In carrying out its mission to a world where the family and other basic social institutions are disintegrating, a local church encounters more and more people who have been divorced. They view themselves as leading normal lives, whereas Scripture brands the remarried ones as adulterers. As the instrument of Christ, a church must show compassion and mercy without compromising its testimony against sin. Fashioning right policies toward these people is therefore not an easy task. A church must find a path through a thicket of thorny questions. The most pressing are these, ordered from easiest to hardest:
- Should a pastor officiate at the remarriage of a divorced person?
- Should a church promote a divorced person to leadership?
- Should a church admit a divorced and remarried person to membership?
- Should a church ever require a divorced person to remarry a former spouse?
Should a Pastor Officiate at the Remarriage of a Divorced Person?
The Lord Himself clearly condemned divorce and remarriage after divorce. He did not allow either for any reason. As we showed in previous lessons, He taught that divorce and subsequent remarriage break the Seventh Commandment. Thus, a pastor today need not doubt the right answer if he is asked to officiate at the wedding of a divorced person. He must say, no. Otherwise, in his exalted role as a minister of the gospel, he will place his blessing on adultery. While speaking on behalf of God, he will tell the blasphemous lie that God approves of sin. How will God regard the lie? He will see it as a monstrous presumption, a betrayal of a sacred trust.
Should a Church Promote a Divorced Person to Leadership?
In laying out the requirements for high office in the church, Paul counseled Timothy,
2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; . . .
12 Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.
1 Timothy 3:2, 12
For both positions, elder (pastor) and deacon, Paul gives as a chief requirement that the man be "the husband of one wife." The church has always assumed, and correctly so, in my view, that Paul means "one living wife." Otherwise, this requirement would disqualify a remarried widower, and the church has never regarded such a man as unfit for office.
The requirement covers two cases. A man should not hold office if he is a polygamist, or if he has ever divorced a wife and remarried. On the authority of Paul's teaching in these texts, most fundamental churches today bar a divorced and remarried man from the offices of elder and deacon. They bar also a divorced, single man, partly on the grounds that he may be tempted to marry while holding office. I accept such a policy as solidly Biblical, although I personally do not agree with those churches that extend the rule to a divorced man whose former wife or wives are no longer living.
The rule has two main purposes.
1. The church should not elevate anyone to a place of high visibility whose domestic life is open to question. The church should not expose itself to avoidable criticism. The requirement of one wife is akin to another requirement, that a man "must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil" (1 Tim. 3:7).
2. Imposing this rule is not only a matter of protecting the church from outside attacks. It is also a matter of example. The church teaches that divorce is wrong, because it breaks the one flesh that God intended to last as long as life itself. Yet if a pastor or other church leader is divorced, people of the flock will say, "If he can do it, so can I." Sinners are like that. They are always ready to leap on the nearest excuse, and the perfect excuse to ward off censure is to say, "But the pastor . . . ," or, "But the deacon . . . ." So, with great urgency Paul told a young pastor,
Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
1 Timothy 4:12
Some have argued that the expression "the husband of one wife" refers only to polygamy. But elsewhere, Paul uses a comparable expression when he describes the widows who deserve support by the church.
Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man.
1 Timothy 5:9
This translation, from the KJV, suggests that Paul is talking about a woman who has been widowed only once, as opposed to a woman who has been widowed two or more times. But how is a woman who has lost only one husband any more deserving of support than a woman who has lost several? Paul himself advised the younger widows to remarry (1 Timothy 5:14). The underlying Greek is a bit clearer. It says, "having become the wife of one man" (1). The thought is that she never became the wife of two or more men simultaneously. A multiple marriage involving one woman and more than one man is known as polygyny, which did not exist in the ancient world. Therefore, Paul's rule of exclusion cannot be aimed at polygynists. The widow Paul evidently means to exclude is the one who became the wife of more than one man as a result of divorce and remarriage. Thus, a few verses earlier, when he uses almost the same expression to specify what kind of man should lead the church, he must also be referring to divorce and remarriage.
Should a Church Admit a Divorced and Remarried Person to Membership?
