Step By Step

Summertime is vacation time, and many of us have either already taken one this summer or will be taking one in the coming weeks. Vacations, of course, usually have to be planned. We plan our destination. We plan our route. We plan our departure time. We plan our arrival time. We plan our second departure time. We even loosely plan our itinerary.

But imagine taking a trip in which God says: “I want you to get in your car and start driving and I’ll let you know where you’re going sometime along the way. Until I let you know, you just keep listening for My voice at every turn, stop sign, intersection, crossroad, and exit ramp. If I say, ‘Turn here,’ you make the turn. If I say, ‘Get on this road,’ you get on the road. If I say, ‘Take this exit,” you take the exit. If I say, ‘Stop here at this place,’ you stop.” Could you travel like that? Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three Bible stories in which God instructed people to take such trips.

#1: God told Abram (Abraham), “Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Hebrews 11:8 says that Abraham “…went out, not knowing where he was going.” Would you be obedient enough to uproot from the only life and home you had ever known and head out into the great unknown with God?

#2: Following the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, their only daytime g.p.s was a pillar of cloud, and their only nighttime g.p.s. was a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-22). There were probably over two million people in that group, and God expected that massive horde to do their traveling by following the appropriate pillar. Wherever it went, they followed. Whenever it stopped, they stopped.

#3: As part of Saul of Tarsus’ encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, Jesus told him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:6). Saul, who had been struck blind by the encounter, was led into Damascus by some helpful men. Once there, he waited, blind, for the next three days, eating nothing and drinking nothing. Only then did God send Ananias, a Damascus Christian, to lay hands on him, after which he immediately regained his sight.

What each of these stories shows us is that God’s will is oftentimes revealed in street signs rather than road maps. But we don’t like walking on a moment-by-moment basis with God, do we? We don’t like asking Him for day-by-day bread (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3). We don’t like having to get up each morning and look to him for the next allotment of manna (Exodus 16:1-36). We want Him to give us the whole bakery at once and trust us to do a good job of managing it.

But God knows that the regiment that best allows us to build our trust in Him and our obedience to Him is the moment-by-moment, day-by-day grind. That’s why He gives us meal-sized portions rather than the whole pantry at once. It’s also why He doesn’t let us know the end from the beginning as we travel down life’s road.

So, if you are genuinely confused about what your next move should be, let me advise you to do two things. First, sincerely ask God for His guidance, having the faith that He’ll answer that request (James 1:5-8) by way of: a Bible passage, an open door, a closed door, a word of counsel, an undeniable burden, a specific word from His Spirit, or a circumstance. Second, as you await that guidance, just do the next thing that is right in front of you. Sometimes you don’t get the guidance for the second step until you’ve taken the first one.

Posted in Choices, God's Will, Obedience, Trusting In God | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Christian Verses” Podcast: 1 Corinthians 10:13

Temptation. We all face it. Even Jesus faced it. If I asked you, “What specific temptation are you dealing with these days?” the chances are high that you could name one. But the good news is that God has made a standing promise concerning temptation. That promise is found in 1 Corinthians 10:13, which is the focal verse for this week’s podcast. So join Malcolm and I as we discuss this verse and this topic. We’ll talk about God’s part in helping us resist temptation and we’ll talk about our part. To listen to the podcast just click on the link below:

Posted in "Christian Verses" podcast, Satan, Temptation, The Devil | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Divorced Pastors & Deacons? (post #3 of 3)

I closed the previous post by promising to present cases for both sides of this argument. So, I might as well go ahead and jump right into that. I’ll start with the scriptural case for a divorced man serving as a pastor or a deacon. Then I’ll offer the scriptural case against such a situation. Ready? Here we go.

The Case For a Divorced Man Serving As a Pastor Or a Deacon

Potential Evidence #1: The same Paul who wrote that the pastor or the deacon must be “the husband of one wife” also wrote: “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29, N.K.J.V.). The context for this verse is Paul’s teaching that God’s setting aside of Israel is not permanent. One day (at Christ’s 2nd Coming) a remnant of Israel will embrace Jesus as Messiah. However, with that context understood, the verse might possibly also be used to say that if God truly calls a man into the ministry or the deaconship, that calling is irrevocable, no matter what happens in the man’s life.

