Examining the “Husband of One Wife” Qualification for Elders
The leadership structure of the Lord’s church is spelled out in the pages of the New Testament. Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23), which He purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28). In particular localities where congregations of the Lord’s church meet, the inspired text explains that leaders who are called shepherds (or pastors), elders, or bishops are to direct the activities of each individual congregation (Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1-4). These terms are used interchangeably to describe the same position of leadership in the local church (Lewis, 1985, p. 14). The multiple terms are used in order to provide a complete picture of what these leaders are to do and be.
In addition, the New Testament provides consistent teaching that each local congregation should strive to maintain a plurality of elders/pastors/bishops. As the late Bible scholar J.W. McGarvey once wrote: “There is no proposition in reference to the organization of the primitive churches upon which scholars and critics are more perfectly agreed than that every fully organized church had a plurality of Elders” (1950, pp. 66-67). McGarvey went on to correctly conclude that there is New Testament authority and example for only a plurality of elders, and no authority for a singular pastor or bishop to rule an entire congregation or group of congregations.
If a plurality of men should be established as the overseers of any given congregation, what qualities or characteristics should these men possess that would enable them to fulfill their duties? Thankfully, the Lord, through the inspired New Testament, has not left us to guess what traits are needed for such a position. There are two very clear lists of qualities that elders should possess in order for them to be appointed to the eldership—1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. It is understood that biblical passages are often complimentary, in which certain passages include additional, supplemental information. With that in view, we will consider these two lists as complimentary, and therefore as one “master” list of the qualities that every elder should maintain.
An exhaustive study of every one of the qualifications for elders is outside of the purview of this article. Additionally, some of the qualifications are so self-explanatory, they call for little (if any) discussion. For instance, in Titus 1:7 we read that one who aspires to be an elder should not be “violent.” The meaning of that term is unambiguous. It simply means that an elder should not be a person who flies into violent fits of rage in which people are physically abused. Again, in the same verse we are told that an elder is not supposed to be “greedy for money.” A simple dictionary definition for the word “greedy” quickly renders this qualification quite easy to understand.
Not all the qualities prescribed for elders, however, are as self-explanatory as the two just mentioned. In fact, there are several that have been at the heart of many heated discussions. One that has often been discussed, and is viewed by many as being difficult to understand, is the injunction that an elder must be “the husband of one wife” (Titus 1:6; 1 Timothy 3:2). It is to this qualification that we will direct our attention.
THE HUSBAND OF ONE WIFE
What does the statement that a bishop/elder/pastor must be the “husband of one wife” mean? Just reading this phrase in any standard English translation certainly leads to some ambiguity. Does it mean that he is only supposed to be married to one wife for his entire life? Does it mean that he is not to be married to two wives at once? If he was married to one wife when he was appointed an elder, but she dies, is he still the “husband of one wife”? If his wife dies and he marries another woman, is he now the husband of two wives? Does it really mean that a man must be married at all, or could it just mean that if he has a wife, he must only have one? Does this injunction mean that women are disqualified from the eldership? These are some of the most often asked questions pertaining to this particular qualification. In order to answer them, we will need to see if the original language clears up any ambiguity that might have arisen through translation.
In Greek, the phrase is mias gunaikos andra. Vincent, in his word study, translates it as “the husband of one wife” (1886, 4:228). R.H. Lenski translates the phrase as “one wife’s husband” (1998, pp. 579-580). William D. Mounce renders the words “‘one-woman’ man” (2000, 46:156). And C. Michael Moss translates it as the “‘husband of but one wife’ (literally ‘one woman’s man’)” (1994, pp. 69-70). What we see, then, is that the original language does not elucidate the phrase as much as we might like. In essence, it leaves us with the same ambiguities as the simple English renderings of the term. Thus, in order to gain a firmer grasp on the concept, we must think through the available options.
Must a Bishop/Elder/Pastor Be Married?
