This is the third and final part of a talk I gave a couple of weeks ago at the Baptist Women of the Pacific conference.
The conference talks have been posted as audio files here. My talk starts at the 13.45-minute mark in session 2.
What Does “Husband of One Wife” Mean?
When I first started writing about women in ministry, 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 were the verses that were continually brought up in conversations. But in the past few years, I’ve noticed that more and more people are bringing up the qualifications for overseers in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. In particular, they are using verse 2 in this passage to say that women can’t be church leaders.
“If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work. An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled …” 1 Timothy 3:1b–2a (CSB)
Many are stuck on the phrase “husband of one wife” that occurs in verse 2. Women can’t be husbands; women therefore can’t be overseers or supervisors of congregations. That’s the thinking.
But this isn’t the thinking of some respected complementarian New Testament scholars, such as Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner. And it wasn’t the thinking in the early church, where very few leaders were husbands. Many leaders in the early church were single and celibate.
The “husband of one wife” phrase is an idiom that is poorly understood. Judging by how the early church understood this phrase, however, it meant more than being monogamous. One sense of the idiom was that a married person didn’t marry again after their first spouse had died. The New Revised Standard Version captures this meaning in their rendering of the phrase as “married only once” in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; 5:9 and Titus 1:6. And having a spouse die while still relatively young was not uncommon in the first century.
In the Roman world, there was a virtue that in Latin was called univira. The etymology of this word is “one-husband.” We see the word, univira, engraved on ancient gravestones celebrating virtuous wives. Univira applied to deceased wives who had been married only once and also to widows who had chosen not to marry after their first husband had died. Implicit in this virtue was that the woman had restrained her passions and lived a chaste life. Paul however, writing in Greek, applied this virtue to ministers, male and female. He wanted these men and women to have their sexual urges restrained and under control.
Masculine Language does not Necessarily Exclude Women
The idiom is applied to four different groups of people in 1 Timothy and Titus but in each occurrence, it has essentially the same meaning. There wasn’t a gender-inclusive way to render this idiom, however; so in 1 Timothy 3:2 (in the context of overseers), in 1 Timothy 3:12 (in the context of deacons), and in Titus 1:6 (in the context of elders), Paul wrote, “husband (or, husbands) of one wife.”
But when Paul was only speaking about women, in 1 Timothy 5:9 (in the context of enrolled widows, a church order), he used a flipped form of the idiom, in effect, “wife of one husband.” And these women were definitely not married.
Masculine language in ancient Greek is often used to include women. However, it is understandably more difficult to see this possible inclusion when the words being used are “husband/ man” and “wife/ woman.”
But we’ve done this even in English. We can imagine that if we read, say a pilot’s manual from 100 or even 70 years ago, or a book written for lawyers, there will not be inclusive language. This is for two reasons: first, almost all pilots and lawyers were men at that time, and second, the convention of English in the past was to use words such as “man” and “men” without necessarily excluding women.
Ancient Greek is roughly comparable in this regard. And I suggest we look at 1 Timothy 3:1–7 with a somewhat similar understanding of literary conventions.
Many church leaders in New Testament times were male, and the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, including verse 2, assumes an overseer most often will be male, and married or widowed, and have children, and have his own household to manage and care for. In fact, overseers in the early decades of the church (circa 40–80) were probably relatively wealthy householders who hosted and cared for congregations that met in their own homes for all kinds of meetings and activities.
Paul used the phrase “husband of one wife” because it wouldn’t have made any sense to use the phrase “wife of one husband,” when most overseers would have been men. As I said, there wasn’t a gender-inclusive version of this idiom. But nowhere in the Greek New Testament, including 1 Timothy 3, does it plainly say that a church leader must be male. The New Living Translation, as one example, makes the statement that “a church leader must be a man … ,” but this statement is not in the Greek.
Also, don’t be misled by any masculine pronouns in English translations of 1 Timothy 3:1–7. There are no masculine personal pronouns in the Greek of this passage in the oldest surviving manuscripts, and the Greek word for “man/ husband,” occurs just once in this passage, in the idiom, “husband of one wife.”
Even though most overseers would have been men, we know some women who hosted and cared for congregations that met in their homes. Lydia in Acts 16 and Nympha in Colossians 4:15, among others. But Priscilla is the standout example, and I’ll get to her in a minute.
