Faith and Commitment
A few years ago Charisma reported the response of one highly visible church leader who divorced his wife only to remarry within a week: "God didn't call me to marriage," he stated. "He called me to ministry." His remarks were convincing enough to justify his actions in the eyes of the majority of his followers.
There are multiple ironies in such an unbiblical utterance given in such a compromised circumstance, but the bottom line rings out in tragic clarity—several thousand people bought it. Apparently they either thought the idea was a spiritual one, or they didn't care if it wasn't.
In contrast with the glibness suggesting a nobility in "dedication to ministry over marriage" is the truth of God's Word, which casts the issue in a vastly different light. According to the Scriptures, if a leader is married, two things are foundational: (1) the commitment he shows toward his marriage determines his right to lead as a servant of Christ in the church; and (2) the quality he reveals of his will to grow in his marriage determines the manner in which he will model as a representative of Christ to the church.
There is no escaping the two-edged truth unveiled in the New Testament. Because heaven's Bridegroom has come to earth to win a bride for Himself, the principles of both commitment (faith) and constancy (growth) are "locked" in the imagery of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. Further, no one is more accountable to learn and grow in the lifestyle of modeling this commitment than a leader given by Christ to serve His bride.
No gifts of a brilliant leader, however remarkable, ought to be allowed to substitute for the will to increase in the graces required for two different humans to grow together. No fruit of statistical achievement is a worthy replacement for the required development of the fruit of the Spirit needed for a husband and wife to learn to live together for a lifetime.
Ephesians 5:22-33 not only points to the demanding nature of commitment needed by a husband and wife to make a marriage work, but it concludes with these sweeping words: "I speak concerning Christ and [His] church" (v. 32, NKJV). Forty years of experience and observation of leaders has taught me one profound fact in this regard: A married leader will eventually, and inevitably, treat Jesus' bride the way he treats his own. Likewise, a parent will teach and lead the family of God the same way they lead their own children.
The Ephesians 5 idea of true faith in Christ and His faithful commitment to His own is inextricably linked throughout God's Word to the figure of a faithful, growing marriage. Jesus communicated this idea in His parable of the returning bridegroom (see Matt. 25:1-13).
His use of the figure fills the bridegroom-bride relationship with more than passion: The central issue is fidelity to a promise on the groom's part and constancy of devotion on the bride's. Time can dampen fervor, but true love transcends emotion and remains committed.
The depiction of living faith as a marriage is found throughout the Bible, beginning with the type symbolized in Eve's creation from Adam's side, which foreshadowed Christ's begetting His bride through His wounded side. And it sustains until the finale, for we all anticipate our first stop beyond this world's history at a grand dinner called the marriage supper of the Lamb (see Rev. 19:9). The message: Tribulations rise and fall, but joy will come in the morning—hang tough!
In Jeremiah 3:14, God's commitment to the backslider is, "'I am married to you—a statement that calls a leader to seek to sustain his or her marriage even though society argues, "If it's not fun anymore, trash it."
It's a tender issue, and we certainly are never to condemn a divorced or fallen leader. But neither can we permit a casual treatment of their tragedy, for God's Word is never to be lightly regarded on these points. How a believer lives unto Christ is measured in terms of marital fidelity, and how a leader leads in His name is to be judged by the same.
Though often cavalierly dismissed by the careless or uninformed, the Word gives requirements that serve as a grid for measuring a spiritual leader's readiness to lead. First Timothy 3:1-15 and Titus 1:5-16 list standards incumbent upon every leader who would serve in the church. This is true regardless of what office they fill, as listed in Ephesians 4:11.
The positional terms in Timothy and Titus—"bishop" (episkopos, overseer); "deacon" (diakonos, minister); and "elder" (presbuteros, mature leader)—form a cluster of at least a dozen behavioral requirements that, at the very least, establish a minimal standard for spiritual leaders. They span everything from being nonargumentative, noncombative and humbly teachable to being a faithful spouse and a good parent.
Equally important is the context—which calls for time to verify these qualities (see 1 Tim. 3:10) and slowness to confirm a person to leadership (see 1 Tim. 5:22). Further, if through a problem, a stress, a tragedy or a personal failure a leader pointedly violates or is unable to fulfill the biblical standard, he or she is to be relieved of ministry—at least for an extended season.
If for no other reason than to grant a needed period for spiritual and emotional healing, this policy ought to be regarded today. Reinstatement may eventually come, since the hope of recovery is characteristic of God's redemptive ways, but not without an extended season of recovery.
An even more thoughtful look at these leadership qualifications reveals that they have more to say about marriage responsibilities than is immediately obvious. Certain direct statements do declare absolute requirements, such as faithfulness in marital commitment (see 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6) and orderly leadership in raising children (see 1 Tim. 3:4-5, 12; Titus 1:6).
But indirectly, most of the list also applies to marriage. For example, being "hospitable" (see 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8) represents an attitude of prioritizing time with one's spouse and family as much as it does welcoming people into your home. Being "gentle" (see 1 Tim. 3:3) and "not quick-tempered" (see Titus 1:7) calls for a private loving, as Christ loved the church, toward one's husband or wife (see Eph. 5:25-29) just as much as for a public graciousness or self-control with members of the congregation.
The fact is, spiritual leaders are expected to meet a higher standard than the world sets for its leading figures. If these requirements are not being met in at least an initial and growing way, the married leader's potential for placement is to be disallowed.
Perfection or full maturity is not mandated, but neither is it enough that the leader be exempted from the standards simply because he or she is "so anointed" (so was Balaam). Nor is it enough that a leadership position be given to a person simply because he or she "has so much insight into the Word" (so does the devil!).
Our society lauds and pays its athletes, entertainers and persuasive leaders just as long as they "keep the show on the road"—but that's not the measure God calls the church to apply. Character, not merely charisma, is the mark of a spiritual leader.
And when he or she is married, the test of that character is proved in the fabric of fidelity to vows and in the self-sacrificing will to serve marriage above ministry. To lower this expectation is extremely risky.