Report of the

Study Committee: Distinction Between the Office

of Pastor & Elder with Reference to Divorce


            This paper is the Committee’s response to the assignment given by the 122nd Annual Conference as follows:

Whereas, the Study Committee on Divorce and the Office of Elder recommended that divorce shall not automatically and forever exclude a man from serving as a pastor or an elder, and

Whereas, the Annual Conference did not provide a Biblical basis for a distinction between pastor and elder, therefore be it,

Resolved, that the Chairman appoint a study committee of five pastors to examine whether Scripture warrants maintaining the distinction between the qualifications for elders and pastors as regards divorce, and be it further

Resolved, that legislation representing the product of the Committee’s study be presented to the 123rd Annual Conference for first reading, and be it further

Resolved, that this action will constitute the answer to the congregation of Community B.F.C., Howell, NJ.


The Background Work of the Previous Study Committees


            At the 116th Annual Conference (1999), the Conference passed, at First Reading, the following legislation, upon the recommendation of the appointed study committee:

“Because of the qualifications and dignity of the office of Elder, each Particular Church shall give careful consideration to ensure that a man who has been divorced or who has married a divorced woman is presently characterized as above reproach, and if married, faithful to and exclusively committed to his wife.”

            That conference also instructed the Committee to study whether this would also apply to a man being considered for ordination, and to report the next year.

            The following year that committee noted, among other things, that “The Biblical evidence clearly teaches the equality of the office of elder and pastor,” and that “There are no Biblical distinctions in the moral and spiritual qualifications for an elder or a pastor,” and therefore that “Divorce alone does not automatically disqualify a man from being ordained.”

            The 117th Annual Conference (2000) passed, at First Reading, the following resolution:

“Because of the qualifications and dignity of the office of Pastor, when considering a man for ordination, the Ministerial Candidate Committee and Credentials Committee shall give careful consideration to ensure that a man who has been divorced or who has married a divorced woman is presently characterized as above reproach, and if married, faithful to and exclusively committed to his wife.”

            The 118th Annual Conference (2001) did not pass, at Second Reading, the proposed legislation that would have allowed a man who had been divorced or who has married a divorced woman to be at least considered for ordination. At the same time, the conference passed, at Second Reading, legislation to allow such a man, as described above, to serve as an elder in a local church, if he is presently considered above reproach.


The Work of this Present Study Committee


            The charge given to this present study committee is to examine whether Scripture warrants maintaining the distinction between the qualifications for elders and pastors as regards to divorce. We have sought to build on the fine exegetical work and practical considerations given by the previous study committees.


I. Examination of Relevant Scripture Passages


A. I Timothy 5:17-19 “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’ Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.”

Observations:

1. The worthiness of double honor is a clear reference to material remuneration. This is borne out by the phrase, “the laborer deserves his wages.”

2. The functions of an elder which are worthy of double honor include both ruling well and laboring in preaching and teaching.

3. These verses speak of distinctions in calling, gifting, and function in ministry. There is also an implied distinction relating to faithfulness (i.e. “rule well”). There is no distinction made, regarding moral and spiritual qualification of church leaders.

4. To place a “higher standard” upon those gifted as preachers/teachers over against others serving as elders or deacons is a man-made distinction, but certainly cannot be substantiated from this passage.

5. Verse 19 makes no distinction between pastor and elder when it comes to the issue of discipline.


B. I Peter 5:1-2 “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you....” Observations:

1. Peter identifies himself in 1:1 as an apostle (one personally called by Christ and sent out on a particular mission). Here in 5:1 Peter identifies himself as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ and partaker in the glory yet to be revealed.

2. While the calling and function of the office of apostle has ceased, and while the function of elder is still in existence, no distinction is made between the moral and spiritual qualifications of each office. Peter proclaims himself to be qualified on the same basis as any other man holding the office of elder.

