"Husband of one wife" was not used of women, it seems

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.

31 thoughts on “"Husband of one wife" was not used of women, it seems

  1. Thank you very much for this research, Peter. However, I do have one question.

    When we speak of generalities and unknown identities, such as anyone who, we usually frame our statements in the male gender, not the female gender. Thus, if we were going to quote an idiom that could be either male or female and apply it to anyone, wouldn’t we frame it in the masculine?

  2. TL:

    That’s kind of the question I asked. As I wrote in my comment at P&:P:

    It seems to me that in 1 Tim 3 Paul is referring to a male overseer, unless it can be shown that “one woman man” was so idiomized that it could be applied to both women and men if a group is considered to consist of both men and women.

    The word tis (someone, anyone) in 1 Tim 3:1 has the same form and declension for both masc and fem; it’s one of those two-ending adjectives that has a masc/fem form and a separate neut form, though most Greek adjectives have three endings/forms – i.e., separate masc, fem, and neut forms (though the masc and neut forms are identical in the gen and dat, whether sing or pl).

  3. Yes, TL, you are right. The point I was making is that the male version of the idiom was not used on inscriptions about specific females. If Paul had intended to write generically about males and females, he might well have used this male form of the idiom – although somehow I suspect he would have used a more generic form such as with anthropos instead of aner.

  4. Eric, I would agree that Paul was thinking primarily of male overseers, hence using the male phrase. But you need to make the case that by using the phrase he was intending to specify that overseers must be male – and not that they must be married, not remarried and not polygamous. See what I wrote here about the variety of possible interpretations. After all, what is normative in the Bible is what it is intended to teach, not (at least for most evangelical Christians) things which just happened to be true about the people named in it. I’m sure no one would want to argue that black, or blue-eyed, people are excluded from being church leaders just because none of the people Paul or Timothy appointed happened to have these characteristics.

  5. Fleming thinks that it was used interchangeably, because of 1 Tim. 3:8-12, where the idiom, ‘one woman man’ was used to address both male deacons and female deacons. And also, Fleming thinks that the fact of this section being immediately flowing from chapt. 1-2 dealing with false teachers (which he views as injurious elders), and the admonition for some women to learn and not teach or seek to dominate men (while learning), confirms that Paul was not restricting but rather correcting both men and women.

    At this point in time, I’m inclined to agree with Fleming.

  6. “But you need to make the case that by using the phrase he was intending to specify that overseers must be male – and not that they must be married, not remarried and not polygamous. See what I wrote here about the variety of possible interpretations.”

    That is pertinent. The language used is not the language one uses when specifying restrictions. Seals the deal for me.

  7. TL,

    Here is the same reply to your next to last comment here that I left you on Parchment and Pen:


    You need to go back and read what Fleming said about verse 12 where deacons are discussed and the phrase “one woman man” is again used. He says that this verse refers to MEN and is telling them to be faithful to their spouse!

    Here is what he says, “Verses 8-10 concern both men and women deacons. Verse 11 has specific advice for women who are deacons. Verse 12 is specific to male deacons.” And then, speaking of the same section, “He exhorts the men to work at being faithful husbands and to be responsible at home.”

    From the last chapter of the book. Again, the Kindle edition does not have page numbers.”

  8. cherylu,

    you are correct. Fleming thinks its a small chiasm with verse 8 mapping to verse 12.

    I’m not so convinced because then it would mean different character traits for women than men, although it does read ‘likewise’ in vs. 11. I’ll have to think on it.

  9. TL, I note what you wrote above, and in a comment at Parchment and Pen, about 1 Timothy 3:12, which I should not have ignored in this post. What I write here is based on my response to you there.

    Whatever Fleming might have written about 3:12, I would tend to agree with you that this verse is about male and female deacons. That would tend to confirm what you suggested in your first comment here, that at least in the plural mias gunaikos andres can refer to a mixed group, and not only to a group of men. It is well known that in general the plural andres, like adelphoi, can refer to a mixed group, as in Acts 1:16 where the referents are explicitly women as well as men. But I think what is true of adelphos (e.g. Matthew 18:15) is probably true of aner, that in the singular also it can be gender generic in an indefinite context, e.g. following tis.

    So, while I would not expect the singular mias gunaikos aner to be used of a named woman, I would not consider it safe to take it as referring only to a man in an indefinite context, and especially where this would mean it restricting an earlier and unrestricted tis. On this basis, as well as by Mounce’s argument, I would reject the idea that Paul is here teaching that elders should be male only.

  10. Thank you Peter for trying to keep it all together and managing to say it quite concisely. Now if someone else makes a post about what we are discussing, all of us can start repeating ourselves 3 times. 🙂

  11. No, TL, I won’t change the title, because I would still hold that “husband of one wife” was not used of individual women or of groups of women, but only of mixed groups or of men only. Anyway the point of this title was to refute the claim that this phrase had been found on inscriptions on the tombs of women.

  12. In a comment at Parchment and Pen Don Johnson writes:

    I emailed Fleming some time ago and he said that Deiss found the (only) masculine phrasing on tombs of married people, such that it referred to both. (I see this as a way to reduce the amount of carving, etc. yet it conforms to the rules of Greek grammar.) It is true that the feminine form was used only for females. Deiss has now died and as far as I know there are no pics of such tombstones. With the pics, it would be pretty conclusive. Without the pics, we have Fleming’s testimony about what Deiss said he saw, with the possibility of misunderstanding.

