Qualifications for Officers in the New Testament Church: I TIMOTHY 3:1-13

The context of this passage is I Timothy 2, where the apostle declares what he wants from both men and women in the worship of God. He then states that the elder is to be a man, not a woman, by saying "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent" (I Timothy 2:12). In his reason for this, the apostle brings us back to creation, to Adam and Eve, to the first man and woman, to the first husband and wife. This is what immediately precedes I Timothy 3:1-13.

The apostle continues this discussion of the relationship between men and women in the church by saying what kind of man the elder is to be. "The elder must be...a one-woman man" or a "one-wife husband" (I Timothy 3:2). The elder must not be a man with many women or a husband with many wives; in his relationship to women, the elder must not be promiscuous, adulterous or polygamous. He must be a man devoted to only one woman - his wife - as God intended at creation. Devotion to some other woman, such as a mother or mistress, does not count. "For this reason a man will leave father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). It is important to note that the apostle does not add here (or in any other epistle) that the elder may be a no-woman man, that he may choose not to be a husband at all. We do not find that option available for a church officer. A celibate church leadership can be found nowhere in Scripture, either in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Male elders, without female partners, is not what God commanded. A masculine church, utterly uninfluenced by the feminine, is not what God intended. A church ruled by men, who were completely independent of women, is not what the apostle envisioned; in fact, he protected against it. The importance of this requirement is seen in the fact that not once, but three times, the apostle commands that a church officer must be a one-woman man, that is, a one-wife husband:

1. "The elder must be...a one-woman man".
(I Timothy 3:2)

2. "A deacon must be a one-woman man".
(I Timothy 3:12)

3. "An elder must be...a one-woman man".
(Titus 1:6)

It has been argued that being a "one-woman man" is referring to a quality of character rather than an actual state or physical condition. In this view, a man could meet this qualification for a church officer because he possesses the kind of character that would make him a devoted husband, if only he was a husband! He would love his wife, if only he had a wife! All that this man lacks is the opportunity to display on some woman (any woman?) the kind of man he really is at heart. Unshakeable fidelity to one woman, undying devotion to one wife, have nothing to do with the woman/wife involved. These character traits reside in the man alone and are somehow discerned apart from the man knowing a woman or having a wife. In this view, the man may be a church officer because he is devoted to the idea that a man should be devoted to his wife, although there is no actual wife. (This is like the man, who is in love with the idea of being in love, but isn't actually in love with anyone.)

The qualification for elder then becomes based on a hypothetical ideal of both the woman and the man involved, which might not bare any resemblance to the actual relationship between the real and sinful man with a real and sinful woman, joined together in the very real and often difficult bonds of holy matrimony! Would we use this kind of reasoning with any of the other qualifications for a church officer? In every other requirement, the man's character is proven by his actual behaviour. He not only agrees with the idea that an elder must be able to teach; he has demonstrated that he is able to teach. He not only agrees that an elder should not be a lover of money; he actually has demonstrated in real situations that he is not a greedy, grasping man, but is generous and giving. The man has proved himself to be respectable and hospitable; he doesn't just applaud these qualities in an elder and hopes/thinks/prays that he too has them. No, the man has already demonstrated these character traits by real situations in his life. Christ Himself instructs us that what is in a man's heart is seen by what he does in his life. "By their fruit you will recognize them" . (Matthew 7:16,20)

It also has been argued that the command to be a one-woman man is simply a negative prohibition to keep promiscuous, adulterous and polygamous men out of office, and, while it permits a man to be in a monogamous marriage, it does not require him to be. I believe the purpose of this requirement is more than just the elimination of evil from the church leadership; I believe it also has a very definite and positive thrust. In a godly marriage a man must take care of someone other than himself (Ephesians 5:22-33). The same qualities of character developed by Christ-like headship in the home, where a husband learns what sacrificial love really is - these same qualities are necessary for servant-like leadership in the church. A man who loves his wife by caring for her, a man who is able to lead wisely and gently his wife and children in the Christian life, a man who is able to protect and provide for his little family flock - such a man can be entrusted with a larger flock, a congregation of God's people. Marriage was designed by God to be a very effective training institution for the ministry!

