Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry: What is a “Husband of One Wife?”

Article by David Miller posted in the SBC Voices (A Southern Baptist Blog) May 15th, 2012. This article was too good not to share.

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 for tolerating 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 a condemnation 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.

Conclusion

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.

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