Potential Evidence #2: In Ephesians 4:11, Paul says that God has given “gifts” to the church and these “gifts” are in actuality spiritually gifted people: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. This means that an authentically God-called pastor is a man who has the spiritual gift of pastoring. Well, since the indwelling Holy Spirit is the one who imparts the spiritual gift to the Christian (1 Corinthians 12:7-11), and since the Spirit indwells the Christian until the Christian’s actualized day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30), it stands to reason that the God-called pastor never loses the spiritual gift of pastoring.

As for deacons, there is no spiritual gift of deaconship, but the word “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos, which means “servant.” Ideally, then, a deacon would be a man who has either the spiritual gift of “ministry” (Romans 12:7) or the spiritual gift of “helps” (1 Corinthians 12:28). If the office of deacon began with the story found in Acts 6:1-7 — as most commentators believe  — we see these two spiritual gifts on display in the first group of deacons.   

Potential Evidence #3: The epistle of 1 John 1:9 is written to Christians, not lost people. And what does the epistle tell us about any and all sin in the life of the Christian? 1 John 1:9 says: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (N.K.J.V.).

Clearly, this promise applies to sin that is associated with a man’s divorce, remarriage, etc. Therefore, the question that can be asked is, “If God forgives the man of all sin, is it fair for a church to take sin that God has forgiven and hold it against the man when it comes to him being elected as a pastor or a deacon?” That’s a legitimate question.

Potential Evidence #4: The qualification “the husband of one wife” is only one of a lengthy list of moral and spiritual qualifications that should be met by a pastor or a deacon. In regards to the pastor, the other qualifications that Paul names in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are as follows: (all of these from the N.K.J.V.): “blameless,” “temperate,” “sober-minded,” “of good behavior,” “hospitable,” “able to teach,” “not given to wine,” “not violent,” “not greedy for money,” gentle,” “not quarrelsome,” “not covetous,” “one who rules his own house well,” “having his children in submission with all reverence,” “not a novice,” “must have a good testimony among those who are outside” (meaning outside the church), “having faithful children not accused of dissipation (debauchery) or insubordination,” “not self-willed,” “not quick tempered,” “a lover of what is good,” “just,” “holy,” and “self-controlled.”

In regards to the deacon, the other qualifications that Paul names in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 are as follows (all of these from the N.K.J.V.): “reverent,” “not double-tongued,” “not given to much wine,” “not greedy for money,” “holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience,” “tested,” “being found blameless,” “ruling their children and their own houses well,” “their wives must be reverent,” “(their wives must be) “not slanderers,” (their wives must be) “temperate,” and (their wives must be) “faithful in all things.”

I’ve taken the time to list every one of these other qualifications because the point needs to be made that Paul didn’t single out “the husband of one wife” from all the other qualifications. He didn’t write that qualification in bold letters. He didn’t underline it. He didn’t make it the one deal-breaker on the lists.

Truth be told, there are men — married men who have never been divorced — who are serving as pastors and deacons in churches all around the world who miss the mark by a wide margin regarding some of these other qualifications. For example, a man’s marriage might be fine but his children might be spiritual disasters. Or he might be eaten up with a greed for money or have a real problem with alcohol. So why do we ignore the other qualifications and come down like thunder on candidates who have been divorced? Doesn’t that make us hypocrites who have selective standards?

Okay, that covers the scriptural case for a divorced man serving as a pastor or a deacon. Now let’s look at the scriptural case against such a situation. Just as I offered four pieces of scriptural evidence for the first case, I’ll offer four for the contradictory case.

The Case For a Divorced Man Not Serving As a Pastor Or a Deacon

Potential Evidence #1: In Paul’s description of the qualifications for a pastor, he says that a pastor should be a man “who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence” (1 Timothy 3:4). He then offers some parenthetical commentary on that qualification by adding: “(for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (N.K.J.V.). Similarly, he says of deacons: “…ruling their children and their own houses well” (1 Timothy 3:12, N.K.J.V.).

In light of this qualification, it might be argued that a divorce, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, shows that a man has had trouble in ruling his own house well and is therefore unqualified to serve as a pastor or a deacon. For example, how likely is it that a couple who are experiencing marital difficulties will seek counsel from a man whose own marriage ended in divorce? It’s no more likely than parents with disobedient children seeking counsel from a father whose own children are rebels.

