Many people have commented that one of the great things about the Bible is that one can read the same thing several times, and suddenly get an insight one has never seen before. So it was recently with me. Even though I had written recently about elders, and included a section on how we sometimes look at the marriage requirement through legalist’s eyes, something recently made me look at the passage in a different light.
In writing of elders, Paul says the bishop should be “a one-woman man.” Many see this as reading “husband of one wife.” Certainly that is a valid thought. But there may be more to what Paul was saying.
Too often, perhaps, we look at the scriptures through twentieth century eyes (or sometimes 19th or 21st century). We interpret the scriptures based on our own societal norms rather than those of the initial audience. That can lead to problems when our viewpoint is significantly different from those to whom Paul, John, James, or the others were writing. Thus we get people who think that the beast like a lion in Revelation 4:7 must represent England, since we now symbolize that country with a lion. They ignore that England did not exist at the time John was writing the Revelation and telling his contemporaries to understand it. That is not to say that the Bible is not relevant in this century. Just because it doesn’t say anything about Islam, or smoking, or America (because those things post-date the Bible by centuries), doesn’t mean that the principles and the message of the gospel don’t apply today. The atoning death of Jesus is just as relevant today as it was when it happened. The relationships between the body of Christ and God, and that body and those surrounding them, are still as vital today as in the first century.
I say all that to point out that sometimes we make the same mistake with Paul’s letter to Timothy. Someone recently asked me whether Christians ever practiced concubinage, like the Jews, Persians, and Romans. In my answer I pointed out that there were probably some in the early years of the church who had concubines in addition to full wives/husbands. Others may have had more than one full spouse at the time they came to follow the Way. Paul urged the Christians at Corinth not to divorce their spouses, although it was acceptable for an unbelieving spouse to end the marriage if he or she objected to the other spouse becoming a Christian. If a man had more than one spouse (including concubineswho were wives, not mistresses), he was urged not to put away any of his wives. To do so would subject the released wife to extreme hardship because she would have no means of support. This may have affected his comments about “widows indeed” (1 Tim 5), as well as his description of what a bishop/elder/pastor should be.
Thus, when Paul tells Timothy that a presbyter should be a “one gal guy” (to use a Cole Porter phrase) perhaps he was saying what the King James Version has him saying. A bishop should be the husband of [only] one wife. While his statement limits the eldership to only married men, and while that may have been part of the consideration, in the society of the day it is likely that Timothy and anyone else who read the letter would see it as a distinction between men married to one woman and those married to more than one. Rather than separating the married from the unmarried (as we tend to read it today) he was separating the monogamous member from the polygamous member. Preparing the people to accept a new norm, he made that the norm for the leaders in each congregation. If the leaders were expected to be monogamous, and if men were expected to aspire to leadership, then it would not be long before polygamy was considered to be unacceptable.
When we look through Roman eyes, perhaps we won’t argue about whether divorced or widowed men can be elders. In most places we no longer have those who practice polygamy (Texas and the Four Corners notwithstanding). It may be that this characteristic of an elder has practically outlived its reason for being. Maybe it just worked to do what God wanted it to do.