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What does it mean to be “the husband of one wife?”


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Paul gave the early Christians guidance on how the leadership of the church should be organized. He instructed them to institute leadership positions known as elders and deacons. These instructions are clearly stated in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1:5-9. These passages also specify the qualifications of church leadership.

One of the most controversial of these qualifications is that of being “the husband of one wife.” The reason that this is such a controversial subject is that the Scriptures are not explicitly clear about what is meant by this phrase. Understanding this topic is important because the leadership of the church will determine the character of the church. A godly church is impossible without godly leadership. Having a solid understanding of the ramifications of this dilemma should motivate a careful investigation into the six basic interpretations of this crucial passage.

Marriage to the Church

This view is not very widely held in Protestant Churches but is proposed by Roman Catholics. It simply states that the elder (or Bishop) is to be married, in a metaphoric sense, to the Church; therefore supporting their view of celibacy of the pastorate. The obvious problem with this view is that all of the other qualifications are interpreted in a plain literal manner. There is no reason to believe that Paul intended this qualification to be taken any differently than the other standards. This view also seems to contradict Paul's teaching of I Corinthians 7, which advises men and women to marry in order that they not give in to strong temptations.

prohibition of polygamy

Proponents of this view see this passage as a prohibition of having more than one wife at a time. This view has a special appeal today since polygamy does not exist in most western countries, and thus we are not compelled to settle vexing problems of frequent divorce as a disqualification for the ministry. Although this would certainly be the easiest way to interpret this difficult passage, there are some inherit problems with this view.

The first problem is that there is no record of the church ever having the problem of polygamy. If this was Paul's intended meaning, he was addressing a problem which, up to that time, had not been observable. Historians also tell us that it is doubtful that polygamy was practiced by the Romans or the Greeks of that time. Therefore, Paul would have been warning against a practice which was not evident among either the pagans or the church.

Another problem with this interpretation becomes apparent when viewed within its context. I Timothy 3:2 tells that the elder must be the “husband of one wife.” I Timothy 5:9 tells that the enlisted widow (a widow supported by the church) must have been the "wife of one husband." The construction of these two verses is identical. They are written within the same context by the same author. Therefore, it seems that the two verses should be viewed similarly. If Paul is prohibiting the elder from the practice of polygamy, then he must have also been prohibiting the enlisted widow from practicing polyandry, a practice which is not reported to have occurred during this time and geographic location. This view is very doubtful considering the context and parallel restrictions of widows' moral characters.

Prohibition of remarried widowers

Those who hold to this view believe that widowers who have remarried should not be eligible to hold the office of elder. They look to the translation of “one” wife, believing that a person should only be committed to one woman for an entire life time. To remarry, they assert, shows weakness and is not to be considered a proper example to the church. This has not been a very popular viewpoint.

It is a question of whether Paul is prohibiting digamy (being married twice legally). Nowhere else in Scripture does Paul forbid the marriage of a widower. On the contrary, Paul's teachings in Romans 7 seem to indicate that remarriage was appropriate, not a sign of weakness, in the case of a deceased spouse. Again we are reminded that I Timothy 5:9 consists of the same language structure and that Paul then admonished younger widows to remarry (I Tim. 5:14). It is doubtful that Paul would have advised young widows to remarry if it would make them ineligible for church support at a later time of need.

Exclusion of unmarried overseers

This view states that a man must be married in order to be accepted as an elder. Supporters of this view emphasize that the proper role of the elder is to be a good example to all the church. This would include his family life; being a good manager of his household and having children who believe. This is not possible if the man is not married.

Although this argument seems to hold some merit in principle, the Scriptures do not indicate that this is the primary purpose of the requirement in question. The Greek structure of this passage emphasizes the word “one.” This would not be expected if this were the correct view; but rather “husband of a wife.” This view also does not seem to be appropriate in light of Paul's advise of I Corinthians 7:8,9, “But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.” It seems doubtful that Paul would give advise to young, unmarried men that would disqualify them from the potential of church leadership. It must also be noted that Paul was himself single (perhaps a widower), although he was definitely part of the church leadership.

A final argument against this view again concerns Paul's parallel restriction of the enlisted widows. If Paul were understood to have meant that elders must be married, then he would also require enlisted widows to have been married, which is of course an obvious contradiction of terms. Certainly, Paul did not intend to restrict the office of elder from men who were not married.