A host of scholarly commentators who have written about 1 Timothy 3:2 have concluded that the phrase “husband of one wife” does not mean that an elder must be married. They contend that the term simply means that if a man is married, then he should exhibit marital fidelity, be faithful to his spouse, and not be polygamous. There are a number of reasons such writers give for arguing that marriage is not a requirement for being a bishop. First, they believe that since Paul was not married, he would not have inserted a qualification that would exclude himself. Mounce summarized well this viewpoint when he wrote: “But the list is not a checklist requiring, for example, that all church leaders be married and have more than one child. Paul and Timothy were not married, nor did they have families (as far as we know), so neither of them could be a “one-woman” man or manage his household well” (2000, 46:156-159). Second, many of these writers believe that women should not be excluded from the eldership.
Those who believe that being the “husband of one wife” (i.e. married) is not a requirement often insist that what is being discussed is the personality and character of the individual, not the life circumstances in which the person finds himself. Thus, these writers argue that the text is simply saying that the proposed candidate for the eldership should have a character that he or she would remain faithful to one spouse. If the candidate’s character appears to be one of fidelity, whether or not the proposed elder actually is married to one wife is of no consequence. This interpretation of the “husband of one wife” is flawed for a number of reasons.
First, we must understand that life circumstances do dictate whether or not a person is eligible to be an elder or bishop. One of the qualifications for an elder is that he is not “a novice” (1 Timothy 3:1), or new Christian. Is it the case that a new Christian might be a very spiritual person? Certainly. Could it be that a new Christian may have an evangelistic attitude, have a close relationship to the Lord, and be walking in the light? Absolutely. Is there anything about the character of a “novice” that inherently excludes him from the eldership? No, there is nothing about his character that would keep him from being an elder. The only thing that keeps such a person from being appointed to the eldership is the fact that he is a recent convert. His life circumstance is such that he is not qualified to be an elder. He is not less valuable to the church. Neither is a novice less spiritual, less evangelistic, or of a lesser moral character than one who is qualified to be an elder. The only reason he is not qualified to be an elder is that God has stated that new converts are not to be appointed to the eldership.
Furthermore, the idea that Paul would not include a requirement to be an elder that would exclude himself carries no weight for a number of reasons. First, Paul interacted with various elders during his ministry (Acts 20:17, Philippians 1:1). He and Timothy wrote to the elders and deacons of the Philippian church (Philippians 1:1). And he instructed both Timothy and Titus (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) in the way to appoint bishops/elders/pastors. Yet throughout the text, Paul never refers to himself as one who is in the “office” of bishop/pastor/elder. This realization is telling, in light of the fact that we know Paul was not married (1 Corinthians 7:6-9). On the other hand, we see the apostle Peter speaking to the elders of the church, and stating that he was a “fellow elder” (1 Peter 5:1). Since we know that Peter was married and had a mother-in-law (Mark 1:30), this would fit perfectly with the idea that the “husband of one wife” qualification for elders was mandatory. As J.W. McGarvey so clearly stated:
It has been urged as an objection to this conclusion, that it would disqualify Paul himself, and Barnabas and Timothy for the office of Elder although they held offices or positions of much greater responsibility. But this objection can have no force, unless it be made to appear that these brethren were qualified for the Elder’s office, or that the qualifications of an Apostle or an Evangelist include those of an Elder. Neither of the two, however, can be made to appear, and therefore the objection has no force whatever. Indeed, it seems most fitting that men whose chief work led them from city to city and nation to nation, through all kinds of danger and hardship, should be freed from the care of a family, and equally fitting that the shepherd, whose work was always at home and in the midst of the families of his flock, should be a man of family. A married man certainly possesses advantages for such work that are impossible to an unmarried man, and the experience of the world must confirm the wisdom requirement that the overseer shall be the husband of one wife (1950, p. 57).
