Image for On Gender and the Bible: Can Women Be Elders? (Part 5)

On Gender and the Bible: Can Women Be Elders? (Part 5)

Photo of Renée SprolesRenée Sproles | Bio

Renée Sproles

Renée Webb Sproles is from Murfreesboro, TN, where she directed The School of Christian Thought for five years at North Boulevard Church. She is a 15-year homeschool veteran. She is also a founder and co-director of the Discipleship Tutorial in Murfreesboro, where she has taught government, economics, personal finance, health, study skills, English grammar, and writing. She is the mother of two grown children, Houston and Emma, who is married to Thomas Goodwyn. With her husband, David, Renée has co-taught parenting classes for 20 years and currently teaches a marriage and family class of 100 students each week. Renée is the author of On Gender: What the Bible Says about Men and Women (Renew, 2019).
Photo of Rick OsterRick Oster | Bio

Rick Oster

A highly respected teacher at Harding School of Theology for over 40 years, Dr. Richard Oster helps prepare students for work in Christian ministry (and a smaller number for doctoral studies elsewhere) by teaching courses in New Testament Greek and courses in the content of the New Testament. These courses include Acts of Apostles, Pauline letters, book of Revelation, NewTestament Theology, and historical and cultural backgrounds of the NewTestament. He is also an expert on ancient Ephesus. 
Photo of Bobby HarringtonBobby Harrington | Bio

Bobby Harrington

Bobby is the point-leader of Renew.org and Discipleship.org, both collaborative, disciple-making organizations. He is the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN). He has an M.A.R. and an M.Div. from Harding School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 10 books on discipleship, including Discipleshift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman), The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick) and Becoming a Disciple Maker: The Pursuit of Level 5 Disciple Making (with Greg Weins). He lives in the greater Nashville area with his wife and near his children and grandchildren.
Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He has his bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), his master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and his PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His master’s thesis was on apologetics to atheists, and his doctoral dissertation was on apologetics to Buddhists. In 2014, he co-authored The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw with Norman Geisler. Daniel works as editorial director for the Renew Network. His passion is to help people understand that they can totally trust Jesus. He plays guitar and piano and occasionally enjoys writing songs. daniel@renew.org
Photo of David RoadcupDavid Roadcup | Bio

David Roadcup

Dr. David Roadcup is Professor of Discipleship and Global Outreach Representative with TCM International Institute. He has been in ministry for over 40 years. Besides youth ministries, senior/preaching ministries and college/seminary teaching through the years, Dr. Roadcup has authored numerous articles and three books. He has spoken in 37 states and 5 foreign countries. As one of the founding members of the men’s ministry Promise Keepers, he served on their Board of Directors for 11 years. In 2001, he was on the summer P.K. Men’s Conference Speaking Team. In addition to his wide-ranging ministry to the Church, teaching classes for TCMI and formerly at Cincinnati Christian University, he is presently on the Board of Directors of Christ in Youth in Joplin, Missouri (C.I.Y.) and the Board of Directors of Christian Arabic Services (C.A.S.). He has been married to Karen for over 50 years. Dave and Karen have two daughters, one son-in-law and three grandchildren. Dave’s great passion is discipling believers and helping Christians grow to deeper levels in their personal walk with Jesus Christ.
Photo of Gary JohnsonGary Johnson | Bio

Gary Johnson

Dr. Gary Johnson has served in the preaching ministry for four decades.  He now leads e2 as Executive Director full-time, coaching pastors and elders nationwide.  He holds a Master of Arts degree in Church history from Lincoln Christian Seminary, Master of Ministry and Divinity degrees from Cincinnati Bible Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Grace Theological Seminary (Indiana).  Gary has taught as adjunct professor for a number of seminaries, including Cincinnati Christian University and TCM Institute, a seminary serving Europe and Asia.  Gary has been blessed to travel overseas for the purpose of training elders and pastors in cross-cultural settings on over 100 mission trips.  Gary and Leah have been married over 40 years, and have married sons, Jared and Aaron, who are both serving in the ministry.  His pursuits outside of church life include running, mountain climbing, racquetball, cycling, and back-packing.  Still, one of the greatest joys in life for Gary is being called “grandpa” by his six grandkids.
Photo of James EstepJames Estep | Bio

