Can Women Be Elders?

Does 1 Timothy 3 restrict women from leadership? In this teaching, Katia takes a look at what this passage means for Women in the church.

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Hi everyone. Today, we’re gonna be doing a video on 1 Timothy 3 and specifically focusing in on the topic of eldership. In this video, I’ll be using the word, “Eldership,” or, “Elder” interchangeably with the word, “Overseer,” which is the technical word that is used in 1 Timothy 3. But most scholars would agree that the word overseer and the word elder are interchangeable. And because eldership makes more sense for most churches today, that’s the word I’ll use. I wanna say, right from the beginning, that many scholars wouldn’t use 1 Timothy 3 as their argument against eldership. A lot of complementarian scholars would rather point to 1 Timothy 2:12 where they find the stronger argument rather than looking at 1 Timothy 3. But today, we will focus on 1 Timothy 3. What’s important is, I’m just gonna quote, an influential complementation, scholar Susan Foh, and she says, “There’s only one valid argument against women being ordained, that’s a scriptural prohibition and that scriptural prohibition is found in 1 Timothy 2:12.” And really, she explicitly states what many believe, that if you want to have an argument against eldership for women, really you need to be looking at 1 Timothy 2 rather than 1 Timothy 3 because it’s never explicitly stated in 1 Timothy 3 at all.

But we’re gonna leave that to one side and we’ll just look at 1 Timothy 3 together. Well, first thing to note is that the language used in 1 Timothy 3 can sometimes make us feel that it’s obvious, elders should be male because the language is masculine. And if we conclude that then we’ve not really understood how Greek works as a language. Greek is an androcentric language, it means that when it uses masculine language that’s not necessarily a comment on gender at all. In fact it’s very common, in the Greek, for writers to use masculine language when they’re referring to both men and to women. So some examples for us John 3:16, “Whosoever believes.” Well, the whosoever is masculine, that doesn’t mean…no one is interpreting that as only men who believe will be saved but rather that we understand, from the androcentric nature of Greek language, that, though it’s a masculine word, whosoever, that includes both men and women. Another example is Acts 1 where it says that there were…it’s very clear there were both men and women in the upper room. And then we’re told that Peter stands up and he addresses, “The brothers.” Does that mean that he was ignoring the women in the room? No, it’s an androcentric language, it means when Peter gets up and says, “Brothers,” we understand him to be including the sisters in the room as well. And so, it’s simply not good interpretive skills to look at 1 Timothy 3 and say, “Oh, the word for elder, the word for overseer, that’s used is masculine, therefore that must be a comment on the gender of the elder.” That’s just not accurate, that’s not how Greek works. And not many scholars would point to that as proof of the exclusion of women from eldership. It’s important to note also that there are no masculine pronouns in the Greek. There are in English because we have to make sense of the text but, in Greek, there are no he or his involved in the text, we’ve inserted that in the English because we’re trying to maintain some flow in the text. But it’s important to see that because, if not, we’ll read the text as more masculine than it was written in the original in the first place.

I wanna quote a scholar, a well-respected scholar, N.T. Wright, I’m gonna read this because I don’t wanna get it wrong but it’s a very important quote. N.T. Wright comments how Paul refers to the bishop to the overseer as a man. And oh, how much confusion we could bring if we cut the quote there. But he crucially goes on, and this is the important part for us to see. He says his reading of the rest of the New Testament inclines him to think that this is more because that’s how Greek grammar normally refers to both genders together and because, in the very early days of the church, the leaders of most communities were probably men. He goes on to say, “I don’t see it as debarring women from this particular ministry and vocation.” So it’s really important to see that that masculine language used in 1 Timothy 3 is not in and of itself a good argument for excluding women from eldership. If the Greek writer, if the writer in the Greek wanted to put an exclusion for women, they would explicitly need to write, “Women are not included.” And that’s the one thing that’s missing from the text, in 1 Timothy 3, there is no explicit prohibition of a woman being an elder.

But complementarians do point to a couple of other things in the text to argue that this is for men only, and we’ll look at that together. One of the arguments is the phrase, “One-woman man,” or, in the English, it’s, “the husband of one wife.” Again, not many complementarians point to this, some really influential complementarians, Douglas Moo, Tomas Schreiner would not oppose this argument. But anyway, we’ll look at the argument. So when we look at one-woman man, some complementarians would say, “Obviously, only men can fulfill that requirement. And so, obviously, eldership must be male.” There’s a couple of problems with that and Philip 10 is really helpful in setting out all of the problems that you would have if you wanted to interpret that phrase in that way. Firstly, one-woman man is a set phrase, it’s an idiom. It was a recognized set phrase in the day, there’s evidence of gravesites of the day having the phrase one-woman man. And really, it’s not a comment on gender, it’s a comment on faithfulness in marriage. It’s very clearly associated with that, meaning it’s not only excluding polygamy, although, obviously, that would be included, but it is actually commenting on being faithful to your spouse. And that’s why Paul puts it here, it’s a comment that the person was faithful to their spouse in marriage, it’s not a comment on gender. Philip Payne points out that it’s poor hermeneutics, it’s poor scholarship to take one word from a set phrase and elevate it above the phrase so that it becomes a requirement on top of what the phrase already means. This is what he means, “It’s unhelpful, it would be inaccurate to take out man from one-woman man, elevate it as a requirement that elders must be male, as well as the obvious meaning of the set phrase which is faithfulness to your spouse.” That’s simply not done, that’s not a good way of interpreting scriptures, similar to taking the phrase, “Govern one’s household,” or, “manage one’s household,” which is later on in the text, and taking out, “one’s household,” and saying, “oh, this proves that elders must be homeowners. That’s a requirement.” Well, that’s twisting the meaning of that phrase, and that would be doing the same in this phrase, one-woman man is a phrase about faithfulness to a spouse, it’s not a comment on gender.