Potential Evidence #2: The Bible teaches that the husband is the head of the home (Ephesians 5:22-24; 1 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Peter 3:1; Genesis 3:16). But headship is about responsibilities rather than rights. So while a husband might delegate certain roles in the marriage (handling the finances, picking out the furniture, etc.), what God won’t allow him to do is delegate the responsibility of the overall health and welfare of the marriage. And what does this principle of the husband’s headship have to do with divorced pastors and deacons? The answer is that it might be applied to the circumstances of any divorce, no matter which spouse had the greater part in causing the divorce.

The Bible’s classic example of the responsibility of the husband’s headship is the story of Adam and Eve. Even though Eve was the one who first ate the forbidden fruit and in so doing crippled the couple’s marriage, when God came looking for them He specifically called to Adam and asked, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Why did He ask for Adam? He did it because in God’s eyes it’s the husband who first has to answer for any marriage problems that occur on his watch. You see, even if the wife is the one who commits the sin, the question can be asked, “What did the husband do or not do that led her to that course of action?” That is the price of headship.

In Adam’s marriage, apparently what he didn’t do was adequately teach Eve the one law of the Garden of Eden. That law was: Don’t eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What many people don’t realize is that Eve hadn’t been created yet when God imparted that law to Adam. Genesis chapter 2 is the chapter that goes into the most detail about the couple’s creation, and in that chapter Eden’s one law is given in verses 15-17. That’s noteworthy because Eve isn’t created until verses 21-22. Evidently, then, God left it up to Adam to teach the law to Eve.

Surely Adam carried out that duty, but somehow he didn’t do a thorough enough job with it. As evidence of this, we see that when Satan (speaking through the serpent) questioned Eve about the law, she couldn’t even quote it correctly. Concerning the fruit, she added in “nor shall you touch it” (Genesis 3:3). That was the world’s first case of adding something to the word of God, and it was an indicator that Adam hadn’t done an ideal job in teaching his wife Eden’s law. Even though his failure didn’t rise to the level of sin, it did help create an atmosphere in his marriage by which sin could more easily enter into the picture.

Potential Evidence #3: Sin that has been confessed, repented of, and forgiven by God can still carry lasting earthly consequences. When David sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband, Uriah, killed (2 Samuel 11:1-27), God forgave David of the sin (2 Samuel 12:13). That didn’t mean, though, that David’s sin didn’t bear lasting consequences. For one thing, God raised up adversity that plagued David and his family until his death (2 Samuel 12:10-12). For another, the baby boy that was conceived from David’s first night with Bathsheba died shortly after being born (2 Samuel 12:14-23).

Along the same lines, let’s say that a pastor has an affair with his church secretary. The affair causes the man’s marriage to end in divorce and the whole scandal becomes very public. Can that pastor confess his sin, repent of it, and receive God’s forgiveness for it? Absolutely. But what he can’t do is put the genie back in the bottle of him meeting the qualification about having a good testimony (reputation) among those who are outside the church.

Proverbs 6:33 touches upon this when it says of an adulterer: “Wounds and dishonor he will get, And his reproach will not be wiped away(N.K.J.V.). If that last part sounds ominous, it’s because it is. Just ask David. As he found out, the reproach of some sins sticks with you long after you receive forgiveness for the sin and are restored back to right fellowship with God.

Based upon all this, in the situation of a divorced man — particularly one whose sin was the cause of his divorce — it doesn’t automatically follow that him receiving God’s forgiveness of his sin makes him eligible to serve as a pastor or a deacon. You say, “But God forgave the sin.” He did, but the issue isn’t whether or not God will forgive sin. He will. The issue isn’t even whether or not God can still use that man in His service. He can. The issue is whether or not that man is qualified to fill the specific role of pastor or deacon. That’s another question altogether.

Potential Evidence #4: In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul says, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (N.K.J.V.). There is much debate as to why Paul had to guard his self discipline so closely. Perhaps it was to guard himself against committing the sin of sexual immorality that he mentions in 1 Corinthians 6:18. But the important lesson that we can glean here is that Paul thought it was possible to actually become disqualified (“a castaway,” K.J.V.) from the ministry.

Here again we aren’t talking about a man not being able to do anything in God’s service. We are talking about him holding specific titles in the church. For Paul, he could have become disqualified from serving as an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, or a teacher (Ephesians 4:11). For the divorced men of today, it might be them becoming disqualified as pastors or deacons. At least that’s one plausible interpretation.

