FOR THOUSANDS of years, the relationship had been perfect. As far back as anyone could remember, the moon had faithfully reflected the sun’s rays into the dark night. It was the greatest duo in the universe. Other stars and planets marveled at the reliability of the team. Generation after generation of earthlings were captivated by the reflection. The moon became the symbol of romance, high hopes, and even nursery rhymes.
“Shine on, harvest moon,” the people would sing. And he did. Well, in a way he did. You see, the moon didn’t actually shine. He reflected. He took the light given to him by the sun and redirected it toward the earth. A simple task of receiving illumination and sharing it.
You would think such a combo would last forever. It almost did. But one day, a nearby star planted a thought in the moon’s core.
“It must be tough being a moon,” the star suggested.
“What do you mean? I love it! I’ve got an important job to do. When it gets dark, people look to me for help. And I look to the sun. He gives me what I need and I give the people what they need. People depend on me to light up their world. And I depend on the sun.”
“So, you and the sun must be pretty tight.”
“Tight? Why, we are like Huntley and Brinkley, Hope and Crosby, Benny and Day . . .”
“Or maybe Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy?”
“You know, the man and the dummy.”
“Well, I don’t know about the dummy part.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. You are the dummy. You don’t have any light of your own. You depend on the sun. You’re the sidekick. You don’t have any name for yourself.”
“Name for myself?”
“Yeah, you’ve been playing second fiddle for too long. You need to step out on your own.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean stop reflecting and start generating. Do your own thing. Be your own boss. Get people to see you for who you really are.”
“Who am I?”
“Well, you are, uh, well, uh, well, that’s what you need to find out. You need to find out who you are.”
The moon paused and thought for a moment. What the star said made sense. Though he had never considered it, the moon was suddenly aware of all the inequities of the relationship.
Why should he have to work the night shift all the time? And why should he be the one the astronauts stepped on first? And why should he always be accused of making waves? And why don’t the dogs and wolves howl at the sun for a change? And why should it be such an outrage to “moon” while “sunning” is an accepted practice?
“You are right!” asserted the moon. “It’s high time we had a solar-lunar equity up here.”
“Now you’re talking,” prodded the star. “Go discover the real moon!”
Such was the beginning of the breakup. Rather than turning his attention toward the sun, the moon began turning his attention toward himself.
He set out on the course of self-enhancement. After all, his complexion was a disgrace, so full of craters and all. His wardrobe was sadly limited to three sizes; full-length, half-cast, and quarter-clad. And his coloring was an anemic yellow.
Lucado, M. (1994). When God whispers your name (pp. 106–107). Dallas: Word Pub.
RECENTLY I FLEW TO MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA, TO HELP a Willow Creek Association church raise money for a building that would soon be under construction on their newly acquired plot of land. This wonderful church has grown from a small nucleus of people seven years ago to nearly three thousand today. As I understood my role for this event, I was to come speak to a thousand or so of their core members—who were going to be squeezed together in the ballroom of a local Radisson Hotel—about sacrificing time, talent and resources so that this first “real” building could be built.
Now, I do this sort of thing a lot. I love to help churches make their facilities more useful or advance new ministry initiatives. Typically in these settings, all I bring with me is a single sheet of paper with a few reminders of pertinent points.
This particular night in Minneapolis—about fifteen minutes before the program was to begin—I was talking with the senior pastor about the background of the church. While he was giving me a little history lesson, I sensed a definite whisper from God. It wasn’t an audible voice I discerned, but I knew unmistakably that heaven was trying to break through.
“The talk you brought is not the one I want you to give,” God seemed to say.
The senior pastor kept going, but by then his voice was being drowned out by an inaudible conversation in my head. “The talk I brought,” I countered to God, “is the only talk I have.”
Still more details from the senior pastor. And still the Spirit kept speaking. “I’ll give you another talk,” he said, as if that was supposed to give me comfort when I was twelve minutes from taking the stage.
