In a culture saturated with immorality, Paul calls for radical conformity to God’s original plan: one man and one woman in a one-flesh relationship for life.

This post is the 2nd in a series on the qualifications for the overseer.

Faithful in Marriage—1 Timothy 3:2

A qualification relating to the overseer’s marriage heads the list of qualifications developing the overall expectation that an overseer be blameless: he must be μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα [a husband of one wife, or perhaps a man of one woman]. In a culture saturated with immorality,[1] Paul calls for radical conformity to God’s original plan: one man and one woman in a one-flesh relationship for life. No overseer is truly qualified without counter-cultural conformity to this plan.

Practically speaking, we would be wise to take this qualification seriously, in two key ways. 1-Don’t choose overseers who don’t have a very clear public, and spotless testimony of marital faithfulness and integrity. 2-Seriously and prayerfully consider the matters of interpretation upon which Christians are not all agreed. They still matter.

Mark Bailey observes that “at minimum [this qualification] called for a husband to be singularly focused on his wife and devoted to her” and argues that “an unquestioned testimony in one’s marital life is the point.”[2] However, discussions tend to get much more specific than this when it comes to the question of how to apply the passage’s requirement. Even though debate and uncertainty surround its application, the church cannot ignore this requirement—so it must come to terms with it. Can a single man be an elder? What about a widower? Does the requirement exclude polygamists only, or does it also exclude those who are divorced and remarried? What if the divorce was due to the marital unfaithfulness of the previous wife? Robert Saucy states the issue well: “The question of the meaning of the qualification laid down by the apostle Paul regarding the elder’s marriage relationship is impossible to answer simply from the words involved.”[3] Understanding the broader teaching of Scripture regarding marriage and divorce informs careful application of this requirement.

The terminology of the passage most clearly excludes polygamists (although polygamy may not have been Paul’s primary concern).[4] What is less clear is whether a divorced and remarried man may serve as an overseer. Saucy argues that “divorce on the basis of adultery [committed by the candidate’s former spouse] is legal and dissolves the marriage” and that because of this, “technically, he meets the requirements of the language.”Nor does Scripture elsewhere indicate, Saucy argues, that “though he is the husband of one wife without breaking any of God’s law, he is yet somehow disqualified as an elder.”

I disagree with Saucy’s conclusions, but he has helpfully identified 2 key questions that must be answered by other Scripture passages. First, does a divorce based on a spouse’s marital unfaithfulness truly dissolve the marriage in God’s sight? Beyond this, does Scripture present any other reason that a divorced and remarried man must be excluded from the office?

First, it is not entirely clear to me from Scripture whether divorce “for cause of fornication” dissolves the marriage bond. Jesus does appear to be teaching that if the husband divorces his wife for marital unfaithfulness, he has not caused her to commit adultery (as would be the case if he had divorced her for any other reason, assuming her remarriage).[5] She was already an adulteress. He did not force her into this condition by a divorce (which in a first-century context would often place a woman into a situation where she would feel the need to remarry for financial support). It is not clear to all interpreters that the offended party is permitted to remarry in such cases.[6] It is possible that even an innocent party in such cases, if he or she remarries, may at that point be violating God’s righteous standard for the marriage relationship.

Beyond this, if as is more commonly held, divorce really does dissolve the marriage bond in God’s sight and an innocent party is actually free to remarry, the question of the man’s fitness for ministry is not automatically settled. When Saucy argues that a man’s meeting the technical requirement of God’s law in this regard is sufficient, Saucy may fail to face the full weight of the expectation that the overseer be “above reproach.” “The whole rationale behind this qualification for ministry is that a man’s private, personal, and family life must be such as to commend him as trustworthy for ministry leadership. It is not a matter of some ‘legal’ technicality.”[7] Minnick argues,

