Summary: Engage yourself in this explanation and application of I Timothy 3:2 and 3:12 nnd come to grips with the phrase “...husband of one wife...”
As we look at what is required to lead the church of God, today we examine a very interesting phrase. It is found in I Timothy 3:2 & 3:12, and it has sparked debate for many years. The phrase is this: “...husband of one wife...”
Allow me today to take you mentally through the text first, then leave you with some observations about how this text should affect anyone seeking leadership in the church.
First, let me examine the specific text and provide some insight.
The entire list of requirements for both Elders and Deacons rests on two verbs: the “be” in 3:2 (a present infinitive) and the “be” in 3:12 (a plural present imperative).
Also, both verbs are in the present tense, indicating linear action, they indicate what the current state of the potential Elder/Deacon must be.
The imperative mode of the second “be” verb (3:12) clues us in to the seriousness of the requirements; these are non-negotiable issues that demand complete compliance.
The phrase “husband of one wife” is literally “one woman man.” It is difficult to draw anything else from the construction of this phrase other than that the potential Elder/Deacon must not be currently committed to more than one wife.
Similarly, the same grammatical construction is used when requiring these men to be men of “dignity” as well as men who are “not greedy of sordid gain.” It is addressing their current status. Could a man, once driven to make money in twisted ways, ever lead God’s church? Yes! Once forgiven, restored and called by God, he would be a qualified candidate. Likewise, could a former drunk, who once had no community respect, ever lead the body of Christ? Of course! Once forgiven, restored and called by God, he would be a qualified candidate. While they once weren’t fit, they became spiritually ready, in spite of formerly possessing habits that would have excluded them. Such is the case with the phrase “husband of one wife.” The specific text simply asks one thing: What is their current status?
Essentially, the purest textual meaning of the phrase is that it is a command against polygamy. To engage in a lifestyle of multiple marital commitments would forfeit a potential Elder or Deacon’s privilege to lead the church in an official capacity.
The obvious question becomes: How does one have two (or more) wives? What constitutes polygamy?
Polygamy is any unbiblical union of a man or woman while there is already an existing marriage covenant. For instance, to secretly marry one woman while you are legally and scripturally bound to another one would constitute polygamy. But so would leaving your spouse for unbiblical reasons and marrying someone else, even if there was a culturally legal divorce. In other words, divorce and remarriage outside the boundaries established in the Bible may, at times and under certain circumstances, result in a polygamous lifestyle.
Second, let me address the general context and give you some additional material that will help put this in perspective.
Phrases like “good managers of their children and their households,” “have a good reputation,” and “manages his own house well” are also present tense requirements that matter equally as much as the phrase “...husband of one wife....” While the past mistake of a broken marriage covenant is tragic, and though it doesn’t exclude one from serving officially, it may be the visible symptom of an underlying problem that is addressed by the other requirements.
The idea of being “tested” (3:10) also gives us room to see how well they have done in the past. While we don’t single out the marriage issue, it is just one of the many things examined to see if the potential Elder/Deacon is already living the lifestyle described in I Timothy 3. If he has had recent problems in being committed to one woman (i.e., an unbiblical divorce, an adulterous relationship, etc.), it would be wise to at least delay his appointment to church leadership till these matters have proven themselves extinct or till reconciliation/resolution has been achieved.
“Beyond reproach” and “blameless” indicate even further that a lifestyle at which no one can point a finger is the high goal of church leadership. While this phrase encompasses more than just the issue of divorce and remarriage, it definitely includes this matter. If others in the community react negatively, though honestly and sincerely, to our church and its message as a result of a divorce/affair by a potential candidate for Elder/Deacon, the potential Elder/Deacon should decline his opportunity to lead the church in an official manner.
Thirdly, in light of this, let me make an overall conclusion:
Being divorced does not, in and of itself, exclude someone from serving the church as an Elder or Deacon. If reconciliation is no longer possible (i.e., a former marriage partner has ended the previous covenant though remarriage), if there is not a current polygamous situation (i.e., more than one marital commitment), and if the divorce was not the result of lifestyle habits still ongoing that would damage the reputation and ministry of the church, the potential candidate may continue to pursue the office of either Elder or Deacon.