James Estep

Dr. James Estep is the Vice President of Academics at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, MO. After attending Cincinnati Bible College, Jim earned three masters degrees from Cincinnati Bible Seminary, a DMin from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He participates in several learned societies and has authored several books on Christian education, as well as published numerous essays and articles. He is a cofounder of e2 Effective Elders, and serves as a Professor-at-Large for Lincoln Christian University and an Affiliate Professor for Johnson University's PhD program. Jim and Karen (PhD, Michigan State University) have been married for over 30 years. They have three adult children and four grandchildren.

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” —Margaret Thatcher.

“Women have discovered that they cannot rely on men’s chivalry to give them justice.” —Helen Keller.

“It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through, no right, no wrong, no rules for me; I’m free.” —Disney’s Elsa from the movie Frozen

These sentiments are a glimpse into our cultural moment. Are there actually “rules” we have to follow in the church when it comes to gender? With so many churches in decline in the West, wouldn’t prudence suggest that qualified women be elders? Isn’t it practical, logical, and fair to place all men and women in any and every role according to their gifts?

We will seek to answer these and more questions in this, our fifth installment, in a series on women in the church. Previously, we critiqued John Mark Hicks’s book, Women Serving God, and Scot McKnight’s, Blue Parakeet. (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.) While eldership is not the focus of either Hicks’s or McKnight’s book, we want to take the opportunity in this series on gender and church ministry to discuss this important topic about which many thoughtful Renew.org readers have questions. This post will explore what Scripture says about the role of elders.

Renew.org holds that New Testament norms teach that the lead minister/pastor role in the gathered church, as well as the elder role, are for qualified men. In discussing eldership, we were grateful to able to talk with Gary Johnson, David Roadcup, and Jim Estep of e2: effective elders. E2 is a ministry that equips elders to serve the local congregation by providing practical training, relevant resources, and authentic relationships. Gary, David, and Jim have helped many, many churches to build biblical and effective elder teams. We also spoke to Dr. Rick Oster, a professor at Harding School of Theology for over 40 years and an expert on ancient Ephesus.

Q Are there any preliminaries to be aware of as we begin this discussion of elders?

Harrington: I think the most important mindset is one grounded in Jesus and his teachings throughout Scripture. So, first and foremost, headship in God’s church is more about being a servant of others than anything else. Jesus puts it straight for us:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). 

We start by thinking about elders as chief servants.

Secondly, we start with a background mindset culminating from our earlier posts, that God called qualified men to special headship roles in God’s church and family. Without going into all we have already discussed, it is important to note how the norms of Scripture show that men are given unique headship responsibilities that transcend culture. Here is a summary of some of these responsibilities:

  • Adam was created first (1 Timothy 2:13), and Eve was created as his strong helper (Genesis 2).
  • The role of Old Testament priests was created by God for males only (even though the surrounding cultures had female priests), and these priests were given a special teaching role in Israel.
  • Jesus picked only men to be his 12 apostles.
  • In the marriage relationship, the husband has a Christ-like headship (authority) role as a servant leader (Colossians 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1-6; Ephesians 5:21ff). (See Part 6.)
  • In the Christian gatherings, boundaries are established to uphold male headship in the church when women pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11) and during disruptions (1 Corinthians 14).
  • 1 Timothy 2:11-15 teaches that in the gathered church, women are not to teach or exercise authority over men.

We at Renew.org are committed to making disciples of Jesus in a way that is both faithful to Scripture and effective to culture. With this in mind, we want to handle the issue of gender and church ministry in a way that steers between the extremes of progressivism and rigid traditionalism. The four articles leading up to this one have described a biblical path that avoids these unbiblical extremes. We seek to continue on that path in this article which explores what the Bible says about elders/shepherds/overseers.

