I actually managed to remain a virgin until I married – a minor achievement in my life that I’m still surprised by. Thinking back, it was more due to lack of opportunity than serious self-control on my part. Today I’m not at all sure I would have made it because society has changed so much. It has become a little like it was in Paul’s day, though not nearly so bad.
Sex outside of marriage wasn’t just available to Roman males – it was expected. When a Roman father decided his son was old enough to take on some adult duties (at about age 14) the family celebrated, and his parents gave him a ring to demonstrate his status to others. Large numbers of these diminutive rings have survived, and a common symbol on them is an erect phallus. They wanted to remind their son that sexual activity was part of being a man.
Of course, the opposite was true for girls, but this wasn’t a hindrance for boys – there were more brothels in Roman streets than pubs in English ones. Earlier this year, I spent a week in the ancient Testaccio district of Rome. In Paul’s day there were dozens of brothels in those streets
INVITING THE PROMISCUOUS TO JOIN THE CHURCH
Jews rightly looked down on promiscuous pagan lifestyles, and we can imagine the horror on the faces of the Church elders when Paul started letting such people join the young Church. They’d be worried about their daughters and the corrupting influence on their sons. And then, to make matters worse, Paul made some of these gentile converts into Church leaders! Did he have no standards? The same sort of consternation arises in many churches today.
Paul told Timothy of the minimum level of morality that he expected in a Church leader. He had to be ‘a man of one woman’ (usually translated ‘…of one wife’, 1 Timothy 3:2, 12), just as a widow who wanted church support had to have been ‘a woman of one man’ (5:9). The meaning of these phrases is puzzling because they don’t occur elsewhere in Greek literature. They can’t mean ‘monogamous’ because no one practised bigamy (it was against Roman law); and they can’t mean ‘married only once’ because Paul elsewhere advises young widows to remarry (1 Timothy 5:14).
The puzzle is partly solved when we translate the phrase ‘a woman of one man’ into Latin – ‘univera’ (‘one man’) – because this was used very commonly, mostly on the gravestones. It referred to women who remained faithful to their husband.
In contrast, the phrase ‘man of one woman’ doesn’t have a Latin equivalent. This is because it would be an absurd concept. Married men weren’t expected to be faithful, and no man would have this on his grave because it wouldn’t be regarded as a compliment even if anyone believed it. Men had mistresses if they were rich and used brothels if they were poor (or if they just wanted a change), and household slaves were always available. Understandably, divorces were very common as a result.
MAKING A STAND
Christians had to make a stand, and Paul was realistic. He couldn’t bar everyone with a dodgy past from being a Church leader, because this ruled out all non-Jews. So he said that leaders had to change their lifestyles and live as ‘a man of one woman’ – in other words, be faithful to their wives.
The Church should model the creator designed lifestyle in its leaders
We could invent all kinds of meanings for these phrases, such as ‘only married once’, ‘only kissed by one person’, ‘only sleep with one person per night’ – the only limit is our imagination. But this isn’t how to discover what scripture means. We need to discover what the original readers would have understood by looking at the literature and language of the time. In doing so, we’ve found that one phrase referred to a wife who was faithful to her husband and didn’t flirt or wander like most wives, or divorce as often as others
And Paul now invented a new phrase, based on this, describing someone that the Romans never imagined would exist: a man of one woman.
TODAY’S CHURCH LEADERS
Today, when sexual standards in society are much higher than in the first century (as difficult as that might be to believe), we might want to raise the bar for leadership. We might reasonably expect that a Church leader will never have committed any sexual offence, or we may demand that they have never divorced. But if we do have these policies we must not pretend that they are based on this verse – we cannot simply decide that the phrase ‘man of one woman’ meant something like ‘never divorced’.
I find it sobering to realise that Paul made this rule for Church leaders and for others getting financial support from the Church without applying the rule to ordinary Church members. Like today, his converts were in all kinds of irregular relationships when they became Christians, and this couldn’t change overnight. Missionaries historically caused social problems by demanding converts immediately divorce and discard multiple wives, which resulted in numerous destitute women. Following Paul’s example, they should have allowed those converts to join the Church, though barring them from leadership. Even today, some churches refuse membership to unmarried couples who become Christians. Paul would have welcomed them, and encouraged them to marry by making sure his leaders gave an impeccable example.
As a light in this dark world, the Church should model the creatordesigned lifestyle in its leaders, demanding the high standards that Paul required. But it should also highlight the creator’s love for those who fall short of God’s design for living. This doesn’t mean that we should go ‘soft’ on sin – as believers, all of us should strive to live righteous lives. But our doors and our membership should be open to the not-yet perfect. After all, Jesus spoke more kind words to prostitutes than he did to religious rulers.