Email Regarding Divorced Elders

ShepherdI get emails —

Fundamentally, I believe we have dealt with families who have come to us with divorce in their background in a manner similar to what you suggest in your summary list on MDR. That is, we have not treated them as second class citizens. Up to this point they have participated in every facet of congregational life, except the eldership.

The question is, should men who would otherwise posses the characteristics for elders suggested in Timothy and Titus, but who have experienced divorce, be selected as elders?

I suspect there may be both a scriptural and a practical (Is it wise?) answer. I am sure there are members in our congregation who hold both views on this issue. Based upon my study to-date I have come to believe that the “Husband of One Wife ” statement can best be understood as “Is he being faithful to his wife?” “Is he a one-woman man?”

I think the scriptural answer on this one is pretty clear. However, the practical answer could be devilishly hard.

The qualification lists for elders in 1 Timothy and Titus state than an elder should be “the husband of one wife,” according to most translations. This has led to several alternative interpretations.

Perhaps the most common is that it prohibits polygamy, which is very unlikely, for these reasons —

* First, there were very few polygamous marriages in Greek and Roman culture. Although the Jews allowed polygamy, by the First Century, it was very uncommon.

* Second, the same requirement applies to the list of widows to be supported by the church, as described in 1 Timothy 5:9 (“wife of one husband”). Polyandry — a woman with multiple husbands — was unheard of in the Roman Empire. As “wife of one husband” cannot refer to polyandry, “husband of one wife” cannot refer to polygamy.

* Third, because Matthew 19 and 1 Cor 7 prohibit polygamy, a prospective elder’s polygamous marriage would have been made prior to conversion. Why on earth would this disqualify him?

Some contend that this passage prohibits ordaining men remarried after the death of his wife. This theory is hyperliteral, in that Romans 7 is quite clear that death dissolves a marriage and there is no sin in remarrying. In fact, Paul instructs widows who are young enough to remarry in 1 Timothy 5:14. Nothing in the Law of Moses suggests that remarriage after death might be wrong, nor was it sinful in rabbinic thought. Why would this be the only place the prohibition appears?

Some contend that this command prohibits ordination for a man divorced, even if he was entirely innocent of sin and even if it occurred prior to conversion. Again, why would Paul issue such an instruction? Well, of course, a few take a view of divorce that never permits remarriage, but this interpretation is plainly contrary to the Bible.

The difficulty many commentators face is that the translation usually given is misleading, if not wrong, because Paul’s words are ambiguous in the Greek, although not so in most translations. Thus, in a footnote, the English Standard Version offers “a man of one woman” as an alternative to “husband of one wife.” Today’s New International Version, the New International Readers Version, and NLT translate “faithful to his wife.” The CEV translates “be faithful in marriage.” The Message translates “committed to his wife.”

The disagreement results from the ambiguity of the Greek: ???? ???????? ???? — mias gunaikos aner. Mias = of one. That much is easy. Gunaikos means either woman or wife, and the only solution is found in the context. Just so aner means either man or husband, and again only the context can make the distinction.

To the English speaker’s ear, it’s hard to imagine such an ambiguity, but other languages have the same uncertainly. The German Herr can mean husband or man (or sir or lord). Frau can mean wife or woman. Even in English, we pronounce the newly married “man and wife” — so that “man” can mean husband in some contexts: he is the “man of the house.”

Therefore, “husband of one wife,” while possible, conceals the entirely reasonable translation “man of one woman” or “one-woman man” or, equivalently, “faithful to his wife.”

Now, there’s every reason to require an elder to be faithful to his wife. Those churches that have had unfaithful elders have suffered severely.

This is the interpretation adopted by Alexander Strauch in his influential Biblical Eldership: An Urgent call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. In J. Stephen Sandifer’s valuable Deacons: Male and Female? the author argues,

The verb is in the present tense; “he is (currently) the man of one woman.”

This understanding emphasizes the character of the man, not his marital status. It places the emphasis on his behavior currently as a result of Christ and not on the past when he was unredeemed. He is not a playboy; he is loyal and sexually pure. If he is married, he is faithful to his spouse in all things. The deacon, like the elder, will be in situations where they will serve the poor of this world; and many those poor are abandoned women. Anyone who is easily sexually tempted will find this service very difficult and may yield to sexual temptation, bringing harm to the church.

