Divorce and Church Leadership

Divorce and Church Leadership
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, October 8, 2010 at 8:58am

QUESTION: What is the meaning of the expression, “one-woman man” (“mias gunaikos andra”), as it applies to elders and deacons, in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6? This phrase is often translated, “the husband of one wife.” Does it mean that a divorced man can never hold one of these church offices?

ANSWER: There are several different views of this phrase. Some have said that it simply requires than an elder be married. (I will speak only of elders, understanding that the phrase is used of deacons, too.) It is true that the Greek word for “man” (“anēr”) can also mean husband, but this would be a strange expression to use for that purpose. There are ordinary Greek words for “married.” Also, the same expression in reverse is used in 1 Tim. 5:9 of widows, where the meaning is no doubt “a one-man woman.”

Another view is that it forbids an elder to be or have been involved in polygamy. But there is no evidence that polygamy was ever a problem in the church; there are no other references to it in the NT. Thus a special prohibition here seems unnecessary. The parallel expression for women 1 Tim. 5:9 is against this, since polygamy on the part of a woman (polyandry) was practically unheard of anywhere.

A third view is that the phrase forbids an elder to be or have been remarried after his wife’s death. This is quite unlikely, since the NT suggests that remarriage after widowhood is not wrong or tainted in any way. Widows are counseled to remarry (but only to other Christians): 1 Tim. 5:14; 1 Cor. 7:39. Marriage itself is presented as a godly, positive state: Matt. 19:4-6; Heb. 13:4; 1 Tim. 4:3.

The most common interpretation is that this phrase forbids an elder to be or have been divorced. Certainly God intends that marriage be lifelong and that divorce not be considered, but He has said that certain circumstances do legitimize divorce (sexual immorality by one’s spouse, Matt. 19:9; desertion by an unbelieving spouse, 1 Cor. 7:15). Therefore, since divorce and remarriage are not always wrong, what would be the basis of this prohibition for church leadership?

Those who hold this view give two answers. One, if a man has been involved in a sinful divorce, the prohibition has a moral basis. Two, even if a man has been innocently involved in a divorce, he is prohibited from holding office on the grounds of expediency. Concerning the latter, sometimes a thing which is not wrong in itself is nevertheless not expedient, i.e., it may be undesirable because of circumstances beyond the control of the parties involved. See 1 Cor. 6:12; 8:1-13; Rom. 14:13-23; Lev. 21:17-23. Thus there may be circumstances which in themselves do not involve sin and guilt, but which make it best for a man not to hold a church office. Divorce, even on a Biblical basis, is such a circumstance, according to this view.

I do not personally hold this view, for these reasons. If divorce is the main issue here, why is divorce itself not specifically mentioned? There are perfectly good Greek words available meaning “divorce”: “apoluō” (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3, 7-9) and “apostasion” (Matt 5:31; 19:7). Also, even if the problem here is divorce, the specific expression used would seem to focus more on the fact of remarriage after divorce than on the divorce itself (see the emphasis on “one”). Thus divorce itself would not be specifically excluded, but only remarriage—which would make a man the husband of two wives. If he remained unmarried after the divorce, he would still be the (former) husband of just one wife. We have already seen in the previous point, however, that there is no stigma attached to remarriage as such. Finally, the nature of Biblical marriage and divorce is such that a person is never truly married to more than one spouse at a time. If a person is married at all, it is to only one spouse at that time. So the requirement seems superfluous unless it is forbidding marriage to more than one spouse ever. But in this case it would be ruling out widowers who remarry as well as divorced persons who remarry. But again, this would mean that only remarriage is the disqualifying factor—a view that does not seem compatible with the Bible’s high view of marriage, as discussed in the previous point.

This leaves the final view of the prohibition, which I endorse, namely, that it requires an elder to be thoroughly committed to God’s pattern for sexuality and marriage, both in his mind-set and in his life-style, whether he be single, married, widowed, divorced, or remarried. The literal translation of the expression is “a ONE-woman man” or a “ONE-wife husband.” This is the actual word order, with the intended emphasis being on the word ONE.

Thus the elder must be a man who is an example of sexual purity and marital fidelity. “The emphasis is on ONE wife’s husband, and the sense is that he have nothing to do with any other woman. He must be a man who cannot be taken hold of [the literal meaning of “above reproach”] on the score of sexual promiscuity or laxity.” “A man who is not strictly faithful to his one wife is debarred” (R.C.H. Lenski’s commentary, 580-81). He must be a man of unquestioned morality, entirely true and faithful to his one and only wife (Wm. Hendriksen’s commentary, 121). This understanding fits 1 Tim. 5:9 very well, also.

The bottom line is that this prohibition would not necessarily exclude those who had been divorced (and even remarried) BEFORE they became Christians for whatever reasons, but who have now fully embraced God’s will for their sexuality and marriage. Sins related to divorce and remarriage are no worse than other pre-Christian sins and are just as forgiven as any others. “The bulk of the membership from which the elders [in the early church] had to be chosen had come from paganism.” Few would have been free from the taint of sexual vice (Lenski, 580).

Neither would this necessarily exclude the innocent party in a divorce AFTER one has become a Christian. If the man has remained fully committed to God’s will for marriage, he is still a “one-woman man” despite the unfaithfulness of his wife. If a man has been the GUILTY party in a post-conversion divorce, then he is excluded from office, at least until he has demonstrated true repentance and a firm commitment to the Biblical nature of marriage. In my judgment it is possible for a man to reach this point.

In all of this, the law of expediency would apply and may yield varying results in different places or even in different cases in the same place. There may be times and places in which it is best for even a Biblically-divorced man not to hold a church office. Expediency considers such things as (a) the attitude of the contemporary society toward divorce in general; (b) the need to uphold and to teach the Biblical ideal in the best possible way; (c) the responsibility to present no occasion for stumbling where weaker church members are concerned; and (d) the congregation’s attitude toward and acceptance of her leaders.

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