The service of female elders is consistent with scripture, per some Churches of Christ congregations. This article explains the view that the Bible authorizes female elders.
Part 1 of this article series describes how a growing number of Church of Christ congregations have, after closely studying scripture, lifted their prohibition on women speaking in the worship assembly, introduces 10 that have done so, and cites a (incomplete) list of gender-inclusive Churches of Christ maintained by Wiley Clarkson at Where the Spirit Leads.
These congregations differ in how they handled the question of appointing women as elders.
A few indicate it is scriptural to appoint female elders (some postponing implementation), some deferred the decision until later, and some decided scripture requires elders to be men. Other congregations approached the issue similarly.
Scripture Authorizing Female Elders
Below is a description of six ways scripture authorizes female elders from various viewpoints. They are provided after the modern traditional interpretation is given as background. Each is described mostly from the viewpoint of that interpretation.
The six are:
#1: The Bible authorizes male elders in some verses (referring to “husband of one wife”) and authorizes female elders in some previously misperceived verses, including 1 Tim 3:11 (the women elders (overseers) and women deacons are to act in the same way as stated for men elders and deacons) and Titus 2:3-5 (using the Greek term for female elders, the feminine of the Greek term widely recognized as meaning at least male elders in Titus 1:5, and describing how they should teach what is good).
#2: The surrounding Biblical text sends very clear signals that “husband of one wife,” viewed as a specific rule, applies to the culture, time, and people to which it was written approximately 1900 years ago and not to today—- these signals include surrounding verses that say men lift holy hands when praying, women not wear gold, widows not receive church assistance unless they are known for washing Christians’ feet, and slaves obey their masters, etc., which are obviously applicable as specific rules to the culture, time, and people of the 1st century to which it was directed and not today. Those, passages express principles for today rather than specific rules for today and accordingly, while faithfulness to one’s spouse is needed today, that it be a “husband” is not. Just like women not wearing gold and slaves obeying their masters are not specific rules for today, “husband of one wife” is not, either.
#3: The qualifications expressed in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 were not meant as a check-list of requirements in the first place, but were meant as one, an overall expression of a model type of person, and two, a model to which overseers are to aspire. No one — not Jesus, not the Apostle Paul, and not your elders — could serve as an elder if those were a literal, prerequisite checklist—i.e., not a single person on the planet meets the qualifications if they are treated as a literal check-list of requirements. They simply express the concept that an elder should strive to be upstanding in God’s and people’s view. And each item is considered in context with the whole (e.g., the actions of the person’s children are considered, if they have children, along with the rest of their character, actions, and relevant qualifications as a whole).
#4: God asks women throughout the Bible to carry out the functions of an elder, including to speak to, teach, lead, and have authority over men, thus asking them to serve as an elder or overseer. There are more than 20 passages in the Bible that do so. Women are are authorized and told to use the gifts they received in 1 Peter 4:10-11, to serve others and to speak “as one who speaks the very words of God” and “with the strength God provides.” Male elders and female elders are authorized throughout the Bible. It is contrary to God’s expressed will in the Bible to block women from this role and these functions.
#5: “Husband of one wife” is a prohibition qualification, not a requirement qualification. Marriage is not a requirement of anyone. Nor is being a man. Paul, in fact, discouraged marriage. Early church fathers recognized “husband of one wife” is a statement of prohibition, not a requirement. They recognized that it simply prohibited polygamy and did not express a requirement. Men would engage in polygamy (women would not), so the prohibition is expressed in terms of men. In other words, in context, the phrase literally means if the person is a man and if they are married, they cannot have more than one wife at a time. Early church fathers explained that marriage is not required, seeing the phrase as prohibition on polygamy.
#6: “Husband of one wife” is an idiom meaning maintaining fidelity to one’s spouse. There are many places in the Bible where idioms are used. For example, Matthew 22:16 states Jesus does not “look to the face of men.” This is widely recognized as meaning not being partial or not being swayed by appearances, not that Jesus never looked any male humans in the face. There are also many places where a male-sounding word is used to refer to women and men. For example, Acts 17:34 states “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
Applicable to all six, note one way we know the Apostle Paul did not think “husband of one wife” barred women from serving as elder is that he used the same phrase, “husband of one wife,” to refer to deacons (1 Tim 3:12) and Paul says Phoebe is a deacon (Romans 16:1-2). It is well recognized now that 1 Tim 3:11 just as likely, many say more likely, refers to at least female deacons rather than deacon’s wives.
Indeed, females are more frequently mentioned as elders or deacons than males in the New Testament. Elders and deacons are discussed specifically only 4 times in the New Testament, and females are discussed explicitly 3 out of those 4 and are implied the 4th. Males are discussed in only 3 of the 4.
