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May a Divorced Man Be a Preacher?

Category Articles
Date March 17, 2005

The Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church says that only those persons who “meet the biblical requirements” are eligible for office. Passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 teach that, among other things, an “overseer” must “be above reproach,” “manage his own family well,” “have a good reputation with outsiders,” and be “self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” These and other passages are read every time ministers and elders and deacons are ordained to their offices. The words are familiar to us. The challenge, of course, is for our councils and broader assemblies to apply them in specific cases of ministers who experience divorce or wish to be remarried.

Are there clear rules? Well, no, the Church Order offers no specific guidance here. The section on suspension and deposition, for example, uses the language “deviation from godly conduct.” In addition, most synodical regulations and guidelines on divorce and remarriage address membership, not ordained leadership positions. The one has to do with the other, of course, but they are not the same. More can be expected of our ministers. This leaves us with little to go on except precedent, case law.

Researching experiences similar to yours is very difficult. Most information is kept in confidential minutes. Naturally, I do have personal knowledge of recent stories: divorcees being ordained to the office; ministers being suspended or deposed; those applying for reinstatement receiving different answers- some allowed and some denied re-entry. Based on those anecdotes alone, I can say to you, yes, it is possible today for a divorced or remarried person to serve in the office of minister. Everything depends on the circumstances and the spiritual condition of the one involved.

For a very long time, I simply assumed what case law might have been before I arrived on the scene, namely, that our denomination absolutely did not permit divorced persons to serve in office. Challenged by your letter, I finally did the little research that can be done in public records and the result was a huge surprise to me.

Not at all unexpected was the stand taken by Synod 1894: divorce is permitted for the “innocent party” only in cases of adultery or desertion by an unbelieving partner. When this assembly was asked whether a minister petitioning for a divorce for a different reason could stay on, it said: “Of course not!” The surprise came in the story that unfolded during the next six years, probably involving the same minister. Even though synod had warned against it, he was officially divorced. In response, synod insisted that he seek from the court an annulment of the divorce decree and attempt reconciliation. As might be expected, the court responded by saying that there was no such thing as an annulment of a divorce and that only a remarriage to the divorced spouse could accomplish the purpose. When the minister convinced Synod 1900 that he had made numerous attempts but that his former wife was totally unresponsive to his pleas, the assembly made the judgment that the church may “carry him in love in his present position.”

A study committee reporting in 1980 wrote that the church must consider “the multiplicity of personal factors which surround particular cases.” Factors like “repentance for personal failure in the breakdown of the previous marriage,” “forgiveness of others,” “understanding of the divinely intended permanence of marriage, and a renewed dependence on the grace of God for the success of the remarriage” must be weighed very carefully. This is said about church members in general. When it comes to reinstatement to ministry, of course, there must be the additional consideration of whether the person involved is “able to serve effectively” (Church Order, Article 84) or, as we used to say it with greater clarity, “could then serve without being hindered in his work by the handicap of his past sin” and whether “his restoration would be to the glory of God and for the true welfare of the church” (e.g., Church Order, 1983, Article 94).

But to your question, “Is it possible…?” the answer is yes. Forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. Thank God this is so. May our Lord grant our assemblies sharp and true spiritual discernment in the midst of brokenness, pain, and a great deal of unmerited grace.

Henry DeMoor, Professor of Church Polity, Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, from the Calvin Theological Seminary Forum Winter 2005 with permission

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