1 Timothy 3_12 The Husband of One Wife

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The Husband of One Wife (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6)

There are four interpretations:

  1. The Church

The "one wife" in this interpretation is the church. This is a clumsy attempt on the part of Roman Catholic theologians to protect the unbiblical doctrine of the celibacy of priests. There is not the slightest hint in the contexts that the wife of the elders is to be understood as the church. Rather there is frequent reference to the elder's family. Thus he must have a literal wife (1 Timothy 3:4-5; Titus 1:6). Furthermore, the marriage figure is that Christ is the husband and the universal church is His bride (Ephesians 5:23; Revelation 19:7b). The figurative husband of the church is not an elder.

  1. Marriage Requirement

The argument that an elder should be married is not without merit, see paragraph "Y," below. However, the emphasis in this phrase is not the lack of a wife (if it were it would read "the husband of a wife") but the plurality of wives ("the husband of one wife").

  1. Prohibition of Widowers Remarrying

In this interpretation, if a married elder looses his wife through death, this qualification would prohibit him from remarrying. However, there is a parallel passage that deals with widows. It demonstrates the inadequacy of this interpretation.

A widow is to be "the wife of one man (1 Timothy 5:9)." Young widows are encouraged to get remarried (1 Timothy 5:14). Paul would not have advised a widow to do something that could be a threat to her future livelihood if her second husband also died. Thus "the wife of one man" cannot mean that a widow must remain unmarried.

Since "the husband of one wife" is the same as "the wife of one husband" except the genders have been reversed, it is reasonable to conclude that prohibition of remarriage is not the correct interpretation in the elder context.

  1. Fornication

The qualification would prevent one who had a multitude of wives from being an elder. During New Testament times, polygamy was practiced among the rich and the rabbis allowed the king to have 48 wives (Jeremias, Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus, pages 90, 93). The qualification would also prohibit a man from being an elder who is in a present state of fornication (including adultery).

  • "The general consensus of evangelical scholars on the phrase 'husband of one wife' in both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is that it means the husband of one living woman (Ray Bohlin, Can Deacons be Divorced?, Probe Ministries at http://www.probe.org/docs/e-deacons2.html)."

Husband of but one wife, literally, a “one-woman man.” This ambiguous but important phrase is subject to several interpretations. The question is, how stringent a standard was Paul erecting for overseers? Virtually all commentators agree that this phrase prohibits both polygamy and promiscuity, which are unthinkable for spiritual leaders in the church. Many Bible students say the words a “one-woman man” are saying that the affections of an elder must be centered exclusively on his wife. Many others hold, however, that the phrase further prohibits any who have been divorced and remarried from becoming overseers. The reasoning behind this view is usually that divorce represents a failure in the home, so that even though a man may be forgiven for any sin involved, he remains permanently disqualified for leadership in the congregation (cf. vv. 4-5; 1 Cor. 9:24-27). The most strict interpretation and the one common among the earliest commentators (second and third centuries) includes each of the above but extends the prohibition to any second marriage, even by widowers. Their argument is that in the first century second marriages were generally viewed as evidence of self-indulgence. Though Paul honored marriage, he also valued the spiritual benefits of celibacy (1 Cor. 7:37-38) even for those who had lost a mate (1 Tim. 5:3-14). Thus he considered celibacy a worthy goal for those who possessed the self-control to remain unmarried. According to this strict view Paul considered a widower’s second marriage, though by no means improper, to be evidence of a lack of the kind of self-control required of an overseer, in much the same way that a similar lack disqualified a widow from eligibility for the list of widows (5:9).[1]

“Husband of one wife” refers to one’s current marital status and behavior; validly divorced people who remarried were considered married to one spouse, the second one, not to two spouses.[2]

It means that a pastor must not be divorced and remarried. Paul was certainly not referring to polygamy, since no church member, let alone a pastor, would be accepted if he had more than one wife. Nor is he referring to remarriage after the death of the wife; for why would a pastor be prohibited from marrying again, in the light of Genesis 2:18 and 1 Timothy 4:3? Certainly the members of the church who had lost mates could marry again; so why penalize the pastor?

