The following paper was given to me while I was at Talbot Theological Seminary. Dr. Saucy was the Professor of Systematic Theology. He is a graduate of Westmont College, B.A.; Dallas Theological Seminary, Th.M., Th.D. Dr. Saucy's paper was later published in the July 1974 edition of Bibliotheca Sacra (BibSac) from Dallas Theological Seminary. -- Tony Capoccia

The Husband of One Wife - Qualification for Elder

Dr. Robert L. Saucy
B.A. Westmont College
Th.M., Th.D., Dallas Theological Seminary


1A. The basic meaning of "husband of one wife."

It is impossible to decide the exact meaning of this phrase in all its ramifications from the simple words involved. Literally the Greek words are simply "one woman man" or "one wife man". Lenski translates them as "one wife's husband." Whether this means one at a time or one during a lifetime depends completely on other considerations. Even the question on the meaning of "one at a time" depends on one's view of divorce as to whether a divorced man who has remarried is considered to be "one wife's husband."

2A. Is a man the husband of one wife if he marries after the death of his wife? Several facts militate against this view:

1b. The prominence of this qualification.

In both lists of qualifications for elders this qualification stands second occurring immediately after the demand for blamelessness or irreproachability. This suggests that the first thing that detracted from this general character of blamelessness and the first thing that one was to take note of was whether the individual stood in relation of marriage to more than one person. Fairbairn comments on the position of prominence given to this qualification, "Now, supposing this latter alternative had respect merely to the contracting of a second marriage after the death of a first wife, is the qualification one that, in the circumstances, we could imagine to have been so prominently exhibited, and so stringently imposed." The Pastoral Epistles, p. 417.

There is no hindrance placed upon remarriage either in the OT or the NT. So also among the Greeks and Romans there was never any stigma attached to remarriage after the death of the first spouse.

It is entirely improbable that such a restriction is here placed in such a brief statement without a note of explanation and in such a prominent place and even extended to deacons whose work did not concern the highest type of spiritual leadership.

2b. The Teaching of the Bible on the Permissibility of Remarriage After Death

"Nowhere in Scripture (including Paul's epistles) is remarriage after the death of the wife depicted as forbidden or even morally questionable. Paul advises widows to remarry (1 Tim 5:14). If 3:2 prohibits widowers from second marriages if they wish to be overseers, then 5:9 prohibits widows from remarrying if they wish to be enrolled. Would Paul then advise young widows to marry again if such was questionable, or would remove them from the possibility of special aid in their later years (5:14)? It seems most unlikely. Paul's clear teaching was that death of the partner dissolved the marriage bond, and the remaining partner was free to marry in the Lord (Rom 7:1-3). To cast suspicion upon the holiness of a second marriage is to impugn what Scripture nowhere denies, and reflects the spirit of asceticism which arose early in the church and has plagued her for twenty centuries. The argument of Plummer that a second marriage is a sign of weakness on the part of the minister is unfortunate. The same thing could be said of the first marriage." Homer Kent, Jr. The Pastoral Epistles, p. 128.

Conclusion - A man could qualify for eldership if his first wife had died and he was living with his second wife.

3A. Is a man the husband of one wife if he remarries after divorce? This involves one's concept of divorce and remarriage.

1b. The Permission of Divorce for Adultery - Matthew 5:32; 19:9.

It is the generally accepted opinion of the commentators that "fornication" here includes and probably specifies the sin of adultery.
W. E. Vine - "In Mt. 5:32; 19:9, it stands for, or includes adultery." Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, II, 125.

Arndt & Gingrich - "Fornication. 'Prostitution, unchastity, (Demos. Philo. 12 Patr.), of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse...adultery appears as fornication (cf. Sir. 23:23). Hm, 4, 1.5. Of the sexual unfaithfulness of a married woman. Mt. 5:32; 19:9. ' " A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 600.

Hauck and Schulz in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VI, 592- "In both verses (Mt. 5:32, 19:9) Porneia refers to extra-marital intercourse on the part of the wife, which in practice is adultery, cf. Sir. 23:23: en porneia emoicheu. The same definition is given by Alford, (The New Testament for English Readers, p. 33) and Thayer (Thayer's Greek -English Lexicon, p. 532).

