In 1 Timothy 3:2 we read:

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife (ESV)

The ESV note that goes with the last phrase says, "Or a man of one woman."

I'm aware of a number of interpretations of this passage, and there are probably more:

  • an overseer can't have two wives at the same time
  • an overseer can't be unfaithful to his wife
  • an overseer can't be illegitimately divorced and remarried
  • an overseer can't be remarried, even if legitimately divorced, or widowed
  • an overseer must be married (usually in combination with one of the previous views)

What are the textual considerations that need to be examined when evaluating which of these positions is correct? Is this text sufficiently clear and specific to choose a view?

  • 1
    This is a Good Question, and I appreciate that it concerns itself with the textual understanding, and not 'ecclesial' understanding which can be widely divergent. Thank you!
    – Tau
    Aug 8, 2015 at 22:52

6 Answers 6


1 Tim 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6 all feature the phrase mias gynaikas andra, lit. 'one woman man' or 'one wife husband'. Mounce notes that

"This phrase is one of the most difficult phrases in the PE"[1]

and he's not wrong.

Primarily, there are two ways to interpret mias gynaikas andra: The first we'll call the literalist approach; second, the idiomatic approach.

1. Literalist

It seems you already have a really good handle on these arguments. Nevertheless, I'd still like to address them so as to outline a couple of issues worth considering. The key literal interpretations (and those you included above) can be summarised as follows:[2]

  1. prohibits single [unmarried] men[3]
  2. prohibits the divorced.
  3. prohibits the widowed.
  4. prohibits polygamists.

Whilst each of the four literal interpretations can be argued textually from the phrase mias gynaikas andra, the biggest issue with the literalist approach is in understanding which of the four interpretations Paul has in mind as he writes. As Mounce notes,

"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.”"[4]

As I'm sure you know, the biggest problem with the literalist approach is working out which is the correct interpretation and why that is to be preferred over and above the other three. This doesn't mean it should be rejected, but it does make it problematic.

2. Idiomatic

The idiomatic approach sees mias gynaikas andra as a figure of speech akin to 'a one-woman guy' or, as Köstenberger et al, a 'one-woman-type-of-husband'.[5] Proponents of this approach argue that this idiom is suggesting that Timothy should appoint men who are faithful to their wives (as per NIV, NLT, NEB translation).

The strengths of this approach are great:

  1. it promotes monogamy and faithfulness and the discouragement of divorce and polygamy.
  2. it does not exclude single men, which included Paul himself and possibly Timothy (see also 1 Corinthians 7:8, 25-39).
  3. There is no explicit mandate in the Pastoral Epistles against the appointment of widowed men or those whose wives have left them from holding office in the church.
  4. Rather than state the qualification as a prohibition it states it as a positive trait - which is a better fit with the other positive traits in the verse.[6]

Whilst this interpretation has great merit it is not without problems either. If we are to take mias gynaikas andra ('one woman man' in this case) as an idiom meaning 'faithful husband / faithful to their wife', two questions arise:

  1. is this what Paul has in mind by the phrase mias gynaikas andra?
  2. is it legitimate to assume it is an idiom?

Both questions, one of authorial intent and the other of Greek construction, raise the important question of whether the idiomatic approach projects on to the text an idea that is alien to it. Kelly seems to thinks so saying that arguing for 'a faithful husband' “squeezes more out of the Greek than it will bear”.[7] Others - e.g. Köstenberger et al.[8] and Earle [9] - are happy to read it idiomatically.

Again, problems do not equate with an incorrect approach. Nevertheless, when approaching the idiomatic approach the question must be asked as to whether Paul wrote it with this intent, and more to the point, whether Timothy would have grasped his meaning - assuming Paul coined the phrase.

3. Widows: One-Man Woman (henos andros gyne) in 1 Tim 5:9

A final consideration worth noting is 1 Tim 5:9, where we read:

"No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been a woman of one man..." Χήρα καταλεγέσθω μὴ ἔλαττον ἐτῶν ἑξήκοντα γεγονυῖα, ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς γυνή

The final phrase henos andros gyne means lit. 'one-man woman' / 'one-husband wife' and is the linguistic reverse of the 'one-woman man' / 'one-wife husband' phrase (mias gynaikas andra) found in 1 Tim 3:2. In 3:2 Paul tells Timothy to appoint as elders at Ephesus 'one-woman men' and in 5:9 he tells him to enlist widows who have been 'one-man women'.

This is worth noting because which ever approach, whether literal or idiom, the conclusion drawn and applied to male elders in 1 Tim 3:2 may also have to be applied to widows in 1 Tim 5:9 since the two phrases are likely to have the same meaning - one relating to men, the other to women.