Elders and deacons:
- Romans 16:1-2 (female deacon identified by name, Phoebe)
- 1 Tim 3 (elders and deacons, males discussed explicitly and females discussed explicitly in v 11)
- Titus (male elders (1:5-9, possibly including female elders in v. 5, as the masculine of Greek terms was used to refer to males and females together) and, in addition, female elders (2:2-3) possibly discussed explicitly, same Greek term used in both, masculine in former and feminine in latter)
- 1 Peter 5 (male elder Peter exhorting elders, using masculine plural but masculine plurals in Greek used to indicate both male and female persons, possibly both here an in Titus 1:5)
Each Independent: Just Takes One of These Six Reasons
Each of these six reasons above are independent. That is, any one of them is sufficient to appoint women as elders. If you reject five of them but agree with one, for example, that is sufficient and you see that female elders is consistent with scripture.
Traditional Interpretation: Elders today must be male because the Bible refers only to male elders.
People generally point only to two passages that address qualifications for being an elder or overseer of a church: 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. (1 Peter 5:1-4 is sometimes referenced, too.)
The modern traditional view — a view emphasized in the 20th century — is as follows:
(a) 1 Tim 3:1-7 appears in a letter from Paul to Timothy. It does not say “elders must be men,” but since the passage uses only male pronouns in referring to overseers and says that the overseer must be faithful to “his wife” (or must be “the husband of one wife”), churches infer that overseers (aka elders) must be men.
“… Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, …. 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 ….”
King James Version: Inserts Male Words That Aren’t There
Note that the King James Version says this:
This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;
4 One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;
5 (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
6 Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.
7 Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
Notice it says at the outset that if “a man” desires the office and then refers throughout to “he,” “his,” “man,” etc. You can see how a reader would understand that the person filling this role has to be a man.
But in not a single instance does the word man, he, his, etc., appear in the original Greek. Not a single instance.
Sexist Bias Much?
The creators of the KJV translation in the early 1600s assumed that an elder / bishop must be a man, so they inserted “he,” “his,” “man,” etc., translating it to appear in the Bible as if an elder / bishop has to be a man.
It was a patriarchal, discriminatory time then, with the Roman Catholic Church having discriminated against women, too, for centuries.
Even though there is not a single instance of the word man, he, his, etc., in the original Greek of this passage, it appeared in the KJV — the most-used English translation ever —- for centuries and continues to appear!
This, in turn, influenced other translators and translations, as new translations often try not to stray too far from the KJV or many people will not purchase the new translation.
So, when many people today say an elder has to be a man, a big part of the reason is that they and their teachers and their teachers’ teachers were taught with the KJV, which says an elder has to be a man.
But that is not what the Bible says. Not once.
Three Words Alleged Now to Bar Women and Girls Forever
The only thing 1 Tim 3 says even in the ballpark is “husband of one wife.”
In the Greek: μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα — mias gynaikos andra — one woman (or wife) man (or husband).
Based on that phrase, women are barred from serving as elders since they cannot be a “husband,” per this view.
(b) Titus 1:5-9 appears in a letter from Paul to Titus. In it, Paul asks Titus to “appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” It says an “elder must be … faithful to his wife” (or “the husband of one wife”), “whose children believe ….” Since Paul indicates the elder must be “the husband of one wife,” elders must be men, per this view.
“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. … [H]e must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, …. Rather, he must be hospitable, one … who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine ….”
Titus 1:6 contains the same Greek phrase: μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ — mias gynaikos aner — — one woman (or wife) man (or husband).
Aner is used as a masculine singular noun in both 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:6, but is used in the accusative in the former (likely one of the direct objects of the verb einai) and nominative in the latter (likely as a the subject of a phrase or clause).
Since the Bible does not refer to a female elder, female elders are not authorized by God, per the traditional interpretation.
Views Today: The Six Reasons Expanded
The view of many churches today, after studying scripture on the matter, is as follows (one or more of these):
#1: The Bible refers to female elders, so it is fine to appoint female elders today.
(a) 1 Tim 3:11 refers to female elders and/or deacons. After describing qualifications for male elders (1 Tim 3:1-7) and male deacons (3:8-10), Paul addresses qualifications for female elders and/or deacons. Paul does it in a short-hand manner, after already having given qualifications for elders and deacons, indicating women need to have generally the same kind of qualifications as men. He does it in an aside in verse 11, then returns to additional qualifications for male deacons in verse 12 and closes as to both in verse 13.
“In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.”
Verse 11 was once viewed as referring to wives of deacons, but it uses the same word in plural form (gynaikas) used in 1 Tim 2:12 in singular form (gynaiki) that can mean either woman/women or wife/wives, and it likely means the same thing in both. (Of course, many view 1 Tim 2:12 as referring to a wife/husband relationship.). Today, even very conservative scholars acknowledge that verse 11 can mean at least female deacons.
(b) Titus 2:3-5 refers to qualifications for female elders.
Titus 2:3 refers to presybytidas, the feminine plural form of the same masculine plural form used in Titus 1:5 widely acknowledged as referring to at least male elders, presybterous. Since Titus 2:3 uses the feminine form of the word used in Titus 1:5 that indisputably refers to male elders, Titus 2:3 refers to and gives the qualifications for female elders. Moreover, as the masculine version of a Greek word is often used to refer to both male and female persons, the use of presybterous may refer to both female and male elders.
“Likewise, teach the presybytidas to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.”
