Does an Elder/Deacon/Pastor Have to be Married?
Many intelligent, educated, biblical commentators who have addressed the words “…the husband of one wife…”, found in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; and Titus 1:6-9, have reached the same conclusion that I, and many I know, have. That conclusion is, “husband of one wife” does NOT mean that an elder or pastor has to be married. The phrase simply means that if a man is married, then he needs to exercise marital fidelity, be loyal and faithful to his wife, and not be polygamous. There are many reasons for holding the view that marriage is not a requirement for an elder or pastor. One is that Paul himself was not married and he would simply not have included a qualification that excluded himself. This is common sense as I see it. William Mounce summarizes this very well when he states: “But the list is not a checklist requiring, for example, that all church leaders be married and have more than one child. Paul and Timothy were not married, nor did they have families (as far as we know), so neither of them could be a ‘one-woman’ man or manage his household well” (Mounce, 46:156-159).
What is being discussed in these passages is the personality and character of the person, not the life circumstances the person currently finds himself in. Therefore these texts are simply saying that the person pursuing the office of elder or pastor needs to have a character that shows he would remain faithful to his wife. If the candidate’s character and reputation is such that it reflects proper morals and fidelity, whether or not they are actually married “to one wife,” is not the issue.
Also, a host of Greek scholars and writers hold to the view that the phrase “husband of one wife” is better interpreted as “one-woman man,” “or something like ‘a one-woman sort of man’ or ‘a man who has the character of fidelity to one woman if he were married’” (Glasscock, 140:249-252).
Of course the answers to all of our questions need to come from asking, “what do the Scriptures say?” Many ministers have a tendency to take hold of what other ministers have preached or taught without going to the Scriptures themselves and doing the proper research. Others also just take a quote they have heard somewhere to support their position and what this ends up doing is showing that they clearly don’t have a proper understanding of the Word of God. Still others who wish to dispute this issue just parrot what they have been taught from those who lead them and merely conclude that anyone who disagrees with them are wrong. Another thing that is done is by taking a passage out of context without expounding on it in any way and presenting it as though it settles the matter when often times within itself it is not the complete answer. It is true in part but not the whole. The problem is that they are ignorant of the fact that things like the author, recipient, date, location, context, culture, history, original languages, and grammar all need to be taken into consideration. It is simply ignorant to claim that only married men are able to teach, preach, and handle problems that arise in the church.
Let’s look at the specific New Testament passages which refer to the qualifications for an elder, deacon, and pastor that include the phrase we are looking at, “the husband of one wife.” Here they are:
1 Timothy 3:2 – “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” (ESV, emphasis added).
1 Timothy 3:12 – “Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well” (ESV, emphasis added).
Titus 1:6-9 – “if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer,as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy,and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (ESV, emphasis added).
If one pays particular attention to the wording Paul uses they will realize that the issue at hand is not the marital status of the candidate. What is be considered is his moral and sexual purity. Everything listed is in regards to behavior and reputation. All of the items listed fall within the categories of behavior and reputation except for marriage and children. Marriage and children are positional, they are life stages. Why would the list of qualifications all be centered in behavior, morality, and reputation and then include two positional qualifications that interrupt the flow of the message? It just doesn’t make sense to look at this one phrase separate from everything else that is going on.
The phrase “husband of one wife” does NOT mean that elders, deacons and pastors must be married men. Again, the Greek scholars tell us this phrase is better rendered as “one-woman man.” Paul was eliminating the possibility of Christian men with more than one wife holding any of these positions in the local church. A Christian man who had two or more wives, plus children, would be unable to have the proper focus on his family and have time to devote the appropriate care for the church. As stated previously, Paul was simply saying that a polygamist is not qualified to be an elder, deacon, or pastor.
When the Gospel was fully given to the Gentiles, when it was fully realized by the Jews that the Gentiles were included in God’s plan, Paul then had to add an important clause to what had already been made known from the apostles in Judea back in Acts 6 (honesty, Holy Spirit empowered, and wise). Unlike the Jews, who by now were for the most part monogamous, it was still fairly common among the Gentiles to practice polygamy, so Paul found it necessary to add this clause for those married men who desired to serve – they “must be the husband of one wife,” that is, they must be a “one-woman man.”
What About Children?
