Divorced Men as Elders And the “Husband of One Wife”

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).[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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:

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.

[1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible : New American Standard Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), 1 Ti 3:2.

[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.

[3] George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 157.

[4] Ibid, 158-59.

8 comments… add one
  • Michael,
    I disagree with your stance, but I am no debater.

    If this stance were the case, and a man wanted to become an elder, would he have to have had a “Biblical divorce”? Would someone seeking counsel see the difference or would they simply see someone who quit a marriage and started a new one?

    Could the meaning be that the man not have two wives in God’s eyes? If a man is in covenant with a woman and the woman dies, that covenant is fulfilled. He no longer has a wife in God’s eyes. If a man is in covenant with a woman and divorces and remarries, he has two wives in God’s eyes.

    I admire your desire to study and seek out truth.

  • Michael Beck

    Hi Grateful. Thanks for your comment. Sorry for the delay. Too many comments on another post where someone was debating me on Calvinism and your must have gotten buried somehow.

    To your first question, I would say yes. If he didn’t have a Biblical divorce, he’s still married, right? Your second question about counseling is a valid one for sure, and something we must consider carefully. Some would argue he is in a better position to help out. I would think the divorced elder would need to explain his position up front in counseling and be in agreement with the other elder’s position on divorce in marriage in general.

    “If a man is in covenant with a woman and divorces and remarries, he has two wives in God’s eyes. ”

    I have a high view of the marriage covenant as well, and I would totally agree with this statement if it wasn’t for Mat. 19:8, 9 and 1 Cor. 7:12-16. Knowing that these men are very likely to remarry after a divorce, it’s hard to accept that Christ and Paul were telling them to go get two wives in God’s eyes. Also it seems that due to Deut. 24:1-4 a Biblical divorce breaks the covenant because Moses says the divorced wife cannot even come back and marry her first husband.

    God hates divorce. I hate divorce. Yet I’m hesitant to go beyond the Scriptures.

  • Steve McCrackin

    1 Cor. 7:39 and Romans 7:1-3 rules option (2) out.
    I believe this is in error. The whole point of 1 Timothy chapter 3 is to hold Deacons to a higher standard. Thus a standard for most Christians may be lower.
    Not all members are to be tested prior to joining a church.
    To go on first it is clear that Christ does not reconize divorce unless the women either passes away or is unfaithful. A man who is not divorced for the two items mentioned above, comits adultry against his first wife. Anyone else has in effect 2 wives.
    Mathew 19 8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
    Secondly, to get the true meaning you must look at the rest of 1 Timothy Chapture 3. I will argue verse 12 is the key for arriving at the correct interpertation.
    12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well.
    If you are divorced except for sexual immortality, you are not faithful to your wife!
    Secondly, a man who can not manage his household, can not be a deacon. I believe having a spouse be unfaithful, not managing your household well. At a very min. it shows poor judgement of charactor.
    The passages are not meant to be qualifications to be christains, or define sinful nature, but to be in leadership of a church. I personally believe Corinthians 7 and Romans 2 do not authority over 1 Timothy 3. 1 Timothy 3 (when it comes to deacons) has authority over Corinthians 7 and Romans 2.

  • John Jordan

    I seen where you stood on this all theses years and now you are saying who are faithful to his wife, Then 1Timothy3:12 Husband of one wife. I am very confused, I once went to my pastor ask Mr……would make a good deacon, he says he can’t he has been married before. I see it says Husband of one wife, I under stand the widow remarries..I am still confused, I have always gone to your thoughts on bible issues and even from my church on views, I am 59 yrs young please help me more understand.

  • Dan C

    Many in the early church had multiple wives when they became a Christian. They were not required to divorce the “extra” wives. Since polygamy was common through the 3rd century, John Calvin was correct when he said “husband of one wife” was referring to polygamy. Jay Adams wrote an excellent book, “Marriage, Divorced, and Remarriage in the Bible”, which addresses this issue.

  • Gordon Gruver

    The question that I have has been touched on, but not addressed. What about the “innocent spouse” (me, in this case) who was deserted by an adulterous wife who filed for divorce so she could marry her new lover? I remarried a woman who was also an “innocent spouse”, her ex was living with another woman when she obtained a divorce. As near as I can tell from the scriptures, according to Jesus’ teaching, both of us were free from our previous marriage vows and could marry without committing adultery. Presumably, I could fill a Church leadership post as a deacon or pastor, but since I committed the perceived sin of being divorced and remarried a divorced woman, my denomination will not consider me qualified for either position. Right now, I consider myself to be an elder because of my age and tenure at the Church. I do many of the jobs normally reserved for deacons because the only deacon we hav is living in an assisted living facility (he is 93 years old). The Lord has given me peace about this matter, so I am not all that worried about my status, but a similar situation has occurred with another man who has aspirations, a gift for and a calling to the ministry. How do I counsel him? As things stand now, he is licensed to preach the gospel, but can not be ordained.
    I know this is a long shot, being an old thread, but I would appreciate any guidance I can get on this subject.

    • drbeck

      Hi Gordon,

      This is a tough issue and not always easy to give an answer. I would say in your case, that by joining the denomination, you have agreed to submit to their ruling and policies/beliefs.

      • Gordon Gruver

        Thank you for the reply. I suspect you are correct as far as it goes, but unfortunately my denomination seems to be divided on this issue as well. Personally, it matters little to me as I am now rather advanced in years and have little to gain or lose. I am confident of my salvation and eternal heavenly home, but as others look to me for advice, I have some difficulty with this particular subject. I am somewhat heartened to discover that there are many learned theological scholars who also wrestle with this subject. It appears that any resolution of this issue will continue to elude all of us until the Lord returns.

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