What is the meaning of “husband of one wife” in 1 Tim. 3:2?
“Husband of one wife” is the KJV and ASV rendering of the Greek phrase mias gunaikos andra, literally “man of one woman.” (You may have heard some say that literally, it is “one-woman man,” woodenly following Greek word order, “woman” is in the genitive case, which means it should be translated “of (one) woman,” thus “man of one woman”).
Besides 1 Tim. 3:2, the phrase occurs in Tit. 1:6 and 1 Tim. 3:12 applied to deacons. The reverse “woman of one man” shows up as a quality required of a “true” widow (1 Tim. 5:9). From this survey, we know that Paul saw “husband of one wife” as a fitting quality for elders and deacons, and that the reverse “wife of one husband “could apply to widows. Therefore, one’s mate could have died and the qualification still be satisfied.
The commentaries offer the following four options:
(1) Elders must be married. This, however, goes against that when reversed (“wife of one husband”), it can describe a widow.
(2) It prohibits polygamy. Though polygamy is wrong, this was probably not the intent of the quality. Besides, polygamy was rare in Graeco-Roman society and when the reversed quality is applied to widows this interpretation fails completely.
(3) It prohibits second marriages. This understanding has more going for it. It works with widows as well. There is even inscriptional evidence praising women married only once who remained faithful to that marriage after the death of their partners (See Gordon D Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, New International Biblical Commentary [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1984], 80). This view would prohibit marriage after the death of one’s spouse (and, remarriage after divorce).
Though defensible, this interpretation ignores what happens when applied to widows. For example, if a woman’s husband dies while she is young and she marries again (per Paul’s instructions in I Tim. 5:14), and then her second husbands dies, she cannot qualify, despite her need, to be a “true” widow, thus, a rightful recipient of support from the church. So in following the apostle’s recommendation while young (to get married again), she has disqualified herself when old. I don’t think this was what Paul was setting up.
(4) It enjoins marital fidelity to his wife. What this view demands is that an elder lead an exemplary married life, i.e., that he is faithful to his one wife “in a culture in which marital infidelity was common and at times assumed” (Fee, ibid.).
Though #3 and #4 are possible, I lean in the direction of #4 as best in line with what the apostle had in mind. Paul’s concern in the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) is to set in place good leadership to protect the church from false teachers, who were disrupting the Christian household by scorning marriage (1 Timothy 4:3; 3:4-5, Tit. 1:11, et. al.).