Q: Why is this discussion about gender and the Bible so critical? Can’t we just agree to disagree?

Johnson: We have noticed at e2 that when a church decides to embrace egalitarianism, they have made some pretty significant decisions prior to that: decisions about what kind of authority Scripture has and about their hermeneutical process. I have lived in Indianapolis for decades, and I remember one morning when I went out to the mailbox to get the paper, the headline was “Disciples Table Jesus.” You see, the Disciples of Christ headquarters are here in Indianapolis, and every two years they hold their annual convention. That year the discussion was about Jesus: is he the only way to be saved? At the end of the week, they could not even decide that Jesus alone saves. How did they get there? Well, the Disciples of Christ had jettisoned belief in the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture years before. Once they took that giant step, it became very easy for them to embrace egalitarianism and then homosexuality, and finally they were unable to come to a consensus on the exclusivity of Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Sproles: Yes, how you arrive at a position can be as important as the position itself. We talked a lot in Part 1 of this series about using good hermeneutics to reach our conclusions and build a coherent theology. That’s why I am glad you all are here. You are a boots-on-the-ground kind of organization and can see how we are all tempted to use the culture around us to define things like equality and gender and go looking for them in Scripture. You see the fallout that happens when we do that, too.

Estep: In one of our books for elders, we have a section titled Can Women be Elders? where we outline the hermeneutical gymnastics that people must use when trying to vault around a passage and make it sound like they are actually dealing with it. Typically, they’ll take a passage from Galatians or Colossians and use it to trump the whole of Scripture. As Renée said, many arguments assert that gender boundaries are merely cultural, or influenced by cultural pressure, and that’s incorrect. You’re laying modern ideas of equality and gender on the text that simply are not there.

On the other hand, we want to be careful to note that we are not saying women can’t be elders because they are inferior to men. That’s not what we’re saying at all. That’s bad Christian thinking and bad biblical reasoning.

Q: So, which passages in Scripture talk about elders?

Johnson: Of course, my mind immediately goes to the pastoral epistles: Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. Yet it’s very important to understand that the word elder runs through Scripture like a golden thread from the opening pages to its conclusion. Exodus 3:15-17 is a very important passage, because it’s the first time elders are mentioned in the Bible.

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

“This is my name forever,

the name you shall call me

from generation to generation.

“Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’

Notice that God told Moses to go back to Egypt and gather the elders. This was when Israel was enslaved in Egypt, and already, early on in Israel’s history as a nation, men were called to that role. And I want to point out here that I use the word role intentionally. At e2 we never speak of the elder office. It is a role of responsibility. Those passages which speak of elders in the New Testament are patterned after this role of elders watching over the people of God in the Old Testament.

There are many more passages that talk about elders. In Acts 15 Paul, Barnabas, and Peter returned to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders. In Acts 20 Paul turns in his letter of resignation to the Ephesians elders. Even in Revelation 4, 5, and 7 we see elders around the throne of God. From Exodus to Revelation, this idea of elders, of shepherds, permeates Scripture.

When we are coaching elders, we tell them that their name appears in three distinctive Greek words: presbuteros (elder), episkopos (bishop), and poimen (pastor).

Q: When it comes to the description of elders in 1 Timothy and Titus, are these more a checklist or a character profile? What should churches do with these texts since they overlap but are not identical?

Oster: You are right to point out that the lists are not identical. Perhaps seeing them more as character profiles was a response, a sort of pushback, because people were using those lists in a mechanistic way, without really being concerned about the virtuous nature of the man, without questioning the overall tenor of his life to see if it was virtuous. There is some merit to that approach that seeks to get beyond a checklist.

We need to keep in mind that the very first converts that Paul had were Jewish people and Gentiles who were under the shadow of the synagogue. However, as Christianity grew, more and more Gentiles filled the church. A person nurtured by the pagan culture wouldn’t bring anything to the table in terms of shepherding the church. New converts would not have an understanding of who God is or a clear sense of biblical morality. The impulse might have been to say, “This person has wealth” or “This person has status” and therefore make them an elder for the church. But you can find these crucial character attributes of elders in the Old Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, and Peter and Paul’s writings. It’s really important that the church, then and now, insist upon these characteristics.