Now, as I head for home with this post and this series, let me say that I’m not the czar of pastors or deacons and don’t want to come off sounding like I am. What I’ve tried to do in this series is draw attention to a controversial, complex, and (let’s just say it) downright emotional issue in our churches and present the various facets of that issue. Like most of you, I don’t enjoy having to deal with this stuff. In my case, though, I’m a pastor who sometimes has the responsibility of ordaining deacons. That means that I don’t have the luxury of just saying, “Oh, I don’t want to think about that. Let someone else figure it all out.” No, I am that someone else.

Rest assured that I haven’t written these post to “get” anyone. My own house has far too much glass to it for me to be throwing rocks at anyone. I’m just trying to live up to the standard that Paul spoke of during his speech to the elders (pastors) of Ephesus. He said, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Sometimes that whole counsel isn’t easy to declare, but it still needs to be declared. We can only wish that it was always easier to interpret and we were always in 100% agreement as to its interpretation and application.

Posted in Adultery, Church, Deacons, Divorce, Divorce & Remarriage, God's Work, Husbands, Ministry, Parenting, Pastors, Preaching, Series: "Divorced Pastors & Deacons?" | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Divorced Pastors & Deacons? (post #2 of 3)

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife… (1 Timothy 3:1-2, N.K.J.V.)

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you — if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife… (Titus 1:5-6)

Let deacons be the husbands of one wife… (1 Timothy 3:12, N.K.J.V.)

You’ll note that the New King James translation uses the terms “bishop,” “elders,” and “deacons” in these passages. I’ll begin, then, by explaining that the New Testament uses “bishop,” “elder,” “pastor,” and “shepherd” interchangeably (1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:5-7; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:17-28). Each of these terms refers to the office called “pastor” in Baptist circles. As for the term “deacon,” there is a consistency of usage in the New Testament.

With this understood, we come now to the much debated phrase “the husband of one wife” in each of our text references. If a church doesn’t allow a divorced man to serve as a pastor or a deacon, that’s the piece of scripture that gets used to do the disqualifying. But what does the phrase really mean? Historically, it has been interpreted in at least five ways. Let’s examine each one.

#1: Some take the phrase to mean that a pastor or a deacon must be a married man, no single guys allowed. Even though some devout Christians staunchly hold to this interpretation, the fact is that it contradicts multiple passages of scripture. For example, Jesus spoke of single men who purposely choose to remain single and celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12). Are we to believe that such men aren’t qualified to serve as pastors or deacons? Likewise, Paul himself was single (even though it’s possible he was a widower), and yet apparently he played the role of pastor in Ephesus for over two years (Acts 19:1-10). Actually, when we get right down to it, he played the role of founding pastor to each church that he began during his missionary travels.

Furthermore, Paul sung the praises of the single life in regards to Christian service. He even went so far as to encourage unmarried Christians to remain single like him, with the only codicil being that if they couldn’t practice self control sexually, they should get married (1 Corinthians 7:7-9). As he described the situation, the unmarried person has the opportunity to care exclusively for “the things of the Lord,” but the married person, by necessity, has to also care for a spouse (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).

For that matter, if we interpret the phrase “the husband of one wife” to mean that a pastor or a deacon must be married, consistency of interpretation requires us to also mandate that the man must have children (1 Timothy 3:4,12; Titus 1:6). Also, if Paul’s purpose was merely to convey that a pastor or a deacon must be married, why did he add in the word “one” to the phrase “the husband of one wife”? All he had to say was that the man should be “a husband.”

#2: Some take the phrase to mean that if a pastor’s first wife or a deacon’s first wife dies, the widower must never remarry. Many of the earliest commentators (2nd and 3rd century) favored this interpretation, but the glaring problem is that it stands against what Paul teaches about such a remarriage in Romans 7:1-3, 1 Timothy 5:14, and 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, 26-28, and 39-40. Also, Abraham remarried after the death of Sarah, and God blessed that second marriage (Genesis 25:1-4). Admittedly, Abraham didn’t live in the New Testament age and certainly wasn’t a pastor or a deacon, but his second marriage does seem to provide us with a scriptural example of God’s opinion of a widower or a widow remarrying.

