As you know, 1 Timothy 3 is a highly debated passage and one that is somewhat emotional for many people, partly because of the longstanding tradition that it means “married only once.” First, I’ll give you the comments on this verse from the Bible Knowledge Commentary and then share a few thoughts on this myself.
The comments from the BKC somewhat trace the historical arguments on the passage:
3:2. More is required of an overseer than mere willingness to serve. In verses 2-7 Paul listed 15 requirements for a church leader: (1) above reproach. He must be blameless in his behavior. This Greek word anepilempton, “above reproach,” is used in the New Testament only in this epistle (v. 2; 5:7; 6:14). It means to have nothing in one’s conduct on which someone could ground a charge or accusation. It differs slightly in meaning from its synonym anenkletos in 3:10 (see comments there). (2) Husband of but one wife, literally, a “one-woman man.” This ambiguous but important phrase is subject to several interpretations. The question is, how stringent a standard was Paul erecting for overseers? Virtually all commentators agree that this phrase prohibits both polygamy and promiscuity, which are unthinkable for spiritual leaders in the church. Many Bible students say the words a “one-woman man” are saying that the affections of an elder must be centered exclusively on his wife. Many others hold, however, that the phrase further prohibits any who have been divorced and remarried from becoming overseers. The reasoning behind this view is usually that divorce represents a failure in the home, so that even though a man may be forgiven for any sin involved, he remains permanently disqualified for leadership in the congregation (cf. vv. 4-5; 1 Cor. 9:24-27). The most strict interpretation and the one common among the earliest commentators (second and third centuries) includes each of the above but extends the prohibition to any second marriage, even by widowers. Their argument is that in the first century second marriages were generally viewed as evidence of self-indulgence. Though Paul honored marriage, he also valued the spiritual benefits of celibacy (1 Cor. 7:37-38) even for those who had lost a mate (1 Tim. 5:3-14). Thus he considered celibacy a worthy goal for those who possessed the self-control to remain unmarried. According to this strict view Paul considered a widower’s second marriage, though by no means improper, to be evidence of a lack of the kind of self-control required of an overseer, in much the same way that a similar lack disqualified a widow from eligibility for the list of widows (5:9).
Now for my thoughts on this passage. Literally, the passage says, “a one-woman man” just as 5:9 says, “a one-man woman.” If you recall, later in chapter 5 verse 14, Paul actually told the younger widows to marry rather than to remain single. If Paul meant married only once in 5:9 rather than referring to a woman who had been faithful to her husband, then he would have been excluding these younger widows from ever being able to be included in the list of widows should they be widowed again.
Further, if the passage means married only once, regardless of the reason, even in the case of the death of the spouse, then this is the only qualification in the list that is an absolute. Here is what I mean. All the other qualifications are somewhat relative since no man is 100% perfect in fulfilling these qualifications. Even the most mature and godly man is going to fall short to some degree in this life in these qualifications. Who, for instance, is perfectly temperate in all areas of his life? I see many elders, deacons, and well-known preachers who are thirty, forty, fifty pounds over weight because they are not temperate in their eating habits and disciplined in exercise. Yet, we never think twice about selecting such men to these offices. The point is, these are characteristics that should be generally evident to a large degree in an elder or deacon.
On the other hand, if we take “a one-woman man” to mean one who has shown and demonstrated constant faithfulness and who has eyes only for his wife, then this qualification falls in line with the others from this standpoint. Whereas, if it is taken in the absolute sense of “married only once,” then it stands alone as the only absolute qualification. Maybe that’s okay, but this is something that I think should be considered.
Obviously, this can be abused as can any aspect of grace. Church leaders (and all believers) should maintain high standards in their marriage relationships so they promote purity and commitment. But the ultimate issue ought to be, at least in my perspective, a track record that has demonstrated faithfulness in all the qualifications mentioned. If divorce occurred in the past, but the man has demonstrated growth, maturity, faithfulness to his wife and family for a sufficient time to give solid evidence of the reality of this, then I question whether we are truly acting biblically to hinder such a man from leadership. Does it not illustrate the restorative nature of God’s grace and forgiveness?
In keeping with this, we know historically that in Paul’s day in the Roman world that divorce and sexual impurity was even more rampant than it is in our day. Finding men or women, for that matter, who were married only one time, could have been as difficult as it is becoming in our day. This is an argument from silence, but maybe it is one we should consider.
Concerning divorce and remarriage, Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 7 are key Pauline texts. In short, I would say that Paul’s view is that a believer whose unbelieving spouse has deserted him is not disqualified from being an elder or deacon; a believer who was divorced when he was an unbeliever is not disqualified; and a believer who is the innocent party in a divorce involving adultery is not disqualified. Having said all this, one still ought to look into any pattern of behavior that might reveal a character flaw (e.g., a man who has had multiple marriages as an unbeliever). In other words, the fact that there is not necessarily a disqualification does not of itself endorse a particular candidate.