Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Husband of One Wife"?

When I was a little girl, my father used to sing us a folk song which had been recorded by the Kingston Trio.  I remember the chorus went like this:

It takes a worried man
To sing a worried song
I'm worried now
But I won't be worried long

The thing about this song is this.  It never occurred to me or my father-- and I'm pretty sure it never occurred to the Kingston Trio-- that the meaning of these words included the idea that a worried woman couldn't sing a worried song.  In those days the masculine gender in the English language was the default.  It could mean just males, but unless the context indicated otherwise, it was generally assumed to mean both sexes.  The song is saying that only a worried person can sing a worried song.  The song could have used the word "person" there, but just because it says "man," doesn't mean the meaning isn't "person."  And no one, as far as I know, has ever thought otherwise.

The Greek language spoken and written by Paul and the Apostles was similar.   The Scripture 4 All Online Interlinear New Testament shows that when James wrote in Chapter 1, verse 8 of his epistle, "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways," he used the Greek word for "man," which is transliterated as "aner."  The ancient Greek did have a gender-neutral word which meant "person" -- "anthropos"-- and this word is often used in the New Testament.  In fact, James used this word in verse 7, immediately before:  "let not that person ("anthropos") think he shall receive anything from the Lord."  (Emphasis added.)  But in verse 8 James used the word that meant "man."  Did he mean that a double-minded woman was not unstable in all her ways?  Is it only double-minded male humans who are unstable?

It seems pretty doubtful, doesn't it?  Especially since James also used the word "anthropos" to refer to the same hypothetical double-minded person one verse before, in the same passage.

In 1 Timothy 3:1-2 a similar situation occurs.  Scripture 4 All shows that this passage begins with a gender-neutral word (here, the Greek word is "tis" meaning "someone" or "anyone"), and then goes on to use a phrase usually translated "husband of one wife" -- a masculine construction.

Here's the passage in the King James version:

This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach. . .

Notice how the King James version substitutes "man" for the gender-neutral word "tis."  In the day when the KJV was written, the masculine gender was the default, and it would not have been impossible for a reader to understand this as meaning either a man or a woman -- but it is more likely that the translators simply assumed that Paul intended what they called a "bishop" to be men-only.

Here's the same verse in the New International Version.*

Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. . .

The words translated "husband" and "wife" in these verses are the Greek words "andra" and "gunaikos," which are variants of "aner" and "gune."  That is, "man" and "woman."  The ancient Greek had no specific words for "married man" or "married woman."  They just used "man" and "woman," and the context told whether the man and woman being referred to were husband and wife.

So what is happening here is the same thing happening in James 1:7-8: a gender-neutral word for a human being in the first verse is then followed by a word meaning "man" in the second verse.

Why is it, then, that this passage in 1 Timothy is commonly believed to exclude women, while the passage in James is not?

"Well," you might answer, "the text obviously does mean 'husband of one wife,' even though the Greek didn't have those words.  And 'husband' is simply never an inclusive term, even in the King James version!"

Well, yes.  But here's the thing.  When the masculine gender is the default in a language, this means that the masculine gender is used to describe any person or group of people containing at least one man.  The feminine gender would only be used when referring to a female person or a group of people who are all female.**  So when giving the qualifications for who can belong to a group, if Paul intended men to be included, he'd have to use either gender-neutral or masculine-gendered words.  Since the Greek didn't contain our English gender-neutral word "spouse," the only way he could talk about a group containing husbands, would be to use the masculine word "man."

And here's another thing. According to New Testament/Greek scholar Philip B. Payne, the Greek term   "one woman man" was an idiomatic phrase that, interestingly enough, meant pretty much the same thing we mean by that phrase today, as used at the end of the song by Tommy Jones:

You're a one man woman
I'm a one woman man

Tommy Jones' song is about a "two-timing" man who has decided to change his ways and become a "one-woman man" in order to deserve the faithfulness of his "one-man woman."  As Payne puts it, "The closest English equivalent to “one-woman man” is 'monogamous,' and it applies to both men and women."

Is Paul actually simply saying, "If anyone wants to be an overseer, that person should be monogamous"?

I believe very strongly that this is what his original readers (Timothy first, and anyone later whom Timothy read the letter to) would have thought he meant.

New Testament/Greek scholar Marg Mowczko's important blog New Life, in her post Paul's Qualifications for Church Leaders, states:

The phrase, a one-woman man, is. . . an idiom, and there are dangers in applying it too literally. Because it is an idiomatic expression, many people have had difficulty explaining and adapting its meaning in the context of contemporary Western church culture; a culture that is vastly different to first century church culture.