(c) Indeed, Titus 2:3 parallels the same types of qualifications given in 1 Tim 3 for male elders (some parallel examples noted with like numbers between the two passages, right before the relevant parallel subjects):
1 Tim 3
|“… Now the overseer is to be (1) above reproach, (2) faithful to his wife, (3) temperate, (4) self-controlled, (5) respectable, (6) hospitable, (7) able to teach, (8) not given to drunkenness, …. He must (9) manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner (10) worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, (11) how can he take care of God’s church?) ….”|| “Likewise, teach the presybytidas to be (1) reverent in the way they live, (8) not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to (7) teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to (9) love their husbands and children, to be (3-4) self-controlled and (5, 10) pure, to be (9) busy at home, to be (6) kind, and to be (2) subject to their husbands, (11) so that no one will malign the word of God.”
(d) 1 Tim 3:11 and Titus 2:2-3 have not traditionally been translated in the major translations as elder, likely because of the assumption in the past that women could not be elders, somewhat similar to how Junia in Romans 16:7 was changed and written as the male name Junias for a very long time, likely because of the assumption that women could not be apostles. (A few translations translate Titus 2 as “elder” or “elder women,” such as the Aramaic Bible in Plain English and Darby Bible.) People are waking up to this now. (1 Tim 5:9-10 might also refer to female elders, referring to calling out from among the others only if she is more senior, be the wife of one husband, etc.)
Thus, the Bible explicitly refers to qualifications for female elders, authorizing female elders today.
#2: The passages traditionally cited as addressing elder qualifications— in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 — do so for a specific time, culture, people, etc., and thus express general principles for today rather than specific rules for today.
(a) Both 1 Timothy and Titus were written as personal letters from Paul to Timothy and Titus, respectively. (1 Tim 1:1-2; Titus 1) They had a history and knew how one another communicated. The letters were written to explain to Timothy and Titus how to deal with specific issues in specific cities at specific times. (e.g., 1 Tim 1:1-7, 18-20; Titus 1)
They were completions of conversations Paul and Timothy and Titus had already begun (e.g., Tim 1:5), so they might have simply already identified some male candidates or had discussed particular situations and needs and were continuing their conversation by letter.
(b) The letters include multiple matters that are for a particular time, culture, people, etc. These include:
- “I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands ….” (1 Tim 2:8)
- “I also want the women to dress … not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls …” (1 Tim 2:9)
- “No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, … [and] washing the feet of the Lord’s people ….” (1 Tim 5:9-10)
- “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them ….” (Titus 2:9)
- “[D]o your best to come to me at Nicopolis, because I have decided to winter there.” (Titus 3:12)
- “Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need.” (Titus 3:13)
These are not commands for us today, but are matters from which we can draw guidance from their principles. The same is true for “husband of one wife” and the collective group of qualifications.
It is hypocritical to insist that only men can be elders while not insisting that men lift up holy hands when they pray, that no woman with braid hair or wearing gold or pearls can enter the church, that widows cannot receive assistance unless they have washed the feet of many Christians, slaves must be subject to their masters and not talk back, that we go to Nicopolis, and that we do everything we can to help lawyers and see they have everything they need.
That is, these are strong signals that statements in 1 Timothy or Titus that only men can be elders are not commands and only the principles from those statements (e.g., elders should be people worthy of respect, they should be faithful to their spouse, etc.) are to be used as criteria for elders today.
(c) This is confirmed by passages throughout the Bible in which God affirms women and men taking on the same roles.
Notably, for example, in Genesis 1:26-31, God blesses and gives the same role to women and men:
“God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. … And it was so. …”
And Galatians 3:28, as another example, says:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
(d) Saying that these commands of 1 Tim or Titus ought to be followed in the household of God or in all the churches or concepts along those lines is not contrary to the concept that the specific commands are just for a particular time, culture, or people, etc., while the principles or lessons of the commands are timeless, for example, just like the specific commands to lift holy hands, not wear gold or pearls, wash feet, and teach slaves to be subject to their masters while their principles and lessons are timeless.
Accordingly, any portion of 1 Tim or Titus that suggests men as elders is highly likely, at most, a specific time-and-culture reference and it is inappropriate to follow that aspect as a command for all time. Instead, the principles of the passage (such as upstanding Christians ought to be appointed) should be followed, as is done with these other passages in 1 Tim and Titus.
#3: 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 were meant in the first place as (a) non-literal principles or guidelines, not a literal check-list, and (b) not prerequisites for a job.
(a) First, were the “qualifications” in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 meant in the first place as (i) a check-list of literal requirements such that a candidate has to meet every single one of them to “qualify” and remain an elder or deacon or (ii) guidelines or principles of the kind of person sought?
You probably think your church falls into category (i), but it probably falls into category (ii).
Read 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 literally as a check-list of qualifications and think about your elders and deacons.
Here are some items on the literal check-list (there are more).
Do your elders meet all these? —
- above even being able to express disapproval or disappointment about them at all (“above reproach”) (who on the planet meets this qualification?) (3:2)
- currently married (“husband”) (cannot be single, divorced, or widowed)
- husband of one wife (married to only one woman; cannot be divorced or widowed and remarried)
- moderate in all things (“temperate”) (do they own a large home? an unnecessary or fancy car? fancy clothes? take fancy or above-average vacation?)