Knowing nothing else to do, I interrupted the senior pastor mid-syllable. “Excuse me, but is there a private room where I can be alone for a few minutes?” I asked.
Concern swept across his face as he undoubtedly wondered whether his keynoter was going to follow through or flake. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Are you feeling alright?”
Knowing my response would do nothing to reassure him, I shot straight anyway: “I’m not sure. Can we just find that room?”
Once huddled in a side room to the right of the stage, I took out a pad of paper and a pen. “God,” I said aloud, “I’m very willing for you to give me a different talk than the one I came prepared to deliver. Very willing. But here’s the deal: You’ve got nine minutes and nothing more. How about making this quick?”
I began writing furiously as the heaven-sent ideas came to me, formulating a rough outline as I went. Partway through my frenetic process, there was a rapid knock on the door. “Pastor Hybels,” someone called, “they’ve already begun the music. You’ve got to get out there.”
With the ink still wet on the page, I took the stage and began to deliver my new talk. Thirty seconds in, it was obvious to me that this message was exactly what God had wanted me to say. These ideas—the ones he had shot through my mild state of panic—were precisely the ideas he wanted delivered to the group that had gathered on this night.
Throughout my entire thirty-five-minute talk, I couldn’t help but think, “If these people only knew…”
After the event dismissed, and just as I was heading for the side door to catch my plane back home, the pastor stopped me and shook my hand. “I can’t thank you enough for coming, Bill,” he said. “And what an incredible message! It was so…fresh.”
I laughed out loud. “You don’t know the half of it!”
Moments later in the car, I thought, “For fifty-some years, I’ve tried to train my ear toward heaven, and yet it still amazes me when God actually chooses to speak.”
Throughout history God has spoken. For millennia, he has forged his children’s faith by promising parted waters, empowering unlikely leaders, declaring world-changing prophecies—and imparting last-minute sermons to pastors who questioned whether he really would deliver. In short, our God is a communicating God. Always has been, and always will be. And if there is one story in Scripture that goes to great lengths to prove this point, it’s the story of Elijah, the prophet described in 1 Kings as a man who was “zealous for God.”
Hybels, B. (2010). The power of a whisper: hearing god, having the guts to respond. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Sociologist Jonathan Kozol met Mrs. Washington in the South Bronx. She and her young son, David, were living at a homeless hotel close to East Tremont Avenue, in a first-floor room with three steel locks on the door.
Mrs. Washington was dying, and each time Kozol came for a visit, she was visibly weaker. But, oh, the stories she could tell about life on the underside of urban America—stories about poverty and injustice, drugs, violence, and rape. Mrs. Washington told Kozol about children in her building born with AIDS and about the twelve-year-old at the bus stop who was hit by stray gunfire and paralyzed. She told him about the physical abuse she had suffered from Mr. Washington and about all the difficulties poor people had getting medical care in the city.
The woman and her son also talked about spiritual things. “I wonder how powerful God is,” David admitted in one interview. “He must be wise and powerful to make the animals and trees and give man organs and a brain to build complex machineries, but he is not powerful enough to stop the evil on the earth, to change the hearts of people.” On a subsequent visit Kozol looked down and saw that Mrs. Washington’s Bible was open on the quilt next to her. So he asked what part of the Bible she liked to read. “Ecclesiastes,” she said. “If you want to know what’s happening these days, it’s all right there.”
Ryken, P. G. (2010). Ecclesiastes: Why everything matters. Preaching the Word (p. 13). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
I was having a discussion with my deacons a few years ago. Our church has had an unwritten rule for a long time that divorced men were ineligible to serve as deacons in the church. That is not unusual at this church. Unwritten, unofficial policies abound! Soon after I assumed the pastorate here, I began a crusade against unwritten rules, and so we needed to discuss this issue. During the discussion, one of our men made the declaration above. For him, the Bible was absolutely clear that divorced men were not allowed to serve in positions of leadership in the church. It was settled doctrine and only those who desired to compromise the truth and molly-coddle sinners would hold to the other view. It is also a pretty loaded way to end debate, painting those of us who disagree with his conclusion as those who prefer to follow the culture instead of the Word of God. It stung a little.
