This issue is not my issue. I don’t know why this subject touches me so deeply. But nevertheless, it does. I feel deep emotion well up in me every time this subject comes up. I don’t know why…. Or maybe I do. Let me get my thoughts down on paper (or cyberspace) and see if I can make sense of what is going on inside of my heart. This post should have been several posts but here it is all at once. Don’t feel you have to read it all at once!
The Gospels bring up the subject of divorce several times. Jesus uses the sin of divorce in the catalogue of sins that we underestimate in Matthew 5. Murder is bad but so is anger, adultery is bad but so is lust, divorce is a sin equal to adultery when the person remarries. Divorce shows up several other times. Jesus is asked about divorce in Matthew 19. He makes the point that while Moses allowed a certificate for divorce this was the result of man’s sinful condition. Divorce was never the divine plan. In all of this Jesus brings us to see the beauty of Marriage. Marriage is one of the highest goods that man can attain to. A husband and wife submitting to one another, serving one another, loving one another is a powerful blessing in the world. It is a picture of the oneness we were meant to have with God. It is at once a reality of love lived and a picture of love as it should be. Because of this our enemy hates it. He attacks it mercilessly and as a result he has succeeded in destroying many marriages throughout history. Divorce is the death of the unity and love that God intended for us to have. Jesus makes it clear that this is sin. Everyone who has been divorced understands this all too well. It is painful and devastating. Preachers declaring divorce to be a sin is like a scientist publishing a paper declaring fire to be hot. Duh. So far, I have said nothing that I know of to be controversial. Christians and non Christians in every culture around the world understand that divorce is wrong and that it is devastatingly hurtful to all involved. It is a sin- something that God does not intend for us. As Christians we understand that sin is rebellion against God and His ways. When we sin we are separated from God. As sinners we are separated from God and His family, His purposes, and His plans. Rebellious sinners live as enemies of God. Jesus whole point that he was making in Matthew 5 was that we are wholly separated from God and what God has intended us to be.
I am notorious for introductions that are too long. I stand guilty again! Now, on to the point. Divorced people like all other sinners can be saved. The sin of divorce is covered and forgiven by Jesus through His death on the cross. Sinners can be saved and used by God for His Kingdom purposes. We have the privilege of cooperating in our Father’s business. We become Ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation. We are made a ‘Kingdom of Priest’. I get excited about redemption. I love redemption stories. I love stories where the bad guy, instead of being killed by the good guy, is converted, joins the good guy team. There are not many of these stories and yet, I am in one myself! I was the bad guy, an enemy of God. I was in rebellion and even after my ‘salvation’ I continued to rebel in many different ways. And yet, here I am a servant of the most high. His grace truly is sufficient for even me.
But in the Church in the West today grace seems to have different meanings for different people. Just the other week I was in a conversation with good friends who love the Lord and they were arguing that there were ‘consequences’ for divorce. Sin was forgiven but the consequences must remain. Divorced people could not be pastors in the Church. In our organization divorced people can not be appointed as career Missionaries. The sin of divorce can not be undone. There was a time when I understood and agreed with this. Then there came a time when I didn’t understand this but still agreed with it. Then there came a time when I didn’t understand this and stopped agreeing with it. Now I seem to be coming to a time where I do understand this and I hate it with a great hate. As I have said before this is not my issue. I am not a divorced person. But somehow this issue is coming to represent a larger issue for me and the Church that I love. For me, this issue is not about divorce but about salvation. It is about the sufficiency of the cross of Christ. Let’s take this issue point by point.