Paul’s Ministry Terminology
Interestingly, Paul never refers to one of his ministry coworkers as an overseer (episkopos). He never refers to any one of his ministry coworkers as an elder or a pastor either.
His favourite words for ministers who he identifies by name are:
brother or sister
diakonos (“minister, deacon”)
apostolos (“apostle, missionary”)
and he uses labourer and labouring words.
These words don’t have connotations of prestige or power. They have connotations of camaraderie, service, and hard work. Being a minister in the first century could be very difficult and dangerous work.
Paul uses his favourite ministry terms for men such as Timothy and Silas, and also for women such as Priscilla, Euodia, Syntyche, Apphia, Phoebe, Junia, Persis, and others.
I have more on Paul’s preferred ministry terminology here.
Priscilla in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome
We’ve spent a bit of time (in this series) looking at letters addressed to Christians in Corinth and to Timothy in Ephesus. Priscilla and her husband Aquila were known to these Christians, and it seems the couple were leaders in a house church they hosted in Ephesus and, later, a house church in Rome.
Could Priscilla have been an overseer?
- When Apollos was teaching in Ephesus, it was Priscilla, with her husband, who corrected his theology, and Apollos accepted their correction (Acts 18:24–26). No one else is mentioned as being involved. Correcting the doctrine of a visiting teacher is usually a role of overseers or elders. And the fact that Luke even bothered to record this event in Acts is significant.
- When Paul closes his first letter to the Corinthians which he wrote from Ephesus, he passes on greetings, but he only names Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor. 16:19–20). Clearly, this couple was well-known to the Corinthians, presumably because of their ministry.
- When Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy in Ephesus, he sent greetings to Timothy, to Priscilla and Aquila, and to the household of Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:2; 4:19). No other Christians in Ephesus are greeted. Were these four named people the main leaders of the Ephesian church?
But Romans 16 is especially interesting.
- In Paul’s list of greetings to members of the church at Rome, a list that includes 28 individuals, Priscilla is listed first (Rom. 16:3–5). First of 28 people! This indicates Priscilla was a leading figure in the church in Rome.
Priscilla and Aquila were well-known in Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. And I suggest the only thing that stops us from recognising that Priscilla and her husband were senior leaders in these churches is prejudice because of Priscilla’s sex and a faulty understanding of a few, a very few, New Testament verses.
Paul’s Overall Theology of Ministry and Women
In some of his letters, Paul provides lists of ministries and he does not exclude women from any of these ministries. Lists can be found in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12:28, 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11, and Colossians 3:16.
Here’s what Paul says in Romans 12:6–8 (NIV).
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving [or, ministering], then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage [or, to exhort], then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
Paul’s overall theology of ministry was, You have a gift; use it to build up others in the Lord!
None of Paul’s statements about women in his letters, when understood in their context, restricts the ministry of godly and gifted women. And none of his statements should be used to limit, discourage, or wound our capable sisters in Christ. Paul loved and valued his female co-workers and there is no evidence that he silenced or limited women such as Priscilla. Let’s not silence and limit the Priscillas in our churches today.
 The Greek word for “overseer” in 1 Tim. 3:1 is episkopos. This word is sometimes translated into English as “bishop.” Commenting on episkopos in Philippians 1:1, Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek observe, “Episkopos carried none of the connotations that the word “bishop” does today, or even after Ignatius of Antioch. It is a term borrowed from management functions, meaning supervisor or overseer.”
Madigan and Osiek (eds. and transl.) in Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 11.
 I don’t agree with much that Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner say about women as elders, but I agree completely with Moo’s statement: “… while it would be going too far to argue that the phrase clearly excludes women, it does suggest that Paul had men in mind when he wrote it.”
Douglas J. Moo, “The Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15: A Rejoinder,” Trinity Journal 2 NS (1981): 198–222, 211. (A PDF of this paper is here.)
Thomas Schreiner argues, “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 …” I agree with him here. However, Schreiner then goes on to say that the phrase, “does fit with such a conclusion,” namely, that women cannot serve as elders.
Thomas Schreiner, “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.” The Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 15.1 (Spring 2010): 33–46, 35. (A PDF of JBMW 15.1 is here.)
 An idiom is “A fairly fixed speech form or expression that cannot be understood grammatically from its constituents parts but whose elements function as a set with a meaning peculiar to itself.” Matthew S. DeMoss, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 70.