- self-controlled (does he stay under control at all times?)
- hospitable (do they open up their home regularly? do they welcome people into their home? are they friendly?)
- able to teach (are they able to get up on their feet and speak in front of people?)
- never has one too many beers or glasses of wine (3:3)
- has a family (3:4)
- manages his own family (does he manage his family? or does his wife help manage the family?)
- his children obey him (do they ever disobey?)
- he makes sure his children obey him (“see that his children obey him”)
- must not be a recent convert (3:6)
- must have a good reputation with outsiders (3:7)
- has more than one child (must have “children”) (1 Tim 3:4) (Titus 1:6)
- all of his children must be believers and faithful (Titus 1:6) (are any of his children non-believers? do they go to non-churches of Christ? are they faithful?)
- none of his children can be open even to the charge of being wild or unruly (how are his children behaving? could anyone plausibly say any one of his children are wild or unruly?)
- none of his children can be open even to the charge of being disobedient (have any of them sinned publicly? is that obedient? could anyone plausibly say they are wild?)
- “blameless” / “above reproach” (blameless is a high standard, basically never blame-able; hence the not ever / always … Who on the planet meets this standard?)
- not ever overbearing (1:7)
- not ever quick-tempered
- always hospitable (1:8)
- always “holy”
- always disciplined / temperate / self-controlled (is he overweight? does he always eat right? Let’s take a look at his plate(s) at the next church pot-luck. Has he ever had any financial problems? Has he ever had one too many beers?)
- encourages others by sound doctrine (does he speak out?) (1:9)
Would the Apostle Paul, the author of 1 Tim and Titus, qualify as an elder under a literal, check-list approach?
He is missing several of the literal check-list items. He was not the husband of one wife. He did not have children. He did not have a good reputation with outsiders.
Would Jesus qualify as an elder under a literal, check-list approach?
He, too, is missing several of the literal check-list items.
Do your elders qualify as elders?
No, no one but Jesus is above reproach, blameless, and holy.
And odds are good that do not meet at least one other of these qualifications, too (moderate in all things? what about their kids (any can be said to be wild? non-believer? ever not obey? open to the charge of being disobedient or wild?) always disciplined (are they overweight?) only one child? …..)
It is OK for a person to be an elder without one or more of the check-list items? Like … “a man”? Like “husband of one wife”?
So, point #1: It would make much more sense, for example, to realize that “husband of one wife” indicates that if the person is a husband, then to be an elder they need to be married to only one woman (and is not a polygamist), rather than exclude both the writer of the letter (the Apostle Paul) and the savior of the world and the head of the church (Jesus) from eligibility as an elder.
(In some scholars’ view, what is often translated “husband of one wife”—- in the Greek, “one woman man”—may have have been simply used as an idiom then for “monogamous” and thus gender-inclusive in the first place.)
(b) And point #2: The “qualifications” in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 are not a set of check-list requirements or qualifications in the first place.
They are simply expressions of guidelines to which an elder should aspire to live while being an elder. They are not pre-requisites for the job.
You can see this in part in Titus 1, as it says “[a]n elder must be”–not that someone who wants to be an elder must be. It is the same with 1 Timothy 3. Although it notes “whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task,” it goes on to say how an overseer is “to be”—i.e., while being an overseer—rather than stating requirements for a job candidate.
That is, 1 Tim and Titus 1 are merely assuming that Timothy and Titus have appointed a male while the passages are expressing how an elder should live. They are not saying that Timothy and Titus must appoint a male.
And point #3: These guidelines are not a check-list. They are an aspirational expression. No one lives up to all those items.
(d) Thus, 1 Tim 3 and 1 Tim are not “literal check-list qualifications” for becoming and remaining an elder and, accordingly, “man” is not a literal check-list requirement for becoming an elder.
#4: God asks women throughout the Bible to serve in the functions that people now want to block them from and then tells them serve.
There are more than 20 passages in the Bible asking women to speak to, teach, lead, and have authority over men, the functions of an overseer or elder in a congregation that people now argue women are blocked from. Deborah was a prophet and lead all of Israel. (Judges 4-5) God appointed female prophets. Female prophets included Anna, who prophesied in the Temple to men (Luke 2:36-38), Philips’ daughters (Acts 21:8-9), Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), and many others (Acts 2:17-18; 1 Cor 11:5). God asks women over and over and over again to speak to, teach, lead, and have authority over men, in an assembly and elsewhere, just as God asks men to do so.
God then tells women (and men): “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. ….” (1 Peter 4:10-11)
God asks women not to sit on the sideline with their gifts. It is a sin to block them from serving in where they can serve others, in its various forms, speaking as the one who speaks the very words of God. In none of those instances would or should they be limited. It is contrary to God’s will and a sin to block them.
