Can women be Elders in the Local Church?


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).  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 honor, 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 backdrop 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 (Rom.15:4). 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 some of these passages.


 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). 

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. 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 behavior 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).

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.

Ephes. 4:15-16 But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: [16] 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.