The Husband of One Wife
THE ELDERS: FAMILY QUALIFICATIONS
In the first part of this study we will investigate Paul's letter to Timothy concerning one of the qualifications to be met by any man seeking the 'work' of the eldership. We read of this qualification (The third mentioned here by Paul.) In verse 2, "An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, - - -." The phrase "the husband of one wife," being the topic of our study. There exists some controversy within the church concerning the intent of this passage; some believing that this eliminates any divorced man from consideration, while others understand this as making direct reference to the sin of polygamy. But whatever our convictions previous to this study, let us not allow them to interfere with the conclusion that the Holy Spirit would have us reach. This is necessary as an honest student of the passage.
Five of the most popular versions (NASB, KJV, NKJV, Amplified Bible, and ASV) render this passage "the husband of one wife." The NIV adds one word; "the husband of but one wife." The wording found in a parallel translation of the Greek might read like this: "of one wife husband." The Greek word `heis' is used here ("one") and is defined in Vine's Expository Dictionary of the New Testament as meaning, "a single (one) to the exclusion of others, "(i.e. 1 Tim. 2:5), or, "one, alone" (i.e. Lu. 18:19). Perhaps the best translation of this phrase would be "one woman man." But there is really no argument that the man aspiring the office may have only one wife. All agree with this point. Where then does the conflict arise?
The answer to this question is found when we address the issue of divorce. Because of differences in understanding what the scriptures have to say about divorce, these differences often carry over into the understanding and application of this passage.
Some would suggest that the Roman letter (7:2), ("for the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning her husband,") teaches us that a husband and wife actually remain married (or bound) in the Lord's eyes even after they have been legally divorced. (Those who hold this view would often [not always] then conclude that if the man aspiring to the office had divorced and married another, he was or is a "two woman man.") One would find it necessary to take this passage alone (to the exclusion of other scripture) to support this view. No doubt, it is God's will that a husband and wife remain together until the death of one (1 Cor. 7:8-16). This must be our desire as well! (I find it very difficult not to be redundant in the matter of expressing what is right concerning the subject of divorce. God does not give divorce His "O.K." God hates divorce!) But what do the Scriptures teach about one who has been divorced?
Let's first take note of the meaning of the word "divorce." The Greek word 'apoluo' is translated "sent away" as in Mark 8:9, or "put away" as in Matthew 1:19. It is translated "send away" in Matthew 19:7. It is used in the New Testament with the meaning of, "to let go" or "to let loose from." The Greek word 'apostasion' is used in the following verse in reference to a written "bill of divorcement." The word 'apoluo' itself carries with it the meaning of "separation." A divorced (legally "separated") man (or woman) is no longer joined to his (or her) spouse. Let's take a moment to look at two passages which support this thought.
"Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce (apostasion) and send her away (apoluo)?" Two points for consideration: (1) If it were not possible for the marriage bond to be broken by man, would Jesus have commanded man not to separate what God had joined together? In other words, would God have commanded man abstain from doing something that he was incapable of doing? And, (2) notice that the Pharisees recognized legal divorce as the way that man would bring about that separation (Matthew 19:6, 7).
Please allow me to draw some conclusions from this. If a man and woman have been divorced, they are no longer bound together. This is not because it is God's desire (as we have noted above), but because He permits it! Something further: a husband and wife may have divorced, but (unlike ourselves) God doesn't refer to them as a "divorced man" or a "divorced woman," but rather as His children. A divorce is an undesirable and ungodly event, but can be (and must be when repentance has taken place) forgiven and put in the past by all!
In the fourth chapter of the book of John we read what is commonly known as the account of "the woman at the well. "Jesus Himself says to her, "You have said well, `I have no husband', for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have truly said" (vs. 17, 18). Notice that the woman previously had five husbands but had "no husband" now. She had been divorced and was no longer considered married (bound) to any of her former husbands, even the fifth one.
