What Does It Mean That an Elder Must Be the Husband of One Wife? (1 Timothy 3)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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1The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,2 sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach.—1 Timothy 3:1–2

Trustworthy Saying

“The saying is trustworthy” (cf. comment on 1 Tim. 1:15) refers most likely to the words that follow. Thus the “trustworthy saying” concerns those who wish to be an “overseer” in the church. “Office of overseer” translates a single term, episkopēs. According to BDAG (Bauer, W., F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich. A GreekEnglish Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) episkopēs accents the task of an episkopos (mentioned in verse 2 and translated “overseer”), that of “engagement in oversight, supervision” (italics original). This term came to be used as a reference to the office of one who leads the church. Anyone who aspires to such an office desires something “noble” and good.

Some translations, such as the KJV, render episkopēs as “office of a bishop.” Many readers understand “bishop” to suggest a hierarchy in the church’s leadership. Roman Catholics, for instance, believe the bishop to be higher in office than, and with authority over, the elder. Close attention to this and related terms reveals the mistake of taking this term to refer to an office that exercises authority over the elders of the church. This is so mainly because Paul and the other New Testament authors use overseer interchangeably with the word for elder. For example, consider Titus 1:5–7:

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you. . . . An overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. (Titus 1:5, 7)

ESV Expository Commentary

ESV Expository Commentary

With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.

Clearly, elder and overseer are used interchangeably here. Likewise, in 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul uses the term elder where readers might expect him to say overseer. In doing so, Paul reveals that overseer and elder are two ways of referring to the same office.

Paul is not the only New Testament author who speaks in this way. In 1 Peter 5:1–2 the apostle exhorts “elders” to “shepherd” the church by “exercising oversight” (episkopeō, the verb form of the term translated “overseer”). Peter also draws on a third concept—shepherd (poimainō), the verb form of the noun for “pastor” ( poimēn; cf. Eph. 4:11). In two verses, Peter draws together three different word-groups in reference to the one office of church leadership: overseer, pastor, and elder. Peter is reflecting what is true in all of the New Testament: the authors of Scripture use these three terms to refer to the one office.

Another text confirms the interchangeability of these terms. In Paul’s final meeting with the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17–38), Luke writes that Paul gathers together the “elders,” calls them “overseers,” and exhorts them to “care for” (lit., “shepherd”) the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17, 28). Thus Luke also utilizes all three word-groups in this one chapter to refer to one office.

Thus when Paul affirms that the man who aspires to the office of overseer desires a good thing, he is referring to the one office of leadership within the church: pastor/elder/overseer.

Above Reproach

Paul declares that an “overseer must be above reproach,” which indicates an “external personal reputation that would be a credit to the church.”1 Many commentators agree that this first qualification is a general statement about good character, with the rest of this list specifying that which being “above reproach” entails. Thus the focus of the list is not on gifting but on character. One’s gifting is certainly a consideration (“able to teach”), but it is not the whole, or even the main thing, that Paul is looking for in an overseer.

The first qualification is that a man must be the “husband of one wife.” There are at least four different views on what Paul means by “husband of one wife”:

(1) Some think this simply means that elders must be married, but this interpretation is unlikely because Paul also says that an elder must have submissive children (v. 4), but certainly infertility would not disqualify a man from the eldership. Rather, if an elder has children, they must be subject to his authority. Likewise, the sense here is that if an elder has a wife, he must be faithful to her. Further, it would be wrong to interpret this phrase in a way that would disqualify both Paul and Jesus from serving as a pastor, since both were unmarried. This interpretation is therefore unlikely.

(2) Others believe Paul is declaring that an overseer must not be a polygamist. However, even though there were polygamists in the first century among the Jews, the practice was against Roman law. In addition, monogamy was the norm for both Jews and Greeks in Asia at that time.2Paul probably did not mean to address something that was not an issue for his audience. Further, the phrase “wife of one husband” appears in 5:9, but no one holds that Paul is referring polygamy in that passage. All of this adds up to the conclusion that Paul is not talking about polygamy here in 3:2 either.

The focus is not on gifting but on character.

(3) Still others believe that this qualification requires an overseer to have only one wife during his entire life; such a reading would exclude divorced men and widowers from ever becoming pastors, but this view is unlikely as well. Divorce is relevant to the question of a man’s fitness for ministry—the time and circumstances of any divorce must figure in to any evaluation of a person for pastoral ministry. But this is probably not the issue Paul wishes to address with this phrase. Paul says elsewhere that it is permissible for widows and widowers to remarry if they are so inclined (1 Cor. 7:9), and he encourages young widows to remarry (1 Tim. 5:14). However, this does not preclude their being “the wife of one husband” (as he phrases it in 5:9). So “husband of one wife” does not mean “a man who has been married only one time.”

(4) A final group of commentators believes Paul to be teaching that an overseer must be faithful to his wife; the text literally says that the pastor must be a “man of one woman” (cf. ESV mg.). The elder must be faithful to his wife in a monogamous relationship. To be a “one-woman man” prohibits promiscuity and homosexuality. An elder must have a clear and consistent pattern of honor, love, and devotion to his wife alone.3

The next qualifying mark is that an elder must be “sober-minded.” A pastor must not be a drunkard but must be clear-minded and have good judgment.

In addition, elders are to be “self-controlled.” The Greek term is sōphrona, meaning “being in control of oneself, prudent, thoughtful” (BDAG, italics original). This refers to one who is controlled not by his passions, lusts, or idolatries but by the Spirit. The term can have the nuance of sexual decency as well.4

The qualification of being “respectable” denotes “qualities that evoke admiration or delight” (BDAG, s.v. κόσμιος). These qualities are able to produce such an effect because they refer to a “person’s outward deportment.”5

That an elder is to be “hospitable” means that an overseer’s home is open to care for the needs of others. It is not closed off to those who need material help.

The adjective translated “able to teach” appears only one other time in the Greek New Testament (2 Tim. 2:24). In both instances it describes someone skilled in teaching Christian doctrine (BDAG, s.v. διδακτικός). A similar expression in Titus 1:9 specifies what this skill looks like in practice:6 it involves the ability “to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Likewise, the term’s meaning is defined further in 2 Timothy 2:25, where skill in teaching involves “correcting [one’s] opponents with gentleness.” The ability to teach, therefore, requires not only faithful instruction in apostolic doctrine but also faithful confrontation of false doctrine.

Notes:

  1. William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, WBC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), , 170,
  2. Craig S. Keener, And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1991), 87–88.
  3. Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons, 40 Questions Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008), 128.
  4. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 173.

This article is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11).



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