3. When Peter addresses “the elders among you, as a fellow elder,” he gives solid evidence that “what [he] urges upon elders, he exemplifies in his own life and office.”(from Richard C. H. Lenski’s Commentary on 1 Peter)

4. Apostolic authority and elder authority relate not to quality of the man, but quantity of oversight. Lenski expounds upon this: “As apostolic elders they exercised oversight over many flocks; congregational elders exercised such oversight over the one flock that had called them. ‘Fellow elder’ and Peter’s simple ‘elder’ state that the apostolic office was the same office as that held by the congregational elders.”

5. In 5:2 Peter exhorts the elders (plural) to shepherd the flock of God. The particular aspect of shepherding here relates to “exercising oversight.” No distinction is made between elders as to moral and spiritual qualification. In this regard, all elders, including those who are gifted in ruling and those who are gifted as pastors/teachers, are on the same footing. There is no Biblical hierarchy of a “higher standard” or “higher class” of leadership qualification.


C. 1 Cor. 9:27 “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

            Can Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9:27 be understood to mean a divorced man is precluded from consideration to pastoral ministry? Does Paul see divorce as the disqualifying deed that caused him to write, “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize”.


The following observations about the context help to answer this question:

            The immediate context of 1 Corinthians 9:27 is the question of the Christian and meat sacrificed to idols (8:1-11:1). Paul had addressed issues of marriage and divorce in chapter seven, but his statement in 8:1 (“Now about food sacrificed to idols...”) shows clearly that he has left that subject. Thus it is unlikely that Paul is referring to divorce in 9:27.

            In 8:1-11:1, Paul deals with knowledge about idols (8:1-6), the weak brother (8:7-13), and his own example (9:1-27). As an apostle, Paul had rights (9:1-14) which he refused to exercise (9:15-18). He committed himself to serving all people (9:19-23), and he exercised self-control in order to discharge the duties of his office (9:24-27). He offers Israel as an example to warn the Corinthians about idolatry (10:1-13), points out the incompatibility of the Christian and idol feasts (10:14-22), gives guidance on the exercise of the believer’s freedom, and encourages his readers to follow his example in these matters (10:23-11:1).


Observations about the verse also help in answering this question:

a. When Paul speaks of beating his body and making it a slave, he is referring to disciplining his body by abstaining from certain rights and privileges.

b. Paul recognizes there are some activities or deeds that could potentially make him unfit for his work.

c. The apostle’s rights are to be subordinated to his office and ministry of preaching. He will not yield to these if they threaten to hamper the discharge of his apostolic calling, particularly his preaching ministry.

d. Paul’s motivation in subordinating his personal rights for the sake of others is to provide for a more effective gospel ministry and to protect from losing the prize, God’s approval on his suitability to minister the gospel.

e. Paul’s commitment to denying himself his rights in order to maintain his qualification to serve as an apostle (vs. 19-23) is an example to all Christians to discipline their lives for Christ’s sake (9:14).


            It is evident 1 Corinthians 9:27 deals with Paul’s practice of surrendering his rights as an apostle to protect the effectiveness of his ministry and to maintain God’s approval. Therefore 1 Corinthians 9:27 should not be used to argue that men who have divorce in their past are precluded from consideration for gospel ministry.


D. Eph. 4:11-13 “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

            This is the only passage that specifically mentions the pastor at all. Note the following:

1. In a parallel passage, 1 Cor. 12:28-29, the pastor is not mentioned at all: “And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?”

2. F.F. Bruce comments: “The two terms ‘pastors (shepherds) and teachers’ denote one and the same class of men....they are the same people as are elsewhere called elders and bishops, one of whose qualifications is being ‘apt to teach’.”

3. The word “pastor” in Eph. 4:11, when translated “shepherd” in the other places, can refer to the church elders, as in Acts 20:28, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Note the parallels as Paul addresses the church leaders in Acts 20 as “Elders” (presbuteros) in v. 17 and as “Overseers” (episkopo) in v. 28, and to “Be Shepherds” (poimainein) in v. 28. F. F. Bruce comments: “The leaders of the Ephesian church are indiscriminately described as elders, bishops... and shepherds (or pastors).”

