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The Qualifications for Elder: 1 Timothy 3:2 and S. Lewis Johnson

The series through 1 Timothy, taught by S. Lewis Johnson (1976), brings up some interesting questions concerning the church elder qualifications.  1 Timothy 3:2 lists a qualification for elder as a husband with one wife, literally a “one woman man.”  As I learned from SLJ’s remarks here, with follow-up from the MacArthur Bible Commentary as well as online commentaries and articles, this text has been taken in four different ways:

1.  Prohibition against polygamy
2.  Only married men, not single
3.  Emphasis on faithfulness and fidelity, a “one wife kind of man”
4.  No re-marriage after first marriage.  This view has two variations:  remarriage after being widowed (only divorced men cannot be elders); or, no second marriage, even after being widowed.

I have seen the first view mentioned as an application of this passage — polygamous tribal rulers of primitive lands cannot be elders.  But as S. Lewis Johnson and John MacArthur have pointed out, polygamy was not really an issue in the 1st century, and the Romans had laws against it.  The second view would mean that the apostle Paul himself could not be an elder.  John MacArthur takes the third view, that the emphasis is on the man’s overall integrity and faithfulness.  Yet here S. Lewis Johnson differed, saying “But a much simpler way of saying it would be that he should not be an adulterer, if that’s the meaning.”

Interestingly, S. Lewis Johnson took the last view, that an elder can only have one marriage ever.  I could not find agreement with this view by any other modern-day preachers, commentaries or websites I googled.  (I have seen, in practice, the view that an elder can not be a divorced man.  Yet even John MacArthur apparently allows that in some cases a divorced man could become an elder.)  S. Lewis Johnson cited several reasons, including early church history as well as pagan and Jewish ideas concerning second marriage after widowhood as a sign of self-indulgence.  Several of the early church fathers, including Tertullian, likewise held that a second marriage, after being widowed, was considered a sign of weakness.  In SLJ’s words:

In support of this interpretation, in the inscriptions in Antiquity, for both literary and funerary inscriptions, Pagan and Jewish, it is stated over and over again that to remain unmarried after the death of one’s spouse, or after divorce, was considered meritorious, while to marry again was taken as a sign of self indulgence.  The early church fathers largely followed this interpretation.

For example, Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, of course, Tertullian, and among later followers, Chrysostom, Epiphanes, Cyril, all write in disparagement of second marriages, not as sin, but as weakness.  To marry again is to fall short of high perfection set before us in the gospel.  Now, Athenagoras goes so far as to call a second marriage respectable adultery.  Now, that’s wrong, of course, but it illustrates the attitude of the early church to men who married more than once.  “And to say that one who thus severs himself from his dead wife is an adulteress in disguise,” Athenagoras said.  Respecting the ministers clergy Origen says plainly, “Neither a bishop nor a Presbyter, nor a deacon, nor a widow can be twice married.”  Tertullian, in one of his Montanist treatises, taunts the Catholics in having even among their bishops men who had married twice and who didn’t blush when the pastor epistles were read.

I now recall some biographical information concerning S. Lewis Johnson, things I’ve picked up from his various sermons he did — from the early years (Isaiah, 1968) to “The Divine Purpose” (1986) and “Lessons from the Life of David” (1992).  His first wife was Mary, but she died in the late 1970s, either 1978 or 1979.  About a year later Johnson himself remarried, to Martha — a wife he often mentions by name in sermons from the 1980s and later.  He preached through 1 Timothy during Wednesday nights in 1976.  From comments he made in later series, I had already learned that S. Lewis Johnson had previously been an elder at Believer’s Chapel, but had since resigned and was only a gifted preacher/teacher.  Evidently his belief concerning marriage and elders was behind that change.

Johnson also cited another reason, the Greek grammar in 1 Timothy 3:2 as equivalent grammar to 1 Timothy 5:9 — that it means a woman who was  married to one husband (only one ever), and thus 1 Timothy 3:2 means the same in reference to an elder’s marital situation.   It’s an interesting point, yet I consider the hypothetical situation of a godly Christian widow, a woman who had an early marriage from which she was widowed (say in her 30s), and — as Paul even commanded concerning younger widows — had remarried, and years later is widowed again after age 60.  Somehow I don’t see that the apostle Paul or Timothy would have excluded such a woman from the roll of widows needing financial support.  But according to SLJ’s reasoning, such a woman would have been excluded.

I had never heard Johnson’s view before, and he’s no longer with us so as to ask him about that hypothetical widow on the church care-list.  Of course, he now understands far more about our God and the Bible than anyone still in this world, and so perhaps he knows the correct interpretation of this passage now — whichever interpretation it is.  One thing remains clear:  the interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:2 has changed along with society’s views on marriage.  Ancient societies held a much stronger and stricter view concerning marriage, and interpreted 1 Timothy 3:2 accordingly, whereas apparently all Bible scholars in our 21st century society think differently.  Then again, even by the 19th century, a time where marriage was more highly valued, Bible scholars must not have taken the strict view of the early Church — for if they had, certainly SLJ would have also mentioned such support.  Still, perhaps SLJ was onto something — that issue also mentioned by Al Mohler in a recent column, Divorce: The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.

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  1. Joe
    July 2, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    Much is said and taught about the Qualifications of Elders (1 Tim 3:1-7) and here is my questions. Does the “must be” in 1 Tim 3:2 stay in place after a man is installed into the leadership position? To be more speciifc, if the Eleders wife dies does her death require that he step down from the position or can he continue to serve?

    Your response would be appreciated.


  2. July 2, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    He can continue to serve — the view taught here is that only if he remarries, after his wife dies, would he step down from the position.

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