Divorce and Remarriage

Make Disciples Who Make Disciples

In conjunction with Grace Community Church, The Bible Church of Little Rock has a detailed statement regarding divorce and remarriage.  An abbreviated statement on divorce and remarriage is available at the Grace Church website.     For an expanded statement on divorce and remarriage, you may order directly from www.gbibooks.com or contact The Bible Church of Little Rock.    The Bible Church of Little Rock has added two appendicies to the Divorce and Remarriage document from Grace Community Church.  If you have any other questions regarding this matter, please contact The Bible Church of Little Rock.

The Issue of a Divorced Elder or Deacon

Whenever the subject of divorce and remarriage is discussed, the inevitable question of whether a divorced and/or remarried man can ever serve as an elder/deacon follows closely behind.  This discussion has led to much confusion as well as a great deal of heartache for many individuals and churches.  Multitudes of men who have desired the work and service of an elder/deacon have also encountered great opposition to that desire simply because of a previous divorce.  The opposition often comes from those who believe that regardless of any past circumstances, no one who has had a previous divorce is biblically qualified to serve as an elder/deacon.  Yet on the other side of the spectrum, many today are advocating that we abandon all efforts to examine the nature of anyone’s past marital status.  They say we should appoint men to the eldership/deaconship on present tense circumstances alone.  Their argument follows that because divorce is so rampant in our society, affirming non-divorced men is becoming an even greater challenge.  In addition, increasing numbers of pastors are becoming divorced and remaining in positions of elder/pastoral ministry! Alexander Strauch writes that this issue ‘was dramatically highlighted when a leading evangelical journal in America brought together five divorced pastors and asked them to share their feelings, experiences, and views on divorce and the ministry.  The journal’s staff published the forum because they believed the growing problem of divorce among ministers needed to be faced openly and honestly.’ Strauch went on to say that the article ‘claimed that a recent survey of divorce rates in the United States showed that pastors had the third highest divorce rate, exceeded only by that of medical doctors and policemen!’ (‘A Biblical Style of Leadership?’ Leadership 2, Fall, 1981, 119-129, cited in Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1995, 67).

The ultimate answer to this question of course, must come from the Word of God.  But what does Scripture teach on the subject? What insights do we have from God’s Word that could help us in this regard? Can a man who is divorced (or who is married to someone who has been divorced) ever serve at the highest levels of spiritual leadership? These crucial questions must be answered if we are to maintain the true biblical standards of spiritual leadership.

First of all, those who oppose any divorced man serving as an elder/deacon almost universally do so on the basis of the apostle Paul’s language in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12.  There Paul says that if a man is to serve as an elder, he must be the ‘husband of one wife’ (this English translation comes from the Greek phrase, mias gunaikos andra, which when literally translated means, a ‘one-woman man,’ or a ‘one-wife husband’).  There are generally four different ways this phrase has been understood:

  • elders must be married
  • elders must not be polygamists
  • elders must have married only once in their life
  • elders must be sexually pure and therefore totally committed to their wife (biblical monogamy)

The following will be an attempt to summarize the various views and a biblical response:

Those who take the view that an elder/deacon is to be qualified only if he is married mis-understand Paul’s intent in this passage.  If this were Paul’s meaning here, he would be obviously contradicting himself in what he wrote to the Corinthians (cf.  1 Corinthians 7:7-9, 32-35; see also Matt.  19:12).  There, he states that it would be better if believers were to remain single ‘even as I myself am’ (v.  7).  He reiterates this in v.  8 when he says, ‘But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.’ Paul was not only an apostle, but also a pastor (he served for three years as the pastor at Ephesus, for instance), so he certainly could not be commanding Timothy to examine potential elders/deacons on the basis of what he himself was not qualified to undertake.  Likewise, he also says to the Corinthians that as apostles, they had ‘the right’ to ‘take along’ (marry), a believing wife, ‘even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]’ (1 Corinthians 9:5).  Even though he did not personally choose the option of marriage (or that he had in fact been married before but at the time of his statement, he was speaking as a widow, as many would contend from 1 Cor.  7:40), Paul could have served as an elder/deacon and yet have remained single.  To put it another way, if one of an elder’s/deacon’s requisite qualifications is his marrying, then every single man would be automatically disqualified, including of course, Jesus Himself.  It is obvious that this view is not a serious consideration of what the phrase, ‘one-woman man’ really means.