It’s clear that a man’s ability to manage his own marriage and home indicate ability to oversee a local church (1 Tim. 3:4–5). A pastor who has been divorced opens himself and the church to criticism from outsiders, and it is not likely that people with marital difficulties would consult a man who could not keep his own marriage together. I see no reason why dedicated Christians who have been divorced and remarried cannot serve in other offices in the church, but they are disqualified from being elders or deacons.


The husband of one wife (3:2). The phrase has been interpreted to rule out the possibility of a divorced person holding this office but, interestingly, not to rule out a widower who has been remarried. Most commentators agree, however, that it simply means monogamous: a one-woman kind of man who is totally faithful to his wife.[4]

He must be the husband of one wife. The Greek text literally reads “a one-woman man.” Paul is not referring to a leader’s marital status, as the absence of the definite article in the original indicates. Rather, the issue is his moral, sexual behavior. Many men married only once are not one-woman men. Many with one wife are unfaithful to that wife. While remaining married to one woman is commendable, it is no indication or guarantee of moral purity.

Some may wonder why Paul begins his list with this quality. He does so because it is in this area, above all others, where leaders seem most prone to fall. The failure to be a one-woman man has put more men out of the ministry than any other sin. It is thus a matter of grave concern.

Various interpretations have been offered that evade the meaning of this standard. Some have argued that its intent is to forbid polygamy. A man could not, however, even be a member of the church if he was a polygamist, let alone a leader. If that were all Paul meant, it would be an unnecessary prohibition. Further, polygamy was not an issue in Ephesus. It was uncommon in Roman society, in part because sexual encounters outside of marriage as well as divorces were easily obtainable. Nor was polygamy a feature of first-century Jewish society.

Others maintain that Paul here forbids remarriage after the death of a spouse. As already noted, however, this standard, like all the rest, refers to moral character, not marital status. Further, the Scriptures permit and honor second marriages under the proper circumstances. Paul expected younger widows to remarry and raise a family (1 Tim. 5:14), and widows could be described as one-man women (5:9). In 1 Corinthians 7:39 he wrote, “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”

Still others hold that this qualification excludes divorced men from spiritual leadership. That again ignores the fact that Paul is not here referring to marital status. Nor does the Bible forbid all remarriage after a divorce. In Matthew 5:31–32 and 19:9, our Lord permitted remarriage when a divorce was caused by adultery. Paul gave a second occasion when remarriage is permitted, when the unbelieving spouse initiates the divorce (1 Cor. 7:15). While God hates all divorce (Mal. 2:16), He is gracious to the innocent party in those two situations. (For a complete exposition of the relevant passages on divorce, see Matthew 1–7, MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1985], and 1 Corinthians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1984.) Since remarriage in and of itself is not a sin, it is not necessarily a blight on a man’s character. If divorce resulted from a man’s inability to lead his family (v. 5), however, then it is a disqualification.

Nor does Paul intend to exclude single men from the ministry. If that was his point here, he would have disqualified himself, since he was single (1 Cor. 7:8).

A one-woman man is a man devoted in his heart and mind to the woman who is his wife. He loves, desires, and thinks only of her. He maintains sexual purity in both his thought life and his conduct. That qualification was especially important in Ephesus, where sexual evil was rampant. Many, if not most, of the congregation had at one time or another fallen prey to sexual evil. If that was before a man came to Christ, it wasn’t a problem (cf.. 2 Cor. 5:17). If it happened after his conversion, even before he assumed a leadership role, it was a problem. If it happened after he assumed a leadership role, it was a definite disqualification. Those same standards apply to men in positions of spiritual leadership today. Scripture makes clear that sexual sin is a reproach that never goes away. Proverbs 6:32–33 says of the adulterer, “The one who commits adultery with a woman is lacking sense; he who would destroy himself does it. Wounds and disgrace he will find, and his reproach will not be blotted out.” Paul also indicates that failure to keep the body pure and controlled results in being disqualified for preaching (1 Cor. 9:27).