That porneia can be used for adultery is obvious in 1 Thess. 4:3-4 which appears to refer to a married person. There are several other New Testament uses where the word is all inclusive (1 Cor 6:18; Col 3:5; Gal 5:19 where better mss. omit "adulteries").

Moulton and Milligan state, "porneia originally meant 'prostitution,' 'fornication,' but came to be applied to unlawful sexual intercourse generally. It was a wider term than maicheia, embracing the idea of  'barter,' 'traffic' in sexual vice, though in the OT there was a tendency to assimilate in some respects the two terms. . ." p. 529, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, (cf. Guy Duty, Divorce and Remarriage, pp. 52 ff. for more detail).

The teaching of Mark and Luke is harmonized with Matthew when one sees that the main thrust of Christ's teaching is the abolishing of the provision of Deut. 24:1-4 which provided for divorce on grounds other than adultery. Mark and Luke present the main teaching of Christ while Matthew in a much longer treatment gives more detail.

2b. The Right to Remarry.

Having said that divorce is permitted on the basis of adultery, the next question is whether divorce allows the parties to remarry. This involves the question of whether divorce dissolves marriage?

1c. The OT Teaching.

There was no question of divorce for adultery in the OT. Adultery was punishable by death, so that the innocent party could be remarried. But there is evidence that the divorce which was granted in the OT on lesser ground also permitted remarriage. In other words, divorce was considered to be the dissolution of the marriage. Deut. 24:2 instructs, "and when she is departed out of her house, she may go and be another man's wife," In verse 3 and 4, when the woman remarried, she is not considered to have two husbands because specific reference is made of "her former husband." The case of the woman in John 4 agrees with this teaching. John 4:16-18, she had had esches (aorist) five husbands. The one she had then was not her husband. Assuming that all of the previous five had not died, if divorce does not dissolve marriage, she would presently have had five husbands and if "having" a man signifies marriage, she would then have had six husbands.

2c. The Teaching of Christ.

The teaching of Christ in Matthew 5 and 19 must be seen against this Jewish concept of divorce. The question was a dispute between the school of Hillel which allowed divorce for every cause and that of Shammai which allowed divorce for only one cause, i.e. fornication. Both accepted the Jewish concept of divorce as dissolution.

William Lillie says, "Jewish divorce made remarriage of the wife possible; the essential formula of the bill of divorce was: "Lo, thou art free to marry any man.'" Studies in New Testament Ethics, p. 119 (See Guy Duty, op cit. p. 34 for complete bill of divorce). It is interesting that in both Matthew 5:31 and 19:7 reference is made to "a certificate of divorce, the same as stipulated in Deut. 24:3.

The very words used for divorce in the Old and New Testaments signifies the thought of dissolution. The OT word is kerithuth meaning a cutting off so that a bill of divorce was a bill of cutting off. In the NT the word is apoluo whose primary meaning is to set
free, to release.

It would appear then that the bill of divorce separated so as to grant remarriage, otherwise God's permission for remarriage granted the right to take up an adulterous relationship.

3c. The Teaching of Paul in Romans 7:1-4.

The teaching of Paul is often taken that only death dissolves the marriage. This, however, does not seem to be the case when all the Biblical teaching is considered.

In the first place, Paul speaks to them that know the law. No one could call a person who was legally divorced according to the law an adulteress as Paul refers to the one who marries another while her husband still lives. Thus it is clear that Paul is stating the general rule of marriage and not considering divorce for adultery. In the same sense that Mark and Luke must be qualified by Matthew, so also Paul's teaching must be modified by the teaching of Christ.

Paul's purpose is not to teach on marriage and divorce but rather he is using the general principle of the marriage relationship as an illustration of the believer's release from the law. In the same sense that death releases the wife from the law of the husband, so death with Christ releases the believer from the law of the commandments.

From verse 3-4 it is seen that release from the law of the husband allows one to remarry. If divorce also releases from the husband, this principle would suggest that the one legally divorced is also permitted to remarry and they would not be called an adulteress. Murray explains Paul's teaching in the light of his purpose.