And the functions of elder (and deacon) are discussed throughout the Bible with reference to women. For example —
- serving as an example (1 Peter 5:3) (e.g., Titus 2:3-5)
- keep watch over others (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2) (e.g., Matthew 23:27)
- labor in the word and teaching (1 Tim 5:17) (e.g., 2 Kings 22:11-20; Acts 18:24-26; Titus 2:3-5; 1 Cor 11:5, 14:23-25; Luke 2:25-38; John 20:16-18; Matt 28:9-10)
- manage own family well (1 Tim 3:4) (e.g., Proverbs 31:15; Titus 2:3-5; 1 Tim 5:14)
- have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim 3:7) (e.g., Proverbs 31:31)
- show hospitality (Titus 1:8) (e.g., 1 Tim 5:10)
- encourage others by sound teaching and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9) (e.g., 2 Kings 22:11-20; Acts 18:24-26)
- be trustworthy (Acts 14:23) (e.g., 1 Tim 3:11; Proverbs 31:11; )
- prophesy (1 Tim 4:14) (e.g., 1 Cor 11:5; Acts 21:8-9)
- stand firm in the faith (1 Peter 5:9) (e.g., 2 Tim 1:3-5)
#5: “Husband of one wife” is a requirement only if one is both married and a man.
“Husband of one wife” is a prohibition qualification, not a requirement qualification. It prohibits polygamy. It does not require marriage. Paul, in fact, discouraged marriage. And Paul was not married. Nor was Jesus.
Men of the time were sometimes polygamous. Women were not. So Paul targeted men to express a prohibition on polygamy for overseers when telling Timothy what to look for.
It thus prohibits an overseer from polygamy — if an overseer is a husband, the overseer can have only one wife — and does not require an overseer to be married, to be a “husband.”
Since “husband of one wife” is a prohibition on polygamy and not a requirement, it does not require the overseer to be a husband, much less a man.
Church Fathers explained that the meaning was as a prohibition and not a requirement. For example, Chyrsostom (349 – 407 AD) in Homily X, when writing on 1 Timothy 3:1-4, explained:
“A Bishop then,” he says, “must be blameless, the husband of one wife.” This he does not lay down as a rule, as if he must not be without one, but as prohibiting his having more than one.
In the same way that it does not lay down a rule that one must be married, it does not lay down a rule that one must be man.
#6: “Husband of one wife” is an idiom meaning maintaining fidelity to one’s spouse.
“Husband of one wife” is not a term that refers only to the fidelity of a husband to the husband’s wife, but also refers to the fidelity of a wife to the wife’s husband.
The phrase is an idiom — a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. Examples of idioms include “it is raining cats and dogs.”
There are many places in the Bible where idioms are used. For example, Job 35:8 states “Your wickedness is for a man like yourself, And your righteousness is for a son of man.” “Son of man” is widely recognized as referring to human beings.
Another example is Matthew 22:16, which states Jesus does not “look to the face of men.” This is widely recognized as meaning not being partial or not being swayed by appearances.
And there are also many places where a male-sounding word or phrase is used to refer to women and men. The “son of man” described above is one example. As another example, Acts 17:34 states “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
New Testament scholar Phillip B. Payne describes some detail around the phrase serving as such an idiom.
Thus, 1 Tim 3:2 authorizes female and male elders.
Confirmation from the Apostle Paul and the New Testament and the Whole Bible
The Apostle Paul himself indicates “husband of one wife” was not intended to express that women cannot serve in the role. The Bible expresses that deacons, too, should be “the husbands of one wife” (1 Tim 3:12), and Paul says Phoebe is a deacon (Romans 16:1-2) and it is acknowledged even by conservative scholars that 1 Tim 3:11 just as likely, many say more likely, refers to at least female deacons rather than deacon’s wives. Thus, we have it from Paul that “husband of one wife” was not expressed as a qualification for all.
Indeed, elders and deacons are discussed by naming the role itself only 4 times in the New Testament and females are discussed explicitly 3 out of those 4 times and are implied the 4th time. Males are discussed only 3 of the 4 times, so females are actually discussed more in relation to elders and deacons. Elders and deacons are discussed in Romans 16:1-2 (female deacon identified by name, Phoebe); 1 Tim 3 (elders and deacons, males discussed explicitly and females discussed explicitly in v 11), Titus (male elders (1:5-9) and female elders (2:2-3) discussed explicitly), and 1 Peter 5 (male elder Peter exhorting elders, using masculine plural but masculine plurals often used to indicate both male and female persons present).
And, as described above (#4), throughout the Bible, women are described with reference to the functions of an elder noted in 1 Tim and Titus.
1 Timothy 2:12
Many people’s views of 1 Timothy 2:12 assumes that the position of elder is essentially owned by men. That is, if a woman becomes an elder, she “usurps” something that is owned by a man. Under any part of any of the above views of scripture, though, such is not the case—i.e., men do not own the position of elder. And you have to treat 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 as a literal check-list applicable today for men to “own” the position of elder, too. Not making that assumption means it simply becomes a question of an individual usurping an individual, as 2:12 reads, not usurpation of one entire sex from another sex.
