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Can Women Serve as Elders in the Church? 5 Questions to Ask about 1 Timothy 3

Disciples of Jesus are facing big challenges in our culture today. One of the difficulties is the increasing cultural accusations of misogyny and patriarchy directed at the local church. If we are honest with ourselves, with this kind of pressure, it is easy to look for a way to re-interpret our understanding of some passages in the Bible.

The result is that many good-hearted people are becoming egalitarians or mutualists—those who interpret Scripture to reject male headship authority and, instead, teach that men and women have interchangeable roles in the home and in the church, with no headship authority role for men. Women serve in all levels of leadership in our culture, including CEOs of huge companies. Surely, we reason, they can serve with men as elder-overseers in the local church?

It is easy to resonate with these thoughts.

At the same time, many are telling themselves and others that it is not culture that is pressuring them to change. They have simply been exposed to an alternative interpretation of Scripture. They tell themselves that they are not following the wider culture because the new interpretation, given the realities of their world, just makes better sense to them.

But does it make better sense when compared with the entirety of God’s Word? Where did the new interpretation come from? Is it really a natural reading of the original text in Greek? Did the Christians in earliest history, who were discipled by the apostles, hold to that interpretation?


“Many are telling themselves and others that it is not culture that is pressuring them to change. They have simply been exposed to an alternative interpretation of Scripture.”


At RENEW.org, we have written extensively on men and women in the home and in the church to help with these challenges. We find that Scripture liberates women and provides a foundation for them to use their gifts in the church in ways that defy traditional interpretations. Women prophesied and prayed in the gatherings of the local church, they served as deacons, hosted churches in their homes, and taught the word of God to men in certain settings.

But, at the same time, in three areas, we believe we must stand and resist the cultural pull and uphold unique male headship authority as taught in Scripture.

  1. The husband is the head in his relationship with his wife, and the word “head” includes a measure of authority, where a husband serves, loves, and leads his wife.
  2. Only qualified men are to be the main preacher-teachers in the gathered church.
  3. Only qualified men are to serve as elder-overseers.

For those with questions, we have written extensively on these topics, including an easy-to-access summary analysis of ten key questions in a short eBook. Many church leaders have told us how helpful it is—given the pressure of our culture—to work through these ten key questions. After you read this article, I encourage you to work through the ten questions.

Complementarian vs Egalitarian: 10 Questions for Egalitarian Church Leaders

With the broader background of these three key areas in mind, I want to address a specific argument that is being made about women serving as elders-overseers (in Scripture, the two words are used interchangeably). It is an argument we have not yet specifically responded to in our publications at Renew.org. This post summarizes my response by asking the reader to consider five key questions.


“I want to address a specific argument that is being made about women serving as elders-overseers.”


This argument for women elder-overseers is largely based upon the Greek words used in describing the type of person to be appointed as an elder-overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. We are told that these qualities apply to women as equally as they apply to men and that therefore women should be appointed as elders-overseers in the church.

Here is a summary of the argument.

  • When 1 Timothy 3:1 says “if anyone” desires to be an elder, it is a gender-neutral term, inclusive of both male and female.
  • There are no male pronouns in the virtue list. The Greek is idiou (meaning “one’s own”); the pronoun is gender neutral instead of masculine.
  • There is nothing explicitly male in the virtue list. Teaching, violence, and managing a household are not exclusively male behaviors.
  • “One-woman man” is an idiomatic expression of fidelity; a “one-woman man” functions as a generic masculine term for marital fidelity.
  • “One-woman man” also refers to female deacons in 1 Timothy 3:12, who are also described as “one-woman men.”

Greek is an androcentric language, which means that, when it uses masculine language, that’s not necessarily a comment on gender. 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. An example of this can still be found in English, where people will refer to “mankind,” which includes both men and women.

So, when a person first hears the new argument, it can seem both plausible and attractive.


“When a person first hears the new argument, it can seem both plausible and attractive.”


But as you work through the questions below, I believe you will see that the argument will not stand. These five questions reveal deep and difficult problems with this interpretation. I will leave it for you to decide, but I do not think it is a sound position.

1. How Did the Earliest Disciples of the Apostles Completely Miss This Interpretation?

The early Church Fathers wrote just after the apostles on this topic and others. Their voices provide corroborating evidence which can help confirm that an interpreter accurately understood what the apostles taught. They represent those who:

  • were discipled by the apostles,
  • were leaders following the apostles, in the churches established by the apostles,
  • they spoke the same language as the apostles, and
  • they lived in the same culture as the apostles.

They uniformly understood the preacher-teacher role and the elder-overseer role to be for qualified males only.


“The early Church Fathers uniformly understood the preacher-teacher role and the elder-overseer role to be for qualified males only.”


