Should Women Be Elders / Overseers? (Post 10)

As you can see by the note ‘Post 10’ in the title, we are drawing toward a conclusion in a series of discussions about the nature of ministry based on the practice amongst congregations in the first century. Because the previous posts lay a foundation for re-thinking the nature of ministry, the meaning of authority and what is going on in passages like 1 Timothy 2, please consider reading those posts before this one if you haven’t already done so.

While it is fine to look at issues conceptually, at some point in the practical life of local congregations, the question will need to be asked: Are there certain ministry roles or functions that, assuming solid life and doctrine as core qualifications, are open only to men on an ongoing basis regardless of culture?

Culture is a tricky thing isn’t it? It is possible to label something in the Bible as cultural to avoid or dismiss things we don’t like. But the Bible cannot be a ‘pick and choose’ based on our preferences. We must learn to read and study it as consistently as possible.

And yet, almost all Christians will acknowledge that there are some things in regular New Testament practice that are indeed connected to a particular culture and that we don’t need to practice today. For example, I’ve never been greeted with a ‘holy kiss.’ Even among conservative churches, very few require women to cover their heads. Nobody that I’m aware of would claim that the instruction ‘slaves obey your masters’ represents God’s ideal for all time.

How do we discern a consistent way to read the Bible (fancy word: hermeneutic) that’s not simply picking and choosing what we like and don’t like?

I believe we must seek to develop a big picture biblical theology that tracks through the biblical storyline of creation, sin, redemption and full restoration and that makes the best sense of the whole of Scripture in context including the major themes of kingdom and new creation. I’ve tried to do some of that work throughout these posts in relation to power dynamics and men and women.

As I’ve shared along the way, I believe that it’s clear in the Genesis accounts of creation and fall and in the teaching of Jesus and the actions of the Holy Spirit that God intends men and women to stand side by side and not in and over/under relationship of authority.

Jesus subverts power dynamics such that anyone – male or female – seeking ‘power over’ is missing the point of the nature of his kingdom.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that there is an indication in texts describing different gifts that the Holy Spirit gifts along gender lines.

I’m curious if you tend to read Ephesians 4 in a gendered way. And if so, does the text, like other lists of gifts, give any indication of male/female distinction?

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Ephesians 4:11-16

In previous posts we have seen that there is adequate reason to suspect that Junia was an apostle. We know for a fact that there were women prophets (Huldah in O.T., Anna, Philip’s daughters, the Acts 2 fulfillment of sons and daughters prophesying). Priscilla taught Apollos. The Samaritan woman at the well proclaimed Jesus to a whole town and women first declared (to the original Apostles) that Jesus had risen from the dead – the work of an evangelist.

Does it make sense to track through this passage and get to the calling of shepherd and say ‘nope, women can’t do that?’ If so, why?

Everything in this text and the community building mission in the New Testament is about discipling and equipping. ‘To equip his people for works of service so that the whole body might be built up…’

Let’s return to 1 Timothy 3. As I mentioned in the last post, the only thing in this list of qualifications specific to men rather than women is the qualification of ‘one women man.’ The ‘he’ language is supplied in order to make a coherent English translation and not present in the Greek New Testament.

Churches with consistently all male elders have wrestled with how to apply the ‘one woman men’ to different situations. Can a man who’s not married be an overseer? To say no would be consistent with a literal interpretation of this passage. But that means unmarried Paul isn’t qualified to be a church elder. Jesus couldn’t be a candidate. Does that make sense? Paul says at one point elsewhere that he thinks it would be better if more people would remain unmarried in order to focus on serving Christ.

I suspect many churches with all male elder teams would say, it’s not about being married so much as being faithful to your wife if you are married. But now we are saying that the only thing in this list consistency specific to men doesn’t mean only exactly what it says – it’s more of a principle.

If Paul did have men in mind in Ephesus in 1 Timothy 3, as seems to be the case, we might ask why that is the case? Is it a deeper theological paradigm? Or was it what was needed in that time and place for reasons why could consider but not be confident of, such as societal norms or false teaching?

This passage does not tell us whether it is intended to specifically exclude women and if so whether that is the case in all times and places. It tells Timothy and Titus what they were to do then and there. What is normative in all times and places and what is specific to a time and place?

And, importantly, how does all of this track with our big picture understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 through to Revelation 21 and 22? Will men be exclusively in certain roles on the new earth when God restores everything? This is something worth thinking about.

All of this is the context given to us to discern in our communities who God is raising up to serve functionally in the community as overseers and other areas of ministry.

I have been around both contexts – congregations that have elder teams made up of men and women and those that have only male elders. I’ve seen both work in healthy ways, so long as there is mature loving service not power or control, women’s voices are valued and included in other leadership roles (like deacon) and the elders understand that their responsibility isn’t to be the only voices in ministry and teaching but rather steward an environment where men and women can explore and develop their gifts in community.

Many of my friends think it’s clear that women should not be elders, and I respect them, so long as they have otherwise healthy views about the equality of women in the imagine of God and understand that the Spirit gifts and empowers women to minister. I will say once more though, that the people I respect the most on either side of this are the ones who appeal not only to one of two passages of Scripture but those that can interpret them in light of the whole of the biblical narrative.

My goal in this series has not been to convince you that my reading of Scripture is the correct one. Rather, I want you to think more deeply about these things. I want you to wrestle with some things you might have overlooked, to ask questions that might not have occurred to you. Perhaps you hold a different view than I do, but have re-thought a certain aspect of it.

I do hope that if you came to this series with the strong belief that women are excluded from certain ministry roles and functions that you will see a consistent biblical case can be made for a different perspective.

As for me, I believe that God is at work in Christ and through the Spirit to bring about the restoration of all that was broken – including the intended side by side ruling / stewarding of the earth by men and women. I believe we are to complement one another in our differences without hierarchy or power over one another.

Jesus announced that the the kingdom of God is at hand. Peter announced the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel that in the last days men and women, young and old will speak God’s word. The Holy Spirit gifts men and women to serve another another in the body of Christ – with him alone as our head – until we all reach unity and maturity.

I believe that we must insist that those who oversee our collective ministry and shepherd us are people who are deeply shaped in the way of Christ – both in the way that they live and in their understanding of the good news – the story of King Jesus bringing the reign of God.

I don’t see anything to lose and much to gain by including both these kinds of men and women in those who are watching over the flock.

My desire is not to force you toward this conclusion yourself, but rather open up space to think again. Not to move beyond the Scriptures but deeper in – to the big story that God is telling.

Let’s continue to study and discern together.

Author: Dan Masshardt

Husband, Father, Pastor...

2 thoughts on “Should Women Be Elders / Overseers? (Post 10)”

  1. Dan, you might consider making the following edit:Current text:How do we discern a consistent way to read the Bib

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