Furthermore, to conclude that a person does not have to be the husband of one wife in order to be an elder ignores a very straightforward statement found in the context. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he stated: “A bishop then must be…” (1 Timothy 3:2). The phrase “must be” is a mandate that requires all those who aspire to become bishops to maintain the circumstances and characteristics that follow the phrase. The Greek word translated here is dei, which means “it is necessary, one must, or has to” (Glasscock, 1983, 140:245). Surely no one would contend that a man could be appointed as a bishop if he is greedy for money. None would be so careless as to suggest that a person who is violent could be appointed as an elder. Who would contend that a novice be appointed to the eldership? None. And yet each of these qualifications follows the phrase “must be” just as surely as “the husband of one wife.” All of the qualifications that follow “must be” are of equal value and importance and not one of them can be lacking from a prospective candidate for the eldership. The text plainly states that a bishop “must be…the husband of one wife.” To conclude that a bishop does not need to be the husband of one wife is to ignore a clearly worded inspired injunction.
In addition, numerous writers contend that “the husband of one wife” would be better rendered as something like “a one-woman sort of man” or “a man who has the character of fidelity to one woman if he were married” (Glasscock, 140:249-252). Thus, many of them suggest that men or women could be considered for the position of elder if they have a personality of fidelity even if they are not married. A flaw of this thinking is simply that a congregation would have to assume something about a person that there is no possible way of knowing unless the person were actually placed in that exact position. How in the world could it be verified that a person would be faithful to a spouse if that person is not married? In truth, there is no way to know, other than watching the person exhibit such faithfulness in an actual marriage.
To illustrate, suppose that the text stated that any candidate for the eldership must be “one who has taken a beating for Christ without recanting his faith.” If modern scholars were to “characterize” this qualification, they would assert that it means, not that he has been beaten, but if he were to be beaten, he would remain faithful to God. Yet to attribute to a person what he would do in a situation that he has never been in goes far beyond the capacity of human knowledge. Thus, to claim that a person is “a one-woman man,” without having seen that person remain faithful to a spouse, is claiming knowledge that no person can have. We can only know for sure if a man is a “one-woman” man if he has proven it in the testing ground of marriage. To borrow and modify a phrase from the inspired author, James, “show me your marital fidelity without being married, and I will show you my marital faithfulness by being married and remaining faithful.”
Can Women Be Elders/Pastors/Bishops?
A number of scholars contend that demanding that “the husband of one wife” is literal would disqualify all women from the position of elder. They contend that God would not allow men to attain a leadership position that is not also available for women. Thus they insist that the statement “the husband of one wife” cannot be taken literally.
From a general analysis of the inspired writings of Paul, one can see that he certainly was not sexist or gender biased. In fact, Paul penned one of the boldest statements of gender and race equality in all religious literature. In Galatians 3:28, he wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” About this verse, Jan Faver Hailey wrote: “Common exegesis understands Paul here to be advocating that access to God is open to all through faith in Christ, without regard to race, social standing, or gender” (1993, 1:132).
While Paul consistently maintained that men and women are equal in God’s sight, he insisted they have been given different duties and roles. Many religious people mistakenly equate the concept of different roles, with the idea of different status or worth. Even skeptics have falsely assumed such. Atheist Charles Templeton wrote: “In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul states unequivocally that men and women have a different status before God” (1996, p. 186). Allegedly, if Paul instructs men to be elders (Titus 1:5-9) and to lead publically in worship (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:8-15), and husbands to be the “head” of their homes (Ephesians 5:22-24), then he must view women as less able, less valuable, or inferior to men. [NOTE: See Jackson, 2010 and Miller, 2005 for biblical expositions of these verses.]
Is it true that since the Bible assigns different roles to males and females, their status or worth must be unequal? Certainly not. In Titus 3:1, Paul explained to Titus that Christians were supposed to be subject to rulers and authorities and to obey the government. From that statement, is it correct to conclude that Paul views all those in governmental positions to be of more value than Christians? Does this passage imply that, because Christians are to obey other humans who are in governmental positions, Paul sees those in governmental positions as mentally, physically, or spiritually superior to Christians? Not in any way. The mere fact that Christians are to obey those in the government says nothing about the spiritual status or value of either party. It only addresses the different roles that each party fulfills.
