By Loren Seibold
Whenever Adventist Today prints a piece on women’s ordination, there is bound to be someone—often two or three—who will comment with this quote, which they assume clinches the matter:
“A bishop … must be… the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2).
This verse comes near the beginning of a passage describing the qualities of character necessary for being an episcopas, a Greek word variously translated as bishop, elder, or overseer. This list is used by many Christians, including our denomination, to describe the qualifications for being a pastor. A similar list follows for the character of a deacon. (It’s important to note that “deacon” in that context meant something much more than ushers who gather offerings, as it does now—but that’s for another study.)
The passage goes on for 13 verses, going into considerable detail. But among certain Adventists, in all of that lengthy description, only one word stands out: husband.
What does it mean?
It is curious that this single phrase “husband of one wife” attracts so much attention, especially since no one is absolutely certain what it means.
The traditional interpretation supposed polygamy: that a church leader shouldn’t have multiple wives. While polygamy was common in the pre-exilic Hebrew culture, the Romans thought polygamy barbarian, and most inhabitants of the empire (including Jews and Christians) eventually fell into line. Better interpreters now reject that interpretation because there is no evidence for polygamy anywhere in the New Testament church.
But when you disallow polygamy as the meaning, it opens up possibilities that could affect the church now in some relevant ways. “Husband of one wife,” you see, doesn’t differentiate between simultaneous wives or sequential wives. So it could mean that the episcopas couldn’t be divorced and remarried, or possibly even widowed and remarried!
This makes churchmen squirm, because there are a number of divorced and remarried Adventist pastors, some in the highest echelons of church leadership—including the General Conference. I know a ministerial director who was on his third marriage by the time I met him. Both previous wives had conveniently committed adultery, thus setting him free, according to the algebra of Mark 10:2-12, to remarry.
(He, along with several others who made the same claim, has always raised questions in my mind about the applicability of that adultery standard. One pastor’s ex-wife told me, “I claimed to have committed adultery so that I could get out of a horrible marriage and my husband would still have a job to provide for our children.” I wonder how often that happens?)
And what about pastors who aren’t married at all? A bachelor pastor is the husband of no wife, and by the same strict interpretation that makes a husband male, it also would require that he be, well, a husband! A widowed pastor has been a husband, but with the death of his wife he ceases to be a husband. Strictly speaking, he couldn’t marry again, because that would make him the husband of two sequential wives! (And no, I’m not being any more picky in this interpretation than are those who concentrate on that word “husband” as a signifier of a pastor’s gender.)
So aside from the gender implied by “husband,” the rest of this verse hasn’t been analyzed or enforced to any great extent. There are divorced pastors, divorced and remarried pastors, widowed pastors, widowed and remarried pastors, and never-married pastors. Rarely has anyone raised any question about their suitability for ordination based solely on the state of either their husbandness or their having mated with only one woman in their lives.
Again, let’s not lose track of what these verses in 1 Timothy 3 are about: this passage is about the character of church leaders. Why does that one word—“husband”—dominate the discussion when there’s so much more here?
When I was a child, the president of my home conference had three sons, all of whom were as wild as the driven snow. As young teens they were bullies, drank alcohol, taught everybody dirty words, smoked, and had Playboy magazines. Each year one of them would start out at our academy, only to disappear a month or two later and pop up at Maplewood or Platte Valley or somewhere else across the country, from which place they would also disappear before the end of the term. (I always felt sad for the school personnel, who had to call the conference president and tell him his son was again expelled from school. I suspect there were some angry scenes and threats.) At least one of these boys was murdered shortly after he finished school, and to my knowledge the other two never distinguished themselves as Christian gentlemen.
These young men were subjects of considerable curiosity to those of us of their age group—we who came from ordinary non-clergy homes, and who generally behaved as good Seventh-day Adventist boys and girls. I remember our parents saying how hard the devil works on the children of pastors and church workers, by way of trying to explain why this family had turned out so bad in spite of the father being a pastor.
