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Question:
Brent,
One of the requirements of a church Elder is he has to be married to one woman. Does this mean people who have been divorced and remarried, that have become mature christians in their walk with Christ are not qualified to be elders? or, does it mean we have to be men of integrity faithful to one wife, with no wiggle room for immorale behavior?
I personally have been married to my one and only wife for 36 years, but we have elders in the church that have been divorced and remarried.

Answer:

The qualifications in question (and found in other verses) is:

1 Timothy 3:2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach;

We hear much debate over the “one wife” issue, while the other qualifications are often treated loosely. Notice that each qualification concerns character and the way the Elder is to think and live his life.

For example, it doesn’t say “shall teach once a week”, or “does kind acts three times a day”. The qualifications address character, worldview, and convictions, not a checklist. The reason why the “one wife” qualification is easy to target is because it has been singled out as legalistic “fact” to be evaluated, rather than a mindset to be lived out. Let me explain.

First, if “one wife” actually means “one physical wife, one marriage for one Elder period” and that is your conviction, then you cannot grant exceptions for Elders who never married; Elders who are widowed; or Elders who have remarried because of divorce or widowhood. All of those violate the “rule” of “count’em, one wife” (if taken as a checklist fact to be determined) no matter how many hoops you want to jump through to make exceptions.

Who would argue that Paul was not qualified to be an Elder? Who would argue that the day after an Elder’s wife dies, he is no longer qualified? Who would argue that no single man, devoting his life to God, ala Paul’s admonition, could NOT be an Elder because he doesn’t have “one wife”? No one would argue those things because we know they don’t violate the spirit of God’s mindset about marriage.

Ah, but then there is divorce. It’s easy to pick on the remarried or divorced, especially by those “pickers” who aren’t remarried or divorced. Now maybe it’s just my personal experience, but I’ve seen the other qualifications applied very lightly, almost ignored many times while the “one wife” is often made THE primary qualification.

If the qualification of one wife is about a physical number, a legalistic checklist fact, then 1) it’s the only qualification in that list that is, and 2) you have to apply it consistently which rules out singles, widowed, divorced or remarried.

If it doesn’t mean that, what does “one wife” mean? Space here does not permit a full study, but I can make the point and you can follow up with your own evaluation.

The verse means that the Elder is to have the conviction about marriage that God has: one wife for life. That is God’s way, God’s ideal arrangement. However, God knows that wives die. God allows people to remain single, and in fact through Paul, encouraged it. God also allowed for divorce because of adultery and abandonment, then remarriage only to another Christian.

Why? Because God knew that a remarriage should result in that person returning to the place of having a “one wife” conviction and worldview.

Elders oversee others. They have to agree with and teach their flock GOD’s WAY about marriage. Thus, at the time they are Elders, or being considered, they should be 100% committed to “one wife for life” as God’s plan for marriage. As a practical matter, if the Elder was remarried or divorced, sufficient time should past until that man establishes the fact that he does indeed have God’s mind about marriage through his faithful life, service and teaching.

The Elder might be a life long single who believes God’s plan for marriage but was called to be single for the Lord’s service. They might be widowed and believe God’s plan for marriage. They might be Biblically divorced and remarried and be 100% committed to “one wife”.

When you read the verse in context, when you realize that all the qualifications are about character and mindset, and not a legalistic checklist; when you take into account the overall Biblical teaching about Elders, marriage, character, shepherding and divorce, it becomes clear that the meaning here is something along the lines of “marriage is fundamenatal to Christianity, and an Elder should believe, practice and teach only what God says about it”.

But, people will INSIST “it says right there ‘one wife'” so if that has EVER been NOT true, then that man is disqualified. Okay… then if a man has EVER NOT been able to teach, ever NOT been temperate, ever NOT been serious, ever NOT been hospitable… then they are disqualified.

You have to be consistent. If you mean “one wife” in a “count the number of wives” interpretation…. then you MUST agree that no single, no one widowed and no one divorced or remarried can be an Elder. Again, you have to be consistent. If “one wife = FALSE” disqualifies you, then “inhospitable = TRUE” at any point in their life disqualifies them too. Or any other violation of any other qualification at any point in time.

Do you see? The qualifications are about what the Elder believes, teaches, practices and is convicted about at the time they are Elders or going to become Elders. If you apply a lifelong “rule” about “one physical wife”, then you have to look in their past and apply a lifelong rule about “temperance” and “able to teach”.

The qualifications are either about what the Elders believes and practices AS AN ELDER, or ALL the qualfications are a checklist that apply to his whole life and any violation disqualifies him. You can’t just take one qualificaiton out of the list and apply it arbitrarily.

