Study Committee on Divorce [1987]

Study Committee on Divorce [1987]

[1987 Yearbook, page 132]


At the 102nd Annual Conference of the Bible Fellowship Church, the congregation in Poughquag, NY petitioned the body as follows: (p. 40, 1985 Yearbook)

Whereas, the Board of Elders of the Poughquag church has studied the yearbook material on the subject of divorce that was assigned to it by the 101st Annual Conference, and

Whereas, previous studies have not treated the subject of the “new creation” as found in 2 Corinthians 5:16-19 as it relates to divorce, and

Whereas, regarding divorce as a violation of a “Creation Ordinance” and thus in a separate category of sins, marring a person’s character for life seems to be without any Biblical foundation (the argument advanced in the committee report to the 82nd Annual Conference–page 49 of the 1965 Yearbook) therefore, be it

Resolved, that we form a study committee to address these two areas as they relate to barring men from the office of elder who have been divorced prior to their conversion to Christ, and that this committee report to the 103rd Annual Conference with a recommendation.

Upon receiving the petition, Annual Conference passed the following resolutions: (p. 41, 1985 Yearbook)

Resolved, that the chairman appoint a committee of seven members of this Annual Conference to investigate the subject of divorce and its ramifications for the entire ministry of the Bible Fellowship Church.

Resolved, that the above action be considered an answer to the petition of Valley Bible Fellowship Church, Poughquag.

It should be noted that although the committee was formed to address the specific petition of a particular church, the first resolution of Annual Conference commits to the study committee the broadest possible mandate. For this reason two full years of study lie behind this report. The committee attempted to survey the whole question of marriage as it relates to divorce, and divorce and remarriage. Having studied afresh the subject of divorce, the committee acknowledges a debt to the study reports previously published in the 1965 and 1976 Yearbooks. These former reports reveal careful study and thought in this difficult area, and form a necessary background for the discussion in our context.

The question may be raised as to why divorce is being studied again. The answers lie in two areas. The first is in the nature of God’s Word. The objective truth of God’s revelation in Scripture never changes. The first question for the Bible student is always: What does the Bible teach? Unfortunately, on the question of divorce, there is considerable disagreement as to what the Bible does teach. In the two decades since the 1965 report, conservative scholarship has produced an “uncertain sound”. The task thus becomes to study the Bible again on this subject with a view to a clear declaration of God’s will.

The second reason that divorce must be studied again is practical. God’s Word never changes, but our society does. As we minister in a society filled with divorced persons, the Bible Fellowship Church must deal with this practical reality. How can we be faithful to God and His Word? How can we redemptively work with those who are divorced? What is their role in the body of Christ? Such questions face our leadership regularly, and we must answer them. It is the desire of the committee not only to produce a paper which is true, but to produce a paper that is immediately applicable to the many difficult situations that now face us. In attempting to fit God’s truth into our contemporary context, we ant to avoid the pitfalls of permissiveness (allowing what God forbids), and legalism (forbidding what God allows).

The nature of the study will be exegetical, with occasional reference to key authors and books. There is no attempt to be exhaustive in this secondary research, but the committee concluded that its findings could not be presented without reference to certain eminent men and prevalent ideas. The two questions of the petitioning church will be addressed after the exegetical section. The paper concludes with specific applications concerning divorced persons and ministry in the Bible Fellowship Church.

Before considering the relevant Scripture passages, it is necessary to set forth careful definitions of both marriage and divorce.

Marriage is the union established between one man and woman by a divine bond, originally ordained by God as a life-long relationship between husband and wife (Genesis 2:18-25). The Bible describes this union as “two becoming one flesh”. This “one flesh” relationship is an unconditional commitment by a husband and wife to mutual affection (Genesis 2:18-22), shared duty (Ephesians 5:22-31), and sexual fidelity (I Corinthians 6:16-17). It is important to note that sexual union alone neither establishes a marriage bond nor dissolves it. (In Exodus 22:16-17, it is clear that sexual union alone has not established a marriage, See Heth and Wenham, p. 104).

Marriage is both a divine covenant and a legal contract, and is therefore subject to both the law of God in Scripture, and the laws of civil government established by Him. Because of the dual nature of jurisdiction concerning divorce (divine and civil law), a distinction is drawn between legitimate and illegitimate divorce. Although the exact terminology does not appear in Scripture, the committee believes there is strong exegetical support for the distinction.

Since God from the beginning intended marriage to be permanent, all divorce is a deviation from God’s law and design for marriage. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, God through Moses provided legislation concerning divorce. This however, is not to be understood as divine approval or sanction of divorce, but rather as a concession to the hardness of man’s heart (Matthew 19:7-8, see Murray, pp. 3-8). To speak then of divorce as legitimate or illegitimate is not to distinguish between that which pleases or displeases God (for God hates all divorce), but rather to distinguish between divorces which are and which are not lawful according to God’s Word.

A legitimate divorce is a divorce validated by both civil authorities and God. The only ground for a legitimate divorce in Scripture is sexual immorality (porneia). Since the bond of marriage is severed in God’s sight, the legitimate divorce frees both marriage partners to remarry. The full meaning of these statements will be presented later.

An illegitimate divorce is a divorce validated by civil authorities but not by God. A divorce granted for any grounds other than sexual immorality is illegitimate. In God’s sight, an illegitimately divorced person is still bound, is therefore not free to remarry, and commits adultery if in fact he or she does remarry.


The teaching of Jesus concerning divorce has been the subject of intense debate in evangelical circles in recent years. The Bible Fellowship Church has historically recognized adultery as a legitimate grounds for divorce, (see Faith and Order, pp. 44-45) and has based this teaching on the so-called “exception clause” of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. This position, however, has come under considerable attack today. Men such as Charles Ryrie, Paul Steele, and Bill Gothard hold that there is no legitimate divorce in Scripture. Since most of these men base their views on the research of William Heth and Gordon Wenham (as evidenced by their extensive use of their research in their own writings), the committee will address this position as it is presented in Heth and Wenham’s Jesus and Divorce (Nelson, 1984).

Before considering the relevant Gospel passages, it is necessary to address one of the chief reasons this viewpoint is being put forward, namely historical priority. Labelling this as the “Patristic” view, Heth and Wenham begin their book by presenting the view of the church fathers. It is their contention that the early church had a uniform and adequate understanding of the divorce passages in Scripture as always forbidding divorce and remarriage. “…On the subject of divorce and remarriage there was practically no dispute in the early church: for the first five centuries there was virtual unanimity on this issue from one end of the Roman Empire to the other.” (Heth\Wenham, p.21).

In contrast, they contend, the view of the modern evangelical church is a recent innovation first set forth by Erasmus, the Christian humanist of Reformation times (1469-1536). Luther, Calvin and other reformers adopted his view so that modern Protestantism is marked with a flawed, but uniform view they label “Erasmian”. Significantly, the book is subtitled “The Problem of the Evangelical Consensus.”

The assumption behind this argument, of course, is that no doctrinal view held uniformly by the early church should be laid to rest hastily, but only after compelling evidence is produced to demonstrate its error. Furthermore, it is assumed that, all things being equal, doctrinal views originating near the time of the writing of the New Testament are more likely to be accurate than those originating much later.

The committee believes that the historical argument, as a final authority, is invalid. The Preamble of our Faith and Order states, “the Bible Fellowship Church…submits to the written Word of God and to the Holy Spirit as its only sources of guidance and power…”(p.1). Article I: The Holy Scriptures, reads in part, “They are the supreme and final authority of faith and conduct.” (p.2). The Scriptures, and not human tradition, are the only ultimate source of truth.

On the specific question of divorce and remarriage, there is adequate reason to consider the testimony of the fathers as suspect. A tendency to asceticism and a dualistic view of spirit and flesh was marked in the early church. “With regard to domestic relations, the Church very early defended matrimony and yet more highly esteemed virginity…Second marriages were not permitted unless the first partner died prior to the baptism of the survivor, for baptism which washes away all previous sins also disposes of previous spouses.” (Roland Bainton, Early Christianity, pp.55-56). If the early church did not permit the remarriage of baptized widows, it should not surprise us that they uniformly interpreted Scripture so as to forbid the remarriage of divorced persons. Philip Schaff points out the probable reason for these views. “The enthusiasm for celibacy, which spread so soon throughout the ancient church, must be regarded as a one-sided, though natural and upon the whole, beneficial reaction against the rotten condition and misery of family life among the heathen.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church Vol.1, p.444).If, as Schaff contends, the early church was unduly reacting to pagan promiscuity, then its views on sex, marriage, and remarriage must be seen as somewhat unbalanced.

Added to that was the influence of dualism, which considered the spiritual life as good and the pleasures of this life as necessary evils at best. St. Augustine, whose influence was huge, held dualistic views. “Ideally, he believed there should be no sexual relations save for procreation, though he knew of no married couple that practiced such restraint…Augustine came close to wishing that God had devised some other expedient for procreation…” (Roland Bainton, Christendom Vol.1 p.130)

In such an environment not only remarriage of divorced persons, but remarriage of widows, even marriage itself was held in less esteem than celibacy. For these reasons, the committee believes that the uniform testimony of the church fathers cannot be viewed as decisive in this study. In any case, their view must be finally judged on its own Scriptural merits and not on the volume and consistency of the patristic witness to it.

A. Matthew 5:31-32

In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is correcting the erroneous views which the Scribes and Pharisees had of the Law of Moses. In the immediate context, Jesus is citing the misapplication that was being made concerning the seventh commandment (5:27-30). It is significant that in this discussion of adultery, divorce and remarriage are considered. Verse 31 is not a direct quotation of Deuteronomy 24:1-3, but is the oral rendition of the Scribes and Pharisees (cf. 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43). As cited by the authorities of Jesus’ day, the intent of Moses’ words is not to forbid or restrict divorce in any way but merely to legitimize it by the serving of a certificate of divorce. Jesus takes strong issue with them, saying that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and anyone that marries a divorced woman commits adultery (v. 32). In other words, the certificate of divorce alone does not dissolve the marriage bond, nor does it release the marriage partners to remarry. Remarriage by the woman thus divorced will constitute adultery on her part and the man who marries her will be guilty of adultery also.

It must be kept in mind that Jesus is not addressing remarriage in this context, but adultery. Remarriage is only mentioned insofar as it relates to adultery. Nevertheless, it can be seen that there is a divorce recognized in Scripture which does not dissolve the marriage bond, which does not grant freedom to remarry, and which does not prevent subsequent union from being condemned as adultery. It is a divorce validated by civil authorities but not by God. Such a divorce is labeled an illegitimate divorce by this committee.

The issue, however, is not whether or not Scripture speaks of an illegitimate divorce, but whether or not it allows for a legitimate divorce. It is here that the phrase “except for the cause of unchastity” (v.32 NASB) becomes important. The phrase must be considered as to its authenticity in the text, as to the meaning of the key word porneia, and as to its significance in the sentence.

