The Husband of One Wife
1 Timothy 3:1-7
I try to maintain strict neutrality on the subject of associations, believing they can be good or bad, depending upon how they are structured. The problem of too much structure, however, is amply illustrated by a recent article in the Fellowhelper, out of Texarkana, AR/TX, excoriating the messengers of the American Baptist Association for removing the salary recommendation from twice-married missionaries. The writer seems to acknowledge that the removal of the recommendation is tantamount to removing the missionaries from the field, which raises serious questions about the association’s policies.
That issue aside, it appears to me that there is need for a fresh examination of the subject of divorce and remarriage as it applies to those in the ministry. The writer of the aforementioned article stated that, “The Bible says nothing about divorce disqualifying’ a man for the ministry… I have yet to see or even hear of a man who is divorced from his first wife still being her husband.” I think a careful reading of the Scriptures will show that, from God’s point of view, a man who is divorced from his wife is still her husband. That is why Jesus said, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery,” Luke 16:18 (NASB). Adultery is carnal knowledge of another‘s spouse, or carnal knowledge of another who is not one’s spouse while married. It is clear that the message of Jesus is that the original couple are still married in the eyes of God.
Well, isn’t it OK to divorce on grounds of unchastity? Again, a careful reading of Scripture will expose this fallacious line of reasoning. In Matthew 5:31, 32 (NASB), Jesus said, “And it was said, whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Jesus didn’t say it was all right to divorce for unchastity; He said that divorce for any other reason makes the divorced one an adulterer. If the divorced partner is already an adulterer, divorce and remarriage will not change anything in that regard. That doesn’t make the divorce acceptable to God. God did not intend for His people to divorce. That is why Paul indicated that the only proper choices are to remain together or remain single upon separation, “But to the married I give instruction, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband) and that the husband should not send his wife away,” 1 Corinthians 7:10, 11 (NASB).
What about those who were divorced before they were saved, or before they came to knowledge of the truth? The idea that this should make a difference is rooted in the false concept that having more than one wife is a disqualifying sin. Since sin has been forgiven, everything should be forgotten, including the two wives. Sin is not the real problem in this case. Not to deny the sinfulness of divorce, but the problem is a condition that is not met. A man who is divorced and has remarried is not necessarily a greater sinner than anyone else, and his sin can certainly be forgiven. But his condition is still that of a man with two living wives. Under the old covenant, a son of Aaron who had a physical defect could not be a priest. It wasn’t his fault, but he was disqualified nevertheless. We do not need to beat up on divorced and remarried men, but we do not need to excuse their lack of qualification, either.
Does that mean that the ABA messengers were right in the action that they took? Aside from considerations of what the messengers have to do with church missions, let me point out the one valid argument for leaving a man with two living wives alone if he is in the pastorate or on the mission field. This argument, by the way, was not used in the Fellowhelper article. His qualifications have been examined by the ultimate earthly authority, a New Testament Church, perhaps more than one. A church ordained him, and a church called him as pastor or sent him to the field as a missionary. Whether they followed the rules precisely in doing so is between that church, or those churches, and the Lord. To ostracize an individual because he and the church which ordained him understand the rules (Scriptures) differently than I do would be unchristian behavior on my part. Some of the pastors I appreciate most highly in the work are twice married. I would not have helped ordain them, and I would not have recommended their ordination. But they were ordained, and I will honor the position they hold in the Lord’s work, leaving it up to Him to correct any errors that have been made along the way.
The writer recognizes that he has only addresses one of a number of qualifications of an overseer. Others are sometimes ignored while the “two wives” issue is prominent. I do not attempt to make one qualification any more or less significant than another; I have merely attempted to show what the Bible says about one in particular. All are important; none are optional. These are real necessities, binding both upon the men who seek the office and the churches who place them there. Most important of all, let us not set ourselves up as judges of churches whose viewpoint may differ from our own. If a church declines to call or ordain a man because of his marital status (or other qualifications), honor their decision. And if a church does not call or ordain a man, honor that decision, too, regardless of whether it meets what we understand the biblical criteria to be.