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The Mailbag: Can a divorced man be a pastor?

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Is it OK for pastors to be divorced?

Not just any man is qualified to be a pastor. The Bible sets forth a specific list of requirements for pastors and elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. One of these requirements is that he must be “the husband of one wife.” Unfortunately, this phrase has sometimes been misunderstood to mean that pastors and elders must be married (which would exclude never married, divorced, and widowed men) or that pastors and elders must never have been divorced for any reason.

I pretty much agree with John MacArthur’s position in this article, which helpfully explains that the phrase “husband of one wife” actually means “a one-woman man,” not “never divorced,” or “wife required.” Unlike MacArthur, I might not say it’s “extremely rare” that it would be OK for a pastor to have a divorce in his past, maybe just “rare.”

I really think we need to look at it on a case by case basis, especially if the man was divorced for one of the two biblical exceptions: the wife’s infidelity (Matthew 5:32) or an unbelieving wife divorcing him (1 Corinthians 7:15). Although I respect an autonomous church’s right to set whatever policies it deems appropriate (as long as those policies don’t violate Scripture), I, personally, don’t think it’s right to deny a man the office due to his wife’s sin that he had no control over and may have done everything in his power to prevent.

I also think we need to look at how long ago the divorce took place and whether it happened before or after the man was saved. What about a man who was divorced 30 years ago due to one of the bibilical exceptions, but has been a godly husband to his second wife for the past 25 years? What about a man who was divorced 30 years ago, subsequently got saved, tried to reunite with his ex-wife but was rejected, married a godly woman, and has been a godly husband to her for the past 25 years? There are prohibitions against being a drunkard in the biblical qualifications, too. Would we deny a man the office, if, prior to salvation, he was a drunkard, but got saved and has been sober for 25 years? These are issues churches should work through prayerfully when considering a candidate.

A man already in the office of pastor/elder who goes through a divorce should step down for a significant period of time. If the divorce was for unbiblical reasons, he has probably disqualified himself. But even if it was for biblical reasons, he needs time to heal and to focus on helping his children. For the same reasons, I don’t think a man who has been recently divorced should be considered for the office.


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5 thoughts on “The Mailbag: Can a divorced man be a pastor?”

  1. I am divorced. I’m also a Youth Pastor. I was a Children’s Pastor while my marriage was falling apart. One of the reasons I put up with an unrepentant gambling addict (who was making my physical and mental illnesses almost unbearable) was the fear that a divorce would mean I’d no longer be able to work in ministry. I did take a break from vocational ministry for 18 months to heal physically and emotionally, but I’m back and am so much more effective as a minister as a single woman than a wife stuck in abuse. I have accepted there may be churches who would reject my leadership, but I trust God will continue to place me where he wants me.

    Thank you for this encouraging article 🙂

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    1. Hi Alexandra-

      Divorce is such a painful thing to experience, isn’t it? I am so sorry for your hurt, and I hope you are healing and doing better as time goes by.

      I’m glad you were encouraged by the article and that you have a desire to serve the church. We definitely need more godly women who want to serve. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t clarify something. As you may have noticed, the title says, “Can a divorced man be a pastor?” There’s a reason for that. Scripture is very clear that only men are to serve as pastors and elders in the church. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with women teaching children and helping with or supervising the youth, and if that’s what your job consists of, then maybe only a more accurate job title is in order. But if you’re serving on staff as a “pastor,” whether it’s a head pastor or associate pastor, and you’re acting in a capacity of pastoral authority, especially over other men in the church, that’s unbiblical, and I would urge you to repent and step down.

      I know that can be really difficult to hear because I was once in a similar position, but anyone who leads people in ministry must first be obedient to Scripture him/herself. We can’t very well teach others to obey Scripture when we are standing in front of them disobeying it ourselves.

      In case you might be interested, I’ve written a series called Rock Your Role that explores and explains the Scriptures outlining the biblical role of women in the church.

      I hope this helps and that God will continue to grow you as you study His word :0)

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  2. I have a problem with this paragraph:
    “I really think we need to look at it on a case by case basis, especially if the man was divorced for one of the two biblical exceptions: the wife’s infidelity (Matthew 5:32) or an unbelieving wife divorcing him (1 Corinthians 7:15). Although I respect an autonomous church’s right to set whatever policies it deems appropriate (as long as those policies don’t violate Scripture), I, personally, don’t think it’s right to deny a man the office due to his wife’s sin that he had no control over and may have done everything in his power to prevent.”

    So why make it sound like this scriptural exception is about the “wife’s infidelity”. What if it is the man(yes the pastor) who brought the infidelity into the situation and it ended in divorce? The biblical exception is not the “wife’s infidelity”, it is anyone’s infidelity. And if it is the case that it is the man’s action that caused the divorce, he absolutely should be denied office, along with the right to marry again, except to the same spouse they broke covenant with.

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    1. I think you’re missing the point I’m making in this paragraph, because that’s exactly what I’m saying here. The point you bring up is precisely why these things need to be looked at on a case by case basis instead of making a blanket statement that every divorced man is disqualified from ministry, period. Was the divorce his fault because he committed adultery? Yes? Then he’s disqualified. (That’s a given,and also a separate issue from divorce itself, which is what the article is about, and which is why I didn’t bring it up.) But what if it’s a godly man whose wife turns out to be a false convert and she’s the adulteress when he’s done everything possible to be a godly husband? Is it fair to disqualify him from ministry permanently due to her sin? I don’t think so.

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