How exactly the two phrases in 3:2 and 5:9 relate to each other is an important textual issue to consider when weighing interpretations. For example, if we say for sake of argument that mias gynaikas andra in 3:2 is interpreted so as to exclude single/never-married men from eldership, we must also ask how this conclusion affects the meaning of henos andros gyne in 5:9. Simply put, is it likely that Paul would exclude single men from eldership only to say that Timothy should likewise exclude sixty year old, single widows from church support?

However, if mias gynaikas andra in 3:2 is to be taken idiomatically, then perhaps henos andros gyne in 5:9 is also an idiom. In this instance Paul calls on Timothy in 3:2 to appoint as elders 'men who are faithful to their wives' and likewise to only enrol widows who have been 'women who were faithful to their husbands.'

The point is here, that however we understand mias gynaikas andra in 3:2, it seems to be to some degree linked to henos andros gyne in 5:9. Therefore, it may be worth seeking an approach and an interpretation that may be applied to both equally. It seems a stretch to argue that the phrases mean one thing when speaking of men and something else entirely when speaking of widows.


  1. Whilst one of the four literal interpretations could be entirely plausible, they're not without issue. Primary among these issues is deciding which of the four interpretations best represents the author's intent.
  2. The idiomatic approach has great strengths, especially in relation to resolving the issues thrown up by the literalist interpretation. Nevertheless, it too is not without fault, especially in relation to authorial intent and the other of Greek construction
  3. The use of mias gynaikas andra in 1 Timothy 3:2 may argue for a similar interpretation of henos andros gyne in 1 Tim 5:9 and vice versa. Therefore, both should be considered when comparing and evaluating interpretations.

Conclusion: Long story short, the key issues revolve around a literal versus an idiomatic approach that must take into account not only Greek construction but also authorial intent. That is to say, not only how Paul wrote the phrase, mias gynaikas andra, but why he was moved to pen the words in the first place, whilst also taking into account how your conclusion may inform, or indeed colour, your understanding of 1 Tim 5:9.

[1]: William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 170.

[2]: Andreas J Köstenberger et al., God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), 263

[3]: Whether women as well as men can hold the Elder's office is not the question being answered by this post and therefore, this answer will use Paul's terminology of men throughout.

[4]: Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, 170.

[5]: Köstenberger et al., God, Marriage, and Family, 263

[6]: Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, 170.

[7]: JND Kelly, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Epistles of Peter and the Epistle of Jude (new Testament Commentary) (United States: Baker Publishing Group (MI), 1969), 75

[9]: Köstenberger et al., God, Marriage, and Family, 263

[10]: Ralph Earle, “1 Timothy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 364.

  1. The "must be" command at least demands a literal application of some sort for this qualification, as do the others in this list, so each local congregation will need to agree when that qualification is literally met.
  2. Since "husband of one wife" is positively stated, a positive fulfillment of this qualification should be sought. And since vs 5 asks rhetorically how one without domestic experience can care for God's household, being married, or having been married, appears to be a necessity for every elder.
  3. The idiomatic rendering has much in its favor, except it should exclude singleness, unless one can adequately answer why someone who is a "one-woman man" is not yet married. And there is still the problem of meeting verse five's implied requirement.
  4. The "one" restriction would obviously make polygamy a disqualification. Also a determination would need to be made if anything but death breaks the marriage bond. But a one-woman man status could still be fulfilled as a qualification, if the congregation believes a prior marriage bond was completely broken and a blameless character has been retained or regained.
  • 1
    Nice answer and welcome to Stack Exchange. We are glad you stopped by and hope you stick around. If you haven't done so already, you may want to read up on how this site is a little different than other sites around the web. This is not a comment on the quality of your answer, but rather a standard welcome message.
    – ThaddeusB
    Dec 23, 2015 at 20:09

Disclaimer: Unless noted otherwise I am posting my answer from the perspective that the pastorals are authentic Pauline writings, which I find dubious.

The Torah makes no explicit prohibition of polygamy. David had two wives and Solomon had 60 wives, 80 concubines and more "virgins" than he could "shake his stick at":

1Sa 30:5 And David's two wives were taken captives, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail the wife of Nabal the Carmelite.

Son_6:8 There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number.

Still, monogamy was touted as the ideal by the rabbis:


However, the apostle Paul's view was that since they were living in the final hours, one wife might be too many. It was too many for himself, certainly and he wished celibacy for all of the men of the assemblies:

1Co 7:6 But I say this as a concession, not as a command. 1Co 7:7 I would like everyone to be unmarried, like I am. However, each person has a special gift from God, one this and another that. 1Co 7:8 I say to those who are unmarried, especially to widows: It is good for them to remain like me. 1Co 7:9 However, if they cannot control themselves, they should get married, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. ... 1Co 7:25 Now concerning virgins, although I do not have any command from the Lord, I will give you my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. 1Co 7:26 In view of the present crisis, I think it is prudent for a man to stay as he is. 1Co 7:27 Have you become committed to a wife? Stop trying to get released from your commitment. Have you been freed from your commitment to a wife? Stop looking for one.

