Can pastors be divorced? That is a question that can be taken a couple of ways and which therefore has at least two answers.
The first answer is, Yes, pastors can be divorced. In fact, we frequently hear of pastors getting divorced today, either because of their own sexual sin or the breakdown of their marriage. Pastors can be divorced because Satan directs spiritual warfare especially at leaders in the church. Pastors can be divorced because of the difficulty and strain of pastoral ministry, because of poorly-allocated time and attention, because of unbalanced ambitions for themselves or for the Lord, and because of the burdens loaded onto the backs of their wives.
Another way to put the question is to ask, Should a divorced man be permitted to serve as a pastor? The first thing to say is that the details of any particular situation are always pertinent. If we proceed immediately to a blanket answer we are going to end up both mishandling Scripture and mistreating people.
The Bible provides grounds for divorce: adultery (Mt. 19:9) and abandonment (1 Cor. 7:15). This does not settle the question about pastors and divorce, but it does tell us to acknowledge that a pastor, like anyone else, can be the innocent victim of a spouse’s covenant-breaking sin. Moreover, the biblical standards for the office of elder – which includes pastors – contain guidance about marriage. 1 Timothy 3:2-7 says “an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.” (Titus 1:6 cites this qualification identically.) Does this mean that such a man must never have been divorced? What if he was divorced before he was converted to faith in Christ? In my judgment, that would not disqualify a man from the ministry anymore than Paul’s persecution of the church disqualified him. What if he was divorced twenty years ago, and has since been faithfully married for many years? It is noteworthy that the Bible does not say that an elder can never have been divorced, but that he must presently be faithful to one wife. I do not believe, therefore, that a long-past divorce necessarily bars a faithful man from serving. So what if the divorce was ten or five or two years ago? What then?
Returning to the biblical qualifications, we see two main issues. The first is that the man must be “above reproach.” This means that the circumstances of the divorce matter. If the man committed adultery and abandoned his wife and children, then no amount of time will make him above reproach in the ministry, unless he is able to redress the effects of his sin. But if the man was the innocent party or if a long-ago divorce does not linger in scandal, and if the man has gained the respect of Christians and non-believers by his subsequent conduct in marriage, then I do not see why his divorce renders him less than “above reproach.”
The second point is that the man’s governance of his home is to demonstrate his ability to govern the church. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 says, “He must manage his own household well… for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?” It takes time to demonstrate marital and family management, so I would suggest that unless evidence demonstrates a significant change in the divorced man’s home governance over a lengthy amount of time, then he is not biblically well-qualified to serve as a pastor.
This brings us to a man who is divorced while serving as pastor of a church. This is a grievous situation, which does harm both by means of scandal and dishonor to the gospel. If a pastor breaks covenant with his wife – either by adultery or neglect – I believe he is no longer "above reproach" and should never again serve in an ordained capacity. The honor of God's Word and the health of the church do not permit a pastor who has so grievously sinned to continue in the pulpit. If his wife divorces him without biblical grounds – either by her adultery or abandonment – then the reproach is much less. It is certainly true that a pastor is expected to demonstrate a standard of home management that will demonstrate Christian maturity and effectiveness as a spiritual leader. For this reason, there will be occasions when a pastor is wrongly divorced by his wife but the situation gives evidence to unsatisfactory spiritual leadership in the home. For instance, in a case where the pastor was grossly negligent of ministering to his wife or was harsh and abusive in his conduct, it may be prudent for him to step aside from the ministry in order to protect the reputation of the gospel and/or commit himself to developing the maturity and grace appropriate to a pastor. It is, however, possible that a minister may suffer divorce despite his commendable behavior as a husband and head of household. In such a case, there would seem to be no justification for his removal from ministry. These matters can only be judged by elders who are close to the situation and are able to evaluate based on a thorough knowledge of the details.
The grace of the gospel enables us to overcome the most sinful pasts, but it also calls for us to hold church leaders to a high standard. The latter should not inspire a judgmental attitude towards pastors and elders, but should lead us to honor the gospel by praying for them and for their families, that they might remain above reproach and credible as shepherds in the flock of Christ’s church.
Rev. Richard Phillips is the chair of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church Coral Springs, Margate, Florida.
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