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10 Things You should Know about whether Women should be Elders in the Local Church

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Although some argue that there is no consistent pattern in the NT for local church government, I disagree. I believe the NT portrays for us a virtually air-tight case for governance by a plurality of Elders. However, it is important to realize that even if this is not the case we can still determine whether or not women should be appointed to positions of senior governmental authority. Continue reading . . . 

Although some argue that there is no consistent pattern in the NT for local church government, I disagree. I believe the NT portrays for us a virtually air-tight case for governance by a plurality of Elders. However, it is important to realize that even if this is not the case we can still determine whether or not women should be appointed to positions of senior governmental authority.

When seeking to determine whether women should be elevated to a certain office in the local church, one should be less concerned with the title (whether “Elder” or “Bishop” or “Deacon” or “Pastor”) and more with the actual functional authority that each church/denomination invests in that position (which isn’t to say that being careful in our use of biblical terms is unimportant).

So today we will examine 10 things you should know about whether or not women should be Elders in the local church.

(1) We should first take note of the consistent portrayal in the NT of local churches being governed or led by Elders. Among these many texts we would include Acts 11:29-30; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:1-6; Acts 15:22-23; Acts 16:4; Acts 20:17; Acts 21:17-18; 1 Timothy 4:14; 1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Timothy 5:19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1; and 1 Peter 5:5. I don’t find any indication that a local church was to be governed by a single elder or pastor. The consistent NT witness is that each church was under the oversight of a plurality of elders/bishops.

(2) The English word “elder” is the translation of the Greek presbuteros, from which we get “Presbyter” and “Presbyterian”. Our English word “bishop” comes from the Greek episkopos, from which we get the word “Episcopal” and “Episcopalian”. “Elder” and “Bishop” are interchangeable in the New Testament. What I mean is that they are two different words that describe the same office or authoritative function. “Elder” focuses on the dignity and gravity of the person who serves while “Bishop” focuses on the practical function of the office (literally, one who exercises oversight).

Why do I believe they are interchangeable? First, according to Acts 20:17 Paul called for the elders of the church to come to him. But later in v. 28, in referring to these same elders, he says that God has made them overseers (ESV) or bishops in the church. Second, Paul left Titus in Crete to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). When Paul then turns to list the qualifications for this office he says, “For an overseer (i.e., bishop or episkopon) . . . must be above approach,” etc. Clearly these two terms refer to the same office.

Third, “in 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul says, ‘If any one aspires to the office of bishop/overseer, he desires a noble task.’ Then he gives the qualifications for the overseer/bishop in verses 2-7. Unlike the deacons, the overseer must be ‘able to teach’ (v. 2), and in v. 5 he is said to be one whose management of his own household fits him to care for God's church. These two functions are ascribed to elders in the fifth chapter of this same book (1 Timothy 5:17) – teaching and governing. So it is very likely that in Paul's mind the bishops/overseers of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 are the same as the elders of 5:17” (John Piper).

Fourth, 1 Timothy 3:1-13 clearly indicates that there are two primary offices in the NT: Elder and Deacon. Yet in Philippians 1:1 Paul directs his epistle “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers (episkopoi) and deacons.” Since Paul’s practice was to appoint elders in every church (Acts 14:23) it seems reasonable that the overseers/bishops in Philippians 1:1 is a reference to the elders in that city.

The Greek word (poimen) translated "pastor" is used only once in the NT in Ephesians 4:11. The related verb form (poimaino) has the meaning "to shepherd” or “to feed" with the idea of nurturing and sustaining the flock of God. When I put together Ephesians 4:11, 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:9, Acts 20:28, and 1 Peter 5:1-2, it would appear reasonable to conclude that all elders exercised pastoral responsibilities.

My conclusion is that the local church is to be governed by a plurality of individuals who are described in the New Testament as elders, insofar as they hold an office of great dignity and importance (perhaps even with an allusion to age or at least spiritual maturity), or bishops, insofar as they exercise oversight of the body of Christ, or pastors, insofar as they spiritually feed, care for, and exercise guardianship over the flock of God.

