Questions From Readers
How are we to understand Paul’s words that a widow must be “a wife of one husband” in order to qualify for assistance from the Christian congregation?—1 Timothy 5:9.
Since the apostle Paul was speaking about a widow, the expression “a wife of one husband” must obviously refer to her situation before she became a widow. Could this mean that the widow must have been married only once? Or could Paul’s words possibly mean something else?*
Some have suggested that Paul was speaking of widows who had been married only once. It is true that in many cultures and societies, a widow who remained unmarried was viewed as especially virtuous. However, such a view runs contrary to Paul’s words elsewhere. For example, to the Corinthian Christians, he made it clear that although he was of the opinion that a widow would be happier if she remained single, “she is free to be married to whom she wants, only in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:39, 40; Romans 7:2, 3) In addition, in his letter to Timothy, Paul said: “I desire the younger widows to marry.” (1 Timothy 5:14) Thus, no stigma was attached to a widow should she choose to remarry.
How, then, should we understand Paul’s words to Timothy? The expression “a wife of one husband” appears only in this verse. In the original language, it literally means “woman of one man.” Interestingly, this expression is similar to one that Paul used several times in his writings, namely, “a husband of one wife,” or “man of one woman” in the original language. (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6) Paul used the latter expression when he listed the qualifications for Christian overseers and ministerial servants. In that context, the statement primarily means that to qualify for responsibility in the Christian congregation, a man, if married, must be faithful and loyal to his wife and be morally irreprehensible.* That being the case, the expression at 1 Timothy 5:9 would seem to call attention to the same point: For a widow to qualify for assistance from the congregation, she must have been a devoted and loyal wife who was faithful to her husband while he was alive and must be free from any moral lapses. The additional requirements listed by Paul all point to just such a person.—1 Timothy 5:10.
Polyandry, the practice of one woman having multiple husbands at one time, was not accepted in the Greco-Roman world of the apostle’s time. Hence, it is unlikely that Paul was writing to Timothy about it or censuring anyone who practiced it.