Fourth in a multipart series….
Should women be elders in a local church? This can be a really explosive question in any evangelical church, that upholds the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. The problem is when it comes to difficult texts, like 1 Timothy 3:1-7, interpreting the specifics of the passage is not always clear cut.
Consider the first couple of verses in this passage:
- The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,… (1 Timothy 3:1-2 ESV)
For the sake of this discussion, let us set aside the debate over what an “overseer” is, and assume that this means “elder,” among other things, and just focus on one particular phrase, that generates so much controversy within the church today.1 The English Standard Version (ESV) translation of the Bible carries forward the old phrase from the venerable King James Version (KJV), “the husband of one wife.”
For a number of Christians, they may not even know where 1 Timothy is, in their Bibles, so this passage could be very new to them. Yet for many other Christians, the implications of this phrase are obvious. Only men can be elders. Just “read the Bible” and the answer is as plain as day. We should get back to work, and stop reading these silly little Internet blogs.
But what exactly does “the husband of one wife” mean?
As with all matters related to biblical interpretation, context is king. But determining the precise context can be complex at times. Several factors come into play when discerning the context for a particular portion of Scripture:
- How relevant is the available evidence in determining the particular context?
- How important is that evidence? How much weight should it be given?
- How much evidence are we dealing with? Have we considered all of the available evidence?
This one little phrase, “the husband of one wife,” is impacted by all of the above contextual factors.
Any number of possible interpretations of this phrase have been offered, suggesting that (1) unmarried, (2) widowed, (3) polygamist, (4) divorced, and/or (5) remarried men, as well as (6) women in general, are thereby prohibited from the church office of elder. But consider the first disqualification, namely that of being unmarried. Does this even make sense?
The available evidence indicates that neither the Apostle Paul, the traditionally understood author of the letter, nor Timothy, the recipient of this letter, were married. In other words, if “the husband of one wife” requires one to be married, this would exclude both Paul and Timothy from being elders in Timothy’s community.
That is like Paul telling Timothy, “You need elders in your church, that you are leading, Timothy. But all of your elders must be married. So, you need to go and find another job.”
This is absurd. On this basis, and this basis alone, the contextual evidence shows that this purely literalistic reading of “the husband of one wife” is not very convincing.
What then, does “the husband of one wife” really mean? It would appear to reflect more of an idiomatic expression, and indeed, a more strictly literal rendering of the original Greek gives us the word-for-word phrase “one woman man.”
Well, what does being a “one woman man” mean?
Ah, welcome to the interesting world of biblical interpretation!
The problem is that the letter to Timothy does not give us any further specific details into what constitutes a “one woman man.” However, evangelical Bible scholars offer us a range of interpretive solutions. The most common solution suggests that a “one woman man” is more about the character of the person; namely, one who would be faithful to their spouse, whether married or not. At the very least, only those who have a good, reputable character are eligible for the office of elder. Paul is concerned about a person’s character, and not their marital status.
But does a “one woman man” imply more than that? Specifically, does it imply gender; namely, to be male?
The disagreement among evangelical Bible scholars is significant on this point. The situation is further complicated by the fact that there are no male-specific pronouns in this passage, that would add clarity. In fact, there are no pronouns at all in the passage, in the original New Testament Greek. Gasp!!!
Many of our most popular English Bible translations do not necessarily help us.
For example, the ESV translation (above) assumes that the one who “desires a noble task” as an “overseer” is a “he.” But no “he” is found in the original Greek. The male pronoun is assumed on the basis that a “one woman man” is, in fact, specifically a male.