    This is important new information about what Deiss and Fleming might have meant. But I would like to see the exact wording. If a husband and wife were described as mias gunaikos andres, in the plural, that would indeed be very significant. I would hope that any such inscriptions have been published somewhere, but perhaps in very obscure places.

  13. I should add to my previous comment that if on the grave of a husband and wife the epitaph was the singular mias gunaikos aner, I would infer that aner referred to the husband and gunaikos to the wife, presumably expressing their “particularly fervent conjugal love” for one another.

  14. I remember now that Ann Nyland, in her notes in The Source New Testament (sadly no longer online, although for good reasons), has given details of where the inscriptions Deiss mentioned may have been published. She wrote the following in her notes on 1 Timothy 3:2:

    For references to where this term [mias gunaikos aner], or its Latin equivalent, was used on epitaphs to describe a woman faithful to her husband, see C. Keever, And Marries Another, (Massachussetts: Hendrickson, 1991), pp. 91-2.

    I have copied this partly from this comment by Paula. In a follow-up comment she writes that “Keever” is a typo for “Keener”. So this is the book that Nyland refers to. Has anyone looked in this book to see what relevant evidence is in it?

  15. Just to throw in my own two cents. I don’t think that either mias gunaikos andres or the singular can refer to women. It is not that a woman cannot be an aner – she can. But a woman who was faithfully married to another woman would not be an aner.

    Perhaps Paul was only thinking of male elders. But that does not mean that he laid down a law that a woman cannot be an elder. If that had been the case, he would have used the terminology of circumcision, that it is the “males” that need to be circumcised and need to have intact genitals to become priests.

    We are going to look silly, egal or comp, if we start playing games, on both sides.

  16. “I don’t think that either mias gunaikos andres or the singular can refer to women. It is not that a woman cannot be an aner – she can. But a woman who was faithfully married to another woman would not be an aner.”

    Don’t think homosexuality has anything to do with it. The idiom in plural would be referring to a one woman man as much as to a one man woman, simply because the identity of the person in discussion (whether male or female) would not be known.

  17. Aner could possibly refer to women. But it says “a man of one woman.” So now we are stuck with “a person of one woman.” I don’t see how that could refer to a woman. What is a “woman of one woman”? I think this whole thing is some kind of misunderstanding.

  18. Sue, you are misunderstanding.

    Take the idiom as a whole unit. If the unit is aimed at a man, it is obviously a one woman man. If the unit is aimed at a woman, it is obviously a one man woman. If the unit is aimed at someone or people in general of unknown or mixed gender then the default is a ‘one woman man’ which will convey the idiom meaning of faithfulness in marriage if married.

  19. TL,

    I don’t think it works that way. I can’t read mias gunaikos aner to mean “a one man woman.”

    I don’t think Peter reads it this way either.

  20. I see what you mean now. Are the deacons refered to in 3:12 both men and women?
    It suppose it is possible, in this context. I’ll think about it.

  21. Sue, I understand your objection. That’s why I was hesitant at accepting TL’s suggestion. But also TL may well be right. And for that reason it is in my opinion unsafe to use this expression as the main basis for teaching that women cannot be overseers or elders.

  22. Peter,

    Thanks. I agree with you. It really is not clear either way. And, of course, I don’t think one should exlude women from ministry on this basis. There is really nowhere that says that elders or deacons should be male.

  23. “There is really nowhere that says that elders or deacons should be male.”

    And that is the crux of it. It addition it is addressed to “anyone who desires the work of overseer”. That is as general as one can get. IMO it is illogical to try to take apart an idiom and use the parts to make it mean only men. It would be the most unnatural roundabout way of talking, and Paul did not write like that.

  24. Also, Sue, I think Peter did point out that the idiom in the singular can change and be aimed at women only in the case of the widows in chapt. five.

    My thought was that if it is directed to a particular man, it would be ‘one woman man’. If directed to a particular woman, it would be ‘one man woman’ as in chapt. 5. If directed at a mixed group, it could be either singular as in responding to “anyONE who desires’ in verse 2, or it could be plural as in talking about ‘let them be’ in verse 12. Thus sometimes the singular or the plural is more about how the sentence is phrased then it is about whether addressing one person or many. It can be phrased in the singular yet be addressing many and the many can be a mixed group.

  25. In chapter 5 it says “one man woman” so it is the opposite to the one in chapter 3. However, it would be like saying in English, “and bring your wives” to players of a social golf tournament, or something like that. It does not mean that women can’t play, but just that most players are men, an dmost of the men are married.

  26. Interesting conversation.

    Sue, your golf tournament example is a good one. It could perhaps be turned round in a typical church: an invitation to a social function could well include “and bring your husbands”, as there will be many women in a service without their husbands but few married men without their wives.

  27. Somehow I missed this post that discussed some of the things I wrote when it was first posted.

    For obvious reasons, I always discuss 1 Tim (and Titus) LAST in discussions on female elders.

    Phoebe was a deacon, so somehow she met Paul’s qualifications for deacon, which include the “one woman man” item. Also, Junia was an apostle, which means she met Paul’s qualifications for elder, apostle being one example of a type of elder in a church.

    The alternative is to deny both Phoebe and Junia as leaders, which is what some comps do. So 1 TIM 2-3 is disputed and unclear. What we can say is that comps make their choice and egals make their choice on how to interpret these verses. And a choice is subject to moral considerations. So I ultimately pop up to the higher Kingdom principle of Freedom and say that comps are denying freedom to women by their interpretation choices and that I will not do that.

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