It is relatively straightforward to see that Paul specifies the kind of teaching and authority to which Paul is referring in 1 Tim at the very beginning of his letter in 1 Tim and in 1 Tim 2:12b—not all kinds, but the kind that involves teaching like a teacher of the law (authoritatively), but that is ignorantly done and false, carried out in an assertive and domineering (authentein) way and that disturbs the peace (1 Tim 1:3-7, 1 Tim 2:12b). An elder or teacher functioning appropriately, male or female, does not do this. Women in Ephesus likely needed a particular reminder about this, as some of them likely thought women were superior to men because the goddess Artemis, who was born before her male twin, dominated in many quarters in that city.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
Some argue that all women must be “silent in the churches” and thus cannot possibly be elders. Very few scholars, even very conservative ones, say that 1 Cor 14:34-35 means that women must not speak in the worship service. Indeed, only around 1 – 3% of Christianity practices that way, requiring women not to speak, teach, or actively serve at all in the worship service (and most of that 1 – 3% is the Churches of Christ) and the Apostle Paul himself says that singing in the worship service is speaking and teaching in the worship service (see, e.g., Ephesians 5:18-20; Colossians 3:16).
It is relatively straightforward to see that 1 Cor 14:34-35 refer to married women not speaking disruptive (non-submissive) questions in the assembly and instead asking those to their husbands at home, as speaking out otherwise causes a disgrace, as Paul has already used sigato (silence) twice in 1 Cor 14, each time referring to silence for the specific people and for the specific purpose to which Paul refers.
That is, when Paul says sigato in 14:28 with reference to tongues, it does not mean that a person must not read scripture, teach, prophesy, sing, etc., if there is no interpreter around. It just means sigato as to the specific subject referenced, tongues. When Paul says sigato, in 14:30 with reference to prophecy, it does not mean that a person must not read scripture, teach, speak in tongues, sing, etc., after someone else prophesies. By the time the reader or hearer of Paul’s letter gets to 14:34-35, they know how he is using sigato —- to refer to the specific subject referenced. So, when Paul says sigato in 14:34 and gives the specific subject (disruptive (non-submissive) questions asked by married women), the reader and hearer know what he means, not silence for all subjects for all time, but silence as to that subject when they want to ask a disruptive question. It was probably one to their husband.
Indeed, Paul had already recognized women speaking in an assembly in 1 Cor 11:5 and had already said several times in 1 Cor 14 that everyone — women and men, the whole church, all — is to speak in the assembly.
Indeed, in the Bible God asks women over and over and over again to speak to, teach, lead and have authority over men, in an assembly and elsewhere. An interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12, 1 Cor 14:34-35, or 1 Tim 3:2 to say otherwise conflicts with a mound of scripture.
Conclusion for Part 2: Female Elders
These are the main, independent approaches relative to considering female elders under scripture. There are others and, of course, there is overlap among these in practice.
There are other considerations within scripture, such as having love for another and loving your neighbor, that are critical. Bearing on those is how important it is for young girls to have female congregational leaders as role models, mentors, and guides and for young girls not to see its congregation engaged in systematic sex discrimination. There was a recent study that found that having all male-congregational leaders was harmful to young girls in comparison to also having influential female congregational leaders.
It does not seem like it would take a study to know that having young girls witness systemic sex discrimination against themselves and their moms for years, carried out by their church, would harm many of them, spiritually, psychologically, and physically. And having role models with which young girls can identify, in the form of female elders, is important for their spiritual and other development.
For the most part, the materials posted by Churches of Christ congregations do not go into detail on their reasoning on the question of elder. They often simply run out of steam—it takes a lot of time and energy within the Churches of Christ denomination to address women’s roles in the church and the question of female elders, it appears to me, is often considered late or is put off because of the sensitivities associated with it. Thus, the categories of reasoning described here are derived not just from their discussions, but mostly from other sources discussing scriptural analysis relative to female elders and my reading of the scripture.
What do you think about the scripture?
Can a female be an elder under scripture? Why or why not?
Whose burden is it? Is that women must not serve until someone proves she can? Or is that it is wrong to block women unless someone proves she cannot?
What part does Galatians 3:28 play? —
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
For part 1 of this article: See Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: List and Links (Part 1),” AuthenticTheology.com (March 26, 2019).
Substantially Updated: November 27, 2019 (added #4, edited)
Sources & Notes
For part 1 of this article: See Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: List and Links (Part 1),” AuthenticTheology.com (March 26, 2019).
See generally Two Views on Women in Ministry (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Zondervan), Dr. Linda Belleville’s portion in particular.
See generally sources cited in Steve Gardner, “(Part 2) Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women from Leading in Worship Services: Scriptural? and a College Visit,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 16, 2018).
For (2)(a): I note the possibility that 1 Tim 3:11 refers to female elders, though the scholarship points to 1 Tim 3:11 referring to female deacons. I note both here for completeness and since the article is discussing elders.
For (4): See Tim and Anne Evans, “Female Elders: Selective Literalism,” CBEInternational.org (November 30, 2015) (asking since some churches insist on strict literalism relative to 1 Tim 3 regarding elders in requiring them to be men, do those churches insist on strict literalism for men in relation to the other requirements?).