Men are arbitrary and inconsistent. Not God.

The “husband of one wife” means that when a man becomes an Elder, he must believe, teach, practice and uphold God’s plan for marriage which ideally is (and is to be strived for) “one wife for life”.

Note:
Let the UNSUBSCRIBING begin. I’ll get hammered from all sides on this one. The “one physical wife” folks will call me “soft” and “compromising”. The soft and compromising brethren will call me judgmental. The feminists will call me sexist. The traditionalists will call me a false teacher. And those who are just now finding out in this sentence that I was Biblically divorced, and remarrried, will call me self serving. You’d be shocked to know how many people unsubscribe or uninvite me to teach or speak when they find out I’m divorced. I could be a former drug addict, or felon or murderer and people would applaud me and get teary-eyed that God saved me from such a life. But for much of Christendom, being divorced with Scriptural grounds is instant disqualification and uselessness concerning all things related to Christian ministry. Either that, or the exact opposite: divorce isn’t even a concern at all. What a mess….

UPDATE:

My friend, Steve Cummings, sent me some excellent observations on this question. Here they are with his permission:

1. I BELIEVE EVERY CHURCH SHOULD HAVE ELDERS. Statistically, at least half of all churches of Christ do not have elders because they believe they either do not have men qualified, or they do not have men who will accept the responsibility to serve in that capacity. God expects for every church to have elders. “Go and appoint elders in every city.”

2. EVERY CHURCH COULD HAVE ELDERS. I believe every church has men who are qualified to serve as elders. I do not look at the lists of “qualifications” in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as “qualifications,” but rather as QUALITIES. The two texts do not contain a checklist of qualifications to be rigidly adhered to. If they were intended to be checklists then both of the lists in the two different books would be exactly alike, but they’re not. Instead of viewing them as a “lists of qualifications,” I think of them as lists of QUALITIES–a CHARACTER SKETCH if you will. Paul is basically saying, “Choose men kind of like this.” And then he gives a character sketch. Otherwise, no one can truly qualify, because no one has all these “qualifications,” all the time. And if they do right now, in time they will inevitably lose some of them, and will thus become disqualified based on the generally accepted rules of the game. Therefore it would be possible to be “qualified” and “disqualified” a dozen times a day if we really adhered to the generally accepted rules. Interestingly, most churches take the Supreme Court approach once a man gets in the “office.” He’s there for life and their is no appeal. He could become disqualified (based on the rules) once he gets in “office” but staying qualified doesn’t seem to be nearly as important as the initial qualification process. A man will have to go through tremendous scrutiny (“If you have any scriptural reasons you think this man is not qualified, then turn your objections in in writing to one of the present elders within two weeks…”) in order to become an elder. However, once he’s in there he’s there till the Lord comes back. Many good men who could have been very effective elders, were never allowed to serve as elders simply because of the checklist mentality. It’s a mess and very subjective.

3. The character sketches contained in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 address four particular principles: 1) Reputation. 2) Character. 3) Experience. 4) Ability. The question that has to be asked is WHY? Why does a man need these qualities in order to be qualified? It’s because if he does not have these general qualities then he will not have the ability to do the work of an elder.

4. The typical eldership in the typical church today is nothing more than a self-perpetuating body. It’s mostly elders who select elders. However, I believe it should be the congregation that selects elders, not the existing elders.

5. Concerning the “one wife” thing. The only thing I would differ with you on is that I do believe a man must have been married, or that he must be, or must have been “Scripturally married” to one wife at a time. Again, this goes back to the why. I admit this is subjective, and might even sound a little judgmental, but I don’t think a man who has not led a family has the wisdom or experience to lead a church family.

6. You are right when you say: “I’ve seen the other qualifications applied very lightly, almost ignored many times while the “one wife” is often made THE primary qualification.” And it is sickening. However, I think the #1 deal breaking “qualification” used today, at least in my experience is “Have his kids been baptized?” And it is sad. Many children of would be elders have had to endure the quilt the church has put on them by making them feel like, “If I would just get baptized then daddy could be the elder he’s always wanted to be.” And then those who are dunked lived under a microscope and the first time they do something really stupid instead of ministering to the young man or woman, the elder is attacked for not doing a better job raising his “riotous and unruly” children.

7. You said, “But people will INSIST “it says right there ‘one wife.” So if that has EVER been NOT true, then that man is disqualified. Okay…then if a man has EVER NOT been able to teach, ever NOT been temperate, ever NOT been serious, ever NOT been hospitable…then they are disqualified.” YOU NAILED IT MY FRIEND!

I thought your answer was exceptionally good.

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