If taken literally, the one-woman man requirement would rule out unmarried, widowed and divorced men, as well as women, from being church leaders; yet Paul says that being single and celibate enables people to serve God better (1 Cor 7:32-35). The real intent of this phrase is marital faithfulness in the church leader who is already married.  Emphasis added.

Mowczko also adds this about the masculine pronoun "he" which appears in these verses:

While 1 Timothy 3:1-7 . . . is completely free from masculine pronouns in the better, older Greek manuscripts, pronouns need to be added in English translations to make sense of the sentences. In English, the literary convention has been to use masculine pronouns, even if the subject matter applies to women also. . . [I]n Greek also. . . the literary convention was to use masculine pronouns when speaking about a representative person, or groups of people that included men.

So in the original text, not only is the masculine word "man" not used, but even the pronoun "he" does not appear!  It does look as if the convention of using 1 Timothy 3 to exclude women from church leadership is merely that-- a convention.

And then there's the whole issue of Phoebe.

In Romans 16:1 Paul says,  "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae."  (Emphasis added.)  A footnote to this on the Bible Gateway website adds:  "The word deacon refers here to a Christian designated to serve with the overseers/elders of the church in a variety of ways; similarly in. . . Tim. 3:8,12."

Of course, 1 Timothy 3: 8-12 is a continuation of Paul's requirements for church leadership.  Verse 12 (KJV) reads: "Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well." Emphasis added.

So if Phoebe is a deacon, and "husband of one wife" means "must be male," then the only conclusion from this is that Phoebe was man.  Which, of course, is simply not true.  Philip Payne again:

The clearest NT identification of an individual with titles associated with senior local church leadership is not a man at all, but a woman: “Phoebe deacon (διάκονος, not feminine in form, which could imply ‘servant’ or ‘deaconess,’ but masculine in form, hence ‘deacon’) of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to received her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a leader (προστάτις ‘leader, chief,’ ‘president or presiding officer,’ ‘one who stands before,’ LSJ 1526) of many, including myself also”” (Rom 16:1-2). Since Romans was written before any surviving reference to the office of a local church “overseer,” “deacon” may have been the only officially recognized title for a local church leader at that time and/or place. If by προστάτις (“leader”) Paul identifies a church office here, then he describes Phoebe using two titles for a church office that may have been equivalent to the later-documented titles “overseer,” “elder,” and “pastor.”  
Emphasis added. 

Payne goes on to point out the translator bias in this passage:

Translations such as the NIV, which repeats the word “give her any help … for she has been a great help,” hide the fact that the Greek verb translated as “help [her]” (παραστῆτε from παρίστημι, “I help,” which combines παρά = “along side” + ἵστημι = “I stand”) is almost opposite in meaning to the word describing Phoebe as a προστάτις “one who leads,” which combines πρό = “in rank before” + ἵστημι = “I stand.” Paul’s logic is natural, “Help her in whatever matter she has need, because she is a leader of many, including myself also.” It is natural that Paul, who calls all believers to submit to one another (Eph 5:21) should himself submit to the local leadership in churches he visited. If Paul had intended to say simply that Phoebe had “helped” others, it would have been natural for him to repeat παρίστημι to make his reason parallel his request. 
Emphasis added. 

As far as I can see, the identification of Phoebe as a deacon according to the description of 1 Timothy 3:8-12 proves that "husband of one wife" cannot mean "must be a man."  And if it doesn't mean "must be a man" for deacons, the same phrase used for overseers in verses 1 and 2 cannot mean "must be a man" either.  Theologian Peter Kirk puts it like this:

[A]ccording to Romans 16:1 the woman Phoebe was a deacon, and indeed the most natural interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11 is also a reference to women deacons. In this case, “husband of one wife” in 3:12 cannot be understood as a rule applicable everywhere allowing only men to be deacons. And as the phrase surely has the same meaning in 3:2 and Titus 1:6 these verses cannot be understood as forbidding any women from being overseers or elders; for precisely the same condition is applied to . . . [the] two types of Christian ministry.

Therefore, when Christian teachers insist that the phrase "husband of one wife" means that women can't serve as church leaders, they are mistaken.  It's high time this mistake was rectified, because the Lord Who raised up Phoebe has never changed His mind about raising up women to lead.  It is we humans who have misunderstood and hindered His work.

*Note: the New International Version was updated in 2011, but I quote from the 1984 version here to show that the controversy over "gender-inclusiveness" in the 2011 is not at issue here.  Both versions use "anyone" for the Greek word "tis."

**Paul does, in fact, use the female-only construction "one-man woman" or "wife of one husband" in 1 Timothy 5:9 when speaking of widows to be put on a list to receive church support.  A man whose wife had died would still be able to support himself, so Paul only has in mind women whose husbands have died.  Thus he uses the feminine gendered "wife of one husband" because the group he is speaking of consists only of women. 


