Divorce and church leadership 

One of the most contentious issues in the Christian church today is that surrounding Paul's guidelines to Timothy and Titus on the requirements for Elders and Pastors. Not that all his guidelines are disputed. No. It seems that people zero in like a cruise missile on one specific phrase. Emotions become involved. People get angry and argumentative on both sides of the issue.

Let's take a careful look at these passages in an attempt to solve the controversy directly from God's Word. My prayer is that you review this study with intellectual honesty, willing to let Scripture speak to you directly whatever your views have been.

Foundational Truths

Before we begin this study, it's important to establish several foundational truths from the Bible.

The first truth is that the Bible is God-breathed. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, Scripture is not some accident of writing. It isn't the work of men who just happen to write about things of God. God inspired every book, every word of the Bible. It is written as He wanted it written.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
--2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV)

God knows everything. He cannot be surprised by anything. There is no situation in which God can suddenly learn some new truth that He was unaware of in the past. Some passages may seem at first glance to suggest that a human argument shed light on something God hadn't thought of, like the discussion with Moses in Exodus 32 (more on this here). Yet a closer examination reveals that appearances can be deceiving if we don't look more closely.

The first rule of Bible study is context. It is always about context. Who was the material written to? Why? What is the bigger picture? As Dr. Earl Radmacher has been so fond of saying, "Don't read someone else's mail and think it was meant for you." We often study Scripture out of context. If you received an eviction notice and failed to read who it was for, you would become quite alarmed until you discover it was for your neighbor. Who something was written to is critical to making any interpretation, not just Scripture!

Scripture is meant to be understood. A common approach to dealing with difficult passages in our complex, fast-paced world is to quickly throw up our hands and say, "if it's not comfortable, let's just ignore it!" This isn't an option. God did not design the Bible to be hard to understand, but to be so simple even a child can grasp it. Yes, there are a few passages that are very hard to understand. But these passages on choosing of Elders are not among them. God calls us noble if we dig into Scripture for clarification (see Acts 17:11). If we have trouble grasping the relevance of any Scripture passage, our next step is to see what else the same writer has said on the subject. Then we look at other parts of Scripture to clarify our understanding. In the end, things become quite clear, especially when it comes to instructions for the church.

Now that we understand these foundational truths, let's begin the study.

Paul's instructions to Timothy

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money.
--1 Timothy 3:2-3 

We see here that Paul, writing to fellow apostle Timothy who has been in charge of numerous churches throughout the region known as Asia Minor, gives instructions to Timothy on the choosing of an "overseer."

Paul goes on to talk about family relationships:

Ruling his own house well, having children who are in subjection to him with all reverence -- if anyone does not know how to rule his own house, how will he care for a church of God?
--1 Timothy 3:4-5

He then mentions that the Elder candidate must not be a recent convert because it becomes too easy in that situation to let pride get in the way of proper prayerful decision making. In verse 7 Paul adds one more detail:

And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
--1 Timothy 3:7

From obvious to obscure

Of the 15 conditions for candidacy presented in these passages, only the last three come with some reasoning included. The first 11 give no "reason why." This is important, because it tells us that the list is not a random one. It goes from issues that can easily be understood by Paul's audience without needing an explanation, to some that are more obscure so that an explanation is helpful.

Paul gives even more conditions in his letter to Titus. Both passages include the same key conditions. Just to ensure that you see the consistency of Paul's thoughts on this matter, here is what he tells Titus:

An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God's work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
--Titus 1:6-9

Let's now look at these instructions in more detail.

Many specific conditions

Paul issues very specific conditions for choosing someone who would fill an Elder or Pastoral position. These are:

Instructions to Timothy

Instructions to Titus


Above reproach (blameless)



The husband of but one wife

The husband of but one wife


Ruling his own house well, having children who are in subjection to him with all reverence

A man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient


Uncontentious (not argumentative or someone who creates conflict)

Not overbearing (not lording it over others to get his way)


Temperate (even tempered)

Not quick-tempered


Not addicted to wine

Not given to drunkenness


Not pugnacious (not someone who causes or gets into fights)

Not violent


Free from the love of money

Not pursuing dishonest gain





Respectable (regarded by others as being honest or having integrity)

One who loves what is good


Prudent (making decisions with care and thought for others)

Self-controlled (able to make decisions that put others first)


Must have a good reputation with those outside the church

Upright (refers to reputation of integrity)


Gentle (spirit of holiness is implied)

Holy (may not mean the same thing but implies the same qualities)


Not a recent convert

Disciplined (refers to spiritual self-discipline gained over time)


Able to teach (does not mean he has the gift of teaching, but knows the Scriptures well enough to teach them to others)

Must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it

What is an Overseer?

