In the past five days, three pastors and an elder have asked me to respond to this question. Since it’s a matter of great importance to the church as you evaluate elder candidates, I’m taking a break from my novel-writing to give it some thought.
One of the pastors who wrote me said we should focus on authorial intent. I fully agree. “What does it mean to us?” is the secondary question. What did it mean to Paul, as guided by the Holy Spirit, is the primary question.
Another question gets to the same point in a different way: What would this phrase have most naturally meant to the original readers? Any good communicator uses language that accurately conveys his intent to his audience. So what would Timothy have understood Paul to have meant by μιας γυναικος ανδρα, usually translated “husband of one wife”?
We also need to question our motives in favoring any particular interpretation. For instance, some—in the name of grace or convenience—will wish to lower the bar and make it easier for people to qualify as elders. Others—in the name of truth or resisting compromise—will wish to raise the bar and make it more difficult to qualify. Our backgrounds and personalities tend to drive our interpretive preferences (e.g. is it our higher value to resist liberalism or Pharisaism?). We should avoid coming up with a smorgasbord of possible interpretations, only to then choose the one we want according to our tastes, much as we might choose pepperoni pizza over vegetarian quiche at an Izzy’s buffet.
We should discipline ourselves neither to make the passage more nor less inclusive than God does. Our job is to let the text say what it says, regardless of how difficult or unpopular it may make our job of applying it. If the text is more exclusive than we wish, so be it. If it’s more inclusive than we wish, so be it. Scripture is not written to back up our preferences. Let’s be sure we adjust to Scripture, rather than adjusting it to us, to fit our philosophical or pragmatic concerns.
In light of that, here are some possible meanings of “husband of one wife” followed by my comments. (I’ve put one line of argumentation in footnotes, then at the end I’ve added excerpts from Wayne Grudem and someone else; Grudem’s footnotes are included too):
1) He must presently be married to only one woman, i.e. he must not be a polygamist.
In my opinion, this is the most straightforward and obvious meaning. It requires the least supposition.
Some dismiss this, saying polygamy wasn’t common and was outlawed for all church members anyway (so wouldn’t even be mentioned for leaders), but there’s significant evidence to the contrary. We know it existed in the culture. When people were converted it was from that culture, and the problems of the culture were immediately imported to the church. How common would polygamy have to be to justify its explicit prohibition? Not very common, in my opinion.
It could be said that several of the other qualifications should self-evidently not be true of leaders. (e.g. why would you have to say an elder shouldn’t be a drunkard—wouldn’t that be obvious?)
Furthermore, polygamy in that culture, as in some parts of the world today, involves inherent challenges to Christian converts that make it very difficult, and distinctly different than a typical sin that can be definitively repented of and forsaken.
What is God’s will when a polygamist comes to Christ? That he divorce all but one of his wives? Does he divorce the mother of his children and remove all of their mutual children from his home? Does he separate the children from their mother? It is one thing to forsake a sin, it is another thing to forsake a wife and children, even if you shouldn’t have married the woman in the first place.
God hates the kind of preferential divorce spoken of in Malachi. It gets confused because of Ezra and Nehemiah and the putting away if heathen wives, but certainly a persuasive argument can be made that a polygamist who comes to Christ cannot automatically discharge his duties by divorcing a second wife, thereby shaming her and putting her out as “damaged goods” that another man is not likely to marry. (If the woman has also become a Christian, it gets even more complicated; if she leads her husband to Christ, in doing so does she ensure that she’ll be divorced and she and her children abandoned?)
My point is that Christians sometimes were in this situation. So God may well be simply saying that a person in that situation should not be a church leader. This is conceivably the full meaning of the statement, but at least it is likely the central meaning—the husband of one wife, not more than one.
A significant argument for this is the positioning of the word “one” (mias) at the beginning of the phrase, which often reflects a deliberate authorial emphasis. It is literally, order-wise, not “husband of one wife,” but “one wife husband.” This placement of mias, I assume, is why the NIV felt the best translation was “the husband of but one wife.” The NEB puts it that an elder must be “faithful to his one wife.” Thus understood, the phrase “husband of one wife” is a requirement of monogamous fidelity.