He should be a married man, the husband of one wife. This expression has been interpreted in several ways:

(1) He should not have more than one wife. This does not make sense because polygamy was rare in the cultures Paul visited, and it is never mentioned elsewhere as a problem in the early church.

(2) He should not be remarried after a divorce. Some scholars have argued strongly that this is the meaning Paul intended. Others have allowed that the Bible regards divorce as permissible in some conditions (Matthew 19:9; 1 Corinthians 7:15).

(3) He should not be remarried after his wife’s death. Paul permitted remarriage for the widows (see 5:14). He also refers to this in Romans 7:2–3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39.

(4) He should be faithful, not having mistresses or affairs. This view takes Paul’s phrase to mean that the leader should be a one-woman man. This seems to be the best choice because the leader was to go against the immoral standards present in the pagan culture at Ephesus. The Bible rejects marriage as convenience and demands faithfulness and participation in the one flesh created by husband and wife (see Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:22–33).


He must be the husband of one wife; not having given a bill of divorce to one, and then taken another, or not having many wives at once, as at that time was too common both among Jews and Gentiles, especially among the Gentiles.[7]

The NIV translation that the overseer be “the husband of but one wife” implies that Paul was prohibiting polygamy among the overseers. Such a practice would be so palpably unacceptable among Christians that it would hardly seem necessary to prohibit it. It is best not to see Paul as writing primarily in opposition to polygamy. Some have felt that Paul was demanding that the overseer be a married man. However, Paul’s own singleness (1 Cor 7:7–8) and his positive commendation of the single state (1 Cor 7:1, 32–35) would seem to allow a single man to serve as a church leader. Others have felt that the passage rules out remarriage if a first wife dies, but Paul clearly permitted second marriages in other passages (1 Tim 5:14; Rom 7:2–3; 1 Cor 7:39). His statements here should not contradict the permission for remarriage he gave in other passages. Another interpretation is to understand Paul to have prohibited a divorced man from serving as a church leader. While this can be Paul’s meaning, the language is too general in its statement to make this interpretation certain. Some evangelical New Testament scholars suggest that there are New Testament passages that appear to permit divorce (Matt 19:9; 1 Cor 7:15).

It is better to see Paul having demanded that the church leader be faithful to his one wife. The Greek describes the overseer literally as a “one-woman kind of man” (cf. “faithful to his one wife,” NEB). Lenski suggests that the term describes a man “who cannot be taken hold of on the score of sexual promiscuity or laxity.”54 Glasscock uses Lenski’s understanding to support his view that a divorced man can serve as a church leader if he is thoroughly devoted to the wife whom he has married.55 His application prohibits a monogamous man known to be flirtatious from serving in a place of leadership. Glasscock does not seek to encourage either divorce or the presence of divorced men in the ministry. He suggests that we must not hold a man’s preconversion sins against him (Col 2:13). Had Paul clearly meant to prohibit divorce, he could have said it unmistakably by using the Greek word for divorce (apolyō, cf. Matt 1:19).


μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, νηφάλιον σώφρονα κόσμιον φιλόξενον διδακτικόν, “a ‘one-woman’ man, clear-minded, self-controlled, dignified, hospitable, skilled in teaching.” Paul spells out what he means by ἀνεπίλημπτον, “above reproach.” The eleven characteristics in vv 2b–3 are grammatically dependent upon the δεῖ, “it is necessary,” of v 2. The first is that an overseer must be μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, the “husband of one wife” or “a ‘one-woman’ man.” The historical assumption, continued from 2:12, is that the overseers are male. This phrase is one of the most difficult phrases in the PE, and yet it is one of the most significant because the opponents have forbidden marriage (1 Tim 4:3; cf. 2:15) and sexual promiscuity is a serious problem (see on 2 Tim 3:6). That it is first on the list after ἀνεπίλημπτον, as it is in Titus 1:6 (after ἀνέγκλητος, “beyond reproach”), suggests that marital faithfulness is a serious problem in the Ephesian church. Paul repeats this same qualification in Titus 1:6 and in 1 Tim 3:12 (to deacons). The emphasis is on the word μία, “one.” There are four basic interpretations. Proponents of each interpretation often claim that their reading of the text relates specifically to the Ephesian heresy. But since this argument can be applied to three of the four interpretations (i.e., not the first), it carries no weight. It is also often said that the awkwardness of the expression argues against a specific interpretation, but that argument can be applied to all interpretations. Paul could have said clearly (1) “Must be married,” (2) “Not polygamous,” (3) “Faithful to his wife,” or (4) “Not remarried/divorced.”

