Elders, Male or Female?

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Qualifications of Elders: Part IV

In a world that assumes women’s presence in every endeavor, it seems backwards and hateful to restrict women from certain roles. In this fight, like all others, Christians must following scripture not the dictates of society. As we consider the qualifications of leaders in the church we must examine what scripture says about all areas, including those that are unpopular. Whether we limit leadership of the church to one gender or open it to both, we must have good strong biblical evidence for our view.

The issue of gender has been contentious through much of church history, especially since the reformation. There are those who have come down on both sides of the issue, claiming scriptural warrant for their view. Are elders only male? Are women leaders elders? Are some ministries closed to women? Either way you answer this question you will make enemies—both in the world and in the body of Christ. The assumption today is that gender restrictions are bigoted and narrow-minded, marking one as an ignorant knuckle-dragger. Going against public opinion is difficult—we all want to be accepted and popular—but the standard of the church is scripture’s mandate, not the world opinion. If the plain teaching of scripture violates the views of the world around us, then scripture wins every time.

According to scripture and the example of the early church elders were always male. Those who shepherd the church are to be men of character and maturity. The key words here are character and maturity but male is the starting point. A mature woman with great character is still barred from the eldership because of her gender. Before you reject this, consider the following.

The Command of Scripture

1 Timothy 2:12 says: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Keep in mind that Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to “command certain men not to teach.” He put pen to paper to set out proper behavior for “God’s household” (1 Timothy 3:14f). This means that when Paul says he does not permit something, he expects Timothy and the local church to forbid it as well. Since our churches are God’s household today, these restrictions apply equally to us.

Many claim that this passage is supplanted by Galatians 3:28, which says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In the usual argument, the different roles of male and female are a result of the fall and redemption does away with these. First of all, according to scripture the roles did not result from the fall. In Genesis 3 we see the pronouncements of God against Adam and Eve for their sin. Eve is to be cursed in child-bearing and Adam is to be cursed in his role of nurturing the earth and providing for his family. The roles were already there; they are assumed in the words of God. He did not tell Eve that because of her sin she would now bear children; instead, he tells her the role of mothering children will involve pain. Adam is not told that because he sinned he will have to tend the soil and provide for his family. That role was already there. His sin causes hard toil and a fallen world to frustrate his efforts to live within his created role.

God does say that Eve will desire her husband and he will rule over her; however, when you read this it does not seem to be that God is changing anything to behind this. He simply tells Eve this will be the fact, the result of her action. He actively increases her pain in child-bearing and then states the fact of what her sin would mean to her relationship with her husband. This does not seem to be a God caused change (a curse), but the working out of their sin. In the same way God’s curse for Adam was on the soil. He doesn’t then make each thorn and thistle sprout up. Instead he is laying out the results of the curse and the sin. The different roles for Adam and Eve didn’t result from the fail; the roles were already in place; the fall twisted them. The redemption of man does away with the guilt of the fall, but the results of it do not go away until Christ returns. Every woman who has screamed for an epidural proves this.

It is not possible that Galatians 3:28 overturns 1 Timothy 2:12 because he wrote the letter to Timothy years after the letter to the Galatians. We do have a passage similar to Galatians 3:28 in Colossians 3:11—an epistle written around the time of 1 Timothy. In this one, Paul doesn’t mention gender at all, but says: “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all.”

Why does Paul drop the mention of gender in the latter passage? We will never know and it would be poor practice to read too much into it. However, it shows it is unlikely Paul meant to erase all gender differences among God’s people. To prove this, consider his instructions for slaves and masters. Paul says there is neither slave nor free; yet, he commands slaves to obey their masters and masters to care for their slaves. He tells them this, while reminding them that they are no different in God’s view. This brings up an interesting dynamic: in God’s eyes there is no slave nor master; yet, it was sinful for a Christian slave to disobey his master, or for a Christian master to abuse his slave. Before God, by status they are indistinguishable; by responsibility, symmetrical; by role, distinct.

Many claim the question is not one of gender but of calling, claiming that if God calls a woman to preach and shepherd a church then she should be permitted to do so. To claim this is to have no standards because the call of God is very subjective. How do we know if a call is genuine? Have people ever faked or misunderstood the call of God? Does God ever call us to do something that violates his word? When a woman (or anyone else) claims a divine calling, we must inspect the subjective calling with objective scripture. Otherwise, we reduce scripture to a footnote and elevate our opinion and feelings as divine directives. It is too common to conclude that if I want it bad enough God must must want me to have it also. I have sat across from several women, in counseling session, claiming God wanted them to leave their spouse. Just because someone feels called does not mean they are; otherwise, we would have no need for qualifications.