2) He must be married, not single.
This is remotely possible, with an historical precedent, since the Sanhedrin—an elder sort of leadership body—required that its members be married, because a married man would be more merciful in his judgment. (Some have taken Acts 26:10, where Paul speaks of casting his vote against Christians, to indicate that Paul was a Sanhedrin member and therefore married; if so, either his wife died or divorced him when he came to Christ; that’s a supposition, of course.)
That Paul is requiring that all church elders be married seems unlikely, since Paul himself was not married, and actually argues for greater ministry freedom for the unmarried (1 Corinthians 7).
3) He must not have been previously married, unless he is now single.
That is, no elder can ever have been married to two different women.
This is unlikely too since Scripture is clear that a man whose wife has died is free to remarry. He has been the husband of two wives, but only one at a time. Most importantly, he is married only to one in the present. There is no other evidence to suggest that a man who remarries after his wife’s death could not be a church leader.
If the man remains single this position could be taken even if you believe in some cases divorce might have been permitted, e.g. the porneia exception of Matthew 19:9, or a man comes to Christ and his wife leaves him because of it, “if the unbeliever departs” as in 1 Cor. 7.
Had Paul wished to say any elder who was previously married should remain single, he could easily have done so, as he phrases things similar to this in 1 Cor. 7.
4) He must never have been divorced. With this position, the question of when the divorce happened and the reasons for it—and issues of innocence and guilt—are irrelevant. It is a simple absolute, with no exceptions or mitigating circumstances. Divorce at any point in the past means permanent disqualification from church leadership.
I’ll discuss this one later.
5) He can have been divorced only under certain circumstances (what follows are really three different positions):
a) If divorced, he must not have been the guilty party.
b) If divorced, it must have been before he came to Christ, not after.
c) If divorced as a Christian, he must now have established a proven track record, over the course of years, of being the husband of one wife.
6) He must be a “one woman man,” that is he must be faithful to his wife, and not lustful (mentally promiscuous).
Since andros can just as well be “man” as husband, and gune can be “woman” as well as wife, the text may be saying he should be a “one woman man,” meaning that the focus is on his mindset, that he should not have a roving eye, but should be pure and loyal to his wife.
This interpretation has no necessary implications about whether or not he was married to another woman in the past. Being a one-woman man is a present characteristic of many men who are once divorced. It is also not a characteristic of numerous men who are the husbands of one wife, but have a roving eye.
Because andros and gune don’t have the definite article, the construction could be emphasizing character or nature. Thus the notion of a “one-wife sort of a husband,” or a “one-woman sort of a man.” (See Kenneth Wuest, The Pastoral Epistles in the Greek New Testament.)
The predominance of “husband of one wife” as a translation indicates that the great majority of Greek scholars take that as the proper translation, not “one woman man.” However, the point about the roving eye disqualifying an elder is certainly true in light of Scripture’s warnings against lust and its commands of purity.
A case can be made for all of the different interpretations. Likely the original readers knew Paul’s exact meaning. Unfortunately it’s not as easy for us.
There is no absolutely certain interpretation. However, in my opinion, by far the most self-evident interpretation is that “husband of one wife” means an elder should be presently married to no more than one woman. That interpretation requires no stretch of the language. (Though certainly, based on other passages and this context, he should be not just a monogamist but a godly one. Monogamy is necessary but not sufficient.)
This straightforward exclusion of polygamy is not the interpretation I was taught, but on reexamining the text as well as the historical context it strikes me as being very persuasive. The other positions require a reading into the words that this one doesn’t.
The fact that there are Greek words for divorce, including those used by Paul in 1 Cor. 7, seems significant, since he does not use them here. If he were trying to say “not divorced” in the same way that he means “not quarrelsome” and “not a drunkard” why not simply use a word he uses elsewhere, and be done with it? “He must not be divorced” is a vocabulary that exists in the Greek and is familiar to Paul—it could be plainly stated as such. It is not. If it really means “not divorced,” why use ambiguous language when it’s possible to say exactly what he means? Especially since most of the other qualifications are specific and anything but ambiguous.