I think Strauch and Sandiffer, who’ve written brilliant, comprehensive studies of elders and deacons, are certainly correct. This interpretation fits the scriptures and the function of an elder or deacon far better than an arbitrary rule that bars capable men from using their gifts for God and may not reflect one whit on their moral character or capacity for the office.

Obviously, the circumstances of a man’s divorce are not irrelevant. If he sinned in his marriage, he may well fail other qualifications —

(Titus 1:6-8)  An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless–not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.

Which brings us to the practical issue. If a church ordains a man as elder whom many in the church consider unqualified according to the scriptures, in many congregations, the church will split or else many members will leave. You see, we have this pathological teaching that to remain saved, we must leave the church when we disagree with the elders about something, especially when the church ordains a man we consider unqualified.

The solution is teaching — and time. A quick sermon series in the midst of the appointment process will not likely be enough in most congregations. Rather, the lesson needs to be taught in the classrooms, where the members can raise questions and challenge the interpretation. This is where the most learning takes place.

And it won’t work unless the church is well-schooled in grace, as they’ll otherwise be afraid to take a chance — preferring to impose a doubtful rule when in doubt. But a church well taught in grace will respond well to patient instruction.

Ultimately, the rule is found in the passages on spiritual gifts —

(1 Cor 12:28)  And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.

(Rom 12:6-8)  We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

(Eph 4:11-13)  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

You see, the rule is that God gives spiritual gifts to some among us, equipping them to be leaders and shepherds. And if God has chosen someone to take on that role by giving a special infusion of his Spirit, who are we to disagree? Indeed, the instruction is: “let him govern diligently.” God selects and empowers. We honor God’s work among us by allowing the gift to be used as God wills.

One last note. I think we generally do a poor job of defining for our members who is qualified to be an elder, and so we often make poor choices. I discuss the question in these older posts.

On Selecting Elders, Part 1

On Selecting Elders, Part 2

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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21 Responses to Email Regarding Divorced Elders

  1. Alan says:

    The gift of administration is not on either of the biblical lists of qualifications for the eldership. Perhaps that is because an elder is not intended to be an administrator.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    The "gift of administration" 1 Cor 12:28 is translated "governments" in the KJV. The Greek derives from the word for the pilot of a ship. Thus, it doesn't refer so much to posting the books or managing the budget as setting the course and navigating away from shoals.… quotes Vine's definition. To me, althoughthe word is poorly translated, the gift very much describes the task of an eldership.

    I agree that elders should try to handle the "big picture" rather than getting immersed in the administrative detail. We delegate the budgeting to a committee, which includes the ministry heads and members gifted in the area of finance.

  3. Robert Baty says:

    You beat me to it, Jay!

    I was about to note the following when I noticed your comments above:

    > Sometimes we’re shepherds, sometimes
    > overseers, and sometimes elders; that is,
    > we are sometimes acting pastorally,
    > sometimes as administrators…

    > (T)here are administrative details
    > that just have to be decided by someone…

    > The elders certainly get to decide such
    > things…

    Robert Baty

  4. I am struggling to see how Matthew 19 and 1 Cor 7 prohibit polygamy.

    Please help me.

  5. Alan says:

    My point is that neither ??????????? (1 Cor 12:28, "administration" or "governments" etc) nor ???????????? (Rom 12:8 "leadership" etc) is listed as a qualification for the eldership in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1. Far too many churches have appointed men as elders who are talented business leaders / managers / CEO's etc but who lack the spiritual qualifications that are stated. The leadership skills are useful but not a prerequisite… and having those skills does not put a man at the front of the list for consideration as an elder.

  6. Alan says:

    Just to clarify: ???????????? (Rom 12, "leadership") of his family is listed as a prerequisite to the eldership, as reflected in the obedience of his children. That is a much different thing from what is often argued from Rom 12 regarding who should be elders.

  7. Alan says:

    Note that Jesus said:

    Mat 19:9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

    If polygamy were permissible, then marrying another woman would be a non-issue and irrelevant to the discussion.