"The question will be asked: why did not Paul make allowance for this abnormal situation since it involves so notable an exception to the rule, 'so then if while her husband lives she be married to another man she shall be called an adulteress'? The answer is that we can rather readily detect how extraneous it would be to the purpose Paul had in mind and how contrary it would be to the very principle he is asserting to take into account the wholly abnormal and extreme contingency of adultery. The fact is that the right of dissolution on the ground of adultery is not really an exception to the principle Paul is stating.

The effect of divorce in the case of adultery is not to suspend the operation of the principle and of the obligation. The case is rather that adultery introduces a new set of conditions under which the principle and obligation concerned may be regarded as no longer applicable in respect of the innocent spouse. In other words, the contingency of perverse and wanton violation of marital sanctity need
not be taken into consideration when appeal is made to the law that governs marriage.

For when stress is laid on the law that binds and upon the grievous wrong entailed in the violation of that law the thought is focused on the fulfillment of all the conditions and proprieties inherent in the marital relation and obligation. It would detract from this emphasis to suggest what provisions may obtain for the person concerned when a new complex of factors radically alters the conditions presupposed in the assertion of the obligation. To intimate the provisions for such an exceptional circumstance would defeat, or at any rate perplex, the precise emphasis of the apostle. This consideration should explain why there is no allusion in this text or context to the right of divorce and remarriage in the event of adultery on the part of the other spouse and should show how this passage is compatible with the view that divorce on that ground is legitimate." Divorce by John Murray, pp. 91-92.

3b. Is this Applicable to 1 Timothy 3:2?

If divorces 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?"

I think that it is clear 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 Tim 3;2.

The next question is whether the Bible ever indicates that even though he is the husband of one wife without any breaking of God's law, he is yet somehow disqualified as an elder. I can find no such distinction and it would seem that if this was so, it would have been indicated in far clearer terms.

Our conclusion would have to be that technically the man divorced on Biblical grounds meets this qualification. As will be noted later, however, this qualification is not to be interpreted as a simple legal statement but rather as a quality of a man's life. It may be therefore that a man may legally be the husband of one wife and yet not be a faithful loving husband. This is sometimes true concerning parties that are divorced. While there may be technically an innocent party it is possible that he or she was not the faithful spouse that they should have been. Each case deserves investigation with regard to this qualification for eldership.

4A. The Question of the Guilty Party Ever Meeting This Qualification.

1b. The question of the right of the guilty party to remarry. In the teaching of the Lord there is no mention of the remarriage of the guilty party. However, there does not seem to be anything that precludes it. If a man puts away his wife except for fornication, he causes her to commit adultery by entering a second marriage. But this is only because she is still the wife of the first man; the divorce was apart from adultery. On the other hand, if she has already committed adultery and is divorced on that ground, she could not be said to commit adultery by marrying again, for she has already broken the first marriage by adultery. Thus in marrying the second man, since the first marriage has been dissolved, she is not becoming married to two husbands.

There is nothing in the Bible which would say that the guilty party must stay single or that the remarriage after the sin of adultery is an additional sin.

2b. The Question of the State of the Guilty Party.

The consideration of the guilty party involved the question of the state of that person. Is the one who commits adultery and remarries considered to be living in adultery and thus in a state of sin from that point on, or is adultery an act of sin which can be forgiven, even though the conditions cannot be restored to their former state.

1c. The Tenses Used.

Some have argued from the present tenses used in Mt. 5:32 and 19:2 that the adulterer enters a state of continual adultery.

In both passages the one who marries the illegally divorced woman is said to commit adultery in the present tense. However, in Mt. 5:32a and also in an alternate reading of Mt. 19:9 the woman illegally divorced is said to be made to commit adultery in the aorist passive infinitive. A study of the tenses used with adultery shows that both present and aorist tenses are used (cf. Lu. 16:18 pres.; Mk. 10:19 aor.; Lu. 18:20 aor.; Rom. 2:22 pres.; James 2:11 present and aorist).

