This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife… (1 Timothy 3:1-2, N.K.J.V.)
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you — if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife… (Titus 1:5-6)
Let deacons be the husbands of one wife… (1 Timothy 3:12, N.K.J.V.)
You’ll note that the New King James translation uses the terms “bishop,” “elders,” and “deacons” in these passages. I’ll begin, then, by explaining that the New Testament uses “bishop,” “elder,” “pastor,” and “shepherd” interchangeably (1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:5-7; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:17-28). Each of these terms refers to the office called “pastor” in Baptist circles. As for the term “deacon,” there is a consistency of usage in the New Testament.
With this understood, we come now to the much debated phrase “the husband of one wife” in each of our text references. If a church doesn’t allow a divorced man to serve as a pastor or a deacon, that’s the piece of scripture that gets used to do the disqualifying. But what does the phrase really mean? Historically, it has been interpreted in at least five ways. Let’s examine each one.
#1: Some take the phrase to mean that a pastor or a deacon must be a married man, no single guys allowed. Even though some devout Christians staunchly hold to this interpretation, the fact is that it contradicts multiple passages of scripture. For example, Jesus spoke of single men who purposely choose to remain single and celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12). Are we to believe that such men aren’t qualified to serve as pastors or deacons? Likewise, Paul himself was single (even though it’s possible he was a widower), and yet apparently he played the role of pastor in Ephesus for over two years (Acts 19:1-10). Actually, when we get right down to it, he played the role of founding pastor to each church that he began during his missionary travels.
Furthermore, Paul sung the praises of the single life in regards to Christian service. He even went so far as to encourage unmarried Christians to remain single like him, with the only codicil being that if they couldn’t practice self control sexually, they should get married (1 Corinthians 7:7-9). As he described the situation, the unmarried person has the opportunity to care exclusively for “the things of the Lord,” but the married person, by necessity, has to also care for a spouse (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).
For that matter, if we interpret the phrase “the husband of one wife” to mean that a pastor or a deacon must be married, consistency of interpretation requires us to also mandate that the man must have children (1 Timothy 3:4,12; Titus 1:6). Also, if Paul’s purpose was merely to convey that a pastor or a deacon must be married, why did he add in the word “one” to the phrase “the husband of one wife”? All he had to say was that the man should be “a husband.”
#2: Some take the phrase to mean that if a pastor’s first wife or a deacon’s first wife dies, the widower must never remarry. Many of the earliest commentators (2nd and 3rd century) favored this interpretation, but the glaring problem is that it stands against what Paul teaches about such a remarriage in Romans 7:1-3, 1 Timothy 5:14, and 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, 26-28, and 39-40. Also, Abraham remarried after the death of Sarah, and God blessed that second marriage (Genesis 25:1-4). Admittedly, Abraham didn’t live in the New Testament age and certainly wasn’t a pastor or a deacon, but his second marriage does seem to provide us with a scriptural example of God’s opinion of a widower or a widow remarrying.
Genesis 2:18 might also apply here. In that verse, God says, “It is not good that man should be alone…” Paul’s harsh words in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 might come into play, too. There he condemns certain false teachers of his day who were actually forbidding marriage. And then there is Hebrews 13:4, which says: “Marriage is honorable among all…” Presumably, that word “all” would include widowers, even widowed pastors and deacons.
#3: Some take the phrase to be a cultural prohibition against polygamy. While this interpretation might seem to make sense on the surface, upon closer inspection we find that it really doesn’t hold water. Yes, polygamy was often practiced among the people of the Old Testament era (even the Jews), and, yes, the practice did continue among certain races in the New Testament era. But that’s where the interpretation falls apart because polygamy was decidedly not common in the Roman empire which served as the setting for the pages of the New Testament. Much to the contrary, monogamy was one of the distinguishing features of both the Roman empire and the Greek empire that so heavily influenced the Romans.
Because of this it’s not surprising that there is no scriptural indication whatsoever that polygamy was any kind of a problem among the Christians of the early churches. Many commentators even point out that a polygamist wouldn’t have been granted membership status in an early church congregation, let alone be afforded the option of serving as a pastor or a deacon. Why, then, would Paul waste time and words condemning an irrelevant practice?
For another thing, just as Paul uses the phrase “the husband of one wife” in our text passages, he uses the similar phrase “the wife of one husband” in 1 Timothy 5:9. And yet the phrase there cannot refer to a woman being married to multiple husbands at the same time because that option was historically never available to women. This proves that when he talks about “the husband of one wife” or “the wife of one husband,” he’s not talking about polygamy.
