The Husband of One Wife? – (Women in Church Leadership – Part 5)

When considering whether or not women are Biblically allowed to be in positions of leadership within the church, we have to make sure we are being honest with the Biblical text.  I admit freely that many people, on both sides of this issue, have played “fast and loose” with the text (only God knows their true motives in doing so) in seeming attempts to explain its meaning according to their own viewpoint.  I guess that’s human nature – but we have to TRY VERY HARD to stay true to what the Bible actually means, not try to re-read it to mean what we desire it to mean.  As we look at the qualifications for elders that Paul lists, I challenge all of you to honestly consider the “intention” of Paul’s words, not just the verbiage he uses.

But before we do, let me reiterate as I have in previous posts on this subject – my only goal is to understand what the scriptures SAY and MEAN regarding this issue, for only when we understand it can we apply it properly.  I have no bias against women and want to allow every person (male or female, child or adult) every liberty that scripture allows. 

When Paul gives qualifications by which to choose church leaders (elders) he makes one statement that is often used to point out that only men can be in the primary leadership of the church.  He makes this statement in both lists, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  Here’s the statement…

…the husband of but one wife…

Many times the only thing that is appealed to in order to “prove” that men only are to be elders is that it says “husband.”  While that is somewhat convincing, that kind of logic carried throughout the passage would demand that we read “manages his children and household well” as an insistence that he be married (have a houshold) and have children.   I don’t believe that the context makes that sort of insistence necessary at all.

What seems more appropriate is to understand the MEANING behind the phrase in question.  Clearly, the main point of this phrase is not the gender of the leader in question, but whether or not the potential leader is morally pure.  THAT is his point!  The elder should be committed to their family, faithful to their spouse, unwavering in their fidelity.  For an elder who is not married, we can reasonably imply from the MEANING of this phrase, that they too should be morally pure in their singleness.  When and if they become married, then they too must be faithful to their new spouse.  In a day such as ours, few have a problem understanding why such a criteria is needful.  

With that being said, a very interesting point arises… and again, I implore you to honestly consider the ramifications of it.  I think I can best lead you to understand what I’m getting at by asking a “what if” question…

IF women ARE allowed to be in church leadership, wouldn’t this issue of sexual purity and/or marital fidelity be just as important for them as it would be for men?  Absolutely!  Sexual scandal among church leaders is terrible and damaging – it taints Christian witness in the world and rips up the church internally.  In ALL cases it should be guarded against.

Knowing this, you would naturally expect Paul to make an equally clear point of admonishing the women candidates for elder in this same area of concern.  That’s the problem, he doesn’t.  He says that the men should be “husband of one wife” but says absolutely nothing about this area of sexual purity and marital fidelity as it relates to women.  Again, IF women are allowed to be in church leadership, why are THEY not specifically instructed to be the “wife of one husband,” or something similar?

Some have argued, almost inconceivably in my opinion, that this phrase “husband of one wife” implies the same moral uprightness for men AND women – without actually saying “women” anywhere in the context.  What????!!!????  Do words mean nothing?  Can we legitimately take the wording of the scriptures so lightly that we will imply a completely opposite meaning to a word with as specific a meaning as “husband?”  Surely, one can’t be a husband unless they are a man…can they?  And one can’t have “but one wife” unless they are a man (of course, the way our culture is going that may change, tragically).

Do you see my point?  This admonition regarding sexual purity and marital fidelity is aimed specifically and prejudicially toward men.  Paul only had men in mind, or he would have undoubtedly included a similar phrase aimed toward women.  With such high stakes involved (the moral and righteous reputation of the bride of Christ) how could Paul have been so negligent as to not include a similar admonition toward women about this area of sexual purity – IF he had women in mind as well?  The only logical conclusion that I can see is that his comments are specifically and solely oriented toward men in these qualifications because he specifically and solely meant for men to be the only ones considered for the position of elder.

Comments are once again welcome…


4 thoughts on “The Husband of One Wife? – (Women in Church Leadership – Part 5)

  1. Carey,
    I appreciate your taking the text seriously. And I agree that this passage refers to men having one wife. This could be a comment against polygamy (unlikely since it wasn’t prevalent then). It could be a comment about faithfulness to one woman only. It could be a comment regarding divorced men.

