The Husband Of One Wife
“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach;”
1 Timothy 3:2
“Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.”
1 Timothy 3:12
“If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.”
To begin with let us agree that all these verses are dealing with the qualifications suggested by Paul for the office of a Bishop or Deacon in the early church. Whatever you believe that these verse teach about having one wife, biblically speaking, it only applies to these offices in the church.
A bishop is an overseer in the church which means that they supervise others who work in the ministry such as deacons. A bishop was a manager of a local congregation and worked together with deacons to organize the affairs of the church. They were not part of the five fold ministry of Apostles, Prophets, Evangelist or Pastors and Teachers.
This is an important point to make because you cannot properly take a verse that states a qualification about a certain office and apply this verse to the whole of christian marriage everywhere in the world. To do so would be an “over generalization” of a specific instance that relates to a specific group of people and would be incorrect.
Many who oppose granting fellowship to polygamist husbands use these verses incorrectly to support their stand against them. At the very most you could only deny the office of bishop and deacon to those who had more than one wife. However, men who had more than one wife would still be free to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, or pastors and teachers. No one who rightly divides the word of God could deny such men fellowship or restrict them from attending church. Paul took the time to speak specifically about Bishops and Deacons and so if he would have wanted to include the higher offices of the church (and everyone else for that matter) he would have spoken about them specifically too.
This comes down to being honest about what the scriptures do say and don’t say regardless of what cultural bias we might hold. We cannot impose our ethnocentric values upon the scriptures and call it God. We may not prefer to practice in plural marriage but that does not mean we can add to scripture and try to force everyone else to live as we do if God does not command it.
With regards to what Paul says about the qualifications for the office of Bishop and Deacon in the early church there is another important point that can and should be made.
It is written,
“(For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)”
1 Timothy 3:5
This verse gives the reason for the qualifications that Paul lists. These qualifications are given as a method to determine the suitability of the person who is being considered for one of these positions.
Paul suggests the following criteria for bishops,
2. The husband of one wife
5. Of good behavior
6. Given to hospitality
7. Apt to teach
8. Not given to wine
9. No striker
10. Not greedy of filthy lucre
12. Not a brawler
13. Not covetous
14. One that rules well his own house, having his children in subjection with all
15. Not a novice
16. Must have a good report of them which are outside the church
And for Deacons Paul continues,
1. Be grave
2. Not double tongued
3. Not given to much wine
4. Not greedy of filthy lucre
5. Let them be the husbands of one wife.
We see from this list that Paul’s main concern is to adequately qualify those who wish to apply for these types of position within the church. For instance, Paul does not think it wise to consider someone for these positions who is greedy of filthy lucre because they will likely be handling church property and perhaps even church money. When Paul states that the way a man handles his family is a good indication of how they will be able to perform these functions in the church he does so for practical (not necessarily spiritual) reasons. Therefore, Paul admonition that these candidates be the husband (s) of one wife has more to do with them being married in the first place, so that they can be observed in relationship to their family, than it does the number of wives they have. Paul is not coining a moral law but is simply suggesting ways to pick the best candidate for the position that needs to be filled.
Some want to make this qualification about the “number” of wives a pseudo-law that applies to everyone. They zero in on this one qualification (out of about twenty) stretching these three references into a moratorium on multiple wives for everyone. Moreover, once they do this then they feel justified telling men with multiple wives that, to serve God and be a good Christian, they must divorce all but their first spouse. It makes no difference to them that this might leave the other women and their children without a husband or father for love and support. It makes no difference to them that they might become outcasts in their community with little chance to live prosperously. All that matters to them is that Paul said that a Bishop or Deacon can only have one wife and that prohibits polygamy period.
But wait a minute, did Paul really say that a Bishop or Deacon can only have one wife? What if Paul was saying that a Bishop or Deacon must have “a” wife i.e. be married so that they could judge his ability to run his own household as a way to assess his ability to run the household of God? What is Paul is not talking about they number of wives and man has but rather is citing a condition of being married?
If you look at Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance you will note that when the scriptures in the New Testament refer to the numeral 1 the Greek word “Heis” (Hice) is used. However, when Paul refers to “one wife” in these three verses the Greek word “Mia” (Mee-ah) is used which can mean either “one” or “first”. Thus, Paul is more properly talking about a man having a first wife rather than saying he can only have one wife.
This interpretation is more in line with the historical situation of the first century church because polygamy was a “norm” of their society and would not have been looked upon with disdain as it is sometimes viewed in our culture. Polygamy, back then, was just thought to be “good manners” for if a wealthy man was able to provide for and manage of household of more than one woman he was thought to be blessed and was, in fact, honored like so many of the great patriarchs of the past. In oriental (eastern) societies, even today, polygamy is more of a “social net” for unwed or widowed women and their children than a way to have more intimate partners.
In conclusion, let us be honest with the scriptures even if the precepts they teach us are not in line with our cultural preconceptions. Furthermore, let us not assume that scriptures always support our ethnocentric values. Let us not “read into” God’s word the things we want them to say. These are real families that we are dealing with and if their be anyway that we can remove obstacles from their paths to knowing God and His son Jesus Christ then we should do so no matter what others think. If you wish to insist that Paul prohibits Bishops and Deacons from having more than one wife then feel free but please do not use these scriptures unwisely as a blanket prohibition against polygamy and hinder others from entering in to the kingdom of God.