Can only men be church leaders?
Some people think that the qualifications for church leaders recorded in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 apply only to men. They believe the implication in these passages is that only men can be church leaders.
The qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 are those of a respectable householder. (Many first-century churches met in homes and were hosted and cared for by the householder.) And while the qualifications were written with men in mind—it was usually, but not always, a man who was in charge of the household—all of the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 can be readily applied to both men and women who are householders.
Note that the masculine personal pronouns that appear in many English translations of these passages, as well as the word “man” that appears in many English translations of verses 1 Timothy 3:1 and Titus 1:6a (including the NASB 95 used in the highlighted texts in this post), are entirely absent in the Greek. And note that Paul does not state (in the Greek) that only men can be overseers or church leaders.
Monogamy and Fidelity in Marriage
One phrase that does not seem to apply to women is where it says that a church leader should be, literally, “a husband of one wife” or “a one-woman man” (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6; cf. 1 Tim. 3:12). This phrase is, however, an idiom and there are dangers in applying it too literally. Because it is an idiomatic expression, many people have had difficulty explaining and adapting its meaning in the context of contemporary Western church culture, a culture that is vastly different from that of the first-century church.
If taken literally, the “one-woman man” requirement would rule out unmarried, widowed and divorced men, as well as women, from being church leaders. Yet Paul says elsewhere that being single and celibate enables people to serve God better (1 Cor. 7:32-35). Paul himself was single. Polygamists would also be ruled out. According to Roman law, however, bigamy (and therefore polygamy) was illegal, and it was uncommon in the Empire. So it is unlikely Paul is addressing polygamy here.
It is possible that the real intent of this phrase in 1 Timothy and in Titus is marital faithfulness in a church leader who is already married. Accordingly, Andreas J. Köstenberger states that “‘husband of one wife’ represents an idiom of marital faithfulness …” Philip Payne writes, “The closest English equivalent to one-woman man is ‘monogamous,’ and it applies to both men and women.”
Moreover, some notable hierarchical complementarians (Christians who are against women in certain leadership roles) acknowledge that the phrase “a one-woman man” does not exclude women and it cannot legitimately be used to argue that women cannot be church leaders. [See footnote 7] This is because the phrase is essentially describing the moral quality of marital fidelity and is not primarily referring to gender.
The use of “one-woman man” in the 1 Timothy passage about diakonoi (“deacons”) shows that it may be applied generically to both men and women ministers: 1 Timothy 3:8-10 is about men diakonoi, 1 Timothy 3:11 is about women diakonoi, and 1 Timothy 3:12-13 is about both men and women diakonoi. Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople and a native Greek speaker, wrote that the phrase “one-woman man” in 1 Timothy 3:12 “must be understood therefore to relate to deaconesses [women diakonoi]. For that order is necessary and useful and honourable in the Church” (Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy, Homily XI). (More about deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 here.)
An Orderly and Honourable Household
In 1 Timothy 3:4 (NASB), Paul says that a church leader, in particular, an episkopos (supervisor/ overseer), “must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity” (cf. Tit. 1:7). The ability to manage and care for one’s household can also be equally applicable to both men and women. (Again, please note that there are no masculine personal pronouns in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 or Titus 1:6-9.)
In many cultures, including the Greco-Roman culture, it is usually women who manage the household. Accordingly, Paul advised the younger widows in the Ephesian church to remarry, have children, and “keep house” (1 Tim. 5:14). Interestingly, the word Paul uses for “keep house” here is oikodespotein. The etymology of this word gives the meaning “to be the master of a household.” Oikodespotein is from oikodespotēs: oikos = house, despot = master. (More about this word and a related word in Titus 2:5 here.)
The King James Version translates 1 Timothy 5:14 as:
I [Paul] desire therefore that the younger widows marry, bear children, rule the household, and give no occasion to the adversary for insulting. (Underline added.)
It is important to note, however, that Paul had more than the day-to-day domestic management of the household in mind when he wrote 1 Timothy 3:4-5. Whereas all the qualifications stated in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 are essentially moral qualifications.
