“An Overseer must be the husband of one wife”

1 Timothy 3:2

This may seem an odd topic to some of you but I have been reading through Leviticus 21 and ran across some interesting standards for the spiritual leadership in Israel’s Old Testament context – the priests.

Traditionally there is much discussion about this verse in 1 Timothy 3:1-2. Does this mean that a man can only be married once or does it mean that he must be a “one woman man” (typical interpretation these days)? In other words even if divorced or widowed and remarried can a man hold the role of an overseer if he is clearly devoted, faithfully to the woman to whom he is currently married now? As long as there has been enough time where he has established integrity and faithfulness and that he has established being “above reproach” (v. 1).

As I mentioned, the interpretation that even I have run with for many years is the “one woman man” because it seems to be faithful to the text as we keep contextualizing the nature of the statement in our own environment. After all finding good Elders / Overseers is tough enough; how do we exclude a really good candidate if he was divorced 20 years ago and is now remarried and doing really well? However as I read through the spiritual standards of the Old Testament leadership I am inclined to think this interpretation is not as focused as we might expect.

Analogy, Univocal, and Equivocal Language

The obvious question is why would I use the Old Testament to clarify what this means? Well, if you can be patient for one paragraph here let me explain. I believe in analogy 0f language which stands in contrast to uni-vocal or equivocal language. Univocal  language basically means a word always expresses the same meaning – in other words a word will always mean the same thing no matter what context you use it. So the word “bark” could only be used when describing the vocal activity of a dog. But since we talk about the “bark of a tree” it does  not mean the sounds a dog makes but the covering of a tree. This is the nature of equivocal – a word can have an entirely different meaning as we just illustrated that “bark” can mean a noise a dog makes or the covering of a tree. I believe that the Old Testament is a wonderful provision of God to give concrete examples and analogies of New Testament concepts. At the very least it can help inform what the Old Testament model was and then we have to figure out if it is analogically relevant to the New Testament passage. Let me explain:

Analogy of Faith

(some info here drawn from Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell)
Analogy when used as a general hermeneutical principle (principles that guide us as to how we interpret God’s Word) means that language expresses a meaning that is similar but not identical nor totally different. One of those principles is called the Analogy of faith. Analogy of faith proposes that obscure texts or passages that may not be clear are to be understood by other texts of Scripture whose meaning is clear. What is taught in Scripture cannot contradict what is taught in another Scripture on the same subject.  In fact the meaning of a given text often is established only after a careful consideration of other passages.

So what does all that mean?

The analogy found from the Old Testament priests, while not exactly the same as an overseer but similar in that it is dealing with spiritual leadership for God’s people can be illuminating as to what being “the husband of one wife” really means. Here are some interesting passages that may help us understand what this analogy can tell us:

They shall not take a woman who is profaned by harlotry, nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband; for he is holy to his God. (Lev 21:7 NAS)

And he shall take a wife in her virginity. 14 ‘A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is profaned by harlotry, these he may not take; but rather he is to marry a virgin of his own people; (Lev 21:13 NAS)

If we conclude that the analogy of what is expected of the O.T. priests is appropriate (situations are not too different) and relevant (addressing similar kinds of situations) to these passages about the Overseers of the N.T. church, it can clarify and inform us what the standard in the New Testament might be saying.  We are told they were not to marry a harlot, nor someone divorced, but he must marry a virgin.

What can we conclude:

So if we assumed that the analogy is similar enough as talking about spiritual leadership then we could conclude something like this: that even in the New Testament we would best be in alignment with God’s overall concern for spiritual leadership, in specific roles over God’s people, when we choose men who themselves have not been sleeping around, been divorced since he is only to marry a virgin. It would seem problematic to me if someone suggests that the man can have these blemishes but only the woman has to live to this standard. This could bring us to the conclusion that even in the New Testament this text actually speaks of a different standard than just being a “one woman man” but one who is only married once and faithful to that one woman.

Having said all that, there are other passages that we would have to also look at to establish parameters to this issue since we are not looking at all the passages that speak to this issue. But it does give us something to think about….