I did not grow up in a church with elders, and “eldership” is not one of the five-fold ministries mentioned in the New Testament (apostle, pastor, teacher, evangelist, and prophet), so I find it interesting how many churches have given an extreme amount of authority to elders.
I am not at all putting down the church role of “elder;” my father-in-law is an elder and I respect him for it, but “elders” do not hold any more spiritual weight than any Christian. In fact, apostles, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and prophets don’t hold any more spiritual weight than Christian stay-at-home-moms & dads, business people, nurses, construction workers, or sumo wrestlers.
The truth is that every believer is born into the priesthood when we throw off our old selves and follow after Christ.
And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God (1 Peter 2:5).
The New Testament certainly points to the wisdom of having an eldership board or something like that to hold one another accountable and provide needed leadership structure. However, to imply that Paul was against females becoming elders in every church for all time is to lose touch with the complete message of the Bible.
Many Christian leaders have focused too much on just a few verses in Scripture concerning “a woman’s place,” rather than reading the Bible from start to finish. The Bible is not meant to be read as a reference text. It is a narrative of historical data, prophecies, poetry, symbolism, eye-witness accounts, and letters. When we cherry pick Bible verses, we can easily miss the whole message. Patriarchy is not the message of the Bible; it is the cultural setting of the Bible.
The basis for some churches not permitting women to be elders is 1 Timothy 2:12:
I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly.
Yet, Paul praises many female leaders throughout the whole of the New Testament, so to imply that Paul is laying down a universal and timeless law that women are never to hold authority over men or teach men simply does not make logical sense.
See my master’s thesis to see all female leaders named in Pauline letters (HERE).
The Bible itself points to women serving the early church as apostles, house-church pastors, teachers, evangelists, prophets and deacons. The Bible does not name any female elders, but that does not mean that there were no female elders. It does not provide a context that suggests that Paul was against females being elders in every church, in every culture, for all time.
In early church days, the function of “apostle” was considered the highest level of church authority. Paul and Peter were apostles. Although their authority was greater in their function, that does not mean that their spiritual authority was greater.
All Christians who are covered with the blood of Jesus have an equal amount of spiritual authority!
Paul not only names a female apostle, but he praises her as “outstanding among them.”
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was (Romans 16:7).
If Paul permitted women to be apostles (his level of church authority), surely he permitted women to be elders (a lesser level of church authority).
The few scriptures that seem to limit women in Pauline letters are due to specific cultural and/or church situations (again, reference my master’s thesis for scholarly evidence). Instructions to elders found in the books of Titus/Timothy should be applied to both male and female elders.
Let me ask you this, do we ever hear Paul saying that a woman being an elder, teacher, or leader in the church is sinful? Does he ever clearly say, “Having women in church leadership is plain sinful and an abomination to God?” The answer is “no.” We should not confuse church instructions to particular New Testament churches as “laws” for all times and all places.
Paul is clear about what is sinful and what is not sinful for all time in his letters, but to allow a female to be an elder is not even close to sinful. Churches who have not permitted females to be elders have missed Paul’s entire point.
Prior to 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul states,
The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith. But some people have missed this whole point. They have turned away from these things and spend their time in meaningless discussions. They want to be known as teachers of the law of Moses, but they don’t know what they are talking about, even though they speak so confidently (1 Timothy 1:5-7).
Do we truly believe that the Son of God would remove a female elder who is “filled with love that comes from a pure heart, who has a clear conscience, and a genuine faith,” just because she is a woman?
Jesus Christ spent a lot of time rebuking pharisees who held up laws just for the heck of it – perhaps because they wanted to feel powerful, important, or right in their theological arguments. If you do not permit women to be elders or teachers, or to perform any other church function simply because they were born female, Jesus would say to you,
What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either (Matthew 23:13).
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