Paul wanted church leaders, including the episkopoi, to be people of honour and dignity. In the first-century Mediterranean world, the honour-shame dynamic was a powerful force in society, and the conduct of individual members of a household directly affected the level of honour of the entire household. Therefore, an episkopos needed to have an honourable household with well-behaved children, particularly adult children. Paul wanted episkopoi with a level of moral integrity that was above reproach. He did not want church leaders who might bring dishonour, disrepute, and shame on the church.
Gender Bias and Gender Inclusiveness
Undoubtedly, most church leaders in New Testament times were male, and the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1ff assumes an episkopos is male, and married, and has children, and has his own household to manage and care for. In fact, episkopoi in the early years of the church (circa 40-80) were probably relatively wealthy householders who hosted, managed, and cared for congregations (Christian communities) that met in their own homes for all kinds of meetings and activities.
Most householders in the Greco-Roman world were male. Some householders, however, were women, and some women hosted, managed and cared for house churches (e.g., Lydia and Nympha). Nowhere in the Greek New Testament does it state that church leaders or episkopoi must be men.
The New Living Translation (NLT 2015), which gives the impression of being gender-inclusive because it frequently translates adelphoi into “brothers and sisters,” has taken the bold step of inserting the words “a man” in the statement “So a church leader must be ‘a man’ …” in 1 Timothy 3:2. This kind of statement simply does not appear anywhere in any Greek text of the New Testament. The translators, or publishers, of the NLT have expressed their opinion that a church leader must be a man, and tried to pass off their opinion as being “the Word of God.” Had Paul wanted to say, “an overseer must be a man,” he would have done so.
The opening sentence of 1 Timothy chapter 3 literally says, “… If someone (or anyone) aspires to ‘overseer-ship,’ s/he desires a fine task.” There is no gender preference suggested in this sentence whatsoever.
 From the second century onwards, many church leaders were commonly called by the adjective presbuteroi (elders or presbyters) or the noun episkopos. Episkopos is translated as “bishop” in some Bible versions, but most scholars acknowledge that “bishop” does not convey a first-century or New Testament use of the word. Malherbe writes that the role of episkopos in the Pastoral Epistles, including 1 Timothy, is to do with function rather than office, “and it is best to avoid the translation of episkopos as ‘bishop’ in favor of ‘overseer’ or ‘supervisor’ as commentators increasingly do.”
Abraham Malherbe, “Overseers as Household Managers in the Pastoral Epistles,” Text, Image, and Christians in the Graeco-Roman World, Aliou Cisse Nianh and Carolyn Osiek (eds) (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 72-88, 74.
 No masculine personal pronouns: Even if there were masculine personal pronouns in the Greek of this passage, this still would not rule out the possibility that women can be overseers. There are a few grammatically masculine articles, adjectives and participles in 1 Timothy 3:1ff and Titus 1:6ff, but since the masculine gender is the default grammatical gender when speaking about groups consisting of men only and groups consisting of men and women, a case cannot be made that these passages exclude women. If we begin to argue that passages that use grammatically masculine participles, etc, exclude women, then women would be excluded from many of the New Testament scriptures which speak about salvation, including John 3:16.
While 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 are completely free from masculine personal pronouns in older Greek manuscripts, the Textus Receptus contains one masculine pronoun in 1 Timothy 3:7. Pronouns need to be added in English translations to make sense of the sentences. In English, the literary convention has been to use masculine pronouns, even if the subject matter applies to women also. However, as pointed out in endnote 2, even if masculine pronouns were used in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9, this still wouldn’t exclude women. As in English, the literary convention in New Testament Greek was also to use masculine pronouns when speaking about a representative person, or a group of people that included men, but may also include women. (See my article Why Masculine Pronouns can be misleading in English Bibles and in the Church here.)
 Husband of one wife: The phrase one-woman man (or one-man woman) is an idiom found on ancient gravestones and in letters and literature. In some of these sources, the expression seems to relate to the (supposed) virtue of marital fidelity even after the death of a spouse. Here is what Frederick Danker has said about the idiom in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, Walter Bauer, revised & edited by F.W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 292.
μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ a husband married only once (numerous sepulchral inscriptions celebrate the virtue of a surviving spouse by noting that he or she was married only once, thereby suggesting the virtue of extraordinary fidelity, e.g. CIL VI, 3604; 723; 12405; 14404; cp. Horace, Odes 3, 14, 4; Propertius 4, 11, 36; Valerius Maximus 4, 3, 3; and s. esp. CIL VI, 1527, 31670, 37053=ILS 8393 [text and Eng. tr.: EWistrand, The So-Called Laudatio Thuriae, ’76]; s. GWilliams, JRS 48, ’58 16–29. For the use of μία in ref. to a woman: Ael. Aristid. 46 p. 346 D.: ὑπὲρ μιᾶς γυναικός=for only one woman; μία γυνή quite freq.: Diod S 17, 72, 6; cp. 1, 80, 3, where the phrase γαμοῦσι μίαν simply means that the priests married only once, not that they lead a strictly moral life, a concept for which Greeks never use the expression μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ or anything like it; Hippostratus [III B.C.]: 568 Fgm. 1 Jac.; Appian, Bell. Civ. 4, 95 §402; Ath. 33, 2 ἐφʼ ἑνὶ γάμῳ: Ath. terms a second marriage εὐπρεπής μοιχεία veiled adultery) 1 Ti 3:2, 12; Tit 1:6;
• others render husband of one wife (e.g. RSV in later printings; REB).
• Correspondingly ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς γυνή (cp. the exemplary conduct of Hannah [Anna] Lk 2:36; Paus. 7, 25, 13 the priestess of the earth goddess must be a woman who, before she became a priestess, was not πλέον ἢ ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς ἐς πεῖραν ἀφιγμένη) 1 Ti 5:9.
Paul used the phrase one-man woman when writing about widows in 1 Timothy 5:9. (The Latin equivalent of one-man woman is uni-vira.) These women had been married only once, their husband had died, and they were now single and celibate. The New Revised Standard Version somewhat captures this meaning in their translation of this phrase as “married only once” in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; 5:9 and Titus 1:6.
Tertullian, writing in around 200 AD, demonstrates this meaning of the phrases one-woman man (1 Tim. 3:2) and one-man woman (1 Tim. 5:9) in his arguments against Christian widowers and widows remarrying:
The law of the Church and the precept of the Apostle [Paul] show clearly how prejudicial second marriages are to the faith and how great an obstacle to holiness. For men who have been married twice are not allowed to preside in the Church nor is it permissible that a widow be chosen unless she was the wife of but one man. Tertullian, Ad Uxorem (“To his Wife”) 1.7
Taken from: Tertullian, The Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage, translated & annotated by William P. Le Saint, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 13 (New York: Paulist Press, 1951), 20.
Being married only once was considered to be a virtuous ideal in broader Greco-Roman society—and this was in an age when people, including spouses, often died earlier than in developed countries today. Because of a declining population and low birth rates, however, Roman law stated widows and widowers of a certain age must remarry in order to have children, and it offered incentives to do so. But some did not comply with the law.
 The Bible requires marital fidelity only while both husband and wife are alive. When the husband or wife dies, the other person is free to remarry or remain celibate (Rom. 7:2-4; 1 Cor. 7:39). Celibacy and virginity were becoming highly esteemed virtues in the second-century church and some understood the “husband of one wife” as referring to celibacy, not only after a spouse had died, but even within marriage. See Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of a Discipline of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West, translated by Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).
Most ordained ministers in the early and medieval church, male or female, were single and unmarried or widowed. There is no record of a bishop, priest, or deacon marrying after ordination, and some church laws forbade sex within marriage once a married person was ordained.
By the fifth century, celibacy was compulsory for church leaders in the Latin-speaking West. This unbiblical decree has caused no end of problems to the Roman Catholic church which still insists upon it. If the “one-woman man” requirement was taken in its most literal sense, it would prohibit Roman Catholic priests and other unmarried men from being church leaders. More on 1 Timothy 3:4a here.
 Andreas J. Köstenberger, Commentary on 1-2 Timothy and Titus (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2017) Köstenberger also states, “The requirement of being, literally, a ‘one-wife-type-of- husband” resembles the Roman univira (a ‘one-husband-type-of-wife’).”