  8. Joe Baggett says:

    It says that the elder must be the husband of but one wife. It does not say "an elder may never have been divorced". We have read these things into these passages. Some of the most broken and transformed elders have been those who have been divorced. I wish we would have never made up these extra rules about being and elder. Also the qualification of "Managing one's household" has torn more families apart. Elders have raised their children to please other people in the church. They have neglected their families in order to care for the church and do church work. The way I see the scripture of managing ones house is that of service, sacrifice, and love not control and strict obedience.

  9. Thanks Alan.

    Please note – I am not arguing for polygamy. I have had a running discussion for several years about polygamy and I am trying to find a biblical prohibition against it.

    I read Matthew 19:9 as "No, you cannot divorce your wife because you want another woman instead. That is cheating on marriage."

    Matthew 19:9 is an important passage about marriage and cheating. I don't, however, read it as "you cannot have 2 or 3 or 4 wives."

    And I am open to further instruction or to some other passages that prohibit polygamy.

  10. I want to note that the Titus passage notes that an elder should be blameless. But we often read that as sinless — which we all would likely agree, is simply not possible, since we have all sinned.

    I acknowledge I have been divorced. And I will attest, that only in the rarest of circumstances is a spouse "sinless" in a failed relationship.

    So, once again, given grace, what sin is it that disqualifies someone from serving as an elder?

    It's certainly not so simple as to say, "Oh, he's been divorced, he can't serve as an elder."

  11. David brings to mind a question I have asked,

    A person cannot be a fill-in-the-blank-with-a-position if he or she fill-in-the-blank-with-a-sin.

    The only sin I can find is one where the person says,

    "yes, I did fill-in-the-blank-with-a-sin. I know it is a sin, but I plan on continuing to do fill-in-the-blank-with-a-sin."

    I realize it is easy to disagree with me on this.

  12. Alan says:

    Meeting qualifications to be an elder involves more than "thou shalt not." It's not all about avoiding certain sins. The positive requirements must also be met. Someone might think that divorce is an evidence of him not managing his family / household well. A lot of divorced men would admit to that themselves. It's certainly a consideration.

  13. Alan
    That's a fair point, but, as an example, my divorce was 30 years ago, and I can make a case that your argument would be applicable, but certainly always a consideration.

    So, I come back to the more central point — what does "blameless" really mean?

  14. Alan says:

    In my mind, the requirement that he manage his household well is to be decided by the congregation. If the congregation is satisfied that the 30-year-ago divorce does not overrule the subsequent 30 years of evidence, and they conclude that he has managed his household well, then they can choose him as an elder.

    Similarly, the "blameless" requirement is to be decided by the congregation. Is he involved in questionable dealings? Does he have a good reputation (and is that reputation deserved)? Blameless certainly does not mean sinless. I think "blameless" in Titus is parallel to having a "good reptuation" as stated by Timothy — but perhaps with the additional aspect that he must deserve that good reputation. In other words, there are no known skeletons in the closet that may come up in the future to spoil that good reputation.

  15. Joe Baggett says:

    I have come to understand that the blameless meant someone who is upright and with a clear conscience tries to do the right thing. Someone whose heart is pledged before God. Someone who is not secretly against God. Someone who knows they need God and is transparent in their need for God. The other interpretation is a myth. We created expectations for Elders that were an unattainable morality. Why do so few worthy men choose not to serve as elders? My Dad refused to serve after many requests at several congregations because he knew he would be putting his family in a glass house. I have a family member whose large metro congregation cannot get anyone to serve as an elder. I told them that says something about what we have made an elder out to be. The idea of “disqualifying sin” was something with which I never agreed. It just seems so counter intuitive to the cross and the Gospel. If sin disqualifies you from service then we are all disqualified. This thinking has also given way to a really bad theology of some sins like gossip and covetousness being nice and respectable and others like fornication and drunkenness being really bad. I wish there were more divorced elders to serve as the majority of our population has been touched by divorce they would have special insight on how to mercifully minster to this special brokenness. I am not suggesting that we let pedophiles play with our children or anything like that. There is a difference between consequences to our sin and disqualifications.

  16. Jay Guin says:


    Matthew 19 is inconsistent in two ways. First, Jesus used Gen 2 as normative for marriage — the two shall become one. Second, as Alan has noted, "If polygamy were permissible, then marrying another woman would be a non-issue and irrelevant to the discussion." See David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Marriage in the Bible p 151.