However, the most compelling argument for the necessity of a married man as an elder or deacon, is seldom mentioned or given serious attention. In this passage, delineating the requirements for church officers, we read, "In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers, but temperate and trustworthy in everything" (I Timothy 3:11). Here the apostle stipulates the requirements for the church officer's wife. Only a certain kind of woman is allowed to be an officer's wife, (in the same way that only a certain kind of man qualifies as an elder or deacon.) Thus, the church officer is not just to have a wife - and any wife at all will do. No, an officer's wife is to have the same godly character that the elder/deacon has himself. If he does not have a godly wife, it does not matter how gifted or godly the man himself is; he may not be an officer in the church. What is here pictured for us, is a husband-wife partnership in the ministry.

Although the thrice-repeated command in the New Testament for a church officer to be a one-wife husband is abundantly clear, it is in the examination of the foundational texts of the Old Testament that conclusive evidence may be found:

1. The marriage partnership between a man and woman is what God intended and created in the beginning. This partnership was between two human beings, male and female, created in the image of God. They corresponded to each other, not only physically, but also spiritually (Genesis 1:27; 2:23; 5:1,2). The spiritual nature of both men and women is continued in the New Testament: "In the last days," God says, "I will pour out My Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy...Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out My Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy..."
(Acts 2,17,18 & Joel 2:28,29).

2. Marriage was commanded by God from the beginning. To marry and produce children is the first recorded command of God in Scripture. God said to the man and the woman, "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth..." (Genesis 1:28). God's Old Covenant people understood the foundational and universal aspect of this imperative. This command is repeated at different times in the history of the people of God. After the flood the LORD blessed Noah and his sons, saying twice to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth...Be fruitful and increase in number. Multiply on the earth and increase upon it" (Genesis 9:1,7). At the end of the Babylonian captivity, "This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile...Marry and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number; do not decrease" (Jeremiah 29:4-6).

3. Marriage was blessed by God from the beginning. "God blessed them" (Genesis 1:28). Throughout the Old Testament marriage is viewed as a blessing: "Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house...Thus is the man blessed who fears the LORD" (Psalm 128:3,4). Children are a reward from the LORD. "Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them" (Psalm 127:5). All the great blessings and promises of the Old Covenant had to do with bringing forth children, beginning with the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15.

4. God declared the marriage between the first man and woman to be "very good" (Genesis 1:31). God declared the single state of a man to be "not good." Although the first man was perfect, God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18).

5. The first man, although perfect in himself, was in need of a partner corresponding to him. God created the man to need help and the woman to give help. The LORD God said, "I will make a helper suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18) and the suitable helper God created was a woman, a wife! Her help and work for the man was not simply for procreation, (although the man certainly could not do this by himself.) The woman's work was the same as the man's work, which was ruling over the earth and subduing it (Genesis 1:26,28). In the New Testament, the work of the church is subduing the earth under the Rule of Christ. The officers of Christ's Church need spiritual partners, whom God created specifically to help them in this work. They need a godly wife. It is not good for them to be alone. It was so from the beginning. If a perfect man needed help, how much more do imperfect men need help of this kind. The woman was created to help the man in spiritual warfare against the powers of evil. Note the exact timing of the LORD's declaration: "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18). It was immediately after the LORD commanded the man: "You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die" (Genesis 2:17).

6. We see throughout the Old Testament that a good wife is a great benefit to a man, especially to an elder: "He who finds a wife, finds what is good and receives favour from the LORD" and "a wise wife is from the LORD" (Proverbs 18:22 & 19:14). "A wife of noble character, who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. The heart of her husband safely trusts in her; he has full confidence in her, and lacks nothing of value. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life...HER HUSBAND IS RESPECTED AT THE CITY GATE, WHERE HE TAKES HIS SEAT AMONG THE ELDERS OF THE LAND...She is clothed with strength and dignity...She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue. She watches over the affairs of her household...A woman who fears the LORD is to be praised..." (Proverbs 31:1-31). Here we have a full description of the kind of woman an elder's wife must be.

