Can a Single Man Be an Elder?

Presenter: Bob Deffinbaugh

Question: Can a single man be an elder in light of the qualification that an elder be a “husband of one wife”?

(1) Let me first address the “having children who believe” qualification in Titus 1:6.  (Note that the translations are split about 50/50 on how they render this – faithful, or believing.)  The word used here is pistos, a word found 3 times in Titus (1:6, 9; 3:8), 12 times in 1 Timothy (1:12, 15; 3:1, 11; 4:3, 9, 10, 12; 5:16 [2X]; 6:2 [2X], and 3 times in 2 Timothy (2:2, 11, 13).  Just a quick look at a KJV concordance will show that the term is rendered “faithful” 53 times, while it is rendered “believe” 6 times and “believing” 2 times.  Now, when you look at the following phrase you find, “not accused of dissipation or rebellion.”  I believe this is a further clarification of the word “faithful.”  “Faithful” children are those who are not accused of dissipation or rebellion.  Theologically, we know that a father cannot ultimately determine the eternal destiny (saved or lost) of his child; only God can do this (John 6:37, 39, 44).  Thus, to require that an elder have only believing children is going beyond what he can be held accountable for.  He can, however, be expected to keep his children under control, and that is exactly what I believe Paul is saying here, just as he does in 1 Timothy 3:4.

(2)  When Paul writes about the qualifications for elders he does so in such a way as to cover the entire range of possible circumstances.  The reality is that most elder candidates were likely to be married, and to have older children.  In such case, the father must have his children in control, with dignity.  A married elder must be the husband of one wife, and so on.  Does this mean that every elder must be married and have older children?  I think not.  I have a good friend who was serving as an elder.  He and his wife were surprised by a son later on in their marriage.  Would my friend need to resign until that child grew up and made a profession of faith?  One caveat here:  Insisting that an elder have believing children may be counter-productive, since the elder may be tempted to put undue pressure on his children to make a premature profession of faith just so he can appear to meet that qualification.

(3)  Let me briefly comment on the appointment of elders and deacons as the church plant moves to becoming a church.  We know from Philippians 1:1 that this church had both elders and deacons.  Likewise, we find the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy chapter 3.  But note that these deacon qualifications are not found in Titus.  I think this is significant.  In Acts 14:23 we see that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the newly born churches that were founded on their first missionary journey.  Nothing is said of deacons at this point.  When Paul sets forth the qualifications for elders in Crete, nothing is said of deacons.  I believe that this may be true for at least two reasons.

(a)   Deacons must first be tested (1 Timothy 3:10).  A time of proving and examination is called for (I take it that this happens while the deacon candidate begins to serve as such).

(b)  If, indeed [the noun, diakonos, does not appear in Acts 6, only the verb form] Acts 6 describes the process of appointing deacons, note that it does not occur until it becomes evident that they are required (as circumstances demanded in Jerusalem).  Thus, I’m not so sure that deacons need to be appointed until it becomes evident that they are essential.

(c)   I believe that deacons assist the elders.  It is clear that the apostles set the qualifications for the seven men in Acts 6, and that they defined their task.  I think that the elders would need some time before they would be able to achieve this.  Thus, I would not be in too big a hurry to appoint deacons at the same time that elders are appointed.

(4)  I am convinced that no man can attain a perfect score (so to speak) when evaluated by the standards Paul sets forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. It seems to me that while the standards remain the same, elder candidates never fully measure up to them.  And if this is true in an established church, how much more true it is in a church plant. I’m now reading 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 from the perspective of a missionary friend in Asia, who is in charge of evangelism and church planting in a non-Christian nation.  All of a sudden (after years of ministry), many small groups of believers are cropping up.  So the question is, “When do these little gatherings become churches?  At what point in time should elders be recognized or appointed?”  I guarantee that such elders will not meet the level of our expectations in the West.  The standards which Paul establishes regarding elder qualifications define the areas of evaluation, and also the ideal for which all should strive.  But in newly emerging churches I believe that actual achievement will fall behind that of elder candidates in other, more established, churches.

(5)  My current understanding of the qualifications for elders would allow for a single man to be an elder.  (I think I’ve held this point of view consistently.)  The ideal would be for a church to have a plurality of elders, and were there to be but one qualified elder this (ideal of plurality) should be the goal toward which he and the church strives.  Indeed, if that one elder is a “team player” he will consult others in the body of believers, seeking their evaluation and assessment of where the church stands (and even of how he — the one elder — is doing).  I believe it is far better to have one elder who is broadly “recognized” as such by the body, than to have a plurality of men whose qualifications are questionable.  Incidentally, we should remember that both Paul and Barnabas were single men (1 Corinthians 9:1ff.).  [I realize that some have conjectured that Paul was – at least at one time – a married man, but I don’t find that argument very compelling.]

I would say that any one elder (married or not) should be very careful in doing “solo” ministry.  This would especially be true when ministering to women.