For a man to be considered for church leadership who is married, he must be completely committed to his wife. This qualification is referring to fidelity in marriage and sexual purity; it is not a requirement to be married. If it were, not only would he have to be married he would also be required to have children, as we see in the second half of 1 Timothy 3:12, “…managing their children and their households well.” And similarly in Titus 1:6-9 we read “his children are believersand not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.” If these were meant as limits for qualification, then Paul had to have meant that all elders, deacons, and pastors must not only be married but must also have children. Therefore, they must immediately be disqualified for ministry if they don’t have any children (or if they only have one child for that matter as it is the plural “children” that is used in these passages). This is simply not the correct interpretation. It reads and sounds like foolishness. We should understand this qualification for an elder, deacon, or pastor to mean: If a married man is chosen for the position, then he absolutely has to be faithful to his wife. If a married man has children, then he must be able to manage them well.
If a man has to be married to hold a position in the church, then Paul would have disqualified himself which is ludicrous (cf. 1 Cor. 7:8). Some will still argue. They will say that Paul was a married man before he was widowed. Although this is true, a widower is still NOT a married man. Paul had no living wife. In fact, Paul actually considered being single better. He said in 1 Corinthians 7:7-8, “I wish that all were as I myself am [single]. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (ESV, emphasis added). And later in that same chapter Paul even applauds the unmarried man, “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Cor. 7:32-34a, ESV, emphasis added).
Nevertheless, a “one-woman man” who is absolutely committed to his wife sexually and emotionally, and also has great love and concern for the church is an incredible asset to the body of Christ. An elder, deacon, or pastor may be either married or single, as long as he meets the qualifications as outlined by Paul in 1 Timothy and Titus.
What About Divorce?
The first thing that needs to be addressed regarding divorce among possible elders, deacons, and pastors is whether or not the divorce took place before or after he became a believer (cf. Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:12-16). If one meets all of the other qualifications he should not be excluded from leadership because of a mistake made before he was regenerated to new life in Jesus Christ.
Next, most agree that a man whose wife dies and then remarries is able to be considered for church leadership. So, naturally the question then becomes, “What about a man who gets divorced and remarried? Are they fit for church leadership?” If our phrase “the husband of one wife” does not mean “having only been married once in his life” (as we have seen in the case of a widower), it would seem to indicate the possibility that a man who has divorced and remarried to “one wife” could be eligible for leadership. Before I dive into this let’s be clear and state what the ideal situation is. The perfect situation is when there is a man who has been married only once to the same woman and she is living during the time he serves as an elder, deacon, or pastor. However, is it possible for a divorced man, single or married, to be allowed to serve in those same leadership roles?
When we go straight to the teachings of Jesus, and other portions of Scripture, it is clear that God hates divorce, although he doesn’t hate in the same way we hate, he still does hate divorce (Malachi 2:16). It’s also important to note that in every case of divorce sin and selfishness on the part of at least one of those involved is at the core of the broken marriage. Jesus mentioned one possible scenario where a man can divorce his wife lawfully in the eyes of God. In Matthew 19:9 Jesus said, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (ESV). The only exception that Jesus gave for an acceptable divorce in the eyes of God is if a person’s spouse is sexually unfaithful. Jesus’ statement implies that if a man divorces his wife because she cheats on him, and then he gets remarried sometime later, he does not commit adultery by remarrying the second person. If a man can have a second wife due to sexual unfaithfulness on the part of his first wife, and it is not considered adultery, then it logically follows that God must see the first marriage as having been nullified (at least for the innocent party) and the covenant relationship broken. So, in this case, he would technically be “the husband of one wife.”
Robert Saucy agrees with this conclusion:
“If divorce on the basis of adultery is legal and dissolves the marriage so that the
one divorced can marry another, is the one remarried considered to be now “the
husband of one wife?” It seems evident that legally such a remarried person is
the husband of only one wife. He is not considered to have two wives. If this is
true, then technically, he meets the requirements of the language of 1 Timothy”
One last thing. Paul mentions one final acceptable reason for divorce. Divorce is also allowed in the case where an unbelieving spouse simply walks away from the relationship. We find this in 1 Corinthians 7:15, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace” (ESV). Paul, as a spokesman for God himself, added another condition where divorce is allowed by God and as we have seen it is if an unbelieving spouse desserts the believing spouse. As a result, the same logic, reasoning, and Scriptural basis offered above applies in a case such as this as well.
Glasscock, Ed (1983), “’The Husband of One Wife’ Requirements in 1 Timothy 3:2,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 140:244-258, July-September.
Mounce, William (2000), Pastoral Epistles (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson).
Saucy, Robert (1974), “The Husband of One Wife,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 131:229-240, July.
This was a guest post from Dr. Jeff Hagan.
Jeff is an ordained Christian minister with over 23 years of ministry experience. He has attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Luther Rice Seminary, Tyndale Seminary and a handful of other institutes as well. He has earned several degrees including the Doctor of Christian Education and the Doctor of Theology.