7. The examples we have in Scripture point to marriage as the normal and necessary state for church leaders:

a) Israel was a patriarchal society, a nation ruled by fathers, (which means there were also wives and mothers.) Although there were no explicit directives that officers under the Old Covenant must marry, there was the great imperative of Genesis 2:28, an all-encompassing command. Although we do not read that elders, prophets, priests and kings must be married, that is in fact what we see throughout the Old Covenant age. Elders were the heads of families. Prophets, (with the possible exception of Daniel, who may have been a eunuch,) all had wives. In fact, the wife of a prophet was called a "prophetess", which emphasizes the partnership involved in their union (Isaiah 8:3). Priests were instructed as to what kind of women they must not marry (Leviticus 21:7,13,14), for it was assumed that they would marry. Kings married (and wrongly, often had many wives), not only because of their lust and sin, but also because they wanted to ensure that their royal line would survive. Marriage was expected, because marriage was commanded by the LORD Himself at creation.

b) The example of the apostles in the New Testament is that they were married men (I Corinthians 9:5). Even the apostle Paul, although unmarried when he wrote his epistles, at one time had a wife, whom he lost through death, divorce or desertion. Paul did not remarry, remaining a one-woman man.

c) Our greatest Example is the LORD Himself. Throughout the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is compared to a wife, albeit an unfaithful wife. However, a day is coming when she will remain faithful to God. "In that day," declares the LORD, "you will call Me 'MY HUSBAND'...I will betroth you to Me forever. I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD" (Hosea 2:16,19,20). In the New Testament, the church is the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-33).

The requirement of a spiritual partner in marriage for a church officer is not a new idea springing forth for the first time in I Timothy 3:1-13. It is the primary understanding of the entire Old Testament Scriptures, founded upon Genesis 1 and 2, to which the apostle has already drawn our attention in a backward glance at creation, when he mentions Adam and Eve in I Timothy 2. We are called to remember our forefathers and foremothers in the faith: "Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth" (Isaiah 51:1,2).

TITUS 1:5-9

In this passage, essentially the same requirements are given for the church officer. "An elder must be...a one-woman man" (Titus 1:6). Note also that in all three New Testament passages dealing with requirements for an elder, that he must be "self-controlled" (Titus 1:8; I Timothy 3:2; I Peter 5:8). Self-control is the mark of the godly man or woman (Titus 2:2,5,6,12). Self-control is contrasted to "ungodliness and worldly passions" (Titus 2:11) and unbelievers who are "foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures" (Titus 3:3).

I PETER 5:1-4

The apostle here urges elders to be "examples to the flock" (I Peter 5:3). One way elders must be examples for their flock is in marriage, as husbands who treat their wives with respect (I Peter 3:7).

There are two very common objections to the view that a church officer "must be a one-woman man."

1. "It is unfair!" How many times I have heard that objection. It is unfair that a gifted man be barred from the leadership of th church, simply because he has no wife (or the wrong wife.) This is exactly the same argument feminists use. Why should a gifted, talented, educated woman, who is a brilliant teacher, be kept from the pastorate or eldership, simply because she is a woman? The answer to both these groups is the same: Because that is what God requires in His Holy Word.

2. The second objection has real substance, because it is based on the Word of God.

I CORINTHIANS 6:12-7:40

This passage seems to present a very bleak view of marriage. At first glance, it seems that the apostle Paul urges strongly against marriage as an institution in itself. It seems that he says:

  • Marriage is permissible, but not beneficial (6:12).
  • "It is good for a man not to marry" (7:1).
  • Marriage is a concession, not a command (7:6).
  • It is a gift to be unmarried (7:7).
  • Paul says, "I wish that all men were as I am" (7:7).
  • "It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am" (7:8).
  • For virgins, "It is good for you to remain as you are" (7:26).
  • "Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife" (7:27).
  • "Those who are married will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this" (7:28).
  • "I would like you to be free from concern" (7:32).
  • "An unmarried man/woman is concerned about the Lord's affairs...how he/she can please the Lord. (7:32,34).
  • "A married man/woman is concerned about the affairs of this world"...how he/she may please a spouse (7:33,34).
  • Concerning the married: Their "interests are divided" (7:34).
  • Concerning the unmarried: Their "aim is to be devoted to the LORD in both body and spirit" (7:34).
  • Paul is urging people not to marry "for your own good" (7:35).
  • Paul is urging people not to marry so they may "live in a right way, in undivided devotion to the Lord" (7:35).
  • A person who marries does right; he is not sinning. But a person who does not marry "does even better" (7:36,38).
  • In Paul's judgment, a person is "happier" if he/she remains unmarried (7:40).

