Slowly, after much careful deliberation, I have begun to lean toward a new understanding of the phrase "one-woman man" (often translated "husband of one wife") in the New Testament. I am under no illusions that this position will ever gain any widespread acceptance among my peers, but I will not be reviewing my life with my peers when it is over.
I am coming to conclude that the phrase means to indicate a man who is married to no more than one women throughout his entire lifetime, no matter what may happen in that lifetime. To state it less technically, but perhaps more understandably, I have come to believe that the New Testament precludes the remarried widower from serving as a pastor (as well, of course, as precluding the divorcé and the polygamist).
I have come nowhere near the level of certainty with regard to this conclusion that I would lead our church to change our official applications of the biblical qualifications for pastors and deacons—that destination is not even within sight. . . not even on the map. But my personal uncertainty about the matter is strong enough that I think I would either remain unmarried or leave the pastorate if (Lord, please forbid it) I found myself facing the disastrous situation of losing my precious wife.
Doctrinal struggles sure do have personal consequences, don't they? And knowing that many of my readers will feel the personal implications of this question in their own lives, I'm obligated to make my case carefully.
It all boils down to this: It seems increasingly clear to me that the relevant passages are appropriating into the pastoral qualifications by the use of the phrase "one-woman man" a Christian male adaptation of the Roman phenomenon known as the univirae ("one-man woman"). This Roman concept explicitly referred to a woman who was never married a second time for any reason whatsoever. The phenomenon is very well documented in classical studies. There are a great many aspects of the univira concept that connect well with the particular subject matter of these Christian letters.
Being a univira qualified a woman for certain ministry positions in pagan Roman temples. Thus, we see that the phrase "one-man woman" invoked an explicit concept in the Roman mind of the avoidance of second marriages as a qualification for religious service.
The precise time when the concept of the univira was gaining its most widespread popularity was the time when Paul and other apostles were being inspired by the Holy Spirit to author the New Testament.
Marjorie Lightman and William Zeisel's article "Univira: Continuity and Change in Roman Society" outlined the movement of the "univira" from its initial exclusive setting among the elite families of Rome proper to a widespread adaptation and adoption throughout the Roman Empire and among all classes of Roman society. The environment out of which the Holy Spirit brought forth the New Testament was precisely this environment in which the concept of the univira had attained widespread distribution.
Although univira is a Latin phrase, the corresponding Greek phrase ("monandros") is strikingly similar to the phrase of the opposite gender, "mias gunaikos," that serves as the "one-woman" in "one-woman man." Even more similar is the wording of "one-woman man" in 1 Timothy 3:2 to the wording of "one-man woman" (henos andros gune) in 1 Timothy 5:9. In turn, the phrase for "one-man woman" in 1 Timothy 5:9 is strikingly similar to language on tombstone inscriptions from the period that extolled the virtue of women identified as univirae.
To summarize these points in a conclusion, at precisely a time when the entire Roman world was extolling the virtues of "one-man women" who remained devoted to one spouse for a lifetime, and who consequently were qualified (at least in that respect) to serve in certain restricted religious capacities in Roman religion, the Holy Spirit led the Apostle Paul to identify being a "one-woman man" as a qualification for service in a certain restricted religious capacity in Christianity.
That's a pretty tight parallel, in my estimation.
In addition to these thoughts, I point out that there is no Old Testament snippet of language or marital concept that seems to serve as the source of Paul's wording of "one-woman man." Paul does not seem to be alluding to any teaching of Jesus expressed in the gospels. What other compelling candidate is there to compete with univira as a source for Paul's wording?
I also note that this interpretation of "one-woman man" goes back at least to within 160 years of the life of Jesus. Tertullian held this view, for example, as did a great many others who lived far closer to the New Testament age than do we. The evidence of the Church Fathers alone does not compel us. Indeed, for quite some time, aware of these opinions, I wrote them off as the biased interpretations of people unhealthily obsessed with celibacy. As the exegetical considerations above have gained force in my reasoning, I have had to reconsider whether it was Tertullian who was biased against remarriage, or me who was biased against Tertullian.
My great objection to this interpretation, of course, is that I don't like it at all. If I were widowed at this age and with my children at their present ages, I would likely want to remarry. Indeed, I'm not saying that I wouldn't remarry; I'm just saying that I think I would need to leave the pastoral ministry in order to do so. I find that restriction quite onerous. I don't LIKE embracing this understanding of the text.
But my job is not to interpret the Bible according to my liking; my job is to love the Bible correctly interpreted, as an aspect of loving the Author of the Bible. Perhaps the true measure of our obedience as disciples is found in our doing of the things that we don't (at first) like but are nonetheless commanded to do.
Nevertheless, this much is certain—more than ever before, I'll be delighted for you to demonstrate to me where I'm wrong.
In conclusion, I would like to identify some of the interesting implications of this interpretation:
- The explicit and jarring transformation of an always-female-applied phrase to a made-up-for-this-instance male-applied phrase strengthens the already overwhelming case that the New Testament qualifications for elders and deacons are explicitly written to be applicable to men and not to women. Surely the female phrase would do quite nicely unless females are not at all in view here. Because Paul had to have a male phrase to apply to a male category, he had to go to the extraordinary lengths of creating his own male adaptation of this female phrase.
- The general Roman concept was quite the double-standard, with the "one-man woman" being praised and extolled while men were entirely within the bounds of respectable behavior to avail themselves of prostitutes and to marry a second time upon the death of a wife. The New Testament's application of this concept to men, therefore, represents a subjection of men to a binding commitment to their wives—to their wives having authority over their bodies—in a "turnabout is fair play" manner that was foreign to Roman culture.
- One need not go so far as to suggest that remarriage of widows or widowers is at all immoral (unlike divorce, which is always immoral on the part of at least one party). Indeed, 1 Timothy 5:14 mandates remarriage of at least one category of widows. In view here is not what is moral or immoral, but rather what qualifies one for service as an elder or deacon.