Ask Steve: Divorced Man on Elder Board

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Question: Steve, would you allow a divorced man to serve on the elder board? Why? 

Answer: This issue is a topic of debate in many churches. The decision rendered by church leaders on this issue really depends on their understanding of marriage and divorce. Some Christians believe that it is improper to allow a divorced man to serve on the elder board because his status is a by-product of a sinful choice. This line of reasoning comes from those who believe that Christians are never to divorce under any circumstance, and if they do, they commit a type of sin which bars them from ministry involvement. Other Christians believe that a divorced man can by all means serve on an elder board, because all sins are past and forgiven in Christ Jesus if the man repented. Still others believe that a divorced man can serve on an elder board only under specific circumstances.

I lean on the third option because I believe it is the most biblically accurate. Before explaining my answer, I think it is wise to first talk about the topic of marriage and divorce. Most Christians acknowledge that marriage is a serious commitment before the Lord because it represents the eternal, unbreakable covenant between Christ the Groom and His Bride the Church (Rev 19:9). This gospel truth shows us why marriage is meant to be permanent as long as the husband and wife are alive on earth. God hates divorce (Mal 2:16). However, there are circumstances in which God allows divorce as a last resort for unrepentant sin from one or both of the parties in the covenant (Matt 19:8; Mk 10:5). God does not encourage but permits divorce in cases of unrepentant adultery (Matt 19:9) or if the unbelieving spouse deserts the partner (1 Cor 7:15). These are the only two scenarios in which a Christian is not at fault if a divorce happens. Any other case, no matter how troubling or “irreconcilable” the differences are, would constitute a violation of the marriage covenant and would count as a gross sin to the Christian. A third possible scenario would be if the Christian unjustly divorced his wife when he was an unbeliever, but becomes a believer, and makes some sort of attempt to reconcile with his wife, no matter the result.

If a Christian minister is to serve on the elder board, he must not be guilty of an unrighteous divorce. This applies to pastors as well. This means that the Christian must not be divorced because of incompatibility with his spouse, a newfound desire to be single, or because of a romantic interest in another woman. Whatever the case, Christians cannot serve on the elder board in this status, especially given the instruction in 1 Timothy 3:1-5 that an overseer must be the husband of one wife (martially/sexually faithful) and a good manager of his own household (a competent leader in his family). A man who is unjustly divorced would violate the principles expressed in 1 Timothy 3 concerning a qualified elder. In certain cases, a Christian who has divorced unjustly, and has failed to repent or do what he can to save the marriage, might possibly come under church discipline (Matt 18:15-20) if his situation brings public reproach to the church and endangers the spiritual welfare of the divorced man. In this case, a man who is unjustly divorced, or even unjustly divorced and remarried, is not suited to serve on the elder board.

There are cases in which a pastor/elder can join an elder board in good standing and in good conscience. If the Christian experienced the divorce through no moral fault of his own (ex. the wife failed to repent of her adulterous actions, the wife deserted him because of his faith), then the Lord does not hold his new status against him. Although divorce is a tragic occurrence, the Christian man is blameless in this situation. If this is true, then the man has every right to candidate for eldership, given that he adequately meets the other standards outlined in 1 Timothy 3:1-8. This means that even a pastor – whether he senior or associate – who is divorced (under biblical grounds) can pursue eldership.

I must say that great caution should be undertaken when considering a divorced man for inclusion in the eldership committee, since it must be the aim of every church to honor God by preserving the purity of the church leadership. This means that the elders should get to know the divorced candidate and examine his testimony concerning his past divorce. If it can be ascertained that the divorced candidate experienced the divorce on biblical grounds, and that he meets the general biblical requirements of overseer, then the church can pursue further progress in the candidacy. The only real step left would be to see if the candidate agrees with and can live by the doctrine and philosophy of the local church.

I vouch for this view of a divorced man in eldership because it is the most biblically consistent view. Like I mentioned, divorce is never a good situation, because it can disqualify or hinder an elder from being a shepherd in the church. However, the biblical reasons for divorce ensure that a Christian man should not be held accountable if the divorce was not really his fault, or happened beyond his reasonable control. In this case, a divorced man has divine approval to enter into leadership to do God’s work.low a divorced man to serve on your elder board? Why?