Another issue with using it as a requirement for male eldership is that it actually isn’t seen as a requirement but rather an exclusion. So scholars, and this would be complementarians as well as egalitarians, most would agree on this that this isn’t saying that it is a requirement for the elder to be married but it is a comment of exclusion. So it is excluding those who are unfaithful to their spouse. If you make it a requirement, particularly highlighting the man part, you have to make the whole original meaning a requirement which would mean that marriage is a requirement. Well, that’s difficult to argue. Paul was the one writing this, he wasn’t married. Paul who wrote this also argues, in 1 Corinthians, that he advises people not to get married. Does that mean he’s advising people to do something that will then exclude them from leadership? That certainly seems difficult to argue. And obviously, Jesus wasn’t married, and I’m pretty sure that Paul wasn’t putting about a list of requirements and exclusions which would even exclude Jesus, theoretically, from fulfilling that office. It doesn’t seem to make sense to make one-woman man a requirement. And if it’s not a requirement, that is not a comment on the gender of the person holding that office.

The other thing that complementarians would point to in an argument that this must be a man who fulfills the role of elder is to point to the requirement for a man to manage or govern his household well. And when Grudem says this, he points out how he suggests how the word for manage there is a word that only is used in the New Testament to reference men and, therefore, it must mean that elders must be men. It’s a strange assertion because, in Romans 12, verses 6 to 8, that word is used there again but, in Romans 12, 6 to 8, there is no masculine language in the English. There are some male pronouns that are put there but, if we look at the Greek text, there are no male pronouns. And so, Romans 12, 6 to 8, is not specifically speaking to men, or about men, but does use the same word in the Greek that we see here for managing their own households. Also, the noun associated with the verb used here for managing is used once in the New Testament, and that one time is used over woman Phoebe in Romans 16. And so, again, it seems strange to start arguing that that is a word only referencing men when we’ve got good examples, in the New Testament, that would argue otherwise. The other thing about this is that, in 1 Timothy 5, Paul speaks to the women and speaks to them to rule their households using a much stronger word, in fact, than the managing households used in, 1 Timothy 3, for elders. And so, again, the argument to say that word managing specifically points to men is a very strange argument to use.

There are some other considerations that we’ve got to put in at this point. The book of Titus has a list for eldership, it’s helpful to note that, in that list, there are no male pronouns as there are no male pronouns here. It’s also helpful to note that, in Titus, it does the same thing as the text here, in 1 Timothy, does, which is opens it up saying, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, it’s important to note that the anyone that’s used is not an any man in the Greek but is any human.” In 1 Timothy 3:1, that’s the word that’s used, the first verse, “If anyone, if any human desires or aspires to this office of overseer, they desire a noble task.” If any of us are still stuck on the masculine word that’s used for overseer, well, we’ll have a problem with verse 1 in 1 Timothy because the office of overseer that’s used in verse 1 is actually a female word. And so, we really need to steer clear from using the argument that masculine language means that only men can be elders.

Another point to raise, which Philip Payne does, he does some extensive work on the statistics involved in the requirements for eldership. And he points out that the requirements for eldership used in 1 Timothy 3, there are so many that are, in fact, all of them are used of the teaching specifically towards women later on in Timothy. And he points out that there are about half of the requirements that are used virtually identically, word-for-word, for the teaching that then is specifically for women. And the other half that aren’t identical word-for-word are conceptually parallel. For example, where the requirement might be to not drink too much wine, the teaching for women is that they should be sober. And so, there’s a conceptual parallel that is the same.

And Philip Payne does some statistical work here. He works out the statistical probability of the phrases being used both for eldership and for women. And it’s really interesting, from the statistics of using just the pastoral epistles alone, the statistics of both of those being the same is six in one million. If you look wider at the whole of the Pauline corpus, the statistics of the teaching being the same for elders as it is for women becomes five in one trillion. That’s quite significant statistics and, obviously, gives us an indicator that this wasn’t just random that Paul happened to use the same phrases when he speaks of eldership requirements and then when he speaks to the women, but rather that he was using the same words intentionally. It certainly seems the probable option that he was using those words intentionally to show that what he was requiring of the women would be able to fulfill eldership functions.

We don’t know how many women elders there were in the early church, we don’t know how many men elders there were because none of them, neither men nor women, are specifically named in the New Testament. But what we do know, what is clear, is that from 1 Timothy 3 we cannot make an argument to exclude women from eldership. If we want to do that, we’ve got to use 1 Timothy 2:12. And if we do that, then we’ve gotta see 1 Timothy 2:12 as a universal prohibition which would mean, in our churches, not only must we exclude women from eldership but we must stop them from teaching and having authority over even one man. It’s very simple, we’ve got to decide, we cannot have it both ways. Either women are allowed to teach and have authority in our context, in which case, the subject of the eldership should be open, or both should be restricted completely in our churches.

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Katia is a Director at Frequentsee. She is passionate about leading men and women into breakthrough and experience of their God-given freedom. She resides in Durban, South Africa, with her husband, Julian, and two children.