Q: Can a divorced person serve as an elder in an ELS church? (I interpret Titus 1:5, 6 to say that he cannot.)”
A: The answer to this depends on some crucial considerations. For one thing, God’s Word makes a distinction between someone who initiates an unscriptural divorce and one who obtains a divorce as the innocent party. Another consideration is the matter of repentance from one who in the past divorced for unbiblical reasons. Furthermore, the congregation’s willingness and likelihood to exude respect for and accept leadership from a Christian man who at one time went through a divorce also becomes an issue. All of these things have a bearing upon the answer that is given in each specific case.
The “presbyters” in Titus 1 are those whom Titus appointed as the pastors of the various congregations in each city on the island of Crete. They were not what we generally think of as “elders” (or deacons) in our congregation today.
But in I Timothy 3:12, where qualifications for “deacons” are listed, we find this qualification which is identical to what Paul enumerated for pastors (3:2, 4): “the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well.” Why would this kind of qualification be important? Since these men are called upon to assist the work of the pastor in performing service to God’s saints, their reputation should be suitable for carrying out their functions on behalf of the congregation so that no offense will be heaped upon the Gospel of Christ.
The filling of church offices should never be guided by the prevalent saying, “Let’s see, whose turn is it this year?” Persons entrusted with leadership positions in the congregation need to be chosen both according to their abilities as well as their “good report.” Some of our congregations, often due to size, may have difficulty seeing all of the qualifications realized in the men they choose. [Realistically, who doesn’t fall short among us sinners?] As it is with pastors, some officers may have more strengths in one area than another. The overriding concern, however, is that the individuals chosen to lead demonstrate not only in word but also in deed a love for the message of Christ’s forgiveness of sins and a dedication and respect for all of the teachings in his Word.
Congregations need to take special care not to give any impressions of “going light on divorce” in a society no longer seeing the dissolution of marriage vows as a serious breach of what God instituted. Hardly would a congregation or synod take pride in being dubbed “The church body led by divorcees.” At the same time, we caution: Be generous in looking upon people’s pasts, be willing to forgive as the fruits of repentance are currently evident, and when the person’s present reputation does not appear to hinder in any way the furtherance of Christ’s Gospel, trust that Christ can still use the individual in his office to fulfill his ends. Dare we remember that our Lord used a converted murderer (Acts 9:1) to be his great missionary?