Again, in 1 Timothy 6:2, Paul instructs Christian servants to be obedient to their own masters. Does this imply that Paul believed masters to be superior, or to be of more inherent worth than servants? No. It simply shows a difference in roles, not of status. Logically speaking, different roles can never be used to support an accusation that such roles imply different value or status. In Ephesians 6:1-2, Paul instructs children to obey and honor their parents. Does this mean that children are of less worth or value than their parents? This can hardly be the case, especially considering that Jesus described those in the kingdom of heaven as being like little children (Matthew 19:14), commanding His audience to be “converted and become as little children” (Matthew 18:3) in order to be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Furthermore, while many are quick to seize on Paul’s alleged sexism in his ordination of men as elders and leaders in their homes, those writers often neglect to include the responsibilities involved in such roles. Husbands are called upon to give their lives for their wives (Ephesian 5:25), physically provide food, shelter, and clothing for their families (1 Timothy 5:8), and to love their wives as much as they love themselves (Ephesians 5:25). While much is said about the “unfairness” of Paul’s instructions, it is productive to ask who would get the last seat on a life boat if a Christian husband and wife were on a sinking ship? The Christian husband gives himself for his wife in such instances. Is that fair that he is called upon to accept the sacrificial role of giving himself for his wife? Is she more valuable than he because God calls upon him to protect and cherish her and die for her if necessary? No. It is simply a difference is assigned roles, not in status or worth. Thus, one must conclude that to establish elders/bishops/pastors as men, each of which is the “husband of one wife,” does not imply gender bias or unfairness. It simply denotes a circumstance that must avail in the life of a person who is eligible to be an elder.
Polygamy, Bigamy, and “the Husband of One Wife”
A number of writers have concluded that the phrase “the husband of one wife” means that the man in view is not a bigamist or polygamist, but is married to “only” one wife. They stress that the force of the instruction lies on the concept of “only” one and not multiple wives. In considering this view, Michael Moss wrote: “Since polygamy was only infrequently practiced in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, is seems very unlikely that Paul would write to condemn a practice among overseers that would not be practiced even among Christians outside the leadership” (1994, pp. 69-70).It would seem prudent to argue, then, that the phrase is not inserted solely to exclude polygamists or bigamists from the eldership. To clarify, however, the condition would exclude polygamists, but would carry as much positive force for a man to be married to one wife as it would negative force not to have more than one. As McGarvey stated: “That he should be the husband of one wife, forbids having less than one as clearly as it forbids having more than one” (p. 56).
Only One Wife His Whole Life?
We have established, then, that the candidate for the eldership must be a man who is literally “the husband of one wife.” Our work is not done, however, because questions still remain concerning the qualification. Does “the husband of one wife” mean that the candidate must currently be married to the only wife that he has had his entire life? If his wife dies and he remains single, is he still the “husband of one wife,” since he was only married to one woman in his life? Or, if his wife dies and he remarries is he no longer the “husband of one wife,” since he has now been married twice to two different women?
First, let us state that the most ideal situation is one in which a man has been married to one woman for his whole life and they are still together during the time of his eldership. This situation would meet every conceivable challenge of the phrase “the husband of one wife.” Of course, stating the ideal does not exclude other possibilities that might be less than ideal but still potentially viable.
Let us then deal with the situation in which a man has been married, his spouse has died, and he is currently in his second marriage. Is this man a candidate for the eldership? Those who suggest that he is not, often refer to 1 Timothy 5:9 where Paul discussed widows who were to be “taken into the number” of the church. In that verse, Paul stated that only a widow who “has been the wife of one man” should be taken in. In light of this, some believe that having only been married to one person in one’s life has some type of spiritual significance, or at least offers a person some type of life circumstance that would be desirable for one who is an elder. Such an understanding seems to leave something to be desired based on the actual wording of 1 Timothy 3:2.
