By the Editor

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 6, no. 3 (July 1997)

We received a letter recently which is too long to reproduce here in its entirety. But the substance of it was to question the notion that godly men may serve as elders even if they are not married. This view was set forth a recent Ordained Servant in A. A. Allison’s articles on qualifications for the offices of elder and deacon. The letter similarly questions Rev. Allison’s statement to the effect that it is not necessarily a requirement for office in the church that a man’s children all be believers.

Let me respond by quoting the classic exposition of John Calvin (who, in turn, cites that of John Chrysostom). Says Calvin:

The only true that of Chrysostom, that in a bishop he expressly condemns polygamy,[1] which at that time the Jews almost reckoned to be lawful. This corruption was borrowed by them partly from the sinful imitation of the Fathers, (for they who read that Abraham, Jacob, David, and others...were married to more wives than one at the same time, thought that it was lawful for them also... and partly from neighbouring nations; for the inhabitants of the East never observed that conscientiousness and fidelity in marriage which was proper.... Polygamy was exceedingly prevalent among them; and therefore with great propriety does Paul enjoin that a bishop should be free from this stain.

Monogamy was, of course, the divine ordinance from the beginning. But what was to be done with those who were already involved in polygamy when they were brought into the apostolic Church? Well, says Calvin, “what had been once done, and could not be corrected, he reluctantly endures, but only in the common people. For what was the remedy for those who, under Judaism, had fallen into the snare of polygamy? Should they have divorced their second and third wives? Such a divorce would not have been free from doing wrong. Since, therefore, the deed was done, and could not be undone, he left it untouched, but with this explanation, that no bishop should be blemished by such a stain.” I believe this to be the correct understanding because—like all valid interpretation of Scripture—it does full justice to the historical situation as well as the biblical context.

One thing further: as I understand 1 Cor. 7:8, the apostle Paul was not married. Yet we know that Peter was (1 Cor. 9:5). And while it is true that we are not apostles, it is also true that Peter claimed the office of elder (1 Pet. 5:1). I can see no reason to deny the same with respect to Paul since he is very insistent that he is “not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5). It is for this reason that I’ve never felt the slightest need to question the claim of such men as J. Gresham Machen and John Murray to the office of elder (though the latter, of course, finally married).

With respect to the children of elders is not the point simply this: that the whole family of the elder—all who live in his household—are in due subjection to his authority so that they live as Christians? When one of Abraham’s sons manifested rebellion Abraham sent him away. I knew an excellent elder who did the same (and, in that case, the discipline brought later change). But the point is that the man must not allow anyone to remain in his home who does not submit to the yoke of the Christian. I do not see that this can be rightly understood in such a way as to make even such godly men as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob unfit for the office of elder.

And now one final (and perhaps most important) point. None of this is written with the idea that we need no reformation. It is my opinion that the modern church has been far too lax in upholding these requirements. But that does not change the fact that we see is no compelling reason at all to dissent from the view of the great Reformer.


[1] “That he condemns in a bishop the having of two wives living at the same time.”