What does Paul intend when he writes that an overseer must be a husband of one wife in 1 Timothy 3:2 (cf. Titus 1:6 and 1 Timothy 3:12)? Here is a quick walk-through this somewhat complicated expression.
There are four main historical approaches to interpreting this expression. I think two of them are quite unlikely. 1) I am first of all not presently sympathetic with the idea that there is a requirement that overseers be married (must they also have a plurality of children? cf. 1 Timothy 3:4. Also, could Paul or Timothy be overseers?). 2) Nor am I sympathetic with the idea that this is simply an exclusion of polygamy (see standard commentaries for historically-focused reasons).
This leaves me with two main possibilities, either that: 1) Paul requires that overseers—if they are married—to only have one marriage in their lifetime, or 2) that he is enjoining marital faithfulness in a more general way.
1) The arguments most persuasive to me that Paul may be limiting overseers to only one wife for a lifetime (thus excluding the possibility of remarriage after divorce or death of a spouse) include the following.
a. Full weight is given in this position to Paul’s use of “one” in the phrase in 1 Timothy 3:2. Literally, this expression can be read, “a man of one woman.” And since the word “one” is first in the expression, it could be viewed as emphatic.
b. There is a tendency among early church fathers to show preference for an unmarried, unencumbered ministry. Furthermore, there are some statements in the patristic writings that suggest that celibacy—even after the death of a spouse—is preferable. Since Paul himself indicates some preference for single ministry for someone who has previously been married (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:7, 32-35, 40), it may be that the patristic writers also reflect Paul’s own viewpoint on this qualification for eldership, namely, that an overseer should not have been married more than once in a lifetime. Still, most of these writings are too late to be of much value in the discussion (i.e., nothing early except Shepherd of Hermas and Justin Martyr, and Hermas says explicitly that it isn’t sin, 32.1-2).
2) The arguments most persuasive to me that Paul may be referring to an overseer who is above reproach in the area of marital fidelity follow. In this view, the overseer must be known to be a man who is faithful and committed to his present wife and who does not commit adultery (thus including both marital fidelity and sexual fidelity).
a. Paul allows for remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and encourages remarriage in 1 Timothy 5 for younger widows. In the context of 1 Timothy 5, I think it doubtful that Paul would have denied putting an older widow on the support list who had earlier remarried at Paul’s encouragement and then been widowed a second time. Since 1 Timothy 5:9 says that a widow must be “a woman of one man,” we probably need to interpret that expression as consistent with the possibility of a second marriage under biblically allowed circumstances. This suggests that viewing the almost identical phrases in 1 Timothy 3:2 and 5:9 in a restrictive sense (as in option #1) may not be warranted.
b. The expression that Paul uses in the case of desertion of a spouse in 1 Corinthians 7:15 (“is not under bondage”; cf. 7:27) is so similar to expressions and ideas in Romans 7:2-3 (“is bound by law” “she is released” “free from the law”) and the similar expression in 1 Corinthians 7:39 (“a wife is bound as long as her husband lives”) that I think allowance for remarriage should be understood in such a case. Would Paul have excluded potential overseers from participating in what seems to be the freedom to remarry implied by these verses?
c. The requirements for overseers in 1 Timothy 3 all point toward the present positive “character” of these men rather than their past lives. It seems that their past lives in all other cases are only relevant insofar as they show the candidates presently to be men of good character (cf. the “above reproach,” the “managing household,” and the “good reputation with those outside” requirements). Since the “above reproach” requirement is first, many interpreters think that it should encompass all the other items in the list. Thus, the phrase under consideration should probably be considered a character-issue (a quality related to being “above reproach”), particularly in light of the fact that all the other items in the list fit comfortably under this rubric.
d. Paul himself was formerly a murderer and blasphemer (Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 9:1-4; 9:26; 22:4,5,7,8,19,20; 26:14,15; Philippians 3:6; 1 Timothy 1:13), but because of God’s grace he became an apostle and fellow-elder. It seems that it is possible for one to meet the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and still have sinned in a major, public sort of way in one’s past.
Conclusion: I believe that the weight of the arguments move in the direction of position #2 (though position #1 is not out of the question). Paul wants a potential overseer to be one who is above reproach in his commitment to his wife (if he is married). He should demonstrate both marital and sexual fidelity in relationship to his wife.