The qualification in 1 Timothy 3:2 states that a bishop “must be” in the present tense. The Greek words dei and eivai combine to form the “must” and “be” so that each of the qualifications is one that must at the present be a part of the potential elder’s life or character. For instance, it would do no good to have an elder who at one time was hospitable, but is no longer such. Nor would it behoove a congregation to have an elder who in the past was able to teach, but currently is not able to do so. Ironically, the present tense force is conspicuously absent from 1 Timothy 5:9, and a widow could not be taken into the number of the church if she was married to a man who was living (for she would not be a widow). Yet the ideal for an elder is for him to be currently married. Thus, it seems an unnatural and tenuous stretch to force the “parallel” between 1 Timothy 3:2 and 1 Timothy 5:9 to mean that an elder cannot be remarried after the death of a spouse. As Glasscock wrote: “First Timothy 3:2 does not say ‘an elder must be married only once’ nor does it say ‘an elder cannot remarry’” (140:247). He further stated that if Paul had wanted to insist that an elder must be married to one woman his whole life, the inspired writer could have written, “having had only one wife.” Since Paul did not make such a statement when it was in his power to do so, it goes beyond the bounds of the phrase “the husband of one wife” to insist that it means “having had only one wife” (140:247).
An understanding of the biblical teaching of marriage adds weight to the idea that a man can be qualified for the eldership, even if he has been married after the death of a spouse. In 1 Corinthians 7:39, Paul stated: “A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives, but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” Marriage is a covenant that holds sway only as long as a person lives on this Earth in a physical, mortal body. Once a person’s spouse dies, he or she is no longer married to that person.
Jesus elucidated this fact in His discussion with the Sadducees. This particular Jewish sect did not believe in the resurrection of the soul. In order to trap Jesus, the Sadducees concocted a situation which they thought rendered the idea of the resurrection absurd. They presented to Jesus the situation in which a woman married a man, he died, so she married his brother. Subsequently, his brother died, and she married the third brother. Eventually, she lived through seven marriages to seven brothers and finally died. The Sadducees then asked Jesus, “Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For they all had her” (Matthew 22:23-28). Jesus explained to the Sadducees that they did not understand the resurrection or the Scriptures. He stated that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). From Jesus’ teachings, we learn that a marriage contracted on Earth has no force in the resurrection.
Thus, a person who was married to one wife on Earth, when she dies, is no longer married to that person. While she was his wife in the past, she cannot rightly be called his wife now, since the covenant of marriage is over at the point of the death of a spouse. Glasscock summarized this idea when he wrote: “Surely no one seriously believes that if a man’s wife dies that he is still bound to her in marriage; thus if he marries a second time, he still has only one wife, that is, he is truly still ‘the husband of one wife’” (140:247). As J.W. McGarvey stated: “It may be well to add that one living wife is clearly meant, and that there is no allusion to the number of deceased wives a man may have had. If my wife is dead, I am not now her husband” (1950, p. 57).
Therefore, if a man’s wife dies and he becomes a widower, the present tense force of being the “husband of one wife” would seem to exclude him from being qualified for the eldership. We must be careful to insist that such a situation does not make him any less of a Christian, any less spiritual, or any less valuable to the Lord’s cause. It simply is the case that a circumstance in his life has arisen that renders him no longer qualified to serve as an elder at a particular time. To illustrate further, suppose a man was an exceptional teacher, but was in a tragic accident and lost his voice and his ability to communicate his thoughts properly. Could it be that such an accident would render him unable to teach? Certainly. Since he is no longer “apt to teach,” and would most likely not be in the physical condition to serve as an elder, would it be the best course for him to no longer be an elder? Yes. Is he less valuable to God, less spiritual, or in any way less “Christian”? Absolutely not. It is simply the case that a circumstance in his life has rendered him unable to serve as an elder at a particular time in his life. The eldership is a functional role that requires a person to maintain the qualifications throughout the time of his tenure as an elder. On the other hand, if a widower were to remarry after the death of his wife (and the woman he remarried met the qualifications detailed for the wives of elders—1 Timothy 3:11), the present tense force of being the “husband of one wife” would allow him to be considered for the eldership.
