After the introduction to this series which looked at Al Mohler’s change of mind, in part 2 I described the fundamentalist approach to the Bible, and in part 3 I started on the scholarly approach. This scholarly approach can be divided into exegesis (understanding the text) and application. In this part I will apply the principles of exegesis to Titus 1:6, and especially to the phrase sometimes translated “husband of one wife”. In the next part I will move on to how this may be applied in the modern world.
The first of the principles of exegesis which I outlined in part 3 is to get an overview of the whole document. For this I have just read the entire book of Titus, in my current favourite translation, TNIV. (At this point I am glad that I didn’t choose a verse from Acts as my example!) I can then look at the communication situation: the apostle Paul is writing to encourage and instruct his long term associate Titus, who he has left in charge of the Christian mission in Crete.
I then need to find a self-contained unit for exegesis. This is important because it avoids looking at a verse or two out of context. Clearly 1:6 is not a self-contained unit. It is in fact part of a unit 1:5-9 concerning appointment of elders, which is clearly separate from the preceding formal greeting, and is distinguished from what follows by an abrupt change of subject matter. I have read through this passage in the Greek and in the Good News Bible, the New Living Translation, and The Message (which leaves out “husband of one wife” completely!) I won’t attempt my own version of the passage, although that would help with the exegetical process.
There are a number of questions which could be formulated about this passage, such as the relationship between “overseer” (or “bishop”) in verse 7 and “elder” in verse 5. But for the purpose of this exercise I will concentrate on the one question: what did Paul mean by “husband of one wife”?
I was surprised to find “establish the text” so far down the list of principles which I summarised in part 3. I would in fact have preferred to do this at the beginning, or at least as soon as I had identified the passage. In this case, there are no textual variants which are relevant to “husband of one wife”.
The small section we are focusing on consists of just three words in Greek, μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ mias gunaikos anēr, “(of) one woman/wife man/husband”. Perhaps two of these three words need word studies: ἀνήρ anēr (genitive ἀνδρός andros, as in “polyandry” and “androgynous”), meaning “man” or “husband”, and γυνή gunē (genitive γυναικός gunaikos, as in “gynaecology” and again “androgynous”), meaning “woman” or “wife”. At this point I will not do detailed word studies, but I will note that whereas ἀνήρ anēr most commonly means “man” as opposed to “woman”, it can also mean “human being” as opposed to “god” or “adult” as opposed to “youth”. This is clear from the Liddell-Scott-Jones lexicon of classical Greek: in this 19th century lexicon (the link is to a 1940 revision) the gloss for sense A.II, “man, opp. god“, was written at a time when “man” was used routinely in a gender generic sense. However, it does seem clear that in this case, where ἀνήρ anēr and γυνή gunē are used together, that the senses of the words being used here are “husband” and “wife”. But see what I write below about Deiss’ research into this phrase.
At this point I will skip the use of other reference books. While in general this is a good principle for exegesis, it is not so helpful in a case like this on which there is such controversy. As for relationships between words and between larger units, I will simply note that these three words form one item in a short list of complements of “anyone is”, within a conditional clause which appears to be laying down conditions for anyone to be appointed as an elder.
I now move on to looking at parallel passages using the same expression. As I noted in part 2, the same expression occurs in 1 Timothy 3:2,12, and a similar expression but with “husband” and “wife” reversed in 1 Timothy 5:9. In 1 Timothy 3:2 this expression is a similar condition for someone to be an overseer or “bishop”, and in 3:12 (where it occurs in the plural) it is a condition for deacons; the expression in 5:9 is a condition for a widow to be enrolled.
These parallel uses do tend to restrict how the expression can be understood. For example, 5:9 rules out a strictly present understanding: the widow must be someone who was “wife of one husband” before she became a widow, and so it is reasonable to argue that “husband of one wife” cannot exclude widowers from being elders, overseers or deacons.
More controversially, as I noted in part 2, according 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 all three, or two, types of Christian ministry.
Now I have not come to any definite conclusion on the vexed issue of whether this phrase should be understood as “husband of one wife” in the sense of not being polygamous, or “faithful to his wife” as in TNIV; nor whether it should be understood as forbidding unmarried elders (although I have ruled out a prohibition on widowed elders). My own preference is for understanding the phrase as requiring the elder to avoid any kind of sexual activity outside a monogamous marriage. But I don’t claim to have justified this fully.
I have however cast serious doubt on whether this verse can be understood as restricting eldership to men. I have three strictly exegetical reasons for this, quite apart from the application issues which I will move on to in the next part. The first reason is as above, that the same condition is applied to deacons but there do seem to have been women deacons.
The second reason is that the point which Paul was making here was not about gender but about sexual activity. Paul may have assumed that Titus would appoint only men, as was perhaps culturally appropriate (compare 2:6 where his grounds for requiring women to “be subject to their husbands” is to be culturally sensitive, “so that no-one will malign the word of God” (TNIV)). But it is unlikely that he was intending to teach two separate things in this one three word phrase – that is not how language works. And the positive point which he was making is clearly related to sexual activity. Now there is some value in looking at the biblical authors’ presuppositions as well as at their direct teaching. But, as I will consider further when I look at application, it is dangerous to take the apostle’s presuppositions as normative for the church today.
My third reason for not interpreting this verse as prohibiting women elders is based on a something apparently written by the French biblical scholar Lucien Deiss. (Thanks to Ruud Vermeij for reminding me about this and providing some links.) In Think Again about Church Leaders (1 Timothy 2:8-3:16), page 87 of this online edition, Bruce Fleming writes, on 1 Timothy 3:2:
The second qualification in the list deals with the overseer’s married life. Careful research has shown that this qualification means that whether one is a husband or a wife it is important to be a “faithful spouse.” It requires that an overseer, if married, be faithful and be “a one-spouse kind of person.”According to Lucien Deiss (notes to the French Bible, the TOB, Edition Intégrale, p. 646, note a), this Greek phrase was used in Asia Minor, on both Jewish and pagan gravestone inscriptions, to designate a woman or a man, who was faithful to his or her spouse in a way characterized by “a particularly fervent conjugal love.”
When I read Deiss’ comment about how this phrase was used on ancient grave inscriptions in Turkey, where Paul and Timothy ministered, I confirmed it with him myself, reaching him by telephone in Vaucresson, France.
Some might find this insight into 1 Timothy 3:2 surprising because modern versions of the Bible translate this Greek phrase as – “husband of one wife” – making this qualification appear to be restricted to men only! Instead, rightly understood, this qualification is about faithfulness in marriage by a Christian spouse. It is not saying that oversight is “for men only.”
I regret that I have not been able to confirm what Deiss wrote or the inscriptions reported by him. But it does seem clear that this scholar has written this, and in a Bible edition, TOB, Edition Intégrale, produced jointly by the Société Biblique Française (French Bible Society) which should ensure proper scholarly standards.
I thus conclude that from an exegetical point of view (and quite apart from the issue of application today) it cannot be maintained that Paul was setting for Titus a condition that the elders he appointed must be male.
In part 5: Scholarly Application I will look at the scholarly principles of how this passage might be applied within the church today.