 Philip B. Payne, Does “One-Woman Man” In 1 Timothy 3:2 Require That All Overseers Be Male? (Source: pbpayne.com)
 Payne writes:
Two of the most prominent complementarians acknowledge this phrase does not clearly exclude women. Douglas Moo acknowledges that this phrase need not exclude “unmarried men or females from the office … it would be going too far to argue that the phrase clearly excludes women.” Douglas J. Moo, “The Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15: A Rejoinder,” TJ 2 NS (1981): 198–222, 211. Thomas Schreiner acknowledges, “The requirements for elders in 1 Tim 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9, including the statement that they are to be one-woman men, does not necessarily in and of itself preclude women from serving as elders.” Thomas R. Schreiner’s “Philip Payne on Familiar Ground: A Review of Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters.” JBMW (Spring 2010): 33–46, 35.
Payne, Does “One-Woman Man” in 1 Timothy 3:2 Require that all Overseers be Male? (Source: pbpayne.com)
 The Greek participle translated as “manages” (his own household well) in the NASB is from the verb proistēmi. Proistēmi occurs eight times in the New Testament where it “seems to have the sense a. ‘to lead’ but the context shows in each case that one must also take into account sense b. ‘to take care of.’ This is explained by the fact that caring was an obligation of leading members of the infant Church.”
Bo Reike, “Proistēmi,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), Vol. 6, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, transl. and ed. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 701-703, 701.
Phoebe of Cenchrea is referred to with the cognate noun of proistēmi in Romans 16:2; she was a patron and protector of many in the church, including Paul.
 Paul gave this instruction to the young Ephesian widows because of certain problems within the Ephesian church. One of the more serious problems was the spread of false teaching. It seems that the younger Ephesian widows were engaging in irresponsible conversation and conduct that may have involved listening to, and spreading, false teaching. This even led to some of the young widows wandering from the truth to follow Satan (1 Tim. 5:13-15). (I’ve written more about Paul’s instructions to young wives and young widows at the end of this article, and here.)
 In 1 Timothy, Paul displays a concern for the social respectability of church leaders. In other letters, however, Paul is less concerned and he pushes for the acceptance of all Christians as ministers and as participants in church gatherings (1 Cor. 12:4ff; 14:26; Col. 3:16). We know that some slaves became episkopoi in the early church (e.g., Onesimus of Ephesus) and some episkopoi became slaves (e.g., Callistus of Rome).
 1 Timothy 3:1ff may refer to the current episkopoi (“supervisors”) in Ephesus who may have been all men; the passage may not necessarily refer to future episkopoi.
“The author [of 1 Timothy] does not write to introduce a new hierarchy in the community and there is no indication in the text that the qualities listed in vv.3-7 qualify men who have yet to assume the office of bishop…. The virtues enumerated describe the qualities of character and conduct of those who are exercising oversight rather than qualify them for an office yet to be filled.” Malherbe, “Overseers as Household Managers,” 75.
While the current episkopoi may have been all men, nothing in 1 Timothy 3 rules out the possibility of godly women becoming episkopoi. Nympha, for example, was probably the supervisor of the church she hosted and cared for in her home. And I suspect Priscilla was functioning as a supervisor or elder in Ephesus when she and her husband corrected the doctrine of Apollos. (More about women elders in New Testament churches here.)
 Several modern English translations of the New Testament (including the NLT) frequently translate the Greek word adelphoi as “brothers and sisters.” Adelphoi is grammatically masculine, and in older Bible versions the word was translated as “brothers” or “brethren.” However, it is obvious from its usage in the New Testament scriptures and in ancient Christian writings that adelphoi can refer to both men and women. The NLT translators (and others) have translated most occurrences of the very common word adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” and painstakingly included an explanatory footnote each time. The NLT also translates the literal “sons” (huioi) into “children” when speaking about children of God (i.e. Christian believers). This commendable inclusion of women reflects the true biblical understanding of the words adelphoi and huioi in many verses. However, the views of the NLT translators regarding gender equality and inclusivity clearly stops short of allowing women to be church leaders (supervisors and elders). (More on gender bias in the NLT here.)
