The Bible authorizes female elders, per some Church of Christ congregations.
Part 1 of this article 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 at Where the Spirit Leads.
These congregations differ in how they handled the question of appointing women as elders.
A few indicated 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.
Scripture Authorizing Female Elders
Below is a description of three ways scripture authorizes female elders from various viewpoints. They are provided after the traditional interpretation is given as background. Each is described mostly from the viewpoint of that interpretation. The three are:
#1: The Bible authorizes male elders in some verses (referring to “husband of one wife”) and authorizes female elders in some other, previously misperceived verses.
#2: The statement that an elder be the “husband of one wife” is not a specific rule for today because the text sends a very clear signal that its specific requirements apply to the culture, time, and people to which it as written and not to today—- these signals include that the text surrounding it has rules that men lift holy hands when praying, women not wear gold, widows not receive assistance of the church unless they are known for washing Christians’ feet, and slaves obey their masters, etc., which are obvoiusly applicable to the 1st century. Those, passages express principles for today rather than specific rules for today and accordingly, while faithfulness to one’s spouse is still needed today, “husband of one wife” is not.
#3: 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 were (a) meant in the first place as non-literal principles or guidelines for elders to try to live up to, not as a literal check-list of requirements, and (b) were not not meant as a prerequisite check-list for a job. No one, not even the Apostle Paul or Jesus, could serve as an elder if those were a literal, prerequisite checklist. They simply express the concept that an elder should strive to be upstanding in God’s and people’s view.
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 traditional view is that neither of these mention female elders.
(a) 1 Tim 3:1-7 appears in a letter from Paul to Timothy. It does not say that “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 ….”
(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 then goes on to say that an “elder must be … faithful to his wife” (or “the husband of one wife”), “a man whose children believe …,” and the passage uses masculine pronouns throughout. Since Paul tells Titus to appoint “a man,” indicates the elder must be “the husband,” and uses male pronouns, elders must be men.
“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 ….”
Since the Bible does not refer to a female elder, female elders are not authorized by God, per the traditional interpretation.
#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 also refers to qualifications for female elders.
Titus 2:3 refers to presybytidas, a feminine plural form of the same masculine plural form used in Titus 1:5 widely acknowledged as referring to 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.
“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):
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.
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 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 )
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 continuinig 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.
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., that people worthy of respect) 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?
Read 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 literally and think about your elders and deacons.
If it is acceptable for
- a divorced man
- a widowed man
- a divorced-and-remarried man or
- widowed-and-remarried man
- a man with only one child
- a man whose children do not all obey him
- a man who has a child who is not a believer
- a man whose child was once arrested
- a man who has a child who does not attend church
- a man who has a child that could be accused of being wild
- a man who has a child who is not doing everything right
to be an elder or deacon at your church, then you probably fall into category (ii).
Here are some items on the literal check-list (there are more):
- wants to be an elder (3:1)
- above even being able to express disapproval or disappointment about them (“above reproach”) (who on the planet meets this qualification?) (3:2)
- currently married (“husband”) (cannot be single, divorced, or widowed)
- a man
- currently married to only one woman (“husband of one wife”)
- moderate in all things (“temperate”) (do they own a large home? a fancy car? fancy clothes? take fancy vacations?)
- self-controlled (does he stay under control?)
- hospitable (do they open up their home? do they welcome people? are they friendly?)
- able to teach (are they able to get up on their feet and speak in front of people?)
- has a family (3:4)
- manages his own 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 tht his children obey him”)
- must have a good reputation with outsiders (3:7)
- has more than one child (must have “children”) (Titus 1:6)
- all of his children must be believers (Titus 1:6)
- none of his children can be open even to the charge of being wild (how are his children behaving? could anyone plausibly say they are wild?)
- none of his children can be open even to the charge of being disobedient (could anyone plausibly say they are wild?)
- “blameless” (blameless is a high standard, basically never blame-able; hence the not ever / always …)
- not ever overbearing (1:7)
- not ever quick-tempered
- always hospitable (1:8)
- always holy
- always disciplined (is he overweight? does he always eat right? Let’s take a look at his plate(s) at the next church pot-luck.)
- encourage others by sound doctrine (does he speak out?) (1:9)
Note that the literal requirements in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 are that the elder be a “husband of one wife,” have children (plural), they always obey him, all his children are Christians, attend church, live upstanding lives, not even be open to the charge of being wild, can be trusted, are not even open to being accused of being disobedient to God or his or her parents in any way, and are managed very well (1 Tim 3:4-5; Titus 1:6), etc.
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?
It is OK for a person to be an elder without one or more of the check-list items? Like … a man.
It would also make much more sense, for example, to realize that “husband of one wife” indicates that if the person is a husband that they are married to only one woman (and is not a polygamist), rather than exclude both the writer of the letter (the Apostle Paul) and the saviour of the world and the head of the church (Jesus) from eligibility as an elder.
(b) Second, the “qualifications” in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 are not a set of check-list requirements or qualifications in the first place, but 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.
(c) 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.
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 a man’s. Under any part of any of the above three 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 for men to “own” the position of elder, too. Not making that assumption means it simply becomes a question of individual usurpation, not usurpation of one 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 in the manner of a teacher of the law (authoritatively), but that is ignorantly done and false, carried out in an assertive and domineering way and that disturbs the peace (1 Tim 1:3-7, 1 Tim 2:12b). An elder 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.
Conclusion for Part 2: Female Elders
These are the main approaches relative to considering female elders under scripture. There are others and, of course, there is overlap among these in practice.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
Scripture quoted comes from either the NIV or KJV unless otherwise designated.