Now let's return to the passage in Matthew 19. "He said to them, because of the hardness of your heart, Moses permitted you to divorce (apoluo) your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces (apoluo) his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery" (vs. 8, 9).
We might take a moment to mention that a man would have no need to divorce his wife for immorality under the Mosaic Law. [She likely wouldn't show up for the proceedings.] The penalty for both parties guilty of adultery was death.
NOTE: Back in verse 7 the word translated "certificate of divorce" is 'apostasion', meaning "sent away," "put away," "released" or "dismissed." (Very similar to `apoluo'.)
This being the case, some have concluded that Jesus may have been speaking of the practice of "sending wives away," which is said to have been a common practice among the Jews. Moses had only allowed them to send their wives away along with a 'written certificate of divorce'. But many sent their wives away "without the paperwork." This caused the man to be an adulterous polygamous womanizer, while the woman was forced into a situation in which she must remain alone. A woman without a 'bill of divorcement' was still legally married and therefore could not remarry. If she was able to remarry (unlawfully), she would be guilty of adultery as would the man who married her (Matthew 5:31, 32). This would explain Moses' command in Matthew 19:7. He was not only chastising men for divorcing their wives (sending them away) without just cause, but told them to give their wives a 'written certificate of divorcement' so that they might be able to marry (See Deut. 24:1-3). This line of reasoning does have some merit, but is dependent upon the word 'apostasion' meaning "a bill of divorcement." If the word 'apostasion' refers to 'the sending away' and thus the act of divorce, this view could not be accepted.
When women and men had divorced, they were free to marry another. (It should be pointed out that although I have used the terms `remarry' or `remarriage' in my writing, the only way that one could remarry would be to again marry the one from whom they had divorced. Any other marriage would be just that; a marriage, a union of two into one. One who has been divorced has nothing binding him (or her) to their former spouse. This is by the very nature of the act of divorce itself. Again, the above view says that the problem was that many of the first century men were guilty of practicing unfaithfulness and adultery, in that they sent their wives away without a 'bill of divorcement'. It can be argued that this was happening while not concluding for certain that this is what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 5:31, 32.
Note the following comments 'borrowed' from other students of the Word and history:
"Married men continued to look other than to their wives for sexual passion. With unmarried women endeavoring to remain virgins and married women constrained by the tough laws against adultery, males, married and otherwise, continued to seek sexual gratification and to some extent affection from prostitutes, and some from each other."
"There was, in a sense, no formal legal status to marriage. There was a ceremony with witness and an official acknowledgment, but nothing in writing. There was simply a public acknowledgment that a couple was married and this legitimized the offspring for purposes of inheritance. Divorce simply required one party leaving the other with the intention of divorce."
"In truth, our culture today is not that much different from the society of the first century... a. Where divorce and remarriage was rampant (women were known to date events by their husbands; e.g., "Yes, that happened during husband #5.") b. Fornication was acceptable, adultery barely frowned upon."
I think it only fair to mention here that there are many serious Bible students (and teachers) who strongly disagree with the above conclusion. They suggest that the words 'apoluo' and 'apostasion' are used interchangeably, and both speak of the "putting away of," and thus divorce. If one concludes that this is true, then (they would conclude that) a 'legally' divorced man or woman is not free to marry according to Matthew 5:31, 32. They would only be permitted to marry in the event of adultery or the death of a spouse. This is a very conservative view and is quite popular in the Christian churches and churches of Christ..
I would suggest to anyone who is married to remain as he (or she) is. As we have noted above, DIVORCE IS SIN! Yes, God can forgive. But often the consequences of our sin are quite damaging to ourselves and many others who are involved!
A third thought is that regardless of which of the above two views you hold (if either), Jesus could have been saying this; "If a man divorces his wife for any reason other than 'unchastity' he causes her to commit adultery" (Because he forces her to be separated from her husband.). In other words, a husband who divorced a faithful wife placed her in a position in which her sexual purity would be challenged by her desire for a husband. Seems that this line of reasoning is a little difficult to harmonize with the aforementioned scriptures.