With reference to its authenticity, it must be said that some question the clause here and in Matthew 19:9, suggesting it is “an editorial addition or modification.” (R. H. Charles, quoted by Murray, p. 46). Since the phrase is not found in Mark or Luke, it is posited that the practice of the primitive church led to the addition of these words. We reject such a suggestion outright for the following reasons: 1) Unless overwhelming textual evidence is available to remove it (and such is not available), then we receive it as our Lord’s teaching. We cannot remove portions of Scripture because we consider them difficult to understand. 2) If the primitive church held any view different from our Lord, it was a stricter view. Why then would it insert a liberalizing clause? 3) If the presence of the clause creates a difficulty in harmonizing Matthew with Mark and Luke, then what could be the origin of the phrase except our Lord’s own teaching? In other words, how could such a phrase appear in the text (creating the difficulties of interpretation it does) if it did not originate with the Lord Jesus?(See Murray, pp.46-50). We therefore conclude that the phrase “except for the cause of unchastity” (v.32) is authentic and must be reckoned with in the text as it stands.

What then, does “unchastity” mean? The Greek word here and in 19:9 is porneia, referred to in the Faith and Order (p. 44) as “adultery”. The word refers to sinful sexual intercourse, but includes illicit, clandestine relationships of every description. “Fornication is a general term for all unlawful intercourse” (Westcott on Ephesians 5:3). Since it is a general term for sexual sin, the term therefore cannot be restricted to pre-marital relations or to marriages contracted contrary to Levitical law (cf. Leviticus 18:6-18). The phrase does not refer to something which prevents a marriage from being legitimate. The word can, and does, include adultery, and therefore speaks of any sexual behavior which violates the marriage vow. It does, however, in every case, refer to physical activity, and cannot be reduced in meaning to lustful thoughts. (See Appendix A “Porneia”).

The phrase, “except for the cause of unchastity” must now be interpreted in the sentence. It is the view of this committee that the exception clause refers to the only grounds for divorce validated by God. In context, it is not a phrase which relaxes the grounds for divorce, but rather restricts them. While men were divorcing their wives for a multitude of reasons, Jesus said that they could do so for no other reason except porneia. Since adultery had been punishable by death in the Old Testament economy, Jesus’ words are to be seen as merciful and normative for the New Testament church. It should also be noted that porneia does not require divorce, but merely allows it. Even sexual infidelity can be forgiven.

The full teaching of Matthew 5:31-32 may be summarized then as follows: If a man divorces his wife for any reason other than sexual immorality, that divorce is illegitimate. If either partner remarries, they commit adultery together with their second spouse. The clause “except for the cause of unchastity (porneia)”, governs the one exception to this teaching.

B. Matthew 19:3-12

This passage is perhaps the most important one in this discussion, for it directly addresses the question of remarriage, and includes the exception clause in that context. It is in this passage that we will consider in length the view which denies legitimate divorce on any grounds and which forbids all remarriage of divorced persons.

The question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees caused Him to speak directly to the issues of divorce and remarriage (“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?”–v.3). The question must certainly be taken to mean “What are the grounds for divorce recognized by God?” and may well have been a “test” (v.3) concerning the competing schools of Hillel and Shammai. In any case, the Lord’s response demonstrated that they were not even asking the right question.

Jesus’ answer is an exposition of the meaning of marriage. He quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, drawing the conclusion that permanent monogamous marriage is God’s will (vv. 4-6).

The Pharisees again press Jesus with the legislation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Does this not legitimize divorce? Does not Moses in fact command us to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away? (v.7)

Jesus’ answer is significant. He reaffirms God’s original intention, and says that the Mosaic legislation is a concession to the “hardness of heart” displayed by sinful man. The “heart” refers to the inner core of a person’s being. It is the center of a person’s moral, spiritual, and intellectual life, and thus the source of all attitudes and actions. To call the heart “hard” is to describe it as resistent to change, difficult to influence, and unwilling to be molded by God’s Word. In this context, it refers to a resistance to God’s call for self-sacrificing, loving and forgiving behavior in marriage. Moses’ words are not a declaration of God’s ideal, but an accommodation to a world filled with hard-hearted people.

What follows is a statement subject to intense scrutiny. “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality (porneia), and marries another woman commits adultery” (v. 9, NASB). We have already seen the view of the committee. This view sees the exception clause as governing the one exception to Jesus’ statement concerning remarriage. A husband who divorces his wife (for reasons other than porneia), and remarries, commits adultery. But if the wife commits porneia, and the man divorces her and remarries, he does not commit adultery. The exception clause designates the one case in which adultery will not be committed in any subsequent marriage. By removing the exception clause, we see it clearly. “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery.” But if the divorce is because of porneia, remarriage is not viewed as adultery. It is a divorce validated by civil authorities and by God. Such a divorce, for the cause of porneia, is understood by this committee as a legitimate divorce. A legitimate divorce in Scripture is a divorce which dissolves the marriage bond, grants the former partners freedom to remarry, and does not involve the former partners in adultery in any subsequent marriage.

At this point we shall consider at length the view set forth by William Heth and Gordon Wenham. This view may be stated as follows:

The Bible, in no place, makes provision for legitimate divorce and remarriage. The bond of marriage can never be dissolved except by the death of one of the spouses. The exception clause of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 does not provide grounds for divorce, but fixes the blame for it. If a husband divorces his wife for causes other than porneia, he is the cause of adultery in any subsequent union. If, however, she commits porneia, she herself bears the blame for the adultery in any subsequent marriage. The exception clause fixes the responsibility for the adultery of a second marriage–either the husband who divorces for secondary reasons, or the wife for the sin of porneia. In the concluding chapter of their book, Heth and Wenham state, “It seems safest to say that Jesus gave an absolute prohibition of divorce and remarriage.” (Heth\Wenham, p.198)

The first Scriptural reason set forth by Heth and Wenham is exegetical. By understanding the exception clause as fixing responsibility and not establishing a legitimate ground for divorce, Heth and Wenham find the task of harmonizing Matthew with Mark and Luke simple. On the contrary, they contend, the Erasmian view forces a contradiction between Matthew and the other gospel accounts. “The Erasmian view of the Matthean clause is diametrically opposed to the clear teaching of Mark, Luke, and Paul.” (p. 122, Heth and Wenham)

The committee contends, on the contrary, that the troubling presence of the exception clauses does prevent any simple harmonization of the gospel accounts. Matthew gives the fullest teaching; in 5:32 the exception clause appears because Jesus is addressing the subject of adultery; in 19:9 He is answering the specific question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” In both these cases the exception clause is necessary for a full explanation. In Mark and Luke, however, no such necessity is present.

It is further seen why Heth\Wenham’s view is weak by the reason they set forth for the appearance of the exception clause. That reason is cultural, for they contend that Jewish law and custom would require a divorce in the case of adultery. In such a case, God would overlook the sin of divorce. “He, in all probability, is saying that He does not hold His disciples guilty for violating His absolute prohibition of divorce (Matthew 19:4-8) should they be forced by the mores of the community around them to put away a willfully adulterous spouse. Like Paul who did not confront head-on the problem of slavery in his day but encouraged believers to find their freedom in the Lord, Jesus exempts His disciples from the responsibility for the divorce which an unfaithful Jewish wife brings about.” (Heth\Wenham pp.125-126).

But is such an approach permissible? Does God ever lower His expectations of us because of the “mores” of our society? Would He ever “exempt” His people from a sin as grave as divorce? In the very passage in which this clause appears (5:27-32), Jesus says it is better to pluck out your eye and cut off your hand than to commit sin. Furthermore, there was equally strong cultural pressure for single persons to marry, yet, according to Heth and Wenham, the “eunuch saying” of Matthew 19:10-12 is a call to resist that pressure and remain single for the remainder of life. Why does Jesus accommodate to culture in the first case and defy it in the second?

It is better to regard the exception clause as delineating, in the two places it appears, the exceptions to the specific teaching in the context. In discussing adultery (5:27-32), Jesus calls the remarriage of divorced parties adulterous, unless the marriage was dissolved on grounds of porneia. In answering the specific question of the Pharisees, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”, Jesus uses the exception clause to state the one and only “cause” that a man may lawfully divorce his wife (Matthew 19:3-9). Such an explanation forces no contradictions with Mark or Luke, but allows each passage to stand on its own.

A second reason set forth by Heth and Wenham is syntactical. Without setting forth the detailed evidence, it is their belief that the position of the exception clause in 19:9 best favors their viewpoint. “It is our contention that if anyone may speak of an understanding of Matthew 19:9 that is grammatically “harsh” it is the Erasmian and not the early church view…” (Heth\Wenham p.116)

Heth and Wenham point out that if the exception clause occurred earlier in the sentence, it would require divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery. This is clearly not intended. If the clause occurred later in the sentence, they contend it would more clearly express the Erasmian view by joining together the verbs “divorces” and “remarries”. And since it is not there, it is clear to them that something other than the Erasmian view is intended, namely the limiting of the clause to the verb “whoever marries”.

In fact, however, the clause stands where it does in the sentence, and such hypothetical reasoning is without value. Since Heth and Wenham concede that the sentence as it stands can teach the Erasmian viewpoint, the committee sees this argument as indecisive (p. 118). Furthermore, such eminent Greek scholars as A. T. Robertson find no difficulty with the grammar in teaching the Erasmian view (Word Pictures pp. 154-155).

For the above reasons, the committee rejects the viewpoint which forbids divorce and remarriage on any grounds, and reaffirms the historic position of our church which recognizes sexual immorality as the legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage.

The passage concludes with the so-called “eunuch saying” (Matthew 19:10-12). When the disciples hear the stern words of Jesus concerning divorce and remarriage, their response is “It is better not to marry”. Though some understand these words to refer to marriage in general, the answer of Jesus would not then fit the context, for he would be saying that, as a rule, celibacy is preferred to marriage. Such a statement would be much out of place. (See vv. 4-5) Because of the presence of the definite article “the husband with the wife”, it is better to understand the saying in reference to the remarriage of the divorced persons mentioned in verse 9. In this case Jesus’ words would mean that it is better for divorced persons to remain unmarried. This is obviously true of those illegitimately divorced, for they stand liable for adultery. But even the legitimately divorced, though they do not sin by remarrying, will avoid many complications if they do not.

Jesus in effect agrees with the disciples, though qualifying what they say. In doing so he argues from the greater to the lesser. If there are eunuchs for other reasons, and people who have remained single “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (thus making themselves eunuchs), then divorced persons can live a single life too. However, Jesus adds, “Not all men can accept this statement” (v.11), and “He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (v.12). It is better for legitimately divorced persons, for the sake of more complete Christian service, to remain single. However, they are not forbidden to remarry.

C. Mark 10:2-12

It is not necessary to study this passage in great detail. Though similar to Matthew 19:3-12, it is not an exact parallel. The question is phrased differently and accordingly Christ’s answer is different. “And some of the Pharisees came to Him, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife.” (Mark 10:2 NASB). The significant phrase “for any cause” found in Matthew 19:3 is absent in Mark. For this reason the exception clause is not present. Jesus’ words then stand as a general teaching on divorce, declaring that those who divorce and remarry stand liable for adultery (vv. 11-12).

D. Luke 16:18

The context of this brief statement is the rebuke of Pharisaic practices. It certainly condemns the common practice of divorce and remarriage for trivial causes among Pharisees, labelling such as adultery. It is consistent with Christ’s other statements, and is concise though not intended to be comprehensive.


In I Corinthians 7 there is a series of instructions concerning the subjects of sex, singleness, marriage, and divorce given by the apostle Paul in response to the questions of the Corinthian church (v. 1). Verses 10-16 contain information critical to our understanding of divorce and remarriage.

