Husband of One Wife

When the offices of the church are spoken of, there is hardly more debate surrounding their discussion than there is about the phrase of the apostle Paul in 1Timothy, namely, “He must be the husband of one wife” (cf. 1Tim. 3:2, 12). Many have interpreted the apostle’s meaning to be that an elder or deacon must be married in order to serve the church in those offices hence fulfilling their interpretation of the “husband of one wife” requirement.” Others yet have taken the phrase to mean that an elder or deacon cannot have been divorced and remarried, for that person would in some way be the husband of two wives (though he be technically married to one). Others have combined the two to disallow divorced men from serving as an elder or deacon altogether, for they say that a man must be married (hence fulfilling the first interpretation) and since a divorced single man is not married, he cannot fulfill that requirement, and, furthermore, a divorced remarried man cannot fulfill that requirement, because he is the husband of multiple wives (from the second interpretation).

These interpretations, coupled with a fundamentalist conception that divorce is at all times unacceptable irrespective of circumstance, have essentially disqualified all divorced men from having leadership and service roles in the church, even those whose divorces took place before they believed in Christ. And though divorce should certainly be taken into consideration when reviewing the qualifications of leader or servant of the church (as should a plethora of other factors), I think that a different interpretation in light of the apostle’s context will show that the apostle did not have the subject of divorce in mind when he penned his letter two millennia ago.

Prior to addressing the present text, it would remiss of me not to note that my stance on divorce is somewhat atypical (to say the least) in learned, Baptist circles. For I can scarcely think of one instance in my many years at a Baptist seminary when I heard one person give the opinion that divorce was ever an acceptable option for any Christian. I laid forth my position some months ago in a post entitled, “Sexual Infidelity and Divorce,” and its content is indirectly pertinent to the subject at hand.

1Timothy 3 and the Issue of the Stewardship of God’s Church
When we survey the qualifications given for the offices of elder (lit. overseer) and deacon by the apostle together, we find a common thread of responsibility and stewardship. These officers (for lack of a better term) must be able to govern themselves (e.g. “self-controlled,” “sober-minded,” “not a drunkard,” etc.) and able to govern their households (e.g. “manage his household,” “having submissive children,” etc.). For what reason? The apostle sums it this way: “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1Tim. 3:5). Therefore, all of the requirements for church office directly relate with one’s ability to care / govern God’s church.

When we consider the requirement of the apostle, “the husband of one wife,” in this context, we find that it is a matter of stewardship of God’s church and directly relates with his ability to tend for God’s people. While it may be argued that divorce is a sign that man cannot govern his household well, I do not believe (nor does the apostle state) that this is true by necessity. Neither does the apostle state that marriage qualifies a man for an office and singleness disqualifies him, for we do not even know if Timothy himself (the pastor to whom Paul is writing) was married, and we certainly know that the apostle Paul was not.

What we do know is that marriage divides a man’s attentions, duties, responsibilities, etc. between his wife and the Lord. And while these are not mutually exclusive, the apostle does write elsewhere concerning this reality:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord (1Cor. 7:32-35).

When we consider the “husband of one wife” requirement with this declaration of the apostle in 1Corinthians and also consider that polygamy was not an uncommon practice in earlier times (as is attested to throughout the Scriptures), we start to see how the “husband of one wife” requirement directly affects the stewardship of God’s church. For if, as the apostle declares, a man married to one wife has his interests divided between the needs of his wife and the things of the Lord, how much more would a man married to multiple wives have his attentions divided? His life would be so consumed with the management of his family that he would not be able to devote adequate attention to care of God’s people. If the polygamous man were to accept such an office in the church, be it an overseer or a servant, either his family or the church would be poorly managed. Thus, the apostle requires, in line with his other qualifications, that a man be a the husband of only one wife, not two or more wives, so that he might be able to govern himself, his family, and the church rightly.

Now this interpretation also answers the question as to why the apostle does not instruct women in this manner in the qualifications of deacons, though we know that there were woman deacons or deaconesses (cf. Rm. 16:1). For while there is no disallowance in Scripture for polygamy, polyandry (i.e. women having multiple husbands) is always viewed as adultery. Therefore, woman deacons would not need to be instructed in this way, for they would be seen as immoral (or not above reproach) otherwise. Furthermore, women are not mentioned in the elder / overseer requirements for the apostle declares that elders must be able to teach, and he states elsewhere that women are not permitted to speak in church (cf. 1Cor. 14:34, 35), which would greatly restrict one’s ability to teach the church.

The Offices and Singleness
Understanding the text in this way also sheds a different light upon those who are single and their meeting the qualifications of an elder or deacon. For while many of a different persuasion would hold that one must be married to be an elder or deacon, this understanding actually highlights the unique ability of single men to govern God’s church. For while the married man’s interests are divided between his wife and the church, the single man can be wholly devoted to serving God’s church. Therefore, singleness, rather than being viewed as a disqualification for church offices, should be held in high regard when one is considered to serve the church.

While I seriously doubt that my treatment of the apostle’s text concerning the qualifications of elders and deacons will sway those who are dead-set in their traditional understandings, I hope that those who are softer will at least consider that the apostle did not direct, “Husband of one wife,” toward those who have been divorced. While divorce should certainly be weighed against one’s ability to govern and to serve God’s people, it should never be an black and white disqualification, especially when that person’s divorce occurred prior to his conversion. God saves those who have been divorced just as he saves those who have not been, and divorce is never listed (contrary to the opinion of some) among the unpardonable sins. May we extend grace as God has extended grace to us, and may we evaluate our leaders by their present fruits in the Light and not when they were, as we all were, in darkness. Amen.

Categories: Theology

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2 replies

  1. You're exactly right. I never thought about how the benefits of singlesness given in 1Cor. relate to this topic; thanks for pointing that out!

    I've always wondered why there is any question about the interpretation of this passage. I think your explanation, frankly, should make it clear. Besides, I know of no context in which "but one" always means "no more than one" and never means "exactly one". I would like to see evidence that "but one" is used to mean "exactly one" when "at least one" is not already given.

    I thought your view of divorce was typical of Southern Baptists.


  2. Perhaps typical of most, but atypical in seminary, for some reason.


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