NOTE: I have just released a book which compiles (and edits and expands) these posts. It is called “Disqualified? What the Bible Says about Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry.” It is available on Amazon.com. The Kindle version will be released in the next couple of days – not sure what the hold-up is there. This book reviews the biblical evidence on divorce and remarriage, beginning with the cornerstone in the Old Testament – the twin principles of God’s intent of marriage as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman and the understanding of the brokenness caused by sin. It then lays the foundation with an examination of the passage in Deuteronomy 14:1-4 which necessitates a “grounds” for divorce. Jesus builds the structure in his teachings, reiterating the intent of God’s creation – lifelong covenant – but also establishing the divorce exception as a grounds for divorce. Then Paul puts the finishing touches on the structure with his extensive teachings in 1 Corinthians 7, adding abandonment as a second grounds and dealing with other significant issues. I also address the issue of abuse and how that should be handled. Having surveyed the biblical evidence, I then turn my attention to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, examining what the phrase, “Husband of one wife” means, and give advice both to the divorced who want to serve in the church and to churches dealing with this issue.
If you are reading these posts, I think you will find the book “Disqualified?” helpful.
Bart Barber has advanced an interpretation of the biblical qualification for becoming an elder or a deacon in the church, based on the ancient concept of the univira, that a man must be “the husband of one wife” or more literally, a “one-woman man.” According to Bart, this is not a uniquely Barberian concept, but was a common patristic interpretation. Univirae were women who were only married to one man in their lifetime. Timothy and Titus, the recipients of the books in which Paul used the term “one-woman man” would have almost certainly been familiar with this concept.
The exegetical argument goes something like this:
1. The concept of the univirae was well established in Roman culture. Women who worked in certain positions in Roman temples were required to be married only once in their lifetimes. If their husbands died, they were not permitted to be remarried. There seems to be little question about this concept. A univira was a woman who had been married once and only once in her entire life.
2. In 1 Timothy 5:9, Paul is speaking of the list of widows, and says that a woman that is to be placed on that list must be a “one-man woman” – a phrasing nearly identical to the phrase used in 1 Timothy 3 (for both elders and deacons) and Titus 1 (elders). It is fair to assume that the meaning of the phrases would be uniform. Bart argues that the phrase in 1 Timothy 5:9 would likely have called to mind the univira concept. The more common Greek phrase would have been “monandros” but the phrase is so similar in meaning to the word that Titus would have likely understood Paul to have been invoking the common univirae concept.
This would seem to me to be the bedrock of Bart’s argument. If Paul intended and Titus understood Paul to be invoking the univira concept here, then it is fair to switch the genders in the qualifications for elders and deacons. If 1 Timothy 5:9 is not invoking the univira concept, then the argument fails.
3. Believing that it is reasonable to view 1 Timothy 5:9 as demanding that widows be univirae, Bart argues that the same concept ought to apply to the qualifications of elders and deacons as well. I would say this makes perfect sense. If it can be established that the phrase in 1 Timothy 5:9 demands that those on the list of widows be univirae (invoking the Roman concept) then it is also reasonable to say that such is the case for pastors/elders and deacons. The phrases are so similar in construction that the meaning of one would govern the meaning of the other.
4. So, Bart concludes (though, at least in April of 2010 when he wrote the article linked to above, he held a soft conviction on this) that an elder or deacon in a church may be a person who has only been married once. Essentially, leaders in the church must be male univira (don’t know enough Latin to coin the masculine term – univirum?). They must not be polygamists. They must not be divorced and remarried. They must not be widowed and remarried. One marriage. The leaders of the church must be men who have only ever been married once in their entire lives.
Bart states that if his wife passed away (God forbid) he would leave the ministry if he decided to remarry.
I think it is fair to say that this is not a common view of this passage today. We tend to argue between the three more common views – prohibitions against polygamy, against divorce, or for marital fidelity. Biblical issues are not settled by popularity, but the rarity of this view does seem to make it harder to accept.
But, is it biblical? Let us examine that question.
Examining the Univira Interpretation
First, let me say that engaging Bart is a little intimidating. He is a scholar, I am a pastor who dabbles in biblical interpretation. That is not some kind of false humility but a recognition of reality. And Bart is gifted at theological argument. Had God not called him to ministry he would probably be arguing before the Supreme Court or handling OJ Simpson-style trials! So, I enter this arena with trepidation.