If “husband of one wife” in the present tense aspect of not having more than one wife now makes sense (and to me it does), then shouldn’t that be our interpretation?
If it’s asked “why didn’t he just say ‘no polygamy’?” the best answer may be because “husband of one wife” does mean “no polygamy.” He is simply stating it positively. With that kind of clarity, why should he have to do more? If an elder characteristic were stated “must have a job,” we wouldn’t fault Paul for not specifically saying, “cannot be unemployed.” The meaning is the same.
Had we never heard of this debate or this phrase and first read the passage with a blank slate, what would we think it would mean for a man to be a one-wife husband? Wouldn’t it seem clear?
To me, the really central question is this: is the “husband of one wife” qualification a reference only to the present or does it stretch back to the remote past, including the pre-Christian past?
I think the presumption should be that this question would be fundamentally like, as opposed to unlike, all the other qualifications listed, since the text does not set it apart as being essentially different.
And all the other qualifications, I think, of necessity apply to the present (which inevitably includes the recent past), not to the distant past.
Do we believe “husband of one wife” means he must always, even as an unbeliever, have had no more than a total of one wife in his lifetime?
If so, then wouldn’t we need to also extend the same understanding to the other qualifications so they include his distant or pre-Christian past? Let’s test it, adding that same interpretive phrase to all the other qualifications, and see what it would mean. This would mean that any elder must:
Have always, even as an unbeliever, been above reproach. Have always, even as an unbeliever, been soberminded. Have always, even as an unbeliever, been self-controlled. Have always, even as an unbeliever, been respectable. Have always, even as an unbeliever, been hospitable. Have always, even as an unbeliever, not been a drunkard. Have always, even as an unbeliever, not been violent or quarrelsome. Have always, even as an unbeliever, not been a lover of money. Have always, even as an unbeliever, managed his household well. This would make no sense. It requires the fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit in pre-Christian people who by definition did not have the indwelling Holy Spirit. It also presents a pragmatic problem, since virtually no one would be elder qualified, due to past choices and lifestyles stemming from a radically different worldview and heart condition. I don’t think the passage could possibly assume one has always been elder qualified, that he has never in the past violated the character requirements of elders, only that he is presently qualified, as a result of the transforming work of God’s Spirit in the man’s life. So, do we believe the meaning is never having been divorced, i.e. the “husband of one wife, not just now but even as an unbeliever”? If so, what is there in the text (not just our preferential reasons of not wanting to appear to make a concession to our culture) that would cause us not to extend the same interpretive assumption to those other qualifications?
Don’t we agree that a man can be an elder who once was: a drunk, a murderer, a violent man, lacked self-control, etc.? Of course, we believe he must have demonstrated clear change, and this change—by implication—must have been borne out over a significant period of time.
In the same sense that an elder should not be a recent convert (no matter how genuine his conversion), so he should not be—regardless of how long he’s been a Christian—a recently-transformed drunkard, murderer, fornicator, etc. (no matter how genuine his transformation). There must be time for sanctification to have taken place and be proven out.
In the case of a divorced man, even if he were not primarily at fault, I would think a very significant period of time would need to have passed in order for him to experience the healing and reorientation and establish the track record of godliness to be qualified as an elder.
Certainly the divorced man would need to also have done everything else he’s called upon to do—to have genuinely sought forgiveness, reconciliation, to have made amends, to have reasonably attempted to support his ex-wife, to have been a good father to any children from the marriage, etc.
If she has remarried, or he has, the door is closed to their remarriage to each other, which would now be an abomination (Deut. 24:4). But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything he can do to deal with the situation in a Christlike manner.
Granted, the reasonable or required time period is subjective. He may not be quarrelsome today, may not be a lover of money today, but if 18 months ago he punched somebody or embezzled from his company, as pure as his repentance may be, I doubt that 18 months is long enough to demonstrate the change is truly long term. Nearly all of us would agree that if it happened last month, it’s too soon to be an elder, but if it happened thirty years ago, especially before he came to Christ, most of us would probably agree it isn’t sufficient to keep him from being an elder today. The key isn’t the time period per se, but the demonstrated change in character, which does in fact require significant time.