If we view remarriage as adultery, we might suppose that any remarried person is inadmissible to the church, because he is living in sin. We might suppose further that such persons would be acceptable only if they terminated their present marriages and sought reconciliation with their first spouses.
Scripture does not ratify this conclusion, however. Every qualification for high office that Paul sets forth in 1 Timothy 3 is a virtue that a church member might lack. An ordinary person in the pew might not be blameless, or vigilant, or sober, or of good behavior, or given to hospitality, or apt to teach. He might even be given to wine, or be a striker, or be covetous. Likewise, he might be the husband of more than one wife. By listing "one wife" among the special requirements for high office in the church, Paul clearly implies that some men in the church did not meet the requirement. We infer that Paul did not expect the church to refuse membership to people with blemished marital histories.
But why should the church open its doors to remarried persons, if in fact they are living in adultery? The problem today, as it was in Paul's day, is that both divorce and remarriage are legitimate in the eyes of civil authority. Therefore, the church cannot reject remarried persons for two reasons.
1. Within broad limits, God supports the civil authority that He Himself ordained. Notice Jesus' words to the Samaritan woman,
16 Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither.
17 The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband:
18 For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.
Jesus acknowledged a difference between her present adulterous relationship and her several marriages after the first. Her former partners were truly husbands. Her present partner was not a husband. Jesus is not condoning remarriage, or questioning that it is basically adulterous. He is merely conceding the obvious—that a marriage with the blessing of civil authority has more legitimacy than a liaison outside of marriage. The words of Jesus show that God Himself wishes to uphold and preserve this extra legitimacy. Losing the distinction between marital and nonmarital unions would do harm both to civil authority and to the institution of marriage itself. That is the first reason the church should not rebuff remarried persons.
Yet God will judge those rulers and lawmakers and judges who cheapened the institution of marriage by allowing easy divorce and remarriage.
2. Because society places few effective restraints on divorce and remarriage, a divorced person readily starts a new life and a new family, the result being that his former marriage soon lies buried in the past. To go back and resurrect that marriage may not even be possible. You can't always unravel the mistakes of yesterday. As one preacher I knew said, "You can't unscramble eggs." I conclude, therefore, that the church should admit remarried people, and that it should admit them without imposing any requirement that they return to the status quo before their last marriage.
Yet there is a requirement that should be laid upon them. A church should not admit people who have either initiated a divorce or remarried after a divorce (whether or not the person initiated it) unless they acknowledge their sin and demonstrate repentance (that is, unless they convincingly declare their resolve never to commit the same sin again). Otherwise, if they fail to repent, they will never be in a position to enjoy the Lord's blessing. Also, once they obtain a voice in the church, they may rise up in protest if the pastor tries to give the Biblical view of divorce and remarriage, and their presence in the church will dilute its witness against these scourges on society.
Should a Church Ever Require a Divorced Person to Remarry a Former Spouse?
When people responsible for a divorce apply for church membership, the church clearly should not admit them unless they first confess and repent of their sin. What restitution the church should require them to provide for victims of the divorce is a far more convoluted question, however. If neither original spouse has remarried, the proper remedy is for them to reunite. But the remedy is not so simple if either has gone on to another marriage. To enlarge our perspective on this question, we will consider some specific cases.
- A couple started coming to church while they were still dating. The man had been married twice, the woman once. All three former marriages had produced children. They went to the pastor for counsel, and he told them that he could not marry them, and that if they joined the church, they could not get married even outside the church without facing church discipline. Yet he implied that if they got married first, before they tried to join the church, he would accept them as members. Was this the right counsel? Of course not. The pastor was making himself a party to their adultery. His knowledge that the second wife wanted reconciliation left him more at fault. But if he had strongly enjoined them not to marry and yet they did, and then after a period of time they had come to him and sought membership in the church, what should he have done? Should he have demanded return to former spouses who felt aggrieved at being forsaken?
