MARRIAGE TO THE CHURCH
The first problem is that there is no record of the church ever having the problem of polygamy. If this was Paul's intended meaning, he was addressing a problem which, up to that time, had not been observable. Historians also tell us that it is doubtful that polygamy was practiced by the Romans or the Greeks of that time. Therefore, Paul would have been warning against a practice which was not evident among either the pagans or the church.
Another problem with this interpretation becomes apparent when viewed within its context. I Timothy 3:2 tells that the elder must be the "husband of one wife." I Timothy 5:9 tells that the enlisted widow (a widow supported by the church) must have been the "wife of one husband." The construction of these two verses is identical. They are written within the same context by the same author. Therefore, it seems that the two verses should be viewed similarly. If Paul is prohibiting the elder from the practice of polygamy, then he must have also been prohibiting the enlisted widow from practicing polyandry, a practice which is not reported to have occurred during this time and geographic location. This view is very doubtful considering the context and parallel restrictions of widows' moral characters.
It is a question of whether Paul is prohibiting digamy (being married twice legally). Nowhere else in Scripture does Paul forbid the marriage of a widower. On the contrary, Paul's teachings in Romans 7 seem to indicate that remarriage was appropriate, not a sign of weakness, in the case of a deceased spouse. Again we are reminded that I Timothy 5:9 consists of the same language structure and that Paul then admonished younger widows to remarry (I Tim. 5:14). It is doubtful that Paul would have advised young widows to remarry if it would make them ineligible for church support at a later time of need.
Although this argument seems to hold some merit in principle, the Scriptures do not indicate that this is the primary purpose of the requirement in question. The Greek structure of this passage emphasizes the word "one." This would not be expected if this were the correct view; but rather "husband of a wife." This view also does not seem to be appropriate in light of Paul's advise of I Corinthians 7:8,9, "But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn." It seems doubtful that Paul would give advise to young, unmarried men that would disqualify them from the potential of church leadership. It must also be noted that Paul was himself single (perhaps a widower), although he was definitely part of the church leadership.
A final argument against this view again concerns Paul's parallel restriction of the enlisted widows. If Paul were understood to have meant that elders must be married, then he would also require enlisted widows to have been married, which is of course an obvious contradiction of terms. Certainly, Paul did not intend to restrict the office of elder from men who were not married.
The question of whether or not this should include divorces prior to conversion is often asked. Many of those that hold to this view would argue that for those men who are to be considered for this high office, there must be no record of divorce or other marital infidelity, even before conversion. Indeed, this restriction would help to eliminate any embarrassing situations which could result in the disgrace of the church.
This view has much support and is not easily discredited. However, there is reason to doubt that the prohibition of divorce is what Paul intended to communicate. For instance, if Paul had merely wanted to forbid a divorced man form being an elder, the Greek language could easily have communicated this thought. Rather than give a negative command concerning marriage, he states the requirement in a positive manner. In this way, Paul calls the elder to an even higher qualification of leadership. This is discussed in the next section.
Another aspect of the construction of these verses concerns the use of the word "must." It should be noted must controls the entire section of the qualifications of the elders. With this in mind, it is important that all the qualifications be treated with the same emphasis. It seems that this characteristic (husband of one wife) is usually judged on a harder scale than many of the other conditional qualities. Should we also disqualify a man who's children are not always "under control?" The Scriptures tell that an elder "must have a good reputation with those outside the church" (I Tim. 3:7), should the church then investigate any bad feelings on the part of others toward the proposed candidate? In a sense, the answer to both of the above questions is yes; all the qualifications are very important. Yet, there is an aspect of this matter that can not be overlooked, the possibility that these qualifications were given as guidelines; not as unbending standards of measure.
The aspect of the relativity of the qualifications of the elder can be seen by comparing the lists of qualities given to Timothy and Titus. These two lists are virtually the same in all manners except one; in the forbidding of a recent convert to eldership. Paul does not give this qualification to Titus who was ministering in Crete. Perhaps this is because the church in Crete was a young church and did not have any members who had been believers for a very long time. The principle here is that the ideal elder will live up to all of Paul's standards, yet there must be a provision that allows a person to minister where the need arises; regardless of whether or not he perfectly fulfills the elder's qualifications. If this is the case, then the qualification of "husband of one wife" should also be viewed somewhat relative.
When examining the qualifications of an elder, it is important to look at the overall idea of the passage as well as the specific grammar and construction. These qualities were meant to show that a leader in the church must be a godly man. The elders of the church were to act as examples, to the church and the community, of Christ-like living. This is seen in Paul's first qualification, which most believe to be the key to all of the other specifications, "An overseer, then, must be above reproach." This condition sets the tone for the remaining qualifications, including the question of marital status.
It is important to look at the overall godliness of the prospective elder. All too often, elders and pastors are chosen on the basis of abilities and "work related" activities. Many church leaders are chosen because they are experienced businessmen or because they are influential in their community. Although these are characteristics that are "handy" to have available, they are not nearly as important as true godliness. If the Church is to have an impact on this world, it must strive to understand these important passages. Although a definite interpretation of this qualification for elder cannot be given, Paul's warning stands clear; a godly church needs godly leaders. We must be very careful who we entrust with this responsibility.
[ If this information has been helpful, please prayerfully consider a donation to help pay the expenses for making this faith-building service available to you and your family! Donations are tax-deductible. ]Author: Mark Van Bebber of Eden Communications
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