The Husband of One Wife

What does it mean to be the husband of one wife? In 1 Timothy 3, Paul says elders are supposed to be the husband of one wife.  There is probably no other qualification that has caused more controversy and been more misunderstood that this one.

The deacons are also given this qualification (1 Timothy 3:12). In the Greek, it is a phrase that is literally “a one-woman man” or “a man of one woman.” What does it mean to be a one-woman man? What does it mean to be the husband of one wife? I am convinced the difficulty in understanding this phrase lies in its idiomatic nature. An idiom is a usage of language that expresses an idea that often cannot be derived from the words used. For example, we often say, “Monday week” to mean “the Monday a week after next Monday.” The beginning English student will readily understand the phrase “the Monday a week after next Monday” but will be at a loss to explain the phrase “Monday week” although he may know the meaning of both “Monday” and “week.” An idiom is a mode of expression peculiar to a language and many idiomatic expressions cannot be adequately translated into other languages. The Greek idiom “one-woman man,” however, is not that difficult and actually has a parallel in English. To understand how this is the case, let us look closer at this idiomatic expression.

The Greek phrase includes three words: mias, meaning “one;” gunaikos, a feminine noun meaning either “woman” or “wife;” and aner, a masculine noun meaning “man.” Bauer says the feminine noun gunaikos can mean any adult female as well as wife. The NIV translation of “the husband of but one wife” gives an interpretation that is not helpful to understanding this text. The NRSV is worse with “married only once.” Both of these translations lead the reader to conclude that Paul is saying an elder only has one chance at marriage. This has led some to argue that an elder can never remarry under any circumstances. Is this what Paul is really saying when he says an elder must be “a one-woman man”? Apparently, some in the early church thought so. In the second century church there were some who began to place restrictions on remarriage, even for someone whose spouse had died or who was innocent in divorce. By the fourth century, an elder or bishop was unqualified if he had been married twice after baptism. This reflects a dim view of the sexual relationship in marriage and the elevation of celibacy in the church at this time.

In the past, I have thought the point being made by this qualification related mostly to polygamy or marriage and divorce. I have also felt in the past that if an elder’s wife died while he was serving that he should resign because he would no longer be married. I assumed that being married is the point of the qualification. I have since revised my thinking on this qualification. In summary, I now believe that the main point of this qualification concerns the faithfulness of the husband to his wife. Does the man have the reputation of being a faithful husband and does he abstain from sexual immorality? If the answer is yes, then the elder candidate meets this qualification.

In the New Testament, the Greek idiom “one-woman man” is used to describe sexual faithfulness and commitment in marriage. I have actually heard this same idiom used in English to express faithfulness in marriage. I know of a man who was once asked, “Why could you not be faithful to your wife?” His response was: “I guess I am just not a one-woman man.” What did he mean by that statement? Did he mean that he wanted to be married more than once? No, he meant that he enjoyed playing the field and he did not want to be committed to his wife. There was no indication he wanted out of the marriage, he just did not want to be in a committed relationship with only one woman; that is, he was not a one-woman man. I believe that it is this kind of conduct prohibited by the Greek phrase, “one-woman man” (mias gynaikos aner).

This qualification stands second in the list in both texts and it follows the qualifications of “blameless” (Titus 1:6) and “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2), which may indicate the one-woman man qualification is connected to the elder’s reputation. Notice also that a prohibition of sexual immorality is not found in the two qualification texts unless, of course, the interpretation we are considering is correct. If a man had the reputation of visiting prostitutes or having sexual relations with other women, then he would not be qualified to serve as an elder or deacon. It is unlikely that polygamy would be what Paul is prohibiting since there does not seem to be evidence that it was being practiced in Crete or Ephesus. Some argue that polygamy had not been practiced in these two places for several hundred years. Note that the issue of polygamy is not raised in the marriage questions submitted to Paul by the Corinthians and it is not raised as a concern elsewhere in the New Testament. Why would a qualification for elders found near the beginning of both lists prohibit something that was not being practiced?

As I mentioned earlier, the NIV and NRSV encourage the view that elders are not qualified if they have been married more than once. However, nowhere in the Scriptures or in Roman and Greek society was there a stigma attached to remarriage after the death of a spouse. To the contrary, Paul counseled the younger widows to marry (1 Timothy 5:14). Note that in this same chapter he lists the qualifications for the enrolled widows in Ephesus. A widow can be enrolled if she has been “the wife of one man” (v. 9, NASB). In the Greek, it is literally a “one-man woman” and is parallel to the “one-woman man” qualification of the elder. Therefore, the two phrases should have similar meanings. Why would Paul tell the younger widows to marry if this were a disqualification for them when they got older? Is being married only once really the qualification for these widows? Or, is the point in 1 Timothy 5:9 not that she has been married only once, but that she was a faithful wife to her husband when she was married? In 1 Timothy 5:9, the NIV translates this idiomatic expression properly by interpreting the idiom for the English reader with the phrase, “has been faithful to her husband,” which is also how the translators should have interpreted the “one-woman man” phrase in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6. Like the widows in 1 Timothy 5:9, elders and deacons must have the reputation of being faithful to their marriage partners.

