questions on elders: the husband of one wife?


When the apostle Paul laid down some qualities for Timothy and Titus look for in individuals they would appoint as elders (1 Tim. 3.1-7; Titus 1.5-9), one of those qualities he chose to word with these words in Greek: mias gynaikos aner. That phrase is translated in the KJV:

“… the husband of one wife …” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6a KJV)

This sounds simple enough, but upon investigation and reflection, perhaps not so much. What exactly did Paul mean? There are several options.

1. Did Paul mean that anyone who serves as a church elder must have never been married before, whether they had been widowed, deserted, divorced, etc.?

Perhaps. This is certainly the interpretation that colors the translation offered by the NRSV:

“… married only once …” (Titus 1:6a NRSV)

2. Was Paul trying to say the person who serves as an elder must not be guilty of polygamy?

Perhaps. Some English renderings are of this persuasion:

“… with only one wife.” (Titus 1.6a J.B. Phillips)

” … the husband of [but] one wife …” (Titus 1.6a AB)

This is also the line of thought to which the NIV seems to lean, in both an older edition (NIV 1984) and all the more so in the latest edition (2011):

“… the husband of but one wife …” (Titus 1:6a NIV 1984)

“… must have only one wife …” (Titus 1:6a NIV)

Incidentally, some renderings show both of the preceding options (1 and 2); one in the text and the other in a footnote. The GNT (Good News Translation; aka: Today’s English Version) is an example of such, using the phrase “have only one wife” in the text and the phrase “be married only once” in a footnote.

3. Or did Paul intend to communicate that whoever serves as an elder in Christ’s church must be undeniably faithful to their mate?

Perhaps. More than one English translation certainly takes this tack. For example:

“… faithful to his wife …” (Titus 1:6a ERV)

“… faithful to his wife …” (Titus 1:6a NLT)

“… faithful to their spouse … (Titus 1:6a CEB)

Now while it may be obvious to many, it may not be apparent to all, so let’s just say it right here: translation requires interpretation. There’s simply no such thing as an “interpretation-free” rendering of another language. This fact alone accounts for no small number of the variations we encounter in English translations of the Biblical text. This is just another good reason why it’s often helpful to compare different translations of the Bible and to truly think about what is recorded in each. Variation need not unsettle us or cause us to lose confidence in the rendering of the Biblical text, either. Quite the opposite, actually, for being aware of such variation deepens our engagement with the text and often reveals nuances in meaning, translators’ tendencies, and more.

Further, our task in interpreting Scripture is to try as much as possible within us not to read into the text our own culture, expectations, or concerns. Instead, we should strive to let the text speak to us from its original context. That is, among other things, to let the culture and setting of the time in which the text was first penned to color our understanding of it.

Take, for example, the possibility that Paul had polygamy in his sights when he included the phrase mias gynaikos aner in 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus. Polygamy was anything but unknown in Paul’s time and in some Gentile areas in which Paul ministered. This fact certainly makes this interpretation of the phrase in 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:6 possible, but the additional fact that polygamy would certainly have been encountered much less frequently in urban settings, and especially in areas with particularly strong Roman influence, makes this specific understanding of the text less likely.

In addition to the great need to consider a text in its cultural context is the crucial concern to construe a text in its literary context. Or, to put it in other words, it’s vital that we understand a statement in view of the statements in which it is nested. If you’ve ever been misunderstood or your words taken out of context then you know what we’re saying here. “A text taken out of its context becomes a mere pretext for saying something else.”

As to the possibility of rendering of Paul’s statement in 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:6 in such a way that it seems to immediately give rise to subjects such as death of a spouse, divorce of a mate, desertion by a wife, etc. in connection with an elder, we should investigate the surrounding context to see if such subjects are discussed. However, when we seine 1 Timothy and Titus with these matters in mind, we find nothing in our net. This certainly diminishes the possibilities that Paul had such in his sights when he penned the phrase mias gynaikos aner (“one woman man”).

By this process of elimination through consideration of the cultural and literary contexts of the statement, we’re left with the possibility that what Paul was trying to get across to Timothy and Titus was the perspective that those to be considered for service as an elder in the church must show undeniable faithfulness/fidelity to their mate.

This interpretation of the text certainly fits the immediate cultural context of Ephesus well (where Timothy ministered) in addition to Crete (where Titus served). And, best of all, it emphatically fits the surrounding literary context we find in 1 Timothy and Titus. Timothy’s ministry was strongly affected by false teachers who were advocating immorality/infidelity (2 Timothy 3.6). Similarly, Titus is reminded in a number of ways that his ministry attention should be given to matters involving self-control (2:2,6), young wives loving their husbands (2:4), teaching all to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions (2:12), and to not become slaves once more to “passions and pleasures” (3:3). All of these concerns go straight to the heart of fidelity and faithfulness to one’s mate.

Further along the lines of keeping the original literary context in view is evidence from the immediate literary context of the statement. The phrase mias gynaikos aner is immediately followed by a reference to the faithfulness of the prospective elder’s children. And so it is rendered in the KJV:

“If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.” (Titus 1:6 KJV)

Paul commonly uses chiasm in his writing and if his intent in meaning was fideltity/faithfulness on the part of the elder toward his wife, then a nice, simple chiasm comes into view:

  • If any be blameless [not able to be successfully accused of any bad thing]
    • B the husband of one wife [husband faithful to wife]
    • B having faithful children [children faithful to father]
  • A not accused of riot or unruly. [not successfully accused of bad things]

With all of the preceding in view, it now certainly seems most likely that Paul’s specific concern when he wrote his instructions to Timothy and Titus to appoint elders and that such should be mias gynaikos aner was to simply say – nothing more, and nothing less – that such a person needs to be:

” …committed to his wife …” (Titus 1.6a The Message)

” …faithful in marriage.” (Titus 1.6a CEV)

“… faithful to his wife …” (Titus 1.6a TNIV)

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