Estep: I have seen churches produce lists of the qualifications with little boxes to check off, based on Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. However, we believe that making a checklist is actually inadequate. There’s a phrase in 1 Timothy 3:7 that says, “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders.” This points me to the man’s overall behavior. By what behaviors is he characterized? These men are not only going to be approved by the church but should also be recognized as moral leaders in the community. So I encourage churches to look at these passages and ask things like, Are they not given to much wine? Are they known as a one-woman man or not? Are they generally self-controlled and gentle? while keeping in mind their reputation in the community.

Q: But how do we know these passages are gender specific? Couldn’t they also be describing women? Why or why not?

Oster: It seems simplistic to say, but these passages are addressed to men. “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1).

Sproles: Additionally, the preceding verses in 1 Timothy 2 were specifically prohibiting women from authoritative teaching over men (see part 4 for a thorough exegesis of those verses) based on creation order. That was the third time Paul addressed the issue of how women can participate in the community (1 Cor 11 and 14, 1 Tim 2), and he’s drawing boundary lines based on creation order. We get even further clarity regarding this when we note that after this prohibition Paul moves immediately into an explanation of elders—those who would have that authoritative role previously mentioned. In many churches today, this would also include the role of senior pastor, who would be responsible for delivering the authoritative teaching on a regular basis to the church.

Roadcup: As to why these passages are solely describing men, I think it’s really God’s plan more than anything else. Thirty years ago when I was struggling with the issue of women elders, I was taking a class with Louis Foster at CCU on the Pastoral Epistles. One day after class I asked him, “Where are you on the issue of women serving as elders?” And he said that he was a complementarian. For him it boiled down to Scripture very clearly showing that men should be the protective covering for women and the church. Basically, he said, women can do anything men can do except usurp authority over men (1 Tim 2:11-12). That’s the one thing they can’t do. Women can do many, many things in the church—whether it’s leading a ministry team, music program, youth program, women’s ministry, or whatever it is—but they do them under the love, care, protection, and management of the elder team. Men are to provide the protection, oversight, blessing, and encouragement. Why? Because it’s God’s good plan.

Johnson: It goes back to the creation order in Genesis 2. Women do have the gift of leadership; there’s no doubt about it. In Romans 12:6-8 Paul talks about different spiritual gifts. He says if your gift is leadership to govern diligently. We have brilliant women in our churches all across America, and we need to leverage their gifts. However, we must honor the boundary lines drawn in Scripture. There is just one thing a woman cannot do in the local church: she cannot be an elder who preaches (1 Tim 5; 1 Pet 5). It is our belief that an elder is to bring the doctrinal teaching of the church; this falls under the purview of a spiritual man called of God to serve as a humble overseer of the body of Christ.

Q: Since managing one’s own family well is one of the qualifications for elders, is there a relationship between the role of an elder in church and the role of husband in the home?

Harrington: I have heard these two concepts connected, that male eldership should reflect the home where the husband is the head in the husband-wife relationship, loving and caring for her, and that his children obey him with proper respect. So you have this characteristic of doing well in managing your family as a backdrop to being qualified to be an elder.

1 Timothy 3:4-5 says,

“He 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?”

Johnson: Absolutely. I have been a preacher for 40 years, so I have done many weddings. When it comes to the exchange of rings, before the bride puts the ring on the groom’s finger, I say to the husband, “You listen to me. She is going to declare you to be her husband in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This word husband comes from an old English word, husbonda, which means a “band around the house.” And it’s your obligation in the sight of God and all these witnesses to keep your marriage and your family intact.” And then I’ll say to all the men in the room, “We are all going to be held accountable by God for keeping our families intact. That’s what this ring means.” So men must manage their households. If you cannot do that for the people under your roof, then how can you possibly do that for the house of God—the people of God?

