By Randy Dillon
I Timothy 3:12 “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife.”
Paul, the great apostle of Jesus Christ, was keenly aware of the practical implications of the Christian life. When we read his directives to the faithful Timothy, and the church leadership in particular, from a modern cultural perspective we too often lose the flavor of what Paul is teaching. For example, issues such as the length of hair, deaconesses, apparel, women speaking in assembly, etc. involve aspects of social and cultural norms in Paul’s time that may often be rigidly misinterpreted in our time to the detriment of the church.
Denominations and local churches must interpret Paul’s words in making judgments about who is an acceptable candidate for a leadership or service role in the church. In doing so, it may be helpful to view Paul’s directive in light of the societal and cultural expectations of his own time rather than our own time. We may then compare our expectations in view of Paul’s expectations 2,000 years ago.
The Roman Empire ruled the lands around the Mediterranean Sea in Paul’s day borrowing liberally from their Greek predecessors in their social, cultural and religious norms. In the realm of sexual relations it was considered acceptable for a man to have several outlets of sexual interaction. These involved, variously, a wife or wives, a mistress, and temple prostitutes. Homosexuality was also viewed as acceptable as long as it was discreetly practiced. Therefore, it was not unusual; for a man of even modest means to have a wife, or wives, who bore children and maintained the home, with a mistress on the side only for sexual pleasure, and visitations to temple prostitutes as a sign of religious devotion to certain pagan gods.
Viewed in this light, Paul’s admonition of being the “husband of one wife” was a severe limitation of a man’s sexual liberty, but one that was clearly demanded in the Old Testament and the New Testament as well. Demanding that a deacon be the “husband of one wife” would outlaw polygamy, mistresses, temple prostitutes and adulterous affairs in favor of ‘single-minded‘ loyalty to one woman, the wife. It did not speak to divorce just as it did not refer to a widower who may have remarried. In the cultural of Paul’s day the scriptural directive of I Timothy 3:12 involved a man’s current relationship with his wife, not his past, perhaps pagan, relationships.
Today, as the divorce rate of even Christians hovers around 50% there is certainly a rationale for desiring deacons to be faithful to their wives. Faithfulness to a spouse indicates a corresponding adherence to the faithful following of Jesus as Savior and Lord.
However, the interpretation of the phrase “husband of one wife’ can lead to an overly rigid application which was not intended, has little scriptural support, and may, in fact, become the basis for rejecting qualified candidates from the office of deacon.
Consider a few examples. A man is divorced by his wife after she admits to an extra-marital affair. This is a Biblically appropriate divorce, yet this man may not be eligible to serve as a deacon because he is divorced in spite of his personal innocence. In another instance, an unsaved man is divorced by his wife when he is found guilty of a minor offense in his business. He subsequently comes to Jesus and substantially alters his life making amends for his past conduct. Yet, the divorce prohibits him from serving as well. For a third example, an upright man of exemplary repute who is not married is denied the office of deacon because he is not “the HUSBAND of one WIFE.” He is in fact not a husband at all.
What of the Christian man who, in his pre-salvation youth, sires a child but does not marry the mother. However, he acknowledges himself as the father and supports the child. Later, after his salvation, he marries another woman. Some would argue that the child of their youth and the very act of intercourse was marriage in the eyes of God. Is this man eligible as a deacon?
John MacArthur, one of the ablest of current expository preachers says that the phrase “husband of one wife” means “a one woman man,” that is, a man who is wholly faithful to his wife, having no mistress, not a polygamist, not a consort of prostitutes. The phrase does not reference divorce, previous sexual intimacies, or other issues which might better be considered under the idea in I Timoth 3:10 in which potential deacons are to be “proved,” that is, their entire life is be examined and, in particular, their behavior with regard to their faith in Jesus and their loving oversight of their family.
Is this admonition of Paul so rigid, so stringent, that it does not recognize these kinds of situations with a Biblical attitude of forgiveness, understanding, and restitution to the body. How many upright, Godly men have been stained by divorce in a myriad of circumstances, some beyond their control, and then denied eligibility for deaconship. How much more profitable to the witness of the church would be a deacon who could truly empathize with a person entering or emerging from divorce into a new life. Would not such a deacon not be more able to counsel in a situation like this because he too has come through such a fire?