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What is a One-Woman Man?

I love answering your questions each week. I try to always address things that are of interest to you. And always try regularly to answer specific questions that you have asked. Several questions have come in lately about what it means to be a one-woman man, what it means to be the husband of one wife. If you are familiar with Paul’s instructions in 1 and 2 Timothy and in Titus called the pastoral epistles, you know that this language of being the husband of one wife is language that is used in those books to refer to qualifications for pastors and deacons. For pastors, the requirement turns up in 1 Timothy 3:2, where we’re told that a pastor, an elder, and overseer must be “above reproach the husband of one wife.” We read about it again in Titus 1:6 if “anyone is above reproach the husband of one wife.” Those are requirements for pastors. And then the requirement for a deacon is in 1 Timothy 3:12, which says, “Let deacons each be the husband of one wife.” What does it mean for a pastor and a deacon to be the husband of one wife? If you know the Greek language that leads to our English translation, you know that in the Greek in those places, the Bible actually literally says a one-woman man, a pastor is supposed to be a one-woman man. A deacon is supposed to be a one-woman man. What does that mean? What does it mean to be a one-woman man? Answering the question is actually challenging for a couple of reasons.

Answering the Question is a Challenge

First of all, the phrase, one woman-man, as a requirement comes in the context of the Scripture without an explanation. In other words, when Paul says, here’s what it means to be a one-woman man, he doesn’t say that. He just says you need to be a one-woman man. It also appears in no other context. So the phrase appears these times with regard to pastor and deacon qualifications, and it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament or the Old Testament. So Paul is coining a phrase here. He’s using a phrase that is jargon that is a term of art that has a specific meaning in this specific context and is not deployed anyplace else. It’s also challenging to know what it means because it’s been interpreted in various ways by good and faithful Christians over the years. I’ve counted about five different kinds of interpretations. And each of those interpretations acknowledge that the language of a one-woman man is meant to exclude some people. There are some people who do not meet the qualification of being a one-woman man. And so each interpretation is trying to figure out who is excluded here. One interpretation says that the Bible is here, excluding people from being a pastor and being a deacon if you have never been married. So they’re excluding single people. Their argument is the text says you have to be a one-woman man. That is, you have to be a man who is in a committed marital relationship with a woman. And if you are not married, you don’t meet the qualification.

Another interpretation excludes those who are widowed. If your wife, even if she’s the only wife you ever had, if she is no longer living, if you’ve gone and remarried somebody else, you are not, in the context of your life, a one-woman man, you’re a two-woman man. Another interpretation excludes those who have been divorced. If you once were married and got divorced and are now married to another person. You’re not a one-woman man. You’re a two-woman man. You can be on these different interpretations to woman man because your wife died. Or you can be a two-woman man because you are divorced from your first wife. But either way, you’re a two-woman man. A fourth interpretation has said that you are excluded from being a pastor and being a deacon if you are guilty of marital unfaithfulness. If you’re a fornicator. If you run around, if you are guilty of adultery, you’re not a two-woman man and so excluded. And then, a fifth interpretation would exclude polygamy. You cannot be a polygamist. You cannot have multiple wives at once and be qualified for pastoral ministry or for deacon ministry. Five different interpretations, some of them not all, but some of them are mutually exclusive, all of them held at one point or another by good and faithful Christians.

How Do We Understand the Meaning of the Phrase?