The passage refers only to the selection of "overseers" which represent Elders and Pastors in today's church. It does not refer to Deacons or those in other leadership positions within the church. Paul deals with those positions differently later on in his letter. While Deacons also are called to high accountability and some of the same qualifications apply to them, Paul treats that position in a slightly different way. The instructions given for Elders are meant to cull out the finest members of the church for positions of supreme leadership. This is a key element of the context.

Why such strict qualifications?

We live in a world where we expect our every desire to be a "right" rather than a privilege. God does not deal that way. Scripture is full of examples where only specific people were allowed to do certain things. Only Noah was chosen to build the ark, and only his immediate family was saved. Only the sons of Aaron could serve as priests, and only Levites could assist them. Only King Solomon, not David, was permitted to build the first Jewish temple. Only Nehemiah was called to complete the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

It isn't new to our modern culture to resist the qualifying rules for certain spiritual roles. Resistance to rules took place in Bible times also.

In the Old Testament, a man named Korah (who was a Levite) became very annoyed at the regulations that only the sons of Aaron could serve in the tabernacle. He gathered together 250 followers who felt as he did and challenged this rule. God responded by killing him and all his followers, including their entire families, in an earthquake (see Numbers 16 for the story).

King Saul felt it was his right as king to offer a sacrifice when the high priest, Samuel, didn't show up on time before a major battle. God brought down his kingdom over that decision (see 1 Samuel 13 for the story).

God does demand certain qualifications whenever it suits His purposes. We may not always like the rules He makes, but He has the right to make them. The rules He creates are always based on His love for us, even though we may not see the love inherent in them. I love my children, but some of my rules seem unfair when they bump up against them. They can't always see that the rules are built on a deep and rich foundation of love, designed for their protection out of love.

What does it mean to be "above reproach"?

The word translated "above reproach" is the Greek word anepileptos which refers to a form of blamelessness. It doesn't mean the person has never sinned! Scripture is very clear that we have all sinned.

If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word has no place in our lives.
--1 John 1:10

Even Paul has previously written about the reality that all have sinned:

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
--Romans 3:23

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned — for before the law was given, sin was in the world.
--Romans 5:12-13a

The Bible also tells us that even as Christians we continue to sin, even though we don't want to. While 1 John 1:10 quoted above is about earlier sin, verse 8 is considered by many teachers to be about current sin committed by Christian believers, because it refers to the Truth being in us which can only happen after we follow Christ:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
--1 John 1:8

God wants us to live our Christian life without sin, but He knows that in our human weakness we are fallible. This is the basis for Christ's redemptive work! The Jewish people relied on salvation based on following the complex Law, but under grace through Christ we are saved despite our sinful cravings. These sometimes lead to sinful actions even though we make an effort to remain pure in reverence for our role as Children of God.

The closest word in English is "irreproachable." A dictionary definition reveals the full scope of its meaning:

Blameless, inculpable, unimpeachable -- not subject to blame; "has lived a blameless life"; "an unimpeachable reputation."

So "above reproach" doesn't mean we haven't sinned nor that we don't currently sin in small ways. It just means that the sins of those considered for the position of Elder or Pastor are not so severe that they cause tongues to wag, gossip to form and doubt to set in.

The phrase "above reproach" is not limited to, but includes our reputations before becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. It includes our current reputations as Christians, but encompasses many years. Someone who has been a Christian only two or three years is no longer a "recent convert" and therefore might be technically mature enough to be considered for an elder. Yet an unimpeachable reputation covers a much longer time period than two or three years. Even five years often isn't enough! Over time someone with a criminal record who has proven themselves can purify their reputation sufficiently to pass this test. This enables someone like Chuck Colson to be qualified to be a church leader. The point is that the passage covers a broader context than just a person's reputation since becoming a Christian.