For example, ti emoi kai soi (“what [is it] to me and to you”) is an idiom found several times in the New Testament. Its meaning is “what concern is it of yours,” or more colloquially, but not disrespectfully, “it’s none of your business.”
Andreas J. Köstenberger, a staunch complementarian, recognises that the phrase in 1 Timothy 3:2 is an idiom. His understanding is that “‘husband of one wife’ represents an idiom of marital faithfulness …” Köstenberger, Commentary on 1–2 Timothy and Titus (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2017).
 Tertullian, writing around AD 200, 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. (Another English translation is on the New Advent website.)
Written in Latin, the Canon of Fulgentius Ferrandus of Carthage (547) states that being univira is a qualification from women elders. I quote this canon, here.
Book 6, chapter 6, of Justinian’s Novellae Constitutiones (“New Constitutions”), written in the sixth century, mentions the ordination of deaconesses and the “wife of one husband” requirement.
In order for them to be ordained, they must be neither too old nor too young, and not liable to temptation, but they should be of middle age, and, in accordance with the sacred canons, about fifty years old, and, having arrived at that age, they shall be eligible to ordination, whether they are virgins, or have previously been married to one man; for we do not permit women who have contracted a second marriage … (Source)
 Köstenberger states, “The requirement of being, literally, a ‘one-wife-type-of- husband” resembles the Roman univira (a ‘one-husband-type-of-wife’).” Köstenberger, Commentary on 1–2 Timothy and Titus.
Majorie Lightman and William Zeisel have traced the usage of univira from the days of the early Roman Republic, when it was only used for elite once-married Roman matrons, to its use in early Christianity, where it meant “continent widowhood” (p. 27). Their paper, Univira: An Example of Continuity and Change in Roman Society, can be read for free on the JSTOR website here.
Olankunbi O. Olasope has written about the ancient evidence surrounding univira in her paper, Univira: The Ideal Roman Matrona, which can be read on the Academia.edu website here.
 By the fifth century, celibacy was compulsory for church leaders in the Latin-speaking West. Luther disapproved of how the idiom was enforced in the Roman Catholic Church. (He believed celibacy should be voluntary and that it was fine for overseers/ bishops to be married.) In his remarks on “husband of one wife” in his commentary on Titus, Luther states, that the idiom is behind “the custom of so many centuries and the examples of so many saintly fathers. The fathers observed celibacy freely, without coercion by any law; later on it was enacted into law.” Martin Luther, Commentary on Titus (Internet Archive pp. 18–19)
 In around 394, Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople and a native Greek speaker, wrote that the phrase “husbands of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3:12 applied to male and female deacons: “This must be understood therefore to relate to deaconesses. For that order is necessary and useful and honourable in the Church” (Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy, Homily 11). (More about deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8–13, here.)
A decade earlier, Chrysostom wrote an essay against marrying again after the death of a spouse. This essay was not aimed at deacons, or deaconesses, or other clergy, but at a general Christian audience.
 Romans 12:6–8 is just as gender–inclusive in the Greek, and has similar grammar, as John 3:16.
© Margaret Mowczko 2023
All Rights Reserved
Postscript: April 17, 2023
“One wife in one lifetime” in the Damascus Document
The Damascus Document, also known as the Zadokite Fragments, is an early Jewish work which was probably written in the first century BCE. It contains warnings and laws, including the statement that it is sexually immoral for a man to have two wives in his lifetime. This document was written in Hebrew and is “known from both the Cairo Geniza and the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is considered one of the foundational documents of the ancient Jewish community of Qumran.” (Source: Wikipedia)
See Fragments of a Zadokite Work (The Cairo Damascus Document), Solomon Schechter (1910), chapter 7 (online source), or the version translated from the Qumran texts (online here) under the subtitle, The Works of Belial.
Postscript: April 6, 2023
Jerome on “Husband of One Wife” in Against Jovinian
In book 1 of Against Jovinian, written in 393 (admittedly well after the New Testament letters were written), Jerome refers to the idiom “husband of one wife/ wife of one husband” several times in arguments to support his ascetic views. And he speaks strongly against second marriages for widows.
At the end of book 1, Jerome speaks to his Christian sisters and reminds them of the examples of pagan Roman women who were univira.
Let my married sisters copy the examples of Theano, Cleobuline, Gorgente, Timoclia, the Claudias and Cornelias; and when they find the apostle [Paul] conceding second marriage to depraved women, they will read that before the light of our religion shone upon the world, wives of one husband ever held high rank among matrons … Against Jovinian 1.49
This statement about Isaac and Rebekah sounds like Jerome was advocating for monogamy. However, the aim of his treatise was to defend his own ascetic, sexless life as an expression of Christian piety.
