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Elders and Bishops can be Single

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November 11th, 2014 | Filed Under: Author, Elders, Leaders, Mitch Kuhn, Topical Studies2 Comments | Author:

The purpose of this study is to establish proper doctrine regarding elders and bishops in the church. Coming to understand the truth of God’s word is a process, which requires many trials and experiences to have our senses exercised to discern good from evil.

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Elders and Bishops

The Husband of One Wife

By Mitch Kuhn

The purpose of this study is to establish proper doctrine regarding elders and bishops in the church. Coming to understand the truth of God’s word is a process, which requires many trials and experiences to have our senses exercised to discern good from evil.

Ayo Fabiyi and I did some studies on this topic in early 2013. We sought a multitude of counselors and did our best to rightly divide the word. However, as we have grown in wisdom the Lord is revealing that this topic wasn’t completely accurate in those studies. There is a pattern in the scriptures where the Lord causes his apostles to get certain things right, but does not reveal the full truth until later.

This study link below shows how Paul and the other Apostles went through this same process of growth themselves.

I Have Become All Things to All Men Through Mercy

A specific list of qualifications for elders/bishops is given in 1 Tim 3 and Titus chapter 1. It is important to note that Paul uses the terms elder and bishop interchangeably.

(Tit 1:5) For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—
(Tit 1:6) if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.
(Tit 1:7) For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money,

We are first going to focus on the qualification of being “the husband of one wife”. We have gone back and forth on the meaning of this qualification and are only now truly seeing the sum of the word on the matter. In our last study series we said that an elder/bishop has a very specific function in the body of Christ that could only be done by a married man.

We pointed out that Paul never specifically called himself an elder or bishop, and instead opens most of his letters by saying that he is an apostle.

(1Co 1:1) Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,

(Eph 1:1) Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus:

(Gal 1:1) Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead),

So this led us to believe that when Paul says to Timothy and Titus that a bishop must be the husband of one wife, he was saying that they must be married and only to one woman. However, there is another way to look at these verses. He could be saying that IF a man is married and desires the function of a bishop he must have only one wife. It could be possible then for a single man to be an overseer.

As I was reconsidering this topic, I wanted to see what Babylon had to say on the matter, and I found that they have the very same question about those verses.

What I came to realize through all of this is that it is very easy to get caught up in grammar and technicalities of the written word and miss the big picture. We don’t have to be Hebrew and Greek scholars to understand the sum of God’s word. There is certainly some value in analyzing the original language, but the sum is always going to be the confirmation of the truth.

Here is an example of how I got caught up in technicalities. In Paul’s letter to Philemon he calls himself Paul the “aged”.

(Phm 1:8) Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting,
(Phm 1:9) yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ—

This word is a variation of the same word used for elder throughout the New Testament.

Here is the word for aged: G4246

Here is the word for elder: G4245

I knew about this verse when I did the last study series, but reasoned that Paul was just saying he is an older man and not an elder because he used a different word.

As I step back now and look at the big picture, I’m seeing that I can’t make such a judgment based on Paul’s word choice. How do I know what he was trying to say to Philemon based on that one verse and one word choice.

This is a demonstration of why we cannot rely upon one verse for doctrine, nor rely too much on an author’s word choice.

(2Pe 1:20) knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture at all is becoming its own explanation.”

(2Ti 2:14) Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers.

As we seek the truth about elders and bishops, we must not quarrel about word choices, verb tenses, or minute details that can lead us astray. These things do have some value, but we cannot rely on them too much. A great demonstration of this point is how Paul uses the terms elder and bishop interchangeably. There will be great confusion when we try to draw a distinction between the two.

When we make the focus these tiny details, we are straining out gnats and swallowing a camel.

(Mat 23:24) Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

A camel was an unclean animal and was not permitted to be eaten under Jewish dietary laws. This is telling us that when we get caught up in the technicalities and details like the Pharisees, we will miss the big picture revealed by the sum of the word and be unclean.

So what is the truth about elders and bishops? What finally opened my eyes was looking at the fruit and actions of Paul to discern what he really meant. Timothy and Titus knew Paul personally and saw his actions so they understood what he was saying in those letters he wrote to them. We must do the same and look at what he did to discern what God was saying through him.

What does a bishop/elder do?

Bishops bring order to the Church.