In view of the use of both tenses, it appears that the usual characteristic of the present tense as continuous action cannot be pressed. Grammarians note several uses of the present tense other than durative action. Particularly significant is the statement of Dana and Mantey: "Since there is no aorist tense for present time, the present tense, as used in the indicative, must do service for both linear and punctilliar action." (A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 181). Among the uses of the present is the "aorist present" which is very possibly the significance of the present tense used with adultery. (for further non-durative uses see Dana and Mantey, pp. 185-86 and Burton, New Testament Moods and tenses).

If the tenses do not finally prove the condition of the one who has committed adultery, is there any further evidence? We believe that
there is.

2c. One Can be a Former Adulterer.

1 Cor. 6:9-11. In this passage Paul lists a number of sins including adultery. "Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, etc . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God."

In the historical situation there were probably those who had been involved in all kinds of unbiblical fornications and divorces, for such was the character of the times as we will see later. Certainly some would be married to someone other than their first wife. There is no indication that they were to divorce their second wife and go back to the first. Yet Paul can see them as former adulterers, as ones who were now cleansed.

3c. Continual Adulterers Cannot be Saved.

It would further seem that adultery can be forgiven and that the remarried person is not continually in the sin, for the Bible indicates that no adulterer will be saved.

1 Cor. 6:9-10 ". . . adulterers . . . shall not inherit the kingdom of God." cf. Rev. 21:8; 22:14-15. Heb. 13:4 "fornicators and adulterers God will judge."

The question of the condition of the adulterer perhaps should be compared with some of the other sins listed e.g. the murderer. When
does one cease to be a murderer?

J. C. Wenger suggests that "the question of whether adultery is a state or an act compares somewhat with the matter of being married to an unbeliever. Surely that is a state, not just an initial situation when the marriage began. And for the Christian to marry an unbeliever is clearly a sin by New Testament standards. Yet we recall at once the New Testament permission, yea even counsel, to continue such unions with non-Christians where the unbeliever is willing. Does this imply the right of divorced people to continue their unions even when sinfully contracted in the first place?" Dealing Redemptively, p. 23.

This evidence suggests that adultery is not a continual state of sin, but that it is an act which can be forgiven.

3b. The Evidence from the Background of the Church. The historical evidence suggests that the church of this time was made up of those that had formally been involved in all kinds of immorality. Lenski explains this condition in relation to the qualification of the elder to be the husband of one wife. "Paul had a reason for beginning with 'one wife's husband.' In those days mature men were chosen for the eldership, who, as a rule, were married and had families; there were no seminary graduates who were awaiting calls. The bulk of the membership from which the elders had to be chosen had come from paganism. What this means as to sexual vices is written large in the New Testament and in the moral records of the day. Even the early apostolic conference in Jerusalem warns against 'fornication' and uses this wide term to cover all the prevalent pagan sexual excesses (Acts 15:29). The epistles fairly din the word into their readers' ears. There was the regular institution of the hierodouloi, pagan temple prostitutes; the common custom of having hetaerae ('companions,' see Liddell and Scott hetairos), girls from non-citizen families who were used by unmarried and by married men; and thus, besides these standard practices, all the rest of the vileness that formed the soil from which these grew. Converts to the gospel did not at once step into perfect sexual purity. Hence this proviso regarding the 'overseers': to begin with, a man who is not strictly faithful to his one wife is debarred." R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon, pp. 580-81.

This picture of the background from which the church members would have come is substantiated by all sources. cf. Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon; Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, IV, 734. The various practices of immorality included a frequency of divorce from all kinds of reasons. cf. C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents, p. 8; Walter Lock, The Pastoral Epistles, p. 129; Patrick Fairbairn, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, p. 428.

Conclusion - This evidence from the background of immorality among the converts would seem to say that the qualification of "husband of one wife" would not mean that the person had never sinned in this area, but that as Lenski suggests they had been purified in these areas so that now they were faithful to their one wife.

4b. The Evidence from the Other Qualifications Listed.

This conclusion is supported by a consideration of the interpretation of the other qualifications. Do these other requirements mean that the prospective elder must never have sinned prior to the present in a way which contradicts these requirements.