Today’s easy access to private details of a man’s history, the frenzy to publicize a religious leader’s slightest indiscretions on social media or to air them gleefully on talk shows and seminars, and the proliferation of divorce, not just in society at large, but in the Church itself, all argue for great caution in this area. To put it simply, even if I thought it was lawful to accept a remarried divorcé into office, I probably wouldn’t deem it expedient. If I were going to err, I’d opt for erring on the side of narrowness.[8]

Even if the letter of Scripture does not exclude such a man from ministry, the spirit of Scripture, or wisdom in its application to most cases, may.[9]

The high bar already set with the word “blameless” and the possibility that the NT’s teaching on divorce and remarriage even technically excludes such candidates from consideration may make it unwise to insist on the ordination of divorced men.[10] God wants to use such men for His glory, but those who wish to be careful to give His Word the benefit of the doubt (rather than fellow-creatures) may well avoid selecting such men to be overseers.[11]

That widowers (including remarried widowers) are not excluded from the office is evident by a simple comparison with 1 Timothy 5, where a nearly identical phrase (ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς γυνή, or a wife of one husband) is employed to describe the honorable widow. Since in the context of the discussion it is clear that widows are in view in chapter 5, then it stands to reason that the μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα cannot exclude widowers in 3:2. Furthermore, the suggestion that this kind of phrase excludes those who have remarried after the loss of a spouse simply fails to square with Paul’s encouragement of younger widows to remarry in chapter 5. It doesn’t appear that a prohibition against remarried widows or widowers is at all in view. It seems unlikely that he would praise or mandate avoidance of remarriage in older widows, only to urge remarriage for younger widows (and thus, according to that kind of interpretation, disqualify them for potentially needed church support in their later years).[12]

The question of whether single candidates are allowed is more difficult to settle–although I’m pretty firmly opposed to the practice. Some believers understand μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα to exclude single candidates from pastoral ministry. This is almost certainly not the primary concern of the phrase, but it may be that the requirement does exclude single candidates. The most compelling argument for rejecting this viewpoint is Paul’s own single status. In fact, Paul himself argues that singleness is desirable for heightened focus on ministry (1 Cor. 7). But Paul was an apostle/missionary/church planter with a dangerous, demanding ministry lifestyle and no permanent, settled position of life-on-life leadership in a particular congregation and community. In this particular passage, a local church office is under discussion, which brings into view other factors that could well account for a different expectation. In other words, the minority view that sees single elders as outlawed by Scripture deserves to be taken more seriously than it often is. Although this post will not attempt to settle the question of whether single overseers could be qualified for ministry according to 1 Timothy 3:2, it is a question that deserves more attention than it receives from some interpreters. A man’s godly leadership of his family is a primary benchmark for qualification as a local church elder pastoring families. If he doesn’t have one, how can we have the confidence to put him into that position?

No one should miss the spirit of the qualification in the tangle of the debate surrounding its application. The whole spirit of the passage stresses that Christian people must seek out blameless men who have demonstrated by their personal lives their fitness to lead the flock of God in the role of overseer. The passage, at least by implication, does more than lay out stipulations regarding the overseer’s legal marital status. It calls for the kind of man who is irreproachably “faithful to his one wife.”[13]

I’ll say it one more time. Practically speaking, we would be wise to take this qualification seriously, in two key ways. 1-Don’t choose overseers who don’t have a very clear public, and spotless testimony of marital faithfulness and integrity. 2-Seriously and prayerfully consider the matters of interpretation upon which Christians are not all agreed. They still matter.

[1] David C. Verner notices that “wives in both societies [Greek and Roman] were subjected to a sexual double standard that demanded strict chastity of them, while allowing their husbands extensive sexual freedom.” The Household of God: The Social World of the Pastoral Epistles (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983), 79. See also Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament, vol. 2 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2010), 691. An often-referenced statement by Demosthenes demonstrates toleration of a man’s lack of exclusive sexual fidelity in marriage: Τὰς μὲν γὰρ ἑταίρας ἡδονῆς ἕνεκ᾿ ἔχομεν, τὰς δὲ παλλακὰς τῆς καθ᾿ ἡμέραν θεραπείας τοῦ σώματος, τὰς δὲ γυναῖκας τοῦ παιδοποιεῖσθαι γνησίως καὶ τῶν ἔνδον φύλακα πιστὴν ἔχειν. “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.” Orations 59.122.

