Some words support multiple meanings; that doesn’t mean that every time a word is used it bears all meanings.
At a recent men’s conference a question was raised: “Does an elder have to be married?” I answered live, but I wanted to record my thoughts here.
In Greek, the phrase of contention reads mias gynaikos andra. The mias is in the feminine and is a preposition (a word that points to the thing that is following) in the numerical form to indicate quantity of what follows, in this case it is “one” of whatever comes next; gynaikos is a noun for the singular word “woman” or “wife”; andra is the singular noun which means “man” or “husband”.
The phrase is actually “One Woman Man” or “One Wife Husband”
Folk might get nervous about seeing that sort of ambiguity with the specific words but they shouldn’t. In Greek you have words that can function in multiple places and mean different things depending on the context—but not so different that it is necessarily outside of the range of what the word can do. So even in English the word man can mean different things like when we say “The Bride and Her Man” which could mean Bride and Groom, or “The Wife and Her Man” which could mean the wife and her husband or “The Baby Momma and Her Man” which could mean her boyfriend.
This phrase has been interpreted different ways:
- The Elder must be a married man
- The Elder must be married to only one woman
- The Elder if now single, must have been married only once
- The Elder must be faithful
Mind you, each of these interpretations have been vigorously defended.
Contextually we must remember that the passage opens with dei episkopon anepilempton which means the overseer/elder must be above criticism/reproach—some translations say blameless and then leads right into the phrase of contention.
The Ephesian Church had people who were forbidding marriage (1 Tim 4:3) which may be supportive of position (1) but there also seemed to be a serious problem with sexual sin (2 Tim 3:6 where women are being swayed away by those who enter their households; or 1 Tim 2:15 where Paul says they’re saved by childrearing within the family circle) and marital faithfulness which would lead credence to positions (2), (3) and (4) but against (1). Apparently a concern since he repeats this for the deacons (1 Tim 3:12), women who are to be qualified widows (1 Tim 5:9) and in the letter to Titus 1:6 .
- First, it must be noted that the emphasis in the Greek is not the husband—it’s on the one.
- Second, if (1) were the case, Paul has just disqualified Timothy, himself and Christ. “Yes, but Paul was an apostle” someone might say and my response would be “so what?” Are the requirements for Apostleship to be less stringent than that for elders? And plus, Timothy and Titus weren’t apostles and yet they seemed to have some pretty hefty tasks (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5-9).
- Third, Paul actually teaches that if the Lord has gifted in that capacity, it is actually better to be a worker who is single (1 Cor 7:25-38)—how does it make sense that Paul sees it as a boon but, when it comes to Church Leadership it is actually a bane?
- Fourth, as Mounce points out most men were married so for Paul to be arguing that men were to be married it would be redundant. Now, of course, there was a sect forbidding marriage but (whatever their heresy was be it ascetism or some sort of dualism where what we do in our bodies doesn’t matter) it winds up being an unnecessary restriction since he outright says their teaching is wrong and a sign of the end.
- Last, I have rarely seen this position argue that the elder must have more than one child when the wording in the text actually uses the plural form which is “children”. If that supposed requirement doesn’t apply, on what grounds are they deciding that (1) is the position that is being emphasized?
As for position (2), Mounce points out how polygamy was very active in the first century and saying “one woman” is a very easy reading of the text but then he points out how the same phrase is applied to women who are to be qualified for the truly-widowed and there is no evidence of polyandry (a woman being married to multiple husbands at the same time). Off-handedly, he mentions that telling Christians to have only one wife is pretty redundant but then says that someone can easily level that charge against the rest of the list. Regardless, he points out how positions (3) and (4) can easily incorporate position (2).
Position (3) was held by the early Church, fits textually, matches Paul’s teaching which allows remarriage but encourages celibacy (1 Cor 7:9, 39 and possibly Rom 7:1-3) and even Christ’s teaching (Matt 19:9). But, against (3) we have the thorny issues in 1 Tim 5:14 and 1 Cor 7 where Paul actually encourages remarriage after divorce. Mounce points out that the phrase is so similar for the requirements for elders and widows that you would expect it to have the same meaning in both cases which would be an odd requirement that a widow who has even remarried but now is truly widowed shouldn’t be supported because she has had more than one husband in the past!
Yeah, Single Elders—Position (4) Makes Sense
Position (4) seems to have the most going for it. It may very well be an idiom (like a one gal guy) which underscores faithfulness within the relationship instead of a numerical requirement. If that’s the case it would automatically disqualify a polygamous relationship (since the person is not faithful to his woman but to multiple women), it would allow for a person to have been faithful to his wife and be celibate after the fact, it would allow for men who have been divorced to be faithful to their new wife (while disallowing men who use divorce as a form of fornication by marrying-divorcing in cycles) and it would make sense of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 regarding the benefits of being a single worker. If married, the man is a one woman type of guy, if not married he is not-married.
Indeed, position (4) makes sense of the thought-flow of the passage. It’s not merely that Paul is making a list with point one as blameless then point two he’s a husband, but rather Paul is trying to show what being blameless in the marriage relationship looks like. Opening this section with the dei/must should be thought of as “must be blameless [colon]” instead of “must be blameless [comma]”
Also if it is the case that Scriptures envisions a plurality of overseers, then having one overseer among a group of overseers is single shouldn’t be a problem at all but rather a tremendous boon. You would have a worker who can fully devote himself to the Lord’s work and can stand as a model for those who are currently single and doubting their calling. Indeed, to have an elder who has had children, another who is currently in the process of raising children, and another who can’t have children would all be good models to have for counseling as long as they meet the requirement of being “above criticism”. This criticism isn’t the criticism of the naïve who point out the singleness of a person or the childlessness of a person but rather above the substantial criticism that brings into question the person’s character.
This all being the case I think it’s best to say that yes, single men (if qualified) can and should be elders.
- Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.)
- Earle, R. (1981). 1 Timothy. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 11: Ephesians through Philemon
- Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments
- Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (2001). Vol. 34: 1, 2 Timothy, Titus
- MacDonald, W., & Farstad, A. (1997, c1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary : Old and New Testaments (1 Ti 3:2). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
- Mounce, W. D. (2002). Vol. 46: Word Biblical Commentary : Pastoral Epistles. Word Biblical Commentary
- Strauch, A. (1995). Biblical eldership: An urgent call to restore biblical church leadership.
- Wuest, K. S. (1997). Wuest’s word studies from the Greek New Testament :
- Biblical Studies Press. (2006; 2006). The NET Bible First Edition Notes (1 Ti 3:2). Biblical Studies Press.
- The Pulpit Commentary: 1 Timothy. 2004 (H. D. M. Spence-Jones, Ed.)
- Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-). The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures
Context is the hue that colors in words.