(3) There are several reasons why I believe that this ruling or governmental office is restricted to men. First, I appeal to the NT two-fold description of the function of elders. (a) They are those who govern or rule the church (1 Tim. 3:4-5; 5:17; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2; 1 Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:17). (b) They are those who are primarily responsible for teaching the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11 [assuming the words “pastor” and “teacher” refer to one function or office of “pastor-teacher”; the best grammatical analysis would indicate this is true]; 1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9). Since I believe that Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 restricted teaching and exercising authority to men, it follows that the office of Elder or Bishop is restricted to men.

(4) A second reason looks to the qualifications for the office of Elder that are found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. An Elder must be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:6; need I say more?). Note also that an elder “must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4-5).

(5) There is no reference anywhere in the New Testament to a female elder. You may wish to object by pointing out that this is an argument from silence. Yes, it is. But it is a deafening silence, especially when taken in conjunction with the two previous points. The bottom line is that we simply have no biblical precedent for female elders nor anything in the text that describes their nature, function, and qualifications that would lead us to believe that this could ever be a possibility.

I agree that women can serve as deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-13; Rom. 16:1-2; although this is disputed by others), that they can assist and support, as “co-workers”, someone such as the apostle Paul (Phil. 4:2-3), that they can evangelize, and that they can possess and exercise in biblically appropriate ways every spiritual gift (except that of “apostle,” although I’m not persuaded “apostleship” is a spiritual gift). I believe that women can serve and minister in virtually every capacity aside from what I have called “senior governmental authority”.

(6) Some egalitarians have argued that since Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3) were “co-workers” with Paul, women were in positions of leadership and should thus be considered as viable candidates for the office of Elder. But the Greek word sunergos (“co-worker” or “fellow-worker”) is used of numerous individuals (e.g., Rom. 16:9; Phil. 2:25; Col. 4:10-11; Philemon 24; etc.), as well as anyone who supports traveling missionaries (3 John 8). But this in no way implies that such people exercised ruling authority in the local church. Whereas all Elders would certainly qualify as “co-workers,” not all “co-workers” would qualify as Elders. Their “work” in support of the gospel, whether as those who provide financial aid, or those who evangelize, or those who intercede in prayer, or those who serve in any number of capacities, does not in and of itself indicate they were invested with governmental authority or were even qualified to serve in such a capacity (cf. Rom. 16:1-2).

(7) Contrary to what some egalitarians have suggested, the reference to “older women” in Titus 2:3 does not support the notion of female Elders. Paul concluded his discussion of church offices in Titus 1:5-9. In chapter two he focuses on a variety of individuals classified according to their age: “older men” (v. 2), “older women” (v. 3), “young women” (v. 4), and “younger men” (v. 6). Furthermore, the word in v. 2 translated “older men” (presbut

9 Comments

This article indeed stops part-way through point 7. This is my first time opening this page, so the truncation is not due to an old version from the browser cache.

Whereas the male/female position is made clear, I feel that there should be clarification regarding the relationship of elders to pastors and teachers. It does seem clear that elders should act as a corporate pastor and be able to teach. However, there should be a distinction between gifting and local responsibility. Being able to teach, within the responsibility of eldership, is not the same as being given as a gift to the body by Christ Himself. Exercising a pastoral role within an eldership is not the same as being a gifted pastor (putting to one side the popular trend whereby all kinds of roles are prefixed with "Pastor"). Further, I would suggest that not all pastors are teachers and not all teachers are pastors. There is a grammatical construction in Eph. 4:11 that links pastors and teachers but we do see in Acts 13 that teachers were recognized independently. Ideally, gifted pastors and teachers should be working together with and possibly within an eldership.
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Yes, tried refreshing the page multiple times, but there seems to be no difference. All stops midway through point 7.

hi Sam, I still can't open the full article, even after refreshing the page. Thank you for your informative blog.

Hello. I am very interested in reading the article 10 things you should know about whether women should be elders in the local church. The problem is that the full article doesn't appear. I tried the refreshing the browser idea, (at least I think I did. I'm not all that computer literate) but got nowhere. Is it possible to have it e-mailed to me? Or, has it been posted somewhere else? God bless.

If you'll refresh your browser the entire article should appear on the home page.

Where has it been posted again? (the version here seems to stop mid way through the 7th point)

It has been posted again in full form.

It appears that the stops midway through point 7

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