There are three views of the teaching of this passage. The first view, advocated by this committee, is that these verses present Paul’s application of Jesus’ teaching on divorce to the situation of an unbelieving spouse divorcing a believing spouse. Paul is concerned that his application is consistent with Jesus’ teaching, including sexual immorality as the only legitimate grounds for divorce. The second view, supported by John Murray, is that Paul is giving additional teaching on divorce which provides a new legitimate ground for divorce, namely, the desertion of a believing spouse by an unbelieving one. This view posits grounds for divorce which Jesus never addressed and is therefore not contradictory. The third view, championed by Jay Adams, is that Paul is speaking to a situation never addressed by Jesus (namely marriage of a believer to an unbeliever) and in this situation alone, if the unbeliever divorces the believer on any grounds, the believer is free to remarry. Paul is not concerned with contradicting Jesus at this point, for he is addressing a new situation.

Verses 10-11 record instruction to married persons. It is important to note that whereas vv. 1-9 contain general principles and no absolute directives in their conclusions, verses 10-16 are in the form of commands. The first command is that marriage is to be a permanent and intimate relationship between husband and wife. It is God’s will for couples to continue in marriage and work out their differences through obedience, prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The authority of this command is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (v. 10). Paul differentiates here and in verse 12 between that which Christ taught in His earthly ministry and that which he himself now teaches as an apostle under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In all views, the distinction is not between that which is inspired and that which is not, or between that which is authoritative and that which is not. Rather, both Jesus and Paul bring inspired teaching which is authoritative in the life of the church. In our view, Paul authoritatively applies the teaching of Jesus to a situation never addressed by Jesus, but does so in a way which does not contradict or supercede the Lord. The other views do not apply the teaching of Jesus to a new situation, but introduce a new and different teaching from Paul to the new situation (i.e. a reason for divorce which Jesus never gave). The critical question in this passage is, “Is only the situation new or is the teaching also new?” The question then for the other views becomes, “If a new reason for divorce is introduced in this passage, why did Jesus not mention it when the question of reasons for divorce was put to Him directly?” (Matthew 19:3).

Paul seeks to build upon an implicit teaching of Jesus not otherwise known from the gospels, namely, the principle of reconciliation. Jesus explicitly spoke of divorce and subsequent marriages as adulterous, but did not explicitly speak of the reconciliation of former spouses. Paul’s citation of it (v.11) demonstrates his desire to be consistent with Jesus’ teaching. This forms the basis of Paul’s application to the new situation addressed in verses 12-16. If divorced persons, according to Jesus, are to remain unmarried or be reconciled to their original spouses (vv. 10-11) then, Paul reasons, the believer divorced by an unbeliever should also remain unmarried, pray for the salvation of the unbeliever, and hope for reconciliation (vv. 15-16). It also explains why Paul seeks to interject the believer’s hope for the salvation of the divorced unbeliever at the end of the passage (v. 16).

Specifically, the command is that the wife should not divorce (choristhanai) her husband, and the husband should not divorce (aphianai) his wife. If the wife should divorce her husband, she must remain unmarried (agamos) or be reconciled to her husband.

The major lexical works establish that chorizo is a formal term for divorce. “chorizo – seperate oneself, be separated. Of divorce…often in marriage contracts in the papyri, I Corinthians 7:10, 11, 15a,b.” (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich). “In the passive chorizo was often used in the papyri as a technical term in connection with divorce” (Colin Brown New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3, p. 534).

That the word choristhanai refers to divorce is evident from the context itself. If the wife choristha her husband, she is to remain unmarried (agamos) (v. 11). Therefore, to choristha is to “unmarry”. (See Adams, pp. 30, 32-33).

That the word aphianai refers to divorce in v. 11 is also clear. (See Bauer, Ardnt, Gingrich). Verse 12 and 13 forbid the believing partner in a marriage to leave (aphieto) the unbelieving partner. In verse 11, the word is set over against chorizo as the parallel or equivalent synonym in the command. It is evident that in first century society, apoluo, aphiami, and chorizo were technical terms for a legal divorce.

To summarize the teaching of verses 10-11, Jesus commands married persons to continue in that state. Should they become divorced, they are to remain unmarried or be reconciled to one another.

Verses 12-16 provide instruction for “the rest”, i.e. to those believers who are married to unbelievers. Jesus’ instruction in the gospels had addressed marriage in general terms. By citing the creation account, He obviously was speaking of marriage between believers, but also of marriage between unbelievers. What He had not addressed was the mixed marriage. Since Jesus had not spoken of this in His earthly ministry, “I (i.e. Paul) and not the Lord” bring the instruction. The commands relate to two possible situations in such a marriage. Verses 12-14 address the situation in which the unbelieving partner is content in the marriage. Verses 15-16 address the situation in which the unbelieving partner is not content to continue in the marriage.

The plain teaching of vv. 12-13 is that if the unbelieving partner is content to live with (i.e. continue to cohabitate with) the believing partner, then the believing partner is forbidden to divorce (aphiato). To quote the 1965 report, “the difference between belief and unbelief constitutes no grounds for separation or divorce” (p. 56, 1965 Yearbook).

The reason for this is seen in v. 14. The believing partner in the marriage places the unbelieving partner and any children of that union in a special relationship to God which may result in their salvation. “To be sanctified by the believer means that the unbelieving partner is ‘set aside’ to a ‘unique’ position where he/she is exposed regularly to the gospel and the Holy Spirit’s influences. It does not mean saved.” (Adams, p. 46 notes).

Verses 15-16 now consider the other possibility in a mixed marriage. The unbelieving partner may insist upon a divorce (chorizetai). The command of Scripture is for the believing partner to allow that divorce to take place (chorizestho). This is not a command or even a concession to the unbeliever, but is directed to the believer if such takes place.

At this point we must consider at length the second view of this passage, namely that it sets forth desertion of the unbelieving partner as a legitimate grounds for divorce. It is most forcefully presented in John Murray’s classic book Divorce, and will be considered in the light of that work.

Murray’s thesis is that if the unbelieving partner deserts the believer on the sole grounds of the believer’s faith and holy life, this constitutes a legitimate ground for divorce and remarriage in addition to sexual immorality as taught by Jesus in the gospels. “The infidelity of the deserting party may so condition the complexion of the act of desertion that, like adultery, it provides proper ground for releasing the Christian spouse from the marital bond.” (Murray, p. 75)

Murray’s whole argument hinges on the translation of the phrase “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves (chorizetai), let him leave (chorizestho)” (NASB, v. 15a). Murray’s “desertion” grounds for divorce stands or falls on the translation of the word chorizo in this sentence. Murray understands chorizo in this sentence to refer to desertion by the unbeliever, thus making it a legitimate ground for divorce. Yet, there is not one sentence concerning the meaning of chorizo in his book. Adams, on the other hand, discusses it at length and proves that the word means divorce (pp. 32-35). “Wherever the word separation (chorizo) appears in the NT in connection with divorce, therefore, it always refers to separation by divorce” (Adams, p. 33). The exegetical proof is seen in this same paragraph, for in v. 11 it says that if the wife divorces (choristha) her husband, then she is in a state of being unmarried (agamos).

It can be seen then that the grounds for divorce are not discussed at all in verse 15. It simply says, “If the unbeliever divorces, let him divorce.” To say otherwise is to argue that divorce is grounds for divorce. The committee therefore concludes that desertion by the unbeliever is not a legitimate ground for divorce, and that the introduction of that concept into this passage serves only to confuse the issue.

Verse 15 continues to address the believer who has been divorced (for whatever reasons) by an unbelieving partner. “The brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace” (NASB).

Obviously the meaning of the phrase “is not under bondage” (ou dedoulotai) is critical to the proper understanding of this text. Does the phrase teach that a believer who has been divorced by an unbeliever on any grounds is not “bound” and is free to remarry? And if that believer does remarry, why isn’t the second marriage considered adulterous (as Jesus teaches in Matthew 19:9)? Or is it to be understood in some other way?

Jay Adams, in his recent book Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible, understands this passage to allow for the remarriage of Christians divorced on any grounds by an unbeliever. This third view concedes no legitimate grounds for such a divorce. “Paul gives no reasons for the unbeliever’s desire to break up the marriage. The Christian is not restricted to certain grounds only. The permissive imperative, ‘let him depart’ applies to any case in which the unbeliever no longer wishes (or ‘agrees’) to ‘live with’ the believer (cf. vv. 12-13) – regardless of what that reason may be” (Adams, p. 47, note 7). Yet, Adams insists that the believer who has been illegitimately divorced by an unbeliever may remarry without committing adultery. “All the bonds of marriage have been removed. He is released entirely from every marriage obligation, and is a totally free person. Nor is there any obligation to be reconciled in marriage”. “It is assumed in the Bible that wherever Scripture allows divorce, remarriage also is allowed.” “If he is free, he is free to remarry.” (Adams, pp. 48, 85, 86). Thus it can be seen that this third position maintains: 1) that a divorce between the believer and the unbeliever may be on any grounds, yet 2) it is a legitimate exception to Jesus’ teaching and frees the believer to remarry.

The committee takes issue with this interpretation for several reasons: first, Adams and others contend that in every case where the Bible recognizes divorce, it also allows remarriage. But, this is patently false. It would be more correct to say that wherever the Bible grants a legitimate divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality, it also allows remarriage. In this same passage, it is taught that if a wife divorces a husband, she is not free to remarry another man, but must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband (v. 11). Furthermore, Jesus speaks repeatedly of divorced persons who must avoid remarriage to anyone other than their original spouse, lest they commit adultery (Matthew 5:32, 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18). In the case of the divorced believer spoken of in verse 15, there is no a priori reason to assume there is freedom to remarry, and a compelling reason to believe there is not. This leads us to the second objection.

If, as Adams contends, this passage permits the remarriage of the illegitimately divorced believer, then there is certainly a conflict with the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. For if the believer was divorced for any grounds other than sexual immorality, according to Jesus, any subsequent marriage would constitute adultery (Matthew 5:32). Murray feels the weight of this argument:

…how can such an interpretation be compatible with Matthew 5:32, 19:9? Our Lord, as found already, allows only one reason for which a man may put away his wife; his pronouncements leave no room for doubt that adultery is the only cause. But if, in the circumstance with which we are now dealing, the believer deserted may remarry, is there not another reason for which marriage may be dissolved? And how can the Pauline teaching be reconciled with the Lord’s teaching?…(Murray, p. 69)

Murray sees the necessity of establishing another legitimate ground for divorce in I Corinthians 7, and suggests desertion as that ground. The committee agrees with Murray that unless a legitimate ground for divorce is established in this passage, any remarriage will then conflict with Jesus’ teaching. It disagrees with Murray, however, that any such grounds can be found. The remarkable fact is that Adams openly states that the grounds for divorce may be illegitimate and yet fails to see the subversion of Jesus’ standard in the gospel. Apart from the grounds of sexual immorality, Jesus says that any remarriage of divorced persons will result in adultery.

Adams’ response to this is to insist that Jesus’ teaching in the gospels is limited in application to the marriage of believers as discussed in vv. 10-11. Verse 15 then, need not harmonize with the Lord’s teaching. But we have already seen that Paul labors to show the continuity of this whole passage. Reconciliation between spouses is introduced in verse 11 for the very purpose of directing the divorced believer in verse 15 to remain unmarried and hope for the salvation of the unbeliever. It is unwarranted to divide this passage, especially when it produces a direct contradiction with other Scripture. Furthermore, why would God have such a high view of marriage between two believers, between two unbelievers, but not between a believer and an unbeliever?