Here is what may be the most important question. Is there anything a man can do as an unbeliever that will automatically and permanently disqualify him from being a deacon, elder, or pastor or other Christian leader thirty years in the future? (Some argue that there is nothing a man could have done as a believer that would permanently disqualify him, if there are subsequent years of proven transformation and godliness; however, to me the argument is clearer when the action preceded conversion.)
Well, we know that being a murderer cannot disqualify him, since Paul was a murderer and was not only forgiven, but became a primary leader of the church (and is the very one spelling out for us these leadership qualifications). Some argue that Paul wasn’t an elder, but since he seems to function over pastors and elders, authoritatively leading them, it’s hard to argue that he was not elder-qualified.
Is there a difference between a man’s past as an unbeliever and his past as a believer? I think there is. If Paul had committed his murders after coming to Christ I think he might have been regarded differently. The early church took seriously passages such as this: “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature; the old is passed way; all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). (Some emphasize the progressive nature of sanctification, but our tendency, I think, is to underplay the power of regeneration itself.)
In today’s (March 6) Morning and Evening, after citing John 3, Spurgeon says this of regeneration:
It is a change which is known and felt: known by works of holiness, and felt by a gracious experience. This great work is supernatural. It is not an operation which a man performs for himself: a new principle is infused, which works in the heart, renews the soul, and affects the entire man. It is not a change of my name, but a renewal of my nature, so that I am not the man I used to be, but a new man in Christ Jesus. To wash and dress a corpse is a far different thing from making it alive: man can do the one, God alone can do the other. The early Christians, I think, drew a sharper line than we do between a man’s past life before Christ, and his present life in Christ. While we know that there are ongoing social consequences of a man’s past behavior (e.g. a man in prison for a crime is not released for being born again), in the church, where regeneration is truly a new start, a man’s past is not held against him.
I think it’s likely that if we asked Paul if by “husband of one wife” he meant “never divorced, even as an unbeliever” he might say, “What are you talking about? Why would I be addressing a converted man’s life before Christ? Obviously I’m referring to his life since conversion, and in particular his more recent and current life, as they reflect Christ’s ongoing work of sanctification.”
I come back to this question, because I think it is so important. If the act of having been divorced permanently disqualifies, why wouldn’t other things on the list likewise permanently disqualify?
Certainly promiscuity undermines the essence of being the husband of one wife. Can a man have been a wanton adulterer as a nonbeliever, but then be qualified to be a pastor years later? Was John Newton qualified to be a pastor? I think so.
Would we argue that a man who thirty years ago was drunken, quarrelsome, not above reproach be permanently disqualified from leadership? If there is one and only one of these elder qualifications which no amount of time, conversion or Christian maturity can offset, it is remarkable. If that were the case, I would think Paul might set it aside, not put it second in a long list, coming after and preceding qualifications that are fundamentally different in that they refer to the present and more recent past, while this one (having been divorced) can stretch back fifty years.
Can a man who has murdered, tortured, raped, and been demon possessed in the past now be qualified as a church leader? I think the answer is yes. (What textual evidence is there to the contrary?) If that is the case, would a man who was once divorced—regardless of whether or not it was primarily his fault—be automatically disqualified from here on out? Does the text make any clear reference to past divorce or does it only make a present reference to being “the husband of one wife”?
Now, if one were a polygamist it could be argued that he is in a Catch-22: he shouldn’t be married to two women, yet neither should he divorce his wife. Being in this situation, you could say “the man’s past can’t be overlooked, because it has built-in present-day implications—he is married to two women; whether he was a believer when he married them is irrelevant.”
I can buy that, but only as the emphasis is on his present situation. For instance, suppose the man, as an unbeliever, had been married to two women, and one of them died or left him twenty-five years ago. Then he came to Christ twenty years ago and has been walking with Christ as a loyal husband of one wife. Does the fact that he was once a polygamist disqualify him from now being an elder? Isn’t it possible, despite having once been married to two women at one time, to now completely fulfill the present-tense qualification of being “the husband of one wife”? (And if it is possible for him, why not the divorced man?)
