The Husband of One Wife (Part 2)

Pastor Jim McClarty is a wonderful brother and Bible teacher. He pastors Grace Christian Assembly in Smyrna, TN. He has become something of a friend through our e-mail communication, even though we have yet to meet in person. He was extremely helpful to me in proof reading the manuscript of my new book “Twelve What Abouts,” providing many helpful suggestions which very much improved the clarity and flow of language. His website can be found at

Here is an issue which sometimes comes up in the life of the Church. I appreciate Pastor McClarty’s careful handling of the question and would agree entirely. (For those interested, here is Dr. R. C. Sproul’s answer to a similar question).

Question – What is your opinion of someone being a pastor who is divorced? I want to hear your input on this whole “man of one wife” thing because one church we’ve been visiting will allow an elder to be divorced, but not the pastor. Yet when I read Titus, it clearly says bishop and elder … man of one wife. So I want to know how and why they make a distinction.

Jim McClarty – This is another one of those places where many churches lead with their traditions. I have also heard for most of my life that the phrase “husband of one wife” means that a pastor must be married, not single. He must not be divorced. If he is divorced he certainly must not remarry. But it is okay for him to remarry if he is a widower. But, that was not Paul’s point. Tradition does have a way of taking basic Biblical ideas and stretching them beyond their original intention. A bit of simple exegesis will clear this up.

Let’s start with the supposed distinction between bishops, elders and pastors. The phrase “husband of one wife” first occurs in 1 Timothy 3:2 concerning bishops. The Greek word for bishops is “episkopos.” The same word is also translated “overseer.” In the New Testament there was a bishop in every church, tasked with the work of watching over the church, guiding it and seeing to its general health and well-being.

Now, these same men, serving in this same office of bishop/overseer, were also called “elders” – or “presbuteros” – in Acts 20:17. This is made obvious when you compare Acts 20:28 where these elders are called overseers.

“And from Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.” (Acts 20:17-18)

“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)

In other words, bishop, elder and overseer are one and the same office.

Then we find pastors. They really only show up in Ephesians 4:11. In the Greek they are called “poimen,” or “shepherds.” According to Vine’s Expository Greek dictionary, “pastors guide as well as feed the flock… this involves tender care and vigilant superintendence.” But importantly, Acts 20:28 refers to “overseers” as those who tend to and feed the flock.

So, in Paul’s perspective, bishops/overseers are the same thing as pastors. And, bishops/overseers are the same thing as elders. The words are interchangeable. They each indicate some aspect of the job. They do not designate individual offices held by separate men within a local church. Consequently, the requirements for elders, bishops, overseers and pastors are all exactly the same because pastors are elders. In our modern church structure it is more common to find a plurality of elders who act as officers of the church and one man who acts as pastor. But in reality, any man who is ordained an elder ought to have the ability, willingness and gifts to pastor. Men who operate within a church as officers, caring for the day-to-day business and making decisions concerning the physical structure and organization are acting as deacons, not elders.

That being said, the second place where “the husband of one wife” occurs is in 1 Timothy 3:12, when referring to deacons. The third place where it occurs is in Titus 1:6, concerning bishops.

The phrase “husband of one wife” was a common Greek phrase, used in many documents outside of Scripture, so Greek grammarians have a good handle on what it meant in everyday usage. In fact, I have checked with David Morris, a Greek scholar (and one of the men who ordained me as an elder) about this very topic.

The phrase “husband of one wife” has to do with the character of the man being considered for the office of overseer/bishop/elder/pastor or deacon. It is best translated “a one-woman type of man.” This is as opposed to a polygamist. The New American Standard Version tries to emphasize this idea by rendering the phrase, “husbands of only one wife.” They add the word “only” to the text in order to bring out the idea that Paul was speaking against polygamy. The NIV adds the word “but,” rendering the phrase, “husband of but one wife.” Both of those translations are attempting to bring out Paul’s real meaning.

Remember that multiple wives were a common part of Old Testament life, right up until the time of Christ. It was common for Middle Eastern men to have multiple wives and to divorce them and add new wives at will. That is a character issue. Such men should not lead in the Church. But, what type should? If he is a man committed to one woman at any given time, then he is “a one-woman type of man.” His commitment to one woman bespeaks his character.

Now – and this is important – Paul was familiar with the word “chorizo,” which is translated “depart” in the KJV version of 1 Corinthians 7:10:

“And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10-11)

Other translations render the word “chorizo” as “divorce.” And, that’s exactly what “divorce” means; to depart, or put distance between two people – “chorizo.” Paul knew how to use that word and wrote about the different situations that might arise when believers were married to unbelievers. He understood that people might leave and divorces might happen.

“But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? Or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.” (1 Cor. 7:12-17)

So, here’s my point. Paul knew the language of divorce and wrote about it. Yet, when Paul listed the qualifications for elders/bishops/overseers/pastors and deacons, he did not make any reference to divorce. He was concerned primarily with character issues – the type of man he was – and whether he had been evidently gifted by God to fill that office (“not a novice … apt to teach”). If Paul had meant to convey the message that pastors, elders or the like could not be divorced, it seems to me that he would have mentioned it in the list of qualifications. Again, He does use that language in other letters. Paul is familiar with the word “divorce.” It certainly seems that he would have included it in his list if that is what he meant to say.

But, he didn’t. Instead, he referred to a man who was not a bigamist, not marrying multiple women concurrently or all at once. In short, not a womanizer; the same way he was not to be a brawler, a drinker, a striker, greedy or covetous. These were matters of character and giftedness.

My friend, I don’t think people believe me when I say that preaching/pastoring is a really hard job. But, it is made especially hard by the fact that everyone in the world, and especially in the church, considers themself your judge. The Bible does not condemn men who labor in the Word, but whose marriage failed. Only people’s traditions do that.

Now let me be clear. A pastor who is married and divorced repeatedly has a character issue that must be dealt with. After all, if the Word he is preaching cannot affect his own behavior, then how can he expect it to affect others? Marriage is indeed a type of Christ and His church. Marriage between Christians is a sacred union that we should fight hard to uphold. But sometimes marriages fail. That is the reality of the human condition. And thank God there is ample grace and forgiveness in Christ for every sinner – even the ones in the pulpit.

I hope that helps.

Q – Wow! Thanks for your efforts to answer that. I know that took some time. Feel free to use this Q & A on the website.

You’re welcome. Perhaps this discussion will help others heal.
Yours in Him,
Jim McClarty