Yet there were plenty of pastors’ children who turned out just fine. Even back then it was hard not to suspect that there was something in the headship of that particular family that made these boys so tragically bad.
Yet I never heard anyone ever suggest that this elder shouldn’t be a pastor or a conference president. Not only did he serve his terms, but he was promoted to another conference after North Dakota.
Think about some of the troubled families you have seen in ministry, as well as in offices from the conference right on up to the General Conference. Then read this list.
Now the episcopas is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
How many would be left if every pastor who has a rebellious or unbelieving child were fired? How many pastors would be qualified to cast the first stone? I could make a list here of the arrogantly conservative pastors—some quite famous—who would have to be disqualified on the basis of their children alone, but who continue in leadership because they have male genitalia.
And yet a godly woman is disqualified because she’s not a husband!
A tempting interpretation
It seems a little odd to me that from a list that is from beginning to end about whether one behaves responsibly and morally, so many people pick out the one thing that has nothing to do with behavior, but with how one was born. Many women pastors have excellent character and families—certainly better than the conference president noted above—yet officially the denomination won’t ordain them because they can’t be husbands! Many women pastors are amazing teachers and leaders, but they are left out because they’re not husbands.
I can see, I suppose, why this interpretation is so tempting. It’s easy to qualify for a job in church leadership by being born with male genitalia and a taste for coupling with a woman. For most of us heterosexual men, that comes naturally. How nice that we can interpret the Bible to say that it earns us automatic status, even if we were not too smart, barely competent, unkind, or have minimal talent in comparison with a female counterpart!
But if we have to qualify for the job according to that whole list—well, that’s a steep climb. Even if you do your best, there’s no guarantee your family is going to cooperate with all the perfect behavior you demand of them. While I personally have just one wife, I have no children at all, so if having an obedient family is a hard and fast qualification (as is, some say, the gender implied by “husband”) I should never have been allowed to be a pastor.
And let’s not even get into the question of whether episcopas refers to denominational ordination, given that denominational recognition as such is never explicitly defined in the New Testament.
A better word than “husband”
There’s another interpretation of “husband of one wife” that fits in the context better. Nowadays, the more common and sensible interpretation is that a church leader has to be sexually moral. The New International Version says that he must be “faithful to his wife.” Understood this way, the statement is about sexual morality and implies gender only in passing.
Elsewhere in Scripture we understand that something mentioned en passant cannot be made the main point. Take Joel 2:28:
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.
Note that old women aren’t mentioned here at all! Must Ellen White be disqualified as a prophet after a certain age because she had dreams or visions as an old woman? I’ve never heard it applied that way. We say that the last day prophecies, visions and dreams are the point, not the gender or age of those mentioned.
As it turns out, there’s good reason for believing that the apostle Paul didn’t intend to exclude anyone for gender either. The notion that a deacon must be a husband (1 Timothy 3:12) is shot down when, in Romans 16:1-2, Paul calls a woman named Phoebe a deacon. Since a woman can’t be a husband, let us assume Paul’s speaking of church leaders as husbands in 1 Timothy was because most of the leaders just happened to be men.
But not all. Here stands Phoebe, who isn’t a husband, but is still a deacon!
So wouldn’t it make sense to assume Paul would be comfortable saying that a bishop or a deacon should be the faithful spouse of one person, whether male or female?
For the rubbish heap
We Adventists have, for almost two centuries, been openly contemptuous of Roman Catholics for making ex cathedra statements about what the Bible means, and enforcing it on their church. Listening to Elder Wilson on October 9 reminded me again that we Adventists are more like the Roman Catholic church than we admit. We do our work in less fancy clothing and without such decorative headgear, but we are just as authoritarian. The General Conference is our pope: it speaks ex cathedra and tells us precisely what to believe and how to act, and anyone who disagrees is a bad Seventh-day Adventist.
I believe our pioneers would be shocked by what the General Conference has become.
But that is for another time. For now, let us set aside this silly “proof” that the mention of a pastor as a “husband” says all church leaders must be male. It is neither biblical nor sensible, and it is time to consign it to the rubbish heap of interpretive history.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.