I'm of the opinion that Paul would consider a man responsible for more than one wife to be a person who's time is spoken for:

1Co 7:32 I want you to be free from concerns. An unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord, that is, about how he can please the Lord. 1Co 7:33 But a married man is concerned about things of this world, that is, about how he can please his wife, 1Co 7:34 and so his attention is divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the affairs of the Lord, so that she may be holy in body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world, that is, about how she can please her husband. 1Co 7:35 I'm saying this for your benefit, not to put a noose around your necks, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord. 1Co 7:36 If a man thinks he is not behaving properly toward his virgin, and if his passion is so strong that he feels he ought to marry her, let him do what he wants; he isn't sinning. Let them get married. 1Co 7:37 However, if a man stands firm in his resolve, feels no necessity, and has made up his mind to keep her a virgin, he will be acting appropriately. 1Co 7:38 So then the man who marries the virgin acts appropriately, but the man who refrains from marriage does even better. 1Co 7:39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord. 1Co 7:40 However, in my opinion she will be happier if she stays as she is. And in saying this, I think that I, too, have God's Spirit.

So to my mind it would be inappropriate to ask a man responsible for two wives to take on a new responsibility.

So why one wife and not zero?

Given Paul's recommendation of celibacy documented above it does not seem likely that he considered being married an asset to ministry. He wanted everyone to be single as he was so they could serve God without being distracted by serving a wife. The exception seems to be for an elder who aspired to be an overseer. For an overseer it would demonstrate his work ethic and capabilities if he was successful in caring for his family:

1Ti 3:12 Ministers must be husbands of one wife and must manage their children and their families well. 1Ti 3:13 Those ministers who serve well gain an excellent reputation for themselves and will have great assurance by their faith in the Messiah Jesus.

Of course, this does not sound like Paul to me, but there you have it.


The Fifth Book of the Second Pleading in the Prosecution against Verres. The Speech on the Punishments. The Argument.

And all that time, while that man, clad in a purple cloak and a tunic reaching to his ankles, was reveling in banquets with women, men were not offended, nor in the least vexed that the magistrate was absent from the forum that the laws were not administered, that the courts of justice were not held; that all that shore resounded with women's vices, and music and songs. They were not, I say, at all vexed at there being a total silence in the forum, no pleading, and no law. For it was not law or the court of justice that seemed to be absent from the forum, but violence and cruelty, and the bitter and shameful robbery of good men. [32] Do you then, O Hortensius, defend this man on the ground of his having been a general? Do you endeavour to conceal his thefts, his rapine, his cupidity, his cruelty, his pride, his wickedness, his audacity, by dwelling on the greatness of his exploits and his renown as a commander? No doubt I have cause to fear here, that at the end of your defence you may have recourse to the old conduct of Antonius, and to his mode of ending a speech; that Verres may be brought forward, his breast bared, that the Roman people may see his scars, inflicted by the bites of women, traces of lust and profligacy. [33] May the gods grant that you may venture to make mention of military affairs and of war. For all his ancient military service shall be made known, in order that you may be aware, not only what he has been as a commander, but also how he behaved as a soldier in his campaigns. That first campaign of his shall be brought up again, in which he was, as he says himself, subservient to others, not their master. The camp of that gambler of Placentia shall be brought: up again, where, though he were assiduous in his attendance, he still lost his pay. Many of his losses in his campaigns shall be recounted, which were made up for and retrieved by the most infamous expedients. [34] But afterwards, when he had become hardened by a long course of such infamy,—when he had sated others, not himself,—why need I relate what sort of man he turned out? what carefully guarded defences of modesty and chastity he broke down by violence and audacity? or why should I connect the disgrace of an, one else with his profligacy? I will not do so, O judges. I will pass over all old stories; I will only mention two recent achievements of his, without fixing infamy on any one else; and by those you will be able to conjecture the rest. One of them is, that it was so notorious to every one, that during the consulship of Lucius Lucullus and Marcus Cotta, no one ever came up from any municipal town to Rome on any law business, who was so ill-informed of what was going on as not to know that all the laws of the Roman people were regulated by the will and pleasure of Chelidon the prostitute. The other is that, after he had left the city in the robe of war,—after he had pronounced the solemn vows for the success of his administration, and for the common welfare of the republic, he was accustomed, for the sake of committing adultery, to be brought back into the city, at night, in a litter, to a woman who, though the wife of one man, was common to all men, contrary to law, contrary to what was required by the auspices, contrary to everything which is held sacred among gods and men. 14. [35]

In this passage from Cicero's speech against Verres, Cicero is making an accusation of immoral and corrupt behavior against Verres, a former Roman governor. When he mentions "wife of one man," it means a married woman who, according to Roman law and customs, should be faithful to her husband and not have intimate relationships with other men. However, he is accusing Verres of being involved in extramarital affairs with this woman, disregarding the Roman laws and traditions that protect the institution of marriage.

