By Chuck Sackett
It was through the Christian campus house that Chris met and married Rita. Unfortunately, their marriage turned disastrous. Rita was quickly unfaithful to her newfound faith and her newly married husband. After a few months of futile efforts at counseling, they divorced.
Five years later, Chris met Cathy at a ministry event. They dated for about a year and a half, got involved in a marriage mentoring program in their congregation, and were nurtured by a mature Christian couple. After their wedding they continued to grow in their marriage and raised their three children to follow Christ.
Fred spent his first two years of college exploiting every coed he could. But, in his junior year, he got involved with a group of Christians whose service in the community attracted his attention. By the end of the year, Fred had converted to Christ. During his senior year he married Sally. Following graduation their careers took them to a new community where they immediately got involved in a service-oriented congregation.
A decade after his conversion, Fred was transferred to Newtown where he and Sally discovered a new congregation that was forming. It wasn’t long before they were leading an outreach-oriented service team. Six months later, Chris and Cathy also moved to the area. They, too, were attracted to the new congregation. The two families were soon sharing in a small group as well as leading in their respective ministries.
SHOULD THEY BE ELDERS?
After three years, the new congregation determined it was time to select elders. As ministry leaders, both Fred and Chris were suggested for consideration. These men’s ongoing ministries, servant spirits, concern for their small group members, and the strength of their respective families were presented as reasons for the recommendations.
Newtown’s short application form asked for the essential details: a brief spiritual journey, involvement in previous congregations, current involvement in ministry at Newtown, specific illustrations of shepherding, and a brief statement of one’s doctrinal positions. As the church’s staff and management team evaluated the half-dozen recommendations, it became clear at least four of the elder nominees, including Chris and Fred, should be given further consideration.
Two men seemed a bit too inexperienced to serve as elders. One of these agreed to the suggestion to meet for a series of individual studies with the preacher over a period of several months. The other agreed to attend some elective studies the church was offering. The elders felt he might be ready to serve in a few years.
Among the remaining four, one key concern rose above the others: Chris’s divorce. But rather than disqualify him, the review team determined to let the process function.
Chris, Fred, and the others were invited to fill out a second form. This provided much greater detail about marriage, family, finances, work, reputation, and current shepherding relationships. The form even required references from outside the congregation.
Chris’s story became much clearer in the ensuing interviews. The circumstances and the following years of faithfulness made it obvious he was a man with faithful eyes. Chris was a man of integrity and was respected by all who knew him.
By contrast, Fred’s story was clearly one of a marvelous conversion and spiritual journey. Yet it was also obvious that early in his life he demonstrated not only sinful practices but also an inability to develop a faithful relationship with only one woman.
The staff and management team desired to establish a biblical approach to their leadership selection, neither communicating legalism nor a lax attitude toward Scripture. They wanted to institute a process instead of a set of regulations. The team would consider other issues in the future—not a lover of money, not a bully, etc.—so its members wanted to establish an effective means for dealing with such significant concerns.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?
On this occasion, the primary question centered on the biblical injunction, “the husband of but one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Because of the importance of establishing the correct procedure, the selection process was put on hold while the staff, management team, and the four men and their wives undertook a series of weekly Bible studies. The church even called in a New Testament professor to serve as a guide through the textual material.
Professor Clancey reminded everyone that each “qualification” was a reflection of a life that “must be above reproach.” He pointed out that “must” was a word that indicated God’s desires were to be followed. Over the next several weeks it became clear that the more experience a man had as a husband and father, the greater the wisdom he accumulated. As he learned to care for his family, he learned to care for God’s family.
The greatest part of the discussion naturally centered around the phrase “husband of but one wife.” Professor Clancey informed them that the expression was a legitimate, long-standing translation of the Greek text, but the actual phrase was “a man of one woman” or “a one-woman man.” He also pointed out that had Paul wanted to narrow the focus to divorce, he could have used other words.
The emphatic position of “one” clearly indicated a man who was faithful to one woman, one who had “faithful eyes.” He didn’t have divided loyalties, nor did he share his deepest affections, nor consider any other women in his life. Consequently, a married man, even one who had never divorced, yet had constantly roving eyes and mind, was not “a one-woman man.”
The group learned that most scholars said being widowed did not disqualify a man from being an elder, so long as he maintained faithfulness while married. The text did not disqualify that man any more than the reversed phrase (a one-man woman), which Paul used later in 1 Timothy 5:9, would disqualify a woman widowed twice from receiving care from the church.
In the end, the professor concluded that the issue was primarily one of fidelity. Obviously, a man could not be an elder if he was a polygamist, a practice that occurred some during the New Testament era. But everyone agreed the question of divorce was the more difficult question in their context. The team’s conclusion was to take each case individually by asking such questions as: Were there extenuating circumstances? Was there acknowledged guilt? Was legitimate effort made to prevent the divorce? Had significant time passed? Was there clear evidence of repentance and growth? Was there sufficient confirmation to establish that the man now had a strong marriage and had established a track record of faithfulness?
WHAT SHOULD THEY DECIDE?
During the weeks of study, the congregation was kept informed of the various questions and answers. Finally, the candidates were introduced as men who were full of character, already shepherding people, and committed to helping people mature in their faith. The congregation was given three weeks to submit any signed, biblical rationale for why a particular man should not serve.
At this point, both Chris and Fred considered carefully their own situations.
Chris had handled his first marriage situation with integrity. He had established that he was a faithful husband who loved only one woman. After much prayer, Chris agreed to serve.
Fred, on the other hand, was much more reticent. While he’d never been divorced, he knew he came to the “one-woman man” perspective the hard way. His early marriage was difficult because of his previous sexual exploitations. He and Sally had sought counseling, and with his growing Christian commitments, he had become a faithful husband.
Chris reasoned with Fred that in coming decades there would be far more cases like Fred’s than his own. He suggested it would be good to have a man who had successfully worked through these issues and was able to encourage other young men to avoid the trap into which Fred had fallen. In the end, Fred agreed to be considered, on the condition that his circumstances were clearly presented and that no one objected.
At the end of their studies, Professor Clancey recommended that proactive teaching begin taking place in the young congregation. The last “lesson” he brought to the group was more about the future than the present. He commended them for their patience and diligence. He reminded them that the culture was producing more and more men who were anything but “one-woman men.” The sexual promiscuity and ease of divorce in our society were only going to magnify this situation.
Professor Clancey also outlined the need to treat other issues, such as “lovers of money,” with equal diligence. The cultural climate of materialism and consumerism presented deep, problematic issues. Besides the need for providing training to young men as they matured, he encouraged the congregation to establish proactive training and mentoring for young boys.
In the end, Newtown church ended up with four fine elders. The management team served another six months, helping the elders learn to make decisions by consensus, treat shepherding as their highest priority, and establish a process for developing strong, healthy, trusting relationships with the staff.
Newtown church continued to thrive under the excited, visionary oversight of its newly selected leaders.
Chuck Sackett, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is preaching minister at Madison Park Christian Church, Quincy, Illinois.