Estep: I was actually speaking at a church on this very subject, and after my presentation, a woman came up to me and said, “Are you telling me that a woman, just because she’s a woman, cannot be an elder? Why is it that men only can be elders?” So, I was trying to give her an answer and this eight-year-old girl walked up and said, “It’s easy. They’re the daddies of the church.” And on the whole, that makes sense. You see that in 1 Timothy 3, the daddies of the home, the servant leaders in the family, are tied to a qualification for the role of elder.

Q: Are there other clues in Scripture that show us an elder should be male?

Estep: Within the description of the bishop, the overseer, there are phrases that I cannot see applying to a woman. “Husband of one wife” is actually not original to Paul. It is a phrase used in Greco-Roman literature. On epitaphs, it’s somewhat of a title that depicts a very faithful person. In fact, in some parts of Roman and Greek culture, that phrase is used for someone who was a widower who never remarried and then died. It’s found on their tombstone, and there is a female equivalent to it: “the wife of one husband.” Both titles were available to Paul, but he chooses only “the husband of one wife” when describing the role of an elder.

In fact, we see the phrase “wife of one husband” a few chapters later in 1 Timothy 5, when Paul is talking about which women should receive financial support from the church. If he meant for the role of elder to be open to women, why didn’t he use the equivalent phrase “wife of one husband” in 1 Timothy 3? So, once again, this points me to the role being exclusive to men.

The phrase “not a brawler” also seems masculine. That is, he should not have the reputation of somebody who likes to get into a good fist fight. It just doesn’t seem to fit women. Men are known to brawl, not women.

Johnson: I’m also thinking of Acts 20:28-31 when Paul meets with the elders of Ephesus.

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.

Do women protect against savage wolves? I believe that language is a very strong indication that this is a role to which men are called.

So, we have the backdrop of Scripture, going back to the creation story, with Adam’s headship. Then we have male servant leadership in the home explicitly tied to the role of elder in 1 Timothy 3. And then you have the gender-specific description of the role as a whole. They all point to the role of elder being for men.

Sproles: And if the idea of a role being unavailable to women on the basis of our sex makes some of us uncomfortable, that’s okay. This discussion was really difficult for me in years past, in part because my worldview had been informed more by the legal system of our country than by Scripture. The idea of having one standard outside the church and one standard inside the church seemed unjust, but it’s more nuanced than that. Let me try to explain.

Most of us have lived our entire lives under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, besides ending segregation, banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This was a much-needed piece of Civil Rights legislation for our nation. In all civilizations, in all cultures, in all periods of history, men and women have regularly failed to honor one another as God intended. We’ve hurt each other in countless ways. Margaret Atwood summed up this conflict when she said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” But the world doesn’t have the final answer for this problem. God does. We turn to Scripture to see how God intended for us to live together, and it is in a complementary way.

In a fallen world, placing men and women in positions regardless of sex is a necessary protection. “In his 1948 essay arguing against opening up the Anglican priesthood to women, C.S. Lewis declared that woman are ‘no less capable than men of piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office.’”[1] But he noted:

The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant… This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality… The kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions. One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church.

We know from Scripture that, within the broad scope of spiritual gifts for men and women, there are particular roles for the sexes in marriage and in church. Acting as if men and women are interchangeable is a safeguard among unredeemed humanity; but as redeemed humanity, as the church of the living God, we get to live out reality as it should be, symbolizing the “hidden things of God” within our genders. Christians have the honor of putting God’s beautiful design on display. In Ephesians 5, while calling for mutual submission between a husband and wife, Paul also requires wives to respect their husbands and requires husbands to love their wives. (In those verses, we can see the answer to Margaret Atwood’s observation!) Those are particular duties for the sexes. When describing the ways men and women can build up the body of Christ and serve in the assembly, Paul notes that one role is exclusively available for men: that of authoritative teacher, which we have noted is an elder or a senior pastor.