Everett Ferguson earned a Ph.D. at Harvard on the history of the early church and spent many decades as one of the world’s leading experts on their writings. He personally translated and analyzed all their writings and for years served as a highly respected editor of scholarly journals on their writings. He wrote many articles and books on what they believed and edited many books and research papers of other scholars on what they believed. His ability to summarize their beliefs is unparalleled. He describes their beliefs on this topic with the following words:

“Women were recognized by the church as models…of prayer and service as widows. In some places women were appointed as deacons to assist in ministry to women. Women were not appointed as elders, nor did they take public speaking roles in the assembly as prophets, teachers, or leaders in the assembly.”[1]

The view of the earliest Christians on women elders was codified somewhere around 360 C.E. (A.D.). It was at an official meeting of the early church called the Council of Laodicea. They created Canon 11, which formally banned the appointment of women elders.

It is not allowed for those women who are called ‘elders/presbyteresses’ (presbytides) or ‘women presidents’ (prokathēmenai) to be ordained (kathistasthai) in the churches. (Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea)

This Canon was codified as a statement against the practice of heretical sects who appointed women elders (Montanists) and to clarify the position that had been held in the orthodox churches from the beginning.


“Women were not appointed as elders, nor did they take public speaking roles in the assembly as prophets, teachers, or leaders in the assembly.”


Marg Mowczko is an egalitarian scholar who recently tried heroically to go back through the evidence to find women elder-overseers not just in the early writings of the church fathers, but also in the inscriptions (on stone) from early church history. She acknowledges that the word for elder (presbyteros) is often used for older people or those who were appointed as elders of the church. She finds the evidence difficult to interpret because the word for women elders, “presbyteresses,” was often synonymous with “widows.” She finds some sources that may offer hope that women served as elders, where churches in different parts of the ancient world had different customs, especially orders of women. Yet, after searching all the evidence, here are some of her key conclusions.

  • Some women were called elders (presbyteresses), but their ministry was not comparable with the ministry or rank of male elders.
  • Some of these presbyteresses were one and the same with widows, and the terms were sometimes used interchangeably.
  • Some “elder women” mentioned in the sources may simply have been older women without a recognized position in their church.

“Some ‘elder women’ mentioned in the sources may simply have been older women without a recognized position in their church.”


She summarizes her research and the difficulty in finding support in the early church fathers for women elders and for the egalitarian/mutualist view:

“On a personal note, it was deeply saddening to read these primary sources where women ministers are ranked lowly and restricted. It was frustrating to read some of the early church fathers, such as Origen, who confidently asserted that women cannot and must not be leaders. And it was tiring to see 1 Timothy 2:12 used in the same way it is often used today.”[2]

We understand the frustration because Marg Mowczko earnestly tried to find evidence to challenge the established conclusions of experts like Everett Ferguson. But she is disappointed in the results. Using modern egalitarian values as the standard of judgment, she joins the chorus of voices who minimize the view of the earliest Christians by saying that they were just being misogynists.

But we suggest an alternative. The earliest Christians championed different values. They valued God’s created order and the harmony of complementary strengths between men and women. Their values were based upon what they learned from the apostles. They believed God created an order for the home and the church that is best for human flourishing. Part of that order is that God only wanted qualified men to serve as elder-overseers.

2. Do All Our Major English Translations Really Get It Wrong?

The New International Version (NIV), like the ESV, NRSV, NASB, and the  vast majority of major English translations, describes the elder-overseers in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 as men (and we see this most explicitly starting in verse 4):

“Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” (1 Tim. 3:1-7, NIV)

Why do they translate the role as male?

To begin with, it is not accurate to state that there is nothing explicitly male in the virtue list for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. And I’m not just referring to the Greek word for overseer (episkopos) being a masculine noun. This fact, in and of itself, doesn’t establish that an overseer must be male (again, the Greek noun’s gender may or may not correspond with the actual gender of its referent). But the masculine nature of this noun is supported by several of the adjectives. There is more going on in these verses than is being acknowledged in the new argument.


“He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.”


Two adjectives are explicitly male. First, an overseer is described as “faithful to his wife,” which is a “one-woman man” in Greek (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Contrary to what is being argued, if God had wanted Paul to include women as elder-overseers, he would most likely have added the feminine equivalent—which is a “one-man woman”—which is exactly the Greek phrase Paul uses two chapters later when talking about the qualities of a female widow in 1 Timothy 5:9, who must be “faithful to her husband.”

One possible counterpoint to this is that Paul also uses the “one-woman man” in 1 Timothy 3:12 to refer to deacons and it is a matter of debate whether the preceding verse, verse 11, is referring to female deacons or deacons’ wives. I personally believe that both men and women are authorized to serve as deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-11 (see also Phoebe, a female deacon, in Romans 16:1-2). At the same time, I also believe that in verses 12 and 13, Paul refers to a special category of male-only deacons. These men are deacons that serve well and gain an excellent standing in the church and develop assurance in their faith. My belief is that this a reference to special works, possibly like the male deacons described in Acts 6.