A more ambiguous translation, that reflects a non-gender-specific understanding, is found in the following Contemporary English Version (CEV) translation:
- It is true that anyone who desires to be a church official wants to be something worthwhile. That’s why officials must have a good reputation and be faithful in marriage. They must be self-controlled, sensible, well-behaved, friendly to strangers, and able to teach. (1 Timothy 3:1-2 CEV)
Notice that there is no pronoun here, not even an implied one. A “one woman man” has the genderless meaning of one “faithful in marriage.” For readers of the CEV, both men and women might qualify as “church officials,” which would include “elders.”2
So, considering the contextual issues present in these verses, how relevant is the fact that there is no gender-specific pronoun found in the original Greek text? How significant is this point of evidence? How much more evidence does one need to consider before making a well-informed judgment on the matter of gender here? (HINT: the evidence addressed here merely scratches the surface, and I am trying to keep this blog post short).
Traditionally, a “one woman man” has been assumed to be male, having the full weight of nearly 2,000 years of Christian history behind it, but does the contextual evidence cited thus far bear the weight to overthrow the traditional reading? The difficulty in answering these questions reveals just how hard it is to determine context with absolute certainty. In other words, the supposed plain interpretation of Scripture is not completely obvious, based on what I have presented here.
Those who favor a more traditional interpretation of “one woman man,” as being specifically male, are generally understood to be complementarian; that is, those who, in the context of church governance, believe that only males can be elders. In general, those who reject the traditional view, of maleness being implied by a “one woman man,” are understood to be egalitarian. Egalitarians would then believe that the office of elder should be open to both men and women. There are a number of other nuanced variations that could be considered, but this distinction between complementarian and egalitarian readings of 1 Timothy 3:1-2 holds for the most part.
The Tribal Divide in the Evangelical Church
As you should be able to tell so far, this complementarian vs. egalitarian issue is not some question to be discussed only by seminary graduates, far removed from the concerns of your everyday plumbers, carpenters, nurses, elementary school teachers, exhausted mothers of young children with part time or full time jobs, dads unable to figure out how to make enough money, to feed their family, etc.
This impacts anyone who goes out to buy a Bible at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore.
If you pick up a copy of the ESV translation, for your daily Bible reading, you might be more swayed to consider the complementarian view. If you pick up a copy of the CEV translation, you might be more swayed to consider the egalitarian view. In other words, our English Bible translations have become quite tribal in character, and that does not bode well for the health of the church.
Given the complexities of interpretation and Bible translation, how do we as Christians go about adjudicating between these conflicting views? The first step to take is to have a measure of humility, with respect to Scripture, and among those with whom we disagree.
Yet it also bears taking a closer look at why the complementarian vs. egalitarian division exists, even among our leading Bible scholars, in seminaries and leading churches. Stay tuned, and look forward to the next blog post!3
1. Some traditions treat “overseer” and “elder” differently. In the oldest traditions, an “elder” has been understood to be the priest or pastor in a local church. An “overseer” would be a bishop, someone who looks over the affairs of several churches, led by those local elders. However, most Protestants today tend towards treating “overseer” and “elder” as one in the same. For the sake of the discussion, I will follow this interpretation. ↩
2. Most translations follow the ESV here, but there are other popular translations that differ. The 2011 Common English Bible (CEB) does the same thing as the CEV, in 1 Timothy 3:1-2, rejecting the male personal pronouns found in the ESV and substituting non-gender specific language in their place. When translations like the CEB do this type of thing, I find it useful for doing comparative study, but it is also quite distressing, as it just shows how tribal Bible translation has become. Sad. ↩
3. Note that the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) renders the controversial phrase in 1 Timothy 3:2 as “married only once.” That is pretty well out of step with other Bible translations. The issues involved in understanding the meaning of “husband of one wife,” or “one woman man,” are exceedingly complex. For a helpful blog discussion from a complementarian point of view, consider this essay by Randy Alcorn (Alcorn concludes that “husband of one wife” is a man who is not a polygamist). For a helpful blog discussion from an egalitarian point of view, consider the work of Australian Margaret Mowczko. In my reading, by far, the most common understanding of a “one woman man,” as held by egalitarians, is that Paul was mostly concerned about marital infidelity among the men of Ephesus, as opposed to the women of Ephesus, who were generally not prone to polyamorous activity. ↩