After God’s Heart

Thoughts on living as a man after God's heart in every aspect of life: as a husband, a father, and in my work as a Bible Software developer.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A One-Woman Man

Yesterday on the Better Bibles Blog, Suzanne McCarthy posted on the proper translation of the phrase in 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:6 which is usually translated "the husband of one wife." In it, she argues, as others have done, that the expression "one woman man" is really an idiom for marital faithfulness (just as it is in English). She argues the same thing for the parallel expression in 1 Tim. 5:9 about widows. Here are a few thoughts in response to her post.

1. In 1 Tim 3:2, I think the "faithful to his wife" rendering fits the context better than the "husband of one wife," and it certainly raises fewer ethical dilemmas. Is Paul excluding from eldership a widower who has remarried, and so has been the husband of two wives? I doubt it. Is he excluding those who have divorced and remarried? Perhaps, but it's not altogether clear.

The idea that Paul is speaking of marital faithfulness in general tends to circumvent some of these difficult questions. However, it does raise the converse question of whether a man who has been maritally unfaithful in his past is forever disqualified from the role of elder.

2. In 1 Tim 5:9, the "faithful to her husband" rendering likewise avoids one kind of befuddlement but fosters another. As Ms. McCarthy has pointed out, it seems strange that Paul would encourage younger widows to remarry if that would mean they would later be disqualified when their second husbands died.

On the other hand, disqualifying a widow who has been unfaithful to her (now dead) husband raises the question of whether there is no grace and forgiveness for past sins.

Either exclusion from the rolls of widows therefore raises problems if pressed too hard.

3. I think this illustrates the problem of the scientific precision with which we try to dissect the meaning of every jot and tittle in the Greek New Testament.

Can we read "husband of one wife" in 1 Tim. 3:2 as a general ethical standard that could have exceptions on a case by case basis? Could Paul be implying that a man who has been married to the same woman for 40 years is a better candidate for the role of elder than the man who has been married more than once? Could he be doing that without saying that the twice-married man is absolutely excluded from the office of elder?

Can we read "faithful to his wife" as a general ethical standard rather than an absolute exclusion? If a man was unfaithful to his wife twenty years ago and has been faithful ever since, is he automatically excluded from becoming an elder? Perhaps not, but the man who has been faithful to the same woman for 40 years clearly seems a better candidate.

The same goes for "wife of one husband" in 1 Tim. 5:9. Is a widow who has been married once, widowed, and left without any family to support her more qualified for financial support than a woman who has been married twice? Maybe so. The woman who has been married (and widowed) twice may be twice as likely to have at least some family members who are able to support her, and so is less qualified for the church's support. Does that mean the general guideline of "one husband" couldn't be overlooked for the woman who has been twice widowed and who still has absolutely no one to support her?

If we read "(having been) faithful to her husband" in 1 Tim. 5:9, it certainly seems reasonable that the woman who was faithful to her husband for forty years and who is now destitute is more deserving of support than the woman who may be estranged from her family because of her own sinful history. But does that mean that a woman who has ever been maritally unfaithful can never hope for support from the church?

I don't mean to imply that we can bend any ethical standard in the Bible to conform to our own sense of what is right, but every ethical standard must be observed and applied with wisdom, discernment, and grace. Jesus' exchanges with the Pharisees clearly demonstrate that.

4. Returning to the question of which reading is best, I am personally more drawn to the reading which emphasizes marital faithfulness rather than the number of times married. I've read arguments that this construction is used in Greek funerary inscriptions to describe the marital faithfulness of the departed, and I believe it fits the context of these two passages a little better. However, Ms. McCarthy's reductio ad absurdam argument that the "one husband" rendering creates a "moral contradiction for women" is, I think, something of a stretch. It loses its legs as an objection if we take these qualifications for elders and widows as general standards rather than as hard and fast rules.

5. Ms. McCarthy ends her post by quoting Peter Kirk's earlier post on "scholarly" versus "fundamental" methods of interpretation, in which he states: 

As I have previously concluded, Paul's teaching at this point is not about the gender of church leaders but about their sexual activity. Titus 1:6 did not mean to Paul or Titus that women must not be elders, so it cannot mean the same to us today. What it does mean today is what it meant to Titus, that married male elders must be faithful to their wives - and by extension to genuinely comparable situations, it may also mean that married female elders must be faithful to their husbands, and that single and widowed elders must be celibate. At least, this is the conclusion to which I am led by the scholarly approach to the Bible.

I believe Mr. Kirk is right in applying these "one woman man" expressions to the principle of marital faithfulness. However, it does not follow from this that Paul allowed for the possibility of female elders. While male versus female is clearly not the primary point of 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:6, it can certainly be argued that male eldership is assumed, just as widows are assumed to be female. Obviously, the principle of male eldership cannot be established from these verses, but neither is it excluded just by pointing out that marital faithfulness is the real emphasis of these "one woman man" expressions. Reading anything more from these expressions—in either direction—amounts to logical and theological sleight-of-hand.