Nonetheless, I am not yet convinced that Bart is right about this interpretation and will engage it on the following bases. The downside, of course, is that by the time this discussion is over, he will have likely convinced many of you that he is right and I am wrong! Here goes anyway.
1. I am not convinced that Paul intended to invoke the univira concept in 1 Timothy 5:9.
First of all, by Bart’s own admission, the common Greek term for univira was monoandros, not “one-man woman” as was used in this passage. If Paul had intended to refer to the commonly-known concept, why did he not simply use the commonly-known term?
Second, it seems odd that Paul would take a pagan concept from idol temples and impose that on both the widows list and on elders and deacons. Is there another instance in the writings of Paul in which he takes a practice from idol temples and brings it into the church? This seems to go a step beyond eating meat sacrificed to idols – basing leadership principles on practices unique to idol culture.
Paul is known to take common terms and baptize them into unique meanings. He does this with the word “mystery” which he imbues with a unique meaning different from common usage. He took a rare word from the Greek language – agape – and turned it into a representation of divine love. But this does not seem like the simple borrowing and reinvention of a term, but the adoption of a pagan practice.
2. I am not persuaded that the linkage of monandros ” (the Greek equivalent of univira), “henos andros gune” (one-man woman) and “mias gunaikos andros” has been sufficiently established.
This is simply an expansion on the point I just made.
Bart argues a sort of geneaology of these terms. Univira was commonly translated into Greek as monandros. Monoandros is similar in meaning to henos andros gune and would therefore call the univira concept to mind. Flipping the genders would carry that same concept into the mias gunaikos andros and require that pastors/elders and deacons never in their lives being married more than once.
I have already admitted that if the beginning of this concept is correct, the final gender switch is justified. But, I think even Bart might admit that this is a strong and even harsh interpretation of this passage. It seems to me that such an interpretation needs to be established as the best and perhaps only reasonable interpretation.
If the Bible is clear, it should be followed even if the interpretation seems harsh to us. Those who support egalitarianism ignore the simple readings of scriptural passages because they find it unfair that women are prevented from holding pastoral positions. We have to follow the dictates of the Bible even if they lead us where we would rather not go. But the principle of male leadership is well-established in Scripture and is based on the simplest and clearest reading of every passage in the NT that deals with the topic.
Here, Bart is advancing a strict and restrictive interpretation that is based on weaker evidence (the identification of 1 Timothy 5:9 with the univirae concept); one that actually seems to be in contradistinction with the biblical teaching on marriage (argued below).
There are other equally compelling or even superior interpretations of the words that do not lead to these conclusion. There are enough questions about the linkage of these terms that the interpretation fails, in my mind, to warrant implementation.
Again, in the absence of clear evidence linking monandros to henos andros gune, the interpretation is unconvincing. Bart describes it as “strikingly similar” but that does not seem like enough weight to me.
3. It appears that this view diverges from the general biblical teachings on marriage.
Both Jesus and Paul advance the concept of marriage as a holy covenant in which God participates. They honor marriage as part of God’s original intent and view it as sanctified and blessed. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul honors the single state as advantageous and blessed, if one is able to live that way and if one is so called. The single are able to devote much time to God’s work without being distracted by family matters. But he also honors marriage.
In Ephesians 5 (and elsewhere) marriage is seen as a picture of Christ and the church. Husbands are called to love as Christ loved the church. Wives are to submit as the church to Christ.
Romans 7:1-3 emphasizes beyond contestation the fact that marriage ends at death. When the spouse dies, the marriage is ended and the person is free to marry another.
If marriage is blessed and holy, if it is a picture of Christ and the church, if it clearly ends at the death of one of the spouses, why would the pagan-based univira concept be imposed on church leadership?
The univirae teaching seems incongruous with biblical teachings on marriage.
4. It seems that this concept penalizes obedience.
Each of the other qualifications for leaders in the church is a question of godliness or ungodliness, of spiritual maturity and holiness. A man must be above reproach, self-controlled, not quarrelsome, not violent. To fail in any of these areas is evidence that we have not yet been conformed to Christ in that part of our lives. The character qualities are evidence of growth in becoming Christlike.