That was the challenge that led me to take this old seminary paper (from before man had discovered fire) and turn it into a more extensive study on divorce, remarriage and ministry. I wanted to demonstrate to my good friend (who has since gone to be with the Lord) that my position was based not on a desire to compromise truth, but on a serious attempt to understand the biblical teaching on the topic. I know that many serious (and perhaps more qualified) Bible students disagree with my position, but I wanted to demonstrate that my position came out of Bible study, not Bible compromise. I do not think the biblical evidence supports the strict prohibition of all who have been divorced from serving as elders, pastors or deacons.
It is now time to get to the heart of this matter.
Can a divorced man be biblically qualified to serve the church as a pastor, elder or deacon?
What does the Bible say here? There may have been a time when opinion was nearly unanimous among those who had a high view of Scripture. Only the most liberal of churches gave their pulpits to divorced men in previous generations. Now, it is common for churches to have divorced men in service on staff, as elders or as deacons. I pastored in a small association for nearly 15 years in which three of our leading pastors were divorced men. These were conservative, Bible-believing, Gospel-proclaiming men who had failed marriages in their pasts. Each was remarried with a godly and supportive spouse in the present. Many have left the absolute prohibition against the divorced serving the church in the dust.
But in questions of biblical interpretation, majority does not rule. The fact that at one time the prohibition against the service of the divorced was nearly universal did not make it right and the fact that many churches have now rejected that standard does not make it wrong. The answer is in exegesis, not popular opinion. What does the Bible say? If the Bible does support the traditional prohibition to these leadership positions, we should not compromise just because divorce has become so prevalent. We should do exactly what the Bible says. So, that is what we will examine here.
The crux of the issue is one small phrase that appears twice in 1 Timothy 3 (verse 2 concerning overseers and in verse 12 concerning deacons) and again in Titus 1:6 as a requirement for elders. Elders and deacons were both required to be “the husband of one wife.” That is the sum total of the biblical evidence. Those who maintain that divorced men are prevented from serving as pastors, elders or deacons must demonstrate that this phrase applies to divorce. Those who hold that this passage permits service from divorced men must demonstrate that the phrase does not speak to divorce.
The issue boils down to this question. Does the requirement that elders and deacons be the “husband of one wife” preclude those who have been divorced from serving? If we can determine what that phrase means, we can answer the question pretty easily.
The question is what “husband of one wife” means. The answers have generally fallen into three categories.
- The most obvious answer might be that Paul was prohibiting polygamists from serving in these leadership positions.
- Others, like the deacon whose quote I mentioned earlier, see the phrase as synonymous with “never go.”
- And, of course, there are those who believe that there is more at stake here than polygamy or a simple divorce prohibition. The meaning of that phrase answers the question
A word of warning is appropriate here. There are two serious sins that we must avoid. In Revelation 2, Jesus rebuked both Pergamum and Thyatira churches fortolerating evil and false doctrine. Tolerating what God calls sin cannot be tolerated! If this phrase is properly interpreted as “never divorced” then we should not go beyond what the Word of God allows. But there is another danger to be avoided. In 1 Corinthians 4:6, Paul warned the people not to “go beyond what is written.” Jesus rebuked the religious leaders and Paul warned the Galatians about those who added human rules to God’s Word. If “husband of one wife” does not refer to divorce, then those who have issued a blanket prohibition of service by divorced men have gone imposed human rules on God’s Word and that is no small matter.
Look at Revelation 22:18-19 where John gives this warning about the prophecies he has written.
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
Severe penalties attach to either adding to or taking away from the words of the prophecy. Perhaps that warning is specific to the Revelation, but the principle is instructive for us.
It would be deeply damaging to the Body of Christ to allow divorced men to serve in leadership positions if the Scriptures prohibit it. But it would be just as serious a sin to prevent men from serving without biblical warrant. It is not acceptable to either take away from the teachings of scripture or to add to them.