Yeshua Hineni said...


Donald Johnson said...

This is as I teach also. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I hate to be a party-pooper, but this is simply atrocious Greek "scholarship." Much of it is simply wrong, and she clearly evidences her own lack of knowledge of the language.

I also have a problem with her mis-defining the word "elder" as meaning "church leader." Also wrong. This was a very specific church office.

On a cultural level (of that day) the idea of a woman holding the position of bishop/elder wouldn't even have been considered. And--attempting to equate these (many) scattered house churches, which were eventually brought under the oversight of said bishops/elders . . . to our "churches" of today . . . a very unworthy comparison.

This was just another poor attempt to justify the complete equality of women and men in any position in our modern churches. It is a tainted mixture of truth and error and I am grieved to see it.

Kristen said...

Annonymous, are you objecting to Marg Mowczko's Greek scholarship? If so, why not follow the link to her blog and take it up with her? Or better yet, with Philip Payne, whose research she also is partly relying on? I provided a link to his website as well.

As far as women not being considered to be "bishops" -- as you yourself have stated, the church started out with small house groups, and bishops came along later. The home was considered the province of women, and there are several references in the NT letters house churches specifically named as women's house churches. The point is that even if being a "bishop" would have been considered too public a ministry for a woman (once there began to be bishops), women were leaders in the house churches of those earliest years, and the wording of Paul's qualifications in 1 Tim. 3 for overseers do not exclude women from ever serving as such.

It makes me sad that you think it's such a bad thing for women to be fully equal in the church. In our culture today it is no longer a problem for women to appear in public-- so why do you want to drag us back into the first century?

Anonymous said...

"And--attempting to equate these (many) scattered house churches, which were eventually brought under the oversight of said bishops/elders . . . to our "churches" of today . . . a very unworthy comparison."

Does it matter if our churches today are run differently? If the early Christians only had house churches, and some of those house churches had women in charge, that still leaves us with the conclusion that there were women in spiritual leadership over men in the earliest churches. And Paul seems to be commending one of those women here.

If the church later organized itself into a different kind of structure, that still doesn't erase the fact that Paul is here endorsing a woman who is holding spiritual authority over others.

I'm also not sure what you think is wrong about the translation. It's hard to just take your word that it's wrong when you've given us no specifics.

Saying something is "wrong" but then refusing to explain yourself makes it sound like you simply disagree, but have no real argument.

Seth said...

Hi Kristin,
Just started reading your blog recently. Based on your line of thinking here, wouldn't the Timothy passage also be leaving room for a monogomous gay or lesbian person to be an elder/church leader?

Kristen said...


I don't think Paul could have had that in mind, because "monogamous gay" simply didn't exist in first-century Roman/Near East categories of thought. But I think the idea that this particular passage "leaves room," as you put it, is certainly something that a case could be made for.

Anonymous said...

Paul is not endorsing women, and you may attack me personally all you like. It's a classic red herring/straw man tactic that I find irritating at best and beneath any professional blogger. The supposed Greek explanation is simply inaccurate. I am a student of Greek, and I've also discussed this (and heard it discussed by many a true scholar) with my husband, who has had more Greek than I have. (thus far) The conclusions drawn are simply wrong, and I don't have time to explain the plethora of reasons why they are.

You would do well to broaden your reading on the interpretation of these passages. While I am not a Catholic, some of the best Greek scholars (and commentaries) are. You may want to see what a guy by the name of Moo has to say about it.

And just for the record, it matters not to me one whit which popular personalities buy into this erroneous teaching. It is culturally driven, not theologically driven, and that's enough to send me in the other direction.

Kristen said...

Annonymous, I have not attacked you personally. I have not used a red herring or straw man tactic. However, you have used at least one ad hominem tactic here. You have called those who agree with you "some of the best Greek scholars" and those who disagree with you mere "popular personalities." But Dr. Payne is a well-known and respected Greek scholar in his own right. He quotes Moo on his own website regarding this passage, as follows:

Douglas Moo acknowledges that this phrase need not exclude “unmarried men or females from the office … it would be going too far to argue that the phrase clearly excludes women….” Douglas J. Moo, “The Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15: A Rejoinder,” TJ 2 NS (1981): 198–222, 211.

I'm not sure why you think every "true" scholar endorses your beliefs. This is simply not the case. But I do find it somewhat ironic that you would come on here and paint me as someone who has personally attacked you, when anyone can read for themselves that I have done no such thing. If it's an attack to ask why you want to drag women back to the first century, then why isn't it an attack to say my point of view is "tainted" or that I am doing things "beneath any professional blogger"?

TheOneLeftBleeding said...

Great article Kristen. I like Marg's blog and Philip Payne's research on this topic as well. Sending this one on to a friend ..