The second possibility is that Paul intends to convey that no elder/deacon candidate is qualified if he has more than one wife at the same time (polygamy).  This was certainly a major issue in Paul’s day, but it is unlikely that this is what he had in mind.  The main reason is again the use of the specific phrase, ‘one-woman man.’ Paul could certainly have used a couple of different phrases to speak against polygamy if he had truly wanted to.  For instance, he simply could have said, ‘An overseer, then, must be above reproach, having no more than one wife,’ or ‘having no more than one wife at a time.’ This would have most assuredly dealt with any polygamy sins which were occurring at this time.  Another reason Paul must have meant something else is that the phrase, ‘one-woman man’ occurs three other times in the New Testament (1 Tim.  3:12, referring to the office of deacon; 1 Tim.  5:9; Titus 1:6, referring also to the office of elder), which by their usage, help us see that polygamy was probably not in view.  In the 1 Timothy 5:9 passage, the phrase is used to speak of a widow and whether or not she is to receive some financial assistance from the church.  Even though Paul uses the corresponding phrase, ‘one-man woman,’ or ‘one-husband wife,’ he is essentially speaking of the same kind of qualification and speaks to whether a female widow had demonstrated a faithfulness to her one husband (who is obviously now deceased).  We can conclude that because polyandry (a woman who would be having at least two husbands at the same time), was repugnant both to the Jews and Romans, Paul would have no real need to address this issue in the church.  Therefore, if Paul used the corresponding phrase to refer to these polygamist men in 1 Timothy 3, he would be very confusing to his readers, and certainly should have been far more specific.

A third group of interpreters view this ‘one-woman man’ phrase as meaning that a man could only marry once in his lifetime.  This view also will often reflect the belief that once divorced, a man could never remarry, with some even going so far as to say that a widower could not remarry! As in the first view however, this plainly contradicts other passages of Scripture.  1 Corinthians 7:39 distinctly says, ‘A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.’ Likewise, Romans 7:2 says, ‘The married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning her husband.’ Nowhere in God’s Word does it state that remarriage after the death of a spouse automatically renders a man no longer ‘above reproach.’ Indeed, Paul himself urges young widows (meaning those who were still in their prime childbearing years) to ‘get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach’ (1 Timothy 5:14).  Immorality being rampant in that pagan society, and with Christianity being so new, Paul was saying the best way to avoid a lasting reproach was to become married! Finally, Paul even warns Timothy a chapter earlier that some false teachers were actually forbidding marriage (1 Timothy 4:3), and these men should be exposed.  Surely, this no-marriage view in 1 Timothy 3:2 would need to be clarified since he condemns these false teachers only a chapter later! Lastly, it would also set up a very difficult double standard.  Those outside the spiritual leadership of the church could marry or remarry, while those within leadership could not.

The fourth view says that Paul is simply emphasizing in this phrase, ‘one-woman man,’ the concept of marital faithfulness to one’s present spouse.  This seems to be the most natural way to interpret the phrase.  Strauch concludes, ‘ .  .  .  the phrase ‘the husband of one wife’ is meant to be a positive statement that expresses faithful, monogamous marriage.  In English we would say, ‘faithful and true to one woman’ or ‘a one-woman man.’ .  .  .  Negatively, the phrase prohibits all deviation from faithful, monogamous marriage.  Thus, it would prohibit an elder/deacon from polygamy, concubinage, homosexuality, and/or any other questionable sexual relationship.  Positively, Scripture says the candidate for the eldership/deaconate should be a ‘one-woman man,’ meaning he has an exclusive relationship with one woman.  Such a man is above reproach in his sexual and marital life’ (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 192).  In other words, are you completely committed to the wife you now have? Is your love for her ever growing and do you serve and love her as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25).  It is possible that if our English Bible translators had simply translated the phrase literally, much confusion could have been avoided.  But since the phrase has been translated as ‘the husband of one wife,’ it has evoked much needless debate and anguish.