See also Marg Mowczko, “Were There Women Elders in New Testament Churches?,” MargMowczko.com (January 9, 2017) (arguing Priscilla is a female elder, based on Acts 18:24-26, 2 Tim 1:2, 4:19, and Romans 16:3-5).
I started to describe the analysis of individual Churches of Christ in some detail, but determined that it would take too much time. So, I have provided an outline of four general approaches. It appears that the Churchess of Christ that considered the issue fit into the first three, but it is difficult to tell. Very few have approved female elders. It was more difficult to determine their approach to the elder question, generally, than it was to the question of women speaking in the assembly (e.g., reading scripture, leading singing, leading prayer, and preaching).
Some churches view 1 Tim 2:12 to mean that women cannot engage in a “final-type” authoritative teaching, which might be required of an elder. Part of their reasoning, however, is based on an assumption that 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 provide that only men can be elders. If they recognize that women can be elders, they might also recognize that Paul does not just say in the opening paragraphs of his letter (1 Tim 1) that the type of teaching/authority he references in 1 Tim 2:12 is “final-type” authoritative teaching, but instead Paul tells us that the kind of teaching/authority he references in 2:12 is, a “final-type” authoritative teaching of false doctrine (1 Tim 1:3, 7) done while not knowing what one is talking about (1:7) that breaches the peace (1:4, 2:12b) and domineers men (2:12b).
For a detailed discussion regarding why 1 Tim 2:12 does not bar women from teaching or having authority generally (including not barring them from serving as an elder), see Steve Gardner, “Most Churches of Christ No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: Violates 1 Timothy 2:12? …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 30, 2018).
Congregations in the second two categories generally view admonitions like those in 1 Cor 14:37 as affirming that 1 Cor includes “commandment’s of the Lord” but note that there is nothing that indicates that any specific commandment is applicable for all time or applicable to other cultures, situations, and people..” And they generally view statements like those in 1 Tim 3:14-15 as affirming that 1 Tim includes instructions to Timothy on how he ought to behave (“how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God”), rather than instructions to everyone, everywhere on how they ought to behave, and, regardless, not indicating that it gives rules for behavior for all time or that the specific instructions (rather than general principles) are the “how,” for example. Some argue that 1 Tim 3:15 means that all the statements in 1 Tim are for all congregations and for all people for all time, and not for a specific time, cultural, or people. 1 Tim 3:15 says 1 Timothy is written so Timothy may know how to conduct himself, not that everyone may know how to conduct themselves. The KJV states, for example (to Timothy): “that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God ….” Also, 1 Tim 3:15 says that 1 Tim, or parts of it, were written to know how to behave in the house of God (among all Christians) still does not mean that it not specific to the referenced location, culture, or time (e.g., how to behave among all Christians in that location, culture, and time), as Paul had already said the subject of this correspondence in the opening paragraphs of 1 Tim.
Fundamentalists, traditionalists, misogynists, sexists, sex-discrimination advocates, those who refuse to believe that their ancestors could have possibly been wrong about this, men who want to protect their place and position, men who want to protect the job market for preachers and other positions from women, people who want matters generally to favor their sons, people who do not like to listen to women preachers, and those who simply do not women to serve as elders or preachers promote this theory: God told us to discriminate against women —- to discriminate against women by prohibiting them from being elders, preachers, and pastors, and from other positions in the church that some claim relate to “husband of one wife” — and God did this by planting the instruction in an oblique comment and indirect statement in three words (repeated once) near the end of the Bible.
Of course not everyone who favors barring women from being an elder or preacher is engaged in discrimination with bad intent. Many are doing so out of negligence.
Note there are arguments that elder and deacon are not “offices” at all, but are simply ways to serve.
The picture is by Almadrava on pixabay.
Relative to 1 Tim 3:11, part of the reason many translations emphasize that it refers to “women” (rather than putting “wives” in the text) is the context of the phrase. The “In the same way” preamable in v. 11 is the same phrase (“in the same way”) that precedes the discussion of male deacons in v. 8. In other words, using that same phrase both places suggests that vv. 1-7 discussed male elders and then the text uses “in the same way” to lead into vv. 8-10’s discussion of male deacon appointees and uses “in the same way” to lead into v. 11’s discussion of female appointees, at least deacons and possibly female elders but female deacons are emphasized by many writers, with v. 11 essentially saying they should have those same qualities as just referred to (“in everything”).
Many translations, old and new, have it translated “women” in the text. Most of the current ones that have “wives” in the text have a footnote that say could be women or women deacons or something like that. And most of the current ones that say women drop a footnote and say could also be women deacons or could be wives of deacons.
With the attributes in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1, Paul paints a picture of the kind of person that an elder should aim to be, an upstanding person in the eyes of God and people. If the have children, those children should be upstanding. If they are a husband, it should be of one wife. If they have a family, they manage that family well. If they have a reputation with outsiders, it needs to be a good one. A woman can aim to be upstanding in God’s and people’s eyes just like a man can.
