The Hypocrisy of Not Permitting Female Elders


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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  • My home church, part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian denomination, does not ordain women. (By “home church,” I mean where I grew up, and where I still attend if I’m visiting my hometown).

    I spent a long weekend visiting my dad recently, and I decided to attend church with him. Of course it just happened to be a Sunday when they were asking for nominations for new deacons and elders, and for leadership roles within the deacons and elders. The instructions added parenthetical details next to both the deacon and the elder descriptions. For deacons, it read “male or female,” and for elders, it read “male only.”

    Me being me, I crossed out the gender specifications and wrote Galatians 3:28 above the text.

    For the elder nominations, I wrote out Phoebe, Lydia, and Junia, the NT female leaders I have memorized, with their respective Bible verses next to each of their names.

    I don’t expect the ARP Church to ordain women in my lifetime. In fact, as a denomination, it will probably die out within the next 2-3 generations. Some of the more conservative churches within the denomination periodically bring up the question of stripping women from their right to serve as deacon, so asking them to move forward and ordain women is highly improbable.

    But if I could challenge at least one elder to think twice about the ordination of women… if I could convince just one elder to actually look up the Bible verses I quoted… then maybe I can make a small difference in the future of my home church, if not the overall denomination.

  • In my experience, the easiest way to point out the hypocrisy is by looking at the household codes. The household codes were essentially the early Church’s attempt to fall into line with Greco-Roman society. In fact, we have access to historical documents pointing to secular household codes. The biblical ones are a radical departure, actually requiring something of men. (You probably know this, but just for anyone else reading this discussion).

    Today, Christians interpret the household codes about slavery within the historical context. Slavery was part of Greco-Roman society. But complementarian Christians continue to interpret the household codes regarding wifely submission as a law for all time, completely ignoring the same historical context they just used to excuse the Bible verses promoting slavery.

    Is there a better word to describe this intellectual disconnect other than hypocrisy?

    I realize that’s not totally answering your question, but it’s my go-to conversation starter for Christian feminism.

    I don’t necessarily recommend calling someone a hypocrite to their face, in a one-on-one conversation. But like Jory, when I write about my faith feminism, I do use strong language. I am passionate about equality. I will not allow sexist expectations about women having to be nice and polite stop me from demanding for Christians to stop oppressing half the world’s population.

    • I’m relatively new to this discussion, so I’m learning a lot and have tons of questions! Would a feminist throw out the codes for children to respect their parents, since that was a cultural thing and not a law for all time? And would a feminist charge Paul with hypocrisy since he was accommodating his teachings to the demonic spirit of the age (by teaching slaves to obey their masters and women to submit to their husbands rather than demanding/calling for justice and full equality for all)? It seems to me that this issue is pretty complex (especially Paul!!) when we try to be faithful to all that the Bible teaches, and we should be careful when calling those we disagree with demonic or hypocritical.

      • One, Christian feminists do call children to respect their parents and they also call parents to respect their children.

        Two, I believe Paul would have no problem calling someone hypocritical and/or being influenced by demonic forces if that is what he believed to be true.

      • Actually, Christian feminists do have a different take on children respecting their parents. I somehow doubt, but I haven’t done the historical research, that child abuse was even acknowledged or considered a problem during biblical times.

        Today, if children have loving and responsible parents, then absolutely we encourage children to respect their parents. But today, respecting your parents isn’t the same thing as blind or fearful or unquestioning obedience. Furthermore, at least in the US, we have secular systems in place that try to keep children safe from unfit parents. As a society, we recognize that not all parents are able to parent. Personally, as a Christian feminist, it’s important to me for children to have non-custodial adults in their life who can provide age-appropriate information on inappropriate touching and physical abuse, for example.

  • I agree there is no restriction on females being elders in a congregation and that a congregation should have a plurality of elders and it makes sense to have such elders have differing perspectives, including those from men and women. As a general statement, the elders should be chosen to reflect the composition of the congregation in its diversity.

    I think an apostle from a congregation is an elder in that congregation. See
    Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership Paperback – November 5, 2003 by Alexander Strauch for a good starting analysis of why this is so, altho he does not go far enough in his analysis and so thinks only males qualify. Many church traditions mix up the leadership ministries found in the NT.

    I also think Paul is hard to understand, as Peter claimed in the first century, how much more is this true today.

  • Brenton, Yes, I think not allowing a female to be an elder is hypocritical because its backing is a demonic “spirit of legalism.” With that said, I would advise you not to say these things to your elders. You are right that most would not take this well face to face in personal relationships.

    As for me, I am a blogger, who is sometimes trying to reach complementarians, but most of the time my audience is egalitarians (like yourself) and seekers who need encouragement and motivation to push forward. I do this best by telling it the way it is.

    Seeking common ground is always the best way to communicate when hoping for change. It’s all in who your audience is. I hope that helps! 🙂

    • What I’m saying, I guess, is that I have spent a lot of years preparing Christians to see the potential of what God has for all of us. Using Clickbait Christianity–calling faithful people hypocritical and demonic–does real damage to the communities we are trying reach.
      Yes, Christ noted hypocrisy in others, but I would suggest that the Scripture is right when he says he knew their hearts. You make a big claim here in knowing the difference between someone who is wrong and someone who is hypocritical.
      Some of this may be cultural. In Canada when someone over-argues the case, we assume they are hiding their inadequacies. As C.S. Lewis said, it only gives the impression that they have a really bad argument.
      There is a danger to being too soft. These are embattled times. Sometimes sin needs to be called sin. But it makes me sad that you draw the box so closely: anyone who disagrees is hypocritical and demonic. They’re all out, and people that think exactly like you are in.
      That to me sounds very much like a pharisaical project.

      • Any attempt to limit or oppress women is demonic and I do NOT apologize for saying that! Christians doing it may not know its demonic, but it is.

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