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the husband of one wife

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What follows is an excerpt from my book The Husband of One Wife


Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher…Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well… (1 Tim 3:2, 12) 

[An elder must be] someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious. (Titus 1:6)[1]


Few things evoke as much pain as divorce. It tears lives apart, injures all involved, and leaves scars with lasting effects into subsequent generations. It is undoubtedly a terrible deviation from God’s intent for marriage.

The church, therefore, must be a beacon of compassion for those believers who have endured its torment. Yet, the role divorcees should play within the local congregation remains a matter of great controversy, particularly among evangelicals.

Many believers claim that, while the church should lovingly welcome divorcees into the fold, it should not permit them to hold positions of leadership. Others, however, argue that such a blanket prohibition stands in contrast to the redemption offered through Jesus Christ.

What role, then, should divorcees play in the church? Who is the husband of one wife? Passages in 1 Timothy and Titus have forced churches to struggle with this question, with many concluding that these verses permanently bar divorcees from ordination. Since such significant decisions are built upon three verses in the Pastoral Letters, we must take great care to understand Paul’s message before implementing such drastic exclusionary measures.[2]


Before addressing our main topic, we must briefly discuss another controversial aspect of these texts: the proper translation of episkopon. “Bishop” and “overseer” are the most common renderings, and the word choice reflects ongoing debates regarding proper ecclesiastical governance.

While episkopon could mean different things in the first century, it generally appeared as the title of an official position or fixed office.[3] This is consistent with Paul’s use of the word in his letters, where it seems to refer to a fixed office with a specific function,[4] namely, giving “oversight to” and teaching the church (cf. Phil 1:1; Titus 1:7).[5] Whether this office oversaw multiple house churches in a geographical area, as reflected in modern episcopal models, or simply oversaw a single church body, as reflected in modern congregational models, is of little importance to our purposes here.

A similar debate exists regarding the other distinct church offices Paul names. In 1 Timothy, for example, Paul describes the offices of overseer/bishop and deacon, but in Titus he also mentions the office of elder. The traditional view sees three distinct offices of bishop, elder, and deacon, but it is also possible that Paul meant “elder” as a broad, generic category of leadership encompassing both overseer/bishop and deacon.[6]

This debate, however, while important, has little bearing on our efforts to understand Paul’s qualifications for church leaders in general. It therefore does not matter whether Paul had in mind an episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational model of church governance. I recognize the controversy surrounding the translation of these texts, but I must gloss over the issue, lest we become bogged down in Reformation-era debates to the neglect of our current inquiry.


In these passages, Paul teaches that church leaders must be “above reproach” (1 Tim 3:2) and “blameless” (1 Tim 3:10; Titus 1:6). Paul’s qualifications focus more on the personal qualities of prospective leaders than on the duties associated with the office, emphasizing his true concern: that leaders reflect positively upon the church. Indeed, none of the qualifications Paul provides are uniquely Christian, reflecting instead “the highest ideals of Hellenistic moral philosophy.”[7]

Paul’s concern is with the reputation of the church within larger society, a recurring theme throughout the Pastoral Letters. Indeed, Paul repeats the same Greek word for “above reproach” from 1 Timothy 3:2 in 1 Timothy 5:7: “Give the people these instructions, too, so that no one may be open to blame.”[8]

In the latter passage, Paul admonishes believers to take care of widows in their own families so as not to burden the church. Since Greco-Roman society expected a widow’s relatives to tend to her needs, a believer’s failure to do so would make him or her worse than an unbeliever, thus damaging the church’s reputation in larger society.[9] In light of this larger concern, we should find the similarities between Paul’s list of qualifications for leaders and the lists of virtues expounded by various philosophical moralists of the time unsurprising.[10]

We should therefore understand Paul’s requirements for leadership to consist of only one real qualification: that leaders be above reproach. The subsequent characteristics serve more as modifiers to this main qualification than as qualifications themselves. Paul’s concern is not the fulfillment of a legalistic checklist of requirements but that the church carefully select its leaders so as not to fall into ill repute.[11] 

The most controversial of Paul’s requirements is undoubtedly that a leader be, as the Greek literally reads, “a man of one woman,” or “the husband of one wife.”[12] This qualification addresses the necessity of marital fidelity and sexual morality,[13] but exactly what it means beyond that is a matter of much debate. To be the husband of one wife is therefore an indispensable part of a good reputation, but how this is so has been difficult to ascertain.

Various possibilities have been suggested, including that, to be the husband of one wife, church leaders must (1) be married, (2) have been married only once—even if widowed—(3) have never been divorced, (4) have only one wife at a time, or (5) simply be faithful to their current spouse.[14] While the ambiguous grammar permits all these interpretations, we must understand the phrase in light of Paul’s overarching requirement that leaders be above reproach.

The reason that a leader must be the husband of one wife, therefore, is “the avoidance of any appearance of immorality.”[15] This should serve as our interpretive framework.

Leaders Must Be Married?