How should we then understand what the meaning of this phrase is? How are we supposed to know who’s qualified to be a pastor and who’s qualified to be a deacon? Let me give you some issues that can create a framework for how we can interpret this faithfully. First of all, I think we need to interpret this qualification of being a one-woman man the same way we interpret the other qualifications. If you read the other qualifications for pastors and deacons, you find out that being a one-woman man isn’t the only qualification but is on a list of many qualifications. Just to pick 1 Timothy 3 as an example, we find out that a pastor is supposed to be “above reproach the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, he must manage his own household, well with all dignity, keeping his children, submissive.” There are a lot of qualifications for both pastors and deacons. And the husband of one wife, or a one-woman man, is just one of those. The way we interpret the other qualifications is by understanding that this is your current status, and it contributes to your obvious reputation. So let me pick an example. In 1 Timothy 3:3, one of the requirements for a pastor is that you not be a drunkard. When we look at this and evaluate whether someone is qualified for pastoral ministry, we say, okay, you are not a drunkard if you currently have an obvious reputation of not being a drunk. We would not say I don’t think most people would say about, say, a 40-year-old man who lives a temperate careful lifestyle. If he was able to confess in his life a season when he was 20, or 21, or 22, something a long time ago, when he had gotten drunk, we would not say you are therefore automatically disqualified from pastoral ministry because a generation ago, maybe before you were even a believer, you committed the sin of being drunk, we would say, do you right now have a current reputation of fulfilling that command and not being guilty of that sin? And most of us would say if the answer to that question is yes, then you meet the qualification. In the same way, we are looking at someone’s current status and obvious reputation when we’re talking about being a one-woman man, do you right now in your life today have a reputation of being a one-woman man? Not did you ever, at some point decades in the past and the ancient history of your life, were you guilty of sins in that area, but do you have a current status and an obvious reputation today?

Above Reproach

Another key that we need to employ to help understand this passage is by understanding the language of above reproach. Above reproach is the banner that is over the list of qualifications. I think all of the qualifications help flesh out what it means to be above reproach. Above reproach doesn’t require perfection. It is not possible that there will be a Christian pastor or a Christian deacon who is without sin in their life. That’s just not the way this Christian life works. We are guilty of sin, even when we are living morally exemplary lifestyles. The point of being above reproach is to make clear not just that you have a current reputation for the thing but that your reputation is deserved. So going back to the example of drunkenness, not being a drunkard needs to describe your current status and obvious reputation. Above reproach adds to that, that you deserve that reputation. We could imagine a situation where someone has a reputation for being a drunk, but they don’t deserve it because they leave town and they get drunk, or they get drunk on the weekends when nobody’s looking. And everybody might say, wow, what a really temperate, faithful person, but they don’t deserve the reputation because of quiet secret sin in their life.

Same thing with a one-woman man. Being a one-woman man needs to describe your current status and obvious reputation, but you need to deserve that reputation. One other key is to interpret the meaning of this verse. The meaning of this requirement is to let the language be unique. One of the problems with various Christian interpretations of what it means to be a one-woman man is we take this unique language that is clearly intended by the apostle Paul to be a unique set of language uniquely in the list of requirements for pastors and deacons, and we try to translate it into something else that makes sense to us. Well, the apostle Paul didn’t specify you must not be divorced, or you must not be widowed, or you must be single. He didn’t say any of those things. He said you’ve got to be a one-woman man. He could have written anything he wanted under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But what he said is, you’ve got to be a one-woman man. And so I’m going to say it’s interpretive laziness to take a unique phrase and then take a different phrase and say, well, it must mean that. Let’s not do that. Instead, let’s ask a key question. Here’s the question that I want to ask to help me understand and help you understand what it means to be a one-woman man. Does your current behavior and reputation make you open to the charge of being a two-woman man? If your current behavior and reputation makes you open to the charge of being a two-woman man, then you are disqualified from being a pastor and a deacon and not a one-woman man.

Five Interpretations

Let’s take that and apply that very specifically to the five different interpretations that Christians have had to this command. What about folks who have never been married? Well, does your current behavior and reputation make you open to the charge of being a two-woman man? Well, that’s not true for single people. Just because you’re single doesn’t make you a two-woman man. Being single makes you a no-woman man. So we would say that this interpretation of the verse being a one-woman man means you must be married and must not be single. We would say no, that’s not what this is talking about. It’s an overly wooden interpretation. And it really gets into trouble when you get into the fact that in the requirements that I just read from a pastor, it also talks about the pastor’s children. So faithful interpretation means if you’re going say a one-woman man means you must be married, it means that a faithful pastor must also have children. That means an infertile couple is excluded from being in pastoral ministry. We don’t do that. And so we would say, hey, the apostle Paul is not talking about those who were never married in terms of excluding them from pastoral ministry.