Can a Man Who Has Been Divorced and Remarried Be an Elder?
If a man who loses his spouse to death and remarries can be considered for the eldership, the natural question arises, “What about a man who is divorced and remarried?” If the phrase “the husband of one wife,” does not mean “having been married only once in his life,” that would seem to admit the possibility that a man who has been divorced and is remarried to “one wife” could be eligible. Before delving into this, let us restate the ideal. The perfect situation is one in which there is a man who has been married once to the same woman and she is living during the time he serves as an elder. Is it possible, however, that a divorced man who is remarried may still be an elder?
When we look to the teachings of Jesus and the Bible, we see that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), and that in every divorce sin and selfishness on someone’s part lie at the heart of the broken marriage. When the Pharisees questioned Him about divorce, Christ explained that from the beginning of the human race, God instituted marriage to be between one man and one woman for life (Matthew 19:1-9). In the course of that discussion, Jesus noted that there is only one possible exception in which a person can divorce his wife lawfully in the sight of God. Jesus said: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexually immorality, and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). The sole exception that Jesus gave for dissolving a marriage in the eyes of God is if a person’s spouse has sexual intercourse with another besides his/her spouse. Jesus’ statement implies that if a man divorces his wife for sexual immorality, and he marries another person, he does not commit adultery by remarrying the second person. If a man can be married to a second wife (because he divorced his first wife due to sexual infidelity), and not be considered by God to be committing adultery, then it follows that God must (at least in the innocent party’s case) view the first marriage as dissolved and the covenant broken. Therefore, it would still be the case that a man who divorced his wife because of sexual infidelity and married another woman would/could be “the husband of one wife.”
It would appear logical that a man’s condition upon the death of a wife, or due to a divorce because of marital infidelity, would be the same, and a subsequent marriage would not disqualify him from being the “husband of one wife.” Robert Saucy aptly summarized the situation:
If divorce on the basis of adultery is legal and dissolves the marriage so that the one divorced can marry another, is the one remarried considered to be now “the husband of one wife”? It seems evident that legally such a remarried person is the husband of only one wife. He is not considered to have two wives. If this is true, then technically, he meets the requirements of the language of 1 Timothy (1974, 131:234).
An Additional Consideration
When discussing such “technicalities,” as we have in this article, it is often easy to forget that we are dealing with situations that play out in the real world of human relationships. While it may be true that a person could be technically qualified for the position of an elder, it might also be true that those who he is contemplating leading would not consider him qualified for one reason or another. It may be the case that many members of a congregation believe that a man must have only had one wife his whole life in order to be qualified to be an elder. It might be that a significant number of the members believe that death would dissolve a marriage, but a divorced man could never be qualified as an elder. What is to be done in such situations? The various other character qualities prescribed for an elder in Titus and 1 Timothy would help a Christian man come to the best possible conclusion. Any man who is qualified to be an elder, who is hospitable, wise, experienced, sober-minded, and temperate, will certainly consider more than the “technicalities” of the qualifications for the eldership before he seeks such an appointment. A man who is qualified to be an elder will have, at the heart of any decision he makes, the unity and overall good of the congregation of which he is a part.
Paul states that an elder must be “the husband of one wife.” There are some aspects of this statement that are clearer than others. It can be determined that the phrase necessarily means that only men are to be considered for the office. The exclusion of women from the office of elder does not imply that men are of more value, or that women are less capable. It simply accords with the biblical teaching that men and women have different roles, not different status as Christians. In addition, the phrase “the husband of one wife” is a present tense statement that implies that a man should be currently married to one woman. The candidate for the eldership, about whom there is no question as it pertains to this one qualification, is a man who is currently married to the one and only woman who has ever been his wife, and they stay married throughout the duration of his eldership. A close look at the qualifications, however, would seem to indicate that a man who is remarried after the death of a spouse, or one who is remarried after a divorce caused by his wife’s sexual infidelity, is technically still viewed as the “husband of one wife.”
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