I recall a man in a church who was known and respected by everyone. He volunteered to help when people were in need and provided wise counsel when people were struggling. At a congregational meeting, his name was put forward as candidate for elder. But an objection was raised: 20 years earlier he had been divorced after his wife left him for another man. Even though he’d been faithfully married to his current spouse for many years, some in the congregation wondered if his election as a church leader would violate the standard set by 1 Timothy 3:2
and1 Timothy 3:12
Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. (niv)
A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well.(niv)
In Greek, the expression translated in most English Bible versions as “husband of one wife” actually reads “one-woman man.”
Some believe this passage implies that anyone who has ever been divorced and remarried is not permitted to serve as an elder or deacon. But this assumes that being a “one-woman man” means never being divorced. And that isn’t always the case.
A number of other considerations must be taken into account in the context of Paul’s letter to Timothy and other New Testament passages. The “one-woman man” standard doesn’t stand alone; it is part of a larger group. First Timothy 3:2-7
seems to teach that a person’s suitability to serve as a church leader rests not only on one qualification but many. An elder must be:
an apt teacher (teachable)
not given to drunkenness
not greedy or covetous
a good manager of his household and children
a seasoned believer
of good reputation with outsiders
A couple of additional thoughts:
First, the criteria for church leadership doesn’t seem to involve sins committed prior to conversion. The apostle Paul, for example, persecuted the church and participated in the murders of Christians prior to his conversion, yet he became one of the most influential church leaders of all time.
Second, a fair evaluation of an individual should take all circumstances into account. Are those who have struggled to preserve their marriage after being abandoned by an unfaithful spouse really in violation of the “one-woman man” principle?
Many scholars believe that this phrase is talking about current character rather than past performance. According to this line of thinking, a twice-divorced person who has been faithful to their spouse for 15 years may be more suitable to serve than a never-divorced person who habitually fosters inappropriate relationships with persons other than their spouse.
Jesus himself acknowledged that sexual sin was legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:32
; Mark 10:11
If a person’s suitability on the basis of one qualification comes into question, his evaluation should continue based on all of the rest. If a local congregation knows that a man’s divorce had truly biblical grounds or occurred prior to his conversion so that he can be considered “blameless” (1 Timothy 3:2
) and well-qualified upon the basis of all the other criteria, he can be considered a “one-woman man.”]