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1 Timothy 3:2,12

What does Paul mean when he requires that Elders and Deacons be "the husband of one wife" (1 Tim. 3:2,12)? Does he mean that a divorced man cannot be an Elder, a Deacon, a Pastor? Many who agree that divorce and remarriage are permissible on grounds of adultery or desertion insist that such individuals are, nevertheless, barred from ecclesiastical office. Here are the various ways of interpreting this text.


(1)       Some Roman Catholic scholars suggest that the "wife" refers to the RC Church to which the elder, or in their case "priest", should reckon himself married. This interpretation was evidently thought up to enforce celibacy among the priesthood. After all, if one is "married" to the Church he can't be married to another woman: he must be the husband of one wife! Needless to say, there isn't the slightest support in Scripture for this view. We should also remember that Peter, allegedly the first "pope", was married!


(2)       Another view is that Paul's purpose is to insist that only married men be elders. In other words, the phrase "husband of one wife" prohibits single men from being elders or deacons. I have four objections.


·      First, Paul does not say "husband of a wife" but "husband of one wife," and the word "one" is quite emphatic in the Greek text. Paul's point is that the elder must have nothing to do with any woman other than his wife.


·      Second, if single men cannot be elders then Paul himself (not to mention Jesus) would be excluded. But a comparison of 1 Tim. 4:14 with 2 Tim. 1:6 seems to indicate that Paul was an elder.


·      Third, please observe that the same Greek phrase that is translated "husband of one wife" is used in 1 Tim. 5:9 of widows. To be put on the list for special aid, a widow must have been the "wife of one husband." Obviously, the same thing is in view in both passages. But what possible sense could it make to insist that a widow have been at one time married and not single? By definition that is precisely what a widow is, a woman once married!


·      Finally, in view of Paul's statements in 1 Cor. 7 about the benefits and advantages of the single life when it comes to ministry, it seems unlikely that here he would exclude single men from eldership. Why would he exclude those men who, according to his own words, have more potential for effective, undistracted service than anyone else?


(3)       Some say that the phrase means "husband of one wife at a time." Thus, it is a prohibition of polygamy. I have three objections to this view.


·      First, no Christian, whether an elder or not, would ever have been allowed to practice polygamy. On the other hand, it is possible that Paul wanted to exclude from the eldership any man who had been a polygamist before his conversion. That may be, but it must be remembered that as far as the NT evidence is concerned, no one ever entered the church while still a polygamist. Thus, it is hardly to be expected that a special prohibition was needed to exclude them from the eldership in particular since there were none in the membership of the church in general.


·      Once again, 1 Timothy 5:9 weighs heavily against this view. That is to say, if "husband of one wife" means an elder cannot have multiple wives then "wife of one husband" means an enrolled widow cannot have had multiple husbands! But polyandry, or the practice of a woman having multiple husbands simultaneously, was unheard of in the ancient world.


·      Finally, it is important to remember that 1 Timothy was written to the church in Ephesus, a principal city in Asia. Whereas polygamy was officially legal in Palestinian Judaism, it was against Roman law and was strenuously resisted in Greek-speaking Asia. Thus, as Keener notes, "the fact that polygamy was practiced neither by the Jewish people in Asia nor by the Greeks there suggests that Paul would have had little reason to address this in his letter as a rule for church leaders there" (And Marries Another, 88).


(4)       Another view is that "husband of one wife" means "husband of one wife in a lifetime." Paul would thus be prohibiting a man from serving as an elder if he had married a second time after his first wife died. Note well: this view is talking about remarriage after the death of one's spouse, not remarriage after divorce. This view suggests that a second marriage might possibly be a sign of weakness or might become a cause for reproach. I have several problems with this interpretation.


