There has been recent controversy, starting with Don Johnson’s comment here at Gentle Wisdom, also in this comment and following ones in a long thread at Parchment and Pen, concerning what the Australian author Bruce Fleming wrote about the biblical phrase generally translated “husband of one wife”. This phrase is found in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 as a qualification for overseers and for elders respectively. Its use in these verses is commonly cited as an argument that women cannot be church leaders, as of course they cannot be husbands.
Unfortunately the details of what Fleming wrote do not support everything they have been claimed to support. There is no evidence that the phrase translated “husband of one wife” was used of women as well of men.
Nevertheless, and independently of Fleming’s argument, this phrase should not be understood as not allowing women to lead churches. Some years ago I argued this, in my series The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, and last week I noted that Bill Mounce confirms it. In the course of my earlier argument I referred to what Bruce Fleming had written about this phrase. In particular I looked at what he wrote about the view of the late French Bible scholar Lucien Deiss. But I did not rely on this passage for my argument because I could not confirm what Fleming had written.
Here I quote again, for easy reference, the passage from Fleming:
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.”
In his comment here last week Don Johnson again quoted the very same passage. I replied regretting that what Deiss wrote, and said to Fleming on the telephone, had not been confirmed. I doubt if it is a coincidence that the next day TL brought up the same subject at Parchment and Pen. I presume it is the same TL who has now commented on this matter here at Gentle Wisdom, suggesting that we “get the original statement that Lucein Deiss wrote”.
At first I thought that this would be a problem. The French Bible version TOB, Edition Intégrale, is available at amazon.fr (thanks to the blogger at Blog by-the-sea for this link), but I didn’t want to pay €57.00 for this 3000 page book.
But then I discovered an online edition of this Bible (link from here, a long list of Bibles and related resources in French). These are page images, and so include all the original matter with the original pagination – although there does seem to be some inconsistency between the page numbers on the images and that in the table of contents. But there have been many editions of this work, perhaps with slightly different pagination. The online version is the 10th edition (2004); amazon.fr is offering the 11th edition (2008).
I turned first to the cited page 646 (of over 3000 in this book). This turns out to be from the text of 2 Samuel, and not surprisingly there is nothing relevant in the text or footnotes here. This page number must be an error in Fleming’s book – or perhaps it refers to a New Testament only edition of TOB.
Then I found the footnote on 1 Timothy 3:2, on the words mari d’une seule femme (“husband of only one wife”). It seems that this is what Fleming was quoting. Here is the full footnote text in French:
Selon les commentateurs, l’apôtre viserait l’inconduite (mais cela n’allait-il pas de soi qu’il faille s’en abstenir ?), ou bien il interdirait le remariage après veuvage, ou encore il s’en prendrait au fait de répudier sa femme pour en épouser une autre (cf. Mc 10,1-11 par.). Mais on peut aussi entendre les expressions mari d’une seule femme ou femme d’un seul mari (cf. 1 Tm 5,9), expressions que l’on rencontre dans les inscriptions juives et païennes, dans le sens d’un amour conjugal particulièrement fervant. (p.2915 of the 2004 edition)
I understand the gist of this, but not enough to offer a definitive translation. The first sentence summarises the various views of commentators. The second sentence means something like:
But one can also understand the expressions husband of only one wife or wife of only one husband (cf. 1 Timothy 5:9), expressions which one encounters in Jewish and pagan inscriptions, in the sense of a particularly fervent conjugal love.
On the same expression in Titus 1:6 and the reversed expression in 1 Timothy 5:9 there are footnotes referring back to this one on 1 Timothy 3:2.
This footnote is clearly where Fleming found the words “a particularly fervent conjugal love.” But it does not quite say what Fleming seems to have taken it to say, or at least what some other interpreters have taken Fleming to say.
Deiss (if he indeed wrote this footnote) was referring not only to the expression in 1 Timothy 3:2 mias gunaikos aner (this is in fact the nominative case of the expression, as in Titus 1:6; in 1 Timothy the accusative of this is found), literally “man of one woman”, but also to the reversed expression in 5:9, henos andros gune, “woman of one man”. What Deiss wrote is entirely consistent with what scholars of Greek would expect, that the former expression is used of a man who showed “a particularly fervent conjugal love” and the latter of a woman who showed this. It is I believe well documented that these expressions are used in inscriptions, of men and women respectively. If Deiss had intended to say anything different and unexpected, he would surely have made that clear.
What some interpreters have understood Fleming to be claiming is that the former expression, mias gunaikos aner “man of one woman”, was used on inscriptions of women as well as of men, and so should be understood as a gender generic expression. If this is what Deiss meant, and confirmed to Fleming by telephone, he certainly didn’t make it clear in his footnote. And neither Deiss nor Fleming seems to have offered any evidence that mias gunaikos aner was ever used of a woman. To be fair to Fleming, the quoted passage, which I have never seen in a wider context, does not make an explicit claim to this effect, although it does seem to indicate it.
Perhaps the most charitable explanation I can come to here is that there was a misunderstanding between Deiss and Fleming because of the language barrier between them. So I would think that, unless Fleming can come up with some specific evidence, we must conclude that the phrase translated “husband of one wife” was not used of women and was probably not understood as gender generic.
But this by no means proves that church leaders must be male. To quote again Bill Mounce from my post last week,
the lists show us the type of person who can be in leadership.
They do not offer detailed rules. And so “husband of one wife” should not be understood as specifying that no overseer or elder may be unmarried, or divorced and remarried, or polygamous, or lacking “a particularly fervent conjugal love”, or female. Rather, the decision on who to appoint should be based on the general principles laid down by the apostle as interpreted in the specific cultural context. In first century Ephesus and Crete women church leaders may have been inappropriate. That doesn’t mean that the same applies in 21st century Europe and North America.