The third reason the committee rejects this interpretation relates to the phrase “is not under bondage” (ou dedoulotai). It is fair to say that both Adams and Murray place the weight of their positions on this phrase. For, they argue, if the believer is not bound to the marriage bond, but is free, then this passage permits the remarriage of the believer divorced by an unbeliever. Both authors draw upon the supposed parallels in this passage to Romans 7:2-3 and I Corinthians 7:27 and 39. (Murray, pp. 74-75, Adams, p. 48). It is necessary to consider this evidence in detail.

In Romans 7:2-3 and I Corinthians 7:39, Paul teaches that a wife is bound (dedetai) to her husband as long as he lives. If he dies, the widow is free (eleuthera) to remarry another believer. Adams makes a special appeal to I Corinthians 7:27-28, where the statement is made, “Are you bound (dedesai) to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do remarry, you have not sinned.” (Adams, pp. 84-86) But this passage says nothing concerning the reasons for divorce. It can hardly be pressed into service to permit what Jesus expressly forbids. Is the illegitimately divorced person of Matthew 19:9 “released”? Is the divorced woman of v. 11 “released”? The most that can be said of the passage is that it speaks to those who are legitimately divorced from a partner on grounds of sexual immorality.

The committee disagrees with the practice of drawing such parallels. The word used for “bound” in I Corinthians 7:15 is douloo, which means “to become a slave to someone” (Bauer, Ardnt & Gingrich). The supposed parallel passages use a different word, deo, which is used of “binding by law or duty” (B. A. & G.) Murray and Adams both concede this, and even admit that douloo is the stronger word. But both fail to see the distinction. I Corinthians 7:15 is not a parallel. It teaches that the divorced believer is still bound by moral law to the unbeliever, but is not enslaved to the requirements of the marriage. Even Murray admits to this possibility:

The verb used can be interpreted as freedom from another bondage than that of release from the marriage bond…most grievous of all would be the obligation to pursue the deserting partner and under such conditions endeavor, as best he or she could, to fulfill marital function…Since the force outlined above gives adequate meaning to the term in question, is it not precarious to go farther and posit a much stronger meaning when the issue at stake is so important and far reaching?…On the basis of such considerations as these it is difficult to make out a strong or valid case for the view that ou dedoulotai means dissolution. (Murray, pp. 72-73)

One further reason to reject such parallels is the use of the word “free” (eleuthera). It is the use of this word in Romans 7:3 and I Corinthians 7:39 that provides the right to remarry (not the phrase “not bound”). It is striking that in the passages which speak of the death of a spouse, eleuthera is always used to denote the survivor’s liberty to remarry. It is equally striking that eleuthera is absent in I Corinthians 7:15, and all the more so if this is the sole passage in the Bible which presents an exception to the clear teaching of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. We agree with Adams that “if he is free, he is free to remarry”. However, the passage does not say he is free (eleuthera)!

If the phrase “is not under bondage” does not refer to the legal bond (deo) of marriage and does not free a person to remarry, what then does it mean? The committee believes that the bond of slavery (douloo) here spoken of is the moral obligation to fulfill the requirements of marriage, namely cohabitation, the fulfilling of one another’s sexual needs, procreation, child-rearing, mutual support, financial obligation, etc. What shall a believer do if the unbeliever does not permit him/her to fulfill the requirements of the marriage? Pursue him or her? Try to fulfill them anyway? Is that what God requires? No, let them divorce, God says, for you have been called to peace.

In review then, the teaching of verse 15 is: If an unbelieving marriage partner seeks a divorce from a believer, the believer is commanded to allow the divorce to take place. The believer is not bound to the requirements of the marriage, for God has called him to peace. The believer is not free to remarry, however, for the divorce is illegitimate (i.e. sexual immorality has not been committed).

Verse 16 then, specifically applies the concept of reconciliation to the divorce of the believer and the unbeliever. It calls upon the believing partner to hope in the power of the gospel. The Lord is able to save the unbelieving spouse and make it possible for the marriage to be restored. The believer is to remain unmarried, pray for the salvation of the former spouse, and hope for the restoration of the marriage.

The committee believes this is the only interpretation consistent with the context of the whole paragraph and with Jesus’ teaching on the reconciliation of divorced persons. If, as in other views, the marriage is finished and the believer is free to remarry, what then is the point of this verse? To understand the rhetorical question as negative is to destroy the concept of reconciliation established in verse 11. Rather it declares the positive hope of the gospel to a believer faced with very trying circumstances.


The teaching of the previous section may be summarized in the following principles:

1. The Sanctity of Marriage God’s will is for marriage to be permanent. Because all divorce is a result of hardened and impenitent hearts (Mark 10:6-9, I Corinthians 7:10-11) there can be no “innocent party”. On the contrary, both parties in a divorce are to a greater or lesser extent guilty and must seek the Lord’s forgiveness and strength to overcome sins which led to the sin of divorce. For this reason no one should counsel a person to get a divorce, nor should anyone file for divorce.

2. The Possibility of Forgiveness There is no sin which requires divorce. Even sexual immorality can be confessed and forsaken and forgiveness granted. For this reason couples should always confess and forsake their own sins and forgive the sins of their partner.

3. The Ground of Divorce Because of the hardness of man’s heart, God’s law provides one legitimate reason for divorce, namely sexual immorality. A person thus legitimately divorced is free to remarry. A person divorced for reasons other than sexual immorality is illegitimately divorced, is not free to remarry and commits adultery if he or she does remarry. For this reason the illegitimately divorced person should not remarry.

4. The Call to Reconciliation God’s will for the divorced person is to remain unmarried or be reunited to his or her former partner (I Corinthians 7:11). In the case of a believer divorced by an unbeliever, the believer is to pray for the salvation of the unbeliever and the restoration of the marriage (I Corinthians 7:15-16). The believer in this case is not free to remarry. For this reason divorced persons should remain single and to pray for the restoration of their broken marriage.

5. The Possibility of Remarriage If a legitimately divorced person’s former partner remarries, reconciliation has become impossible (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). If one of the parties in an illegitimate divorce is remarried to a third party, adultery has been committed and reconciliation becomes impossible. In this case the divorce which began as illegitimate becomes legitimate, for the two requirements for a lawful divorce are fulfilled, namely, sexual immorality and a civil dissolution of the marriage. Persons thus divorced are free to remarry (See Murray, pp. 98-101). For this reason divorced persons whose former spouses have remarried may exercise their liberty to remarry.

It may be objected at this point that the dropping of the distinction between the “innocent” and “guilty” party will allow people to “do evil that good may come”, i.e. to commit sin in order to legitimize divorce and remarriage.

The committee responds that the distinction between the guilty and innocent party is not found in Scripture. Since all divorce is contrary to God’s will, both parties are guilty to some extent. Both parties are called to repentance and reconciliation. And if divorced, both parties are called to a single life until they are reunited.

If the divorce is on the grounds of sexual immorality, it is a lawful divorce in God’s sight. Though both parties are free to remarry, both parties are called to repentance over the sin of divorce and to reconciliation. Remarriage should only be considered when reconciliation becomes impossible.

If an illegitimately divorced person commits the sin of sexual immorality in order to legitimize his or her divorce and remarriage they have tempted God in the most presumptuous way and can only expect His wrath. Such a person is self-condemned. God’s Word does not guard against every foolish act of hardened persons, but does provide clear guidance for the truly penitent sinner.

In practice, the above principles resolve many difficult situations and provide clear guidance for the truly penitent. Let us consider three examples.

Bill, an unbeliever, divorces his believing wife Jane, for incompatibility. God calls Jane to remain unmarried (since the divorce is illegitimate) and to pray for Bill’s salvation and the restoration of their marriage. If Bill becomes a Christian, the foundation is laid for the rebuilding of their marriage. If Bill continues in unbelief and remarries another woman, the divorce is now legitimate and reconciliation is impossible. Jane is now free to remarry.

John, a believer, divorces his believing wife, Mary, for incompatibility. The Lord calls upon both of them to remain unmarried (since their divorce is illegitimate), and to be reconciled. If, by God’s grace, they are reconciled, they should be remarried to each other. But in the case that one party remarries a third party, the remaining party must view the divorce as now legitimate, for it falls under the censure of Jesus, and reconciliation has become impossible. The remaining party is then free to remarry.

Tom, a believer, is divorced by his believing wife, Susan. She has admitted to the sin of sexual immorality. Though legitimately divorced, the church counsels Tom to remain single and pray for Susan’s repentance. If she is reconciled to Tom, the marriage can be restored. If Susan remarries, reconciliation is impossible and Tom is free to remarry.

Examples such as these demonstrate how the Lord can give guidance to His church and to people who want to obey the principles of His Word. By applying these truths: 1) the sanctity of marriage, 2) the possibility of forgiveness, 3) sexual immorality as the only ground for legitimate divorce, 4) the call to reconciliation, and 5) the possibility of remarriage after reconciliation has become impossible, the church and the believer are equipped to deal with the many practical questions which face them.


A. Counselling

The role of the church in divorce and remarriage is critical, especially as it provides counsel. Based upon the above principles, the committee recommends the following guidelines for church leaders in dealing with divorce and remarriage.

1. Since marriage from the beginning was intended to be permanent, the church should never counsel in favor of divorce and should always counsel in favor of continuance in marriage.

2. Since the blood of Christ can wash away all sin and since the Holy Spirit can overcome all sinful dispositions, the church should always counsel couples to confess their sins one to another, to grant mutual forgiveness (even for the sin of sexual immorality), and to seek God’s strength to continue in marriage.

3. Since God can do all things by His wisdom and power, the church should always counsel divorced persons to remain single, pray for reconciliation, and hope for the restoration of their marriages.

4. Since remarriage on the part of a divorced person renders reconciliation impossible, the church may counsel the remaining partner of this fact and of his or her liberty to remarry.

5. Since it is better for the kingdom’s sake even for legitimately divorced persons not to marry, the church should caution divorced persons concerning remarriage.

It is the opinion of this committee that the church should not declare innocence or guilt concerning the parties in a divorce, but rather seek to confront and counsel each party on the degree of guilt they share for the sin of divorce.

It is further believed that the church should not declare the divorce as legitimate or illegitimate until such time as the question of remarriage is raised. The church’s duty is to call divorced persons to reconciliation (I Corinthians 7:11). If one party remarries against the counsel of the church, the remaining party is now unable to be reconciled and is free to remarry, in the Lord. At this point the church should declare itself on the legitimacy of the divorce and the liberty for the remaining partner to marry.

B. Remarriage of Divorced Persons

In agreement with the Faith and Order (p. 45), we recommend that Bible Fellowship pastors take no part in the marriage ceremony of illegitimately divorced persons. It should be noted, however, that no Bible Fellowship pastor is required to participate in the wedding of a legitimately divorced person. It may well be for conscience sake, or because he is not satisfied that the divorced person’s past has been dealt with, that the pastor may refuse to marry them. Certainly he has a responsibility to prepare the divorced person for remarriage through prayer and instruction which is received with confession of sin and reformation of life. Furthermore, the pastor may refuse to marry a divorced person if reconciliation is still possible. If the divorced person’s former partner is still unmarried, the door is open for God to heal the relationship, and remarriage should not be entered into.

If a divorced person approaches a pastor concerning marriage, the following questions should be raised:

“Is your former partner remarried, thus making reconciliation impossible?” If the partner has not been remarried, then the pastor should counsel the person to pray for reconciliation with the former partner.

