This is my penultimate post in this series as we look at the allowable roles for women in the New Testament church to see if there are any restrictions on their ability to serve in church positions. As we saw in Part 6 (here), I concluded that there is not enough exegetical evidence to conclude that we should bar women from teaching in the local church and practically almost all churches function in this way. The discussion in this post may seem a bit similar, but there is a big distinction between teaching in church (to all kinds of people), and serving in one of the offices given to the church.
The offices that we find in the New Testament church are elder (which includes pastor & bishop) and deacon. We could probably fill quite a few books discussing these roles and their scope, but I will short circuit that discussion for the sake of brevity. Elders serve as the leaders of the church spiritually. We see Paul appointing elders to steward the churches that he planted, and their goal was to make sure the church stayed on the right spiritual track. Deacons are seen as lead servants, possibly functioning as ministry heads. There has been recent discussion that the deacon ministry included letter carriers (like Phoebe), and our idea of a hard fast “office” maybe malleable. I will stick to the traditional understanding of the roles for this post. The main passage we use for this assessment will come from I Timothy 3:1-13.
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Should Women Be Deacons?
We will start with the easy one, and my answer is a resounding yes. I think the Scripture gives us examples of a female deacon (Phoebe) so our understanding of Paul’s instruction in I Timothy 3:8-13 have to take that into an account. In the ESV above we see a bit of translation bias from the ESV as it renders “their wives” in verse 11. The Greek word is simply”women” and is rendered here as wives because the translators have concluded it cannot be women deacons. The Greek lacks the personal pronoun that would be expected to support “deacons wives” as the translation, so a better rendering would be “female deacons.” There are a few transitions that give us some interpretative clues in this passage: likewise is used to transition between elders and deacons, and also to transition between general qualities for deacons and then specific qualities for the male and female deacons. Female deacons are instructed to guard their tongues, and male deacons are called to lead their families well. Paul is addressing the weakness of each group in the Ephesian context. The principle we can discern here is that all types of deacons have weaknesses, and we have to be careful to not miss our blind spots. The division of men and women here is ancillary to the greater context.
Should Women Be Elders?
Hermeneutically and traditionally speaking, this question is by far the more difficult to answer. The reason why is squarely on verse 2 where elders are told to be “husbands of one wife.” Unlike the deacon passage that addresses wives, there is no real qualification that reveals a division for male elders. Titus 1:6 also reinforces this idea when it says the same thing, “husband of one wife.” Those who believe that women are restricted from serving as elders will point to this verse as the primary reason why. It is pretty clear that Paul has men in view in this statement, and the addition of Titus 1:6 elevates the teaching to a broader context than just Ephesus, universalizing this requirement. However, those who believe that women can be elders would say that Paul is addressing the situation in the context of Ephesus, where all the elders were likely men (because they were the qualified people), and also that men were the ones who were being unfaithful to their marital relations. In I Timothy 5:9 Paul required that women who were enrolled on the widows list had to have been faithful to their husbands showing that Paul wanted marital fidelity for both sides of the marriage relationship. The Ephesian context also made it clear that women were engaged in spreading false teaching and that was something an elder was to stand in opposition to. In addressing Titus 1:6, they would say that the same conclusion applies in Crete as it did in Ephesus: Paul was addressing the reality of the situation and not establishing a dogma to follow for all time. Exegetically speaking, both arguments are plausible. Conservative and liberal scholars both derive conclusions in the same manner as either side of this argument without batting an eye. The traditionalist will say that allowing women to be pastors by calling Paul’s requirements “cultural” is twisting scripture to make it fit cultural, while conveniently ignoring other clear teachings of Scripture as well (see post 6).
In the end, I believe there is not enough evidence to conclude one way or the other on the topic of women elders, which leaves it up to the Spirit to guide and direct in each church body. I don’t find churches that have only male elders to be wantonly heretical, nor do I find churches that ordain men and women to be so either. Personally, I believe that we need to require qualified people to serve as elders, and that we have far too many people serving as elders who are unqualified. I would much rather we address refining the elders that we have in the church, instead of adding requirements to the list of elders that maybe suspect.
I will say that one of the corollaries to churches that ordain women is that they tend to be very liberal when it comes to other points of theology, discounting Scripture that is far clearer because they have a political or emotional agenda. I tend to think that colors our exegetical view of the arguments they make supporting women in ministry. I believe that there is a real need for conservative scholars to addressing this topic (primarily female elders) with an open mind while continuing to reject the abysmal exegesis that justifies God blessing homosexual marriage, etc… There is a tradition of conservative Biblical exegetes that have concluded women are not to be barred from all levels of service in the church. It is not a liberal / conservative issue at its core but an exegetical and hermeneutical one.
In the last post in this series I want to wrap up the big picture of what I think the church can learn from examining the topic of women in ministry, and even if we don’t find that the Spirit is leading us to change our view to embrace a wider viewpoint, what we need to draw from the discussion to reform our positions to consistency to the Scripture.
I have included my doctoral project that much of this series has drawn on. I think this is a pre-final version, but it doesn’t include a lot of unnecessary information that I had to include in the final so I apologize for any typos.