One cannot pick and choose and make some of the qualifications literal requirements and some of them not. Picking and choosing is altering the scripture. Either those are all literal requirements or none of them are. It is fairly obvious none of them are. And it seems pretty ridiculous to interpret the scripture such that neither Jesus nor Paul would qualify as an elder in our churches. When one interpretation of the scripture would exclude Jesus and another interprtatin would not, if the latter is a reasonable interpretation, it seems much more likely that the latter is the correct interpretation. The former interpretation ends up with a nonsensical result: a person with all the qualifies of our savior—-the head of the church ! —- would be excluded from being an elder for not being the “husband of one wife” and for not having children.
It is important to pay attention to this for many reasons, including because it is contrary to God’s word, because sex discrimination of this manner is immoral and a sin, because the practice hurts the spiritual growth of the church, because the practice has been shown to cause long-term harm to young girls (who watch themselves, their female friends, and their moms be discriminated against Sunday after Sunday after Sunday ….), ….
When the whole Bible is considered and when the few verses to which people point to exclude women are considered *in context* rather than just a few sentences quoted out of context and then the Bible is closed, it is pretty easy to see that God asks both women and men to speak to, teach, lead, and have authority over men. What happens most of the time is folks quote 3-4 sentences out of context that even the briefest pause on those sentences would show they don’t have the meaning that reading the sentences by themselves, out of context suggests.
Relative to female elders in the early church, the first and second century were times of extreme sex discrimination and sexism and records are minimal. Women were essentially men’s property and viewed as lesser beings. It impacted the church and the formation of the Catholic church. Priscilla, Mercuria, and Apollonia were likely female elders. We know there were female elders in some of the early churches. One reason is that Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea (~363) explicitly banned female elders from ordination in the church.
Essentially, that scripture says an elder should be “the husband of one wife” does not require an elder today to be a man for several reasons. One, (#2 in the article) the “husband of one wife” statement is among statements that are clearly expressed as ones whose specifics apply to 1st century culture, time, and people, not to today (like requiring men to “lift up holy hands”; women not to wear gold or pearls; widows not to receive assistance unless they are well-known for washing feet of Christians; slaves must be subject to masters; etc.), so it is not the specifics of “husband of one wife” that applies now, but the general principle that if the elder is married that they ought to be faithful to their spouse.
Two (#3 in the article), 1 Tim 3 and Tim 1 are not a “check list” of things an elder must meet anyway. No one — not even the Apostle Paul or Jesus — meets the qualifications if you treat them as a check-list of requirements. They, as a whole, are simply stating the “kind” of person to which the elder should aspire —- not that the person has to be all those things. So the elder does not have to be a “husband of one wife” anymore than the person has to be “blameless.”
Three (#1 in the article)—- in any event —- scripture explicitly approves female elders in scripture passages besides the ones listing “husband of one wife” as a qualification anyway.
Here are some questions for you: True or False? —- (1) You think Jesus is not qualified to be an elder in your congregation? In fact, your elders aren’t qualified if they are treated as requirements — (2) are your elders beyond reproach, above even being able to express disapproval or disappointment about them at all? (hint: false, no one but Jesus is) (3) are your elders blameless? (hint: false, no one but Jesus is) (4) are your elders always holy? (hint: false, no one but Jesus is) (5) are your elders self-controlled? (any of them overweight (then false)? any of their weights go up and down (then false)?.) (6) are all your elders temperate? (any of them have an above average priced house or car? take an above average cost vacation? then false) (7) had sex with only one woman and currently married to her (a man of one woman)? (8) all your elders have 2 or more children? (it always says children in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1, so must be more than 1) (9) none of your elders have a child who isn’t a believer? (10) none of your elders have a child who could be said to be wild? or … ” If you answered false to any of these, then your elder isn’t qualified if you view 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 as a set of literal requirements. And also there are several more requirements if you view it that way. I could keep going, but figured 10 was enough.
The Greek phrase translated in some translation as “husband of one wife” is μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα (mias gynaikos andra) with a literal meaning of “one woman man,” which can also mean a man who has had sex with only one woman. If we really want to be conservative ….
Update 11/9/19: Note article by Phillip B. Payne: https://www.pbpayne.com/does-one-woman-man-in-1-timothy-32-require-that-all-overseers-be-male/ (describing another reason, that the Greek phrase (one woman man) in 1 Tim 3:2 may be an idiom for “monogamous” and be gender-inclusive, for example).
Update also see: https://books.google.com/books?id=OkVLAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA128&lpg=PA128&dq=lucien+deiss+one+woman+man&source=bl&ots=3pmDy0Nw1O&sig=ACfU3U3mxZBu1gUcdJCqLgjoLixugtQ8oQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjS5pHn-5PoAhU4mnIEHUB_A4kQ6AEwDXoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=lucien%20deiss%20one%20woman%20man&f=false
Update also see: https://margmowczko.com/pauls-qualifications-for-church-leaders/
Update: This article was substantially updated in November 2019.
Note that there are no masculine pronouns in 1 Tim 3 text regarding overseers / elders. Those are inserted by some English translators.
Scripture quoted comes from either the NIV or KJV unless otherwise designated.