Women in Eldership?

Article by Bill Petri


As early as Mosaic times women were affirmed as leaders of God's people. Miriam, for example, was sent by the Lord (along with her two brothers) to "lead" (Hebrew - "helitika") the people of Israel during the wilderness years.

Micah 6:4

For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

Miriam was held in such high regard as a leader that the Israelites would not travel until she was at the helm (Numbers 12:1-16). Micah 6:4 is particularly important because it shows that Miriam's role was traditionally and historically understood as a leadership role by the community of faith for some five hundred years.

Deborah's role during the pre-monarchical period is described in leadership language. According to Judges 4:4-5, she held court in the hill country of Ephraim, between Ramah and Bethel, and men and women alike came to her to have their disputes settled. Her stature as a judge was high and her leadership exemplary. Her ability to command was therefore a matter of record. When the tribes of Israel were incapable of unifying themselves against their northern Canaanite oppressors, Deborah not only united them but also led them on to victory (Judges 4:5-24). The commander of her troops simply refused to go into battle without her (4:8). In her honour, the community of faith named the site of her very public ministry "the palm tree of Deborah."

Huldah provided similar leadership during the time of the divided monarchy. Although there were other prestigious prophets around (such as Nahum and Zephaniah), it was Huldah's counsel concerning the Book of the Law that King Josiah sought out. It was her warning to obey everything written therein that brought about the well-known religious reforms of the seventh century BC (2 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 34:14-33).

It is with the back drop of established historical facts that God used women in eldership capacity in the Old Testament, that we turn our attention to the writings of the Apostle Paul, the Apostle of this Dispensation of Grace. Our Apostle, in the book of Romans, states the following:

Romans 15:4

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.

Hence, we cannot dismiss the examples of the Old Testament. Typically, most Grace believers will go to one of three passages to try to disprove the established biblical fact of women in eldership. I would like to discuss each of these passages.

1.) 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

These two verses certainly deserve attention, for they command the silence of women in the churches. The reader must, however, be careful to read the entire chapter in its context, or else Paul ends up flatly contradicting what he says earlier in the letter to Corinth. According to 1 Corinthians 11:2-5, women were anything but silent, and Paul commends them for it: Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you... But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth...

Some would try to dismiss the prophetic activity of women in 1 Corinthians 11: (1) Paul (in their opinion) was speaking only hypothetically, (2) the setting was not a formal one, and hence the prophecy not authoritative, or (3) prophetic activity was vertical (talking to God and for God) versus horizontal (exercising authority over another person). Yet there is nothing at all hypothetical about the grammar, for Paul puts everything in the indicative (the mood of fact) and not in the subjunctive (the mood of possibility). Furthermore, the setting is most assuredly formal (that is, public corporate worship). Additionally, there is nothing vertical about prophetic activity. Prophecy, by definition, was a spiritual gift intended to build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:4); it was exercised when believers gathered as a local assembly (1 Corinthians 11:17; 14:26-33). Tongue speaking, however, is definitely vertical (1 Corinthians 14:2-3).

1 Cor. 14:2-3

For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him (vertical); howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. [3] But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort (authoritative).

The ramification should be very clear. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-5 women are prophesying in the church, and here in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is stating that it had a three-fold purpose in the local church: first, it was to edify the entire church; second, it was to exhort the entire local church; lastly, it was to comfort the entire church. All of this was done publicly. It is very obvious that Paul cannot be telling women to be silent in reference to prophesying in the church, to do so would contradict his instructions in 1 Corinthians 11. Why then does he state what he does in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?

We must keep Paul's words in context. The context in 1 Corinthians 14 is specifically the gift of tongues. In this context Paul states six truths.

A.) Tongues are for the benefit of the nation Israel (1 Cor.14:21; 1 Cor.1:22; Isa.28:11; Mk.16:17-18; Heb.2:4).

B.) Tongues are for the purpose of convincing unbelieving Jews (1 Cor.14:22; Jn.4:48; 1 Cor.1:22).

C.) No more than three people are to speak in tongues at any one meeting (1 Cor.14:27).