In 1 Tim. 3:3, Paul states that the elder is not to be addicted to wine. Does this mean that at no time in his previous life the prospective elder was ever drunk? The elder further more is to be no pugnacious or contentious. Does this mean that he has never in his life been characterized by these two words? Are these characteristics to be interpreted in the sense that they were never a part of the man's life or are they to be interpreted that by God's grace they have been worked out of his life so that they are not now as he is being examined for eldership a part of his life? The answer appears obvious.

In view of these considerations it seems difficult to make this one qualification refer to the entire life as one interpreter who write, ". . . when men were to be considered for this high office, there must be no record of divorce or other marital infidelity in the candidate, even before his conversion" (Kent, op. cit., p. 129). Why not apply this same principle to all the qualifications, if we are going to apply it to this one?

If this interpretation is correct, in view of what we have argued;

(1) That adultery is probably not a continual state of sin, but can be forgiven even as murder.

(2) That divorce does dissolve marriage so that one married again is not considered to be the husband of two wives, it would seem reasonable to interpret this qualification of being the husband of one wife as a present quality of a man's life.

This does not mean that any person is qualified just because he is the husband of one wife any more than it means that any person is qualified just because he is no longer murdering people, or no longer getting drunk. The sinful characteristics of his life which led to sin in these areas must have changed by God's grace. This would take time and would require in some cases long periods of observation and the living of the changed life before his fellow believers. It must be noticed that this is not simply a negative, technical quality dealing with the legality of ones marital state.

The writer in Kittle's Dictionary correctly points out, "the OT prohibition of adultery is not confined to the negative avoidance of the sinful act. It finds its true fulfillment only in the love of spouses who are joined together by God (R. 13:9)." Hauck, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, IV, 734.

Kent likewise explains the intent of the qualification when he says, "The phrase by Paul is stated positively. The overseer must be a one-woman man. He must be devoted to her and give her all the love and consideration that a wife deserves." Homer Kent, Jr., The Pastoral Epistles, p. 130.

5A. The question of lowering the standard.

It may be questioned as to whether such a qualitative view of this requirement is not lowering the standard. As one man said to me just the other day, "At least my interpretation (speaking of his) maintains a high standard," implying that this view lets down the bars. In answer to this we would suggest two thoughts:

1b. This Argument Assumes that the Bars Should Be Up in the First Place.

If bars have not been erected by the Word, we have no right to erect them. Removing previously erected bars, if this is the case in this position and if they are not demanded by the Scripture, would not be wrong.

The abuse of correct laws does not allow us to change those laws. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution has been much abused by gangsters and enemies of our country, but there is not a court of legislature in America that would abolish it. (cf. Duty, p. 127).

In reality we are suggesting that this argument should not bear on ones interpretation of what this qualification is. The only concern should be that our interpretation is that intended by the writer of the Word.

2b. Secondly, I Do Not Think That This Is In Reality a Lowering of the Position.

In one of our classes last year Dr. Earl Radmacher of  Western Baptist Theological Seminary was questioned as to his interpretation that we have presented and then added words to this effect: "This is not a lowering but a raising of this qualification. I know some men who have been barred from eldership who on the basis of this interpretation should be permitted to be elders, but I also know some church leaders who are pastors who under this understanding of being truly a one woman man should be disqualified. Legally as far as their married state they are husbands of one wife, but their actions and attitudes show that they are not truly one-woman men."

Conclusion: The Evils of immorality and divorce must be taught as they are in the Word--as sin. Churches need to exercise more discipline in these areas. But it must be remembered that these sins too can be forgiven and the person cleansed and changed by the saving power of God's grace in Christ. The "husband of one wife" qualification therefore, it seems to us, does not demand the absence of life-long sin in the area of marriage relationships, but the evidence that the grace of God's transforming power is presently operative in the life of the candidate to the effect that there has been sin in these areas, it has been forgiven through genuine repentance and the sinful tendencies, if any, which led to the breakdown have been overcome by the power of the indwelling Spirit of Holiness.

Transcribed and posted to Bible Bulletin Board's "Sermons and Articles" collection by

Tony Capoccia
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