Optional page text here. The Beast's Lair: Husband of One Wife?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Husband of One Wife?

In most of the churches I have attended, from growing up in my home church on through the churches I have had the privilege to minister, the concern of the "husband of one wife" phrase in 1st Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 has been consistent. What is the church to do with such an instruction? Paul lists this phrase among other qualifications for both an elder (bishop, pastor, overseer) and deacon. Typically, conservative Baptist churches, in what I think is an honest attempt to rightly interpret Scripture, have reached an erroneous conclusion. That conclusion is that Paul is referring to need of a man to have never been divorced, and therefore is the husband of "one wife."

The first, and I think strongest, argument for the need of a different interpretation is that Paul's qualifications listed for elders and deacons are all related to the man's spiritual walk. Read the Scripture reference below and notice how all the attributes listed are concerning a present moral qualification.

"Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way."

Paul does not say that a bishop must "never have been above reproach, temperate, etc." Such a statement would go against Paul's own theology of total depravity. Rather, Paul is clearly concerned with the current status of the candidate's spiritual position. To think that among these important, present day qualifications Paul would suggest that a man should never have divorced in days of yesteryear just does not make sense. Besides, if Paul was going to use past sins as a test for the qualification of a bishop or deacon, surely he would have emphasized something more directly related to the task at hand than being divorced, such as temper, hate, dignity, etc.

I am certainly not suggesting that divorce is not a sin. Scripture is clear on that matter. But, it seems that the church is oddly dedicated to "enforce" the divorce interpretation while at the same time turning a blind eye to the other issues, especially the quarrelsome and temperate qualifications. How many elders or deacons would find themselves vanquished from the board of service if the church placed the same rigidity on these other attributes as they do the divorce thing. My hunch is that the divorce angle is easy. Is is an objective rule that is easy to announce from the outset, so everyone knows upfront. It is quite a difficult task, and work, for the church to honestly assess the current spiritual walk of potential candidates and inform them of why they are not qualified to be a deacon or elder.

So what does the phrase mean? I think one of two options is a good possibility. First, the phrase might mean a man who does not presently have more than one wife. We call that polygamy. This interpretation fits nicely with the theme addresses above, that Paul is discussing the current status of men. The problem is that by the first century AD, polygamy was not practiced near as much as it once was. That notwithstanding, there are still accounts, especially among the Jews, of this kind of lifestyle. Josephus, the great Jewish historian, says, "For it is an ancestral custom of ours to have several wives at the same time."

A second possibility, and one that I am growing fonder of, is that Paul's phrase "husband of one wife" is an idiomatic usage, meaning a faithful manager of his family. Under the deacon qualifications in 1st Timothy 3:8-13, the phrase "husband of one wife" is immediately followed by "let them manage their children and their households well."

Perhaps the most important concept in this kind of study is that the church not become lackadaisical in their understanding of Scripture and hardcore in their clench of tradition. A change in interpretation and by-laws of a church does not happen overnight or at a sudden floor motion at the Wednesday night business meeting. But, with thoughtful, convicted, loving pastors who are not "above reproach" or "quarrelsome", perhaps some changes can be made. For the glory of God.


Blogger Bennett Willis said...

Once in a deacon's meeting, a man asserted that if his wife died and he remarried that he would become inactive for that reason. That still puzzles me because it seems so inappropriate and unnecessary.

Personally, while I think that there are a number of things that should disqualify one from being a deacon, divorce should not be one of them. We had a deacon who had been divorced--something that I did not know until I became a deacon. I still regard him (and his family) as one of the best Christian examples that I have ever seen.

Bennett Willis

August 18, 2007 8:54 PM  
Anonymous Kelly said...

I'm not initiating an argument against elders who have been divorced, but I'm not entirely sure that *nothing* in a person's past affects their current position of service in the church, whatever that position is. For example, a pastor is not supposed to be a recent convert, lest he become conceited. That doesn't even say that he is conceited now-- it suggests that because he doesn't have some years of Christian experience behind him, he *could* become conceited.

I think that you're right for the most part in your post, especially the fact that divorce is an easy and objective thing to look at. However, when it comes to pastors, issues of marriage are uniquely related to the Office of the Ministry, insofar as they are a concrete picture of Christ and his bride, the Church. I might not make a law of it, but if a pastor's wife died and he wanted to remarry and felt that he couldn't continue on with the ministry for that reason, I'd respect his personal feelings on the matter.

August 20, 2007 4:32 PM  
Anonymous Chao said...

2 Corintian's 5:17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new.

I was divorced before I was saved. I was nominated to be a deacon recently. I am still unsure if I would have taken the office had I been eligible but it has really been bothering me that I can be forgiven for anything, except that. Yet according to the scripture above I am a new creature. I really don't get it.


August 20, 2007 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Paul, in Bethel Park said...

"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason, I was shown mercy, so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience, as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory, forever and ever. Amen."

Yes, I have been divorced...twice as a matter of fact. Circumstances are not always within our control. And unless someone goes through it, one can never completely understand the true pain that never disappears.

I thank my God every day for the forgiveness He has bestowed on me, a poor, miserable sinner.

Divorce is a sin no greater or worse than any other. I broke my God's commandment...I will continue to break His commandments...He will always give me His saving grace.

August 20, 2007 5:45 PM  
Blogger The Beast said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Chao - when you say you can be forgiven for anything except divorce, I am assuming you mean forgiven by the church. Obviously, with repentence comes forgiveness from God. I John 1:9. But, as I hope my post came across, I am not being critical of churches who interpret Scripture that way, they do so our of a desire to do the right thing. I just think they are wrong. So, your church would probably say they forgive you 1000 times over, but just are bound by Scripture on the matter of eligibility. Anyway, I sure am proud of you.

Kelly - Thanks for your comments and I, of course, agree that there are things in our past that effect our ability to serve. And if someone has a personal issue, that is an entirely different matter. The thrust of the post was to point out the disjuction between the church's interpretation of divorce vs. how they handle the other issues concerning eligibility. Blessings to you!

August 20, 2007 6:08 PM  
Anonymous Chao said...

You are correct sir. I know I am forgiven by the one that matters. Not a doubt in my mind there.

August 20, 2007 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Kelly said...

By the way, fellow commentors, nothing in my post had to do with divorce being a worse sin than others, or being "less forgivable." Just so's you know.

Just out of curiosity, what has been the standard practice of Christianity through the centuries on the matter? Sometimes recent tradition eclipses historical precedent, and sometimes it confirms it and we moderns are the ones out of the loop. What's been the verdict in the past?

August 20, 2007 11:44 PM  
Blogger The Beast said...


That is an excellent question, I am not sure of the historical interpretation of this particular text. My recent post of the synoptic problem deals with that issue to some degree.


August 21, 2007 12:13 AM  

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