You’re reading the New Testament and find it to be filling your soul. And then BAM! You run into the strange passage in 1 Timothy 3:2. “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…”
You stop smack dab in the middle of the passage because it’s the 21st century and marriage as you know it has always been between two people. So why would Paul recommend an overseer also known as an Elder or Deacon be the husband of one wife.
Marriage in the Old Testament
Let’s address the marriage aspect in the Bible. Monogamy was clearly God’s intent — Genesis 2:22-24 — but after Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden, marriage lines became blurred. The Old Testament references several men who took more than one wife such as Cain and Esau. What is interesting, however, is the wives of Esau made life bitter for himself and his parents.
“When Esau was forty years old, he took to wife Judith the daughter of Be-e’ri the Hittite, and Bas’emath the daughter of Elon the Hittite; and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (Genesis 26:34-35). Just a few chapters before this polygamous marriage, God implies that marriage is between one man and one woman. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” By the time we arrive in Malachi, God commands an entire nation that only monogamy was acceptable. Those who take additional wives were generally viewed as evidence of self-indulgence and sinful.
Moses had two wives as well. The Mosaic Law accommodated the practice of taking more than one wife, which included captured prisoners (Deuteronomy 21:1-17). It also made provisions to continue a man’s family legacy by marrying a brother’s wife if he died before having children (Deuteronomy 25:5-12). Traditionally speaking, men took more than one wife because their first wife was unable to bear children. Children were an important part of a man’s legacy and heirs to property. Even in instances like this, these kinds of marriages were frowned upon by God.
The further we dive into the Bible, we find several more examples of men taking multiple wives including King David who had eight wives. He was considered to be a godly man and known as “the man after God’s own heart.” However, we do see in his story how God disciplined David for his actions when he committed adultery with Bathsheba.
“This is what the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I have given you your master's house and your master’s wives into your bosom ... and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah, and as if this wasn't enough, I would have given you even more’” (2 Samuel 12).
David’s son, Solomon, however, went overboard, flouting a stipulation in Deuteronomy 17:16-17 that kings should not accumulate “too many” wives. For the record, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.
God’s Design for Marriage
When Jesus arrived on the scene, he spoke about a model marriage in Mark 10 after the Pharisees tried to trap him with the question:
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.’” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
What 1 Timothy 3:2 Really Means
Jesus’ moral teaching on marriage was meant to be a reminder of what God intended marriage to be in the first place. Divorce was frowned upon for any reason. Marriage was and still is between a man and a woman; it was meant to mirror how Jesus, the groom, loved his bride, the church. In order for the church to maintain order to serve its people, deacons or elders were established. These men were to be above reproach and includes several qualifications that many churches use today. They are to be:
- Above reproach; Faithful to his wife; Temperate
- Self-controlled; Respectable; Hospitable
- Able to Teach; Not given to drunkenness; Not violent but gentle
- Not quarrelsome; Not a lover of money; He must manage his family well
- He may not be a recent convert; He must have a good reputation with outsiders
1 Timothy 3:2 literally meant for a man to be married to one wife. The idea here is a one-woman man. It didn’t mean he had to be married nor did this statement mean the leader could not marry if his wife passed away. The idea of the passage was about the love and affection and a heart devoted to one wife. It meant he was not a playboy, not a flirt, and not an adulterer. Depending on the church, a man being considered for the role of an overseer or elder would be scrutinized about his divorce or not considered at all.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Carolyn Horlings
Heather Riggleman is an award-winning journalist and a regular contributor for Crosswalk. She calls Nebraska home with her three kids and a husband of 22 years. She believes Jazzercise, Jesus, and tacos can fix anything and not necessarily in that order! She is author of I Call Him By Name Bible Study, the Bold Truths Prayer Journal, Mama Needs a Time Out, and a contributor to several books. You can find her at www.heatherriggleman.com or on Facebook.