Egalitarianism, theology

“Husband of One Wife” – What does this mean?

mwoc-2A common argument for limiting the pastoral ministry to men only is to cite a number of texts where the requirements for elders/overseers/etc. are given. Among these, one which allegedly shows that women are not to hold positions of authority in the church is the statement that the holder of such a position is to be the “husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2; 12; Titus 1:6).

On the face of it, this seems to be a pretty telling argument. After all, if someone is the husband of one wife, then that would certainly seem to exclude women! So what’s the problem?

Is your pastor married?

You see, if someone wants to take the statement in its most literal sense, it isn’t merely, abstractly stating that the overseer/bishop/deacon/elder is supposed to be a man; it is actually saying he is supposed to be a husband.* So if one wants to take the Bible in its most “literal” reading, then one must argue that not only may women not be pastors; neither may any unmarried (or remarried, or divorced, or widowed, etc.) men. Period.

So what’s the problem with this? The problem is that once we get to this level, it should be pretty easy to see how absurd the argument is. What the phrase is intended to convey is monogamy. That is, church leaders are to be monogamous. The teaching is pretty clear when understood in this light. If one is to be a leader in the church, it should be easily observable that they are monogamous and celibate apart from marriage. There are to be no exceptions.

If someone wants to dispute this and press that the real point is that one must be a man, then they must equally argue that no church leader should be unmarried. Considering Paul himself extolled the values of remaining unmarried (and was himself unmarried), such a reading of Paul is problematic, at best.

All of this is to set aside the other difficulties with using passages like this to restrict women from the ministry. One example is the excessive addition of male pronouns into the English translations which are not present in the Greek (see Philip Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ, 445 [I have reviewed this book here]). Another problem is that they seem to be teaching against polygamy as opposed to any type of gender restrictions (ibid). Finally, the lists of requirements are stated in such a way as to make it actually open for women to hold such offices (Payne, 448-452).

Even if one disagrees on the last paragraph, it should be clear that one cannot use these passages to restrict women from the ministry. They simply do not have the data in them to allow for such a restriction.

*(Yes, I am aware that it may be translated “man of one woman,” but that just makes it extremely clear that the meaning is supposed to be referring to husband and wife. After all, what other reason could there be to be “of one woman”?)


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Check out my posts on egalitarianism (scroll down for more).

Paul Adams has a series of posts on Philip Payne’s work discussed herein. Check out his series, starting with the first post.



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


12 thoughts on ““Husband of One Wife” – What does this mean?

  1. Nicely done, JW.

    Posted by tildeb | April 28, 2014, 9:50 AM
  2. I agree that it is wrong to use this verse as an reason to restrict women from ministry. The verse, either 1Timothy or Titus, restrict women from becoming Elders/Overseers. I think there is a problem when we conflate Elder/Overseer with “pastor” or other ministries within the Body. A person can function in any of the gifts listed in either 1 Cor. 12, Rom. 12, or Eph 4, and not be an Elder/Overseer. Maybe it’s our modern structure of church that has a hard time understanding this but it seems pretty clear to me. Likewise, an unmarried man, cannot be an Elder/Overseer but still function in a ministry same as a woman. Maybe the problem is trying to superimpose the traditional understanding of church on the first century understanding of church.

    Posted by Steelwheels | April 28, 2014, 12:56 PM
    • The same exact phrase is used in the Greek in 1 Timothy 3:2 for overseers as it is in 1 Timothy 3:12 for deacons. We know for a fact there were women deacons. Thus, the phrase cannot be seen as excluding women from deacons, and given that it is the exact same wording for overseers, it cannot be used to exclude women from overseer/elder positions either.

      I agree with the notion that we have a different understanding of the role of the pastor/preacher/priest than was perhaps conveyed in these texts. One problem for any discussion of women’s role in the church is the underdetermination of the texts in regard to what exactly is the role of these various functionaries within the church.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 29, 2014, 9:36 AM
      • I likewise wouldn’t conflate ἐπίσκοπος {ep-is’-kop-os} in 1 Timothy 3:2 with διάκονος {dee-ak’-on-os} in 3:12. Similar phrasing addressed to two different titles. Ultimately I think we have the same goal in mind. We both desire that everyone in the Body function as the Holy Spirits leads and allows. I think we just differ on the roll of Elders.

        Posted by Steelwheels | April 29, 2014, 10:15 PM
      • Your argument about elders, however, is based upon the exact same phrase- husband of one wife. Given that the phrase is the same in reference to deacons, and women clearly hold that role, the phrase cannot be used with elders to say that women cannot hold that role.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 29, 2014, 10:59 PM
      • The office of Elder and Deacon are different, as we agree. Likewise a Deacon and a Deaconess are different. In verses 3:8-3:10 Paul is addressing Deacons (Men) and then he slips in the qualifications for a Deaconess in 3:11, kinda like an aside, maybe he was thinking about Phoebe, he then continues in 3:12 about Deacons. The phrasing in 3:12 is similar to 3:2 but one is to the Elders (only men) and the other is to Deacons and not to Deaconess.
        I understand that there has been an argument about 3:11 being the wives of Deacons but that seems unlikely since Paul doesn’t do likewise with the Elders wives.

        Posted by Steelwheels | April 30, 2014, 8:06 AM
      • I don’t think the distinctions you’re making between deacon and deaconess are grounded in the text. The word is used in the masculine for Phoebe and clearly refers to the same office. It seems to me the limits you’re imposing do not come from the text but from a presupposition about what the text may say.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 2, 2014, 10:27 PM
  3. Why would Paul teach against polygamy? There wasn’t any significant polygamy in the Roman world in Paul’s day. Your interpretation doesn’t make sense.

    Posted by John Moore | April 29, 2014, 6:27 AM
    • You’re using a more specific meaning of monogamy than I intended in this post. Monogamy also refers to exclusive sexual relations with a single partner.

      Also, the way the Greek quite literally says “one woman man.” The emphasis is on the “one”–sexual purity within marriage (which of course excludes polygamy but is hardly limited to a condemnation of polygamy).

      This is apart from the fact that polygamy was practiced by some within Judaism at the time (though it was rare).

      Thus, my interpretation does make sense, and as I showed it actually makes more sense than alternatives like saying the overseer/deacon has to be married.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 29, 2014, 9:33 AM
  4. Hey J.W., as to presuppositions being read into scripture, maybe. I think we all do that to some extant but I hope we’re all willing to examine them to see if they hold true. I think, in the case with Paul writing in 1Timothy 3:1-13, this pattern is seems to be true elsewhere. In Titus, he likewise sandwiches the women with older men in 2:2, older women in 2:3-4a, younger women 2:4b-5, then younger men in 2-6.
    Is 1Timothy similar? I think so, he does Deacon (men), then a note to Deacon (women), then back to Deacon (men), and it doesn’t seem a stretch for me and I hope it’s not something I read into Paul, but I don’t think so. Just as an aside, Paul really does this often. I was thinking about 1 Corinthians and how chapter 13 is sandwiched between 12 and 14, not about men and women. 12 and 14 being about spiritual gifts with what seems an aside in 13 about love. Peace be with you my friend.

    Posted by Steelwheels | May 4, 2014, 8:58 AM


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