The only question which remains regards the general question of whether a divorced man should ever serve as an elder/deacon, even if he has proven to be a present and faithful husband to his wife.  This matter is covered in Paul’s first qualification of 1 Timothy 3:2, ‘An overseer, then, must be above reproach.’ Being above reproach means that there is nothing for which one can be accused or blamed, those things which could render a man as being able to be validly accused of sinful behavior.  He must not have a chargeable character; that is, he has an impeccable reputation.  He lives his life in such a way that no one, not even his critics, can accuse him of scandalizing the body of Christ in any way.  They can find no fault in his character.  This matter of being above reproach could even be questioned-for instance, in the case of a man who has himself married someone who has had a divorce in their past.  In this instance, he could potentially be unable to serve.

Another very important reminder is this: we must remember that the qualifications as listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are present tense qualifications.  The main evaluation of a man’s life must take place in the present, not in the past.  Does this automatically mean that a man’s past actions have utterly no bearing on his present life? No.  A man’s past could in fact, render him as reproached in some way.  What ways could this be true? A man could be disqualified if his past divorce has continuing implications.  For instance, a man who has had a divorce in his past (whether it is his pre-Christian past or his Christian past), might be rendered reproachable in the eyes of the congregation if the man’s former spouse is in the same community as his local church, or in the same local church itself.  In some cases, this may mean he is not qualified to serve as an elder/deacon there.  Another example is if his children from a previous marriage(s) are not believers or are a reproach to him in some way.  It could even be true that a man himself may be qualified to serve as an elder/deacon but be unable to serve because he has married someone who has had a divorce.  In other words, his spouse’s prior marriage and divorce could bring a reproach on him if the details of that situation have present ramifications, including the issue of where her former husband is presently living and if children have been born to that prior marriage relationship.

It is likely that any man who has had a divorce in his past, whether pre-Christian or post-Christian, will not be able to serve as an elder/deacon.  Usually, there are circumstances which render him as not above reproach.  This does not mean that he cannot serve the Lord in the local church in a non-elder/non-deacon capacity.  He can serve in a variety of ways by God’s providence.  It would seem to be an extremely rare occurrence for a man who has had a divorce, whether biblically allowed or not, to fulfill the role of elder/deacon in the local church.  This is never intended to make anyone think that he, because of the fact of his divorce, is a second-class Christian, and that his divorce is a stigma which follows him forever.  But it is nonetheless true that divorce itself is a stigma, and does in fact become a lasting and stigmatic reproach for many.  God’s grace can cover the sin but the consequences sometimes do have lasting effects.  It is true that there are many different scenarios which the elders of any local church must consider regarding the divorced: Was the potential elder/deacon divorced before his conversion? Was his divorce biblically allowable, even after his salvation, and if so, is there any possibility of reconciliation to his former spouse? What is the present character of a man, who has been converted to Christ, and has had an unbiblical divorce while a Christian, but who has repented and walked with Christ in blamelessness since then? The answer to these questions is invariably the same: It is very likely he, because of some marital reproach-even in the distant past-is therefore not above reproach.  He would not be able to serve the Lord in the local church as an elder/deacon.

Finally, regardless of the specifics of any one’s past marital situation, the general principle is this: does he enjoy the complete and full affirmation of the leaders and people of his own congregation and is he presently living out the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1? If a particular local church scrutinizes his life and ministry and sees nothing in his present character or past conduct that brings a reproach, he may, in God’s good providence, serve as an elder/deacon in that place.  Some have suggested that since it is so unlikely that a man with a divorce in his past could serve as an elder/deacon, there should be an automatic rejection of such men for these offices.  While acknowledging that it is rare for a divorced man to serve as an elder/deacon, we must, however, be continually reminded of Paul’s very clear warning in 1 Corinthians 4:6-‘Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.’ To automatically disqualify any man with a divorce is to ‘exceed that which is written.’ This position is not an attempt to lower the standard for the office, but rather an appeal to be as biblically precise as possible.

Elders who represent any local church should take seriously their role in examining any prospective elder/deacon, especially one who has some marital issues in his past.  The elders have a tremendous responsibility to look into all of the possible implications of this man’s past, being sure they have conducted a thorough and exhaustive examination of every salient detail.  Strauch again gives wise words on this matter:

‘What does 1 Timothy say about sexual and marital sins committed before a person’s conversion to Christ? What about people who have legally divorced and remarried (assuming the local church allows for such)? What about the forgiveness and restoration of a fallen spiritual leader? These and many other painful and controversial questions are not answered directly here.  They must be answered from the whole of Scripture’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, forgiveness, grace, and restoration, as well as its teaching on leadership example and the full spectrum of elder qualifications.

