Reassessment of a Qualification for Being a Pastor

By Joe E. Lunceford
Religion Department
Georgetown College
September 2011

In approaching this subject, I will focus upon two very familiar passages of Scripture and explore what variant readings of the two passages may produce. The first is 1 Timothy 3:1-2, which reads: “If anyone aspires to (the office of) pastor/bishop, he desires a good work. Therefore it is necessary for a pastor/bishop to be above reproach, a one woman’s man, temperate, sober-minded, one who loves strangers, and is apt to teach. . .” (Translation mine). Most readers will quickly realize that instead of the traditional translation, “husband of one wife.” I have substituted “a one woman’s man.” I will give my reasons for doing so shortly. First, let me point out that the traditional reading “husband of one wife” has at least three possibilities of interpretation. The first takes it to mean one cannot have been remarried after being divorced. However, this text is located in a social situation in which polygamy was rife. Therefore it could be seen only as a prohibition of polygamy. Several modern translations hint at this understanding, though I have not found one that spells it out explicitly. The NIV reads, “the husband of but one wife,” (emphasis mine) and lends itself to this understanding. In similar fashion, Living Letters has the phrase “He must have only one wife,” as does the Williams translation. The Phillips translation reads, “He must be married to one wife only.” The NEB adds a new element to the requirement in translating that a bishop/pastor must be “faithful to his one wife” (emphasis mine). The TNIV also has “faithful to his wife.” A third possibility of the traditional translation is that it requires a pastor to be married. I have never seen this strictly enforced, and it has been explicitly forbidden by some segments of Christianity, the Roman Catholic tradition in particular. The chauvinist brethren out there have been fond of pointing out that a woman cannot be the husband of one wife, and so this leaves out the possibility of her becoming a pastor. However, it is equally obvious that a single man cannot be the husband of one wife either! But here the argument changes. Seldom, if ever, is it argued that a pastor must be married.

I will now explain the reasons for my translating the phrase “a one-woman’s man.” In Koine/ Greek the word for “woman” and “wife” are one and the same. No specific word for wife (or husband) was in use in the Greek of the period in which our New Testament was written. The only explicit way of referring to a wife or husband was to use the possessive case, i.e., “the woman of John Doe,” or “the man of Jane Doe.” What I am leading up to suggest is that the focus of this passage is on unwavering commitment to one woman and may have little or nothing to do with whether or not one has been married more than one time. There are many men out there who have never been married more than once who cannot meet the qualification of being a one woman’s man. Need I elaborate?! To give but one example, shortly after I had left the pastorate of a particular church, I received a letter from one of the members of that church telling me that one of the deacons had been caught by his wife in a motel room in an adjoining community with a bottle of whiskey and another woman. To the best of my knowledge this man was never married but once, but he was far from being a one woman’s man.

Next I want to approach the subject of divorce from the viewpoint of words attributed to Jesus. Matthew 18:9 reads, “And I say to you, anyone who divorces his wife except because of adultery/unchastity and marries another commits adultery” (translation mine). Almost the identical words are attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:32. Mark which, in the opinion of most scholars, is the earliest of the Gospels to be written does not have the “except for unchastity/adultery” clause, nor does Luke or John. This phrase is found only in Matthew. Why is it that none of the other Gospels contains this phrase? I personally have strong doubts that Jesus uttered these words. All of Jesus’ words have come to us through the interpretive memory of the early church. A period of some 35-70 years elapsed between the life of Jesus on earth and the writing of any of the Gospels. How well do we who are old enough to look back over 35 years remember what happened that long ago? The answer I will get, beyond doubt, is that God inspired these writers. You will get no argument from me on that score. However, I reject any doctrine of inspiration that posits God as overruling human freedom. The Bible is both a divine and a human book. One cannot seriously study its texts without becoming aware that the theology, writing style, and arrangement of materials, vary considerably from one writing to another. Before I leave this point, let me give one specific example of words attributed to Jesus that clearly could not have been spoken by him during the time he was here on earth. Matthew 18:15-17 give instructions for settling disputes between Christians. The final step in those instructions is that if one cannot settle the problem one on one, or in the presence of two or three witnesses, he should take it to the church. How does one take a matter to something that didn’t exist?! The simple point is that there was no church when Jesus was on earth to which one might refer a dispute.

So how did the words about not divorcing a wife except for adultery get attributed to Jesus. No one knows for sure, but I will hazard a guess. Deuteronomy 24:1 states that if a man takes a wife and finds in her “some uncleanliness,” he is allowed to put her away. Now—to what does “some uncleanliness” refer? Interpreters in Jesus’ day aligned themselves behind the interpretations of two prominent rabbis who were relatively contemporary with Jesus. Rabbi Shammai taught that these words referred to adultery and that only. Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, said it could mean if she talked too much, if she burned his food, or other such trivial things the man was allowed to divorce her. Now—let me bring in another point that may have some bearing on this issue. Matthew is clearly aimed at a Jewish audience. E.g., in Matthew Jesus sends out the twelve only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew10:5-6). The other Gospels mention no restrictions whatsoever. This is but one example among many which could be cited. Can it be just an accident that this conservative Jewish position on divorce gets into the teachings of Jesus only in the Gospel most obviously directed to a Jewish audience? Each reader must answer that question for him/herself.

I will offer just a few concluding comments. The church does not have the luxury of putting more than one-half of its adult members on the shelf and barring them from leadership positions; if it ever had that luxury. We are long overdue in re-examining the traditional readings of Biblical texts and for abandoning the irrational notion that any statement in a human language can be interpreted in only one way.

Comments (1)

Very impressed with your writing. I would like to be a speaker in churches, but I have been married before. Thank you

#1 - Doug Motley - 09/03/2015 - 20:25

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