I come from a Christian family that has been surrounded by the church in every generation. Recently, I have discovered that my grandfather wants to become an elder in his church. This is all fine and good, and I am quite proud of him for aspiring to such a noble position in the church. Unfortunately, I am not sure if he is able. My grandfather has been divorced. The questions arise; what does divorce have to do with eldership, and should a divorced man become an elder? (Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that this is a scenario in which the hypothetical elder nominee was a Christian when he was divorced.)
The Christian and Divorce
The question may first be raised as to whether or not a Christian is permitted to seek a divorce in general, nonetheless an elder. But much like in the Old Testament there are situations indicated in the New Testament in which a divorce is permissible. These laws can be found in a summary by Bible.org here. Jesus does call his followers to a higher standard, but in instances of adultery, it is still considered acceptable to be divorced (Matthew 19:9). By all means there should be forgiveness, but divorce is still permissible. The conclusion can be drawn that a Christian can get divorced, but can the conclusion be drawn to mean that an elder could be divorced?
What is an Elder?
An elder is a very important leader in a Christian church. A local church chooses a plurality of elders to lead the church and oversee the policies and the ministries of the church. They possess the final say on any situation in the church. If one were to associate the church to a business, then the elders would be the Board.
Qualifications of an Elder
The qualifications for an elder are listed in two separate places in the Bible: 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-16. The qualifications can be listed as such:
- must be above reproach,
- the husband of one wife,
- able to teach,
- not addicted to wine or pugnacious,
- free from the love of money,
- manages his own household well,
- keeping his children under control with all dignity,
- not a new convert,
- a good reputation with those outside the church,
The Question of Divorce and Eldership
As you can see, there is a problem that would arise for my grandpa and his desire to become an elder. By being divorced and then remarried he is not the husband of one wife, but has in fact been the husband of two different women. But is that what Paul, the writer of 1 Timothy and Titus, means when he writes that? Another issue to consider is that these passages explicitly express the fact that they need to manage their households well. How can one manage a household well when the household has become broken by divorce? In both the passages they ask how a man who cannot manage his own house could have the ability to manage the house of God? One final consideration concerning divorce and eldership is the extenuating difficulties that happen due to divorce. In other words, will the people who were affected by the divorce have problems if the potential elder became one?
“Qualities” vs. “Qualifications” of Elders
There is a debate that surrounds these passages and the qualifications that arise from them. The debate is whether or not these qualifications are in fact qualifications and not just qualities. What’s the difference? Qualifications would imply a necessity that all of these things be apparent in the life of the prospective elder nominee. Qualities would denote a sense that not all of the things listed need to be seen in his life. He could be respectable and peaceable, but not very hospitable. Would that disqualify him from being an elder?
There is a plethora of people on both sides of the argument, but I would argue that it depends. It depends on what is said throughout the rest of scripture on each thing listed. For example: the love of money is condemned in many places throughout scripture, as is the fact that Christ followers are not to be drunkards or addicted to wine. Scripture says nothing about it being sinful to lack the ability to teach, nor about being prudent. Now the argument could be made, “Why would you want someone who cannot teach and is not very wise to be an elder?” But consider how these people could help with other things that the eldership manages. At my home church, the elders deal with money. The elder in charge of that is not very hospitable but he is still an elder because he fulfills that need in the church.
In the first verse of the 1 Timothy passage, Paul says, “… if any man aspires to…” The definition of “aspires” according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary is “to want to have or to want to achieve something.” The word “aspire” seems to welcome the interpretation that the characteristics mentioned in the passage cannot necessarily be achieved. They may be striven for with earnestness, but it does not essentially mean the elder needs to be in possession of these characteristics, so long as they want them.
What does “Husband of One Wife” Mean?
There are some differences of opinions concerning what Paul means when he writes, “μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα.” The New American Standard Bible translates this as, “husband of one wife,” when in actuality it is directly translated as “one wife/woman man/husband.” Some people believe that this is a reference to polygamy, because the Old Testament did permit polygamy for the Jews as seen by the lives of King David and Solomon, as well as through the concept of the “kinsman redeemer”. This is not the case, however, as described by Lance Quinn in his blog. He says that the Greek expression in question could not be referencing polygamy due to the particular phrasing of the statement, and because other passages of scripture use the same wording to speak about widows needing help financially. With this in mind, it is suggested that the phrase “one woman man” is, in fact, referencing divorce.
What about “Manage His Household”?
The phrase “manage his household” concerns the prospective elder’s children and his wife. It refers to the question of whether or not his kids are Christians. If they not, it will reflect a lack of teaching and control over his children. If his children are not under control, and do not understand the faith of their father, how will he be able to help a congregation grow in faith and obedience?
There is also the possibility that “manage his household” may include the wife of the hypothetical elder. If he is divorced, then how can he be in control of his family life? If he cannot be an elder because his children are not Christian, which represents a poorly managed household, how then can a divorced man be an elder when the household is broken and therefore mismanaged as well?
Divorce, Eldership, and the Community
Divorces are always messy. There is always someone who gets hurt in the transition. Even if it is not the two who were married, there is always someone who is bitter about how the whole thing happened, putting blame on one or the other, or both. If this were the case for the potential elder, then he would potentially not meet yet another qualification in our list; having a good reputation with those outside the church. If the prospective elder is holding people back from the church because of his “messy” divorce then there would be an issue with appointing him.
Social Trends, Divorce, and Eldership
The whole argument about whether or not a divorced man should be an elder has been more contemplated as divorce becomes more rampant in society. The discussion arose from the idea that it is increasingly difficult to find people who fit into the qualification of being the husband of one wife. This is true. The figure above is a graph from The Family In America which shows how the amount of marriages that end in divorce have risen from 1960 to 2009. Though we cannot deny that divorce is on the rise, the question is not about whether divorce happens and at what rate, but rather if a person who is divorced can be an elder. As Christians, we are held to a higher standard than the rest of the world. Our elders are to be held at an even higher standard as our leaders. That said, and having explored the passages in question, it is suggested that a prospective elder, because of his divorce, should be disqualified.
Much of my thinking and opinions have come from my own personal study and from taking Pastoral Epistles, taught by Professor Eric Stevens, at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri. If you found this blog helpful, I invite you to read other blogs written by CCCB students here, or for more information about the school, to visit cccb.edu. If you really like what you see, feel free to apply online!