If someone would consider his once being married to two women a permanent disqualification, it would create a very odd situation. For instance, suppose that same man as an unbeliever had carried on a ten year adulterous relationship with that second woman, instead of marrying her. Then he came to Christ. Would his adultery permanently disqualify him as long as he didn’t marry the second woman? Most, I think, would say no. There are innumerable Christian leaders, including Augustine, who were adulterers when they were pagans.
But because this man as an unbeliever took the higher (not highest, but higher) road of marrying the woman, in a culture where polygamy was an option, he is now forever disqualified even if she has died or left him? Does this mean, in a weird but plausible scenario, that he would become qualified as an elder precisely because the second wife did divorce him, making it possible for him to be “the husband of one wife”? An interesting notion—a man becoming qualified to be an elder because of divorce!
Anyway, I’m perfectly happy with having a strict standard, regardless of whether or not it seems fair to us. So if the text demands that divorce automatically and permanently disqualifies a man, then by all means that’s exactly what we should believe and practice. But does it? It doesn’t in any direct way that I can see. “He must not be divorced” is at best one possible interpretation, but by no means is it the most obvious one.
If we are going to say this does not merely mean that the man is “the husband of one wife” (now, presently, and by implication in the past number of years) in the same sense that he should not be a drunkard or lack self-control or be quarrelsome (now, presently, and by implication in the past number of years), then it lays a huge burden of proof upon this interpretation.
Can we really treat divorce as the only sin or situation that involves permanent disqualification, making all divorces automatically worse (at least in their disqualifying effect) than murder, adultery, promiscuity, torture, rape, homosexuality, abortion (often a father’s decision), wife-beating, gossip, treason and gluttony? If so, then I think we should have a very clear textual basis on which to do so. I just don’t see that basis.
In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, from this text or parallel texts, I think we are forced to take the words “husband of one wife” or “one wife husband” or “one woman man” at face value, as a present tense qualification that would forbid polygamy and promiscuity and lustfulness, but leaves unaddressed the issue of divorce, or anything else in the distant past. Of all people, surely we as Christians must recognize the genuineness of radical character transformation as a result of salvation and sanctification.
Is the new creature of 2 Cor. 5:17, for whom all has become new, automatically and permanently disqualified to be a church leader even if 1) he was not guilty of a divorce that happened to him before he was saved or 2) he was guilty of the divorce, but has taken all biblical steps to reconciliation and restitution?
Consider 1 Corinthians 6:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Does this suggest a man who was once married to another woman can today, as we walks with Christ, be viewed by God as “the husband of one wife”? I think so. I think it also suggests former homosexuals, adulterers and idolaters could now be qualified as church elders.
One other thought. It could be argued that there might be a pragmatic consideration—is it worth it to the man or to the church to have to go through this process of congregational approval? Will it cause embarrassment to him, his wife or children? If others who aren’t divorced are available, why bother bringing on a divorced man as elder? Maybe we’ll send a wrong message that divorce doesn’t matter.
However, there could be a good answer, in addition to not forbidding what Scripture doesn’t forbid—to show the grace and transforming power of God, and give hope to a congregation where a third or more of adults may have been divorced. To say that by the grace of God nothing they did in the past, at least as a nonbeliever, including fornication and murder and divorce, need permanently disqualify them from being church leaders. They may have gone to jail for armed robbery but could one day become elder-qualified, and we’d love to see them do it.
If the person is truly character qualified and mature and Christlike, I think this would not be a statement of compromise, but a statement of grace and hope. It does not require lowering our standards, but simply confirming them to revealed Scripture. (The Pharisees prided themselves in having “higher standards” than Jesus—that’s a temptation we need to resist, even in the wake of the lower expectations that so frequently plague us in the church.)
It is a great encouragement for God’s people to recognize that over the years and decades of His transforming work in their lives, God can infuse them with Christlike character and maturity, making genuinely qualified those who, like all of us, were once disqualified.
