This question, ‘Can women be elders in the church?’ has bothered me for about a year now. Ever since my church invited me into an eldership program and we dived right into the qualifications of an elder, the Men Only part rubbed me the wrong way.
Why only men? Shouldn’t qualified women be allowed to lead as well?
Let’s be clear
We should first and foremost see what the Bible says and go with that. The problem is that while the Bible has tons to say about men and women and leadership, if you don’t take a literalist view of scripture (“It says what it says, and that’s that!”) and begin to add in the culture and context of the day into our understanding, the Bible’s view on women in leadership positions becomes less straightforward.
(This is by no means a complete exegesis of the scriptures, others have done that far more competently than I ever could. A quick Google search of “Can women be elders?” will show that to be true.)
Most church leaders, I think it’s fair to say, take a complementarian view of this issue.
They say that men and women have equal value but separate roles. In this view, the headship of the man in the marriage relationship translates to headship in the church body, with women playing a subordinate role. Even in complementarian circles there is disagreement about this separate but equal doctrine. Some strict complementarians, like John Piper, read 1 Timothy 2:12 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” and say the Bible is clear that women should not have authority over any man. That means women in strict complementarian churches cannot preach from the pulpit, lead community groups, or teach/lead men in any capacity. They are encouraged to teach other women and to serve in children’s ministry however.
Modified complementarianism, like that of Andrew Wilson of King’s Church London, encourages women to pursue ministry, prophesying, deaconing, worship leading, preaching, teaching, leadership, missionary work, church planting and more, citing numerous examples in the New Testament (Luke 24:10; Acts 18:26; 21:9; Rom 16:1-16; 1 Cor 11:5; Php 4:2-3; 1 Tim 3:11; Titus 2:3-5; to name a few) – but they still believe that only men can qualify to be elders. This position mostly draws from 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.
1 Timothy 3:1-7
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Egalitarianism is the view that women can lead in any role within the church, including elder or pastor.
Egalitarians argue that men and women are one in Christ, citing Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” to make their case.
My Take and More
I’m more inclined to agree with the modified complementarian view, mainly because of the clear gender distinctions the LORD created and the fact that He set up men as head of the household.
But I have lingering doubts.
When we exclude an entire gender from leadership in our churches, I’d like clearer direction than 2 verses. There are two questions inherent in those verses that make the exclusion of women murky at best.
If we are to take the verses at face value, and not assign any cultural attachment (e.g. it would have been rare for women to be the head of an organization in Roman and Greek culture), then only married men can be elders. Using that as our rule, Jesus and Paul would not qualify to be elders in our churches. So, Paul can be an apostle, but he wouldn’t qualify to be an elder or pastor in a church? I find that hard to believe.
No childless men?
Both Timothy and Titus presume children, so is that a requirement as well? If a couple has trouble conceiving, is the man barred from being an elder until he has children?
I do believe that being married and having children will help you be a better elder. Dealing with and managing household conflict is a great training ground for the troubles you face in leading a church.
But is being married necessary? Is having children necessary? And if we make allowances for single and childless men, how can we say that women are excluded? It seems to me that more important requirements are being above reproach, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. If a single man, a childless husband, or a woman meets these requirements, why shouldn’t they be installed as the Holy Spirit directs?
Can Women Be Elders in the Church?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I have no doubt that they can serve as elders, but I’m not sure the Bible says that’s okay.
My intent is not to muddy the waters, but to further the conversation. I’m seeking answers. It pains me that we might be missing out on incredible leaders within our churches because women are told they can’t. Women have been held down throughout history, and placing one more ceiling above them feels wrong.
What do you think? Can women be elders in the church?