Isaac, moreover, the husband of one wife, Rebecca, prefigures the Church of Christ, and reproves the wantonness of second marriage. Against Jovinian 1.19
In chapter 34, Jerome speaks about celibacy for already-married clergy. (Tertullian, mentioned in the article above, had a sexless marriage.)
For [Paul] does not say: “Let a bishop be chosen who marries one wife and begets children” but “who marries one wife, and has his children in subjection and well disciplined.” You surely admit that he is no bishop who during his episcopate begets children. The reverse is the case — if he is discovered, he will not be bound by the ordinary obligations of a husband, but will be condemned as an adulterer. Either permit priests to perform the work of marriage with the result that virginity and marriage are on a par: or if it is unlawful for priests to touch their wives, they are so far holy in that they imitate virgin chastity. But something more follows. A layman, or any believer, cannot pray unless he abstains from sexual intercourse. Now a priest must always offer sacrifices for the people: he must therefore always pray. And if he must always pray, he must always be released from the duties of marriage. For even under the old law they who used to offer sacrifices for the people not only remained in their houses, but purified themselves for the occasion by separating from their wives, nor would they drink wine or strong drink which are wont to stimulate lust. That married men are elected to the priesthood, I do not deny: the number of virgins is not so great as that of the priests required. Against Jovinian 1.34.
A few times in Against Jovinian 1, Jerome refers to marriage as slavery; he did not want clergy, male or female, to be presently married. Quoting 1 Timothy 3:2, he wrote,
The bishop, then, must be without reproach, so that he is the slave of no vice: “the husband of one wife,” that is, in the past, not in the present. … “chaste,” for that is the meaning of σώφρονα; distinguished, both by chastity and conduct … Against Jovinian 1.35
In the following quotation, Jerome is responding to, that is, objecting to, an argument Jovinian had made using the example of Samuel. Jerome here is playing down the priestly role of Samuel who, when he was an adult, got married and had children.
And if Samuel who was brought up in the Tabernacle married a wife, how does that prejudice virginity? As if in the present day also there were not many married priests, and as though the apostle did not write 1 Timothy 3:2 to describe a bishop as the husband of one wife, having children with all purity. At the same time, we must not forget that Samuel was a Levite, not a priest or high priest. Hence it was that his mother who made for him a linen ephod, that is, a linen garment to go over the shoulders, which was the proper dress of the Levites and of the inferior order. And so he is not named in the Psalms among the priests, but among those who call upon the name of the Lord. Against Jovinian 1.23
Jerome’s words about widows and second marriages are harsh.
What the holiness of second marriage is [or isn’t], appears from this — that a person twice married cannot be enrolled in the ranks of the clergy, and so the apostle tells Timothy, “Let none be enrolled as a widow under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man” [1 Tim. 5:9]. … at the same time, consider that she who has had two husbands, even though she be a widow, decrepit, and in want, is not a worthy recipient of the Church’s funds. But if she is deprived of the bread of charity, how much more is she deprived of that bread which comes down from heaven, and of which if a man eat unworthily, he shall be guilty of outrage offered to the body and the blood of Christ? Against Jovinian 1.14
In book 2 of Against Jovinian, Jerome uses the example of Anna the prophetess.
On the threshold of the Gospel [Luke 2:36] appears Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, the wife of one husband, and a woman who was always fasting. Long-continued chastity and persistent fasting welcomed a Virgin Lord. Against Jovinian 2.15
As he sums up his arguments, Jerome says,
We have preferred virginity to widowhood [and] widowhood to marriage. The passage of the apostle, in which he treats questions of this kind, has been expounded, and particular objections have been met. We also took a survey of secular literature, and inquired what was thought of virgins, and what of those who had one husband, and by way of contrast we pointed out the cares which sometimes attend wedlock. Against Jovinian 2.35
Some information about Jovinian, a monk who renounced some aspects of the ascetic life, is here.
My articles on Paul’s Theology of Ministry are here.
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders (1 Timothy 3)
Must Manage His Own Household Well (1 Tim. 3:4)
All my articles on 1 Timothy 3 are here.
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Were there women elders in New Testament churches?
Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
My articles on Priscilla are here.