(Tit 1:5) For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—

Did Paul set order in the Church? Look at what he does in 1 Corinthians. This letter is filled with admonition and instruction about how to behave in the house of God. In addition, Paul’s command to Titus is to set order and his explanation of choosing bishops IS SETTING ORDER.

A Bishop is an overseer just like a father oversees his family. Christ, who was a single man, is the chief bishop and overseer.

(1Pe 5:1) The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:
(1Pe 5:2) Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly;

(1Pe 5:3) nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock;
(1Pe 5:4) and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.

Paul, a single man, most certainly shepherded and oversaw the flock of God. He demonstrates this by his care for all of the churches and even says it quite plainly.

(2Co 11:28 KJV) Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.

(Gal 4:9) But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?
(Gal 4:10) You observe days and months and seasons and years.
(Gal 4:11) I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.

(2Co 11:1) Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly—and indeed you do bear with me.
(2Co 11:2) For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.
(2Co 11:3) But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
(2Co 11:4) For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!

Paul also called himself a father of those to whom he preached the gospel, and called many his children.

(1Co 4:15 NKJV) For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.
(1Co 4:16 NKJV) Therefore I urge you, imitate me.
(1Co 4:17 NKJV) For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.

There are many more examples of how Paul, a single man, did the job of an overseer. In fact, he taught others how to do this job. Here in Acts he calls for the Ephesian elders and tells them exactly what to beware of and what to do, because Paul himself has been serving as an overseer and has had his senses exercised through experience.

(Act 20:17 NKJV) From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.
(Act 20:18 NKJV) And when they had come to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you,
(Act 20:19 NKJV) serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews;

(Act 20:27 NKJV) For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.
(Act 20:28 NKJV) Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
(Act 20:29 NKJV) For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.
(Act 20:30 NKJV) Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.
(Act 20:31 NKJV) Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.

Paul taught through his words and by setting an example. He often used his good fruit as proof of his qualification to lead.

(Act 20:18 NKJV) And when they had come to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you,

(2Ti 3:10 NKJV) But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance,
(2Ti 3:11 NKJV) persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me.

(2Th 3:6 NKJV) But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.
(2Th 3:7 NKJV) For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you;
(2Th 3:8 NKJV) nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you,
(2Th 3:9 NKJV) not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us.
(2Th 3:10 NKJV) For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.

We are taught how to be good overseers by those that oversee us. This is the same as being taught how to raise children by our own parents who raised us.

I will give one final proof of this proper understanding that a bishop/elder can be single. This is actually the verse that made me reconsider my understanding of this topic.

In 1 Tim 3 Paul gives qualifications for both bishops/elders and deacons.

(1Ti 3:12 NKJV) Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.

The English translation is quite misleading because the Greek word for “deacon” is most often translated as minister or servant. There is really no justification for a different word of “deacon” based on the context.

Here is the breakdown in the KJV:

Total KJV Occurrences: 30
minister, 14

Mat_20:26, Mar_10:43, Rom_13:4 (2), Rom_15:8, Gal_2:17, Eph_3:7, Eph_6:21, Col_1:7, Col_1:23, Col_1:25, Col_4:7, 1Th_3:2, 1Ti_4:6
ministers, 6

1Co_3:5, 2Co_3:6, 2Co_6:4, 2Co_11:15 (2), 2Co_11:23
servant, 4

Mat_23:11, Mar_9:35, Joh_12:26, Rom_16:1
deacons, 3

Phi_1:1 (2), 1Ti_3:8, 1Ti_3:12
servants, 3

Mat_22:12-13 (2), Joh_2:5, Joh_2:9

What is most revealing is that Paul calls himself a minister.

(Eph 3:7 NKJV) of which I [Paul] became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power.

(Col 1:23 NKJV) if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.

(1Co 3:5 NKJV) Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one?

So if ministers (deacons) are told to be the husband of one wife, but Paul can be a minister, then it logically follows a single man can be a minister (deacon). This proves that “the husband of one wife” means that a man must have only one wife if he is married, and not that he is required to be married to serve as a minister. We can apply this same understanding to bishops/elders and see that they can be single men as well.

I hope you can now see why I feel quite foolish for claiming that elders/bishops must be married when the sum of the word makes it quite clear that single men can serve as overseers.

We Welcome Your Comments

  • Brian Bingham

    I am very pleased to see that you have corrected your previous teaching and I fully agree with the above new study article. Thank you very much Mitch!

  • MitchellKuhn

    Thanks Brian! You’re quite welcome.