(1) The interpretation that the phrase means that an overseer must be married should be rejected (contra the Eastern Orthodox practice). This sees ἀνήρ and γυνή as “husband” and “wife,” not “man” and “woman.” The counterarguments are as follows: (a) the emphasis of the phrase is on the word μία, “one,” and not on the marital state; (b) Paul and Timothy would not be eligible to be overseers; (c) it runs counter to Paul’s teaching that being single is a better state for church workers (if they have the gift; 1 Cor 7:17, 25–38); (d) this line of reasoning, to be consistent, would have to argue that the overseer is required to have more than one child since τέκνα, “children” (v 4) is plural; and (e) most adult men were married so it would have been a moot point.

(2) The interpretation that this verse forbids polygamy and keeping concubines is stronger than might be expected from its nearly universal rejection (but held by Justin Martyr Dial. 100.134; cf. Lock, 36–37; Robertson, Word Pictures 4:572; Easton; Simpson; Dibelius-Conzelmann, 52 [possibly]; Hiebert; Roloff, 156, who views successive divorce and remarriage as polygamy; Grudem, Systematic Theology, 916–17; but see Schulze, KD 4 [1958] 287–300; Caddeo, “La figura degli,” 165–92). (a) This is the most natural undertanding of μιᾶς γυναικός, “one-woman.” (b) Polygamy did exist in Judaism (Josephus Ant. 17.1.2 §14; Justin Martyr Trypho 134; cf. Str-B 3:647–50; Moore, Judaism 1:201–2), even to the point that the rabbinic laws regulated it (m. Yeb. 4.11; m. Ket. 10.1, 4, 5; m. Sanh. 2.4; m. Ker. 3.7; m. Qid. 2.7; m. Bek. 8.4; cf. Justin Martyr Dial. 134). Knight (158) cites the lex Antoniana de civitate that made monogamy the Roman law but allowed an exception for Judaism, and Theodosius’ enforcement of monogamy on the Jews (a.d. 393) since they persisted in polygamy. Most feel polygamy was rare and therefore would not have warranted being singled out in all three lists. In reference to Palestinian Judaism, Moore says that the writings “suppose a practically monogamous society” (Judaism 2:122). However, marital infidelity was common in Greco-Roman culture. As an example, Fee (84) cites Demosthenes: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children” (Oration 59.122). Dibelius-Conzelmann argue that this list was brought over from a secular source, and in its original context it was addressing the problem of polygamy. But not only is this source theory unlikely (see above), but it is even more unlikely that a list would be brought over without any modification to make it relevant to the Ephesian situation. (c) Since the phrase is somewhat unusual, it is safe to insist that it had the same meaning in reverse when applied to widows (1 Tim 5:9), and there is no evidence of polyandry. (It is often argued that polygamy would have been forbidden to all Christians, and it would make no sense to specify this in reference to overseers. But many of the qualities required of an overseer are also required of all believers, and so this argument carries little weight; cf. Lyonnet, VD 45 [1967] 3–10.) (d) Even if polygamy existed among the Jews, evidence is lacking that it was practiced by Christians, and therefore “Christian polygamy” most likely is not in view. The following two interpretations in any case would include a prohibition against polygamy even if polygamy were not explicitly in Paul’s mind.