After I’d written the previous, it occurred to me to check Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, chapter 47:
The qualification “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6) has been understood in different ways. Some people have thought that it excludes from the office of elder men who have been divorced and have then married someone else, since they have then been the husband of two wives. But this does not seem to be a correct understanding of these verses.
A better interpretation is that Paul was prohibiting a polygamist (a man who presently has more than one wife) from being an elder. Several reasons support this view:
(1) All the other qualifications listed by Paul refer to a man’s present status, not his entire past life. For example, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 does not mean “one who has never been violent,” but “one who is not now violent, but gentle.” It does not mean “one who has never been a lover of money,” but “one who is not now a lover of money.” It does not mean “one who has been above reproach for his whole life,” but “one who is now above reproach.” If we made these qualifications apply to one’s entire past life, then we would exclude from office almost everyone who became a Christian as an adult, for it is doubtful that any non-Christian could meet these qualifications.
(2) Paul could have said “having been married only once” if he had wanted to, but he did not.2
(3) We should not prevent remarried widowers from being elders, but that would be necessary if we take the phrase to mean “having been married only once.” The qualifications for elders are all based on a man’s moral and spiritual character, and there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that a man who remarried after his wife had died has lower moral or spiritual qualifications.3
(4) Polygamy was possible in the first century. Although it was not common, polygamy was practiced, especially among the Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus says, “For it is an ancestral custom of ours to have several wives at the same time.”4 Rabbinic legislation also regulated inheritance customs and other aspects of polygamy.5
Therefore it is best to understand “the husband of one wife” to prohibit a polygamist from holding the office of elder. The verses say nothing about divorce and remarriage with respect to qualifications for church office.
Here’s another excerpt from Henderson Hills Baptist Church's “The 21 Qualifications of Elders”:
2. HUSBAND OF ONE WIFE. (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6) The Greek words, which we translate as “the husband of one wife,” speak to the subject of fidelity in marriage, not marital status. Directly rendered, the Greek phrase says “a one woman man.” If married, the elder must be absolutely committed to his wife. Famed Southern Baptist Seminary professor and linguist A. T. Robertson, John MacArthur, J. Vernon McGee and Charles Swindoll, agree this phrase addresses the issues of polygamy or fidelity in marriage, not divorce. Among the other biblical experts agreeing with view are, Drs. Ed Glasscock, Fritz Rienecker, Albert Barnes and Eric Titus.
However, we should not assume from this that divorce is inconsequential or insignificant. Jesus sternly warned His followers to avoid divorce. When selecting an elder or deacon, a divorce should be seen as a “red flag” in the candidate’s past. Since an elder must be a good steward of his family, a recent divorce disqualifies a man from serving as an elder. However, divorce is not the unpardonable sin.
For example, a man may have divorced many years ago. Since then, he may have remarried and lived an exemplary and mature Christian life. This man may now enjoy a godly marriage, raising children who love the Lord. When we take this man’s total life experience into consideration, the divorce should not disqualify him from consideration as an elder or deacon.
However, if the divorce was recent, or if there is any question about his relationship with his wife or leadership of his family, the man must not be considered for appointment.
D.A. Carson is one of the most credible scholars around, in my book. Below are his comments on husband of one wife. This is from his remarks on elder qualifications, the rest of which may also be of interest, and can be read online. I thought his comments on polygamy going hand in hand with prestigious people in power positions in the world was very insightful, and a possible explanation for why Paul would make the point that polygamy disqualifies from leadership in the church.
D. A. Carson:
Second, he must be “the husband of but one wife.” In some ways that is the most difficult or disputed qualification in the list. It has been variously interpreted. Some think it means that this man must be married—that he must be a husband. That interpretation is highly unlikely. It is clear that Paul wasn’t married, at least at this point in his life, and certainly the Lord Jesus was never married. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul acknowledges that there are certain advantages to being single in the ministry. I was single when I was senior pastor of a church on the west coast of Canada, and there were all kinds of advantages to that. There were some disadvantages too. But there were some wonderful advantages in terms of the hours I put in, evening visitation, calls when I could get people at home. So there are advantages to being single in the ministry, and singleness should not be despised. It is highly unlikely that this text, therefore, stipulates that an elder be married. Some people think this verse suggests that the elder/pastor/overseer is forbidden to remarry, if, for instance, his first wife dies: he must be the husband of only one wife, this interpretation would have it, no matter how long he or she lives. Again, that is unlikely. In Romans 7, Paul insists that there is nothing dishonorable about remarrying, marrying a Christian spouse the second time around, after the first one has died. Certainly he gives no hint that such a step is unthinkable in the case of an elder.
