A recent phone call from a friend who was about to go into a meeting to discuss the qualifications for deacons reminded me of the extreme controversy that surrounds the "husband of one wife" qualification listed in 1 Timothy 3:12. He indicated there were several differing views of that requirement and those views had been presented at previous meetings more heatedly than the discussion about any of the other qualifications listed.
Today I want to address that verse. What does it really mean? Someone is going to say "It means what it says." But that is the problem. I don't think it means what it says as much as it means what it means and some interpretation must go into understanding it's meaning. This would mean we need to recognize the possible fallibility of our understanding of it to stay away from the heat in discussing it. Here's my possibly fallible view but it is mine
Some people believe Paul is saying for a man to be a deacon [or an elder] there must be no record of divorce even before conversion. But is that what Paul actually means? To know it is necessary that the Greek text be examined carefully in it's original context.
The words that are a bit difficult to translate in the Greek are, “Mias gunaikos andra” (“Husband of one wife”). A literal translation of this phrase would be “a man of one woman.” There is no word in Greek for our word “husband.” The word for “man” here is aner, which is simply the word for a male individual. The word “wife” simply means a "woman or female individual." It is true that when used in the context of marriage they can be translated "husband and wife." But it is important to see the other nuances in the text to get the full impact of what Paul is saying.
For example, The words “wife” (woman) and “husband” (man) are used WITHOUT the definite article in the original language of the text which would indicate that the character or nature of the man and woman is what is in play here. Therefore the structure of this passage might be best translated "one-woman kind of man.” Kenneth Wuest said it that way in his translation of this passage...“He must be a one-woman kind of man in that he isolates and centralizes his love upon one women.”
It seems clear to me that in a culture where we all know that men were frequently tempted toward unfaithfulness and sexual impurities even in the worship of the mystery religions, that Paul is making it clear that an elder or a deacon of the church was to be a “one-woman kind of guy." Paul is stressing the character and nature of a godly man and that is the quality of character that is to be looked for rather than identifying a single experience or event [divorce] that may have happened in his life especially in the distant past.
The clincher for me in what I've just said is the fact that ALL of these character qualities are in the present tense in the Greek. So it is speaking of a present kind of character quality that would possibly rule out some men who have only been married once but are not at the present a one woman kind of guy. By the same token it could possibly NOT be ruling out a man saved out of sexual promiscuity or a broken marriage but who is now known for his virtuous attitude toward his present wife.
So I personally have reason to doubt that the prohibition of divorce is what Paul intended to say here. In fact, if Paul had merely wanted to forbid a divorced man from being an elder or deacon there are other Greek words which would have easily communicated that thought had he used those words. He did not.
Something else is interesting to me about the construction of these verses and it concerns the use of the word “must.” It should be noted "must" controls the entire section of scripture. It isn't even present in verse 8 but is way back in verses 2 and 7. [Notice the italics in verse 8 indicating such.] This undoubtedly means we are to see the importance of ALL these qualities on an equal basis.
Yet it is often true that this phrase 'husband of one wife' under review in this post is often judged on a harder/higher scale than many of the other qualities. If one holds that a divorce in the past automatically disqualifies a man should we also disqualify a man who has had problems in the past with his children? [v4 and v12] The Scriptures tell us that an elder/deacon “must not be given to much wine. [v3 and v8] Should any past alcoholism then disqualify a man as a divorce does in the minds of many? So while it is true that ALL qualifications are important, we have to question why this one is elevated!! Seeing it the way I'm suggesting the language is to be understood would help that situation.
Another interesting point is seen when we compare the lists of qualifications given to Timothy and Titus. The two lists are virtually the same in all qualities mentioned except one. Paul leaves out in addressing Titus the one forbidding a young Christian from ministering as an elder. Paul does not give this one to Titus who was in Crete. Is this because the church in Crete was a young church and did not have any members who had been believers for a long time? I don't know for sure. But this would at least indicate that these qualities ARE a present day character issue rather than an event in the past that disqualifies and the situation of needed ministry MAY have come into play in Paul's mind. Just sayin....
One other thing. I might as well say it and assure my heretic position in the minds of many. I agree with John MacArthur on this so he must be heretical too. [I do disagree with some other things he says.] I'll let him set the table in his own words. He says..
"Notice verse 11, without looking we almost skip by what Paul just dropped in there. I don't know why he put it in before verse 12, I'm not sure there's any way we can explain it, but he did. It's there. And I want you to understand verse 11 because it's such a wonderful one. "Even so" is the word "likewise" or in like manner, the very same word as verse 8, and that indicates to us that we are now coming to a third category of people. Now you will notice that it is translated in the Authorized with some italics, "Even so must their wives." Let me say that I think that is an inadequate translation. In the first place, there's no word in the Greek for wives, this is the word gunaikeios which means women. [Paul--I've said this in my post above.] And it doesn't say "their women," it could say that in the Greek, there is a word for "their" and the Apostle Paul could have said that if the Holy Spirit wanted him to say it. But he didn't. It actually says "Likewise women," that's all it says in the Greek...likewise women. The question is, what women? Are they the wives of the deacons as some interpreters believe or are they just women who also serve in the church in a deacon capacity? That's the question we have to answer. And I think it can be simply answered. The best translation here is "women" because that's the translation of the word."
"The reason that I'm not at all convinced that this could possibly be the wives of deacons is manifold. Number one, why would there be qualifications for the wives of deacons and not qualifications for the wives of elders who have an even more important responsibility? Why would he isolate the wives of deacons and not say anything at all about the wives of the overseers? Secondly, the use of "likewise" in verse 11 means we have a new category because it was used in verse 8 of a new category. First overseers, likewise deacons, likewise women...and this is to say to me that the church is to recognize that there is a group of women who serve in the church. If he wanted to say "their women" he could have used the word "their" but he didn't use it."
"You say, "Well why didn't he use deaconesses?" Because there's no Greek word for that. That's why Phoebe, a woman in Romans 16:1 is called a deacon because there's no feminine form. So the only word he could use if he had used...if he have said "likewise deacons" and meant women, we never would have known he meant women because the word is not feminine. There was no word for wives, so the only word he could use was women and the way he tells us this is a new category is with "likewise." So clearly he's introducing what I believe has come to be the deaconess in the church."
Well I'll be... I agree Dr. Mac.
In conclusion I would say that when setting aside people to an elders or deacon ministry, [I don't believe these are 'offices' in the popular present day meaning at all.] the church is to examine what the needs are in the body and where any people [men and women] who might meet those needs are right now in their life. This includes their personal life, their walk with the Lord, their family, and how they are seen in the community at the present when all the qualifications are considered.
These are to be servants of the highest order and must demonstrate in their character the grace of God at it's highest level. The obvious anointing of the Spirit is to be upon them and that lifestyle should earn a follow-ship from us all where needed and a linking of hearts and hands on an equal basis out of our giftedness to minister with them for the good of the body.
Sorry for the length, but there it is.