 In Paul’s more general teaching on ministry and ministry gifts, including his teaching on leadership ministry gifts, the apostle gives no hint that some ministries are for men and some are for women. See Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:1-31, and Ephesians 4:4-13; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:5. (More on Paul’s theology of ministry here.)
 Here is a literal English translation of 1 Timothy 3:1b with the grammatical gender of the Greek words shown in brackets: “… If anyone/ someone, (common gender: masc. or fem.) aspires (no gender specified) to ‘overseer-ship’ (feminine noun), he/ she/ it desires (no gender specified) a noble/ fine task (neuter adjective and noun).”
© August 5 2010, revised November 23 2010, Margaret Mowczko
An abridged version of this article was published by Christians for Biblical Equality (International) in their Arise e-newsletter on the 19th of August, 2010.
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Postscript: October 6 2021
Timothy Luke Johnson has made the following observations about the (so-called) Pastoral Epistles, which include 1 Timothy. His observations are given in reference to arguments that polarise the concepts of hierarchical church orders, on one hand, and charismatic ministry, on the other. Johnson notes that it is often argued that since the Pastorals seem to give attention to church orders or offices, charismatic ministry has become controlled or routinised. This change is thought to be due to fading eschatological (end-times) expectations and to the church adapting to the ways of the world.
Here is Johnson’s response to such ideas.
First, it is inaccurate to speak of the church order of the Pastorals, since there is none in 2 Timothy, and the little found in Titus does not match precisely the fuller account in 1 Timothy.
Second, what organization is spoken of is not elaborate. It corresponds rather well, in fact, to what we know of the synagogal structure of Diaspora Judaism in the first century, as well as to the structure of the religious and social associations prevalent in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Early Christianity did not develop in a vacuum; it naturally adopted and adapted pre-existing institutions.
Third, the organizational structure is not legitimated in these letters, that is, it is neither theologically defended nor interpreted, unlike the case in the Ignatian letters.
Fourth, the letters do not prescribe a particular order but presuppose it; they contain not job descriptions for new positions but moral and mental qualifications for those who are to fill established places in the church.
Fifth, sociological studies of intentional communities in every era suggest that they do not survive for decades without strong structures for decision making and social control: a great time lapse between the birth of a community and the establishment of structure is thus counterintuitive: structure and charism frequently coexist.
Sixth, the undisputed letters of Paul not only refer by title to the offices found in the Pastorals (bishops and deacons, Phil. 1:1; woman deacon, Rom. 16:1), but explicitly recognize the role of authority figures in specific communities (cf. 1 Cor. 16:15-17; Gal. 6:6; Col. 4:17; 1 Thess. 5:12).
Seventh, the attention that is given to organizational matters in two of these letters owes a great deal to the nature of the writings and the identity of the addressees.
Timothy Luke Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, Third Edition (Fortress, 2010), 427. (Online pdf) (I’ve formatted this paragraph differently from how it appears in the book.)
The nature of the writing in the Pastorals was largely influenced by the dangerous heresy in Ephesus and Crete. Philip Towner notes,
There is general agreement that the heresy reflected in the Pastoral Epistles is the most important aspect of the background of these letters. At almost every turn it forms the backdrop to the author’s paraenesis and theological expression and one must assume that the letters are intended as a response to this dangerous situation. Towner, The Goal of Our Instruction: The Structure of Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 21.
I’ve added this postscript because some modern Christians view 1 Timothy, and especially 1 Timothy 3, as primarily a church manual without understanding Paul’s reason for writing the letter.
Interestingly, two of the earliest church manuals, the Didache (c. 80-120) and the Apostolic Tradition (c. 200-300) barely refer to 1 Timothy 3 apart from comments that episkopoi must be above reproach (Apost. trad. 2:1) and not lovers of money (Did. 15:1). The Didascalia Apostolorum (c. 230) quotes more phrases from 1 Timothy 3:1-7 but adds still further qualifications when speaking about episkopoi (bishops).
“Must manage his own household well” (1 Timothy 3:4)
What is meant by didaktikos in 1 Tim. 3:2 and 2 Tim. 2:24?
Qualified for Every Good Work (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith … Gender?
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Were there women elders in New Testament churches?
All my articles on 1 Timothy 3 are here.
All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 are here.
All my articles on Paul and Women are here.