Genesis 2:18 might also apply here. In that verse, God says, “It is not good that man should be alone…” Paul’s harsh words in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 might come into play, too. There he condemns certain false teachers of his day who were actually forbidding marriage. And then there is Hebrews 13:4, which says: “Marriage is honorable among all…” Presumably, that word “all” would include widowers, even widowed pastors and deacons.

#3: Some take the phrase to be a cultural prohibition against polygamy. While this interpretation might seem to make sense on the surface, upon closer inspection we find that it really doesn’t hold water. Yes, polygamy was often practiced among the people of the Old Testament era (even the Jews), and, yes, the practice did continue among certain races in the New Testament era. But that’s where the interpretation falls apart because polygamy was decidedly not common in the Roman empire which served as the setting for the pages of the New Testament. Much to the contrary, monogamy was one of the distinguishing features of both the Roman empire and the Greek empire that so heavily influenced the Romans.

Because of this it’s not surprising that there is no scriptural indication whatsoever that polygamy was any kind of a problem among the Christians of the early churches. Many commentators even point out that a polygamist wouldn’t have been granted membership status in an early church congregation, let alone be afforded the option of serving as a pastor or a deacon. Why, then, would Paul waste time and words condemning an irrelevant practice?

For another thing, just as Paul uses the phrase “the husband of one wife” in our text passages, he uses the similar phrase “the wife of one husband” in 1 Timothy 5:9. And yet the phrase there cannot refer to a woman being married to multiple husbands at the same time because that option was historically never available to women. This proves that when he talks about “the husband of one wife” or “the wife of one husband,” he’s not talking about polygamy.

#4: Some take the phrase to simply mean “one wife at a time. ” This interpretation is lent credence by the fact that the original Greek behind the phrase literally means “a one-woman man.” The interpretation is also easy to apply and doesn’t kick up much dust because it allows for a man who is a divorcee to hold the office of pastor or deacon, even if he is remarried. However, the interpretation is not without its problems.

One of them is that it sets a very low bar in regards to application. In the most liberal cases, a man could be on his third or fourth marriage and yet still be qualified to be a pastor or a deacon as long as things were going well with his latest marriage. Frankly, such a low bar seems incompatible with the other spiritually lofty qualifications Paul lists in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:1-9. Those other qualifications certainly don’t sound as if he is describing a lowered standard for a potential candidate’s marital status.

An even greater problem with the interpretation is that it doesn’t address what Jesus taught about the adultery that is created when a man remarries in the wake of an unscriptural divorce. Did you know that the judge downtown can’t truly grant a God-approved divorce? Oh, sure, he can grant a legal divorce, but legal isn’t the same as being approved by God. Jesus said of marriage, “…what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). This means that a husband and a wife remain married in the eyes of God until He grants the divorce. It naturally follows, then, that if an earthly divorce takes place apart from God-sanctioned grounds, the first spouse to remarry after that earthly divorce becomes an adulterer regardless of who he or she marries (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:1-3).      

And just what is an unscriptural divorce? It’s one that doesn’t meet either of God’s two requirements for divorce. Jesus gave us the first of those requirements. Paul gave us the other one.

We’ll start with Jesus. He taught that sexual sin (the Greek word porneia) perpetrated against the wronged spouse is God-approved grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:9). The New King James translation translates porneia as “sexual immorality.” The old King James translation translates it as “fornication.” It is from porneia that we get our English word “pornography.”

The New Testament Greek uses porneia as an umbrella term to refer to any type of sexual sin. The list includes premarital sex (1 Corinthians 7:2), adultery (John 8:41), incest (1 Corinthians 5:1), and homosexuality (Jude verse 7, where ekporneuo is used as a strengthened form of porneia). This means that when one spouse sins against another spouse in some type of porneia way, the wronged spouse has God-approved grounds to get a divorce. Furthermore, in such cases the wronged spouse can marry again without marrying into adultery (1 Corinthians 7:27-28).

Now let’s get to what Paul taught on the subject. He added in that if a non-Christian spouse voluntarily leaves a Christian spouse, God will grant the Christian spouse a divorce (1 Corinthians 7:12-15). Of course, such a union is an “unequal yoke” anyway (2 Corinthians 6:14-18), but unequal yokes do occur. It was especially a problem in the days of the early churches as one spouse would convert to Christianity while the other spouse would remain unconverted.