D.) Each of the three persons is to wait his turn to speak (1 Cor.14:27,33,40).

E.) One person is to interpret (1 Cor.12:27-28).

F.) Only men were allowed to speak in tongues, not women. In the use of tongues women were to be in silence!

1 Cor. 14:27

If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.

1 Cor. 14:34

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

The fact that Paul already showed how women were to prophesy, and that all prophesying was for edification, exhortation, and comfort of the local church clearly proves that verse 34 has limits in regards to where a woman's silence was to be heeded.

2.) 1 Timothy 2:11-15

The first step in addressing this passage is to be clear about the letter as a whole. Why was Paul writing to Timothy? It certainly was not to provide routine instruction. His stance throughout is a corrective one. Paul is reacting to a situation that had got out of hand. False teachers needed silencing (1:3-7,18-20; 4:1-8; 5:20-22; 6:3-10,20-21). Two church leaders had been expelled (1:20), and the men of the congregation had become angry and quarrelsome (2:8). Women were dressing inappropriately (2:9) and learning in a disruptive manner (2:11-12). Some widows were going from house to house, speaking things they ought not to speak (5:13). Other widows had turned away from the faith altogether to follow Satan (5:15). Certain elders needed public rebuking because of their continuing sin (5:20). The congregation had turned to malicious talk, malevolent suspicions, and perpetual friction (6:4-5) and some members of the church had wandered from the faith (6:20-21). Overall, the church at Ephesus was an alarming scenario. It is very clear that Paul is addressing a local situation in which he has invested authority in Timothy to fix the problems plaguing the local church in Ephesus!

Some may object to this way of approaching 1 Timothy, but the Pastoral Epistles, like Paul's other letters, summon us to read them this way. After all, did not Paul specifically leave Timothy in Ephesus to oppose those who were teaching false doctrines (1 Tim.1:3)?

Many who address this passage try to negate the context by not addressing the issue of how the women are adorned. They do this by skipping over the beginning of Paul's correction to women as if it were not important to the discussion. This is important information which shows very clearly Paul is addressing a specific local issue. One need only to read Acts 19:24-35.

Many of the women who became members of the church at Ephesus were very familiar with the temple prostitutes of Diana. Paul begins his corrective instruction with the reality that women in the church at Ephesus were emulating the temple prostitute's mode of adorning. It is these same women Paul writes about again in his second letter to Timothy.

2 Tim. 3:6

For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts,

The women at Ephesus had become a major source of the problem at Ephesus. The women were under attack, the attack was to emulate the temple prostitutes of Diana! This led to misconduct in Christian lives, and it led to doctrinal impurity which was taking hold of the women in Ephesus house by house. Hence, Paul instructs Timothy to have the women be silent in Ephesus to stop this localized heresy.

Those who try to use the Greek word "hesuchia"(the word for silence) in 1 Timothy 2:12 to confirm the idea of a total lack of speech create a major problem for themselves. First, Paul addresses prayer in the local church with men (1 Timothy 2:8), and then starts his discussion of women with the words "in like manner." Women are to pray just as the men, and that is not silently. When Paul has absence of speech in mind, the word he chooses is (Greek) "sigao" (Rom.16:25; 1 Cor.14:28,30,34). When Paul has calm, quiet behaviour in mind, he uses "hesuchia" and its cognate forms (see 1 Tim 2:2; 1 Thess.4:11). Women in this passage are being encouraged to learn quietly, and in full submission to God's authority (in this case it would be to Timothy - the Bishop at Ephesus - before a completed word of God existed). He also instructs the women not to usurp authority. Usurpation entails the idea of taking by wrongful means. What the women were trying to do was to take authority (away from Timothy) that was not theirs to take. This passage does not say women do not have authority, but rather they are not to usurp it. Some will ask, "what about the issue of deception and the reference to Adam and Eve?"

Many assume that the passage is making a reference to the nature of women, but is it? If it is, then it is true of all women, and it is God's standard that all women be totally silent because of their nature, hence, no women could have authority over men. But we have seen already that God did indeed have women in places of authority over men throughout Scripture. So what is being communicated here? It is very clear that the women in Ephesus were deceived like Eve because they were uneducated; the principle is that the untrained are more susceptible to deception. This is why a novice cannot have an office (1 Tim.3:6).