First, let me reiterate that divorce is a sin. This is scripturally true and experientially true. You won’t find many divorced people who say, ‘Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again!’ Divorce is so enormously destructive that it is one of the few sins all people everywhere can agree on. So, let’s move on. Second, sins can be forgiven. Forgiveness of sin is not some automatic stamp that comes down out of the sky however. Peter calls the Israelites to believe and repent. Belief is very important because if you don’t know that your sins can be forgiven you won’t ask for them to be forgiven. You must have faith in the Cross of Jesus. It is belief in Jesus suffering and death on the Cross that enables God’s work to be done in our hearts. It is faith that opens up our hearts and minds to inviting the Holy Spirit to come into our dead souls and bring us to life. Faith is a gift of God- but we can discuss election and the ‘how’ of the gift of faith another time. For now, most of us agree that by faith we repent of our dead useless lives and receive salvation. Salvation is the cleansing of our sins, the joining of ourselves into God’s family and the restoration of our souls from lonely, isolated death to eternal life in relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I am sure I could have worded all that better but again, we pretty much agree with that so let’s move on. Third, once we are saved we are redeemed to walk in the ‘good works’ that He has prepared for us. He saves us for a purpose- His purpose. Getting to go to heaven is a shallow and inadequate view of salvation. He saves us to eternal life now. Now, we are in relationship with Him and now He is working in us and through us to achieve divine plans and purposes. The Holy Spirit not only cleanses us from sin but He gives us gifts with which we serve the Body of Christ, His Church.
Here is the deal. If a guy commits murder and then gets saved we give him a place to speak. He encourages us with his story of God’s saving grace and we rejoice. If God so calls him we make him a pastor, a deacon, a missionary. We love this guy! He reminds us of how great a love our God has for us and just how powerful that love really is. Same thing if a guy is a drug addict, or a pimp, or a gangster, or a lawyer. God’s grace is sufficient for those guys so that encourages and inspires the rest of us. But not if he is divorced, not in Southern Baptist life anyway. Not in a lot of churches in fact. If a guy is divorced there are consequences. I have actually heard people in the Church say that in spite of a persons gifting, and regardless of whether they believe they are called they can not serve as pastors, deacons, or missionaries. They believe the Word forbids them to serve in these roles.
So, now I am to the place where some of you probably think I should have started. 1 Tim 3 lists the qualifications of pastors and deacons. The ESV says in 1 Timothy 3:2-3:
Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, and apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.
It goes on in verse 4 about managing his household etc but this is enough to be getting on with. Now, the problem for what I am talking about is found in the second qualification; married only once. The Bible translators left no doubt about what they thought when they translated this. The Greek that Paul wrote said, ‘the husband of one wife’. It is interesting to look at the history of how this has been interpreted. Today it simply means that anyone who has had a wife, divorced her and remarried another woman is disqualified from leadership based on this passage. But in SB life today we go further. Not only is anyone who remarries disqualified but if a man marries a divorced woman he is then disqualified but more than that any divorced man is disqualified even if he remains single after his divorce. We don’t interpret any other qualification on the list as strictly as we do this one. A guy steals and repents then that is fine. A guy commits adultery, is a bad tempered, loud mouthed, obnoxious jerk and he gets promoted to the bigger church with the bigger salary. Our society rewards the ‘big’ personality. On alcohol we are again pretty strong. The verse says ‘not a drunkard’ but anyone who believes that it is ok even for someone else to have a drink and we pretty quickly toss that guy out. But I am not concerned about our stance on alcohol. I am very concerned about this idea that divorce is the one sin that can not be forgiven. I know, I know, no one is saying it is not ‘forgivable’ they are just saying that it has ‘consequences’. Well, lets look at the ‘consequences’. As we look at 1 Tim we see that Paul is concerned with the character of the person chosen to lead. This matches Jesus emphasis on the ‘heart’. All of the qualifications are character qualifications- except for the divorce one. Or is it? When Paul requested Timothy to look for a godly leader is he concerned about his past marriage record or with his current character? I believe that as we read this in context we see that Paul is wanting a leader that is a ‘one woman man’ (this is a much more literal translation than ‘married only once’). We all know men in our society that are decidedly NOT that. There are men who view women as conquests, men who keep looking over the fence regardless of who they are married to. This is the person Paul is warning us against and quite honestly we should heed that warning much more carefully. But more than this, this list is not a set of laws that are carved in tablets of stone. Quite honestly, taken as laws set in stone no man has ever qualified to be a leader! Who has never lost his temper? Who has never coveted or been greedy? Many of you reading this are Americans so be honest! A bigger problem for me as I plant churches in a Muslim country is that a man be of ‘good reputation’. Anyone who becomes a follower of Jesus here is considered to have sold his faith, betrayed his people, and become a ‘kofir’. So, there are no men of good reputation in the Church! Is it Paul’s desire that we not have leaders in the Church here? Of course not. He was laying out the general characteristics of the kind of man that Timothy was to be looking for. We should heed his advice but we should not make his advice a law. What I am saying is that we already do this with all the other qualifications. It is just the husband of one wife qualification that we refuse to budge on.