- A married couple and their two children came into the church after both professed to be saved. For a while the whole family seemed to thrive under the preaching of the Word. But then the man's love for his wife grew cold. Eventually, he left his family and became involved with another woman. The church took the necessary steps of discipline, leading at last to his expulsion. But he turned a deaf ear to Christian counsel, obtained a divorce, and married his paramour. Then, lo and behold, he and his new wife decided to join another church. The second church ignored the man's past and admitted the newlyweds directly to membership. Was this right? No, it was not right to let their unrepented sin go unchallenged. Meanwhile, the man's former wife and his children were still languishing in hope that their home might be restored. What should the second church have done? Should it have insisted that the couple sever their new marriage, as the rejected wife desired?
The answer is that in neither case was it appropriate to demand renewal of an old marriage, because another marriage had already been formed. For the sake of protecting two bedrocks of stable society—the institution of marriage and civil authority—divorce should always be viewed as wrong. Therefore, divorce is never the proper remedy for an earlier divorce. Two wrongs do not make a right. Reconstruction of a broken marriage should be required only when both parties to a divorce are still unmarried.
In support of this conclusion, we can draw upon two Biblical principles:
- Many first marriages violate God's perfect will, for one reason or another. A believer may marry an unbeliever, or a young man's choice may be driven by lust rather than by a worthy desire for a good helpmeet and soul mate, or a young woman's choice may be a desperate maneuver to marry somebody rather than stay single. It has been our observation as we have attended weddings over the years that many people marry the wrong person. Yet at the altar the wrong person becomes the right person, because at that moment God sets His seal upon the marriage, and from that moment on, whatever His perfect will may have been in the decisions made before the wedding, His perfect will after the wedding is that the couple remain together for life, come better or worse. Jesus said, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matt. 19:6). The same principle applies to second marriages. Once they are formed, though they leave behind victims and create compromises, they are not to be severed, lest good order in society suffer another bruise.
- In the Old Testament, God stipulated that if a man divorced his wife, he could not someday remarry her if in the meantime she had married another man and lost her second husband either by death or divorce (Deut. 24:1-4). God was evidently attaching a negative incentive to divorce in the first place. He was saying in essence, "Do not think that you can take back your first wife if things do not go well with your second. If you put away the wife you have now, you will lose her forever." Thus, the law served the welfare of women by discouraging divorce. It kept a wife from being abandoned unless her husband cared about her so little that he could not envision marrying her again, even if all else failed. Divorce from such a cold husband was less tragedy than liberation, giving her a chance to find a man who could give her more love. The same purposes are accomplished in our time by forbidding divorce of second marriages for the sake of restoring first marriages.
Procedure to Follow when People Apply for Church Membership
To assure God's approval just when new people with a tangled past come into the church, the leadership should take the following steps:
- If they present themselves for membership, the church should ask whether they have ever been divorced. That question is necessary not only to determine a man's fitness for office, but also to secure justice for possible victims.
- If the answer is, yes, the church must determine whether they are blameworthy, either because they initiated the divorce or remarried afterward.
- The church should require those blameworthy in either way to confess their sin before joining the church. Confessing it privately before the pastor or other leaders of the church would, I think, be sufficient.
- The church should also require those blameworthy to make reasonable amends.
- If they forsook a former spouse, for whatever reason, and that former spouse desires the marriage to be restored, they should go back to it. It should not be restored, however, if either party has remarried.
- If they no longer live with children of a former marriage, they retain responsibility to minimize any damage the divorce may have done to their emotional or financial well-being.
- They might also have an obligation to provide assistance to the former spouse, especially if that person is a woman left without adequate means of support.
Sometimes a church must handle far more difficult cases than we have considered. Then it must rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
To determine a person's marital history, the church need not investigate in depth. It is generally sufficient to proceed on the basis of what an applicant for membership says about himself. The burden is upon him to tell the truth—about his past, about his relationship to Christ, and about anything else relevant to joining the church. If he lies, the blame falls upon him. Yet the church should not neglect any other facts at hand. Nor should it neglect to pursue the customary letter of reference from a previous church. If a former spouse of the prospective member still has a reasonable claim upon him, the church can trust that God will bring the truth to light.