This post was first published in January, 2015. —ed.
“The NFL’s doing a better job at it. CBS is doing a better job at it. Kmart is doing a better job at it. Virtually every institution on earth is demonstrating that they are doing a better job at restoring people than the Church.”  These are the words of a disgraced pastor whose sexual sins made national headlines. It’s hard to find a clearer example of how worldly views on leadership exist among Christians.
God does not demand perfection from those who shepherd His flock, but He insists on men who are above reproach. The highest office ordained by God requires the highest standards in personal character.
And those standards are not obscure or mysterious. God’s Word is abundantly clear about the character qualifications for church leaders.
An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. (1 Timothy 3:2–3; cf. Titus 1:5–9)
The overseer or elder must first be above reproach in relation to women. He must be the husband of one wife. The Greek text literally reads “a one-woman man.” Paul is not referring to a leader’s marital status—whether he’s married or unmarried. The issue is his moral, sexual behavior. Many men married to one woman are not one-woman men. Many with one wife are unfaithful to that wife. While remaining married to one woman is commendable, it is no indication or guarantee of moral purity.
Why This Standard?
Some may wonder why Paul begins his list with this quality. He does so because it is in this area, above all others, where leaders seem most prone to fall. The failure to be a one-woman man has put more men out of the ministry than any other sin. It is thus a matter of grave concern.
Various interpretations have been offered that evade the meaning of this standard. Some have argued that its intent is to forbid polygamy. A man could not, however, even be a member of the church, let alone a leader, if he was a polygamist. If that were all Paul meant, it would be an unnecessary prohibition. Further, polygamy was not an issue in Ephesus. It was uncommon in Roman society, in part because extramarital sexual encounters, as well as divorces, were easily obtainable. Nor was polygamy a feature of first-century Jewish society.
Others maintain that Paul here forbids remarriage after the death of a spouse. As already noted, however, this standard, like all the rest, refers to moral character, not marital status. Furthermore, Scripture permits and honors second marriages under the proper circumstances. Paul expected younger widows to remarry and raise a family (1 Timothy 5:14), and widows could be described as one-man women (1 Timothy 5:9). In 1 Corinthians 7:39 he wrote, “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”
Still others hold that this qualification excludes divorced men from spiritual leadership. That again ignores the fact that Paul is not here referring to marital status. Nor does the Bible forbid all remarriage after a divorce. In Matthew 5:31–32 and 19:9, our Lord permitted remarriage when a divorce was caused by adultery. Paul gave a second occasion when remarriage is permitted, namely, when the unbelieving spouse initiates the divorce (1 Corinthians 7:15). While God hates all divorce (Malachi 2:16), He is gracious to the innocent party in those two situations.
Since remarriage in and of itself is not a sin, it is not necessarily a blight on a man’s character. If divorce resulted from a man’s inability to lead his family (1 Timothy 3:5), however, then it is a disqualification.
Nor does Paul intend to exclude single men from the ministry. If that was his point here, he would have disqualified himself, since he was single (1 Corinthians 7:8).
A one-woman man is a man devoted in his heart and mind to the woman who is his wife. He loves, desires, and thinks only of her. He maintains sexual purity in both his thought life and his conduct. That qualification was especially important in Ephesus, where sexual evil was rampant. Many, if not most, of the congregation had at one time or another fallen prey to sexual evil. If that was before a man came to Christ, it wasn’t a problem (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). If it happened after his conversion, even before he assumed a leadership role, it was a problem. If it happened after he assumed a leadership role, it was a definite disqualification.
Those same standards apply to men in positions of spiritual leadership today. Scripture makes it clear that sexual sin is a reproach that never goes away. Proverbs 6:32–33 says of the adulterer, “The one who commits adultery with a woman is lacking sense; he who would destroy himself does it. Wounds and disgrace he will find, and his reproach will not be blotted out.”
Some time ago I listened to the deeply disturbing audio of a “recommissioning service.” It was for a pastor who had made national news by confessing to an adulterous affair. The man was returning to public ministry with his church’s blessing after little more than a year of “counseling and rehabilitation.”
It is beyond ridiculous to think that a year’s leave of absence and some counseling can restore a public reputation of integrity to someone who has squandered his reputation and destroyed people’s trust. Tragically, that story is not an isolated incident. The evangelical highways and byways are well covered with restoration teams waiting like tow-truck drivers anticipating the next leadership “accident.”
Like the pastor I quoted earlier, many confuse forgiving a repentant sinner with restoring them to leadership. While we should be ready to forgive, forgiveness does not requalify the man for leadership. There are some sins that irretrievably destroy a man’s reputation and disqualify him from a ministry of leadership forever. Even the Apostle Paul feared such a possibility: “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). By referring to his body, Paul obviously had sexual immorality in view (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:18). He was acutely aware that if he succumbed to sexual temptation then he too would be disqualified from leadership. Today the church needs to treat this poisonous sin with the same degree of seriousness.