Anyone who engages in an argument wants to place the burden of truth on the other side; it grants a huge advantage if one’s opponents bear that burden. But I do believe that it is incumbent on those who would use “husband of one wife” as a blanket prohibition against divorced men serving as pastors or deacons to prove their point. If the passage cannot clearly be demonstrated to be a prohibition on service by the divorced, then it should not be used in that way. Unless there is a clear prohibition in God’s Word, we should not make one!
Ultimately, though, the crux is the meaning of this phrase. So, what does it mean to be “the husband of one wife?”
Husband of One Wife
As mentioned above, there are at least three major ways to view this passage. Let us examine these in a little more detail.
1) First, many have taken this in the most literal sense possible, as acondemnation of polygamy. The common English translation of the phrase would seem to differentiate the husband of one wife from the husband of more than one wife. It is the simplest interpretation and most literal interpretation.
But two objections can be raised to cast doubt that this phrase speaks of polygamy. First, there was evidently little polygamy practiced in the Roman Empire. There was some polygamy practiced among the Jews, but Paul was not writing to a primarily Jewish culture here. If polygamy was not a huge issue, it seems unlikely that Paul would focus on that as he gave instructions about church leadership.
But the most devastating evidence against the polygamy interpretation is found in 1 Timothy 5:9, where the same phrase is used with the gender roles reversed. Widows who were going to be added to “the list” (which no one knows too much about) had to have been “the wife of one husband.” Regardless of how common polygamy (more than one wife) was, polyandry (a wife with more than one husband) is among the rarest of cultural phenomena. When Paul demands a woman be the wife of one husband, it is clear he was not addressing polyandry. When he uses a nearly identical phrase to refer to a husband of one wife, it is then unlikely that polygamy is the focus.
Polygamy obviously is outside the boundaries of God’s original intent and this passage would probably have at least a secondary application to the practice. Men who have more than one wife would not be allowed to serve as pastors or deacons in the church. But that does not seem to be the primary teaching here.
2) The most common focus of this verse has been as a prohibition against divorced men serving in leadership positions. Since Jesus said that divorce (except on the grounds of adultery) was invalid and adulterous, it is logical to assume that a divorce man who remarries is actually married to two women and by that is the husband of more than one wife.
The prohibitionist group is not uniform by any means. Some would prohibit all divorcees from serving in these positions. Other would restrict only those who were divorced after their conversion. How can we hold someone accountable for their actions before Christ saved them? There is a continuum of strictness among those who hold this traditional view, but share the belief that this verse eliminates those who are divorced from this kind of service in the church.
3) The third view, the one I hold, is that this passage does not refer to divorce, but to the kind of husband a man is to his wife.
I could list pros and cons of the second and third views, but it all comes down to the exegetical study of the phrase. What does “husband of one wife” mean? So, let us examine this phrase.
Examining the Phrase
It is my contention that neither divorce nor polygamy is the primary focus of this passage. I believe that Paul is requiring that a man must demonstrate himself as a faithful and devoted husband before he is ready to lead God’s church.
The translation “husband of one wife” may not be the best translation of the passage. The Greek phrase in 1 Timothy 3:2, “mias gunaikos andra”, could be literally translated “one-woman man” or “a man of one woman.” The last word, man, appears in a slightly different form in each of the three passages, but the meaning is the same. The key leaders of the church, elders and deacons, are to demonstrate themselves to the church as “one-woman men.”
That accurate translation seems to almost explain itself. What is in view here is the man’s heart. It involves much more than just being sexually faithful to his wife. A one-woman man is faithful in body, yes, but also in soul and spirit. He is devoted to his wife. His relationship with his wife demonstrates that he knows how to be a servant leader. If he is not faithful and devoted to his wife, it is unlikely he will be faithful and devoted to his church duties.
