Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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.

Part 1. my introduction and a discussion on 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 are here.
Part 2. a discussion on 1 Timothy 2:12 is here.

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,[1] 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.[2] 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 problem with the “husband of one wife” phrase is that it is an idiom that is poorly understood.[3] Judging by how the early church understood this phrase, 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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),[7] 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.[8]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] I agree with Douglas Moo’s statement that “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, but it does fit with such a conclusion …”
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.)
I don’t agree, however, with much else that Moo and Schreiner say about women as elders.
See Philip Payne’s article, Does “One-Woman Man” in 1 Timothy 3:2 Require that all Overseers be Male? (Source: pbpayne.com) (Dr Payne’s new book will be available soon. It will be a must-read.)

[3] 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).

[4] Tertullian, writing 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. (Another English translation is on the New Advent website.)

[5] 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.
Dr. Olankunbi O. Olasope has written about the ancient evidence surrounding univira in a paper that can be read on the Academia.edu website here: Univira: The Ideal Roman Matrona.

[6] 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)

[7] Chrysostom (died 407), archbishop of Constantinople and a native Greek speaker, wrote that the phrase 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.)

[8] Romans 12:6–8 is just as gender–inclusive in the Greek, and has similar grammar, as John 3:16.

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Explore more

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.

12 thoughts on “Paul’s Theology of Ministry: 1 Tim. 3:2 and Priscilla

  1. Hi Marg,

    I’m starting to investigate these topics for myself, and I enjoy learning from you. I recently did a *very amateur look, first time looking at the Greek, at the Greek on 1 Timothy 2+3. I’m wondering if you have any insight on my question… how do we know that I am, One, a woman, a man is a reference to marriage?

    V2 in the Greek says:

    I exist, I am


    A woman

    A man

    Is translated into English to mean “husband of one wife” or “a one woman man”. How do we know that this is in reference to marriage? Perhaps if *One means unity, as in unity of marriage. Is *One a reference to unit number of one individual, and translated to be reinforcing V1 “If anyone aspires to be an overseer…” V2 Meaning “one a man or a woman…” who aspires to be an overseer. The English has translated it as a reference to marriage, and every qualification for overseer is given male pronouns. In the English, male pronouns are being read into the text. Compared to the Greek being gender neutral. If “I exist, I am, One, A woman, A man” is a reference to marriage, the Greek is still gender neutral for the rest of the text.

    Thank you

    1. Hi Sarah, Looking up English definitions of Greek words in a dictionary is a small part of reading and understanding Greek. It’s vital we understand the grammar to see how the words string together.

      The adjective μιᾶς and the noun γυναικός are both feminine, singular and in the genitive case, and with the accusative noun ἄνδρα, the phrase is accurately translated as “husband of one wife.” Also, while εἰμί can mean “I exist” or “I am,” this is usually not how we would translate the infinitive εἶναι.

      We also need to have “some sense of the social matrices” behind the language. We have some idea of what the phrase “husband of one wife” meant because of how it was used and understood in the Roman world.

      I hope you keep pursuing Greek. Here are some free resources: https://margmowczko.com/freebies-for-students-of-new-testament-greek/

  2. Thank you Marg. Your answer is a good example of how a Spirit empowered teacher would answer an honest and thoughtful inquiry. I look forward to learning more about these things from you.

  3. Why do you assume that Paul wrote 1 Timothy? In my opinion it should be dismissed as a fake, and few experts see it as genuine.

    1. I have a short footnote about this in part 2. But I think the answer to the question is obvious: 1 Timothy 1:1-2.

    2. One expert who thinks it is genuine is Ben Witherington III. He discusses the matter in his book: Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, Volume 1, A Socio-Rhetorical Comentary on Titus, 1–2 Timothy and 1–3 John.

      While there are difficulties with seeing the pastoral letters as genuine, seeing them as fake is also problematic. Witherington believes that these letters were co-authored with Luke, and that this gives a plausible explanation for the difficulties.

  4. Dear Marg,
    Could the idiom Paul used be directed against the common practice of polygyny? Perhaps he wanted to restrict church leadership to people who had only one spouse (at a time). Since Paul regarded marriage as a good thing, and he even gave instructions about lawful second marriages, it seems unlikely he’d be ruling out leaders who had been (lawfully) married more than one time in their lives. For example, if Priscilla had died, and Aquila remarried a believer, would Aquila thereby have been disqualified from serving? Also, you said there was no gender-inclusive form of the idiom. Could this be due to the fact that polyandry wasn’t a common practice in that patriarchal society; therefore, Paul makes no mention of it since restricting women from multiple, concurrent husbands would be superfluous? He would be restricting something that was not even happening. What do you think? I love your articles and appreciate your work very much! Thanks.