            Therefore this lone mention of the gift/ office of a pastor, instead of creating some higher moral standard for the office, rather shows how interchangeable the term is with that of elder and overseer, and, in conjunction with the other passages mentioned above, gives evidence that all these church leaders were held to the same moral and spiritual standards.


E. Leviticus 21 It is possible that some might want to use the stricter standards that were given for the priests in the Old Covenant as a basis for a similar higher standard for the pastor today, particularly in regards to divorce.

            Lev. 21:7-8 “They (the priests) must not marry women defiled by prostitution or divorced from their husbands, because priests are holy to their God. 8 Regard them as holy, because they offer up the food of your God. Consider them holy, because I the LORD am holy—I who make you holy.”

            Lev. 21:13-15 “The woman he (the priest) marries must be a virgin. 14 He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people, 15 so he will not defile his offspring among his people. I am the LORD, who makes him holy.’’

            This argument can be answered in a number of ways. First, all believers in Jesus Christ are now priests, both royal and holy (1 Peter 2:9), so there is no longer a two-tiered level of holiness. Second, we do not think that the BFC wants to impose some of the other standards listed in Lev. 21 on its pastors today, such as whose funerals he may attend (21:1-4, 11) or how he cuts his hair or beard (21:5), or whether he is allowed to marry a widow. We understand that these requirements for the priests were outward pictures of the true holiness that the Lord now gives us in the New Covenant.


F. Other Relevant New Testament Passages


            If there is a spiritual and moral distinction between pastors and elders that would require a higher standard for pastors in the matter of divorce, then we would expect to see some evidence of that distinction in how Scripture treats the offices. But instead what we find is that the leaders of each local church are grouped together without such distinction.

            In the book of Acts, the church leaders or overseers are repeatedly referred to as elders, not as the pastor and the elders.

            Acts 14:23 “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church...”

            Acts 15:2 “.... Paul and Barnabas were appointed...to see the apostles and elders about this question.

Acts 15:22-23 “Then the apostles and elders ...decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch ....With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers.....”

Acts 20:17, 28 “...Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. ...28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood....”


            In Phil. 1:1, Paul addresses the whole church, “together with the overseers (episkopois) and deacons.” No mention is made of the pastor in distinction from the other church leaders.

            The moral and spiritual qualifications given in 1Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are for overseers or elders, but there is no separate or stricter list of moral and spiritual standards for choosing a pastor. These two lists cover both elders and pastors.

            Hebrews 13:7 and 17: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

            Here the writer commands his readers to remember and obey “your leaders” and to submit to their authority. If there were ever a place for the writer of Scripture to indicate that the pastor of a church should be given higher authority or held to a higher moral standard, we might expect to find it here. But instead, all the church leaders are equally held up as examples to imitate and as authorities to obey.

            James 3:1 “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” If teaching elders are seen as pastors, does this verse give some basis for a higher moral standard for pastors with regards to divorce? We may note that if this is what James intended to mean, he could have simply said, “Not many of you should presume to be pastors,” but he did not write that. Instead James left it to include a wider scope of all who wished to teach God’s Word, which would certainly include elders. This verse raises the moral bar for all Christian teachers (1 Cor. 12:28), not just for pastors.


II. Addressing Personal and Cultural Perceptions


            We could find no statistics dealing with the narrow scope of our study. There are some statistics that discuss divorce as it relates to clergy but just with regard to the fact that it does happen, and that most will or have remarried. Obviously the number of clergy who have divorce in their background prior to their appointment or call is dependent on their acceptance by a congregation (if independent) or denomination (and subsequently a congregation).

