One Wife or None? Singles as Elders
- Tim Laitinen Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2010 10 Oct
Is the phrase "mias gunaikos andra" Greek to you?
Loosely translated, it means "husband of one wife." And that's how most translations of the Bible render this phrase from 1 Timothy 3:2, where the apostle Paul describes prerequisites for being a church elder.
But what biblical principle did Paul really want to convey with these three Greek words? Does one's marital status really command as much attention in the apostle's original writing, and if so, does Paul relegate singles to second-class citizenship in the Kingdom of God?
As it turns out, "mias gunaikos andra" has as much to say about sexual purity as it does marital status when it comes to church elder qualifications—and indeed, orthodox Christianity in general. And it's just as counter to our North American culture today as it was to Paul's when he wrote it.
More than One "Single"
Most evangelicals have overcome challenges from liberal theologians who claim phrases like Paul's "mias gunaikos andra" can be deconstructed to include women as elders. So for the purposes of this discussion, we'll assume the majority of Crosswalk's readership interprets eldership as an exclusively male role.
But that doesn't remove another controversy that can still emerge when churches select their leaders: can single males serve as elders?
And to complicate things even further, our answer depends on what we mean by "single," doesn't it? "Single" can include a wider variety of marital statuses than it suggests. For example, you could be a:
• Never-married virgin
• Never-married non-virgin
• Divorced as the injured party
• Divorced as the injuring party
Now, some Christians will still object to the very concept of a single person serving as an elder, regardless of any other qualifications: "Paul says they're to be the husband of one wife, so that implies marriage, doesn't it?"
Not Lost in Translation
That depends on what Paul actually said. Some Greek linguistics experts assert "mias gunaikos andra" says the elder candidate should be a "one-woman man." Does this translation speak of marriage implicitly, or sexual virtue generally? In other words, Paul's turn of a phrase actually provides the benchmark for how an elder candidate expresses physical intimacy, regardless of his marital status. Does the man guard the holiness of matrimony?
Here's how Dr. Gene Getz, theologian, author and host of "Renewal Radio," puts it:
"We believe Paul was simply requiring that a man be above reproach morally, that he be a 'one-woman man.' …He was to be loyal to one woman and one woman only—his present wife. This was a very necessary requirement in the New Testament world since many men were converted out of raw paganism. Married men of wealth particularly retained prostitutes at the local temples and had their own special 'slave girls' in their extended family quarters. Their wives in that culture could only accept this arrangement as normal... Though it was illegal to have more than one wife, it certainly was not illegal for a married man to have more than one woman in his life."1
In other words, would Paul have been as concerned about a chaste, single man serving as an elder or a married man with a mistress on the side? Extrapolating all that Scripture teaches about sexual purity and celibacy, can't we safely deduce the second scenario instead of the first?
And consider Paul himself, who at the time he wrote 1 Timothy was proudly single himself. Would God have encouraged Paul to proclaim that singles enjoy a far freer lifestyle in which to serve Christ, and then exclude church eldership from that service?
Addition or Interpretation?
Some people might suspect that we're inferring something from the Gospel that isn't literally in the wording. They'd claim that since Paul talks only of married men, we have to assume he's excluding single ones from eldership. And yes, we need to guard against trying to make the Bible say what we want it to say. But in this case, it's the non-single-elder advocates who appear to be inferring something contrary to the original language.
"Mias gunaikos andra" and "one-woman man" describe an expectation of sexual purity and fidelity. Would God be concerned about multiple wives or the larger issue of sexual morality? And what of Christ himself, the Head of the church, who never got married? What could be the virtue modeled by Christ that church elders should emulate in terms of sexuality? It's not marriage, but chastity.
Just because he was one himself, Christ doesn't expect all men in his Kingdom to be virgins. Neither does Christ expect all the husbands of his Kingdom to ever have sex with only one woman, because he allows widowers and innocent victims of divorce to remarry. So if Christ himself gives different men either the grace to be a lifelong virgin or to remarry under the proper conditions, then where's the proof that only married men can serve as elders?
The Role of Grace
Not that we've got this issue all wrapped up. For example, what about guys who have played the field as singles, and maybe even fathered kids outside of wedlock? If our argument rests on virtue, what kind of elders would they make? What about divorced men? Are these guys equivalent prospects for elderhood with guys who've remained faithful to their wife until death parted them?
Suffice it to say that, according to Dr. Ed Glasscock, executive director of Xdoulos Ministries, the issue isn't so much how a man lived before his conversion. What impact does Christ's grace have on our lives after conversion?
"Before a man is saved, he is dead toward God and his holy standards. He has no power over sin, no knowledge of God's Word or will; thus to judge one's life before his new birth is totally unjust. Paul states that even adulterers (as in divorce and remarriage) were 'washed ... sanctified ... justified'(1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
"Paul's concern in 1 Timothy 3:1-10is that if a man desires the office of elder he must be qualified 'at that time,' not before his conversion."2
Only Sin Complicates Sexual Purity
But, you might ask, other issues of singlehood and sexual immorality sometimes develop after the salvation of an elder candidate. What about a believing man who divorces his wife? Or has an affair that drives his wife to divorce him?
Don't let these questions complicate the issue. At their core, these scenarios portray deviations from sexual purity, and actually support the interpretation of "one-woman man." Despite the circumstance, Paul insists the sanctity of the matrimonial bed must be upheld by both singles and marrieds according to basic biblical guidelines of sexual purity.
In today's society, it may sound goofy to champion chastity, but God's Word proclaims truth for all times and cultures. His expectations of sexual purity don't match our society's, but whose fault is that? We believers should live as salt and light in our world, not merely copiers of it. And since biblical church eldership has been designed to model God's high expectations of his people, we should all emulate those same holy expectations within our spheres of influence.
If you have a single man being nominated for elder in your church, evaluate him on his sexual purity. Only if his marital status exhibits sexual compromise should this aspect of his character disqualify him.
1Dr. Gene Getz, Elders and Leaders; God's Plan for Leading the Church (Moody Publishers, 2003), 167.
2Ed Glassock, "'The Husband of One Wife' Requirement in 1 Timothy 3:2" (Bibliotheca Sacra series, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1983), Number 559.
From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.
**This article first published on October 26, 2010.