[2] Mark L. Bailey, “A Theology of Paul’s Pastoral Epistles” in A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck and Darrell L. Bock (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 361. See also Sydney H. T. Page, “Marital Expectations of Church Leaders in the Pastoral Epistles,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 15, no. 50 (June 1993): 105–120.

[3] Robert L. Saucy, “Husband of One Wife,” Bibliotheca Sacra 131, no. 523 (July 1974), 229.

[4] Merkle presents a strong case that polygamy was not the issue addressed by this qualification. Benjamin L. Merkle, “Are the Qualifications for Elders or Overseers Negotiable?” Bibliotheca Sacra 171, no. 682 (April 2014), 182, n. 27.

[5] “It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:31–32, NASB).

[6] See for instance Wenham’s “no remarriage” perspective in Gordon J. Wenham, William A. Heth, and Craig S. Keener, Remarriage After Divorce in Today’s Church: 3 Views, ed. Mark L. Strauss and Paul E. Engle, Counterpoints Series (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).

[7] Randy Leedy, in private correspondence September 13, 2012.

[8] Mark Minnick, “Not a Breath of Scandal,” Frontline (September/October 2014), “Sound Words” insert, 4.

[9] Admittedly, some cases are very difficult. What does a church do when a pastor’s young wife apostatizes and leaves him, and it is clear to the whole community that the pastor has done nothing wrong? No doubt, different congregations would handle the situation in different ways. In cases such as these, a congregation that strongly felt the Scriptures call for the pastor to step down could affirm their confidence in his character. They could do so even while expressing that due to the needs of the flock and their convictions about the qualifications, they would ask him to step down. A helpful analogy might be the issue of gifting. No one faults a man morally who simply is not gifted for the ministry. Because of factors outside his control, however, he is not fit for the office of overseer. In the case of a man divorced unjustly by his wife, it is possible to view him as unsuitable and yet faultless in the matter.

[10] On a practical note, even if such a man were ordained, it is likely that other churches besides his ordaining assembly would have questions about his qualification for the office.

[11] The question of whether men who were divorced before conversion should be admitted to the office of overseer is a difficult one—one that this study will not try to settle. There are reasonable arguments on both sides. John MacArthur makes a cogent argument against the ordination of divorced men: “It could be that a pastor was to be chosen from men who even before their salvation had not been divorced, so that their lives were the proper model of God’s marital ideal. Prior wives or offspring would, then, have no opportunity to compromise, confuse, or attack the credibility of the highest office in the church and destroy the reputation of the man by saying things about him. Certainly the task of building godly marriages and strong families in the church necessitated the most impeccable marriage history in the pastor’s life. A man who had never been divorced but had been married singularly to the same woman would be the kind of premium example God would want of one man and one woman together in harmony for life.” “The Character of a Pastor,” in Pastoral Ministry: How to Shepherd Biblically (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 69. Merkle argues an opposing viewpoint: “Third, it is wrong to treat divorce and remarriage as the unpardonable sin. If a former murderer is able to be forgiven and later serve as a spiritual leader (like the apostle Paul, who was apparently guilty of murder, Acts 9:1, 26), then it would seem rather arbitrary that a person who remarries cannot serve in such a capacity” (183, n. 28). See also Ed Glasscock, “‘The Husband of One Wife’ Requirement in 1 Timothy 3:2,” Bibliotheca Sacra 140, no. 559 (July 1983): 244–258.

[12] Merkle, 183, n. 28; see also Page, 112.

[13] NEB. See MacArthur, 69; and esp. Page.