“Is the divorce legitimate?” If the former partner is remarried, the divorce is now legitimate, regardless of the circumstances at the time of the divorce.

“Is the sin of divorce repented of?” Until the divorced person recognizes his share in the guilt and repents of it, he or she cannot move into another marriage.

“Has there been reformation of life?” The pastor should counsel with the person extensively on the areas of life which led to the collapse of the first marriage. He has every right to refuse to participate in the wedding until he is satisfied that godly habits have replaced sinful ones. Only after he has received satisfactory answers to each of these questions should the pastor proceed with the wedding ceremony.

It is strongly believed that pastors should act on behalf of, and with the informed support of the local board of elders in these situations. This applies the principle of corporate leadership to an area which desperately needs sound wisdom and deliberate action. (See Appendix B, “Guidelines for Helping Divorced Persons”).

C. Discipline

Preventative discipline should have the priority in dealing with divorce. Sound preaching and teaching about marriage is the first and foremost safeguard against divorce. Extensive and comprehensive premarital counselling should take place. The church should also provide resources for those facing marriage problems, including counselling opportunities both within and without the church fellowship.

Corrective discipline must be applied to those contemplating divorce. Following the procedure outlined in Matthew 18:15-18, the church should warn those contemplating divorce of the personal harm and heartache they will bring upon themselves, as well as their guilt before the Lord.

Corrective discipline must also be applied to those who have completed a divorce. In this case the church should call the divorced person to repentance and reconciliation with the Lord, with the church, and with the former partner.

Corrective discipline must finally be applied to those who are divorced and remarried. As stated earlier, every effort should be made to restore the marriage as long as neither partner remarries (I Corinthians 7:10-11). If a person remarries while the possibility of reconciliation remains, he or she should be disciplined. Such a person should be considered as under church discipline until there is genuine evidence of confession and repentance of sin.

As always, church discipline is to be applied in these cases for the honor of Christ, the purity of the church, and the well-being of the offender. The church must always be open to welcome and receive those who have truly repented of sins and been restored by the saving grace of God.


One of the key issues in our churches today is the status of divorced persons in our midst. How shall they be treated? To be lenient is interpreted by some as lowering the standard of God’s holiness. To be strict is interpreted by others as negating the standard of God’s mercy. The specific questions of the petitioning church are related to this issue, namely the questions of marriage as a creation ordinance and the new creation in Christ Jesus.

A. Marriage as a Creation Ordinance

Page 49 of the 1965 Yearbook states that since marriage was ordained prior to the Fall, it is therefore a creation ordinance. As such it pertains to all men at all times and in all places, and is not restricted to the covenant community. The implication drawn from this is that marriage is to be permanent for all men, and divorce is therefore sinful for all men. For this reason divorce prior to conversion is not to be seen as any less wrong than divorce after conversion, for in both cases the divorce represents a failure to meet God’s ideal for marriage. “What God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6).

Although a valid and helpful concept, the fact that the divorced person has broken a creation ordinance does not imply that his or her sin is any more heinous than other sins committed. Nor does it imply that full forgiveness is based on anything other than the blood of Christ. Nor does it imply that a person’s character is necessarily marred for the rest of life. Rather it establishes the fact that divorce is always culpable, regardless of the spiritual condition of the person at the time of the divorce. This culpability is based not on his knowledge or acceptance of God’s Word, but on his responsibility as a creature to the Creator.

The committee therefore states its opposition to any who view the divorced Christian as inferior to other repentant sinners on the basis of the concept of creation ordinance. Furthermore, the committee emphatically denies that this or any other concept provides Scriptural reason to treat divorced Christians as “second class” believers. If they have repented of sin and trusted in Christ, they are justified and completely accepted by the Lord Jesus Christ. The church cannot reject or condemn those whom God has received and forgiven.

B. The New Creation and Divorce

The petitioning church has raised the question of the “new creation” which takes place in the life of a person at conversion and its relationship to divorce. Does not, it is argued, the new creation remove the old–including divorce? Is it not possible, at least in some cases, that the process of Christian maturity and sanctification can completely remove not only the sinful dispositions which led to divorce but also the reproach attached to it?

The committee wrestled with this question at length and has reached the following conclusion: The “new creation” (II Corinthians 5:17) brought about by the new birth does indeed redirect a person’s life so that the sinful behavior leading to divorce may be substantially removed. The presence and the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer grants new aspirations and abilities to please God in all things. However, this “new creation” does not necessarily remove all of the effects of the former life of sin. The person murdered is still dead, the stolen money is still spent, the baby born out of wedlock is still present. The regenerated drunkard with cirrhosis, the regenerated smoker with lung cancer, the regenerated homosexual with AIDS will still have these diseases.

The committee believes that the sin of divorce, though treated lightly by our society, is a grave sin, and one which also has lasting effects. Being a deliberate action, it is not committed without a prior pattern of failure in family living. Once committed, it represents not a single case of being overtaken in sin, but the culmination of a host of sins. Furthermore, a stigma is attached to divorce because of its ready visibility. Finally, there are continuing ramifications in every divorce, ranging from the settlement of physical property, to relationships with mutual friends and former in-laws, to children now deprived of a stable home.

The divorced person who becomes a “new creation in Christ Jesus” has the joyful knowledge that he is justified before the Father, washed in the blood of the Lamb, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He can be confident that the process of sanctification has begun and will continue until the day of Jesus Christ. Yet a great work lies before him in putting away the sinful habits which led to divorce and putting on holy habits of obedience. Some ongoing effects of his divorce may be out of his control, and the measurable fact that he is divorced can never be undone.

C. Conclusion

In answer to the question, “How should divorced persons be treated in the church?” the committee responds, “Just like everyone else.” Divorced persons, like everyone else, are accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s death through repentance and faith. Divorced persons, like everyone else, must work out their salvation with fear and trembling through the process of sanctification. Divorced persons, like everyone else, must live with the ongoing effects and stigmas of past sin. And divorced persons, like everyone else, should exercise their spiritual gifts in those areas of service which the church sees as appropriate to their ability and spiritual maturity.


The Bible Fellowship Church bars those who are divorced and those married to divorced persons from serving in the office of Elder (ruling and teaching). The committee reaffirms this position based on its study of the qualifications for church leadership. Briefly stated, it is not the sin of divorce that disqualifies a man from serving as an elder, but the effect of the divorce on his reputation. A divorced man or a man married to a divorced woman does not meet the Scriptural qualifications of “above reproach” (I Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:7) and “a good reputation with those outside the church” (I Timothy 3:7). There is a distinct and unique dignity attached to the office of elder in the New Testament. This dignity is not conferred by the changing values of society, but by the changeless verities of Scripture. It is not as the office is viewed by man, but as it is seen by God, that this dignity exists. The qualifications for an Old Testament priest were the same in every generation, though the level of spirituality ebbed and flowed in Israel. This standard was upheld because the priest stood before the holy God, and because God’s holiness was to be reflected in those who ministered before Him. Therefore, only those of the line of Aaron, only those who were physically whole (Leviticus 21:16-24), only those who avoided touching the dead (Leviticus 21:1), only those who avoided fornication and adultery (Leviticus 21:7) were qualified to serve as priests. In preparation for service, they washed their hands and feet (Exodus 30:17-21), and while serving avoided wine and beer (Leviticus 10:9) and imitation of pagan practices (Leviticus 21:5). In all these ways, God set the priests apart as “holy”, consecrated to Him and His purpose.

The standard for New Testament leaders is likewise established by God, for elders both serve the Lord and represent Him to the world of men. The qualifications, or qualities, prerequisite to the office emphasize this repeatedly: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach…he must have a good reputation with those outside the church” (I Timothy 3:2,7), “if any man be above reproach…the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward” (Titus 1:6,7). It is not too much to say that this quality is listed first as the general category, and that all the other terms listed describe it. Furthermore, a warning is set forth that a failure in reputation can cause a fall into reproach and is a snare of the devil. (I Timothy 3:7).

This central qualification of being “above reproach” is not entirely local or subject to the changing values of contemporary culture. On the contrary, we have every reason to believe that Paul directed his assistants to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5) according to the stated criteria. Because similar lists of qualifications appear in both I Timothy and Titus, we have evidence that these requirements were standard in all the churches. Even in Crete, where their own poets admitted the “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12), the standard of being “above reproach” was maintained for elders. Lax societal conditions did not effect the standard of the Lord for those who serve Him.

The committee’s statement that divorce prevents a man from being “above reproach” has several reasons behind it. The first, and most important, is that divorce (for whatever reason) does have a stigma attached to it. A divorced person has a public and permanent mark of serious failure in God’s sight upon him. This disqualifies him from serving as an elder. It is notthat God will not forgive the sin of divorce, nor that His grace is insufficient to sanctify the divorced person. Rather it is that the divorced person disqualifies himself from serving in that one office which most nearly represents the Lord to the people.

Having set forth the objective and unchanging reason, the committee would add that other Scriptural qualifications applied to divorced men frequently disqualify them on a subjective basis. One of the main qualifications is “manages his own household well” (I Timothy 3:4), and a related pair, “keeping his children under control with all dignity” (I Timothy 3:4) and “having children who believe” (Titus 1:6). A divorced man has demonstrated gross mismanagement of his household in the past, and, if children are present, he may find it impossible to fulfill his ongoing responsibilities to parent those children in the Lord.

The “husband of one wife” qualification (I Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6), is literally rendered “a one-woman man”. It embodies faithfulness to all the elements that a marriage contains, namely: affection, duty, and sexual fidelity. These three elements have implications for polygamy to be sure, but cannot be exhaustively understood as only applying to polygamy (see like phrase in I Timothy 5:9 “the wife of one man”). It is possible that a divorced man may also prove not to be a one-woman man because of a lack of affection, duty and\or sexual fidelity. This phrase has relevance to the single man as well, although it does not necessitate a man to be married. Every candidate for the office of elder must be measured against this standard, whether he is single, married, a polygamist, or divorced.

Though any of these qualifications may be met over the course of time through the Christian growth of a divorced man, in some cases (especially where children are present) they cannot be, and in every case they relate to the central qualification concerning the dignity of the office of the elder.

By recommending that divorced men not serve as elders, the committee is not seeking to restrict their involvement in every other aspect of fellowship and service in the church. On the contrary, if elders are engaged in authoritative teaching and ruling, then divorced men may and should serve in any other capacity in the church as the local situation dictates and personal maturity and stability enables. An unbiblical discrimination against divorced persons in our churches with respect to fellowship and service must be guarded against. If such discrimination exists, repentance is required by the church.

On the question of whether or not a divorced man or a man married to a divorced woman may serve as a deacon, the committee noted a tension in the Biblical data. On the one hand, the qualifications for the office of deacon (I Timothy 3:8-13, cf. Acts 6:3) are almost identical as those for the office of elder. This includes not only the high standards for family living (v. 12), but also the requirement of being “above reproach” (v. 10, cf. Titus 1:6,7). This might suggest that such men should not serve as deacons.

On the other hand, a critical difference is found in the one qualification unique to elders, namely, “able to teach” (I Timothy 3:2). Since a man teaches by both his exemplary life and his sound words, and since the two offices have separate purposes (i.e. elders rule; deacons serve), it is believed by others that the office of elder has a unique dignity that distinguishes it from the office of deacon. They contend that this qualification (“able to teach”) sufficiently reflects on a person’s ability to authoritatively teach and rule as to warrant a separate standard on this issue. (See Appendix C “Divorce and the Qualifications for Deacons”)


In bringing this paper to a close, several observations need to be made. The first relates to the complexity of the issue. The committee has attempted in every case to be convincing, yet concise. In those areas where controversy is possible, fuller presentations are made. It was our judgment that Scripture exegesis is most critical, thus those sections comprise over half of the paper.