‘All deviations from God’s standard of marital behavior confuse and perplex us.  Sin always confuses, distorts, and divides, so there will always be diverse opinions on questions such as these.  This in no way, however, diminishes the local church’s obligation to face these issues and make wise, scripturally sound decisions.  In all these heartbreaking situations, the honor of Jesus’ name, faithfulness to His Word, and prayer are the supreme guides’ (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 192-93).

Common Questions Regarding Divorce & Remarriage

Some of the most common questions facing Christians in the local church deal with issues of divorce and remarriage.  The following are questions which routinely come up and which must be answered by the elders of any local church with great wisdom and skill.  The answers given are biblical guidelines which can assist in the process of helping believers.

  1. What is the time frame for a divorced person to remarry, especially if that person’s former spouse has not remarried?

The answer is a critical one in that there are many people who are in the category of the divorced, regardless of how that divorce occurred.  The first place to go in Scripture in answering this question is where the apostle Paul says: ‘To the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).’ Although this passage is speaking to the fact of a divorce, not the time frame, it does give us a most important word on remarriage.  Remember what was said earlier:

Remarriage is permitted for the faithful partner when the divorce was on biblical grounds.  So those Christians who divorce because of unrepentant sexual sin are allowed by God to marry another believer (Matthew 5:32, 19:9), as are those who have been forsaken by an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:15).  Those who divorce on any other grounds have sinned against God and their partners, and for them to marry another is an act of ‘adultery’ (Mark 10:11-12).  This is why Paul says that a believing woman who sinfully divorces should ‘remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband’ (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).  If she repents from her sin of unbiblical divorce, the true fruits of that repentance would be to seek reconciliation with her former husband (Matthew 5:23-24).  The same is true for a man who divorces unbiblically (1 Corinthians 7:11).  The only time such a person could remarry another is if the former spouse remarries, proves to be an unbeliever, or dies, in which cases reconciliation would no longer be possible.

The Bible also gives a word of caution to anyone who is considering marriage to a divorcee.  If the divorce was not on biblical grounds and there is still a responsibility to reconcile, the person who marries the divorcee is considered an adulterer (Mark 10:11-12).

The key to answering this question in any particular case is to ascertain if the divorced person has had a biblically allowable divorce.  If they do, then they are free at any time to remarry, but only ‘in the Lord’ (see 1 Corinthians 7:39).  This is the only person who is free to remarry.  If someone has unbiblically divorced their spouse, they may not remarry, but rather should seek to be reconciled to their former spouse.  If on the other hand, an innocent spouse has had a divorce initiated against them, they must seek the wisdom of the elders in determining their present and future marital status.  Some elders/leaders could determine, upon the evaluation of an individual’s situation, that the innocent party is free to remarry.  The all-important factor is the elders’ examination of each case and their biblical wisdom on the matter.

2.  May a Christian who is divorced remarry if he was divorced as a non-Christian?

Yes.  Paul explicitly says in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28: ‘Are you bound [married] to a wife? Do not seek to be released [divorced].  Are you released [previously been divorced] from a wife? Do not seek [to be married to] a wife.  But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin [one who has never before been married] marries, she has not sinned.  Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.’ These two verses, however, only apply to those who were divorced before becoming a Christian.  Paul had told the Corinthians earlier that ‘each man must remain in that condition in which he was called [to salvation]’ (1 Corinthians 7:20).  But he follows that up immediately with the statement that even though they have become Christians while in the state of divorce, they should stay that way.  But if they nonetheless choose to remarry, he is not suggesting they are in sin.  They should however, marry only a believer.

3.  What is the time frame for the innocent party in the marriage relationship to wait and see if their spouse is going to repent of their sexual sin before divorcing?

There can be no standard answer to this question.  The ultimate perspective is, of course, what Hosea did with his adulterous wife, Gomer.  He remained with her, choosing to express his covenant love, even though she was a perpetual adulterer.  God brought her to the place of repentance and Hosea was honored for his commitment.  Having said that, many who have an unrepentant, sexually sinful marriage partner choose not to remain in the relationship.  And if they choose not to remain in the marriage, God will allow them to divorce their spouse.  What the innocent spouse must do is appeal to the leadership of their church for the elders’ biblical wisdom on both the nature of the unrepentant spouse’s relationship to Christ, as well as the pattern of the sin and any church discipline which would be involved to take its course.  If the sinful spouse is not a professing believer, the innocent spouse should choose to show Christ’s love for sinners, but should they choose instead to divorce, it should be carried out with the full knowledge and allowance of their spiritual overseers.