The suggestion that this passage imposes a marriage requirement is unfounded. “The husband of one wife” cannot mean leaders must be married any more than 1 Timothy 3:4 and 12 must also mean that only men with children can serve.[16] Indeed, a marriage requirement would have disqualified Paul and probably Timothy.[17]

Rather, Paul writes in general terms, elaborating upon his main qualification (that leaders be above reproach) in light of the likely condition of potential leaders, as most adults of that time would have been married with children.[18]

Since Paul saw significant advantages in permanent celibacy (cf. 1 Cor 7), it is unlikely that he would require church leaders to be married.[19] Furthermore, as already discussed, Paul’s main concern is not a potential leader’s marital status per se, but rather that the potential leader enjoys a good reputation.[20] Celibacy would not subject an individual to accusations of immorality and would therefore not be disqualifying. Paul’s point therefore is that the leader that does marry must be the husband of one wife, not that leaders must marry.

Widows Must Not Remarry?

It is also doubtful that Paul meant to prohibit remarried widowers from holding church offices in light of his view that widowers and widows are “free to be married…in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39).[21] Keeping in mind that purity of character is the main issue of concern, restriction of a morally acceptable act, such as the remarriage of a widower, seems unlikely.

In addition, the correspondence between “man of one woman” in 1 Timothy 3:2 and “woman of one man” in 1 Timothy 5:9 suggests a unity of meaning, and, since Paul encourages young widows to remarry in 5:14, it is unlikely that Paul had a prohibition against remarriage in mind.

Furthermore, while widows so devoted to their dead husbands that they refused to remarry were sometimes admired in antiquity, such was certainly not the case with men. If “woman of one man” does not mean married only once, then “man of one woman” does not either.

Finally, what sense would it make for Paul to discourage the remarriage of widowers while at the same time combating false teachings forbidding marriage (cf. 1 Tim 4:3)? To argue that Paul meant that leaders had to be married only once is therefore inconsistent with the surrounding context.[22] Marital faithfulness would have been much more meaningful in Paul’s day—as in our own—than whether a widower had remarried.[23]

Divorcees May Not Serve?

The much more common argument is that Paul prohibits divorcees from ever serving as church leaders, that a man who has had previous marriages can never be the husband of one wife. Jesus, however, seems to give the innocent party freedom to remarry where divorce occurs as a result of marital unfaithfulness (Mt 19:9), as does Paul where it occurs as a result of spousal abandonment (1 Cor 7:15). Such provisions do not appear to apply only to those believers who would not serve in positions of leadership.[24] We should not expect Paul’s statements in the Pastoral Letters to be inconsistent with his other writings or the rest of Scripture.[25]

While such an interpretation of “the husband of one wife” is grammatically possible, the language is too broad and general to provide any certainty to this view. Paul could have unmistakably prohibited divorcees from holding church offices simply by using the Greek word for divorce.[26]

It seems inconsistent that Paul, well known for writing about being made new in Christ, would have stipulated that faithful believers with a past divorce are forever barred from positions of leadership. Indeed, just a few verses earlier, Paul writes,

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief… (1 Tim 1:12–13)

Could not a divorcee have “acted ignorantly in unbelief” prior to coming to Christ, such that Christ could still judge him faithful and appoint him to service? Indeed, if a past sin could permanently disqualify a person from church leadership, surely there are more serious sins than divorce, such as murdering Christians for their faith!

Some may argue that a divorced believer may serve in positions of leadership if he does not remarry, since he would technically remain “the husband of one wife.” To separate divorce from remarriage, however, is an anachronistic imposition of modern Western culture and categories back onto the text.

In antiquity, remarriage was simply assumed to accompany divorce, as Deuteronomy 24 demonstrates. Indeed, this assumption is reflected in the requirement of rabbinic law that valid bills of divorce contain the phrase “Thou are free to any man.”[27] Ancient Jewish marriage contracts indicate that, in the context of divorce, “free” meant the freedom to remarry and nothing else.[28]

In addition, the Roman world seems to have had a similar view of the indivisibility of divorce and remarriage.[29] Divorce and remarriage, therefore, are inseparable concepts, and, consequently, whatever stipulations Paul applies to divorcees apply regardless of whether they have remarried.

In addition, this interpretation creates an underlying tension between this verse and the rest of Paul’s writings regarding grace and restoration in Christ. Would it really make sense to permit a pastor who divorces his wife while in ministry to remain in his position if he remains single, while forever barring the godly man who came to Christ twenty years ago while married to his second and current wife? This type of interpretive scheme inevitably gives rise to a legalism that undercuts Paul’s larger message regarding church leadership and, indeed, the gospel itself.

To forever exclude an individual from church leadership is a drastic step, and to do so solely on account of the single, ambiguous phrase, “man of one woman,” seems extreme and unjust. “One should avoid the Pharisaical error of binding men with unnecessary and oppressive burdens (cf. Matt. 23:1–4; Acts 15:10) and should seek to be gracious at every opportunity.”[30]

Leaders Mustn’t Be Polygamous?

Finally, some hold that these passages merely prohibit polygamy. This narrow interpretation conveniently allows us to dismiss this requirement as a relic of a distant past, no longer relevant in our society where the very idea of polygamy is a curious novelty. (Indeed, so exotic is such a concept today that those who practice it are apt to receive airtime on basic cable.) Whereas the previous interpretation imposes a burden too heavy, this interpretation imposes a burden too light.

Those holding such an interpretation cite documentation from Paul’s time (cf., e.g., Josephus’ Ant 17.14; B.J. 1.477) that testifies to the existence of polygamy during the New Testament period. It was not until AD 212 that the lex Antoniana de civitate outlawed polygamy as a legitimate practice among Romans and then not until AD 393 that the Emperor Theodosius enacted a special law outlawing polygamy among the Jewish people.[31] Therefore, according to this argument, the natural contrast of “the husband of one wife” is “the husband of many wives.”

Even so, polygamy would have been so inherently unacceptable to most believers that it would have been unnecessary for Paul to make special mention of it among his qualifications for leaders. It would, perhaps, be equivalent to a modern list of qualifications excluding practicing prostitutes. Such a disqualifier would have been so patently obvious as not to merit special attention.

In addition, polygamy was so rare among the societal context of Paul’s readers that specifically prohibiting it would have been unnecessary and perhaps odd,[32] like a modern-day pastor in the slums of São Paulo forbidding church leaders from traveling by private jet—a scenario hypothetically possible but practically unthinkable.

Likewise, the counterpart phrase, “woman of one man,” in 1 Timothy 5:9 (mentioned above), strongly suggests against such an interpretation. There, the phrase “affirms marital and sexual fidelity in monogamous terms” but does not suggest polyandry to be the phrase’s intended contrast, since such was not practiced at the time.[33] It would therefore not make sense for “man of one woman” to mean only a prohibition against polygamy in 1 Timothy 3, but for “woman of one man” to mean something significantly different just two chapters later.

So, while the phrase “the husband of one wife” precludes polygamists, “a prohibition of bigamy is not likely to have been the reason why office-holders were expected to have but one wife…”[34] There is nothing in the New Testament to indicate that polygamy was a significant issue of concern for first-century Christians,[35] and so there is no reason to believe that Paul felt compelled to address the subject.

If you are interested in reading more, you may purchase The Husband of One Wife in its entirety on Amazon.com.

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[1] Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations identified as NIV are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.TM 

[2] Authorship of the Pastoral Letters is irrelevant for our purposes here, and so I will simply assume Pauline authorship.

[3] Hermann Wolfgang Beyer, “episkopon,NIDNTT, 2:611.

[4] The term appears in secular Greek writings in both a general sense, referencing official civil offices, and in a religious sense, referencing fixed religious functions. See George W. Knight, III, The Pastoral Epistles (The New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 155.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy (The New International Biblical Commentary; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005), 78.

[7] Fee, 78.

[8] Italics added.

[9] Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 126–27.

[10] Raymond F. Collins, I & II Timothy and Titus (The New Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 80.

[11] See Fee, 78.

[12] Knight, 157. I recognize that there is debate within many denominations over whether women can serve in positions of church leadership. This discussion is beyond the scope of this work, and so, while I recognize the debate, I maintain Paul’s use of masculine nouns and pronouns for simplicity’s sake only. Where women are permitted to hold church offices, we should assume they must adhere to the same standards as men, which, in this case, would mean they must be “women of one man.”

[13] Collins, 81.

[14] Knight, 157.

[15] Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy (The Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2001), 214.

[16] Knight, 157. Some in fact do argue that Paul requires that all leaders be married and have children, insisting that only by observing whether a believer is able to run his own household can the church accurately ascertain whether he can properly manage God’s household. See Ed Glasscock, “‘The Husband of One Wife’ Requirement of 1 Timothy 3:2,” Bibliotheca Sacra 140; no. 3 (July–September 1983): 245. In light of Paul’s other writings and his own personal condition, however, this interpretation is unlikely.

[17] Fee, 80.

[18] Knight, 157; Fee, 80.

[19] Glasscock, 246; Knight, 157.

[20] Glasscock, 246.

[21] Knight, 157.

[22] Craig S. Keener, …And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarraige in the Teaching of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 94–95.

[23] Walter L. Liefeld, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (The NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 119. While this interpretation could potentially allow widowers to serve so long as they do not remarry, this position is untenable, for reasons I later discuss.

[24] Knight, 158.

[25] Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, Jr., 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (The American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 109.

[26] Ibid., 109–110.

[27] Pat Edwin Harrell, Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church: A History of Divorce and Remarriage in the Ante-Nicene Church (Austin, TX: R. B. Sweet Company, 1967), 71 cited by Keener, 61.

[28] Keener, 61.

[29] See Guy Duty, Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1967), 39–44, cited by Keener, 171.

[30] Glasscock, 247.

[31] Lea and Hayne, 109.

[32] Fee, 80.

[33] Knight, 158.

[34] Collins, 81–82.

[35] Ibid.


See Also:

The Call for Unity in Romans 5

Categories: Faith


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