Must elders be married and have children?

Presenter: Bob Deffinbaugh

Let us address the matter of the meaning of the qualification in 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6 — “the husband of one wife” (virtually all major translations, with the exception of the NLT and TNIV, which read, “faithful to his wife”).

Let’s begin with several observations.  First, It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to discern that sexual immorality has destroyed lives and ministries of countless men (and women), throughout history and today.  Samson is a classic example, the simple in Proverbs 7, with the Israelites in Numbers 25 and Exodus 32 as just a few examples.  Add to this the exhortations of Paul in texts like 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; 1 Timothy 5:2; 2 Timothy 3:1-7; 2 Peter 2:2, 10-20; Jude 1:8, 18; Revelation 2:14, 20-21.  False teachers are often characterized by sexual sin.  All of this is to say that we would surely expect the elder qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to have something to say, directly, regarding sexual purity.

Second, apart from the qualification at hand (the “husband of one wife”) there is no direct reference to sexual morality in these elder qualifications – not one!  Yes, “self-controlled, holy, disciplined” do address the matter indirectly, but one would surely expect more than this.  For example, even though self-control is a qualification, Paul specifies that an elder is not to be a “drunkard” (1 Timothy 3:3;Titus 1:7).  Neither can he be “violent” (1 Timothy 3:3).  Why nothing specific about sexual purity?

Third, the rendering “the husband of one wife” is somewhat of an interpretation, as opposed to a simple rendering of the Greek text, which reads, “a one woman man” (likewise, 1 Timothy 5:9 reads, “a one man woman”).  What if this translation choice is not the best or most accurate?

Fourth, the other elder qualifications are character traits.  Does having but one wife (whether in a lifetime or not) really reveal the character of a man?  Bill Clinton had one wife.  Could he be an elder?

Fifth, while marriage and children are certainly a gift from God, there were times when remaining single was the high road (and not marriage), as we read in 1 Corinthians 7:25-35.  Would you not have to say that at least at certain times, the high road for a man or woman would be to remain single.  So why would a man be prohibited from serving as an elder if he chose to remain single, to serve God with undistracted devotion?  Incidentally, single men would include Jesus, Paul and Barnabas (1 Corinthians 9:1-6), and surely a number of others, like Timothy and perhaps Titus.  Would it not have been somewhat strange for Timothy or Titus to appoint elders in the churches when they would be disqualified, simply for being single?  And what of Paul and Barnabas who were called apostles?

Sixth, surly the widows who chose to remain single after the death of their first and only husband were being commended (not to mention being supported) for doing so (among other things).  But somehow, a man who chooses to remain single is somehow unqualified for that reason alone?

Seventh, I believe that the qualification, “the husband of one wife” is not the high water mark of maturity and character.  Very immoral men have had but one wife (as mentioned before), yet they may be flirtatious or adulterers.  This is actually a rather easy standard to meet, and does not prove anything about one’s character.

Eighth, when rendered more literally – “a one woman man” we find this to be a far higher standard.  A man cannot look at pornography and be a “one woman man.”  A man cannot commit adultery and be a “one woman man.”  A man cannot lust after other woman and flirt with them and be a “one woman man.”  I believe this standard – “a one woman man” – embraces the whole spectrum of potential sexual immorality, and is far more pertinent to an elder’s character and qualification to serve than merely remaining married to one wife.  And this rendering is the most literal and the most natural way of reading the text.  By the way, I believe that this rendering (though not absolutely necessary in 1 Timothy 5:9) fits very nicely in the context of a widow as well.  I believe that it also can apply to a single man.  If that man has chosen not to marry, then he should conduct himself accordingly with all women.  If he supposes that he might someday marry, he should conduct himself in such a way as to save himself for his future wife as his “one and only woman.”

I therefore cannot conclude that this qualification is merely about being married or not, or about having but one wife.  I believe it is much broader, and a much higher standard, fully in keeping with the natural understanding of Paul’s words.  (Could he not have said, married, and only once, if he wished for that to be what we understood him to say?)