            Here are some possible questions that a church may raise:


            1. “What will the people in our churches think and what will outsiders think?” Statistical information on the prevalence of divorce would lead to the conclusion that people are probably more understanding of the circumstances that lead to divorce, since they likely have been touched by it in some way. What churched people will think would seem to be shaped by things such as family culture, church culture, pastoral teaching, and personal experience. This could become a subjective, emotional issue in addition to being an objective (and contextually) Biblical one. Churches would do well to consider here the teaching of Biblical Principles for Living 104-4.3 concerning Christian liberty.


            2. “Allowing men with divorce in their background will either send us down a liberal path or lower the dignity of the office of pastor (or both.)” What does God regard as being important issues to Him? We believe that God’s Word is concerned about ongoing-character issues rather than past behavior. In examining qualifications of a man to be ordained, issues such as pride, gossip, dishonesty, or being inhospitable should prevent someone from being considered eligible, not a past forgiven sin or even being married to someone with divorce in her background. It is often quoted that “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16), however the context needs to be considered. Divorce among the people and the priesthood, as well as their actions regarding offerings and worship in chapter 1, was symptomatic of a heart that stopped caring about God and was indicative in all of their attitude and behavior. This is far different than a life that is lived in grace, obedience, and forgiveness through repentance of sin and faith in Christ.


            If the Bible teaches us anything, it is to raise the bar of grace. In the book of Acts, when Gentiles were receiving the Holy Spirit, Jewish believers had to completely rethink their understanding of God’s relationship to man in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. This was a huge shift! What Jesus did in His life and through the church was to consistently defy conventional thinking. It is not the consideration of divorced men that would lower the bar. What would lower the bar would be a blanket acceptance of anyone wanting to be credentialed regardless of his life’s circumstances. Our desire is to open the door for eligibility on a case-by-case basis. Men and women sin and are victims of sin. If forgiveness has been offered and received, why are we preventing a good, godly man from consideration?

            In examining a man for ordination who has divorce in his background, we affirm the five considerations that require wisdom and discernment that have already been stated in the 2000 Yearbook, on p. 214:

            1. Culpability

            2. Resolution of the Divorce

            3. Disposition of church discipline

            4. The amount of time since the divorce

            5. The chronological relationship of divorce to conversion.


III. Relation to the BFC Faith & Order

            Article 204-2.4 instructs us that “Elders, as leaders of the people, are chosen by the membership of the church on the basis of Scriptural qualifications.” Those Scriptural qualifications are found in 1Timothy 3 and in Titus 1, and they form the same basis for determining the moral qualifications for an elder, and/or pastor.

“The BFC acknowledges that the Biblical evidence clearly teaches the equality of the office of elder and pastor. There are no Biblical distinctions in the qualifications for a pastor or for an elder. Therefore, just as divorce alone, does not automatically disqualify a man from being an elder, so too divorce alone does not automatically disqualify a man from being ordained.” (p. 213 of the 2000 Yearbook)


Recommendations

 

Whereas, the Biblical evidence clearly teaches the equality of the office of elder and pastor, and

Whereas, there are no Biblical distinctions in the moral and spiritual qualifications for an elder or a pastor, and

Whereas, divorce alone does not automatically disqualify a man from being an elder, therefore, be it

Resolved, that this study committee recommends that the local church, the Ministerial Candidate Committee and the Credentials Committee give due consideration to this report in examining men for ordination and for candidating at a church, and further

Resolved, that Article 206-1.4 (6) be added to the Faith & Order at first reading:

 

“Because of the qualifications and dignity of the office of Pastor, when considering a man for ordination, the Ministerial Candidate Committee and Credentials Committee shall give careful consideration to ensure that a man who has been divorced or who has married a divorced woman is presently characterized as above reproach, and if married, faithful to and exclusively committed to his wife.”

(Adapted from the 2000 Yearbook, pp. 215-216)















Study Committee on the Distinction between the Office of Pastor and Elder with Reference to Divorce: Eric R. North, Chairman; Louis Prontnicki, Secretary; Jonathon W. Arnold, Sr., Delbert R. Baker, II, Allan R. Vivona