Q: What’s the main argument made for women elders?

Oster: There is often the cultural argument to which Renée alluded. Sometimes we tend to think that because we have prominent women in our modern, Western society that this was not also true in Paul’s day. In Paul’s day and age, you have women who are very prominent in the society. Here are three passages which demonstrate this:

  • Acts 13:50 – “God fearing women of high standing…in the city” stirred up persecution for Paul and Barnabas.
  • Acts 17:4 – In Thessalonica “not a few prominent women” were persuaded to believe the gospel.
  • Acts 17:12– In Berea “women of high standing” believed the gospel along with the men.

So we have three texts in Acts, and with the advent of archeology, we have discovered inscriptions that shed light on these prominent women. Greek literature did not talk much about women, but once we found these inscriptions, we found out that, in fact, there were many women who were very prominent in the society of the time of Paul. They don’t hold political office, but they have all kinds of leading roles that they play in society: religious roles, civic roles, benefactors, heads of organizations, high priestesses of things like the emperor cult, donating money for public buildings. They’re really prominent in society. Acts had already told us that, but with archeology we get to flesh that out. Many people think that in Paul’s day women were all kept in the kitchen or confined to special rooms in the house. That’s really an unfortunate misunderstanding of the life of women in Paul’s world.

So, this argument—in the modern world we have women who are advanced in society, so we can no longer hold to the biblical standard, to Paul’s instructions—isn’t true. To be clear, women were not as advanced in the ancient world as they are now. But, of course, women weren’t as advanced in America before 1920, when guaranteed the right to vote, yet they were active in public life and even held prestigious positions in society. So, to say that women are now advanced and therefore should be elders is not a valid argument. Women were advanced and qualified in Paul’s day as well, but he notes that this is a position for men only.

It would not have been a stretch for Paul to include women elders, yet he does not. In fact, there was a book published several years ago by a feminist scholar who gathered up some synagogue inscriptions from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, and there were women elders in some synagogues. She was using this evidence to say that this proves the early church must have had women elders. But I would say it suggests the opposite: the fact that there were not women elders in the early church shows that it was intentional.

Johnson: We could also add from Paul’s world, Act 16. He meets Lydia at the river in Philippi, and she was a dealer in purple cloth. This was her business. She wasn’t relegated to the supply room, and a few verses later, after she is immersed into the faith, the church meets in her home. Paul stays in her home. It was Lydia’s home.

Also, in Acts 12 we see the church meeting the home of John Mark’s mother. It was large enough to have a prayer meeting to pray for Peter’s survival when he was arrested by Herod. So, we find many instances in Scripture were women of substance had financial leadership, they were esteemed, they were of high standing. It’s unequivocal.

Q: What’s an argument made from Scripture for women elders?

Johnson: I’d say 99% of the time people go to the Galatians 3:28 passage. There is no male or female.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Oster: It strikes me as a really peculiar hermeneutic when you take a verse like Galatians 3:28, which exegetically and contextually is not talking about the topic that we’re interested in here and use it to undermine a text that we are interested in here. Galatians 3:28 is talking about who can be saved, but it is used to undermine 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 and 1 Timothy 2, which are explicitly about the roles and ministries of women in the church. It’s the most unsound kind of exegetical and hermeneutical method. It’s pseudo-scholarship.

Harrington: Even people like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Ben Witherington are doing that, and they are highly regarded scholars.

Oster: I know that’s what they’re doing, and I wish they wouldn’t. The social forces and theological pressures are strong for people to do that. However, I believe that they would not tolerate that kind of exegetical method on other topics.

Estep: And when you consider that Galatians and 1 Corinthians were written at almost the same time, then Paul would be writing two different positions on the sexes almost simultaneously. We should seek harmony between the texts rather than to say that one trumps the other. Also, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter were written later. So, if it really was Paul’s intention to take an egalitarian view in Galatians and Colossians, why would he paint a contrary picture of church leadership 20 years later? When you look at the chronology of when they were written, that interpretation doesn’t make sense.