Another attempt to undermine the relevance of 1 Timothy 2:12 is the claim that Paul made this command because women were uneducated. Actually this claim hasn’t a foot to stand on, as modern scholarship has shown the educational attainment among first century women to be far higher that previously thought, and it was not uncommon for some women to take public leadership roles (Gehring 2004: 218). Do you really believe that Lydia, who owned and operated a business in a male-dominated world, was ignorant? Of course not. If lack of education was the issue, why didn’t Paul simply set education as a requirement for leadership? He did require an ability to teach and holding to true doctrine, but why not proof of education? Why did he not include any limits similar to this in the previous passage on men? He could have said, “I permit not the uneducated to teach or have authority over the educated.” He wouldn’t do this because if one is teaching it is assumed they have some sort of education. By commanding that women not teach men, he presumes teaching capability, and acceptance of women in a teaching role.

Others claim Paul is bowing to the society and culture of his day. It is assumed that in their day for a woman to teach would be scandalous. Besides the fact that this contradicts much of what we now know, if this prohibition was so ingrained in the society why does Paul feel the need to include it? Forbidding women to teach assumes that, absent the command, women would teach and that some men would permit them.

The Example of the Early Church

Many try to use the women who worked alongside the apostles as proof of women as preachers and teachers. Many women were very active in ministry and were commended for their hark work, but no where do we see any evidence that the ministry of these women involved public teaching or authority over men. The most used (abused) examples are Priscilla and Aquila as well as Paul’s relative Junia.


In Romans 16:7 we meet two relatives of Paul, Andronicus and Junia (Junias). These two relatives of Paul came to the Lord before he did, suffered imprisonment with him, and are said to be outstanding among the apostles. While some claim that they are not being listed as apostles but that the apostles have a high view of them. The Greek reading more naturally supports their inclusion as apostles (Keener 1993: 447). So was there a woman apostle? Some say that Junia is actually a shortened version of the male name Junianus. The problem with this is a lack of evidence (Arnold 3:92). The female name Junia is quite common while there is no record of the male name Junianus being shortened to Junias. So we have a woman, who along with a man who appears to be her husband as being “among” the apostles. Most scholars agree that Andronicus and Junia were a traveling husband and wife ministry team. So doesn’t this support female apostles and the right of women to lead men? Actually, it does no such thing. Among Greek households women were secluded. No one could get in to visit them except other women. It only makes since that a man would bring his wife along; while he is reaching out to the heads of households, his wife could minister to the women.

Priscilla and Aquila

In Acts 18, we meet Priscilla and Aquila. These Jewish believers driven out of Rome by the expulsion of Jews under Claudius, met Paul in Corinth, accompanied him to Ephesus, and became an important part of his ministry. When Apollos came to Ephesus these two heard him speaking in the synagogue, and invited him to their house where they “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). This is often cited as an example of a woman teaching a man, and evidence that women can teach and preach in church. Don’t forget that it says that both of them taught him. The passage also implies that they taught him privately at their house. Since churches met in homes, it is possible to argue that he was invited into their house church where Apollos sat under the teaching ministry of these two, but the passage does not allow this interpretation. The most plain reading has these two teaching Apollos privately. Since this is a private setting, involving conduct of a married couple in sharing with a friend it is not wise to extrapolate from this support for women preaching and teaching in the public setting of the church.

Some have taken the order in which Paul lists these two as support for women pastors. We know they hosted a church in their house, and I have heard some argue that since Paul listed Priscilla before Aquila, she was most likely the pastor of the church and he was simply the husband of the pastor. Of course, to do this the assumption is made that there is no other reason why such a male-dominated society would put a woman’s name before her husbands. Priscilla is probably mentioned first because she is from a higher social status than her husband (Keener 447). We have examples of wives listed before their husband when a freeborn woman marries a freed slave. Another reason we know that Priscilla was not the pastor of the church is because there was no office of pastor.

None of this is to prevent women from teaching in any setting. They are commanded to teach other women, and we see examples of women teaching men in appropriate private settings. Neither does this prevent women from teaching in college or schools. The teaching involved is dogmatic public teaching in church (Doriani 2003:177). Neither does this make women second-class citizens of the kingdom, but encourages all of God’s people to fulfill their God-given roles.

Apostolic command and early church example leave us little doubt that the church is to be led by a plural body of men, equally qualified and equally empowered. This is not to demean women, or stroke male egos. Many use weird reasons to support this view—claims of inadequacy in women or innate tendency to heresy. These all leave a bad taste in one’s mouth and the proponent looking foolish. We require leaders of the church to be men because Christ, whose church it is, requires it—plain and simple. If you want to change it convince him. Until then, I’ll follow what I know works—scripture.

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Elders, Male or Female? — 1 Comment

  1. Nicely articulated and wise disearnment of scripture, I was especially blessed with these lines…”Eve is to be cursed in child-bearing and Adam is to be cursed in his role of nurturing the earth and providing for his family. The roles were already there; they are assumed in the words of God. He did not tell Eve that because of her sin she would now bear children; instead, he tells her the role of mothering children will involve pain. Adam is not told that because he sinned he will have to tend the soil and provide for his family. That role was already there.”

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