The upshot of all this is that interpreting the qualification “the husband of one wife” to mean “one wife at a time” can potentially open up a Pandora’s box of problems for not only the divorced man but also his church. What were the circumstances of the man’s divorce? Was the divorce approved of God? Is the man remarried? Even if the divorce was approved by God, was the remarriage God’s will for the man’s life? These are all legitimate questions.

#5: Some take the phrase to mean that a divorced man, regardless of the reasons for his divorce and regardless of whether or not he remarries, should not serve as a pastor or a deacon. As I mentioned in the previous post, this was the stereotypical interpretation used by most Baptist churches, especially conservative ones, for a long time. These churches viewed remarriage by a widower to be acceptable and not grounds for disqualification as a pastor or a deacon, but a divorce cast major suspicion upon a man’s spiritual resume, and a remarriage following a divorce was a death knell for his potential as a pastor or a deacon.

But is this 5th interpretation really what Paul had in mind? Well, the interpretation’s strength is that it covers more of the scriptural bases than any of the other other four. That’s a strong point in its favor. Also, it errs on the side of caution, and that’s another point in its favor. Let’s face it, anytime we are dealing with a controversial, debatable topic from scripture, we can do a lot worse than erring on the side of caution in how we apply it.

On the other hand, though, the interpretation does have one weakness: It doesn’t make any allowance for either of those two God-approved grounds for divorce. If Jesus and Paul had not specifically named those two grounds, I would have no hesitancy about fully embracing this 5th interpretation and running with it. I have to admit, though, that those two grounds do give me pause. They make me ask, “If God has granted a man a divorce and perhaps even approved a remarriage for him, does that by implication show that He has wiped the slate clean in regards to the man serving as a pastor or a deacon?”

That’s the question I will attempt to address in my next post, which will be the last post in this series. I’ll first list some of the scriptural reasons that could seemingly be used to allow a divorced man to serve as a pastor or a deacon. Then I’ll list some of the scriptural reasons that could seemingly be used to keep him from playing either role. In other words, I’ll try to present both sides of the argument. That’s the best way I know to provide a fair hearing all the way around for everybody. So until then, I’ll ask you to once more stay tuned.

Posted in Adultery, Church, Deacons, Divorce, Divorce & Remarriage, God's Work, Husbands, Ministry, Pastors, Preaching, Series: "Divorced Pastors & Deacons?" | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Divorced Pastors & Deacons? (post #1 of 3)

My home church, Mckinney Cove Baptist, licensed me to preach in October of 1992, and I was formally ordained into the ministry in February of 1993. Since that time I have seen many changes in regards to how Baptist churches function. No change, however, has been more marked than the change in standards for who can serve as either a pastor or a deacon in a Baptist church. Specifically, I’m talking about the issue of divorced men serving in those roles.

I can’t speak as an expert on all Baptist churches of all sizes across the globe, but I can certainly do so with expertise regarding the smallish, rural, “country” churches of my area. In 1993, the only such churches that would allow a divorced man to fulfill the role of pastor or deacon were the moderate/liberal churches that leaned left on matters of theology and the interpretation of certain passages. As for the conservative churches, they just didn’t roll that way.

Then came the Charles Stanley situation. In case you don’t know, Charles Stanley is the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia. He is a two-time President of the Southern Baptist Convention, and his television/radio/internet ministry, In Touch, reaches millions of people each day. He’s also a bestselling author who has written many dozens of books, more than I could even begin to name. Suffice is to say that a whole bunch of Baptists have loved Charles Stanley for a long time.

In 1992, Stanley and his wife, Anna, separated after having been married since 1958. Even though Anna hadn’t been attending church with Charles for some time, the separation came as a shock to many church members. A few months later, in June of 1993, Anna officially filed for divorce. Not long afterward, though, the scandal was temporarily lessened when she agreed to amend the filing and seek reconciliation of the marriage. In the meantime, Charles continued unabated in his role as the pastor of First Baptist, Atlanta.