·      First, it conflicts with the rest of Scripture on the subject of marriage. Nowhere in the Bible is remarriage after the death of one's spouse depicted as forbidden or morally questionable in the slightest degree. Read especially Romans 7:1-3. To cast a shadow of doubt over a second marriage is to impugn what Scripture everywhere affirms and approves, and is a reflection of a spirit of asceticism that is contrary to the Word of God. Granted, Paul does recommend the single state in 1 Cor. 7:25-40, but only because of what he calls the "present distress," that is, the persecution and oppression the church was then suffering. Also, those to whom he recommends celibacy are in many cases people who have never been married once. His reason is that the single person is less encumbered and thus may serve the Lord more effectively. He also says in the same text that if one does marry, either for the first or second time, he or she does not sin in any way (cf. Heb. 13:4). Thus, the single state may be more expedient, but it is certainly not more moral than being married (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-3).


·      This view suggests that a second marriage might be taken as a sign of weakness. But then could not the same thing be said of a first marriage (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1-7). In other words, if you want to question the will-power of a man for getting married a second time you must also question his will-power for getting married the first time.


·      Finally, whatever "husband of one wife" implies for elders it also implies for widows (1 Tim. 5:9). Therefore, in this view Paul would be saying that if a widow is to be counted worthy of enrollment and the support of the church she can only have been married once in her life. But look at 1 Tim. 5:14. There Paul encourages (dare I say "commands") younger widows to remarry. Would Paul advise young widows to marry again if such was questionable or would automatically disqualify them from the possibility of special aid in their later years? Can you imagine a widow, whom Paul encouraged to remarry, being in need after the death of her second husband only to be told that because she heeded the advice of the apostle she is disqualified? I hardly think so.


(5)       Many contend that Paul means to say a divorced man cannot be an elder (or deacon), regardless of whether he remarries after the divorce or remains single. There are two crucial objections to this view.


·      First, if "husband of one wife" means "never divorced" it is surely a strange way of saying so. And why would not a divorced man who remained single be qualified? It could not be said of him that he is the "husband of two wives."


·      Second, if divorce is permissible on grounds of adultery or desertion (and I have argued that it is), the marriage bond is dissolved. The individual is free to remarry. In such a case I see no reason why this man would not be the "husband of one wife." His first marriage has been biblically terminated and the woman to whom he was married is no longer his wife.


We should note, however, that a divorced man may be disqualified on other grounds, such as the inability to manage his house well (1 Tim. 3:4). Or the circumstances surrounding his divorce may indicate that he is no longer "above reproach" (1 Tim. 3:2) and does not "have a good reputation with those outside the church" (1 Tim. 3:7). However, these criteria do not relate directly to the issue of divorce. A married man may well fail in these respects. My conclusion is that if a man is the innocent party in a divorce (whether or not he remarries) he is not necessarily disqualified from the eldership.


(6)       The view that I endorse is as follows. To be the "husband of one wife" or the "wife of one husband" simply means that one is faithful and devoted and loyal to his or her spouse. It is surprising to me that there is no other qualification relating to one's sexual morality. I find it likely, therefore, that "husband of one wife" is speaking to that very point. If a man is to be an elder he must be neither flirtatious nor adulterous. He must be a man who is diligent to maintain sexual fidelity to one woman, the one to whom he is married. He must be, quite literally, a "one-woman man." Sexual promiscuity was rampant in the ancient world (as it is in ours), and this qualification is designed to address that problem. An elder must be a man of unquestioned morality and fidelity. This view not only makes excellent sense in itself, it also adequately explains 1 Tim. 5:9. If a widow is to be counted worthy of special support she must be one who was faithful and devoted to her husband. She has to have been a "one-man woman," even as an elder must be a "one-woman man."


The one objection to this view is "husband of one wife" is not the most natural way of describing marital fidelity. Why didn't Paul just say, "not an adulterer"? But "not an adulterer," says Keener, "would have been too obvious a statement to include in Paul's list of moral qualifications, somewhat akin to 'not a murderer.' 'A faithful and loyal spouse who is a good current marital partner,' however, would fit the list quite well, matching the emphasis on ruling the children properly (3:4-5; Titus 1:6) and the concern about false teachers who were ruining whole 'households' (Titus 1:11) and forbidding marriage (1 Tim. 4:1-3)" (95).