Should a man who’s been divorced in the past be eligible for eldership in the church? What about 1 Timothy 3:2 (and Titus 1:6) and “the husband of one wife”?
We must keep in mind that whatever we decide on this issue in regards to elders, also applies to deacons (1 Tim. 3:12).
Over the past few months I have been considering this issue. At first I wasn’t sure where I stood. I tended to lean towards a “no-divorced elder” stance, mostly because I thought that was the more conservative view to hold. Too many churches are moving more and more towards liberal, unbiblical views, so I reasoned that anyone who held a “divorced elder” view was simply starting down that slippery slope.
So I began my investigation. The text of 1 Timothy 3 describes the qualifications for elders in a church. Verse 2 states :
An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.
The key phrase is “the husband of one wife.” What does this mean? Is Paul talking about polygamy, divorce, remarriage after the death of the spouse, or faithfulness to one’s wife?
I then began consulting many different sources, which is what a student of the Bible should do when they need extra help. (Commentaries by a trusted source are a good help to the believer. Preaching is simply commentary on the text and your own interpretation of a text is “your” commentary as well.)
The great reformer John Calvin, who I would consider to be on the very conservative side of the scale, believed Paul was forbidding polygamy in 1 Tim. 3:2. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology , a popular work in today’s Christian seminaries and churches agree with Calvin that that the issue Paul is addressing is polygamy.
Others like John MacArthur, state that polygamy was forbidden for all Christians, therefore Paul is not talking about polygamy here. In his Study Bible note for 1 Tim 3:2, MacArthur says:
Lit. in Gr. a “one-woman man.” This says nothing about marriage or divorce (for comments on that, see note on v. 4). The issue is not the elder’s marital status, but his moral and sexual purity….Some believe that Paul here excludes divorced men from church leadership. That again ignores the fact that this qualification does not deal with marital status. Nor does the Bible prohibit all remarriage after divorce (see notes on Mt 5:31, 32; 19:9; 1Co 7:15).
This agrees with the notes in other Study Bibles I consulted, including the ESV Study Bible, The Reformation Study Bible (also states this verse prohibits polygamy), and the Apologetics Study Bible.
Also its important to note where this no divorce issue might have come from. Ralph Earle believes it had its roots in the Roman Catholic Church, which eventually forbid all priests from being married.
“he must be “the husband of but one wife.” The same was required of deacons (v. 12). Some have interpreted this as meaning “married only once.” By the end of the second century this interpretation was being promulgated, under the influence of an asceticism that led to clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church. Bernard defends this view emphatically. He writes of the phrase here: “It excludes from ecclesiastical position those who have been married more than once” (p. 52). But most commentators agree that it means monogamy—only one wife at one time—and that the overseer must be completely faithful to his wife.
George Knight, in his very technical Greek commentary, comments on this verse as having four options. “It has been suggested that it requires that a bishop (1) be married, (2) have only one wife his entire life, (3) be monogamous, or (4) be faithful in the marital and sexual realm.
The following summarizes Knight’s arguments for or against the above options:
- 1 Cor. 7ff. rules option (1) out.
- 1 Cor. 7:39 and Romans 7:1-3 rules option (2) out.
- Option (3), that this prohibits polygamy remains an option based on historical documents (Josephus Antiquities, Roman legal marriage documents, etc.) showing many Jews practiced polygamy in the Roman Empire.
- Option (4) Based on 1 Tim 5:9 which describes a widow who had “been the wife of one man.” Since polyandry was not practice in Roman times, Paul is not saying “the wife of only one husband, as opposed to multiple husbands at the same time.”
Knight continues with another reason option (4) is the most reasonable meaning of this phrase:
The second consideration in favor of (4) is that this statement (3:2) positively affirms sexual fidelity couched in monogamous marital terminology (“husband of one wife”). It is analogous, therefore, to the command “You shall not commit adultery,” which is also couched in marital language but which encompasses other sexual sins, as the outworkings of that command in the chapters following Exodus 20 evince. “The natural meaning of mias gunaikos andra is surely, as Theodore [of Mopsuestia, 350-428 A.D.] says, ‘a man who having contracted a monogamous marriage is faithful to his marriage vows,’ excluding alike polygamy, concubinage and promiscuous indulgence” (Dodd, “NT Translation Problems II,” 115). “Promiscuous indulgence” would encompass Jesus’ words on wrongful divorce and remarriage in Mt. 5:32; 19:9.
This interpretation of 1 Tim 3:2, that Paul is talking about men who are faithful to their wife, is in agreement with three other commentators, both of which are considered two of the best conservative commentaries on 1 Timothy. You can view them on Google books here:
- Howard Marshall, A critical and exegetical commentary on the Pastoral Epistles
- Phillip H. Towner, The letters to Timothy and Titus
- Donald Guthrie, The pastoral epistles: an introduction and commentary
One last point that Bill Mounce, a top Greek scholar and author of probably the best commentary on the pastoral epistles, makes his blog about 1 Tim 3:2.
When I wrote the commentary I initially went with Position 4 [married only once]. But when I got to chapter 5 [1 Tim 5:14], I could not say that a widow had to be married only once in order to be enrolled in widows list since Paul encourages the younger widows to remarry. So I went back and changed my commentary to Position 3.
The point Mounce is making is that if we take 1 Tim 3:2 to mean “no divorced” elders, we must also take 1 Tim 5:14 to mean that widows can only get on the help list if they only been married once. But yet if this is true, that only a widow can be married once to get on the list, then why does he tell widows to remarry? Is this not preventing them from being on the list in the future if their next husband dies?
It appears based all the studies on the text and sources I’ve cited that it’s best to take “the husband of one wife” in 1 Tim 3:2 to mean to be someone who is faithful to his wife.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible : New American Standard Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), 1 Ti 3:2.
 Ralph Earle, “1 Timothy” In , in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 11: Ephesians Through Philemon, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 364.
 George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 157.
 Ibid, 158-59.