Second, consistency in all parts was the constant goal of the committee. It may appear at first glance that contradictions occur in the paper, but we believe a more careful examination will remove them. The five principles in section IV are an attempt to bring together the committee’s findings.

Third, it will be observed that this paper is for the most part “conservative”, i.e. in the strict sense that it conserves the historic position of the Bible Fellowship Church. This is unintentional in that the method of the committee was to study Scripture first without respect to conservative or liberal bias. We asked, “What does Scripture say?”, not “Should we change the Faith and Order?”

Finally, the committee labored throughout to find the compassionate approach to those affected by divorce. A meeting did not pass without members sharing specific heart-wrenching cases from their own ministries. The committee’s findings flow from a practical, not an academic context. Yet we worked with the conviction that true compassion would only be shown when it was expressed in Biblical attitudes and actions.

It is the sincere prayer of this committee that the Lord would equip us as a church to minister faithfully and compassionately to those affected by divorce in our society. By upholding His Word, we will see that His commands are not burdensome, but rather are the path to peace. By showing His love, we will become a refuge where those broken by divorce can find welcome and the resources necessary to rebuild their lives upon the Lord. May the Lord grant to His church to fully affirm and accept those He has graciously forgiven and restored in His Son Jesus Christ.

Philip E. Morrison, Chairman

David A. Thomann, Secretary

Bert N. Brosius

G. Wayne Clapier

Randall A. Grossman

Calvin T. Reed

James A. Wickstead




porneia – The noun form appears 26 times in the New Testament

porneuo – The verb form appears 7 times in the New Testament

1. The two words are translated “fornication” each of the 33 times that they appear in the King James Version.

2. The two words are translated as follows in the New International Version:

a. marital unfaithfulness 2 times

b. sexual immorality 23 times

c. illegitimate 1 time

d. immorality 2 times

e. sexual sins 1 time

f. adulteries 8 times (all these in Revelation)

3. The word in general refers to “every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse” (Bauer, Arndt, & Gingrich).

4. The word has three specific references:

a. The physical prostitution of one’s body to lust

b. The physical act of unlawful sexual intercourse

c. The spiritual activity of infidelity to God by worshipping idols.

5. The word appears in Matthew 5:32, 19:9. In these verses it refers to any deviation of physical sexual fidelity within the bond of marriage. This sexual immorality cannot be equated with the sin of adultery (moixaomai) which Jesus condemns as sin in Matthew 5:28. Jesus there refers to “lust in the heart.” The sin which Jesus condemns is the sexual fantasy of adultery rather than the physical act of adultery.

6. The context of the 33 times that the words porneia and porneuo appear in the New Testament demand an interpretation of “physical sexual immorality”, except for the 8 times that they appear in the book of Revelation. There the reference is to the spiritual activity of infidelity, i.e. idolatry.APPENDIX B

Guidelines for Helping Divorced Persons

The pastor who deals with a person who has been divorced must always remember that he, too, is a sinner and must approach the situation in an attitude of love and gentleness. This is very clear in Galatians 6:1, “you who are spiritual, restore…in a spirit of gentleness…looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

If we approach a divorced person with this attitude we will be able to minister to those who have undergone this tragedy in their life. In gentleness follow these suggestions:

1. Divorce is often a shattering personal experience. No matter how much the other party is to blame, each person still must deal with a sense of personal failure, loss of self-esteem and often guilt. Assure them of their worth in God’s eyes, and that they are loved and special. Assure them of His power to help them overcome their failure. Help them to deal with their guilt on the basis of God’s forgiveness (I John 1:9).

2. Help them to deal with some of the difficult questions that they may be asking themselves: What is wrong with me? Could I have done more to avoid the divorce? Were the faults that I found unbearable in the other somehow reflections of faults within me? If the other was involved in adultery, might I have driven him or her to that action because of my coldness or indifference to them? Was I too busy with things outside the home? Was I too involved with the children?

Each one of these questions will need careful and objective thought. A concerned individual outside of the situation can help them through the process.

3. The divorced person has many relationships that will need healing. Children, in-laws, friends, etc. are affected by the divorce. Often there is much alienation that needs to be dealt with.

Dealing with these matters can not be accomplished in a few short visits. It takes commitment on the part of the pastor to stay with the situation and work to find answers and heal relationships over a period of time.

The divorced person may not receive the pastor warmly at first. Be patient, loving, be a good listener and simply be available.

4. Seek to enlist the aid and interest of others in the divorced person’s life. Encourage other church officers to visit as well.

5. As soon as possible, bring the divorced person back into the life of the church. They need to be part of a warm and caring fellowship. They need the Word of God. At first, their attendance may not be regular. This is understandable, for they are looking to see if the church is ready to accept them or not. In one sense, this is a test to see if the congregation has the ability to love one who has failed. As soon as possible encourage them to become involved in ministry. This will help them to overcome feelings of personal worthlessness.

6. The pastor, or more preferably, the deacons, should inquire into the financial situation of the home. This is true especially if the divorced person is a mother with young children. This would also include checking to see if legal advice is needed and if child support and alimony payments are being made. Also see what community assistance is available.

7. Be patient. It takes a long time for the pain of divorce to heal. Be persistent. Don’t think that because surface issues seem to be resolved that all problems are cared for. Be a presence in their lives. Be available for them to talk to you whenever they have a need.


Divorce and the Qualifications for Deacons

Let us approach this subject by asking the following question: Is there any Scriptural reason for having different standards for deacons and elders with regard to divorce? To answer this, we must compare the qualifications for both offices, and see if there are any substantial differences in the spiritual, moral, and marriage/family spheres.

A listing of the qualifications for both elders and deacons is found in I Timothy chapter 3. This is summarized in chart form (from the NASB version).


1. above reproach (v.2) beyond reproach (v. 10)

2. husband of one wife (v.2) husband of one wife (v. 12) 3. temperate (v.2)

4. prudent (v.2)

5. respectable (v.2) men of dignity (v. 8)

6. hospitable (v.2)

7. able to teach (v. 2) holding to the mystery of the faith, etc. (v.9) 8. not addicted to wine (v. 3) not addicted to much wine (v.8)

9. not pugnacious (v. 3)

10. gentle (v. 3)

11. uncontentious (v. 3)

12. free from the love of money (v. 3) not fond of sordid gain (v.8)

13. manages his household well (v. 4) good manager of his household (v. 12)

14. children under control (v. 4) good manager of his children (v.12)

15. not a new convert (v. 6) must first be tested (v.10)

16. good reputation, etc. (v. 7)

In examining the chart, we find that some qualifications for elder and deacon are identical, some mean the same, although a different word is used, some are not mentioned in a corresponding way and one qualification is different.

Let us summarize the similarities:

1. Both elders and deacons are to be above reproach.

2. ” ” ” ” ” ” ” worthy of respect (or dignity)

3. ” ” ” ” ” ” ” the husband of one wife.

4. ” ” ” ” ” ” ” good managers of their children and households.

5. ” ” ” ” ” ” ” not addicted to wine.

6. ” ” ” ” ” ” ” free from the covetousness of money.

7. ” ” ” ” ” ” ” seasoned Christians (tested, not novices).

8. ” ” ” ” ” ” ” doctrinally pure (teaching and holding to the faith).

Thus, in the spiritual, moral, and marriage/family spheres, the men are to be held to the same high standards. This is the reason for Paul’s use of the word “hosautos” (“likewise, similarly, in the same manner”) when he introduces deacons after the qualifications for elder are given (v. 8). Paul is saying that the church must be equally careful in picking her deacons–they must be men with the same high spiritual and moral qualifications.

Let us now address the “blank” areas of the chart. Does the fact that there are no comparable qualifications given for deacons in some areas mean that the deacons can be held to a “lower” standard than that of elders? To answer this question, we must see if there are any other passages that deal with the subject.

Indeed, there is–Acts chapter 6, where the deaconate is first established. In this passage, the material needs of the church were great, and the apostles were concerned that the teaching, preaching and prayer ministries were being neglected as they busied themselves with benevolence. We find that the apostles decided to delegate this responsibility to others who had the following qualifications (v. 3):

1. That they have a good reputation

2. ” ” be full of the Spirit

3. ” ” ” ” ” wisdom

With these 3 additional qualifications, we can fill in some of the “blank” spaces under “deacon” in our chart. Also, consider the fact that when one is filled with the Spirit, he will bring forth the “fruit of the Spirit” (listed in Galatians 5:22) which are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Thus, a deacon will exhibit the fruit of the Spirit which enables us to fill in the rest of our chart:

item 3, “temperate” is comparable to “self-control”

item 4, ” prudent” is comparable to “wisdom”

item 6, “hospitable” based on “love, kindness and goodness”

items 9, 10 & 11 “not pugnacious, etc.” comes from being “gentle” and “patient”

item 16 “good reputation” is found in Acts 6:3

Thus, the only real difference we find in the two offices is that elders are required to be “able to teach” which is a difference in function and ability rather than the character of the individual.

What are we to make of the qualification, “able to teach”? Does it suggest that the office of elder has a separate and unique dignity attached to it?

A definition of the word “dignity” could pertain to formal or restrained deportment, or the quality of being worthy of respect. To dignify someone is to invest them with honor, and to elevate them in office. A dignitary is one who holds high rank or office. On the office of Minister, the Faith And Order includes the sentence, “The office of the ministry is the first in the church in both dignity and usefulness.” (Faith And Order, p. 59)

The office of Minister is further described: “Because he has oversight of the flock of Christ, he is termed bishop. Because he feeds them with spiritual food, he is termed pastor (shepherd). Because he serves Christ in the church, he is termed minister. Because it is his duty to be an example to the flock in godliness and to govern well in the church of Christ, he is termed elder. Because he is sent to declare the will of God to sinners and to beseech them to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, he is termed evangelist.” (Faith And Order, p. 59)

In relation to the Elder it is stated that “Men who bear this office share equally with the ministers the authority in and responsibility for the life of the church; but in contrast to ministers, whose primary authority are in the Word and doctrine and secondary in ruling, the primary authority and responsibility of elders are ruling and governing, and secondarily in the Word and doctrine.” (Faih And Order, p. 61)

In contrast with Deacons it is stated “The office of deacon is presented in the Scriptures as an office not of ruling, but of service. A deacon should be a man of deep spiritual life, exemplary conduct, and sound judgment (I Timothy 3; Acts 6:1-8). His office is one of sympathetic service to the church and to the distressed, friendless, or sick, after the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Faith And Order, p. 61)

These distinctions, in title and function, are highlighted in two New Testament passages, I Timothy 5:17 and Acts 6:3,4.

I Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders who rule will be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.”

Acts 6:3,4 “But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word.”

The elevated state of the office of elder is revealed in the following passages:

Acts 6:2-4 It was not reasonable to leave the ministry of the Word for the serving of tables.

Acts 15:4 There were no deacons participating at the great Jerusalem church conference.

Acts 20:28 The call to oversee and responsibility to feed the flock is of the Holy Spirit.

I Timothy 5:17-18 They are worthy of special respect and financial support.

Titus 1:7 The overseer is described as “the steward of God.” Note I Corinthians 4:1, “stewards of the mysteries of God”.

James 3:1 There is a special warning that teachers are subject to a stricter judgment.

We can conclude then that the qualification “able to teach” entails a dignity to the office of elder which is separate and distinct from the office of deacon.


1. Adams, Jay E., Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed; 1980.

2. Berghoef, Gererd, and Lester DeKoster, The Elder’s Handbook Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian’s Library Press, 1979.

3. Duty, Guy, Divorce and Remarriage Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1967.

4. Heth, William A., and Gordon Wedham, Jesus and Divorce Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984.

5. Murray, John, Divorce Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980.

6. Richards, Sue Poorman, and Stanley Hagemeyer, Ministry to the Divorced Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1986.

7. Steele, Paul E., and Charles C. Ryrie, Meant to Last Wheaton, Illinois: SP Publications, Inc.,1983.



For the most part, I am pleased and in agreement with the work of my brethren on this committee. However, the area where we disagree is in our understanding of what offices a divorced person may hold in the church. While it is proper to uphold the dignity of the office of elder, it is unfortunate if this is achieved at the expense of the doctrine of grace. By excluding divorced men from the office of elder for the sole reason that they have committed the sin of divorce, the committee, in effect, is maintaining that God’s grace is not sufficient to overcome the scars of that sin. They are saying, in effect, that a divorced man, no matter how qualified in meeting the other Biblical requirements for the office, can never grow enough spiritually, emotionally and socially to the point where he can be said to be “above reproach” in the eyes of the church or in the eyes of the community. In my opinion, this robs God of His power, and compromises the doctrines of grace. It clouds the truth of the “new creation”, emasculates the concept of forgiveness, and is contrary to some of the general teaching of Scripture.

I think we will see this more clearly if we examine the “new creation” and forgiveness in detail:


In order to comprehend II Cor. 5:17, it is necessary to understand the context beginning with verse 11–especially verses 14, 15, & 16. Verse 17 is not a new thought, but rather the inspiring crescendo of what has already been said in the previous verses.

Paul, in this passage, gives his explanation for the apostle’s intense commitment to evangelism. What and whence is the driving force? He states that it is Christ’s love for a lost mankind (He “died for all”) that compels (v.14) them to “try to persuade men” (v. 11). Christ loved the world so much (John 3:16) that He “died for all”. If Christ gave His life for the salvation of the world, then the apostles can do nothing less than to expend their own lives for that Gospel!

The next phrase is almost as spectacular–“and therefore all died”. Since He was our substitute, we sinners are considered “dead” to sin and the demands of the law (See Romans 6–especially v. 2 & v. 11. also, Romans 7:4-6). In regard to our special interest, we should note that the divorcee is dead to sin–specifically, the sin of divorce. Christ paid the demands of the law for breaking the covenant of marriage on behalf of the divorcee–he is free from any guilt regarding it.

The next verse, 14, states the purpose for the atonement–that those for whom Christ died (who are “dead”) should live for Him. The divorcee has been forgiven the sin of divorce so that he might live to please Christ.

Verse 16 deals with how we should view others in light of what Christ has done for them. We should not consider these regenerate people from a worldly point of view, but from the vantage point of the changes in them produced by the atoning work of Christ. The regenerated divorcee is not to be regarded as an evil person who violated the marriage covenant, and who caused severe distress to his spouse, children and relatives by the breakup of family and home. That guilty person is “dead”! The divorcee before us is a beautiful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ–a son or daughter of God Himself!.

Paul illustrates this by pointing out that he and Timothy (co-authors of 2 Cor.) used to regard Christ from a worldly point of view. From Paul’s life, we know that he had the classic Pharisee’s view of Christ–that He was a deceiver, a blasphemer, and that His disciples should be persecuted to rid the land of this “false cult”–he even consented to the death of Stephen.

However, at conversion, the veil that blinded him was lifted (2 Cor. 3:14), and he saw Christ as his Lord and Savior. He could see Jesus as He truly is without the evil trappings his world (Pharisee colleagues, and his own depraved mind) had put on Christ.

Just as Paul’s view of Jesus changed upon conversion, so should our view of former sinners change. We are to look at the converted divorcee through regenerate eyes. Knowing the forgiveness of the Lord, we are not to see him as the world sees him (a composite of the things he has said and one which resulted in a broken marriage) because that converted divorcee is “dead”! Before us is a saint who is living to please God. In fact, to be completely obedient to the truth in this verse, we should drop the term “divorcee” because, by definition, that noun was derived from the word “divorce” which refers to the past sin before Christ entered the person’s life.

If we look down on a person who has been divorced, stigmatize him, view him as slightly less equal, or bar certain offices in the church to him because of the (did we forget forgiven?) sin of a past divorce, then we are violating the instruction of this verse. Instead, we are regarding him from a worldly point of view; we are not recognizing that he is “dead” to the sin of divorce, and is clothed in the beautiful righteousness of Christ.

We could bar the office of elder to him if he didn’t have the gift of teaching, because this is a scriptural requirement of the office. We could also bar this person if she were female for the same reason. BUT WE CANNOT BAR ANYONE FROM THE OFFICE OF ELDER for a past sin (such as divorce) which this person committed before he came to Christ!

Having looked at the context, let us look at the actual text of the verse in question–v. 17.

“Therefore (hoste), for this reason, as a consequence of now being able to see other people from God’s perspective, we can conclude that:

1. “if anyone” (tis) indefinite pronoun. A universal statement. Regardless of who they were, or of what character before their regeneration. (eg; whether Jew or Gentile, moral or immoral, atheist or religious, irritable or pleasant, whether they had a successful marriage or divorced).

2. “is in Christ” (en Christo), united to Him by faith. Jesus makes use of this terminology in John 15:2 to express the active, dependent relationship between Himself and the believer: “every branch In Me”, and also v. 4 “Abide in Me and I in you”. The branch is united with the vine and receives support and nourishment from it. Just as a branch partakes of the strength and life juices of the parent vine, so the believer shares in Christ’s fullness, strength support and life.

3. “new creation” (kaina ktisis) also found in Galatians 6:15.

4. “new” (kaivos), never existing before, appearing for the first time.

5. “creation” (ktisis) anything brought into existence by a person or force. It is used in Rom. l:20 and Rev. 3:14 speaking of the “ex nihilo” creation in the book of Genesis.

A similar expression is found in Eph. 4:24–“Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

The change produced in the heart of one who is in Christ is so profound that it is equivalent to an act of creation. It is as if the person is made over again and become new. The use of Divine power is just as essential in converting a sinner as it was to create the world out of nothing. The results are just as dramatic! There is no other change in human experience that is so radical and thorough as that which occurs upon conversion!

6. “the old has gone” (ta archaia paralthen)

7. “old” (archaios) old or former things belonging to the past.

The old things refer to those things which characterized the person’s life before his life-changing experience with Jesus Christ–former prejudices, opinions, habits, the supreme love of self, sin, and the worldly outlook have passed away.

8. “has gone” (parerchomai) gone, come to an end, disappeared. The aorist tense is used here indicating the decisive change that took place at regeneration.

This same verb is used of the catastrophic passing away of heaven and earth at the final conflagration (Matt. 5:18, Luke 21:32,33 & 2 Peter 3:10).

9. “behold” (idou) the demonstrative particle–look! something that can be noticed. Observe, consider, take note!

This is not something merely positional or spiritual, but something that can be observed with the human eye!

10. “the new has come” (kaina gegonen) The verb. (ginomai) means come to be, originate, be born or begotten, arise, be made or be created. It is in the perfect tense indicating the abiding change introduced by regeneration.

11. “the new things” (kaina) again, things never existing before.

The new things that never characterized a person’s life before now come on the scene. These new things commence at the new birth, and continue to appear during sanctification. They are consummated in heaven.

This person begins to have new views of God and Christ, of the world, of truth, and of duty. All of this includes a new view of marriage and divorce.

These new things immediately begin to produce a new life of obedience to Christ, which is something that can be seen and measured objectively by those that are close to the regenerate person. Lying gives way to the truth, anger gives way to patience, stealing hands start working, foul language turns to praise to the Lord, malice turns to kindness as Ephesians 4:25ff becomes reality.


I submit that the “new creation” refers to the whole man–not just his spirit, although the new creation does start there. Just as the creation of the world did not take place instantaneously, but over 6 days, so the “new creation” takes place over time, beginning at some point before conversion as the Holy Spirit does His work of conviction, as the Father draws the elect to His Son. The “new creation” is totally consummated only at the appearing of Christ Himself upon the death of the saint or at the Second Coming (I John 3:2).

When someone is joined to Christ by saving faith, the creative powers of Christ and the Holy Spirit turn a sinner into a saint. This is reflected by Paul’s address at the beginning of most of his epistles–he calls them saints–“holy ones”, not sinners! Their very identity has changed; they are no longer rebels, but rather friends of God.

Their bodies are no longer used for self and sin exclusively, but for the Lord–hands that stole now work. Tongues that gossiped now praise the Lord. Feet that pursued sinful pleasure now flee youthful lusts. Ask the pagan about his former friend after he “got religion”… he the same person? “NO!” He is truly a new creation.

A certain measure of health is often restored and life spans lengthened as the concept of the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit becomes real in the person’s life. The new creation stops polluting his body with alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, allowing his body to heal. His subjection to the law of Christ prompts him to withdraw from illegal or dangerous activities such as a life of crime, speeding on the highway, etc. all of which tend to reduce the chance of premature death.

Furthermore, his response to aggravation and provocation also promotes health. For example, “a soft answer turns away wrath” and exercising patience could save a person from a damaging fight or the high blood pressure that a non-biblical response could give.

Their minds are not the same. Paul says “We have the mind of Christ” (I Cor. 2:16). Paul also says (Romans 12:2) “be transformed by the renewing of the mind”. Evil thoughts that used to be entertainment in the “theater of the mind” are now dismissed. Thinking patterns that were typical of the world are now molded by scripture. Opportunities are no longer approached with the question “what’s in it for me?” but rather, “will this glorify the Lord?” Problem solving is guided by God’s Word–difficulty with a brother is handled according to Matt. 18. The mind is now a new creation.

The emotions are not the same. One who fell into deep depression is now joyful! One who couldn’t control his anger and bitterness is now ready to forgive others and love his enemies. The emotions are a new creation!

What else than a profound change to the whole person could explain the change of names in people in the Bible after their encounter with God? Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul, Joseph the Cypriote to Barnabas? These were people whose identity was changed enough to warrant a new name–they were (and are) new creatures! We, also, receive a new name (Rev. 2:17) to reflect the new creature in us!


A. Children of God: John l:12 & 13 says that to those who received Christ and believed in His Name, He gave the right to become children of God–children born of God, not of natural descent, not of human decision, not of a husband’s will.

What were they before? Sinful rebellious children of man. What are they now? A new creation, children of God, and “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter l:4).

If the nature of something is changed, then we aren’t talking about something merely positional, we are also talking about something actual and experiential. The word translated “nature” here is phusis, which refers to the essence of a thing, the qualities that make something what it is.

Let us illustrate this with the life of Paul. Before he was a new creature in Christ, his energies were directed in persecuting the church–he was a “wolf”. However, after coming to Christ, he became not only a believer or “sheep”, but an undershepherd of the flock.

