“Husband of One Wife”
1 Timothy 3:2 NASB “An overseer then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, [and] able to teach, [.]” The line “the husband of one wife” is the problematic (Fee 80) and seemingly “ambiguous” (Walvoord and Zuck 736) line of the passage. While 1 Timothy 3:2 is the verse specifically being analyzed, the line is also found in Titus 1:6 which says, “namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.” And although, the passage has a number of interpretations which will be explored in an attempt to discover the root significance, it is certain that a moral standard is being laid down for overseers (Liefeld 129). The problem remains that how “husband of one wife,” is interpreted affects individuals, and church as they apply the verse to both pick and elect elders, because it will influence the direction of the local church.
To start, a small possibility is that that 1 Timothy 3:2 is a command that overseers, the church’s spiritual leaders, must be married (Fee 80). In opposition to this view is that simple Paul however, was both a spiritual leader and single (Fee 80), and Timothy was also single. Being married appears to not be a requirement for eldership (Liefeld 129). Yet, while marriage is not a requirement, it is beneficial for the counseling (Liefeld 129), and being a light to the community (Fee 80). Marriage is an institution ordained by God. Because of this, Paul, in chapter 4 verse 3 of 1st Timothy, warns against “men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.”
“The husband of one wife” obviously rules out all possibility of polygamy, which should be noted was never an accepted practice of the New Testament“Christian Church” (Demarest 187). Polygamy is completely and utterly forbidden for a Christian, and specifically an overseer, to be involved in polygamy or any other promiscuous act (Walvoord and Zuck 736). The idea of a one-woman man fits by the “one wife” (Fee 80). The truth of the matter is that since God requires monogamy of all Christians (Demarest 187), then overseers would not be excluded. God exalts “monogamous fidelity” (Demarest 187). Ephesians 5:31 NASB supports this by saying “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” And so it could appear that the question “husband of one wife, refers to the question of divorce.
The bible explicitly forbids divorce by saying “But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband… husband should not divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10a and 11b NASB) Only a few particular exceptions, which are clearly defined in 1 Corinthians 7, are possibilities for divorce to take place. Another interpretation of 1st Timothy 3:2’s line, “husband of one wife,” is that under certain circumstances an overseer may be divorced. If an overseer became a Christian after he was divorced, he may be permitted to be an elder (Liefeld 128). Since God “heals and forgives” (Liefeld 128), there is a possibility that God will use the experiences brought by the divorce to allow for the overseer to counsel and minister to someone who he would have otherwise been un-able (Liefeld 128). There is also a possibility that the divorce was the former spouses fault, and the divorce was brought about for reasons of adultery, abuse, or perversion. And there are times, no matter how sad it may be, that divorce will be necessary for the safety of children and or him/herself. And so, if the individual has done everything in their power at saving the marriage and reconciliation, then he is permitted to be an overseer (Liefeld 128).
An overseer, an elder, can not be divorced is an interpretation which takes a stand that the verse literally means “one wife.” A divorced person could conceivably be married for a second time, in which case the overseer would have had more one wife. Also, a divorce indicates a failure in the relationship (Walvoord and Zuck 736). If the purpose of an overseer is to guide and lead the flock in godliness, then character flaws, which should be at a minimum to say the least, must be addressed and healed (Liefeld 129). A divorce will also be harmful to more than one family (Liefeld 129). And an overseer might have a full-time job to maintain relationships with any children that may exist.
What if the wife died of natural causes? If “husband of one wife” is interpreted literally, then an overseer would not be permitted to remarry after their former spouse died (Gaebelein 306). A problem is created by the fact that Paul urges widows to remarry by saying, “But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9), and, based on 1 Corinthians 7:39 NASB, “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.” Thus it seems more accurate that “one living wife” at a time is permitted (Ryrie 1920). This is also supported by the Paul saying that widows should re-marry.
The phrase “husband of one wife” literally means a “one-woman man” (Ryrie1920). Look at the other qualifications of and overseer presented in 1st Timothy 3:2-9, the verses describe an overseer as being “above reproach, prudent, dignified, not conceited, and not a new convert.” All of the words and phrases listed are words of integrity and used to describe a heart condition. In other words, if married, the overseer is to be completely faithful to his wife (Gaelbelein 306). Please understand that a “one-woman man” is a man who, whether single or married, has both “character and purity” in his sexual relationship (Liefeld 130). A side note is that in a world where promiscuity and infidelity are expected and even honored, it is extremely important that a Christian’s marriage models Christ (Fee 80).
My personal belief on the subject is that if a man who desires to be an overseer was divorced before he became a believer, or did everything in his power to save the marriage, but for some reason or another the spouse would not continue in the marriage, the overseer may be permitted to be an elder. Yet with that, I believe that the one desiring to be an elder must be tested. If his life does not bear the fruits of a life disciplined in serving Christ, and striving to bring God glory, then they are unfit to serve in a position as a spiritual leader. There should be no doubt as to what the qualifications of an elder are, because 1 Timothy chapter 3 explicitly lists their qualifications.
As stated at the beginning of the paper, the views and reasons that the how and why of the phrase “husband of one wife” is “applied to all of the churches, [in short] we simply do not know. And each church will have to decide whether or not to take this [being married once] as a universal rule” (Demarest 187).
Demarest, Gary W. The Communicator's Commentary. Waco: Word Books Publisher, 1984.
Fee, Gordon D. New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody: Henderickson Publishers,
Gaebelein, Frank E. The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Ephesians-Philemon). Vol. Volume 11.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.
Liefeld, Walter L. The NIV Application Commentary: From biblical text...to contemporary life.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999.
Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. Ryrie Study Bible Expanded Edition. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995.
Zuck, John F. Walvoord, Roy B. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Colorado Springs:
David C. Cook, 1983.