The Divorced Deacon Dilemma
A safe course here would be to spend all our energies pursuing the multi-faceted question “Can a divorced person be a deacon?” and at the end, choose the safest and most reasonable exit without coming down on a firm position. But where’s the fun in that?“Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” (1 Timothy 3:11)
There it is. One simple sentence that has divided and perplexed and frustrated the Lord’s faithful people for eons.
Let’s state our position up front so there can be no doubt. As a general rule, divorce disqualifies a man from service as either a pastor or deacon. However, there are exceptions.
And by “exceptions,” I most definitely do not mean we must convene an investigating committee to search out the reasons for the man’s divorce and establish a) that he was sinned against or b) that he was unsaved at the time and has since come to the Lord. This kind of scrutiny over a person’s ancient history is outside the capability of any preacher on the planet. All we have to do is look at the Roman Catholic Church’s annulment processes to see a) how complex this can get and b) how hypocritical it all appears to the outside world. We will grant that their intent is good, but the product is a disaster.
The exception–that is, the divorced men who can be considered as deacons–applies when the divorce occurred decades ago and the man has lived an exemplary and godly life since.
This is an emotional, volatile subject.
Yesterday, I posted this question on Facebook: “Can a divorced person be a deacon?” An hour later, we had over 40 responses. This morning, the number is approaching 150. And as one might expect, the answers were all over the map.
Few people are without an opinion on this subject.
Anyone who wishes to see just how explosive a subject this is should stand in a church business conference and make a motion that the church change its stance on divorce.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. If your church ordains divorced people, move that it reconsider. If your church opposes ordaining the divorced, move that it consider changing and begin ordaining them. Then, stand back and watch the fur fly.
One has to wonder why people feel more passionate about this subject than issues of greater weight such as abortion or integrity or morality or world missions or the displaced people of Sudan or the starving children of Central Africa.
For our purposes here, suffice it to say, “They do.” (Pastors, be forewarned!)
What about the “husband of one wife” passage?The Greek text of 1 Timothy 3:12 is not a lot of help. It reads “one woman man” or can be interpreted “one wife husband.”
Is this a prohibition against polygamy? For a long time, I thought so. Then, reading everything I could find on the subject, I kept running into scholars who said, “Polygamy was never a problem in the early church.” They ruled that out, and I did too, although reluctantly.
Is the problem divorce? Evidently so.
As long as there have been humans and humans have been sinners, divorce has been with us. Our Lord said the Old Testament provision for it (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) was a concession to the hardness of people’s hearts (Matthew 19:8).
The prophet said God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). True, but we ask, who doesn’t? I don’t know anyone who loves divorce. Most divorced people hate it. So to allow a divorced person to teach a Bible class or serve as a deacon (or even a pastor!) is not saying we love or approve of divorce or that we take it lightly.
The “husband of one wife” phrase requires interpretation, no matter what position we take.
Why? Because if taken literally as it stands, it would bar single men and widowers from serving as deacons. I don’t know anyone who wants to do that. The phrase requires some context and “giving the sense” of its meaning (a reference to Nehemiah 8:8).
Does “common sense” bring anything worthwhile to the subject?While some Christians reject divorced individuals as deacons because of this text, they have no trouble accepting people with all manners of sordid pasts so long as they have repented and been forgiven and proven themselves faithful.
A friend says a divorced man in his church told him, “I should have just shot my first wife. Then, I could have found a good lawyer and served maybe 5 years for manslaughter. After returning home, I would have walked the aisle of my church and rededicated my life to the Lord, and bingo–in time, I’m a deacon. All I did was to divorce her. Consequently, I’m permanently barred.”
Where is the logic in that?
A pastor’s wife sent me this note.
I’d like to play the devil’s advocate for a moment.
If a man killed his wife and served his time, then got his life right with Christ, could he be elected a deacon?
If a man was addicted to pornography and induced his wife to role-play with him, then he repented and he and his wife came to the Lord, can he be a deacon?
If a man had an affair with another woman, then repented and gave evidence he was genuinely changed, could he be a deacon?
Or say he lived as a homosexual and then God changed him. Can he be a deacon?
But a man who was married and then divorced, who received counsel and asked for forgiveness for anything he’d done wrong, he cannot ever become a deacon?
What’s wrong with this picture?
What does Christian maturity and faithfulness say?A pastor friend sent me a note. He said, “I used to have a man in my church who was mature and godly. He came to me privately on one occasion and said, ‘Pastor, if I should ever be nominated for deacon, quietly remove my name.’ He had been divorced early in life and was remarried. He said, ‘I’d rather be in submission to the Word than to hold any position in the church.’”
I said to my friend, “That fellow has just qualified as a deacon in any church I pastor!” Such a godly, submissive attitude commends him as few other things could.
By the same token, the person who grows angry over being unfairly treated on this issue is probably demonstrating he is not qualified in other areas (spiritual maturity being the big one).
When other pastors and I have sat around the table working on this subject, eventually someone will say, “Even though it does seem we discriminate against the divorced person more than others, the point is to uphold the sacredness of marriage. I think the person ought to ‘take it on the chin’ in the interest of the Kingdom.”
After all, someone will add, there is nothing in any church’s bylaws to prohibit a member from serving God’s people in Jesus’ name. And that’s all deacons are–servants. And you don’t have to be ordained to serve.
One of my friends said, “When in doubt, I try to err on the side of conservatism.” Another responded, “When I’m in doubt, I want to err on the side of grace.”
Grace. That’s what we are about, isn’t it?
What should your church do?I’ll tell you what it should not do. It should not change its present policy hastily without a great deal of prayer and study and deliberation.
The tendency is for a church to do whatever its pastor says, particularly if he is strong-willed and takes no prisoners when presenting his position on controversial issues. This is not a good approach, as it leaves the church vulnerable to the next strong-armed leader who shows up with a contrary agenda.
The church should not throw out all prohibitions against divorced men (or women) serving as deacons simply because such a position is politically unpopular and attracts the criticism of the world. Fear is no reason to do anything in the Lord’s church.
The pastor who feels his church has the wrong position on this issue–regardless of which side he takes–will want to proceed with caution. This is not worth dividing a congregation over. As my pastor says, “I am not willing to die on that hill.”
The first step should be lots and lots of prayer, seeking the Lord’s will and leadership in how to proceed as well as asking for more light on the issue itself. (One Facebooker said rather harshly that we should quit asking one another what we think and everyone get off the computer and on our knees. I don’t doubt the Lord could deliver His will to us on this and any other matter by dropping it out of the sky fully developed and hand-written, but that’s not been my experience. The Lord wants us to prayerfully discuss such issues and to do so in the spirit of love.)
After a season of prayer, as the Lord leads, the pastor may want to teach 1 Timothy, verse by verse. Or he may choose to present a series of sermons or studies on church leadership, any of which would get him to Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3.
Prayer, teaching, and then discussion. Lots of openhearted talk in the spirit of love.
Finally, wait on the Lord. And do nothing until He has made His will clear to the great host of the church’s most faithful.
Praying, teaching, talking, and waiting. Following these four steps could resolve most of the church’s mistakes, heal its ills, and answer its questions.
The church has long been plagued and hampered by leaders who stood up in the flesh, preaching and promoting positions rooted in their own convictions and based on their dubious interpretations of Scripture, insisting on getting their way, and dismissing all dissenters. We’ve had quite enough of that and don’t need any more.
Let us go forth in love and faithfulness, encouraging one another, and shying away from anyone or anything that would divide the Lord’s body over minor matters.