From this portion of Scripture one can see how a celibate clergy emerged! One can see how monasteries and nunneries became the Christian ideal. From this passage one wonders why the reformers even bothered to state: "We deny that marriage is a more spiritual state than the single life..." (Westminster Confession, A-81,16). It seems that the opposite needed to be argued. However, if Paul was actually saying, "It is good for a man not to marry" (7:1) - then he is going against the entire testimony of the rest of Scripture! He is going against God's own Word!

There are several important points to note about this passage of Scripture, which qualify everything Paul is saying here about marriage:

1. He is not dealing with qualifications for the leadership of the church. He is dealing with corruption in the church! He is dealing with people who are utterly lacking in self-control. (Self-control is mentioned again and again as a requirement for church officers.) These people would not be considered, even for a moment, for church leadership. The apostle is urging these people not to be mastered by their passions, just as he "will not be mastered by anything" (6:12). He is urging them not to give their bodies to sexual immorality, as they were doing (6:13). These men in the church were whore-mongers! They were uniting themselves to prostitutes! Paul is urging them to flee from this sexual immorality (6:15-18). These men were involved in sexual sins against their own bodies (6:18). They were not honouring God with their lives (6:20) - far from it! They were burning with wicked passions (7:9). It is in this context that marriage was viewed as a concession. "SINCE THERE IS SO MUCH IMMORALITY, each man should have his own wife..." (7:2). Marriage (and sexual intimacy in marriage) was a concession "BECAUSE OF YOUR LACK OF SELF-CONTROL" (7:5). It was because they were committing all kinds of sexual sins, even uniting themselves with prostitutes, that Paul says, "IF THEY CANNOT CONTROL THEMSELVES they should marry" (7:9). Paul wishes that they were as he was - "not mastered by anything" (6:12). Paul urges that they should live as he lived - a man who honoured God with his body, and offered the members of his body and united himself to the Lord - not to prostitutes, as they were doing. Whether married or unmarried, we should all be as Paul was - wholly devoted to the Lord.

2. Paul is also dealing with the persecution of the church. He urges people not to marry because of the current distress they are facing. "BECAUSE OF THE PRESENT CRISIS, I think it is good for you to remain as you are" (7:26). You don't urge people to marry and have children in the midst of a holocaust. You urge them to remain single, but to live holy lives, devoted to the service of God. This to me is a mitigating circumstance, even in church leadership, to remain unmarried. If we send an ordained man to the Sudan, where Christian women are raped and killed, where Christian children are kidnapped and enslaved, where a man can reasonably expect that his family might be tortured and slaughtered, it would be better for him to remain unmarried. This may have been why the apostle Paul himself remained single - because in his ministry he faced continual "troubles, hardships and distresses; beatings, imprisonments and riots; hard work, sleepless nights and hunger" (II Corinthians 6:4,5). It was good that Paul did not have a wife and children on his missionary journeys, because they might not have survived the severity of the trials. Paul testifies that he was "imprisoned frequently, flogged severely and "exposed to death again and again...Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; I spent a day and a night in the open sea; I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked" (II Corinthians 11:23-27). This is not the kind of life or ministry one leads with a wife and children. A good husband and father does not expose his family to danger.

MATTHEW 19:1-15

The Pharisees come to Jesus and ask, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" Jesus replies, based on Genesis 1 & 2, "What God has joined together, let man not separate." He also says that "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman, commits adultery." Christ has a very high view of marriage - that it is the work of God - and He emphasizes that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16); it is against the very Law of God. These are powerful and positive statements about marriage. The disciples miss the meaning and say to Jesus, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry." Jesus replies, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven." A better translation is "And there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" (KJV).

Jesus is here offering the disciples a choice: Either you marry in the way God intended that you marry - with love, honour, devotion and fidelity to the wife by covenant - or you make yourself a eunuch. For a Jewish man with a Jewish mindset, becoming a eunuch was not a very attractive alternative. Christ purposely links the unmarried state with a repulsive alternative: Become a eunuch, if you can't follow what God created and commanded. Those are the only two alternatives. Jesus ends by saying, "The one who can accept this, should accept it." He is not advocating celibacy; He is advocating faithful marriages - or a barren alternative. It is interesting how this dialogue concludes: Then little children were brought to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them and pray for them. The disciples still don't understand. They rebuke the fathers and mothers of the children, but Jesus says, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." The dialogue ends with Christ blessing marriage, by blessing the children.

This is a fuller exposition of my Tabletalk article, which was used for discussion by several elders and pastors in the Reformed Presbyterian Church