McCoy: I agree. People like to make the argument that the trajectory of Scripture is toward Galatians 3. For example, in his many references to Galatians 3:28 in Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight presents it as if it’s the culminating verse of Scripture, the new reality to which the entire trajectory of Scripture points. This verse gives him a lot of mileage for his oneness-otherness-oneness method of seeing the Bible’s story (see Part 1). And, if we’re talking about whom God saves, then they’re right; Galatians 3:28 is a perfect summary of beautiful news: there are no ethnic, social, economic, or gender hurdles for our redemption by the Son (Gal. 4:5), our adoption by the Father (Gal. 4:5), or our indwelling by the Spirit (Gal. 4:6). Praise God! Yet Galatians predates a lot of the discussions about church roles, and church roles are not even the focus of Galatians 3. If the trajectory of Scripture is toward ever-greater egalitarianism, then why was Galatians written before, for example, 1 Timothy 2-3?

Q: When you see churches that have women elders, are there any consequences you have observed?

Estep: Well, the thing I want to know when I talk to someone in a church with women elders is how they got there. One of the biggest concerns I have is when you are no longer using a sound hermeneutic to interpret Scripture. What is there to stop you from bringing a cultural view of sexuality and applying it to Scripture? Or, as Gary mentioned, bringing a universalist view of salvation that allows you to question the exclusivity of Christ as Savior? The problem is you lose your brakes.

People undermine the authority of Scripture by circumventing a text’s meaning. They do “eisegesis” (putting your meaning into the text) instead of “exegesis” (pulling the meaning out of the text). If you can do that with one passage, you can do it with all.

Sproles: I read Tim Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism several years ago, and one passage has stuck with me ever since. It actually sparked my attempt to make sense of the whole of Scripture in terms of sex and gender.

To stay away from Christianity because part of the Bible’s teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn’t have any views that upset you. Does that belief make sense?

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have …a God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction. Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.[2]

Q: Has e2 ever helped a church who had women elders to change that position?

Johnson: Yes. It was a church that was part of the Disciples of Christ, and they eventually came out of that denomination. It really was a journey back to the Word of God. When I helped them articulate their vision, mission, and core values, they identified Scriptural authority as a core value. At that point, I was able to have the discussion about egalitarianism. (They didn’t have any idea what that word meant, even though they were practicing it.) I took them back to the Bible and said, “Alright, if you’re going to say, ‘We honor biblical authority,’ do you or do you not?” There were a few people who didn’t want to make a change to male servant leadership, but after almost three years, the congregation officially began practicing what Scripture describes. They have become far healthier as a church and are doing exceptionally well. We know that healthy things grow, and that is happening in that church.

At e2 we help churches understand how to live out God’s design in a practical way. It’s like Tinker toys, Lincoln Logs, and LEGO sets. They all come with instructions, and if you’re going to build what’s on the cover of the box, you must follow the instructions. Similarly, we have the Bible, the word of God, and we can see how He intended to build His church. Are we going to build the church according to His instructions? If we do, then we’ll be under God’s blessing.

We are practitioners and we help elders who have a day job, who farm, who run a business, who lead a corporate office, or who teach in a classroom. We’re going to help these elders connect the dots in an easy-to-understand way so that they can build the local church according to what we find in Scripture.

Sproles: I really appreciate that approach, because obedience brings its own understanding (John 8:31). Anyone who has raised children knows that preschoolers must obey many, many things for their own good, for their health and safety, before they understand them. I believe we should bring the same humility to the Scriptures. In the end, we must ask ourselves if we’re going to allow our personal beliefs to contradict Scripture or if we are going to allow Scripture to contradict us. If I pick and choose what I like from the Bible and discard the parts I don’t like, it becomes no different than any self-help book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. However, Scripture is much more powerful than any other book. It is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” that we may be complete and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Q: How do you respond to the perception that an all-male eldership is about preserving power or misogyny?

