One Wife or None? Singles as Elders
- Tuesday, October 26, 2010
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?
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