    1. Hi Debbie, Polygamy was illegal under Roman Law and uncommon in the first-century Roman world. We have evidence of a few Jewish men who had more than one wife in and around the first century, but I imagine that in Roman colonies and in cities heavily influenced by Rome, such as Ephesus, polygamy would have been rare. And since the same idiom is used for widows, I doubt it refers primarily to polygamy.

  5. Hi Marg,
    Tischendorf 8th Edition uses gyne, not gynaikos in Timothy 3:2 and the Codex Sinaiticus has gynaik with os added in the margin. Are these variations significant in this discussion of women as episkope?

    Also at https://biblehub.com/greek/1984.htm – the definition of episkope includes “personal visitations” as well as oversight. It hints at “pastoral care” as major role of bishops (1 Peter 2:12, James 1:27)?

    1. For some reason, Bible Hub has got a weird version of Tischedorf’s 8th edition where all the cases of the nouns and adjectives are changed to the nominative and the verbs are given in their lexical form. εἷς γυνή ἀνήρ doesn’t make any sense.

      Here is an accurate version of Tischendorf’s 1869 Greek New Testament with the nouns in their proper cases and genders, etc: https://archive.org/details/novumtestamentu02abbogoog/page/n877/mode/2up?view=theater

      And here is an easier-to-read version: https://newchristianbiblestudy.org/bible/greek-tischendorf/1-timothy/3/


      There are also implications of pastoral care with the Greek participle proistamenon in 1 Tim. 3:4 and the infinitive prostēnai in 1 Tim. 3:5 (both from the verb proistēmi).

      There is some overlap in the senses of the verbs proistēmi (related concrete noun: prostatēs (m), prostatis (f)) and episkeptomai (related concrete noun: episkopos). Episkopē in 1 Timothy 3:1 is the related abstract noun meaning oversight, overseer-ship, etc.

      I’ve written about this here. https://margmowczko.com/manage-household-1-timothy-34/


      I can’t see –os in the margin of Codex Sinaiticus. What I can see is a dash where os should be. I don’t know why the scribe did that. Even if he was working from a text that was damaged at this point, it is reasonably clear that the genitive gynaikos is the word intended.

      The codex can be viewed here: https://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx?book=47&chapter=3&lid=en&side=r&zoomSlider=0#47-3-11-3

      And here’s a screen shot of the pertinent phrase.

      Here's a screenshot.

      Gynaik- (ΓΥΝΑΙΚ-) is at the end of the first line in the screenshot.

  6. Awesome! Thanks for all the referals.

    I think the dash in gynaik- is “OC”, when viewing with the magnification tool.

    I see proistemi-people as grace-rulers. They turned my life around. My primary proistemi-person was/is my wife Dianne. Most of my healing came through her. She is gifted with discernment (noutheteo), words of knowledge, and prophetic prayers. She is also free to proistemi in our midweek home group.

    The word stem, “histemi” is interesting . Thayer’s definition:
    – to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set
    – to bid to stand by, [set up]
    – to make firm, fix, establish
    – to cause a person or a thing to keep his or its place
    – to stand, be kept intact (of family, a kingdom), to escape in safety
    – to establish a thing, cause it to stand
    – to uphold or sustain the authority or force of anything.

    Paul says, “to know proistemi people and give them double honour” (1 Timothy 5:17 KJV). I believe the first honour was provision of their physical needs (food and lodging). The second, was to honour their gift of discernment – a supernatural discernment which exposed and healed my heart. I often resisted this second honour. I dishonoured them with “evil speaking” when my stuff was exposed. Paul was adamant that proistemi people be patient and “not return evil for evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-20 KJV).

    I think proistemi is similar to other ministry gifts, but proistemi people are equipped for the deeper surgery. They had been there themselves and are able ministers of God’s healing to the deeper hurts of our hearts.

    1. I had another look at Codex Sinaiticus. Your eyes might be better than mine, Reg, but when I look closely at the “dash,” I see three marks, but I can’t make them out. The first two are probably letters, but I don’t know about the third, darker, mark. Whatever the case, these marks are not in the margin. The marks are attached to ΓΥΝΑΙΚ- and most likely represent -OC in some way.

      I think we should get rid of the English word “rule” altogether when speaking about relationships between Christians. https://margmowczko.com/jesus-teaching-on-leadership-and-community-in-matthews-gospel/

      Also, I see the ministry of a prostatēs or prostatis (the noun of proistēmi), and of overseers, as being primarily practical. I used the term “pastoral care” in my previous comment with the understanding that overseers took care of the practical needs of those who used their house for a base.

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