Can an unmarried man be a deacon or elder?

Q. Bro. Gan, I read in a book by a German minister, in which he said that the elders and deacons of a church had to be married men. Let me quote him:

“According to 1 Tim.3 and Tit.1, the elders and deacons had to be married. The statement, “They must be the husband of one wife” does not imply that all the others could have as many wives as they wished. It simply means that a man who has certain responsibilities in the local church has to be married, because he must deal with the problems which arise in that local assembly.”

This same minister then quoted Bro. Branham:

“Quote: “The Bible requires a deacon to be a married man. He must be the husband of one wife.” (COD. Vol.1, pg.354).”

Could you enlighten me what the Scripture actually says as I feel that the Apostle Paul was not teaching what this minister implied in his book?

A. Truly the answers to all our questions must be “what saith the Scripture” and not what saith William Branham or what saith So-and-so?  Many preachers have a tendency to grab what other preachers preached or taught without checking the Scripture themselves. For this minister to simply take a quote of Branham to support his answer shows that he certainly did not have the understanding of the Word. Bro. Branham might have simply quoted a Scripture verse, like many preachers often do, without expounding on it. But a verse in and by itself is often not the complete answer. It is true in part but not the whole. Also, for this minister to merely say, “It simply means that a man who has certain responsibilities in the local church has to be married, because he must deal with the problems which arise in that local assembly” is truly pathetic. Is it true that only married men are able to deal with the problems which arise?

There are three statements in the New Testament referring to the qualifications for an elder or deacon in the church. Here are the Scriptures:

1 Timothy 3:2: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach.”

1 Timothy 3:12: “Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.”

Titus 1:6-9: “…and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.”

Notice carefully the wordings of Paul and one will realize that the issue is not the elder’s or deacon’s marital status, but his moral and sexual purity. The phrase “husband of one wife” does not mean that the elders and deacons must be married men. In the Greek, the phrase “husband of one wife” literally reads “one-woman man.” The Apostle Paul was ruling out believing men who had more than one wife from holding an office in the local church.  Having two or more wives, a converted man would certainly have no time to devote himself to the care of the church as he would have a large family to care for.  Paul was simply saying that a polygamist is not qualified to be an elder or a deacon.

For a man to be considered for a position of church leadership, and he is married, he must be committed to his wife. This qualification is speaking of fidelity in marriage and sexual purity; it is not a requirement of marriage. If it were, a man would not only have to be married he would also have to have children, because the second half of 1 Timothy 3:12 states, “…and must manage his children and his household well”. Similarly Titus 1:6-9 states the same: “…having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly”. If this requirement is what Paul meant, then all Bishops and Deacons must not only be married but must also have children otherwise such bishops and deacons are no different from unmarried men. They must therefore be disqualified as they have no children. However, that is not the true meaning. We should understand this qualification for a bishop or a deacon as: If a married man is chosen, he must be faithful to his wife. If a married man has children, he must manage them well.

If a man has to be married to hold an office in the church, then the Apostle Paul would have disqualified himself (cf. 1Cor. 7:8). Some will say that Paul was a married man before he was widowed. True, but a widower is not a married man though he was once. He has no living wife. To the apostle Paul, being single is better. He himself praised the unmarried man, believing “he that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife” (1Cor.7:32-33).  Nevertheless, a “one-woman man” who is totally committed to his wife in sexual purity, affection, devotion and who also has great concern for the church is a great asset to the saints. An elder or deacon may be either married or single, as long as he meets the qualifications of godliness outlined by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy and Titus. To violate this – in any way that brings a reproach – is to forfeit blamelessness (cf. Tit.1:6,7).

What about a divorced man serving as an elder, or a deacon?

First of all, we need to differentiate between a man who was divorced before he became a Christian from a man who was divorced after becoming a Christian (cf. Matt.19:9; 1Cor.7:12-16). An otherwise qualified man should not be excluded from church leadership because of bad choice he made prior to his spiritual rebirth in Jesus Christ. In the revelation of Paul, he placed the first and most important requirement for a Bishop and a Deacon as one who “must be blameless”, that is, above reproach. But if the marriage or divorce of any Bishop or Deacon results in a poor testimony for the man, then he is no longer above reproach. Such detraction should put him away from holding the office of a Bishop or a Deacon, but he may play other essential function in the church.

Addendum [added 9 June, 2014]

Not long after the Church started in Jerusalem, the number of disciples increased to several thousands. With that arose a dissatisfaction among the Grecian Jews against the local (Judean) Jews over the neglect of their widows. (Read Acts chapter 6.) The apostles then called for them to choose "seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom", whom they may appoint for the work – to "serve tables" [Heb. diakoneō] (cf. vv.2) – that is, to "be attendants", or "deacons".

Notice that only three conditions are stipulated by the apostles for a man to be a deacon: good testimony, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Whether or not these seven deacons were married men is not mentioned. Obviously, some of them must be married men. If so, their marital lives and their family lives (for those who had children) must certainly have borne good testimonies or else they would not have been chosen by the people.

However, some years later when the Gospel was given to the Gentiles, Paul had to add an important clause to what was already stipulated by the apostles in Judea. Unlike the Jews, polygamous marriage was common among the Gentiles, so he added this one clause for those married men who desired the office of a deacon (or that of a bishop) – that they "must be the husband of one wife", that is, they must be a “one-woman man.” Paul's reason to exclude polygamous married men from holding church offices was obvious as shown afore. Simply, no man who had more than one wife should hold the office of a deacon or a bishop.