An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
-1 Timothy 3:2
What does it mean when Paul says that overseers (elders or bishops) must be the husband of one wife? I think the context gives us the answer. And here is is:
- An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach,
- the husband of one wife,
- able to teach,
- not an excessive drinker,
- not a bully but gentle,
- not quarrelsome,
- not greedy.
- He must manage his own household competently and
- have his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?)
- He must not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and incur the same condemnation as the devil.
- Furthermore, he must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the devil’s trap.
-1 Timothy 3:2-7
These are 15 qualities present in the man’s life today. His character traits now. All the qualifications for eldership relate to the man’s present condition. It would be inconsistent to interpret this qualification as pertaining to the man’s past. Many or most men would have failed in a number of these 15 in the past. God forgives all sin, including marital unfaithfulness.
“The husband of one wife” means “a one-woman man”, in his life, now. In other words, he is devoted solely to his wife, or faithful to his one wife. This means he does not have more than one wife, is not an adulterer; he does not have a mistress. He is an example of strict morality in marital faithfulness.
Does “the husband of one wife” mean that the elder must be married? No. It means he is a “one woman man”, meaning faithfulness and purity. A single man who has never been married, a divorced man, or a widower could be elders now, if they are “one women men”: men who are or are ready to be devoted to only one woman. Paul did not say elders need to be a married man or a man who is married and has been married only once. He said “the husband of one wife”, which means not a polygamist nor a person who is not devoted to one woman.
The original context or meaning is that Paul was prohibiting polygamists for eldership. “One woman man” is about his character now. One man many have been married more than once, but today he is a “one woman man”, while another man many be in his one and only marriage, but not be a “one woman man”. Paul could have said that elders must be married only once, but he did not. Instead he said the qualifier is the man’s heart towards his wife, if he has one.
By the same logic, when Paul says that the elder candidate must manage his children well, he’s not saying the man must have more than one child to qualify; but is talking about the man’s character qualifications at home, if he has a kid or kids.
And pushing absurdity a little further, when Paul says that the candidate must not drink too much wine, it does not mean he must drink rightly or moderately to be an elder. It is okay if the man abstains from wine.
“The husband of one wife”, means the elder candidate is monogamous and faithful in heart and practice towards his wife.
Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch; pp. 189-193
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