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Choosing a Pastor

Church Leadership in the New Testament, Part 4

Qualifications of an Elder, I Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9

A bishop then must be... the husband of one wife, This one require­ment seems to be the most controversial of all the others on the list. Probably the reasons include the fact that the issue of divorce and remarriage, in itself, is such a prevalent and controversial problem in and for the church. A second reason for the controversy may be that some of the criteria may be considered vague in concerning how much or how long one must comply. But if we interpret this criterion as many do, that he may not be a divorced person, this makes it a clear-cut yes-or-no issue. Even if a divorce occurred 10 years ago, we can decisively (and maybe hypocritically) determine our judgment upon this man.

An in-depth Bible study on the subject of divorce and remarriage is beyond the scope and the purpose of this study though some statements are necessary in order to cover the elder issue. (3) It may safely be stated that there is much unbiblical teaching on divorce and remarriage in the Christian Church. The obvious ground for this statement is that much contradictory teaching prevails, ranging from what seems to be unreasonably legalistic to “anything goes.” It cannot all be true. Let us not be ruled by our prejudices but honestly seek what the Scriptures say.

 Three of the most common interpretations are the following:

1. He must be married as opposed to being single.

2. He must be married to only one woman; no polygamy.

3. He must be married once and only once in his lifetime, excluding a divorced or divorced and remarried man and, in some instances, a widowed and remarried man.

A Bishop Must Be Married.

The interpretation that a Bishop must be married seems reason­able on the surface, especially if we consider this to be the best translation of this requirement. Support for this reasoning is found in the context. The logic used is found mostly in verses four and five. Ruling well in his household relates to ruling well in the church, and also the assumption that he has his children in subjection.

There are also problems with this interpretation. The Apostle Paul, whom God used to give us these qualifications was, at least at that time, not married. There is apparent tension between this interpretation and the tenor of I Corinthians, chapter 7:8; 25-33. Paul encouraged celibacy under certain circumstances because of the distraction caused by caring for his mate detracts him from caring “for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord.” It would hardly be consistent to require marriage in order to serve in this capacity, yet encourage one to stay single so as not to be distracted from serving the Lord.

Another reason that this view may not be the best is that the context is not so much concerned with his marital status as with his character. Also, it will be shown later that “the husband of one wife” is likely not the best translation.

He must be married to only one woman at a time.

At first glance, any reasonable interpretation would, at least, include this assumption. (4) But Paul seems to be saying much more than only that a Bishop must not be a polygamist. In the society which he primarily addressed, promiscuity was more of a significant problem than polygamy. If character or good testimony is the issue, there is much more at stake in the marital arena than just not having several wives.

He must only be married once in his lifetime

Some would enforce this requirement upon a man who had been widowed and remarried. Romans 7:1-6 uses marriage and the death of a spouse to illustrate our freedom in Christ from the law through His death. In the illustration, through the death of the spouse one “is loosed from the law” of the spouse (v2, 3). It is hardly fitting to state that one is free to remarry after the death of their spouse and then claim that he is unfit to serve as an Elder.

Concerning the divorced man; if Paul had meant to say that “an elder must be married only once,” “cannot remarry,” or “must have had only one wife,” it would have been worded completely differently in both the Greek and the English. We cannot dogmatically impose a requirement that the Bible does not declare.

Usually, this requirement is placed upon one who is divorced or even marries a divorced woman (even though they are clearly adding another on which the text is silent). Occasionally an exception is made for one who has been “scripturally” divorced, i.e. the exception clause of fornication (Matt. 5:32).

  This passage does not say that an elder must not be divorced. If this translation is taken at face value, a man could have been divorced, remarried and now be “the husband of one wife.”  Some would even place this requirement upon Sunday School teachers, choir directors, etc. which has nothing to do with the context. (5) Divorce is not the “unpardonable” sin. God hates divorce and so does this writer. (6) God loves divorced persons and so does this writer. The Christian army seems to be the only one who shoots their own wounded troops.

 As stated before, the issue of divorce and remarriage is a controversial one. Opinions abound and emotions run high. Many have suffered because of divorce. Is divorce or remarriage a sin? Divorce is always caused by sin but a person is not necessarily sinning because he is divorced. Matt. 5:32 gives one example and I Cor. 7:15; 27, 28, adds to this. Remarriage under the Mosaic Law was assumed because the adulterous party was to be stoned, freeing the living party from the marriage. If one has sinned regarding a divorce we are commanded to forgive as God has us (Eph. 4:32). If we choose not to fellow­ship with divorced persons then we are placing ourselves in the unenviable position of not fellowshipping with God. He divorced unfaithful Israel (Jer. 3:8).

This passage does not categorically eliminate a divorced man from the office of Bishop. Related factors could conceivably affect the general testimony of the man and he may possibly be eliminated by some of the other requirements. Let us not be like the Pharisees and impose oppressive and unbiblical restrictions (Matt. 23:4) on someone and limit him from service in an area in which God allows him to serve. It is easy to judge someone in an area in which we have victory or maybe even just experienced God’s grace, in spite of ourselves. (Maybe we have just been able to cover our tracks better. Is this not hypocrisy?)

A Suggested Interpretation is:

“A One-Woman Man” (7)

The phrase “husband of one wife” ) literally is a “one woman man.” The words “gune” and “andra” are translated “woman” and “man” or “wife” and “husband” depending on the context which is usually clear. There is good reason to translate it in this passage as “a one-woman man.”

