A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy. 3:1-7. a). His fidelity in marriage.
The requirement that he be *the husband of but one wife* (2) or ‘married only once’ (NRSV) has been the subject of long and anxious debate. Whom is Paul wishing to exclude from the pastorate by this expression? Five answers have been given to this question.
First, it is suggested that Paul is excluding those who have *never married*. Certainly he assumes that pastors will normally be married (as were the other apostles) (1 Cor.9:5), and without doubt the experience of marriage and married life greatly helps them in their ministry. Nevertheless, Paul is not intending to disqualify those of us who are single (or indeed married but childless, verse 5). Only the Eastern Orthodox churches have taught from this text that marriage is obligatory for parish clergy (while requiring their ‘higher’ clergy to be celibate monks). But Jesus and Paul both maintained that some are called to remain single (Mt.19:10-11; 1 Cor.7:7). They also taught that others are called to marriage, which makes the compulsory celibacy of the Roman Catholic priesthood indefensible. The Second Vatican Council conceded that celibacy ‘is not demanded of the priesthood by its nature’ and referred to these verses in 1 Timothy as evidence. Yet it argued that celibacy is ‘in harmony with’ priesthood (a) on the pastoral ground that celibate priests are ‘less encumbered in their service’, and (b) on the theological ground that they are ‘a living sign of that world to come’ in which there will be no marriage. So the council exhorts priests ‘to hold fast…with courage and enthusiasm’ to their celibacy – a statement which must be judged incompatible with Paul’s expectation in this text.
The second interpretation is that Paul excludes *polygamists*. His phrase will of course exclude such, but are they his chief target? Some have held this because polygamy, although technically forbidden by Roman law, was still widely practised, and was also tolerated in Jewish culture. For example, in his *Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew*, the second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr wrote of ‘imprudent and blind’ Jewish teachers ‘who even till this time permit each man to have four or five wives’. Yet there seems no evidence that Christians ever practised polygamy. Moreover, Paul’s complementary requirement that a widow must be ‘the wife of one husband’ (1 Tim.5:9, literally), would then have to be understood as referring to polyandry, whereas this was unheard of even among pagans. Nevertheless, this apostolic ban has proved relevant in contemporary polygamous societies (e.g. in Africa), where churches tend to admit polygamists to membership by baptism, but not to leadership by ordination.
Thirdly, Paul is thought by many to be excluding from the pastorate those who have *divorced and remarried*. This seems a more probable explanation than the previous one, since divorce and remarriage were frequent in Graeco-Roman society and were not unknown among Jews. They are also increasingly common in the West today, so that anxious questions are being asked about this dilemma. Do divorce and remarriage constitute an absolute ban on ordination, although they seem to have been allowed by Jesus to the innocent party when the other has been guilty of serious sexual sin (Mt.5:31-32; 19:9), and by Paul in the case of a newly converted person whose spouse remained unconverted and was unwilling to continue the marriage? (1 Cor.7:12ff.). Do these concessions not apply to clergy and prospective clergy, then? If not does this not erect a double standard? Yes it does, but is it not reasonable and right that a higher standard should be expected of pastors who are called to teach by example as well as by works?
Fourthly, some have argued that Paul is excluding those who are *widowed and remarried*, much as the Old Testament priests were not permitted to marry widows (Lv.21:14; cf. Ezk.44:22). A number of early church fathers interpreted Paul’s prohibition in this way. Tertullian was the most outspoken, He urged his wife, if he were to die first, ‘to refrain from marrying and have done with sex for ever’. The same applied to widowed men. ‘For men who have married twice are not allowed to preside in the Church’. In his later treaties *An Exhortation to Chastity and Monogamy* his false asceticism became even more extreme. He argued that marriage is to be contracted only once; that those who re-marry are setting themselves against God’s will by demanding what he has decided to take away; and that to have two wives successively is no better than to have two simultaneously. The argument against this view is, however, conclusive. The remarriage of widows and widowers is specifically permitted in the New Testament (Rom.7:1ff.; 1 Cor.7:39). True, Paul expressed a preference that they remain single like himself (1 Cor.7:8ff., 25ff.,40), but his reason was personal and practical, not moral, and he urged the younger widows to remarry (5:14). So to forbid marriage to pastors whose first wife has died would be dangerously like the false teachers who were guilty of forbidding marriage altogether (4:3).
The fifth proposal is that Paul is excluding all those *guilty of married unfaithfulness*. Or better, he is making a general and positive stipulation that a candidate for the pastorate must be ‘faithful to his one wife’ (NEB), ‘a man of unquestioned morality, one who is entirely true and faithful to his one and only wife’, or ‘a man who having contracted a monogamous marriage is faithful to his marriage vows’. This explanation seems to fit the context best. The accredited overseers of the church, who are called to teach doctrine and exercise discipline, must themselves have an unblemished reputation in the area of sex and marriage.
|Tomorrow: b). His self-mastery.|
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.