This is a much higher burden than some other interpretations require. Since we do not have polygamy (at least officially) in our nation, it would be an empty requirement if that meaning is accepted. If the command is simply a prohibition that a man never has been divorced, all that is required is that a man has avoided divorce. But this command is more significant than that. I have known men who have never been divorced and have never cheated on their wives, but show little devotion to their wives. They may be technically “the husband of one wife” but cannot by any means be called a “one-woman man.”
It is my belief that this kind of character is what is in view in this command. If Paul had wanted to say that a man who had ever been divorced was not qualified to serve as an elder or deacon, there are ways he could have said that in Greek. Paul spoke clearly and it is clear what he meant in this passage. He was saying that men who lead the church should be men who have demonstrated their abilities to lead their homes and demonstrate faithful servant leadership to their wives.
The meaning of Paul’s phrase here will always be open to discussion and interpretation. It seems highly likely he was not speaking of polygamy, since polygamy was not a common practice in Roman culture, and since the same construction is reversed as a requirement for a woman. Certainly, polygamy would be inappropriate for church leaders, but it is not the chief intent of this verse.
In reality, those who use this as a prohibition of divorce are also assuming the passage refers to a form of polygamy. They believe that the first marriage was not ended and so, by the second marriage, the man has become a kind of polygamist, married in God’s eyes to both his former wife and his current one.
My quarrel with this view is two-fold. First of all, I think it makes a blanket generalization about the teachings of Jesus on divorce that is, in many cases, not warranted. A man who is divorced on biblical grounds is freed from his marriage covenant and is free to remarry. When he remarries, he is the husband of one wife and one wife only – his new wife. The former marriage is over, in God’s eyes. We will examine this in more detail later.
My second problem with this view is that if Paul was intending to prohibit divorced men from serving as deacons or elders, there are ways he could have stated that more plainly. “An overseer must never have divorced a wife and remarried.” He could have given words that would clearly and unequivocally say what he meant. Paul was never one for veiling his words. He said what he meant. If he had meant divorce here, he would have said it.
The most obvious focus of the phrase is fidelity and commitment. A husband must demonstrate to all that he knows what it is to be a servant leader by being a good husband who loves his wife and devotes himself to her. Context, linguistics and logic all seem to support this viewpoint.
It is an unwarranted stretch to use this phrase as a blanket condemnation of divorced men as serving as deacons, elders, pastors, or in other leadership positions. No biblical grounds exist on which to deny all divorced people from serving. To do so, in my mind, is to violate the teachings of Scriptures.
Next time, we will examine the implications of the phrase in more detail.
Whenever the subject of divorce and remarriage is discussed, the inevitable question of whether a divorced and/or remarried man can ever serve as an elder follows closely behind. This discussion has lead to much confusion as well as a great deal of heartache for many individuals and churches. Multitudes of men who have desired the work and service of an elder have also encountered great opposition to that desire simply because of a previous divorce.
The opposition often comes from those who believe that regardless of any past circumstances, no one who has had a previous divorce is biblically qualified to serve as an elder. Yet on the other side of the spectrum, many today are advocating that we abandon all efforts to examine the nature of anyone’s past marital status. They say we should appoint men to the eldership based on present-tense circumstances alone. Their argument follows that because divorce is so rampant in our society, affirming non-divorced men is becoming an even greater challenge.
In addition, increasing numbers of pastors are becoming divorced and yet are remaining in positions of elder/pastoral ministry! Alexander Strauch writes that this issue “was dramatically highlighted when a leading evangelical journal in America brought together five divorced pastors and asked them to share their feelings, experiences, and views on divorce and the ministry. The journal’s staff published the forum because they believed the growing problem of divorce among ministers needed to be faced openly and honestly.” Strauch went on to say that the article “claimed that a recent survey of divorce rates in the United States showed that pastors had the third highest divorce rate—exceeded only by that of medical doctors and policemen!” (“A Biblical Style of Leadership?” Leadership 2, Fall 1981, 119-29, cited in Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership[Littleton, Colo.: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1995], 67).
The ultimate answer to this question, of course, must come from the Word of God. But what does Scripture teach on the subject? What insights do we have from God’s Word that could help us in this regard? Can a man who is divorced (or who is married to someone who has been divorced) ever serve at the highest level of spiritual leadership? These crucial questions must be answered if we are to maintain the true biblical standards of spiritual leadership.
First of all, those who oppose any divorced man serving as an elder almost universally do so on the basis of the apostle Paul’s language in 1 Timothy 3:2. There Paul says that if a man is to serve as an elder, he must be the“husband of one wife” (this English translation comes from the Greek phrase, mias gunaikos andra, which when literally translated means, a “one-woman man,” or a “one-wife husband”). There are generally four different ways this phrase has been understood:
- elders must be married
- elders must not be polygamists
- elders must have married only once in their life
- elders must be sexually pure and therefore totally committed to their wife (biblical monogamy)
The following will be an attempt to summarize the various views and a biblical response.
Must Be Married
Those who take the view that an elder is to be qualified only if he is married mis- understand Paul’s intent in this passage. If this were Paul’s meaning here, he would obviously be contradicting himself in what he wrote to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:7-9, 32-35; see also Matthew 19:12). There, he states that it would be better if believers were to remain single “even as I myself am” (v. 7). He reiterates this in verse 8 when he says, “But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.”
Paul was not only an apostle, but also a pastor (he served for three years as the pastor at Ephesus, for instance), so he certainly could not be commanding Timothy to examine potential elders on the basis of what he himself was not qualified to undertake. Likewise, he also says to the Corinthians that as apostles, they had “the right” to“take along” (marry), a believing wife, “even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]” (1 Corinthians 9:5). Even though he did not personally choose the option of marriage (or that he had in fact been married before but at the time of his statement, was speaking as a widower (as many would contend from 1 Corinthians 7:40), Paul could have served as an elder and yet have remained single.
To put it another way, if one of an elder’s requisite qualifications is his marrying, then every single man would be automatically disqualified, including, of course, Jesus Himself! It is obvious that this view is not a serious consideration of what the phrase, “one-woman man” really means.
The second possibility is that Paul intends to convey that no elder candidate is qualified if he has more than one wife at the same time (polygamy). This was certainly an issue in Paul’s day, but it is unlikely that this is what he had in mind. The main reason is again the use of the specific phrase, “one-woman man.”
Paul could have used a couple of different phrases to speak against polygamy if he had truly wanted to. For instance, he simply could have said, “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, having no more than one wife,” or “having no more than one wife at a time.” This would have most assuredly dealt with any polygamy sins that were occurring at this time. Another reason Paul must have meant something else is that the phrase,“one-woman man” occurs three other times in the New Testament (1 Timothy 3:12; 1 Timothy 5:9; Titus 1:6), which by their usage help us conclude that polygamy was probably not in view.
In the 1 Timothy 5:9 passage, the phrase is used to speak of a widow and whether or not she is to receive some financial assistance from the church. Even though Paul uses the corresponding phrase, “one-man woman,” or“one-husband wife,” he is essentially speaking of the same kind of qualification and speaks to whether a female widow had demonstrated a faithfulness to her one husband (who is obviously now deceased).
We can conclude that because polyandry (a woman who would be having at least two husbands at the same time) was repugnant both to the Jews and Romans, Paul would have no real need to address this issue in the church. Therefore, if Paul used the corresponding phrase to refer to these polygamist men in 1 Timothy 3, he would be very confusing to his readers, and certainly should have been far more specific.
Only One Marriage
A third group of interpreters view this “one-woman man” phrase as meaning that a man could marry only once in his lifetime. This view also will often reflect the belief that once divorced, a man could never remarry, with some even going so far as to say that a widower could not remarry! As in the first view however, this plainly contradicts other passages of Scripture. First Corinthians 7:39 distinctly says, “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” Likewise, Romans 7:2 says, “The married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning her husband.”
Nowhere in God’s Word does it state that remarriage after the death of a spouse automatically renders a man no longer “above reproach.” Indeed, Paul himself urges young widows (meaning those who were still in their prime childbearing years) to “get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach” (1 Timothy 5:14). Immorality being rampant in that pagan society, and with Christianity being so new, Paul was saying the best way to avoid a lasting reproach was to become married.
Finally, Paul even warns Timothy a chapter earlier that some false teachers were actually forbidding marriage (1 Timothy 4:3), and those men should be exposed. Surely, this no-marriage view in 1 Timothy 3:2 would need to be clarified since he condemns those false teachers only a chapter later! Lastly, it would also set up a very difficult double standard. Those outside the spiritual leadership of the church could marry or remarry, while those within leadership could not.
The fourth view says that Paul is simply emphasizing in this phrase, “one-woman man,” the concept of marital faithfulness to one’s present spouse. This seems to be the most natural way to interpret the phrase. Strauch concludes,
…the phrase ‘the husband of one wife’ is meant to be a positive statement that expresses faithful, monogamous marriage. In English we would say, ‘faithful and true to one woman’ or ‘a one-woman man.’…Negatively, the phrase prohibits all deviation from faithful, monogamous marriage. Thus, it would prohibit an elder from polygamy, concubinage, homosexuality, and/or any questionable sexual relationship. Positively, Scripture says the candidate for eldership should be a ‘one-woman man,’ meaning he has an exclusive relationship with one woman. Such a man is above reproach in his sexual and marital life (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 192).
In other words, are you completely committed to the wife you now have? Is your love for her ever growing and do you serve and love her as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25)? It is possible that if our English Bible translators had simply translated the phrase literally, much confusion could have been avoided. But since the phrase has been translated as “the husband of one wife,” it has evoked much needless debate and anguish.
The only remaining question regards the general question of whether a divorced man should ever serve as an elder, even if he has proven to be a present and faithful husband to his wife. This matter is covered in Paul’s first qualification of 1 Timothy 3:2, “An overseer, then, must be above reproach.” Being above reproach means that there is nothing for which one can be accused or blamed; those things which could render a man as being validly accused of sinful behavior. He must not have a chargeable character; that is, he has an impeccable reputation. He lives his life in such a way that no one can accuse him of scandalizing the body of Christ in any way. This is the kind of man that, even with his critics, can find no fault in his character.
Another very important reminder is this: we must remember that the qualifications as listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are present-tense qualifications. The main evaluation of a man’s life must take place in the present, not in the past. Does this automatically mean that a man’s past actions have utterly no bearing on his present life? No. A man’s past could, in fact, render him as reproachable in some way. What ways could this be true? A man could be disqualified if his past divorce has continuing implications. For instance, a man who has had a divorce in his past (whether it is his pre-Christian past or his Christian past), might be rendered reproachable in the eyes of the congregation if the man’s former spouse is in the same community as his local church, or in the same local church itself. In some cases, this may mean he is not qualified to serve as an elder there. Another example is if his children from a previous marriage(s) are not believers or are a reproach to him in some way. This may also become a disqualifier.
It is most unlikely that any man who has had a divorce in his past, whether pre-Christian or post-Christian, willnot be able to serve as an elder. Usually, there are circumstances which render him as not above reproach in the eyes of the church’s leadership and/or the congregation. This does not mean that he cannot serve the Lord in the local church. It simply means that his service will by necessity be in a non-elder capacity. Indeed, he can serve in a variety of ways by God’s design. It would seem to be an extremely rare occurrence for a man who has had a divorce, whether biblically allowed or not, to fulfill the role of elder in the local church. This is never intended to make anyone think that he, because of the fact of his divorce, is a second-class Christian, and that his divorce is a stigma which follows him forever. But at the same time, however, it is true that divorce oftentimes is a stigma, and it has tragically become a stigmatic reproach for many. God’s grace can cover the sin, but the consequences sometimes do have lasting effects.
Finally, regardless of the specifics of any one situation, the general principle is this: Does he enjoy the complete and full affirmation of the leaders and people of his own congregation, and is he presently living out the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1? If a particular local church scrutinizes his life and ministry and sees nothing in his present character or past conduct that brings a reproach, he may, in God’s good providence, serve as an elder in that place. Strauch gives wise words on this account:
What does 1 Timothy say about sexual and marital sins committed before a person’s conversion to Christ? What about people who have legally divorced and remarried (assuming the local church allows for such)? What about the forgiveness and restoration of a fallen spiritual leader? These and many other painful and controversial questions are not answered directly here. They must be answered from the whole of Scripture’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, forgiveness, grace, and restoration, as well as its teaching on leadership example and the full spectrum of elder qualifications.
All deviations from God’s standard of marital behavior confuse and perplex us. Sin always confuses, distorts, and divides, so there will always be diverse opinions on questions such as these. This in no way, however, diminishes the local church’s obligation to face these issues and make wise, scripturally sound decisions. In all these heartbreaking situations, the honor of Jesus’ name, faithfulness to His Word, and prayer are the supreme guides (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 192-93).
Grace to You
The “Morality Ladder” illustration expresses the universal need for God. If you have friends who don’t think they have any real use for God, this one’s for you.
Envision morality as escalating rungs on a ladder. God sits at the top of the ladder because he is holy — he’s perfectly moral. And of course, really evil people are at the bottom — mass murderers and the like. The rest of humanity is somewhere in between. When I draw this for people, I ask them to put a mark somewhere on the ladder that represents where they believe they are, based on what kind of morals they keep.
Before I go any further, though, I toss in a few assumptions. “Mother Teresa,” I say, “would probably qualify for a rung about three-fourths of the way up. And just as a guess, Billy Graham probably falls right below her. As far as I’m concerned, I guarantee I land lower than those two.” I place the initials of the three of us on the ladder, leaving an honorable amount of space between BG (Billy Graham) and BH (me). I know my place.
Then I hand over the pen. Inevitably, the person I’m in conversation with writes his or her initials just south of me.
“Okay,” I say. “Here’s my only question: What is your plan to make up your gap?
“Mother Teresa had a plan for her morality gap,” I continue. “It was the cross of Jesus Christ. Billy Graham has a plan for closing the gap between his level of morality and God’s standard of perfection. It’s the cross of Jesus Christ. So what is your plan? If you believe that you can rise to the standard of God’s holiness on a self-improvement program, you will waste the rest of your life in spin cycle. Real freedom is found when you ditch your man-made plans and choose instead to accept the work that Jesus did on the cross. You can be forgiven. You can live an abundant life. Your morality gap can be closed once and for all by choosing faith in Christ.”
Hybels, B. (2008). Just walk across the room: Simple steps pointing people to faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
The simplest illustration I’ve come across to articulate what sets Christianity apart from other religions is called “Do versus Done.” I tell people who are on the Earning-Grace Plan that “religion is spelled D-O. At the end of the day, it’s all about whether you do enough right things to earn God’s favor. To get in God’s good graces, the thinking goes, you have to do this and do that and strive and sacrifice and clean up your act and make all sorts of promises.
“But Christianity, on the other hand,” I say to people, “is spelled D-O-N-E. The Bible says that what Christ did on the cross is enough. He did what you could never do — he uniquely satisfied God’s requirement for a perfect sacrifice to take care of our past, present, and future sin — and if you receive what he accomplished, then not only will you be ‘in God’s good graces,’ but your life will be made brand new. Because of what Christ did on the cross, your sins can be forgiven and you can find favor in God’s eyes right here, right now.”
Writing those two little words on a slip of paper cements this powerful truth on a person’s heart and mind. Whether or not they make a decision for Christ at that moment, they will never forget what sets Christianity apart. The work that must occur to pay for sin and grant eternal access to God — it’s already been done.
Hybels, B. (2008). Just walk across the room: Simple steps pointing people to faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.