So there is something telling about the male-female delineation in the section on deacons, a delineation that is missing in the section on elders.


“There is something telling about the male-female delineation in the section on deacons, a delineation that is missing in the section on elders.”


Secondly, in 1 Timothy 3:3, Paul uses another noun to describe an overseer—plēktēs, a masculine noun meaning “violent person”—which really does seem to justify its translation as a “man who is not violent.” Throughout history, it is the man (for biological reasons), not the woman, who is prone to be, “a striker, one apt to strike; a quarrelsome, violent person.” As a female friend asked me, “how many women must be told not to strike someone?” Paul is using a word that commonly referred to a problem for males, so the noun is commonly translated as male.

Other adjectives also more naturally describe men in the ancient world from verses 4 through 7. The man was the one in Greco-Roman culture who was responsible to “lead his family well,” and “see that his children obey him with proper respect” (see the instructions for the home based upon the view of Greco-Roman outsiders in Titus 2:3-5). A similar description of the man’s role relative to his wife (and children) is taught with sharp clarity in Colossians 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. And one of the key adjectives is “able to teach,” which in 1 Timothy 2:12 is only for men (see more on this point below).

In short, a closer look at the evidence shows that the vast majority of English translations of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 get it right and the text is only describing male overseers. My Greek professors taught me that, when someone says the Greek should be translated differently from the vast majority of English translations, we ought to be skeptical. Stated differently, when a “better way of translating the Greek” text is not found in all the widely accepted English translations, it is wise to be resistant.


“When a ‘better way of translating the Greek’ text is not found in all the widely accepted English translations, it is wise to be resistant.”


A big part of what disturbs me about this new argument is that it teaches people that they cannot trust what their English Bible describes. Furthermore, it leaves them with the impression that only scholars can truly understand Scripture. “Maybe I do not really know what it teaches, since I am not a scholar,” they say to themselves. This undermines a person’s confidence in both reading the Bible and taking hard and necessary stands on what they believe the Bible teaches. In my experience, this mindset systemically undermines a vital foundation in disciple making.

The major English translations were created by teams of the highest-level of Greek-English scholars. They know best and, when they all uniformly agree, I recommend that we trust them. Both the Greek and the English text are only describing men for the elder-overseer role.

3. Why Would Paul Delineate Between Males and Females When Describing Deacons, but Not Elder-Overseers?

When the apostle Paul describes teachings that have applications to both men and women, he will often state the explicit criteria for men and then, in turn, for women. He does not do that in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul describes the advantages of the single life for the males and then describes the same thing for the females, without assuming that what applies to one gender also applies to the other (see 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; see also 1 Corinthians 11:7-12).

In 1 Timothy 3:8-13 Paul does this exact thing when describing men and women in relation to the lesser authority role of deacons. He is explicit about the qualities of women in 1 Timothy 3:11. It only stands to reason that he would have done the same thing if women were to be appointed as female elders-overseers. Their role is a more authoritative role in the local church.[3]

4. Women Serving as Elder-Overseers Is a Radical Change Away from the Male Headship found Throughout Scripture. So Why Would God Just Leave It to Inference in 1 Timothy 3?

If gender roles in the home and church were erased in Christ, as egalitarians/mutualists teach, this would have been a huge shift indeed. If Paul had been making a shift so deep, then it would seem that the language and discussion needed to do so would be sharp and clear.

In addition to belief in male leadership in the Greco-Roman culture, the Jewish culture also believed in male headship authority. Yet the Jews believed as they did not because of Greco-Roman culture, but because God had established the following components of male headship authority in the whole of Scripture.

  • The selection of Abraham as patriarchal head of Israel and model of faith, with Sarah in submission to him
  • The unique mark of male circumcision in the transmission of the Israelite covenant.
  • The twelve tribes based upon the twelve male descendants of Jacob
  • All the major Old Testament prophets and all the known writers of the Old and New Testament passages were male
  • The God-ordained appointment of male-only priests in the Old Testament—a role that morphed into the male-only rabbi role in the time of the New Testament
  • Jesus as a male representing the culmination of Messianic prophecies
  • The 12 apostles as males and the authoritative representatives of Jesus
  • The only known evangelists in the New Testament were appointed as representatives of the apostles in local churches, and they were men (Timothy and Titus)
  • Men were given servant-hearted headship authority in their relationship with their wives in the home throughout Scripture

Appointing women to be elders-overseers against this pattern would have been a huge, mountain-like change.


“Appointing women to be elders-overseers against this pattern would have been a huge, mountain-like change.”