Let us look now to the truth of the situation. Does the divorced and remarried man have more than one wife? My answer may surprise you. I contend that it depends. Remember what I said above about salvation? Faith is needed for repentance. What if the divorced person believes his sin to be beyond repentance? What if he believes that this sin is beyond forgiveness? I know guys like this. I know guys in the West who have told me straight to my face that they were beyond help. They had divorced and remarried and now they could not undo what they had done. They gave up on the Church and sent their children hoping against hope that their children would do better. The logic goes like this: A man gets divorced and then remarries. He repents of the sin of divorce but there is nothing he can do about the sin of remarriage. Everyday he is committing adultery with his second wife and it would be wrong to leave her and wrong to stay with her. I firmly believe that there are many men and women who feel this way even if they never express it this way. So, what is the outcome? Men and women marry and divorce, marry and divorce again never seeking repentance and forgiveness because they have no faith that there is any forgiveness for them. I know, I know, your church doesn’t teach this. No, your church just declares that a divorced person is unfit to be a deacon, pastor, or missionary. ‘Welcome divorced people we have a great class just for divorced people. Go in there and don’t bother us anymore.’ I know this is harsh but I have met many divorced people who feel this way. The result is that 75% of second marriages fail. Why? Because they never dealt in repentance and humility with the issues that killed the first marriage. For these people they are not the ‘husband of one wife’. The broken relationship with the first wife is still there like a millstone around their necks. Often they are bitter and hurting and no, they are in no position to be leaders in the Church.
But what about real repentance? What about the man who looks deeply into his sinful heart, sees the evil there and begs forgiveness and cleansing? Can it be found? The Bible leaves no room for doubt here. Romans 8:1 says that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:17 declares that we are new creatures in Christ- the old has passed away behold all things are become new. Is divorce a sin? Yes. What happens to sin once we nail it to the cross? It is eradicated. It is removed as far as the East is from the West. For the man or woman who has been divorced and truly sought forgiveness and healing I firmly believe that it is wrong to accuse them of divorce anymore. I believe that the person is a new creature. In Romans 7 Paul uses the issue of divorce to illustrate our sinful predicament. We are married to sin and Satan and only by death can we be set free of the contract. Jesus died on our behalf to set us free. Maybe this is why the issue is a big one for me. If there are ‘consequences’ for the sin of divorce how can I be free of the consequences of my sin?
The only consequence of sin for the follower of Jesus is the Cross. This I believe and this I proclaim. If you are weighed down by sin in any way then you must give it to the Cross. Only Jesus blood can atone for sin. To declare that there is any other consequence of sin is to declare the Cross inadequate. I will not do this. I know that there are many good and gracious leaders and teachers who have searched the scriptures on this and come to a different conclusion. I believe they have come to the right conclusion about the nature of divorce but they have misunderstood the radical nature of forgiveness. For all you divorced people out there I think that when someone says, ‘hey you can not serve because of your divorce’ then a proper response is that Romans 8:1 declares there is no condemnation. No one has a right to condemn what Jesus gave his life to forgive. If sin is forgiven then one must conclude that divorce is either not sin or that it is not forgivable. I reject both of these options on the grounds of the Biblical witness and the Cross of Jesus Christ. Divorced people must use their gifting to fulfill their callings. The Church must help them to do this, not stand in their way in the role of the accuser of the brethren. There is one ‘Accuser of the Brethren’ and his name is not Jesus. We are those who offer grace and forgiveness. So, offer it and don't hold back.