(3) Others argue that the phrase means an overseer must be faithful to his wife (neb; Lyonnett, VD 45 [1967] 3–10; Trummer, Bib 51 [1970] 471–84; Houlden; Dodd, BT 28 [1977] 112–16; Fee; Keener, . . . And Marries Another, 83–103; Page, JSNT 50 [1993] 105–20; Towner; L. T. Johnson), even if he was previously divorced (Saucy, BSac 131 [1974] 229–40). Scott paraphrases, “A bishop must be an example of strict morality” (31). Oberlinner goes a little further by defining it as a “good marriage” that will serve as an example (121). This would allow for the possibility of an overseer being remarried after a death, divorce, or possibly adultery in the distant past but would disallow polygamy and sexual immorality (even if the overseer were not married, since the guidelines would be no less stringent for the unmarried than the married). Marital faithfulness also has the advantage of being a positive way of stating the requirement (as opposed to the negative, not divorced/remarried) that parallels the rest of the positive statements in the verse. The real question is if the Greek can possibly give this meaning. Kelly says that it “squeezes more out of the Greek than it will bear” (75; cf. Bernard, 53). However, the phrase is unusual, and the Greek has to be “squeezed” to illicit any meaning. Fee interprets the phrase in terms of fidelity, but when the same phrase (in reverse) is applied to widows (1 Tim 5:9) he thinks that it means not only fidelity but also excludes a second marriage (80). Saucy (BSac 131 [1974] 229–40) and Knight (159) refine this interpretation by saying that it refers to fidelity since the time of conversion.

(4) The final interpretation, which does give full emphasis to the word μία, “one,” is that an overseer can only have been married once. This was the position of the early church (see discussion in Dodd, BT 28 [1977] 112–16). (a) Although there are clearer ways to specify a single marriage, this is the easiest reading. (b) There is ample evidence that both society and the early church viewed celibacy after the death of a spouse to be a meritorious choice (Clement of Alexandria Strom. 3.1ff.; cf. Ellicott, 40; Kelly, 75, 116; Hanson, [1983] 77). In the second century, parts of the church went beyond the biblical mandate. The Montanists made the forbidding of a second marriage an article of faith, while Athenagoras (died c. 177) called a second marriage “a specious adultery” (Vincent, Word Studies 4:229). Tertullian (who became a Montanist) said, “If it be granted that second marriage is lawful, yet all things lawful are not expedient” (De pud. 8). The Shepherd of Hermas (Mand. 4.1) says that if a man, having divorced his unfaithful wife, marries again, he is committing apostasy. If one’s spouse dies, the remaining partner may remarry, but if he or she remain single, “he investeth himself with more exceeding honour” (Mand. 4.4; cf. the extended set of rules in Apostolic Constitutions 6.3.17 [ANF 7:457] cited in the Explanation). But none of these citations proves Paul is forbidding a second marriage in 1 Tim 3:2, and it is possible that they are a development influenced by Hellenistic asceticism and in some cases Montanism. (c) This interpretation is in accord with Paul’s instructions about the married and the single (1 Cor 7:9, 39), which allows remarriage but prefers celibacy. (d) It may be that Paul distinguishes between the leaders in the church and the laity, assigning a stricter code to the former (cf. Jas 3:1; cf. Bernard, 52). The leader must be completely and totally above reproach (as long as this does not imply that remarriage has any necessary reproach since Paul elsewhere recommends it [1 Tim 5:14; cf. Rom 7:2–3; 1 Cor 7:8–9]).

This interpretation can be subdivided into two views. Some argue that the phrase prohibits a second marriage for an overseer under any condition, whether the first marriage ended by death or divorce (Ellicott; Fairbairn [Appendix B]; Bernard; Preisker, Christentum und Ehe, 148; Delling, Paulus Stellung zu Frau, 136ff.; A. Oepke, TDNT 1:788; Spicq; Kelly; Baltensweiler, Ehe, 240; Brox; Dornier; Hasler). Others argue that it prohibits a second marriage only if the first ended in divorce (Lock [see references to Christian literature]; Jeremias [as long as the wife is still living]; Schulze, KD 4 [1958] 300; Bartsch, Anfänge, 130; Hanson [1983]; Roloff [see above on “polygamy”]). The interpretation here appears to be governed by the exegete’s overall view of the early Christian teaching on remarriage (cf. Matt 19:9; Rom 7:1–3; 1 Cor 7:15, 39); there is nothing in our passage that suggests or supports either position. Quinn relies heavily on the Qumran practice of five-year marriages and then a forced separation, and says that the passage speaks of the person “now separated from his spouse, who has not remarried” (86). He follows de la Potterie (“Mari d’une seule femme,” 620–23) in asserting that the marriage “is a visible expression of the relation of Christ to his church” (87) and therefore a candidate for church leadership could not break the imagery by remarrying. For further discussion on this passage, see Saucy (BSac 131 [1974] 229–40).