We must also look at the context. It is assumed that the person being considered for a role of Overseer has been free from major sin after becoming a Christian. Paul often wrote about the qualities of genuine followers of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit they exude. Even first and second-century secular authors like Tacitus and Pliny the Younger were amazed by the character qualities of Christians. No genuine Christian is likely to have a reputation that is reproachable, though some who call themselves Christians continue to sin enough to fail the test on current behavior alone. Serious, genuine, spiritually disciplined believers may commit acts that require reprimands, but not their entire reputation! This requirement by default then refers largely to that person's life before becoming a Christian!

What about forgiveness?

Naturally, one asks how God's forgiveness fits into the picture. If the qualifications include things that happened before someone became a follower of Jesus, does this mean God hasn't forgiven those sins?

Of course He has! Christ died once for all our sins, washing us clean in the eyes of God! Christ took on even the ugliest sins of mankind in order to act as our mediator. He has taken on all our sins, great and small, and washed us clean provided that we accept this gift of grace and follow Him with our complete heart and mind. There is no question that the sins are forgiven.

The passage is not about forgiveness at all. But it is about consequence.

There are always consequences

Just because we're forgiven doesn't mean that there aren't consequences to sin, even when those sins were committed before following Christ. If we lived a life of anger and hostility in our pre-Christian life, we suffer from mistrust and vicious rumors -- possibly for the rest of our life. If we alienate our children, it may take years of loving pleas after conversion before they show up for Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas. If we committed fraud or other serious crimes, it doesn't matter that we are now Christians; God still chooses to let us go to jail.

Moses never committed a grievous sin. Yet his small failure at the rock of Meribah (Numbers 20:2-13) caused him to lose the chance to step onto the promised land he had so looked forward to experiencing.

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in Me enough to honor Me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them."
--Numbers 20:12

A pretty harsh consequence, it seems, for such a small moment of failure. Later in Scripture we find that Moses blamed this on the people themselves, suggesting that he struck the rock twice because of pressure from the crowd. Yet whatever the reason, it was a failure. David, too, found that his entire leadership role fell into utter disarray after his adultery with Bathsheba. He would never again be followed by the entire nation. Even his own family tried to usurp the throne. Consequence for sin is serious, even after it is forgiven.

Only the beginning

The requirement that Elders and Pastors are blameless or "above reproach" is only the first of 15 requirements set out by Paul. It is the first item listed in both his letters on the subject.

Following this initial foray into the candidate's reputation, Paul mentions the marital issue, then goes on to describe various areas of behavior, most of them involving current behavior as a Christian. These include things like a person's drinking habits, attitude towards strangers, ability to teach, fiscal responsibility, gentleness, and attitude towards financial gain. All the things in Paul's list cover "gray areas" if you will of Christian conduct.

Gray areas? What in the world does that mean? Only this: most of the conditions Paul mentions are not black and white in terms of Scriptural commandments. Someone who is not exceptionally hospitable isn't necessarily a bad or sinful person. They might just be an introvert. Someone who is not able to teach isn't necessarily sinning. Maybe they just don't feel confident enough to teach. That's what I mean by gray areas. Some of the conditions mentioned, like parenting, are touched on in Scripture (even here you'd be out on a limb to say that your children aren't believers because you sinned!). Some of these items, like having a spirit of gentleness, are gifts of the Spirit and mentioned in Scripture. Others aren't governed at all by scriptural commands. The last two items in Paul's list to Timothy can't be sins! It certainly isn't a sin to be a recent convert. Failing these tests don't necessarily make us a bad person. Yet someone who doesn't meet them has not demonstrated enough proof of character to qualify for the vital role of leading a church.

Not all items in the list are necessarily short-term, fixable conditions. You might never be able to overcome your past reputation so that you are above reproach. Your children might not be believers. You might try to be prudent but have a propensity for impulsiveness that keeps you from succeeding in this area.

The list is extremely well organized. It goes from things that are clearly understood by the reader to things that gradually become more difficult to grasp, so that the last three in Paul's list to Timothy need explanations to be properly understood.

Part 2: Why does Paul talk about divorce?