This change would have been so new, so “outside their box” that Paul would need to take pains to describe a whole new way of thinking. Where are the chapters and clear descriptions dedicated to that shift?

It is difficult to believe that this would be a change just inferred in 1 Timothy 3.

It would have required paragraphs and even chapters, not contested nuances of pronouns and adjectives. It would have been a situation where the original recipients would have been able to say: “Wait, did you catch that? Did you hear how Paul clearly said women are now to be appointed as elder-overseers too, and given authority that was only previously given to men?” Paul did not make those statements.

5. Why Prohibit Women from Teaching/Authority and Then Give Women Teaching/Authority as Elder-Overseers the Next Few Verses?

It makes no sense to believe that 1 Timothy 3:1-7 describes how both men and women can serve as elders when the verses that immediately precede this section prohibit women from teaching or taking authority over men in the gathered church. 1 Timothy 2:11-15 puts it clearly:

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

The role of an elder is to publicly teach and provide oversight for the congregation (see Titus 1:5-9; Acts 20), which these verses make clear is not for women.


“The role of an elder is to publicly teach and provide oversight for the congregation, which these verses make clear is not for women.”


Egalitarians/mutualists typically explain that these restrictions are only for the specific and limited situation in 1 Timothy in Ephesus. They prohibit disruptive women, who have been led astray. These women are prohibited, but these verses do not apply to the universal church.

I believe Paul intended his instructions in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 to be understood more universally (see here), but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Paul meant for his instructions to be applied only locally. We then would need to believe that Paul was instructing the Ephesian Christians not to allow women in their particular church context to have teaching/authority over men—and then turn around and install women with teaching/authority over men as elder-overseers.

And we must believe that he makes this twist—without explanation—in just three verses. Again, in 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul says “a women should not authoritatively teach men” in that church gathering, yet one of the qualities for overseers just a few verses later is that they are “able to teach” in 1 Timothy 3:2. It requires mind-twisting maneuvers to make all this work.


“We must believe that he makes this twist—without explanation—in just three verses.”


Stated simply, the prohibition on a woman teaching in the gathered church, followed by advocacy that elders need to be “able to teach” only makes sense if Paul is describing male elder-overseers only.

Conclusion

Here is a summary of the new argument and my response.

CLAIM: When 1 Timothy 3:1 says “if anyone” desires to be an elder, it is a gender-neutral term, inclusive of both male and female.

RESPONSE: Yes, if we only had this verse to follow, it could apply to women.

CLAIM: There are no male pronouns in the virtue list. The Greek is idiou (meaning “one’s own”); the pronoun is gender neutral instead of masculine.

RESPONSE: No, some of the key words are best understood as masculine.

CLAIM: There is nothing explicitly male in the virtue list. Teaching, violence, and managing a household are not exclusively male behaviors.

RESPONSE: No, some of the elements in the virtue list are best understood as masculine.

CLAIM: “One-woman man” is an idiomatic expression of fidelity; a “one-woman man” functions as a generic masculine term for marital fidelity.

RESPONSE: No, there is a corresponding expression for women (a “one-man woman”) and it is used in 1 Timothy 5:9 for widows, but it is not used in 1 Timothy 3.


“Some of the elements in the virtue list are best understood as masculine.”


CLAIM: “One-woman man” also refers to female deacons in 1 Timothy 3:12, who are also described as “one-woman men.”

RESPONSE: No, I believe both men and women are authorized to serve as deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-11, but I also believe that Paul refers back to a special category of male-only deacons in 1 Timothy 2:12-13.

I conclude that 1 Timothy 3 does not authorize women to serve as elder-overseers in the local church and that the other New Testament passages on elder-overseers match this perspective. Only qualified men align with the profile of those to be appointed as elders/overseers.

————-

If you want to read more on what the Bible teaches about men, women, and gender, in addition to the 10 Questions for Egalitarians, I highly recommend two books that RENEW.org has recently published on these topics:

Male & Female: A Biblical Look at Gender – This book provides a comprehensive biblical overview of the key issues on men and women, gender roles, and the larger gender conversation today. It is a 340-page, in-depth study.

Five Conversations on Men and Women for Church Leaders – This is a 79-page workbook for church elders and church staff/leaders who are working through the biblical teachings on men and women in the home and in the church. Short, helpful, and succinct, it’s great for substantive conversations.


[1] Everett Ferguson, Women in the Church: Biblical and Historical Perspectives, 2nd Edition, Willow Publishing, 2015.

[2] Marg Mowczko, “Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts (Part 3)”, https://margmowczko.com/women-elders-ancient-inscriptions/, accessed May 15, 2023.

[2] Many people who believe that both men and women are authorized to serve as deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-11 also believe, as I do, that Paul refers back to a special category of male-only deacons in 1 Timothy 2:12-13.

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