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1 Tim 3:2—Can an elder be divorced? (Monday with Mounce 28)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday With Mounce buttonThis is one of those perennial questions, and it came up again the other day so I thought I would summarize the issues. For more detail, see my commentary (pages 170-173).

Paul urges Timothy to insist that an elder is above approach. What this means is laid out in the following verses, and one of the requirements is that he is "a man of one woman," or, "a husband of one wife," mias gunaikos andra. What does this mean?

1. Some hold that it means an elder must be married. But the force of the construction places its emphasis on "one" (because of its location at the beginning of the phrase), makes Timothy and Paul ineligible for eldership, and runs counter to Paul’s preference for celibacy.

2. Some hold that it is a prohibition against polygamy, i.e., married to one at a time. This argument is stronger than one might suspect from its near universal rejection. However, while polygamy was common in Judaism it was not common in Christianity, so it seems unlikely that Paul would have thought to prohibit something that rarely occurred. Also, because the phrase is so unique, one would suspect it has the same meaning but in reverse when applied to widows (who needed to be a woman of one man, 1 Tim 5:9), and there is no evidence of polyandry.

3. Others think that it means the elder must be faithful to his wife. In the modern vernacular, a "one-woman kind of guy." In fact, I. H. Marshall in his ICC commentary merely lists this as the meaning and moves on, not debating the point.

4. The dominant interpretation places primary emphasis on the "one" and says that being above reproach means he has only been married once. This position divides into two camps, and your position here depends more on your theology of divorce and remarriage than it does on the text in 1 Tim 3.

Some argue this limits an elder whether his first marriage ended in divorce or his wife died. Others say a man is restricted from the office only if he was divorced. From here there are even more qualifications that can be made, such as if he was divorced before he was a Christian. As I recall, Saucy’s article in BibSac 131 (1974) 229-240 was very good.

As far as the Greek is concerned, the genitive is ambiguous. The Greek gives us a range of possibilities, but our theology is going to determine our interpretation. But a couple comments…

The Bible never says a divorced person cannot be an elder. This is an important distinction. A person’s interpretation of a difficult phrase may yield this conclusion, but the Bible clearly does not say the word "divorced." We need to be honest with this fact.

The NIV’s "the husband of but one wife" may be placing emphasis on mias, but to me this is an inappropriate translation and is adding to the biblical text. I was glad to see the TNIV’s correction to, "faithful to his wife" (also the NLT, "He must be faithful to his wife"). The RSV ("the husband of one wife") was changed to "married only once" (NRSV), a surprisingly interpretive translation by an otherwise more reserved translation.

When I was pastoring, one of my joys was writing position papers. This is a practice that I would encourage all pastors to do. It involves not only exegeting the text but then applying it. For example, Titus 1:6 requires that an elder’s children must be "faithful" or "believers."

Once you have exegeted the text, you still have to apply it. I go with "believers" in my commentary, but then what about the elder who has 5 believing children and one child who is wandering. Is he ineligible?

This is what Position Papers are for. I have made a few of my Position Papers available at Scroll to the bottom of the page to see the links.

When I wrote the commentary I initially went with Position 4. But when I got to chapter 5, I could not say that a widow had to be married only once in order to be enrolled in widows list since Paul encourages the younger widows to remarry. So I went back and changed my commentary to Position 3.

This allows for a person to be an elder who has been divorced in the distant past—how far in the distance needs to be decided in your position paper. I didn’t come to this conclusion for this reason, but it is one of the ramifications.

But in this debate, let’s be fair. 1 Tim 3:2 is a confusing text, and whatever it says, it does not say it clearly. At least to us; I am sure Timothy had not doubt as to Paul’s meaning.

MounceWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at

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