Despite sincere attempts at reconciliation, however, in March of 1995 Anna again filed for divorce. In an open letter to the church, she said, “Charles, in effect, abandoned our marriage. He chose his priorities, and I have not been one of them.” At this point Charles told his congregation that if the divorce ever became final he would resign as pastor. However, the church’s 38-member board of deacons — by a vote of 35 to 3 — recommended that the congregation keep Stanley on as pastor. In October of 1995, nearly 90% of approximately 5,000 members of the church voted to accept the deacon board’s recommendation, which, in effect, placed the ongoing decision to resign or not to resign in Stanley’s hands.

But there was no quick resolution, either way, in sight for the scandal. What followed were several more years of work toward the reconciliation of the marriage, not to mention more legal wrangling done by the lawyers involved. As more and more time passed, though, it became increasingly obvious that the marriage was going to end in divorce. Ultimately, this prompted the managers of the Moody Radio Network in Atlanta to go ahead and take Stanley’s daily In Touch broadcast off the air, even as Stanley continued on as the pastor of First Baptist, Atlanta.

It was also during this time that a rift of separation occurred between Charles and his popular son, Andy. Andy had originally joined the staff of First Baptist, Atlanta, as a Youth Minister, but over the years it had become generally assumed that Charles was grooming him to be his successor at the church. While this announcement of succession was never publicly stated, it was the logical assumption considering that Charles often broadcast Andy’s pulpit sermons from the church on his In Touch broadcasts. In addition to these broadcasts, Charles had also appointed Andy as the pastor of First Baptist’s satellite campus, which opened its doors on Easter Sunday of 1992. Within two months, that campus boasted 2,000 members.

As the separation/divorce scandal continued to unfold, Charles was shocked to learn that Andy agreed with the many notable Baptist pastors who felt that Charles should either resign as pastor or at least take a lengthy hiatus to devote himself to the restoration of his marriage. What Andy really wanted his father to do was go to the pulpit and read a letter of resignation, thus giving the church the choice of either accepting the resignation or rejecting it. Andy believed that the church would reject the resignation and that the gesture by Charles would bring some much needed decompression to the whole situation.

Charles, for his part, viewed Andy’s suggestion as more or less a treasonous betrayal. According to a CNN article that was published in 2012, Charles told Andy during a highly charged meeting between the two, “Andy, you have joined my enemies, and I’m your father.” In that same article, Charles assessed that difficult period of his life by saying, “I felt like this was a huge battle, and if Andy had been in a huge battle…you’d have to crawl over me to get to him, no matter what. I didn’t feel like he did that.”

It certainly didn’t help matters that Andy’s satellite campus was starting to outdraw Charles’ congregation, so much so that Andy’s staff actually asked First Baptist, Atlanta, to give them the satellite campus’ property outright so that the new congregation could become autonomous. But Charles rejected that idea, with his reasons being that the satellite campus had been his idea in the first place and that the campus wouldn’t have done nearly so well out of the gate if it hadn’t been backed by First Baptist’s money.

And so how did Andy respond to Charles’ negative reaction to his suggestion that Charles offer his resignation to the church and let the members decide what to do with it? He responded by leaving not only First Baptist, Atlanta, but also the satellite campus. He walked away with no church, no salary, and no health benefits. He did, however, still have his famous name, his preaching ability, and his pastoral gifting, and so in 1995, shortly after his departure, he and a small group of other young pastors founded North Point Community Church. In the years since, that church has become one of the largest churches in America (much larger than First Baptist, Atlanta) and has multiple campuses of its own.

Finally, in May of 2000, the divorce between Charles and Anna Stanley became official and legal. The big question now was, “Would Charles resign as pastor?” He answered it by announcing to the congregation that God had told him, “You keep doing what I called you to until I tell you to stop.” Stanley took that word as God’s permission to continue serving as the pastor of the church. And the decision sat well with the vast majority of the church because they wanted Charles to remain as pastor anyway. Their only stipulation was that he should never remarry as long as Anna was alive.

It is now 2018, Charles Stanley is 85 years old, and he continues to serve as the pastor of First Baptist, Atlanta. He’s served in that role for over 47 years, 18 of them coming after his divorce became official. He has never remarried, even though Anna died in 2014, and many of the people who now listen to his sermons have no idea that he is divorced. Even among those who do, it’s not that big a deal to them. In December of 2017, he presented a pastoral plan of succession to First Baptist, Atlanta, and the church approved the plan. It stated that Senior Associate Pastor Anthony George will assume the role of Senior Pastor of the church at “such time in the future, known only to God, that Dr. Stanley ceases to be the Senior Pastor of the church.”