4.  What is the status of those Christians who have unbiblically divorced their spouse and married another? Are they living in perpetual adultery with their new spouse? What about the concept of forgiveness? Isn’t that person forgiven if they seek it, even if they have unbiblically remarried?

Any true Christian can be forgiven of all their sins, even the sin of an unbiblical divorce.  The real issue of course, is not forgiveness, but what will be the sure consequences of such sin.  Mark 10:12 does say that if a person divorces unbiblically, they commit adultery, and cause the person they marry to commit adultery.  If a person lives a pattern of sinful behavior, including committing the sin of adultery, it is right to question whether that person has any saving relationship to Christ.  If they do, in fact, know Christ, they will be forgiven but will experience severe chastisement from the Lord.  They will, if they are genuinely converted to Jesus Christ, repudiate their previous sin, seek to confess and forsake it, and begin to live in a way that is pleasing to Christ.  Often however, the only salvation evidence a person has exhibited is simply verbal.  The apostle Paul warned Titus about those who had a mere verbal profession: ‘They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed’ (Titus 1:16).  It could very well be that those who live in adultery were never washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

5.  What if someone has had multiple marriages and divorces? Can they ever hope to know what their marital status is and what the Lord would have them do to be pleasing to Him?

In one sense, those who have had multiple marriages and divorces are no different than those who have committed many other types of sins.  They must confess all known sin and seek at the moment of their salvation to walk in a manner that is worthy of the Lord.  The consequences of marital infidelity though, are often enormous (especially if children are involved).  One may need to financially support several sets of families, or work toward mending all kinds of broken relationships, including blended family concerns.

To answer the question specifically, it is sometimes impossible to ‘unscramble the egg,’ given all of the intertwined relationships.  The general answer from scripture is this: Paul admonishes us to stay in the state we were in when we were called to salvation (see 1 Corinthians 7:20, 24).  In that chapter, Paul teaches that one is to stay in the state they were in when Christ called them to Himself.  So whether you are single, having never married (Paul calls this state a ‘virgin’-vv.  25-27), married, divorced (Paul calls these the ‘unmarried’-vv.  8-9), or widowed, stay in that state.  In other words, whether you are presently married or unmarried, endeavor to serve God in that state with all your heart.  If you are in the state of singleness-however it has occurred, heed Paul’s own lifestyle of singleness for the opportunity of optimally glorifying God.  This way you will be able to serve Christ in an unhindered fashion (cf.  1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 28-35).    Some may assume, given the above paragraph, that having been previously divorced, they are forbidden to remarry.  This, however, does not appear to be the case.  Paul tells the previously married and widows, ‘It is good for them if they remain, even as I.  But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion’ (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).  He goes on to say, ‘Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released.  Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife.  But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned.  Yet, such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you’ ( 1 Corinthians 7:27-28).  Paul himself says that it is better if they remain single; however, he acknowledges this is not a command, but a concession (see vv.  6, 28, 32-35, 39-40).  If they should choose to marry, they must marry ‘only in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 7:39).    Given the fact that Paul allows for remarriage, one must not assume that they can confess Christ and divorce their believing spouse in order to remarry another.  Paul gives a strong prohibition to those who are in Christ and who are presently married: they must not divorce.  ‘But to the married, I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave [divorce] her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife’ (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).  If you should unbiblically divorce in this manner, you have the responsibility to remain unmarried and seek reconciliation to your spouse.  The only exception to this, of course, is what has been previously mentioned (cf.  pages 4-5).  That divorce is allowable only when your spouse is choosing to live in unrepentant adultery.  Remember what was written earlier: ‘Remarriage is permitted for the faithful partner when the divorce was on biblical grounds.  So those Christians who divorce because of unrepentant sexual sin are allowed by God to marry another believer (Matthew 5:32, 19:9).’ If you are unsure about the biblical position of your particular situation, you should seek the counsel of your church leadership before you embark on another relationship.

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