Roadcup: In my mind, it’s very much a cultural issue that we’re getting hammered by. There is a perception among some that men have their boot heel on the women in the church. So, I believe we must return to Scripture to remind ourselves that elders are shepherds, fathers, men who love, protect, and care for women. We really want to live out what we find in Scripture and that kind of misogyny or power grab is not found there.

Johnson: In our culture, we think of authority as vertical. In business you have a Board of Directors. They hire a CEO, who hires a CFO, and COO etc. Vertical, positional authority is rooted in power. We do not find that in Scripture. If you look at Philippians 2:1-10, Paul explains how we should interact with one another.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Paul says that, when there is conflict in the church, each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. And then he notes that Jesus relinquished his positional authority. What did he do? He put on flesh and came into our neighborhood, so to speak. He humbled himself and became obedient to death. So when people complain that because we believe that elders must be male we’re misogynistic or making a power play, that’s not the picture of an elder. We take the world’s notion of vertical, positional power and turn it on its side.

The flow chart of a local church should be flat and fluid. You push authority with responsibility into people’s lives like we see in Act 6 where the apostles said to choose seven men among you known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, giving them the responsibility and authority to feed the Greek-speaking widows. Lay your hands on them and delegate that authority to them.

Elders do not sit in chairs of oppressive authority. We must have a servant heart like Jesus. So when someone claims that we’re just chauvinists seeking all kinds of power over women, that’s not even close. It’s not found in Scripture.

Q: How can biblical eldership steer us away from the notion that it’s about power and control?

Roadcup: Gary kind of answered that in the previous question, but I can add that elders should be living examples of the kind of servant leadership we’ve discussed. They should be in the lobby on Sunday mornings, shaking people’s hands and connecting with people. They should respect and love the women of the church, empowering them to use their spiritual gifts to their fullest potential so that they can bless the body of Christ. In this way, people can come to the church and see for themselves the opposite of power and control. They’ll see empowerment and freedom to exercise spiritual gifts. But again, this would be under the love and care of the elder team.

Q: So, in practical terms, how can elders empower the spiritual mothers of the church to fulfill their calling to serve the church?

Johnson: Well, it’s essential that we, as elders, discover what everybody’s spiritual gift is. In 1 Peter 4:10 we are told “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” If a woman’s gift is leadership, then we should look for a way that she can lead in an area of her passion. For example, if a woman has a heart of mercy and encouragement as well as leadership, the elders could delegate the authority to develop a ministry, perhaps to shut-ins or a nursing home. She could deploy that ministry, develop it, as she works under the oversight of the elders. They are her covering and protection.

Roadcup: There was a woman in a church that I served, and she and her husband were very close friends to me and my wife. Well, she began going to a nursing home to visit friends, and they asked her if she would bring some videos of Bible stories. They’d wheel all the residents to the solarium and she would show the videos. Well, the residents began asking her questions after the video, and she was very nervous answering them at first. But she grew in this gifting. Fast-forward two years later, and she has a hundred women in a Bible class every Sunday morning, teaching them in a dynamic way.

And I thought to myself, Well, here’s Judy, who was nervous about answering a few questions, and now look at her up there! She’s leading all these women to be better wives and mothers and followers of Jesus. That’s what elders do with women in the church. So it’s the opposite of oppression; it’s empowerment. It’s protecting and affirming who they are.

Johnson: This is a flat and fluid model of leadership. So, if we know our people, love them, and empower them to lead in an area of responsibility, we’re not lording it over them. We’re not keeping them under our thumbs. This is an environment where people want to stay; it creates incredible health not only in the church staff but throughout the church. It becomes a place where people are highly regarded and valued.

In our next post, we will address gender and marriage, specifically how men and women should relate to one another to fully obey God’s good design as revealed in Scripture. After that, we plan to summarize the teachings of this series in one final post.

(For more information on e2 effective elders, see e2elders.org.) 

[1] See Mary Steward Van Leeuwen, A Sword between the Sexes?: C.S. Lewis and the Gender Debates (Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2010), 49.

[2] See Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2008), 116, 118.