I have a good friend who is half way through seminary with plans to become a chaplain but just learned that his denomination will not ordain him due to a divorce. He asked me for my opinion whether or not a divorce should prohibit a man from pursuing pastorship and wondered if Paul meant something else. I am assuming that my friend was referring to 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 where he says that leaders in the church should be the husband of one wife.
Let’s look at a couple of non-answers first. If we were to be overly legalistic, we could argue that if my friend remains unmarried after his divorce, he could claim that he still has only one wife. But I don’t think any of us wants to go down that road. Also, for the sake of being thorough, it is appropriate to research polygamy in Ephesus and Crete where Timothy and Titus were working respectively. We want to be certain that Paul’s instructions were not geared toward the specific cultures. I wasn’t able to find anything to indicate that polygamy was prevalent in either culture and I think Paul’s nearly identical phrasing (possibly really truly identical – I haven’t looked at the original Greek) makes it very likely that this was intended as general guidelines to apply to all churches, and not a cultural warning.
The History of Paul
So now that we’ve run down a couple of rabbit trails, I want to quickly state what we know of the man making the statement. Before Paul’s conversion on his way to Damascus, he oversaw the torture and murder of Christians, but his blinding salvation experience transformed him so completely, changed his perspective, and imparted such knowledge that he didn’t even stop to check his facts with the other disciples before setting out on his first mission trip. As Saul he was absolutely an antichrist but as Paul he was a hero for Christ. It’s easy to argue that Paul’s sins were prior to his conversion, so they did not apply to him after conversion. He is, after all, a new creation in Christ. In that case, we would draw the conclusion that divorcees can become church leaders if the divorce happened prior to salvation. But when Paul says that he is the chief of all sinners, it is certainly post conversion yet he uses present tense. I’ve always assumed he was talking about his past persecution of the church, and he clearly is still applying that to himself now. It is only God’s grace that permits him to overcome his past sins and continue with the mission that God gave him.
Now let’s look at one of the verses in context. As I read through, it occurs to me that the focus is on the character of the man who will be appointed to lead the church. The reason for this is apparently two fold. Primarily, there is an assumption that a man will lead his church in much the same manner as he will lead his family. If he, through poor judgment, sin, or neglect allowed his marriage to dissolve to a point that it was unfix-able, perhaps his qualifications should be examined a bit more closely to determine if the same issues could affect his church leadership. Even if the divorce is the result of the wife’s infidelity, abuse, or abandonment, which is usually considered legitimate grounds for divorce, the man as the appointed leader of the family is not entirely the victim – meaning he should bear at least a portion of the blame. The other reason for Paul’s focus on the character and background of the men who will lead God’s church is because people will be watching these church leaders, and will unfortunately judge the church by the personal lives of it’s leadership. Churches must very carefully protect their public image because a poor image could hinder new members who aren’t yet ready to acknowledge that pastors are as fallible as the rest of us.
So let’s wrap up and try to bring everything into focus. Churches must take the responsibility of whom they allow to become ordained ministers very seriously, and a divorce in the history of a man applying for ordination should certainly warrant careful scrutiny. But I believe that a blanket statement that no man who has been divorced can ever be a pastor is irresponsible and probably unbiblical. Divorce is a complex issue and no two situations are the same. If a man acknowledges the mistakes he has made in the past (and this really applies to nearly any major failing in his past, not only divorce), is transparent about what he could have done differently and can clearly explain what steps he has taken to keep from making the same mistakes, I don’t see any reason he should be prevented from holding a position of leadership within a church. However, a man who continues to pile all responsibility onto his ex wife or even to focus on the aspects over which he had no control thereby avoiding blame that should rightly fall on him is probably not yet ready to lead others spiritually.
But ultimately, it comes down to this: It’s God’s church. If God calls a man to a position of leadership, He knows far more than all of the rest us put together, and our opinions don’t really count for much when compared to His calling. So if you feel you have been called to be a pastor or chaplain but encounter resistance from denominational leadership (typically their resistance is well meaning and with the intention of serving and preserving God’s kingdom, so it should not be dismissed out of hand), pray. Pray a lot. Make sure that this call you have received really is from God and not from a desire within your own heart, or some other source. Then pray some more – there’s no such thing as too much prayer. If God does not confirm your call, find another way to serve. You can certainly instruct, mentor, and even lead without ordination. If you live according to God’s laws, men will look to you for leadership and advice regardless of your official position. But if that calling you feel does hold up to your fervent prayers, do it. After all, our job is to do what God tells us. Let Him take care of the rest.