The issue of divorced people serving in the ministry (especially the pastorate) is a topic of some deliberation today. We know that divorce is a sin, but we also know that God forgives sin. Making the issue more complex is the consideration of the timing of the divorce. What if the divorce occurred before the person was even saved? Does God hold us accountable for the decisions we made in our “before Christ” life? Should the mistakes made pre-conversion have any bearing on one’s current ministry opportunities?
First, let’s look at what Scripture says about the qualifications for an elder/pastor, found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Right away, we see that a pastor is to be “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:3, ESV). Some consider that this means a pastor cannot be divorced and remarried. Others interpret it to mean that pastors cannot be single (they must be married), they cannot be widowed and remarried, or they cannot be polygamists. However, none of these interpretations are necessarily what Paul meant.
We gain some insight by considering the original Greek phrase, which can be literally translated as “a one-woman man.” Paul’s emphasis is on the moral integrity of the pastor, not necessarily his current marital status. Being a “one-woman man” is being committed to one’s wife. The NIV translation brings out the meaning a little more clearly: “faithful to his wife.”
Of course, depending on the reason for the divorce, a divorced man might not have always been “faithful to his wife”; he may have been unfaithful at one time. Neither would he have kept the command to be “above reproach” and to “manage his own family well” (1 Timothy 3:2, 4)—again, depending on the reason for the divorce.
However, the question remains, does a divorce in the past—even one caused by adultery—permanently disqualify a man from the office of pastor? Knowing the grace and mercy of God, we would answer that with a qualified “no.” God’s forgiveness is real, and His cleansing from sin is complete (1 John 1:9). It is quite possible for a man to have gone through a divorce years ago, repent of his sin, learn from his mistakes, remarry, and now be a fully committed, “one-woman man.” This is not to say a man can divorce his wife one week, marry his lover the next, and take a pastorate the week after that. No, the office of pastor is not for those exhibiting moral laxity. There must be an established pattern of faithfulness and of managing his household well in order to be qualified. Any divorce in his past should be long forgotten, overshadowed by more recent history.
Based on this principle, we would say that a man who divorced before he was saved should not be disqualified for the pastorate—given that he meets the other requirements listed in 1 Timothy 3 (including that he “not be a recent convert,” verse 6) and that his walk with the Lord includes ample evidence of having a solid marriage. He must be a “one-woman man” now.
Praise the Lord, when we are saved, the old life is dead and gone. As Romans 6:4 says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (see also 2 Corinthians 5:17). Whatever sins we committed before we were saved, we are forgiven, we are freed, we are made new.