Rethinking an Old Tradition

By David Flick

Dr. Charles Stanley may be just the person who will bring Southern Baptists to their senses regarding divorced pastors. Could Dr. Stanley be the one who inadvertently issues the wake-up call to Southern Baptists on what may be an outdated tradition?

It has been a long standing tradition that men are disqualified to be pastors when they become divorced. This tradition is based on a questionable interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:2a [Now an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife,... (NIV)] Traditionally, Southern Baptists have interpreted this to mean that a man cannot be divorced and also be qualified for the position of pastor of a local church. Obviously, the tradition was meant to honor the Bible in the best possible way. For generations, the traditional interpretation has prevented multitudes of men from being pastors in local Baptist churches.

A close examination of the passage reveals that the qualifications for pastors [bishop, overseer] do not discuss divorce. The subject of divorce isn't mentioned among the qualifications for either pastors or deacons. The idea that the phrase "...husband of but one wife," must be interpreted to mean "husband not divorced," is one born purely out of tradition. It is an argument from silence. As an argument from silence, it becomes an opinion rather than what the Bible actually says about the marital state of the pastor of a local church.

Southern Baptists have traditionally been very inconsistent with this tradition. They allow remarried widowers and single men to serve as pastors of local churches. If one is to be rigidly literal with the interpretation of this passage, then single men must also disqualified. Yet, single men are not traditionally disqualified. Which means that Southern Baptists are being inconsistent even with the literal meaning of the verse.

Now comes Dr. Charles Stanley, pastor of the great First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Stanley has been a top leader among Southern Baptists for several decades now. He is a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He has a preaching/teaching ministry whose influence stretches beyond Atlanta into the entire United States and around the world. For the past five or six years, it was publicly acknowledge that his marriage was on the rocks. Within the last year, Dr. Stanley experienced a somewhat bitter divorce. [Can any divorce be not bitter?]

According to fundamentalist tradition, Dr. Stanley became disqualified to serve as pastor of a local church. However, not according to tradition, he refuses to step down from his position of leadership of the great church in Atlanta. Some questions need to be raised. Does the divorce mean that God has withdrawn the His call to Dr. Stanley to serve as the pastor of Atlanta First Baptist Church? Is Dr. Stanley violating Scripture by retaining his position? Is Dr. Stanley now living in sin while keeping the position? Does this high profile divorce among Southern Baptist pastors now lead Southern Baptists to rethink their position on divorced pastors? How about some possible answers to these questions?

1) Does the divorce mean that God withdrew His call to Dr. Stanley to serve as the pastor of Atlanta First Baptist Church? Traditionalists answer affirmatively. They say he should step down immediately. Others, including myself, say this tradition should be reexamined because it cannot be solidly backed with scripture. It is an argument from silence to say that the Bible declares a pastor must never have experienced divorce

2) Is Dr. Stanley violating Scripture by retaining his position? Traditionalists answer affirmatively. They say his divorce is grounds for disqualification. Others, including myself, question the tradition which is based on an argument from silence. My questioning this tradition is based on the way Southern Baptists interpret the entire passage of qualifications [1 Timothy 3:1-7]

If Southern Baptists are going to be literally rigid at this point, what are they going to do about pastors who are known to violate other qualifications found in the list? What about those pastors who simply have no control over their own families? What about pastors whose children are involved in drugs and crime while making babies out of wedlock? What about the pastors who are known to be greedy for money? What about the pastors who are quarrelsome, conceited, and have no good reputation with outsiders? Obviously the Southern Baptist tradition on divorce needs reexamination. Perhaps it's time for them to join other evangelical denominations and become redemptive rather than cruelly unredemptive.

3) Is Dr. Stanley now living in sin while keeping his pastoral position? Traditionalist answer affirmatively. Would he somehow cease to be living in sin simply by relinquishing the position? I think not. Primarily because all Southern Baptist pastors live in sin. We are all sinners. Simply relinquishing the position of senior pastor of a local church because of the dictates of a tradition does not absolve anyone of sin. Sin is forgiven by God. All sin is forgiven by God. And divorce is forgivable just as is adultery, stealing, lying, and whatever sin one may care to name.

The tradition, as it now stands, puts Southern Baptists in the position of making divorce an unforgivable sin. Although they vehemently deny this, to categorically deny a divorced man from pastoral leadership position is tantamount to calling it an unforgivable sin. Indeed it is an unforgivable sin so far as the traditionalists are concerned. Traditionalists jump through all sorts of semantic gymnastic hoops when they declare that the man must forever suffer the consequences of divorce. The consequences are that he be banned for life from being a pastor of a local church.

This attitude is not one of forgiveness at all. It is an unforgiving attitude to declare that a divorced man, who has been forgiven by God, can never again serve as pastor of a Baptist church. Let him go somewhere else and serve the Lord. Or let him preach the gospel without pastoring a church. This says that a divorced Baptist preacher is nothing more than a second class citizen in the Kingdom of God. I think this tradition needs to be reexamined. I think we need to treat pastors who have unfortunately experienced divorce with more dignity than banning them for life from the pastorate. If God can forgive the sin of divorce, can Southern Baptists do any less? To do any less than God is to be Pharisaic about the sin.

4) Does this high profile divorce among Southern Baptist pastors now lead us to rethink our position on divorced pastors? Traditionalist answer negatively. They are determined that a literal interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:2a disqualifies any and all men from serving as pastor of a local church. I think the time has come for Southern Baptists to rethink this outdated tradition.

Has Dr. Stanley's divorce changed his ability to preach the Gospel? Has his divorce ruined his ability to teach the Bible? Has his divorce thwarted his ability to lead Atlanta First Baptist Church? Has the divorce honestly disqualified him from serving in God's Kingdom? No honest person can answer these questions negatively.

Dr. Stanley is just as capable of serving Atlanta First Baptist Church today as he was prior to his divorce. When it comes to teaching and preaching God's word, I have rarely, if ever disagreed with his theology. He is among the best of Southern Baptists when it comes to conservative expository biblical preaching and teaching. He is fundamentally sound in his theology.

I have often criticized Dr. Stanley's involvement in Southern Baptist denominational politics. But that criticism has always been at the point of politics rather than theology. I suppose I will always disagree with his denominational politics, but I applaud his determination not to step down due to a long standing tradition which was built on a questionable interpretation of the Bible. I think it's time for Southern Baptists to rethink divorce as being the unpardonable sin for Baptist pastors. We need to throw the tradition in the river and redeem good and godly men for ministry in Baptist churches. Maybe Dr. Charles Stanley is just the man to throw this tradition into the river.

July 1, 2001

(This article was written for the Editorial section of   BaptistLife.Com Discussion Forums)