Just as this qualification does not restrict one who remarried after the death of his wife, neither does it restrict the one who remarries after a divorce. Of course, the application of this qualification depends on the church’s view of remarriage after divorce, but their needs to be some consistency in the application. For example, if a man is viewed as married by the church before he is nominated to be an elder, then he should not be rejected because of a past divorce. The point is, he is either married or he is not, and if he is, then the church cannot penalize someone because of a divorce in the distant past. Not all Bible students agree at this point. J. Carl Laney argues that there ought to be a higher standard for those who lead the church and he bases his argument on the Old Testament requirement that priests not marry a divorced woman (Leviticus 21:7, 14-15). Elders, however, are not Old Testament priests and the rules and regulations of the Old Testament priesthood have been done away (Hebrews 8:13; Colossians 2:14). In addition, priests could not serve if they were physically handicapped (Leviticus 21:16-21) and they were not permitted to go near a dead person (v. 1). They were also prohibited from marrying a widow (v. 14). Shall we bind all of these qualifications on church leaders today? Laney also argues that to allow a divorced man to serve as an elder would “be absurd since virtually anyone could meet the standard.” Not exactly, since not every man has the reputation of being faithful to his wife, which is the point of the qualification. The reputation of being faithful to one woman will take some time to establish, and if a man has struggled with sexual sin in his recent past he is not qualified to be an elder even though he has repented.

Paul uses the same feminine noun in 1 Timothy 3:2 as he does in 1 Corinthians 7:2 where he says, “each man should have his own wife.” He stresses the importance of marriage at Corinth because there was “so much” sexual immorality in the city (v. 2). Although Corinth had a reputation for sexual immorality, it was probably not much different from Ephesus, which was also a major seaport in the ancient world. It seems reasonable to suppose that the majority of the pagans converted in Corinth, Ephesus, and Crete would be coming from a sexually immoral background and that this sin would continue to be a serious threat to the morality of the church. The conference in Jerusalem had made this very point about the new Gentile mission. These new converts were not to be burdened except for the following requirements: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29). The men who were to be selected as leaders in Ephesus and Crete were also to be men who had overcome the sin of sexual immorality. Church leaders were to be married and, as Paul suggested to the men in Corinth, they were not to be sexually immoral. Instead, they were to have a reputation of being faithful to their wives.

This does not mean that a man is disqualified if, at any time in his past, he has ever been sexually immoral or unfaithful to his wife. If this is not the case, then one must argue that if a man fails in any of the qualifications at any time in his past he could not be qualified to serve as an elder. The point has to do with his condition now and not what he has been forgiven of in his past. Paul includes the sexually immoral among those who will be excluded from the kingdom, but he says to the Corinthians, “And that is what some of you were” (1 Corinthians 6:11). A person can be forgiven for his sins in the past and by spiritual growth develop a different lifestyle. The extent to which a person has overcome the sins of the past may require some judgment on the part of the church. The sinful characteristic of the heart that led a man to commit sexual immorality must be changed. It may take some time for this change to occur. It may also require some time before this change can be observed by others.

What about the elder who meets this qualification but his wife dies? As I noted earlier, I once thought the text required an elder to resign if his wife dies because he appears to be no longer the husband of one wife; that is, he is now single because of the death of his wife. The real point of this qualification, however, is whether he was a faithful husband while he was married. If he demonstrated faithfulness to his wife during the years of his marriage and if he does not engage in sexual immorality, then the church should regard him as a “one-woman man.”

Can a man who is a widower at the time of his nomination be an elder? Yes, because the qualification is that he have the reputation of being a faithful husband and this reputation does not end with the death of his wife. To illustrate this point, consider a man who is a devoted husband to his wife and a good father to his faithful children; however, one day all of his children die in a tragic accident. Does this mean he can no longer meet the qualification of having believing children?

Can a man serve as an elder who has never married? No, because he has never demonstrated his faithfulness in a marriage relationship. In addition, he could not meet the qualification of having believing children (Titus 1:6); children who obey him with proper respect (1 Timothy 3:4); and children who have been managed properly (1 Timothy 3:4).

Does the qualification prevent a woman from serving as an elder? Yes, because it is not possible for a woman to have the reputation of being a “one-woman man.”

In conclusion, the most reasonable way to understand the Greek idiom “one-woman man” is that it refers to a man’s faithfulness to his wife. The following points have been made in support of this explanation: (1) It makes the best sense of the idiomatic expression, “one-woman man.” (2) It explains why sexual immorality was omitted from the list (that is, because it is prohibited by this qualification). (3) It also connects the preceding qualification “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and “blameless” (Titus 1:6) to this qualification. This is the case because a sexually immoral man would not be above reproach or blameless.

J B Myers

(From the book, Elders and Deacons, footnotes have been omitted.)

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