This accusation is part of a series of allegations of lascivious and corrupt behavior that Cicero is presenting against Verres to demonstrate how depraved and dishonest he was during his tenure in Sicily. Cicero is trying to paint a picture of Verres as someone who violated not only civil laws but also the moral and ethical standards of Roman society at the time.

In 1 Timothy 3:2, the expression "husband of one wife" is often interpreted as a requirement for church leaders, meaning that these leaders should be married to only one woman at a time.

In this context, the expression emphasizes that a man seeking to lead in the church should be monogamous in relation to each wife and committed to a single wife, without sharing that woman with other men in a polygamous marriage. The implied prohibition is that a man should not be involved in relationships where a married woman is shared among multiple men, which would go against the principles of monogamy and fidelity within marriage.

This emphasis on the prohibition of sharing the same married woman among multiple men, as reflected in 1 Timothy 3:2, can be correlated with the underlying idea in Cicero's text where he denounces the lascivious and corrupt behavior of Verres, including extramarital affairs with married women. Both texts highlight the importance of maintaining fidelity and monogamy in marriage, prohibiting the practice of sharing a married wife among multiple men, whether in a religious context (1 Timothy 3:2) or in the context of allegations of corruption and immorality (Cicero).


I think we must eliminate two of the four interpretations you've listed, given a few considerations. Considering what Christ taught on divorce in Matt 5:32, a man considered for bishop should be exemplary in that regard. Although, if a person divorced/remarried contrary to those teachings while as an unbeliever, it should not apply as they are a new creation in Christ.

And of course making marriage a prerequisite to bishopric would have eliminated Paul himself from that office. (Not to imply he was a bishop.)

I think given Paul's other writings, and OT laws that foreshadowed the mystery of Christ and his church, it's safe to say a bishop must not be a polygamous. Under the Mosaic covenant it was lawful to take more than one wife Ex 21:10. But if one was a high priest he could only be married to one wife (a woman of her virginity) Lev 21:13.

Given the higher position of bishop, It may have been Paul's enlightened assessment that the bishop mirrors Christ best by being the husband of one wife.

For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ (2Cor 11:2). ESV

  • Why would an interpretation consistent with existing Scriptures be ruled out? That is, why do you think Paul must be adding to the teaching of Scripture here as opposed to explaining an application of them?
    – ThaddeusB
    Aug 8, 2015 at 23:17
  • I'm not sure I understand your comment. Aug 9, 2015 at 14:38
  • You say we can rule out some interpretations (you originally said 3, but edited it to 2 after my comment) and then say "Considering what Christ taught..." seemly ruling out the "not divorced possibility" because Jesus already taught that. Later, you say "given ... it's safe to say a bishop must not be a polygamous" apparently ruling out that interpretation because the OT/Paul already taught that as well.... If that is not what you are saying, then I don't understand what you are trying to say.
    – ThaddeusB
    Aug 9, 2015 at 14:43
  • I think you summed it up brother. And thanks for the down-vote..whoever it was. Aug 9, 2015 at 15:41
  • 1
    I down-voted you because, while you make some interesting points, you are basing your interpretation on theological presuppositions and interpretations of other passages. The OP was interested in the textual considerations of the verse itself that might have a bearing on it's interpretation.
    – kmote
    Aug 10, 2015 at 20:50

Please let Scripture interpret itself, and refer back to the original Greek and a KJV Lexicon.


» [Titus 1: 6] (NASB)
An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient

» [Genesis 2: 23 - 24] (NASB)
23 - The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.”
24 - For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
25 - And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

The implications in Titus and Timothy are that elders of the church should first and foremost be a male. Then, should have 1 wife. This ties perfectly with 1 Timothy 2: 12 which frowns upon women teaching in the church. There may be other implications such as being on guard of the lusts of the flesh by not having a wife [1 Corinthians 7:2]. Lastly, although it was very subtle, but the message also totally destroys the false doctrines of Catholism which promote that the bishops (pope) should not have a wife. Please see [1 Timothy 4:2 - 3] for additional studying.

The law in the Mosaic Covenant pertaining to divorcement was written because of man's perverseness to submit to what God setup from the beginning. [Mark 10: 1 - 10]

Thank you for reading.


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