Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Husband of One Wife: On 1 Tim. 3:2

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife…

A reader has requested a look at an issue raised by 1 Tim. 3:2, which sets as a requirement for bishops that they be the “husband of one wife.” What exactly is it intended to forbid for bishops? Does “husband of one wife” simply mean the bishop cannot be a polygamist? Does it mean they cannot be someone who has been remarried? Does it mean they cannot be single and must have one wife? Or something else? Mounce’s Pastorals commentary, which we will use as a reporting template, calls this one of the “most difficult” phrases in the Pastorals [M170], but there’s enough data to arrive at a solid conclusion. Let’s look at how these options bear out.

Remarried? This is the most complex interpretation, and it has variations which say it has to do only with remarriage after divorce, or any remarriage (even after death of a spouse). Although a reading of this type is in accord with disapproval of remarriage in the patristic church, Paul himself approves of remarriage (1 Tim. 5:14, 1 Cor. 7) and this would be odd if bishops were forbidden the same thing.

Indeed, the former verse uses a phrase identical in structure to that in 3;2, only applied to widows and ”reversed in gender” [M173]. Since these widows are approved for remarriage, 3:2 cannot apply to remarried men.


Instone-Brewer, in Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, adds that remarriage of those divorced and widowed was “technically mandatory under Roman law” [IB 227], which makes this reading even more unlikely.

Single? This has one point in favor because Paul’s opponents in Ephesus have forbidden marriage, and saying a bishop must be married would be a good reply to them. On the other hand, this meaning seems unlikely on its face for a couple of reasons. One is that it seems strange to suppose that Paul and even Jesus – unmarried men – would be barred from holding an office in a local church! Another point, Mounce adds, is that the same logic would require an overseer to have more than one child, according to another instruction in the same advisory (3:4).

Polygamist? While it makes initially makes sense that this might be in view, polygamy as an institution was unknown at this time, save in rare cases in Judaism. It makes little sense that such a rare practice would be singled out.

Fidelity. In the end, here is what seems most likely: The words used are, literally, “man” and “woman” – not “husband” and “wife.” Once that is understood, this passage can sensibly be seen to be restricting from the office of bishop persons who engage in infidelity, which was common in Greco-Roman culture. [M171] Instone-Brewer concurs with this reading [IB227] and describes the requirement in terms of a man who “has eyes” for only one woman.

In the end, where the phrase itself seems obscure, context aids us in arriving at a solid conclusion.

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