The major problem with this interpretation is that elsewhere Paul allows (1 Cor 7) and even encourages (1 Tim 5:14) remarriage. The latter reference (applied to “younger widows”) is in the context of Paul’s instructions to widows where earlier Paul says that a widow may be enrolled if she has been a ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς γυνή, “‘one-man’ woman” (1 Tim 5:9), the exact phrase applied to overseers and deacons but reversed in gender. Because the phrases are so unusual, we expect them to have the same meaning. It seems doubtful that Paul would encourage the remarriage of “younger widows” if this meant that they could never later be enrolled if they were again widowed. For such widows, it could be presumed that remarriage would not be inconsistent with being a “one-man” woman, and hence the phrase in 1 Tim 5:9 would not be a call for a single marriage. The other interpretive key seems to be the unusualness of the phrase. The translation “one-woman man” maintains the emphasis on “one” and carries over what seems to be Paul’s emphasis on faithfulness. The quotation marks highlight the unusualness of the phrase, but the expression is not to be understood as a twentieth-century idiom.



cf. confer, compare

vv. verses

[1]Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-c1985). The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures (2:736). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[2]Keener, C. S., & InterVarsity Press. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary : New Testament (1 Ti 3:2). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

[3]Wiersbe, W. W. (1989; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996). The Bible exposition commentary : An exposition of athe New Testament comprising the entire "BE" series (electronic ed.) (1 Ti 3:1). Wheaton: Victor Books.

[4]Richards, L. (1991). The Bible reader's companion. Includes index. (835). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

v. volume

cf. confer (Lat.), compare

[5]MacArthur, J. (1995). 1 Timothy (103). Chicago: Moody Press.

[6]Barton, B. B., Veerman, D., & Wilson, N. S. (1993). 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. Cover title: 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus. Life application Bible commentary (58). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.

[7]Henry, M. (1996, c1991). Matthew Henry's commentary on the whole Bible : Complete and unabridged in one volume (1 Ti 3:1). Peabody: Hendrickson.

54 Ibid., 580.

55 E. Glasscock, “‘The Husband of One Wife’ Requirement in 1 Timothy 3:2, ” BibSac 140 (1983): 255. For a rejection of the view that the phrase “husband of but one wife” prohibited remarriage after the death of a first wife, see P. Fairbairn, “On the Meaning of the Expression ‘Husband of One Wife,’ in 1 Tim III. 2, 12, Tit I.6, ” The Pastoral Epistles (1874; reprint, Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1980), 416–32.

[8]Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (2001, c1992). Vol. 34: 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (electronic ed.). The New American Commentary (109). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

contra in contrast to

KD Keil and Delitzsch, Biblical commentary on the Old Testament

Ant. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews

VD Verbum domini

neb The New English Bible

Bib Biblica

BT The Bible Translator

JSNT Journal for the Study of the New Testament

BSac Bibliotheca Sacra

ANF A. Roberts and J. Donaldson (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers

TDNT G. Kittel and G. Friedrich, eds., tr. G. W. Bromiley Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols., ET (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964–76)

Spicq C. Spicq, Notes de Lexicographie OBO 22, Editions Universitaires Fribourg Suidde (1978)

[9]Mounce, W. D. (2002). Vol. 46: Word Biblical Commentary : Pastoral Epistles. Word Biblical Commentary (170). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

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