    Either way, Paul likely considered only men when he was considering elders. Yet we see many women leading in Paul’s church. Romans 16 gives us ample evidence of this. It is also not necessary that we conclude that “because Paul allowed only men that we should allow only men.” Paul also had restrictions on how women should wear their hair and how men and women should dress (see 1 Cor. 11:1-16). We don’t follow these particular cultural expectations in our churches. Nor should it be concluded that we should follow them.

    I believe Paul had only men as elders because of his culture. Not because only men can hold the office.


  2. Hi Mark, thanks for your input…

    I have read Romans 16 many times and have even studied the Greek of the passage – and there is NOTHING in the passage that suggests that the women mentioned were in PRIMARY leadership (Elder or Teachers on an adult level). In order to reach that conclusion you have to make some assumptions about what Paul meant that aren’t indicated in the passage.

    Some read the phrase “outstanding among the Apostles” (NIV – an unfortunate translation) and take it to mean that the woman mentioned was actually an Apostle. That’s a bad interpretation/translation for two reasons. First, JESUS designated who the Apostles were (and none were women) and secondly, the wording in the Greek is more in line with this idea, “of note by the Apostles.” The preposition translated “among” in the NIV (the Greek word is “En”) is used over 2700 times in the Greek NT and can mean any of the following: at, on, by, after, against, almost, altogther, among, between, before, for, in, of, on – and many others. The CONTEXT is what HAS to tell us which use is best. In this passage, there is NO reason to think it means that the woman mentioned was an Apostle herself or even in a primarly leadership role within the church.

    In fact, none of the women mentioned are singled out as “leaders” of any type (though some may have been in some ways, Paul doesn’t give us enough info. to really know). If you read carefully through my posts again, you’ll see that my emphasis was only on the PRIMARY leadership roles of Pastor or Elder. These are the ones that I believe are restricted from being held by women.

    Finally, your statement that it is not necessary that we conclude that “because Paul allowed only men that we should allow only men” has me a bit concerned. Isn’t Paul an Apostle? Aren’t his writings and instructions inspired by the Holy Spirit? How can you so easily dismiss a very specific instruction to the church as “applicable for him and his day” but not for ours – without sufficient reason in the text itself? I’m very careful about such things. We don’t have the liberty to make such judgement calls without the explicit clarity in scripture for us to do so.

  3. Carey,
    The gospel must be spoken in the language of the culture that it is in. That means the church structure and leadership will always be affected by culture. We see in the history of the church MANY different leadership structures and styles.

    Not all churches have “pastors” or “elders.” Some have deacons. Some have priests. And a “pastor” was never in the early church. That is something that came about from the Protestant Reformation. All of these titles and roles are cultural. A church usually sets itself up now based on its denominational doctrine and culture.

    I believe Paul’s advice on women not teaching men was cultural.

    Are you implying that only churches that have “elders” are biblical? And are you deciding that the “primary leadership role” is elder? The primary leader in the early church was not the elder but the apostle. I guess I am just confused as to why these two arbitrary roles of “pastor” and “elder” have been singled out.

  4. I agree about the gospel being spoken in the language of the culture, that is very important. But leadership structure doesn’t not have to be connected to HOW we communicate the gospel. Leadership structure is an internal issue for the church, not an external manifestation of how we tell others about Christ. Once people come to know Christ they have the Spirit of God who will guide them into all truth (about leadership in the church, about morality, etc.) I’m not worried that we have disagreements about these things because I trust the Spirit to do His job – not in my timing, but in His.

    I do honestly think that Elders are more Biblical – you can’t deny that every New Testament church had elders – Paul’s writings and the book of Revelation bear witness to that. While Apsotles were the first form of church leadership, we don’t have Apostles today because by definition there are none (no eyewitnesses of the life of person of Christ – no one who was personally appointed by Christ). The Apostles, guided by the Spirit established elders as their predecessors in each local church. They replaced themselves before they were gone.

    Admittedly, the “Pastoral” role as we have today is not necissarily Biblical, though a case can be made for Timothy, Titus, Silas, etc. being in such a role – though the name or title may have been different.

    I single out Pastor and Elder as the primary leadership roles because they are the roles that “teach and have authority” as scripture indicates is the role of the primary leaders. The guidelines seem pretty clear to me, without having to do a bunch of cultural or exegetical backflips.


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