Some believe this verse teaches that an elder cannot be a divorcé who has remarried. The Bible certainly warns against divorce in many ways. But it is also very important not to make divorce the worst sin on the horizon, the unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit. Some have tried to impose a prohibition against anyone becoming a minister of the gospel who has ever been divorced at any time in his life. So he might have been a murderer, and then paid his debt to society, got out of prison and been converted and become a minister of the gospel. But if he’s been divorced, he can’t enter the ministry—which somehow projects an image of divorce as the unforgivable sin. Where divorce does disqualify a person from ministry, it seems to me, is bound up with a category we’ve already discussed: an elder “must be blameless.” It’s a credibility issue; or, again, a little further on, “he must be able to govern his own house well.” You worry about someone whose life has cracked up in his marriage, and then three months later, he feels he’s qualified to be back in ministry. He has repented, after all, and the gospel is all about forgiveness, isn’t it? Clearly the Bible has something more stringent to say than that. Divorce is not the ultimate sin, nor is it the unforgivable sin, yet it may disqualify a person for ministry precisely because it destroys so much of a person’s credibility, it destroys so much of his believability. There is more I could say, but divorce simply is not what this qualification is about.
Some people interpret this verse to mean that an elder must not be a polygamist; that is, not somebody who is married to two or more wives. What people object to about this interpretation is that no one in the Christian church was married to two or three wives, so why should it be stipulated at all? Moreover, it is argued, in the first century, polygamy wasn’t all that common. Why then do you have to stipulate this particular thing? But it can be shown that there was more polygamy in the first century than some people think, especially in the strata of society where people felt above the common rule. Herod the Great had ten wives. Now, he didn’t have them all at once because he murdered two of them, but he had several at a time. Both in the aristocracy and in the borderlands of the Empire—places like Lystra—polygamy was not all that uncommon. If you go to Africa today, you discover that in some tribes polygamy is still not all that uncommon. The more power you have—if you are the chief, for instance—the more likely it is that you have a plurality of wives. The number of wives is connected with your public persona; it’s almost bound up with the office, so if you’re a chief, you’re likely to have four or five wives. For a start, you can afford them. In such a culture, polygamy almost seems to be a kind of leadership qualification. But in the church, it’s the reverse: polygamy disqualifies you for leadership.
Suppose a Christian witness moves into one of these tribes today, and large numbers of the tribe, including the chief, become Christians. Does the chief of the tribe become chief of the local church? Not according to Paul; that is precisely what is ruled out. Just because you are a chief in the secular world doesn’t mean you are automatically entitled to be chief in the local church. In a derivative sense, that is where the rubber hits the road for us, too. You sometimes find that in a high-flying church, whose members include a lot of middle-level and senior-level executives, it is simply assumed that because these people are leaders in the larger culture, they should be leaders in the local church. Sometimes the people who think that most strongly are the high-flyers themselves. Such people, it must be said, can on occasion be right pains in the local church. The fact of the matter is that if they do not meet the requirements set out by the Scriptures, then regardless of their impressive credentials outside the church, they do not have the right to be elders/pastors/overseers within the church. So far as the precise matter Paul treats here is concerned—the matter of polygamy—polygamists are simply ruled out. One of the reasons is that, in the Bible, marriage is presented not only as a social institution, but a model, a “type,” of the relationship between Christ and his “bride,” the church—and Christ does not have many brides, many churches. Marriage is a type of the relationship between Christ and his people, the church. So there is something to be modeled about Christ and the church by husband and wife, and thus by a marriage structure characterized not only by fidelity and integrity, but also by monogamy. In any case, Paul rules out the polygamist from being pastor/overseer/elder.