” adultery? Is “making out” adultery? What about some of the practices that are so common today but do not involved sexual intercourse? Our nation was consumed in the later 1990’s about the question of whether the president had committed adultery with “that woman” or whether the things he did with her constituted sex. Did he cheat on his wife?

The word in Matthew 19:9 is “porneia” and is a general and very broad word used to describe all illicit sexual activity. Various attempts have been made to give this word a more specific meaning (some say it only refers to immorality during the formal betrothal period, or the discovery that the wife was too close a relative to continue the marriage). The fact is that porneia is used in both those ways, but there is no evidence here to limit the meaning to a particular branch of illicit sex. Porneia included premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, bestiality, incest and a host of sexual practices too deviant to mention. It is a broad word, not a specific word.

Porneia is used to describe a life of wanton immorality, prostitution and general moral impurity. The sense here seems to be a continual lifestyle of infidelity, which breaks the marriage bond and covenant. It is not that a single act of adultery is not a significant issue, but it may not reach the standard that is in view here. A Christian couple can rebuild a marriage after an affair, and should certainly try. Porneia would imply a lifestyle of immorality. If one partner in a marriage refuses to be bound by the marriage covenant and engages in a lifestyle of immorality, the marriage covenant is effectively broken.

Marital fidelity requires much more than just abstaining from intercourse with others. It involves a mind and heart of fidelity and commitment to the marriage. When someone engages in an emotional affair, it is certainly a violation of the marriage covenant, though it may fall short of the standard for divorce. The use of pornography is certainly a violation of the marriage covenant, but also probably does not justify divorce. But acts of sexual expression other than intercourse would clearly classify as adulterous and immoral under this word. A man is permitted to hold and kiss and touch only one woman, his wife, and she is bound by the same. Any form of sexual expression or fulfillment is forbidden with anyone except one’s spouse. The continual and unrepentant lifestyle of immorality is the only biblical justification for divorce that Jesus gives.

Even if Jesus permitted divorce, the Christian must realize that the greatest expression of divine nature is to forgive sinners and restore what sin breaks. If a spouse cheats, divorce may be permissible, but that does not make it always the best option. It is best to forgive and let God rebuild the marriage, if that is possible.


1. Jesus left no doubt that the original intent of God was marriage that lasted a lifetime. One man, one woman; joined together by God for as long as life lasts. Jesus left no doubt that while the Law permitted a man to divorce his wife with a certificate, that was what God permitted, but not what He intended.

2. Immorality is the only grounds upon which Jesus permitted divorce. Immorality implies a lifestyle of sexual immorality which effectively breaks the marriage covenant. The innocent party is not bound to a covenant which the other party refuses to honor.

3. If a divorce takes place on any grounds other than that of “porneia” it is not valid in the eyes of God. If the parties of that invalid divorce remarry, their marriage is adulterous, because God sees them as still married to the previous spouse.

4. Jesus made it clear that exceptions to divorce are permitted by God, but divorce is not something that brings pleasure to God. Since our goal is to bring pleasure to God, not just to do what God permits, it is incumbent on the Christian to do whatever he or she possible can to preserve a marriage, to forgive sin and sinners and to make marriage permanent. A Christian should only seek divorce, even in the event of immorality, as a last resort when every attempt at reconciliation has been rebuffed.
I have heard Christians say, “one time is all it would take. If he tries it I will throw the bum out.” That is an understandable human sentiment. But God is not pleased with “one strike and you’re out” ethics. Sin is sin and it is always serious. Even a brief moment of infidelity breaks trust and works to destroy a marriage. But redemption brings forgiveness and Christians work to rebuild what sin breaks, not to throw it away.

5. It is important to note that the teaching of Jesus limits the right of remarriage. If divorce is not on biblical grounds, remarriage is prohibited. On the other hand, if a divorce is granted on biblical grounds, the presumption is that remarriage is then permitted. A divorce on biblical grounds is the ending of marriage covenant and implies the right of the innocent party to remarry.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce is shocking and revolutionary. He held up the original intent of marriage clearly and uncompromisingly. He also made a single exception to his rule of permanent marriage, adultery. In that case, divorce was permissible in God’s eyes.

In the epistles, Paul builds on Jesus’ teaching and adds some new perspectives, revealed to him by God.