Identifying Elders, Part 3
This is my third post on a process our church has begun to identify and install elder leadership, highlighting questions I’ve been asked or thought would be helpful to answer. Feel free to ask more questions in the comment section below.
What does it mean to be “the husband of one wife,” as the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 require?
This is a highly-debated topic, at least in more doctrinally conservative churches like ours, and potentially a point of division among believers. Of course, I wish this wasn’t so. But it’s the kind of topic that requires careful and prayerful examination – and ultimately a degree of charity toward those with different views. To tell the truth, I’ve sat on this question for a couple weeks now while contemplating how best to answer in this written format.
What I DO think it means:
“Faithful in marriage.” This is the best interpretation. It means someone who embraces God’s design for marriage and home (Ephesians 5:21-33) which is foundational to the church and to society. This includes the active pursuit of sexual purity. Certainly we can affirm Paul was indicating that polygamy and adultery are inappropriate for church leaders, but that is really the least we can say – a legalistic minimum. Faithfulness to God’s design for marriage goes way beyond that, and should be the mark of church leadership.
What I DO NOT think it means:
“An elder must only be male.” Well, OK, I do think that elders must only be men, but I don’t think that’s the point of this particular qualification. I arrive at the conclusion of male eldership from other, more definitive passages including those that describe God’s design for authority in home and church. For example, 1 Timothy 2:12-14 helps provide the context for this particular qualification and support male eldership. But to lift the “husband of one wife” qualification out as a single phrase and use it in support for male eldership is – in my view – missing the point. This same literalistic, word-for-word interpretation of a single phrase must also lead to other conclusions (which I refute below). I think once you see the other problems that this creates, you’ll get my point.
“An elder must not have any divorce in his past – at all.” This interpretation is dismissive of repentance and detached from other biblical teaching. That’s not to say the issue of past divorce should not be carefully considered, just that someone is a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Every elder is a work of grace, so disqualification because of divorce prior to conversion is unbiblical – and arbitrarily removed from the Gospel – in my view. Jesus taught, and the apostle Paul elaborated, that there are biblically-valid grounds for divorce (Matthew 19/Mark 10, 1 Corinthians 7). Divorce is an ugly reality and by-product of sin, but not beyond the power of the Gospel to heal and restore. If someone was divorced after following Christ, that is a much more complex situation to address and may indeed necessitate disqualification from elder leadership (particularly if they were in leadership prior to the divorce). Here’s some food for thought: The apostle Paul was a murderer before he became a believer. Do you think he considered past divorce to be more of a problem for church leadership than past homicide? Or did he believe in the power of the Gospel to change hearts and lives?
“Elders must be married.” Let’s set aside the thought that the apostle Paul would be disqualifying himself and Jesus if that was what he meant, even though it’s a valid thought. Let’s consider instead that Paul saw singlehood as a benefit to serving the church (1 Corinthians 7:32-40). Let’s also ask, from a practical standpoint, is it possible to be “faithful in marriage” without being married? I think so. For example, I was faithful to God’s design for marriage before I was married; in fact, that was one of the reasons my wife considered me to be a potential husband.
So, to use the qualification “husband of one wife” as a single phrase in an exclusively literalistic way means that one must insist only married, never-been-divorced-even-before-conversion men are eligible to serve as elders. It’s all three of the above or none, and the problem with all is that it disagrees with other portions of scripture. Perhaps you’ve caught on to an underlying interpretive principle under which I operate. While scripture must be interpreted in its historical, cultural, and literary context, it must also be interpreted within the greater context of biblical theology. In other words, what Paul wrote in one epistle is not completely detached from and contradictory with what he wrote in another epistle. Likewise, between the epistles and the gospels. Likewise, with the Old Testament and New Testament. The Bible has greater clarity when we consider its continuity.