Pastor, are you a one-woman man? After the general call for elders to be “above reproach,” Paul's next concern is our marriages (1 Timothy 3:2)—that every elder would be “the husband of one wife” (that is, “a one-woman man”). But what does he mean?
Misinterpreting the Qualification
Some interpretations of 1 Timothy 3:2 do not fly. For starters, elders need not be married. Suppose an elder’s spouse suddenly dies. Are we really to believe this widower would be disqualified for ceasing to be the “husband of one wife”? And to bar single men from serving as elders would have ruled out the Apostle Paul, who actually preferred singleness (1 Corinthians 7:6–8).
Second, biblical remarriage is acceptable. If the widower from our first example took another wife, he would remain qualified. In fact, Paul allows widow(ers) to remarry (1 Corinthians 7:39). Why would he grant them this privilege, but then exclude them from serving as elders? It doesn't make sense.
Third, though 1 Timothy 3:2 certainly requires monogamy, it is not merely excluding alternatives such as extramarital sex, plural marriage, unbiblical divorce, or marital infidelity. And this is my point.
Minimizing the Standard
Many elders think of themselves as one-woman men because they have never slept around. But this is minimizing the qualification. Is it possible to be sexually faithful to your wife and still miss the mark? I believe so. Here’s a thought experiment. Let’s say a fellow regularly takes platonic vacations with his neighbor's wife—just the two of them—and he is on your elder board. Any objections? Of course! Infidelity need not be confined to physical acts. It can also be emotional.
But let's say a fellow has never committed infidelity of any sort—physical, mental, or emotional. Does this mean he is a one-woman man? Not necessarily.
One-woman men have a positive orientation toward their wives. Paul elsewhere speaks of sanctification as replacing evil behavior with good—as putting off the old self with its practices and putting on the new self, which is characterized by love (Colossians 3:9, 12–14). Have you put off adultery without putting on Christlike devotion to your spouse? 1 Timothy 3:2 requires both choosing and cherishing one woman only. In fact, being a one-woman man involves pursuing our wives long after we've clinched the deal at the altar.
“Have you put off adultery without putting on Christlike devotion to your spouse?”
1 Timothy 3:2 clearly prohibits adultery—a sin of commission. But let’s also consider it from the angle of a sin of omission. Why, when Scripture speaks so warmly of what our wives might be to us, are we so tepid? They are to be the perfect complement (Genesis 2:18); fruitful vines (Psalms 128:3); springs of pure conjugal delight (Proverbs 5:15–19); our crown (Proverbs 12:4); and our “beloved” (Song of Songs). And yet, despite such high praise, husbands still need to be commanded to love them (Ephesians 5:25). Like their husbands, wives are broken by the fall, and at times their sin makes them so odious a fellow prefers to live on the roof (Proverbs 21:9). And then we must factor in our own depravity. God calls us to marital intimacy, and it sounds good. But as spouses get to know one another, they discover both diamonds and dung. Without a firm grip on the gospel, we can be tempted to apathy or even skepticism that douses our desire for intimacy. Knowing God hates divorce, we set our teeth for half a century of marital detente.
Adultery is jarring, but apathy kills marriages slowly. The adulterous husband’s heart races with every exchanged glance, but the apathetic husband's heart barely beats. He neglects his wife because he has grown tired of doing anything. He stops seeking relational closure with her. We've all heard of the “frog in the pot.” This is the “frog in the freezer.” This kind of sin is a slow and relentless creep of relational frost into the marriage. And because it happens from time to time in all marriages, it is hard to know when the situation is chronic, and when it is a temporary phase that will yield to some time and focused attention. Which brings up the next point: getting help.
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun: many pastors who know they need help are reluctant to seek it. You may not know where to turn. (Ministry can be isolating.) You may anticipate seeking counsel locally will complicate your life and ministry. (It certainly can.) You may be embarrassed because this “isn’t supposed to happen.” Or you may fear it will undermine your example to the flock. (Isn’t precisely the opposite true?). But if you think you might be “that guy,” here are three reasons to push past the difficulties, embrace hope, and get help.
First, seek help out of love for your wife. Brothers, we lead our wives in the context of self-sacrifice, following the example of the ultimate husband, the Lord Jesus, who is the Savior of the body (Ephesians 5:23). Your wife wants you to know her. She longs to be cherished. Show her you are serious, lay down your pride, and seek help. God will reward your repentance with growing harmony and joy.
Second, seek help out of love for your church. Christ’s call for elders to be above reproach is not a call to sinlessness. It is a call to integrity. What a powerful and fresh example you will set for God's people! Your example will encourage others who need help. And as your marriage becomes sweeter and more fruitful, it will be more winsome, and more worth imitating.
Third and foremost, seek help out of love for the Lord. We bear his name. We husbands are to exemplify Christ’s love for the church. We rejoice in this high and holy calling with trembling, knowing our weakness but striving to embody the beauty and power of Christ’s love as we love our wives.