3.) 1 Timothy chapter 3

1 Tim. 3:1

This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.

The word "man" in this verse comes from the Greek word "tis" - it means all mankind, or people, it is an enclitic indefinite pronoun. Therefore, it is gender neutral. "If any man (meaning all, both men and women) "desires the office of a bishop." Many will try to undercut this interpretation with the view that the passage mentions having a wife. This is a weak argument. First, if an individual is speaking to an audience with 95 men and 2 women, he/she will most often speak in male gender terms, just as Paul is doing in this passage. Second, the qualification in verse 4 is geared towards women in light of chapter 5 verse 14. The word "guide" in this verse comes from the Greek "oikadespoteo" which means to be the head of. This verse clearly states that it is women who guide, or are the head of the house. In the Corinthian church we have a woman head of a home church (1 Cor.1:11). In the book of Romans a woman apostle is named.

Romans 16:7

Salute Andronicus and Junia, (the masculine form of this word would be Julius) my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. Some think that "of note among the apostles" means simply that the apostles thought well of them. While this position is grammatically possible, Paul nowhere refers to the apostles as a group to whose opinion he appeals. Indeed, the most natural and common sense of "among" a group means that they are members of that group (see, for example, Rom.1:13; 8:29). It is amazing how many people will deny a woman a chance to have the office of bishop because the use of the word man must imply no woman, and yet they think nothing of having a non-married man assume the office, even though the instruction is very clear that he must be married and have children. I call this selective interpretation. We need to note that the office of a bishop has no qualifications for the spouse. The reason for this is that, predominately, it is a position of teaching and having authority in the Word of God .

Romans chapter 16 starts with the ministry of a dear sister named Phoebe, who is called a servant of the church at Cenchrea. The word servant is the Greek word "diakonos" which is translated in 1 Timothy 3 as deacon. Romans 16:2 implies that Paul vested authority in Phoebe, and that the Roman church needs to assist her in her work. Qualifications for the spouses of deacons are therefore given in 1 Timothy 3. The reason for this is that the office of deacon is in many ways a hospitality first office. They are servants to the church, not necessarily teachers of the Word. Hence, it is important for the spouse to have the same characteristics as the deacon. Again, the word "wife" is used because Paul is speaking to an audience which is heavily male.

In 1 Timothy 5 Paul talks about elders, but specifically women. We need to note their qualifications are almost the same as those listed in 1 Timothy 3. 1 Timothy 5:17 talks of the elders who rule well. The whole chapter, in context, is predominately a discussion of the elder women and widows. Nowhere in this passage do we have the right to change the discussion from elder men (5:1) and women (5:2) to a discussion of men only. To do so ignores the whole point of chapter 5. In fact, the word "elder" is the Greek word "presbutoros;" 64 times it is translated as elder, or elders, once as old man, and once as old woman. Clearly the use of this word is gender inclusive. Later on Paul tells Timothy to raise up individuals to perpetuate the ministry.

2 Tim. 2:2

And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.

The word "men" in this verse is the Greek word "anthropos." The English word "anthropology" comes from this word. The word means all mankind, a human being. It does not mean a gender. Those who do not know languages will try to use the faulty logic that this word is sometimes the root word for husband, so therefore it is a reference to males only. Using the same logic, consider the ramifications to the following verse:

1 Tim. 4:10

For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.

The word "men" in this verse is the same Greek word. Their argument, to be consistent, would then conclude that women cannot get saved because God is the Saviour to men only. How laughable that thinking becomes; how dangerous to try to fit your view of ministry into such a narrow inaccurate presumption.

Paul is indeed saying that we are to raise up faithful men and women who shall be able to teach others, and to literally be the elders of local churches.

I would like to conclude with a challenge to all of us. Let us be students of the Word of God, not followers of some archaic system used to deny half the population the ability to exercise their places within the Body of Christ. Let us heed Paul's words in Ephesians:

Ephesians 4:15-16

But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:

From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.

Click here to return to home page