Now, as I begin to wrap up this post, let me say that my purpose in writing it has been simply to present the facts of the Stanley divorce rather than render any personal opinion about it. I chose to hone in on that specific divorce because it is far and away the most famous one from the ministerial circles of my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Truth be told, I’m not sure if Stanley’s divorce and continued pastorate paved the way for the others that would follow or if his just happened to be the firstfruits of a trend that was bound to inevitably rise with or without him. In other words, was the Stanley divorce and continued pastorate an enabler that gave other divorced pastors and their churches an excuse to break away from the stereotypical Baptist standard? Or was it merely one prominent example of how the old standard was already beginning to slip in Baptist circles? My guess is that it was some of both.

Either way what is undeniable is that in the years since I was first ordained into the ministry there has been a significant change in the attitude toward not only divorced pastors but also divorced deacons. Summing up that change, divorce isn’t nearly the deal breaker it used to be. Still, the question that needs to be asked is the one that many Christians don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole: “Is God truly on board with this new attitude?” Ah, now you’re on a subject, and it’s one that we’ll look at the pros and cons of in the next couple of posts. So stay tuned.

Posted in Church, Deacons, Divorce, Marriage, Ministry, Pastors, Series: "Divorced Pastors & Deacons?" | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

“Christian Verses” Podcast: Psalm 90:12

The verse says: “So teach us to number our days, That we may gain a heart of wisdom” (N.K.J.V.). Numbering your days equates to using them wisely by filling them with the things God would have you to do. It’s the opposite of playing “trivial pursuit” with your life or constantly chasing your own desires. In this week’s podcast Malcolm and I discuss how the Christian can fulfill Psalm 90:12. We talk about how the demands of society work against the idea of living each day to the fullest, and we identify a way to counteract those demands. We also look to Jesus as the ultimate example of the one who counted His days by doing the things that made His days count. Here’s the link:

Posted in "Christian Verses" podcast, God's Will, Human Life, Priorities | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Going Backward in Life

“But this I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.’ Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, followed the counsels and dictates of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.” (Jeremiah 7:23-24, N.K.J.V.)

I’d had my drivers license only a few weeks when I suffered my first wreck. And what was I doing when I wrecked? Going backward.

My dad, my brother, and I were in our family’s Buick Regal and late for a church-league softball game. We’d gotten about a half mile down the road when I realized that I’d forgotten my glove. So rather than turn the car around like a normal person would do, I just threw the thing into reverse and set about to back all the way home. To this day I have no earthly idea why I did that. My dad, who was in the passenger’s seat, just kept asking, “What are you doing, Russell? What are you doing, Russell?” My brother, who was in the back seat, pulled the old “duck and cover” move in the floorboard.

I hadn’t gotten very far into my adventure when the car started swerving. That should have been my cue that my plan of attack was a poor one, but I just kept going, even picking up momentum, like the guy who hears he’s going the wrong way and doubles his speed. And I continued to pick up speed, like a runaway locomotive, right up until the moment I lost control of the car and put it into the ditch off to my right. I still remember my dad having to crawl out by way of the driver’s door because his door was pinned shut. To say that he wasn’t happy with me would be a sizable understatement.

Our text passage caused me to recall that story because the verses speak of going backward rather than forward. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God tells the people of Judah, “Because your forefathers did not obey My commandments but instead followed their own ideas and desires, they went backward and not forward.” Isn’t that interesting? Here these people were, trying to progress and make themselves better by implementing their own logic and ideas, when in reality that logic and those ideas caused them to regress and become worse.

Even today many people think of God’s word as being old fashioned, archaic, outdated, and irrelevant to these modern times. These people say, “We’ve got to get away from the old standards of the Bible so that we can embrace bold, new ideas for this bold, new age. That’s the only way we can move society forward.” But the truth is that anyone who follows the counsels and dictates of their own heart rather than those of God’s word actually goes backward in life. It’s God who is the forward thinker, not us. And when we ignore His word and follow our own thinking, we barrel in reverse toward an inevitable wreck in an inevitable ditch.

Posted in Backsliding, Bible Study, Choices, Counsel, Desires, Disobedience, God's Will, God's Word, Obedience, Personal, The Bible, The Depravity of Man, Truth | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment