“The husband of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3:2

post date: December 17, 2007
Last Thursday night at the men’s Bible study, we had a lively discussion about the meaning of "the husband of one wife" in 1 Timothy 3:2. At one point, I was asked to explain my views regarding divorced men serving as elders and/or deacons in the local church. My answer was simply that I don’t think this phrase answers the question definitively. The Greek text literally reads "a one-woman man." Controversy over what that means started in the second century and continues to this day. There are several possibilities:
Everyone agrees that # 1 is included. This standard clearly excludes polygamy and bigamy. There are good arguments for and against # 2. I doubt that # 3 is intended since it seems to contradict what Paul says in I Corinthians 7 about the possibility of remarriage.
The fourth option suggests that Paul has in mind marital faithfulness as a character quality of a godly leader. A spiritual leader is “not a flirtatious man but one who is content with his wife.” Why is that important? Because if a man is not faithful to his wife, how can he be trusted to be faithful to his obligations elsewhere? If a man cheats on his wife, where else will he cheat?
Here are some questions we ought to ask about potential leaders:
1. Is he a flirt? Does he have roving eyes?
2. Are his affections centered on his wife?
3. Does he demonstrate that affection and loyalty in ways others can see?
4. Is his marriage a model for others to follow?
5. Is he above reproach in his dealings with the opposite sex?
6. Is his life free from pornography in every form?
Many Christian men who have never been divorced would have trouble answering those questions. That’s why I regard this as a higher standard than simply asking, "Has he ever been divorced?" The real question is, "What kind of marriage does this man have?"
To be a “one-woman” man means to put your wife first in your affections, to center your thoughts around her. She must be first and there can be no number two. I understand the phrase "husband of one wife" to be teaching that a godly man must have "an exclusive relationship with one woman and one woman only." It’s a positive statement about loyalty and faithfulness. Seen in this light, to be the "husband of one wife" is a moral qualification, not simply a marital qualification. The issue is the quality of the marriage, not simply the legal state of the marriage.
When thinking about choosing leaders for the local church, we need to apply the standards of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 wisely and compassionately. I have a friend who grew up in such an extremely legalistic movement that they never chose elders because no one ever met the standards. When choosing leaders, we ought to look for men whose godly character has been demonstrated over a long period of time. These standards apply to what a man is today, not what he was thirty years ago. Seen in that light, I do believe that some who have been divorced have demonstrated exactly that sort of godly character over a long period of time. Where that is the case, I do not think divorce in and of itself should be a disqualifying factor.
For a longer treatment of this issue, check out these two articles:
The Meaning of "The Husband of One Wife" in 1 Timothy 3 by Randy Alcorn
The "Husband of One Wife" Requirement in 1 Timothy by Ed Glasscock


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Ray Pritchard
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