Prohibition of divorce

This is probably the most widely held view at this time among conservative evangelicals. Simply stated, no man who has ever had a divorce is eligible for the office of elder. It is contended that divorce was easily obtained by the Jews and the Romans during that period of history and that the church was to be an example of what God had originally intended for his people. Therefore, no divorced man should be considered for leadership. Although some argue that this interpretation is unnecessarily harsh and unfair, supporters of this view contend that the very existence of a set of qualifications indicated that not all people are to be eligible for leadership roles but that this in no way should eliminate them from other sorts of ministry.

The question of whether or not this should include divorces prior to conversion is often asked. Many of those that hold to this view would argue that for those men who are to be considered for this high office, there must be no record of divorce or other marital infidelity, even before conversion. Indeed, this restriction would help to eliminate any embarrassing situations which could result in the disgrace of the church.

This view has much support and is not easily discredited. However, there is reason to doubt that the prohibition of divorce is what Paul intended to communicate. For instance, if Paul had merely wanted to forbid a divorced man form being an elder, the Greek language could easily have communicated this thought. Rather than give a negative command concerning marriage, he states the requirement in a positive manner. In this way, Paul calls the elder to an even higher qualification of leadership. This is discussed in the next section.

A one-woman kind of man

In order to understand what Paul actually meant, it is vital that the Greek text be examined. The words with which we are interested in the Greek are, “Mias gunaikos andra” (“Husband of one wife” NASB). A literal translation of this passage would be “a man of one woman.” There is no word in Greek for our word “husband.” The word for “man” here is aner, the word for a male individual. When this word is used in a context of the marital relationship, it has the meaning of “husband.” The words “wife” (woman) and “husband” (man) are used without the definite article in the original language text, which emphasizes character or nature. Therefore the structure of this passage could easily be translated “a one-wife sort of husband.” Kenneth Wuest expresses this view in his translation of this passage,

“He must be a one-wife kind of man in that he isolates and centralizes his love upon one women and that forever.”

In a culture where men were frequently tempted toward unfaithfulness, Paul made it clear that an elder in the church was to be a “one-woman man”—loyal to his wife and to her alone. Paul stressed the character and nature of a godly man in these verses rather than marking a single experience in his life for inspection.

Another aspect of the construction of these verses concerns the use of the word “must.” It should be noted must controls the entire section of the qualifications of the elders. With this in mind, it is important that all the qualifications be treated with the same emphasis. It seems that this characteristic (husband of one wife) is usually judged on a harder scale than many of the other conditional qualities. Should we also disqualify a man who's children are not always “under control?” The Scriptures tell that an elder “must have a good reputation with those outside the church” (I Tim. 3:7), should the church then investigate any bad feelings on the part of others toward the proposed candidate? In a sense, the answer to both of the above questions is yes; all the qualifications are very important. Yet, there is an aspect of this matter that can not be overlooked, the possibility that these qualifications were given as guidelines; not as unbending standards of measure.

The aspect of the relativity of the qualifications of the elder can be seen by comparing the lists of qualities given to Timothy and Titus. These two lists are virtually the same in all manners except one; in the forbidding of a recent convert to eldership. Paul does not give this qualification to Titus who was ministering in Crete. Perhaps this is because the church in Crete was a young church and did not have any members who had been believers for a very long time. The principle here is that the ideal elder will live up to all of Paul's standards, yet there must be a provision that allows a person to minister where the need arises; regardless of whether or not he perfectly fulfills the elder's qualifications. If this is the case, then the qualification of “husband of one wife” should also be viewed somewhat relative.

When examining the qualifications of an elder, it is important to look at the overall idea of the passage as well as the specific grammar and construction. These qualities were meant to show that a leader in the church must be a godly man. The elders of the church were to act as examples, to the church and the community, of Christ-like living. This is seen in Paul's first qualification, which most believe to be the key to all of the other specifications, “An overseer, then, must be above reproach.” This condition sets the tone for the remaining qualifications, including the question of marital status.

It is important to look at the overall godliness of the prospective elder. All too often, elders and pastors are chosen on the basis of abilities and “work related” activities. Many church leaders are chosen because they are experienced businessmen or because they are influential in their community. Although these are characteristics that are “handy” to have available, they are not nearly as important as true godliness. If the Church is to have an impact on this world, it must strive to understand these important passages. Although a definite interpretation of this qualification for elder cannot be given, Paul's warning stands clear; a godly church needs godly leaders. We must be very careful who we entrust with this responsibility.

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Author: Mark Van Bebber of Films for Christ

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