 The issue under discussion is established character. Paul here mentions 16 character traits. He is not listing 15 character traits and an event such as a divorce that occurred sometime in the past, in which he may or may not have sinned. It is conceivable (and sad to say, likely) that a man of today could be accepted as a church leader, been married only once, never been divorced, yet he improperly “checks out” every attractive woman who walks by. This man is not being faithful to his wife and is not a “one woman man.” His character needs a basic pattern change before he can qualify under this requirement (Matt. 5:28). Paul’s other writings do not shun mentioning sin in the moral and sexual arena. If the interpretation presented here is incorrect, he is certainly missing an opportunity to require obedience in this area for the Elder.

This understanding emphasizes a man’s character or testimony rather than his marital status. A man may not even be married and still fulfill this requirement. “” is best to be understood as a genitive of quality, that is, giving characteristic to the noun which it modifies. That is to say, we are referring to a “one-women type of man” whether he be married or not. In other words, not a womanizer, philander, or flirt. He must be one who is morally upright and trustworthy in his association with the opposite sex. To be a “one-woman type of man,” he must have demonstrated a chaste and mature attitude toward his wife, if applicable, and to other females.

It has been argued by one Greek student that this text is correctly translated “husband of one wife” instead of “a one-woman man” based on a similar rendering in I Tim. 5:9. “Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man.” “The wife of one man” is the identical grammatical construction as used in 3:2 except for the reversal of genders. It is obvious from the context that the widow had to have been married to a man, not just to have been a “one-man woman.”

 It needs to be noted that in this verse the words, “having become” are from one word in the Greek and is in the perfect tense. The perfect tense is “something that occurred in the past but the condition continues to the present.” (8) What Paul is saying is that for the widow (who was married at least once) to be enrolled, she must have been in the past and still be a “one-man type of woman.” She obviously cannot still have her husband after he dies. Paul even encourages the younger widows to remarry (5:14). Would he do this if it categorically disqualifies her for later support or even survival if her second husband dies? This verse suggests the understanding of the requirement that the Bishop must be a “one-woman type of man.”

Instead of supporting the requirement of an elder being not ever divorced, this verse gives strong support to the idea that Paul is not speaking of an event in the past but to his testimony, a character trait that has become a pattern in his life, that the Elder be a one-woman type of man, whether married or not.


(3) The Biblical stance on divorce and remarriage is a significant issue and study should be honestly and diligently pursued from God's word (not from tradition, expediency or a majority rules mentality). But if the interpretation posited later in this paper is accurate, the issue of whether or not the Bible allows certain cases of divorce and remarriage has very little to do with the requirements of the elder. The requirements are for what a man has presently shown to be a pattern over a period of time, not for what he has been all of his life, (for example, he could not have been “ not a novice,” or “having at least two children,” etc. all of his life). The only way that I see that this could be brought into the present issue is if he is now living in adultery (as some claim without Biblical backing) and therefore, continuing sin is not being confessed, judged and forsaken as other Scripture admonishes. If this is Biblically shown to be true then this man is not only unfit for Eldership, he is not even fit for good-standing membership. He should be under church discipline with the goal of restoration. Paul was a self-admitted murderer but that issue had been settled with God by the time that God greatly used him for His glory. Would we allow the Apostle Paul to take up the offering or to serve communion in our church? See footnote # 9 for recommended books of Biblically based studies on the issue of divorce and remarriage. (9)

 (4) In his book, “Divorce and Remarriage, Recovering a Biblical View,” William Luck presents a Biblically convincing view that polygamy was not morally wrong in the Old Testament and that this statement is speaking more of the interpretation that is later presented in this paper. The polygamy issue will not be pursued here as it is irrelevant to us today.

(5) As mentioned elsewhere in this study, most of these requirements for the elder are the same as exhortations for other believers. The issue here is that if a believer is disobedient in these areas, he is not to be allowed overseership in the church. If a believer in the church is in a willful sinning state (some will maintain that the divorced/remarried person is necessarily living in adultery), then he should not even be a Sunday school teacher, choir member, greeter, etc. He should be under church discipline. Obviously, this writer believes that the Bible teaches some valid ground for divorce and remarriage and that we cannot automatically assume that the person who is divorced has sinned or is sinning in this area. See footnote recommending books.

  (6) The statement of God in Mal. 2:16 that He hates divorce, seems to be a catch-all verse, the “final word” for those who teach that all divorce is wrong. The context seems to indicate that God hates “treacherous” divorce. God Himself divorced Israel (Jer. 3:8). This was a proper disciplinary action. God hates the sin that causes divorce. Sometimes the divorce itself is also sin.

  (7) For much of this concept I am indebted to Ed Glasscock and his article,  “The Husband of One Wife Requirement in 1 Timothy 3:2” Bibliotheca Sacra—Vol. 140 #559—July 83—244.

 (8) “The Greek perfect tense denotes the present state resultant upon a past action.” New Testament Greek for Beginners, Richard Machen. P. 187.“The force of the perfect tense is simply that it describes an event that, completed in the past (we are speaking of the perfect indicative here), has results existing in the present time (i.e., in relation to the time of the speaker). Or, as Zerwick puts it, the perfect tense is used for “indicating not the past action as such but the present ‘state of affairs’ resulting from the past action.” Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics—An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Daniel B. Wallace, P. 574.

(9) Two  recommended books on the marriage/divorce issue are “Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage” by Jay Adams (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing) and “Divorce and Remarriage, Recovering a Biblical View” by William Luck (Harper & Rowe, no longer published) Both of these books are available on loan from the writer of this article.

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