Thus we are speaking of two different animals–a wolf before Christ and a sheep after Christ. The divorcee, likewise has a new nature, and rather than “bailing out” of a difficult marriage because it is the easy way out, will now put God and His will first in the matter.

Although there are similarities between the old creation and the new creation in the physical, intellectual, and emotional realms, there are also vast differences.

It is much like comparing men and apes–there are many similarities–physically in body structure and function. Both are family-oriented, both use tools, both have emotions, yet there are some vast differences due to the difference in nature. This puts apes in a different category, not just positionally, but experientially.

B. Indwelt by the Holy Spirit; I Cor. 6:19 states that the Holy Spirit dwells within the believer. Someone who is literally indwelt by God Himself must be experientially different. After becoming a “new creation”, the believer is changed by this Person who dwells within, and begins to take on His characteristics. He begins to have a love for righteousness and a hatred for sin (John 16:8) From a life of ignorance about God he is illuminated and instructed by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).

The consequences of being indwelt by no one less than God the Holy Spirit are revolutionary and all pervasive in the life of the believer. Radical differences are observed by family and friends–He is a new creation! These differences start in the spirit of a man, but they inevitably permeate the mind, emotions and body.

An illustration from the world of common things would be the effect of adding minute amounts of carbon to iron, producing steel–an entirely different material. Although there are similarities between the two substances, the presence of carbon imparts enough influence to the iron to change its nature. It is no longer a brittle, weak substance suitable for only castings, but is now a very strong and workable material having totally different applications in industry.

In a similar sense, the presence of the Holy Spirit imparts enough influence to the believer to change his nature! We have a different person now a new creation. The marriage covenant breaker now is committed to the sanctity of marriage.


“If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.” (John 15:22)

Ignorance lessens guilt and culpability for sin, because of the spiritual blindness that the old creation is afflicted with. Paul speaks to the Corinthians about this Satan-induced blindness that prevents the unbeliever from comprehending the Truth (2 Cor. 4:4). However, this blindness is removed (verse 6) when God illuminates the heart with His light at the commencement of the new creation. It should be stressed that although guilt is lessened, it is not cancelled, because ignorance may be the result of a guilty course of action.

Acts 3:17 Peter states that the Jews acted in ignorance when they killed Christ –they didn’t know that He was the “Holy and Righteous One”, and the “Author of Life”.. They are not excused, in fact Peter calls upon them to repent of this sin of murder. But what Peter is recognizing by referring to their ignorance is that their sin was not a deliberate, premeditated, “eyes-open” attack on God’s Son. They had “bought” the false portrayal of Jesus as a deceiver and blasphemer, and that is whom they thought they were killing on the cross. Jesus also acknowledges this same ignorance from the cross in Luke 23:34 “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”.

Although ignorance is not a ground for justifying sins, it is a basis for appealing to God for forgiveness. Pardon can be more readily expected when ignorance is a factor than when the sin and its effects are fully known. This is reflected in law (both biblical and society’s) where a lesser punishment is given to manslaughter, than for murder, even though the end result is the same..a man has been killed.

Applying it to the subject at hand–an unbeliever who commits the sin of divorce may not know the scriptures that teach marriage is dear to God, or if they are aware of them, may not be convinced of their authority. All he may be aware of is society’s increasing use of divorce as a solution to a difficult marriage. His ignorance of God’s standards lessens his guilt before God. His situation is much different from that of the born-again believer who is acquainted with the scriptures and their teaching on marriage, who has the Holy Spirit indwelling him and convicting him of the sin of divorce, and who has all the resources of God to resist sin and overcome the problem in the marriage. That the ignorant unbeliever would solve the problem by divorce is understandable; that the enlightened believer, with all the divine resources at his disposal should do likewise is much harder to comprehend, let alone excuse!

Acts 17:30 Paul tells the Athenians that prior to the resurrection, God excused their ignorance in making stone or metal images of God. But now, (verse 31) He commands them to repent, since he has given proof (additional light) of His true nature through the resurrection of Jesus. Added “light” results in greater expectations from God.

Applying this to our subject, the additional light supplied by the new creation brings higher expectations and demands from God in the area of marriage than He had for people when they were in ignorance. To put it another way, those committing the sin of divorce after conversion are more guilty in God’s eyes than those who divorce prior to conversion. Does our Faith and Order reflect this difference? How can the church treat both cases the same? How can the church have the same restrictions to service as an elder when some have sinned with “eyes-open” and others have sinned in ignorance?

I Peter 1:14 Peter refers to the sinful life-style of the unsaved as an era of ignorance. This shows that all sin in general prior to conversion should be viewed differently (with more understanding) than sin after conversion.

I Timothy 1:12,13 Paul states that prior to conversion he was a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent. He further says that all those things were done in ignorance and unbelief. Thus he found mercy from the Lord. His ignorance evoked a merciful response from God, and even more resulted in his appointment as an apostle (verse 12). Thus, because his sins were done in ignorance and unbelief, he was not barred from the highest office in the church. Can we bar those who caused much less pain and suffering than the persecutor, Saul did from holding the lesser office of elder?

Hebrews 10:26,27 This passage speaks of the severe consequences of deliberate sin. It shows us that God is much more intolerant of sin committed after the enlightenment of the new creation than that committed in ignorance prior to conversion.

How can the church hold the same stigma toward those who have divorced prior to conversion (while in ignorance and unbelief, knowing only society’s values) as it does to those errant brothers and sisters who knowingly violate God’s written command, and harden themselves to the gentle rebukes of the Holy Spirit?

But, there is another, even more pressing factor to consider, and that is…..


Hebrews 8:12 quotes Jeremiah 31:34 where God states that “I will remember their sins no more.” Isaiah 43:25 also links forgetting with forgiving sins. What does “forget” mean? Webster states the following: “to lose facts or knowledge from the mind, fail to recall, be unable to remember”. He notes that this forgetting may be either intentional or unintentional. At the very least, we can say that these forgiven sins are never brought up again. God will never confront a forgiven person with them, or even mention these sins through all eternity except, perhaps, for instructional purposes. If God has this understanding of forgiven sin, then so must the church! How can we say that we forgive and forget the sin of divorce if we attach a stigma to the divorced person, barring him from serving as an elder? Every time there is a nominating committee meeting, or a congregational meeting considering potential elders, the brother who committed the sin of divorce has his sin remembered each time his name is brought up! Is this Biblical? Indeed, it is not!


Psalm 103:12 states that our sins are removed from us–as far as the east is from the west. How far is the east from the west? They are infinitely far from one another. If the forgiven sin of divorce is removed infinitely far from the divorcee, then why does the church attach a stigma to him that is like a shadow dogging him for life? Barring a divorced person from office of elder is bringing back the sin that God has removed!


Romans 4:7 a quote from Psalm 32 states “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered”. Forgiven sins are covered–hidden from view. Attaching a stigma to the sin of divorce is uncovering the forgiven sin, and exposing it. It is like opening a grave.

In a similar expression, (Micah 7:18), God “hurls all our iniquities into the depths of the sea”. If God has scuttled the boat of sin, why does the church want to dredge it back up, and reverse what God has done? Blocking an avenue of service to one who has been forgiven the sin of divorce for the sole reason of that divorce is undoing the very work of God, who hurled that sin into the sea so that it would be hidden.


Isaiah 1:18 “….though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow”. How can the sin of divorce be washed white as snow if there is a spot, or stigma placed on that beautiful white blanket of purity? Preventing a person from serving as elder because of the sin of divorce dirties the laundry of God. The church is taking a person whom God has cleansed, and drawn attention to that past sin, spotting the pure white snow with the foul stain of scarlet. The church may strongly claim that the divorcee is pure, that sins have indeed been washed away, but a “stigma”, by definition, is a distinguishing mark. In our church, this mark has been placed on the divorcee for the sole reason of the past sin of divorce, and it is placed on the person FOR LIFE! Is this not spotting the pure soul that has been cleansed?


Preaching: From the practical realm, when we exhort people to come to Christ, what do we offer them?–a new position in Christ? Although meaningful to the believer, this would sound dull to the unbeliever. We offer them new life in Christ–this arouses interest!

Jesus claimed (John 10:10) that “I am come that they may have life, and have it to the full”. The Apostle John stated (I John 5:12) “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

What this means in terms of our discussion is that we are offering people an opportunity to have a new start. A chance to leave the sinful past and its misery behind. How can we be true to our Gospel invitation if we tell otherwise qualified men who have committed the sin of divorce in their unregenerate days that this past sin has closed the door to service as an elder?


There are consequences of past sin that may endure to some extent, in the life of the new creation. However, these are some of the obstacles that can be overcome with the grace and help of the Lord.

Didn’t the Apostle Paul overcome the suspicion and fear of the Christians who focused on his former identity of persecutor of the church–the consequence of his past sin? (Acts 9:26,27)

Didn’t Peter overcome his reputation for cowardice by being able to confess Christ before the same High Priest that he had earlier denied Him before? (Acts 4:6)

In a similar way, can’t the one who committed the sin of divorce overcome the consequences of that divorce?–the hurt feelings, alienated spouse, angry and confused children? By the grace of God he can! It is true that he may not be able to salvage that marriage due to his (or her) former spouses remarriage, but the damage can be repaired and relationships can be healed. Yes, there may be scars, but not open festering wounds! Is not our Savior the Great Physician? Will He not do His healing work? The task may seem overwhelming, but this is where faith comes into play–“This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” I John 5:4!

We live in a world full of sin and the consequences of that sin–but it can be overcome! Paul says in Philippians 4:13…”I can do all things though Christ, who strengthens me!”.


The change that takes place in the life of one who has experienced the new birth is so dramatic and pervasive that no sin committed in the person’s past can be allowed to arbitrarily bar anyone from any ministry. It may take some time for someone to get their life completely in order, and the consequences of their sin resolved as much as is possible in this life. It also takes time to establish a new track record so that those inside and outside of the church may have confidence in them in the particular ministry they are involved in. But may the church never be guilty of digging up the grave of the “old man” whom scripture tells us is dead!

The stigma against the forgiven divorced person does exist within our churches. Should we helplessly acquiesce to unbiblical opinion within the church and continue to permit this stigma to rest on the forgiven divorcee? NO! It is the duty of the elders to wage war against unbiblical thinking by proclaiming the truth. The apostle Paul was fighting against false concepts in the Corinthian church when he said (2 Corinthians 10:4-6), “the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish every pretention that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ”.

The church MUST continue to proclaim the sanctity of marriage to its members and the watching world, but it must not jeopardize the doctrines surrounding the “New Creation” and forgiveness. The Biblical, and time-tested methods are through preaching, teaching, example and discipline–not by barring the forgiven divorcee from the office of elder for life!

Likewise, the church must uphold the dignity of the office of elder, and honor the Scriptural requirements for that position. It is possible that a divorced man may resist God’s work in his life, and thus he may not be a good manager of his household, or he may have other unresolved problems and conflicts in his life due to the divorce. In such cases, he would be ineligible for the office; but let us bar him for those reasons, and not because of the sin of divorce that has been forgiven! Although the church needs to be cautious in considering divorced men for the office, it needs to recognize that there are divorced men who have allowed the grace of God to work in their lives, and have been able to deal with the consequences of that divorce in such a way that they are above reproach, both in the eyes of those who know them in the community, and in the eyes of the church.

Therefore, on the basis of the foregoing arguments, I recommend that Annual Conference remove the universal bar to divorced men holding the office of Elder.

James A. Wickstead

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