The first item the Apostle then lists, perhaps explicating "above reproach," is "the husband of but one wife." The phrase rendered more literally is "one woman man." And, here, there are some differences of opinion as to precisely what is meant.
Calvin follows Chrysostom in asserting that Paul "expressly condemns polygamy." Calvin argues that "Paul forbids polygamy in all who hold the office of a bishop, because it is a mark of an unchaste man, and of one who does not observe conjugal fidelity." D.A. Carson takes this position as well.
John MacArthur does not understand "one woman man" to refer to marital status at all, but to moral and sexual purity. "This qualification heads the list, because it is in this area that leaders are most prone to fail." MacArthur rejects the polygamy argument, saying it was "not common in Roman society and clearly forbidden by Scripture." The phrase is addressing sexual purity, not marital status.
In his excellent series of sermons on 1 Timothy, Phil Ryken makes the following observation:
To be above reproach, an elder must be 'the husband of one wife.' This does not prohibit bachelors from serving as elders. Commonly, elders will be married, and God will use the demands of their callings as husbands and fathers to do much of the sanctifyinig work that needs to be done in their lives before they are ready to serve as officers in the church. But remember that Paul himself was single and commended singleness to others as an opportunity for greater service in the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 7:17; 9:5). Some suggest that the phrase means 'married only once.' This would disqualify widowers who remarry, as well as men who have been through a divorce. If this is what Paul meant, however, one might expect him to be more explicit.
The point of the phrase is probably more general: elders must be morally accountable for their sexuality. The Greeks and the Romans of the day generally tolerated gross sexual sin. Polygamy was practiced by both Greeks and Jews. Marriage was undermined by frequent divorce, widespread adultery, and rampant homosexuality. The words of Demosthenes show the scope of the problem: 'Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children'.
Though there are some differences in what Paul may particulary have in view with this phrase, all would agree that sexual purity is a prerequisite for holding the office of elder.
And not surprisingly, there must be an examination of a man's life in this regard. How do we find the sexually pure "one woman man" in the congregation?
Questions and Observations for Single Men
1. What are the man's habits regarding dating and fellowship with Christian women? A man given to serial dating may be undiscerning and careless with the hearts of Christian sisters. If he is "playful" in matters of the heart, he may need discipleship in this area and will not be an appropriate example to the flock. Does he treat sisters in the faith "with absolute purity" (1 Tim. 5:2). Is that evident in the single man's social conduct with other women?
2. What are a man's entertainment choices? Does he view sexually explicit material or pornography? If he is embattled with this issue, it's best not to make such a man an elder. He will be responsible for being an example, teaching younger men to be self-controlled (Titus 2:6), and a life of sexual impurity is incongruent with the office.
3. Related to the above, how does the man battle lust? Does he gouge out his eye and cut off his hands (Matt. 5:27-30)? The warfare against sexual immorality must be waged at the level of desire. Men in the eldership should fight their sins like Christians, which means they must radically deny opportunity for the flesh, the world, and the devil to excite lusts leading to sin. And they must cultivate a deeper desire for Christ and the things of Christ. A single man who maintains camouflage in this area, or who flirts with or coddles his lust, is a danger to himself and others. An elder must accept and desire accountability in this area.
Of course, these are questions that apply to married men as well. But with a single man, determining if he is a "one woman man" requires thinking about the trajectory of his affections rather than examining his marital behavior. Do his behaviors "tend toward" purity or do they suggest immaturities to be avoided?
Questions and Observations for Married Men
1. Does the man evidence fidelity to his wife? Is he faithful emotionally and physically? A potential elder should be asked directly if he is in or has had an adulterous relationship with another woman, if he has broken the marital covenant. And if not the physical act, has he become emotionally involved with someone in a way that disqualifies him from the office? It would be wise to have this conversation with his wife as well. She may provide insight into the husband's attitude and behavior that may be blind spots for him. And it's wise to know whether the wife supports her husband as qualified for eldership. It's better to know these things previous to making a man an elder. The position and requirements of eldership will only add stress to any fractures that may already be present.
2. Does he organize his interactions with female coworkers and ladies in the church in a way that provides full accountability and transparency? For example, is he careful to avoid potentially compromising and tempting situations with women (traveling or meeting alone, etc.)? Elders who work in co-ed environments ought to be the kind of men that are trusted by female co-workers--not because they've proven themselves good counselors in intimate matters but because they've appropriately avoided such intimate encounters altogether and established safe distance from temptation.
3. Is the potential elder faithful in making his home marriage centered? By God's design, at the center of the family is sthe marriage of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24). Men and women leave and cleave from their parents and become one flesh. Being a one-woman man means, in part, maintaining a family atmosphere that disallows other people or things (children and work, for example) from displacing the marriage as the center of the family. This is part of what it means to have a well-ordered home. A potential elder prizes his wife even above the other precious people in the home and in earthly relationships directs his affections to that one woman first and foremost.