What about those who are widowed? If you are widowed, does that make you a two-woman man? The answer to that question is no. The apostle Paul, in Romans 7, makes it clear that the death of your spouse ends the marriage covenant. So if you are widowed, no, you are not a two-woman man. In fact, widows are some of the most faithful and devoted one-woman men there are. Some of the best men I know are men who have stood by their wives and nursed them on their sick bed that ultimately became their deathbed. And so we would not say that someone who’s been widowed is a two-woman man. What about those who are divorced? Well, now things start to get tricky. If we’re dealing with someone who is divorced, I think when we ask the question, is this a one-woman man? Is this a two-woman man? I think the answer is maybe. I don’t think we would say about a divorced person that the obvious answer is no. I think we would say the obvious thing to do is to ask some questions. There are a lot of questions we have when we find out that someone has been divorced. Were you a believer when you got divorced? Was the divorce your fault? Was the divorce a long time ago? How many divorces are we talking about? I think we need to be case specific here. Being a one-woman man means being a one-woman man. The apostle Paul didn’t say you must not be divorced. I think we can imagine situations where a divorced man does not have the current status and obvious reputation of being a two-woman man. If we’re talking about somebody who had multiple divorces, that were their fault that has happened since they’ve been a believer, and that is their reputation. I think we’re talking about someone who is not a one-woman man. But if we’re talking about somebody who decades ago when they were an unbeliever who was left by their spouse through no fault of their own, and they have since become a believer and have since lived and served faithfully with their one wife. I think we would say they do have a current status and an obvious reputation of being a one-woman man.

Obvious Disqualifiers

What about marital unfaithfulness, another interpretation. For people who are guilty of adultery, I think we need to say, yep, we’re moving right into the very sort of thing that the apostle Paul was intending to forbid when he said, you need to be a one-woman man. If you are being unfaithful to your wife, you are not a one-woman man. When we talk about this sin, we’re talking about those who are in the most jeopardy and the, most obviously, not meeting the qualifications to be a pastor and a deacon. Now, I would also say that for those who have committed adultery in the past, there is a chance for their one day being in alignment with the qualifications if we’re talking about adultery that happened a long time ago, again, even before you were a believer. But if this has been decades, in the past, there has been repentance, there has been faithfulness, since then, there is a strong and a growing marriage and everybody in the church who would look at their life and say, you know what those two people are in love. They are faithful, and this man is an exemplary husband. I think there is a chance when that reputation kicks in a long season after adultery happens, I think there’s an opportunity to consider whether they are in alignment with the qualifications. But there’s another issue we need to consider on this issue of marital unfaithfulness. And that’s the issue of pornography. We just need to be really honest that these commands demand more than we can see with our eyes. There are men in your congregation and men in my congregation who look like they are faithful one-woman men to their wives. But at night, when their wives go to sleep, they’re looking at pornography. They do not meet the qualifications for being a pastor and a deacon, even though it looks like they do. And that’s why we need to remember again that a key to interpreting this is not just our current status and our obvious reputation but that that obvious reputation be deserved. There are men who are disqualified from these offices, and only they and the Lord knows it. And so we need to be very careful, and we need to be very humble. We need to be very sober about it.

The final interpretation that we talked about is the one of polygamy. And this is an obvious disqualifier. A person who is, by definition, a two-woman man with two wives or a three-woman man with three wives, or a four-woman man with four wives is obviously disqualified from Christian ministry either as a pastor or a deacon because you must be a man who has only one wife if you have got a wife. This is complicated; it’s complicated for a reason. I think it helps us when we interpret this qualification the same way we interpret others when we let this language be unique. And we ask that key question about whether someone we’re considering as a pastor or a deacon has current behavior and reputation that makes them open to the charge of being a two-woman man. But even when we try to get help from those principles that I advanced, we all need to listen and apply very carefully when good and faithful Christians from a lot of different backgrounds in a lot of different religious traditions intending to be faithful can’t come up with a consensus on what this means. It just means we need to be humble. It means we need to apply these things with wisdom and with grace and in a spirit of prayer, asking God for his help.