The phrase “the husband of one wife” (also in Titus 1:6) does not likely have polygamy in mind because in New Testament times it is debateable how widespread the practice was in Roman and Jewish culture. A Roman citizen by law could only have one spouse at a time. Further, the corresponding phraseology that a widow must be the “the wife of one husband” (1 Tim. 5:9) to receive financial help must then be interpreted that a woman could not have more than one living husband (polyandry), but this practice was relatively unknown. Still, having more than one living wife would certainly disqualify one from seeking the office of an overseer.
Some have suggested that it disqualifies widowers who had remarried. However, the remarriage of widows and widowers is permitted in the New Testament (Rom. 7:1-3). The Lord expected younger widows to remarry and raise a family (1 Tim. 5:14). First Corinthians 7:39 says: “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.” Hebrews 13:4 says: “Marriage is to be held in honor among all…” (NASB). The Bible would not insist that a widower who desired to be an overseer remain celibate while at the same time condemning the false teachers who prohibited marriage (1 Tim. 4:3). These false teachers held the incorrect belief that the unmarried life was more spiritual. On the other hand, Paul does recommend that widowers do not remarry so that they have more time to serve the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32). Yet, the fact that a widower remarried should in of itself not disqualify him from the oversight.
Others believe it rules out those who have remained single. This seems unlikely. Though all the other apostles were married, the Lord did not exclude Paul from an apostolic ministry because he was single (1 Cor. 7:8; 9:5). Instead, there is an assumption that most men will marry just as it is presumed that most couples will have children (vv. 4-5). A single man can still wisely apply Scripture to family issues in concert with married men on the oversight. This is the strength of a plurality of leadership in the local church. As already mentioned, a single man has more freedom and time to serve the Lord (1 Cor. 7:25-38).
Instead, the context of this section (1 Tim 3:1-7) is listing the personal attributes to consider when it comes to recognizing elders in a local assembly (1 Tim. 3:1-7). Therefore, the phrase “the husband of one wife” is describing the character of a man in his marriage.
One commentator notes: “The two nouns are without the definite article; which construction emphasizes character or nature. The entire context is one in which the character of the bishop (overseer) is being discussed. Thus, one can translate, “a one-wife sort of a husband,” or “a one-woman sort of a man.”1 Consequently, a one-woman sort of a man speaks of a married man’s total faithfulness to his wife.
Since normally there is fault to be found in both parties of a divorce, this would appear to exclude divorced men from the oversight. Since elders are to lead by example it is important that an overseer has a demonstrated faithfulness to his first wife. Depending upon the circumstances, there may be rare exceptions to this exclusion which requires great discernment on a case by case basis.
The overseers of the local church are called to lead by example in their personal, family, and church life. Marriage serves as one of the barometers of a man’s suitability for leadership. How a man conducts himself in his marriage and with his children (vv. 4-5) is an indicator of how he will exercise spiritual leadership in his local assembly. Regardless of marital status, an overseer must have a morality that cannot be truthfully challenged, and if married, have an unquestioned faithfulness to his wife.
1. Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), vol. II, p. 53
By George Ferrier