What did the apostle Paul mean when he required an overseer/elder to be “the husband of but one wife”? (1 Timothy 3:2).
We know that those given the title “elder” were the ones called to pastor the churches (see: I Peter 5:1-4). So evidently a pastor must be the husband of one wife.
But what does this mean?
Does this require all Church leaders to be married men? Are single men excluded from eldership?
- Some believe (on cultural grounds) that it was forbidding polygamy.
- The Catholic view (in support of their practice of celibacy for the priesthood), understands it as requiring marriage to the Church.
- Others believe that this qualification excludes those who are divorced and remarried from positions of leadership.
- Should we (based on this qualification) say that no divorced man may be considered for leadership?
None of these interpretations seem likely.
I believe this qualification (like the others listed in I Timothy 3) is about the character of the man himself. In this case, if married, he must be known for being faithfully loyal to his wife.
Looking more closely
The original language (“Mias gunaikos andra” lit. one woman man) is better understood as a reference to the character of the man over a reference to his marital status. Although some view it as forbidding a man from leadership who has been divorced and remarried, I understand it to mean a faithful husband –a man known for his loyal love for his wife. The New Living translation offers a nice rendering: “So an elder must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife” (I Timothy 3:2).
A similar phrase
In Timothy 5:9, the apostle Paul forbid widows from being on the care list of the Church (the list of widows) unless they were over sixty and “had but one husband…”
Here to Paul must be referring to a known character quality of faithfulness to her deceased husband. She was known to be a faithful wife. If this is not the case, how could he later encourage “…younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander (I Timothy 5:14). If the translation, “has had but one husband” referred to marital status, it would encourage a young widow to do something that would later disqualify her from help if her second husband passed away.
The New Living Bible offers a helpful rendering of I Timothy 5:9- “A widow who is put on the list for support must be a woman who is at least sixty years old and was faithful to her husband.”
A faithful husband
It is best to understand, “husband of but one wife” (lit. “one woman man”) to refer to a character quality of being a faithful husband. It’s certainly possible to have just one wife but to have eyes for others or to be physically unfaithful to one’s wife.
If a man is divorced, or divorced and remarried, other considerations must be made concerning his qualification and readiness for leadership in the Church.
Other qualifications should be explored
- “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach…” (I Timothy 3:1-2)
- “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect.” (I Timothy 3:4)
- “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” (I Timothy 3:7)
The circumstances relating to a divorce often make it problematic for a man to serve as an effective spiritual leader in the Church. There are a few rare circumstances where this has not been the case. By leadership, I am referring to an elder-pastor position. I am aware of a situation where a man was divorced at the age of eighteen and later became a believer. He married again and was faithfully loyal to his wife for 40 years. When being considered for eldership, he met the qualification of “one woman man” and his divorce (many years earlier) did not present any compelling reason for keeping him from leadership.
Before allowing a divorced and/or remarried man to take a position of leadership, consideration should be given to the history of the Church regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage. Has the congregation been instructed on these subjects? It’s always best to implement change after teaching people the truth of Scripture. If a Church has a strong history of “No divorce/No remarriage,” bringing on a elder/pastor who has been divorced will cause unnecessary disturbance. On the other hand, if a Church is not strongly postured on this matter, it might occasion an opportunity to teach. See: Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage