Fundamentally, I believe we have dealt with families who have come to us with divorce in their background in a manner similar to what you suggest in your summary list on MDR. That is, we have not treated them as second class citizens. Up to this point they have participated in every facet of congregational life, except the eldership.
The question is, should men who would otherwise posses the characteristics for elders suggested in Timothy and Titus, but who have experienced divorce, be selected as elders?
I suspect there may be both a scriptural and a practical (Is it wise?) answer. I am sure there are members in our congregation who hold both views on this issue. Based upon my study to-date I have come to believe that the “Husband of One Wife ” statement can best be understood as “Is he being faithful to his wife?” “Is he a one-woman man?”
I think the scriptural answer on this one is pretty clear. However, the practical answer could be devilishly hard.
The qualification lists for elders in 1 Timothy and Titus state than an elder should be “the husband of one wife,” according to most translations. This has led to several alternative interpretations.
Perhaps the most common is that it prohibits polygamy, which is very unlikely, for these reasons —
* First, there were very few polygamous marriages in Greek and Roman culture. Although the Jews allowed polygamy, by the First Century, it was very uncommon.
* Second, the same requirement applies to the list of widows to be supported by the church, as described in 1 Timothy 5:9 (“wife of one husband”). Polyandry — a woman with multiple husbands — was unheard of in the Roman Empire. As “wife of one husband” cannot refer to polyandry, “husband of one wife” cannot refer to polygamy.
* Third, because Matthew 19 and 1 Cor 7 prohibit polygamy, a prospective elder’s polygamous marriage would have been made prior to conversion. Why on earth would this disqualify him?
Some contend that this passage prohibits ordaining men remarried after the death of his wife. This theory is hyperliteral, in that Romans 7 is quite clear that death dissolves a marriage and there is no sin in remarrying. In fact, Paul instructs widows who are young enough to remarry in 1 Timothy 5:14. Nothing in the Law of Moses suggests that remarriage after death might be wrong, nor was it sinful in rabbinic thought. Why would this be the only place the prohibition appears?
Some contend that this command prohibits ordination for a man divorced, even if he was entirely innocent of sin and even if it occurred prior to conversion. Again, why would Paul issue such an instruction? Well, of course, a few take a view of divorce that never permits remarriage, but this interpretation is plainly contrary to the Bible.
The difficulty many commentators face is that the translation usually given is misleading, if not wrong, because Paul’s words are ambiguous in the Greek, although not so in most translations. Thus, in a footnote, the English Standard Version offers “a man of one woman” as an alternative to “husband of one wife.” Today’s New International Version, the New International Readers Version, and NLT translate “faithful to his wife.” The CEV translates “be faithful in marriage.” The Message translates “committed to his wife.”
The disagreement results from the ambiguity of the Greek: ???? ???????? ???? — mias gunaikos aner. Mias = of one. That much is easy. Gunaikos means either woman or wife, and the only solution is found in the context. Just so aner means either man or husband, and again only the context can make the distinction.
To the English speaker’s ear, it’s hard to imagine such an ambiguity, but other languages have the same uncertainly. The German Herr can mean husband or man (or sir or lord). Frau can mean wife or woman. Even in English, we pronounce the newly married “man and wife” — so that “man” can mean husband in some contexts: he is the “man of the house.”
Therefore, “husband of one wife,” while possible, conceals the entirely reasonable translation “man of one woman” or “one-woman man” or, equivalently, “faithful to his wife.”
Now, there’s every reason to require an elder to be faithful to his wife. Those churches that have had unfaithful elders have suffered severely.
This is the interpretation adopted by Alexander Strauch in his influential Biblical Eldership: An Urgent call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. In J. Stephen Sandifer’s valuable Deacons: Male and Female? the author argues,
The verb is in the present tense; “he is (currently) the man of one woman.”
This understanding emphasizes the character of the man, not his marital status. It places the emphasis on his behavior currently as a result of Christ and not on the past when he was unredeemed. He is not a playboy; he is loyal and sexually pure. If he is married, he is faithful to his spouse in all things. The deacon, like the elder, will be in situations where they will serve the poor of this world; and many those poor are abandoned women. Anyone who is easily sexually tempted will find this service very difficult and may yield to sexual temptation, bringing harm to the church.
I think Strauch and Sandiffer, who’ve written brilliant, comprehensive studies of elders and deacons, are certainly correct. This interpretation fits the scriptures and the function of an elder or deacon far better than an arbitrary rule that bars capable men from using their gifts for God and may not reflect one whit on their moral character or capacity for the office.
Obviously, the circumstances of a man’s divorce are not irrelevant. If he sinned in his marriage, he may well fail other qualifications —
(Titus 1:6-8) An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless–not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.
Which brings us to the practical issue. If a church ordains a man as elder whom many in the church consider unqualified according to the scriptures, in many congregations, the church will split or else many members will leave. You see, we have this pathological teaching that to remain saved, we must leave the church when we disagree with the elders about something, especially when the church ordains a man we consider unqualified.
The solution is teaching — and time. A quick sermon series in the midst of the appointment process will not likely be enough in most congregations. Rather, the lesson needs to be taught in the classrooms, where the members can raise questions and challenge the interpretation. This is where the most learning takes place.
And it won’t work unless the church is well-schooled in grace, as they’ll otherwise be afraid to take a chance — preferring to impose a doubtful rule when in doubt. But a church well taught in grace will respond well to patient instruction.
Ultimately, the rule is found in the passages on spiritual gifts —
(1 Cor 12:28) And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.
(Rom 12:6-8) We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
(Eph 4:11-13) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
You see, the rule is that God gives spiritual gifts to some among us, equipping them to be leaders and shepherds. And if God has chosen someone to take on that role by giving a special infusion of his Spirit, who are we to disagree? Indeed, the instruction is: “let him govern diligently.” God selects and empowers. We honor God’s work among us by allowing the gift to be used as God wills.
One last note. I think we generally do a poor job of defining for our members who is qualified to be an elder, and so we often make poor choices. I discuss the question in these older posts.