Can a single person be an elder?
Yes. If the Spirit has developed shepherd care in the heart of a single brother and the brother expresses that care in a character consistent with 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9, and 1 Peter 5:13, God apparently has called him to that work.
This question stems from the words, “the husband of one wife” (1Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:6). Three considerations clarify this statement: the context; a comparison; a construction. The context in 1 Timothy 3:2 describes moral character. The overseer’s character must be blameless, vigilant, sober, of good behavior. Dealing with hospitality, Paul doesn’t say he must show hospitality (that would describe acts), but that he must be given to hospitality (describing a characteristic). “Apt to teach,” judging by its only other usage (2 Timothy 2:24), likewise appears to describe character. The following verse also deals with character and that seems to be the emphasis through verse 6.
By comparison, the expression in 1 Timothy 5:9 is “the wife of one husband.” The description of the woman here and of the man in 3:2 is consistent. First, this can hardly apply to polygamy, since that doesn’t involve a woman’s being married to more than one man. It hardly seems fair for Paul to state that a true widow who will receive financial support from the assembly can only have been married once. Five verses later, he advises younger widows to marry. If, in later life, they were again widowed, by obeying God’s Word to remarry they became ineligible for financial assistance, even though they otherwise qualified. The expression then must describe her as a woman who was obviously faithful to her husband before her widowhood and retained that dignity when she became widowed. The overseer, by comparison, must be above reproach in relating to women.
The construction of Titus 1:6 and 7 is instructive. Verse 7 insists on the irreproachable character of an overseer. Verse 6 is a conditional clause, “if any be blameless” in family life. If married, he must evidently be faithful; if a parent, the respect in which his children hold him supports his character.
Is it possible for a brother whose home is in disorder to be an elder?
No. “If a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God” (1 Timothy 3:5)? The answer appears to be straightforward, but applying this requires spiritual wisdom. Maturing children bear responsibility for their own choices. Their wrong choices may or may not reflect the failure of their father to properly lead, care for, give attention to, or protect (meanings of “rule”) them. Spiritual believers will seek help from God to graciously decide this without favoritism, self-interest, or bias.
The case of a brother separated from his wife and family may be clearer. Without putting an unfair burden on a brother in this heart-rending and difficult situation, the Bible teaches that his leadership both as husband and father places on him the responsibility for right relationships with his wife and children. Despite severe difficulties, this responsibility cannot be ignored. As in every circumstance of a Christian’s life, we regard our burdens as part of our Father’s “child-training” (Hebrews 12:4-11). For a brother to give up his responsibility in such a case will limit what his Father plans to accomplish in his spiritual development. The possibility exists that spiritually wise men who are close to the situation may sense that the grace of God has worked in this brother to a sufficiently remarkable degree and that he is qualified to be an overseer, but they must not make this decision lightly or hastily or out of pity or because of the likeable personality of the separated brother.
Should an elder leave his responsibilities when assembly problems overwhelm him?
It is easier to make decisions for others than for ourselves. Decisions must, however, conform to spiritual principles. An overseer must answer one basic question: “Did the Lord give me this responsibility for His sheep?” The time to decide the answer to this is not when the pressure of difficulties sways his thinking. No matter who asks him to do so, no matter how often he receives a request to do so, no matter how necessary it appears for someone to assume the responsibility, a man should never take the place of an overseer unless he recognizes that God has given him this responsibility. Any who take the place of overseers and have not arrived at that conclusion should be assured that God holds them responsible to Him for the place they have assumed. They should leave that assumed responsibility immediately if they are not willing for the grace of God to bring them into conformity to the scriptural standard for overseers.
1 Timothy 4:10 provides an assuring principle for those who suffer physically and emotionally in fulfilling their charge in divine things. Paul assures Timothy that God is the preserver (“Savior”) “of all men, specially of those that believe.” Ultimately all depend on God for preservation and that is of special value to those who are his beloved children.
These principles seem to indicate that God is able to sustain those to whom He has given a responsibility. Therefore, no matter the difficulties, an overseer should never relinquish that responsibility. Like the Levites (Numbers 8:24-26), he may be spared to the age when he should relinquish some of his activities and mentor others in doing the work. If an elder sins, he may be rebuked publicly (1 Timothy 5:19-21). If he is unwilling to conform to the standard for overseers, his peers may inevitably decide he must be removed from a place for which he is not fit. Otherwise, overseership is a lifelong commitment.