#4: Some take the phrase to simply mean “one wife at a time. ” This interpretation is lent credence by the fact that the original Greek behind the phrase literally means “a one-woman man.” The interpretation is also easy to apply and doesn’t kick up much dust because it allows for a man who is a divorcee to hold the office of pastor or deacon, even if he is remarried. However, the interpretation is not without its problems.
One of them is that it sets a very low bar in regards to application. In the most liberal cases, a man could be on his third or fourth marriage and yet still be qualified to be a pastor or a deacon as long as things were going well with his latest marriage. Frankly, such a low bar seems incompatible with the other spiritually lofty qualifications Paul lists in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:1-9. Those other qualifications certainly don’t sound as if he is describing a lowered standard for a potential candidate’s marital status.
An even greater problem with the interpretation is that it doesn’t address what Jesus taught about the adultery that is created when a man remarries in the wake of an unscriptural divorce. Did you know that the judge downtown can’t truly grant a God-approved divorce? Oh, sure, he can grant a legal divorce, but legal isn’t the same as being approved by God. Jesus said of marriage, “…what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). This means that a husband and a wife remain married in the eyes of God until He grants the divorce. It naturally follows, then, that if an earthly divorce takes place apart from God-sanctioned grounds, the first spouse to remarry after that earthly divorce becomes an adulterer regardless of who he or she marries (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:1-3).
And just what is an unscriptural divorce? It’s one that doesn’t meet either of God’s two requirements for divorce. Jesus gave us the first of those requirements. Paul gave us the other one.
We’ll start with Jesus. He taught that sexual sin (the Greek word porneia) perpetrated against the wronged spouse is God-approved grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:9). The New King James translation translates porneia as “sexual immorality.” The old King James translation translates it as “fornication.” It is from porneia that we get our English word “pornography.”
The New Testament Greek uses porneia as an umbrella term to refer to any type of sexual sin. The list includes premarital sex (1 Corinthians 7:2), adultery (John 8:41), incest (1 Corinthians 5:1), and homosexuality (Jude verse 7, where ekporneuo is used as a strengthened form of porneia). This means that when one spouse sins against another spouse in some type of porneia way, the wronged spouse has God-approved grounds to get a divorce. Furthermore, in such cases the wronged spouse can marry again without marrying into adultery (1 Corinthians 7:27-28).
Now let’s get to what Paul taught on the subject. He added in that if a non-Christian spouse voluntarily leaves a Christian spouse, God will grant the Christian spouse a divorce (1 Corinthians 7:12-15). Of course, such a union is an “unequal yoke” anyway (2 Corinthians 6:14-18), but unequal yokes do occur. It was especially a problem in the days of the early churches as one spouse would convert to Christianity while the other spouse would remain unconverted.
The upshot of all this is that interpreting the qualification “the husband of one wife” to mean “one wife at a time” can potentially open up a Pandora’s box of problems for not only the divorced man but also his church. What were the circumstances of the man’s divorce? Was the divorce approved of God? Is the man remarried? Even if the divorce was approved by God, was the remarriage God’s will for the man’s life? These are all legitimate questions.
#5: Some take the phrase to mean that a divorced man, regardless of the reasons for his divorce and regardless of whether or not he remarries, should not serve as a pastor or a deacon. As I mentioned in the previous post, this was the stereotypical interpretation used by most Baptist churches, especially conservative ones, for a long time. These churches viewed remarriage by a widower to be acceptable and not grounds for disqualification as a pastor or a deacon, but a divorce cast major suspicion upon a man’s spiritual resume, and a remarriage following a divorce was a death knell for his potential as a pastor or a deacon.
But is this 5th interpretation really what Paul had in mind? Well, the interpretation’s strength is that it covers more of the scriptural bases than any of the other other four. That’s a strong point in its favor. Also, it errs on the side of caution, and that’s another point in its favor. Let’s face it, anytime we are dealing with a controversial, debatable topic from scripture, we can do a lot worse than erring on the side of caution in how we apply it.
On the other hand, though, the interpretation does have one weakness: It doesn’t make any allowance for either of those two God-approved grounds for divorce. If Jesus and Paul had not specifically named those two grounds, I would have no hesitancy about fully embracing this 5th interpretation and running with it. I have to admit, though, that those two grounds do give me pause. They make me ask, “If God has granted a man a divorce and perhaps even approved a remarriage for him, does that by implication show that He has wiped the slate clean in regards to the man serving as a pastor or a deacon?”
That’s the question I will attempt to address in my next post, which will be the last post in this series. I’ll first list some of the scriptural reasons that could seemingly be used to allow a divorced man to serve as a pastor or a deacon. Then I’ll list some of the scriptural reasons that could seemingly be used to keep him from playing either role. In other words, I’ll try to present both sides of the argument. That’s the best way I know to provide a fair hearing all the way around for everybody. So until then, I’ll ask you to once more stay tuned.