    Regarding 1 Cor 7,

    (1 Cor 7:2-4) But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.

    V. 2 certainly suggests just one wife, but v. 4 hammers the point home: the husband's body belongs to his (singular) wife.

    And, I would add, if you take a narrative approach to scripture, seeing the plot as God's mission to return us to a sinless Eden, then surely the redemptive arrow points toward monogamy, as it was in the Garden. Jesus certainly follows that approach in Matthew 19, and while Paul is not as explicit in his reference to Gen 2 in 1 Cor 7, the passage is, I think, plainly built on his understanding of "one flesh" in Genesis 2 as well.

  17. Jay Guin says:

    We're not disagreeing, I'm pretty sure. I just see "administration" as a very poor translation of the word. It's really about piloting a ship, which I think is an essential function of an eldership. Now, I say "eldership" because I also agree that no man has the full package of eldering gifts. Some have pastoral gifts but aren't gifted overseers. Some are great at doctrine and teaching but not so good at conflict resolution. And so, to me, the question is whether a given man has something to contribute to the mix — and doesn't have disqualifying traits, such as insisting on lording it over people.

    I do think, however, that we tend to over-emphasize the qualifications lists in Titus and 1 Timothy while overlooking many other relevant passages, not to mention just the meaning of the words. I mean, it's essential to ask whether this guy has been gifted by God to be a shepherd, overseer, or elder.

  18. Jay Guin says:

    Per Vine's, "blameless" means un-accused, that is, that there is no unresolved accusation pending against him. Of course, it's pretty standard, I think, for any accusations made against an elder to be resolved before he is ordained.

  19. Jay Guin says:

    I agree that we often hold a man's mistakes against for far longer than God does. But I think an elder has to be better than penitent.

    Obviously, no one is sinless. However, all should be penitent. But all won't make into good elders. An alcoholic may well be struggling mightily to overcome his addiction, but until he whips it, he's not a good choice for an elder. A man struggling with sexual addiction certainly shouldn't be placed in a pastoral position, despite his penitence. And a man who enjoys lording it over others is disqualified, even though he's otherwise a good and penitent man.

  20. Jay,

    Thank you for taking the time to share these things with me. I had not considered these verses in the way you explain. I like the concept of "a narrative approach to scripture, seeing the plot as God’s mission to return us to a sinless Eden."

    Please note (I always try to put in this note when discussing this topic) that I am not arguing in favor of polygamy. I am trying to find a clear biblical prohibition against polygamy and I appreciate you raising the subject.

    I find that I can still use the words in these verses in other ways. The husband's body belongs to wife #1 when he is with wife #1 and to wife #2 when he is with wife #2 etc. So the polygamist can fulfill these verses in a one-at-a-time serial manner. In the same way for V. 2, wife #1 does have her own husband who she happens to share with wife #2 who has her own husband who she happens to share with etc.

    Granted, using the words in this way may not be wise, but it can be done.

  21. Jay Guin says:

    (1 Cor 7:2) Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.

    The first "own" translate heautou, which Strong's defines as,

    From a reflexive pronoun otherwise obsolete and the genitive case (dative case or accusative case) of autos; him- (her-, it-, them-, also (in conjunction with the personal pronoun of the other persons) my-, thy-, our-, your-) self (selves), etc. — alone, her (own, -self), (he) himself, his (own), itself, one (to) another, our (thine) own(-selves), + that she had, their (own, own selves), (of) them(-selves), they, thyself, you, your (own, own conceits, own selves, -selves).

    The second "own" translates idios, which Strong's defines as,

    Of uncertain affinity; pertaining to self, i.e. One's own; by implication, private or separate — X his acquaintance, when they were alone, apart, aside, due, his (own, proper, several), home, (her, our, thine, your) own (business), private(-ly), proper, severally, their (own).

    In short, "own" means "not shared." If I owned a TV half and half with my brother, it wouldn't be my own. It'd be our own. "Own" emphasizes that one's wife or husband is not to be shared with another.

    Also, in v. 3, "wife" and "husband" are preceded by the definite article "the," also suggesting a singular spouse.

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