Whatever your position on the use of the words `apoluo' and `apostasion', I again remind you that divorce is a "separation." In light of this study it seems doubtful that Paul is referring to anything other than unfaithfulness (adultery) as the sin which would discount a man from being an elder, when he writes, "the husband of one wife." (But please continue reading.)
A man who had previously been married, but had divorced and married another would now (presently) be "the husband of but one wife" as he (presently) remains faithful to her.
A concluding thought:
These qualifications speak of a man's "current" qualities. A man who was long ago a 'womanizer,' not to be faithful to any woman, could have long since repented and made Christ his Lord. If he did so, he has not only been forgiven, but has an opportunity to show himself to be "a one woman man." And he must exhibit this to be a characteristic to those around him, in the church and in his community! (Take into account that a man seeking the work of elder is proven in ALL areas. 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1)
Also, we must be consistent in our understanding and application of the passage, "one woman man." This describes a characteristic of the aspiring overseer that does not seek to take advantage of women, is not a skirt-chaser, but is or has been true to any woman that has been in his life. Again, if we are to be consistent in our explanation of the passage, we must agree that the phrase "one woman man" seems to have no applicable reference to a man's marital status unless he is currently married and is in some way proven to be unfaithful to his wife. And we do want to be consistent! But read the following paragraph.
The following point has been made. I am not 100% sure of the source, so I will not quote them. However, This thought should not be overlooked.
In 1 Tim. 5:9 the phrase "a one man woman" appears. In its context it speaks of widows. There can be no argument that in this context we are speaking of one who was married. Since the passage in our text of 1 Tim. 3:1 is the equivalent, except with the genders reversed, why would it mean something different here? If this argument is valid, one would find it necessary to conclude that one who aspires to the office must be married, or was at least at one time married! But please read all of the qualities that he is to possess before you reach your final conclusion.
A STUMBLING BLOCK?
What then of the stumbling block issue? Someone may say, "Yes, I believe that God has forgiven him, but people know that he has been divorced. This may put a stumbling block before someone concerning the issue of divorce or the qualifications for leadership."
Again, let's look at this issue from scriptural principles. 2 Cor. 5:17 tells us that when one becomes a Christian, "He is a new creature; the old things past away - ." So we can easily conclude that if a man was divorced and remarried before becoming a Christian, he is forgiven and his sins forgotten (Hebrews 8:12). (Well at least his sins are forgotten by God!) Therefore this man's aspiration to the work of an elder should not be decided by the "stumbling block" issue. In fact, wouldn't it be unbiblical and unforgiving to hold his pre-conversion actions against his service to God? (Some were guilty of this attitude toward Paul, but it did not prevent him from his work as an apostle.)
But the man who is a Christian and goes through a divorce, then later marries is an entirely different situation, . . . . . . . or is it? While we are in 2 Corinthians let's read 6:6, 7. What is Paul writing about here? Is he not addressing the forgiveness of a repentant brother? Admittedly, he's not speaking in the context of leadership, but he is speaking of total, all-out, full-fledged forgiveness! Is God's forgiveness toward a repentant Christian any less complete than when one first becomes a Christian? (1 John 1:6-9)
If a man has shown himself to be scripturally qualified for the work of elder after years of faithful service, and yet is rejected . . . . . . Why? Because he is a stumbling block? I think not! ("Stumbling block" issues deal with matters not expressly revealed in Scripture. Any conclusion that can be reached by biblical study is not a matter of "personal convictions.") Let's not be guilty of adding to the word! Perhaps many qualified men are rejected from leadership because we cannot forgive (and forget) as we should? But I am convinced that the qualified man must be allowed to serve the Lord as elder in spite of our shortcomings. Let's not starve the Lord's Church of leadership simply because we don't want to forgive!
Edited: June 21, 2001, April 21, 2002 & ASeptember 1, 2005
Randy J. McClure