But if an elder or deacon’s wife passes away, his marriage is over. He is then free to find a godly wife and marry her. It is not sin to do so. But are we to believe that by walking in obedience completely to the Word of God, by being a faithful husband, by marrying godly wife after his first wife dies, that somehow he is no longer qualified to serve as a church leader?
I hate to apply human logic to biblical interpretation, but that makes no sense to me.
I discussed this with Bart in the previous post’s comments, and he brought up a very good point. Women who walk in obedience to Christ are still biblically restricted from these positions of elder and deacon. So, it is in the realm of possibility that a person walking in obedience to Christ could be restricted from leadership positions.
I would argue against that being the case here. Paul, in asserting male leadership at home and especially at church, argues on the basis of the created order (Adam created first, then Eve), on the order of the fall (Eve was deceived) – both of these points being made in the verses immediately preceding the passage on the qualifications of elders in 1 Timothy 3. Male leadership in the Bible is rooted in God’s creation (in ways we do not perhaps fully understand).
But marriage is also part of God’s original intent – Adam and Eve were created uniquely for each other. It would go against created order to force singleness on those who are leaders in the church.
So, the issue of male leadership is rooted in the created order while restricting marriage would seem to be contrary to it.
5. There seems little value, intent or purpose to such a restriction.
Of course, God does not have to explain himself to me, but you can look at each of the other restrictions on leadership and explain why they are important and necessary to mature leadership. Why does a leader need to be sober, self-controlled and gentle? That is self-evident. These are part and parcel of godly, servant leadership.
Why would a leader who was married and whose wife died be required to remain unmarried? How does that affect his leadership? It could, according to 1 Corinthians 7, expose him to lust and even immorality. Is there some spiritual value in a univirae-like restriction on pastoral leadership?
And every other interpretation of this passage has a biblical symbolism attached to it – they uphold the value of marriage and family. The view that “husband of one wife” restricts polygamy obviously speaks to the importance of monogamous marriage. The anti-divorce view upholds the sanctity of marriage. The faithful husband view reminds us of the need to do more than just stay married to one woman – a church leader must be a true servant leader at home, loving his wife as Christ loved the church.
What does the univirae model symbolize? What part of the sanctity and value of marriage does this bring to our remembrance? It penalizes marriage instead.
6. Two speculative questions about this view.
These are not evidence against the view or even reasons to reject it, but are just more items of interest. I should probably leave these off in fear that the discussion will be sidelined by these questions.
- Doesn’t the univirae concept sound a little bit like the eternal marriage concept of the Mormons?
I am certainly not accusing Bart of supporting a false faith like Mormonism or anything like that, but it seems that this view requires a view of marriage that survives death. A leader – elder or deacon – is required to stay faithful to a marriage when the other is dead.
- Doesn’t it appear as a short hop between the univirae concept and the celibacy teaching that has been so problematic in the Catholic church.
Again, this is simply a sideline to the main argument. But the idea that a man should stay single if his wife dies seems like one small step in the direction of the demand of celibacy which has caused so much trouble in the Roman Catholic church.
What I Believe
I remain convinced that there are better explanations of the phrase that the attempt to bring the pagan concept of the univira forward and read it into 1 Timothy 5:9. Knight, in the NIGCT volume on the Pastoral Epistles, argues that the phrase “demands a life of sexual and marital fidelity. NIV captures the meaning of the phrase with the words ‘has been faithful to her husband.’” Lea and Griffin in the New American Commentary argue that Paul would not “prohibit remarriage in v. 9 and command it in v. 14.” They agree that it is “more likely that he was demanding faithfulness during her marriage to the single husband whom she once had.” They also argue that a woman married more than once could fulfill this requirement if she had been widowed twice and been faithful to during those marriages. The Baker commentary by Larson buttresses this by arguing against the “only one husband” concept. “Instead, being a “one-man woman” speaks of faithfulness and loyalty. This is reminiscent of the qualifications for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12.”
The arguments presented in those commentaries are more persuasive to me that Paul’s intent in both the commands concerning the widows and those about elders and deacons have a broader focus.
A widow, to be placed on the list, and those men who would aspire to leadership positions must have been loyal and faithful spouses. They must not have been polygamists. They must not have broken their marriage vows by infidelity. They must not have ignored or mistreated their spouses. This is the kind of marriage-honoring, Christian maturity that is required of leaders in the church.