Thursday, December 14, 2006

Can Women be Elders and Deacons?

The Backstory: My friend, Hutch, and I have been having a friendly discussion on several issues concerning women in the church. It started on November 27th with Hutch posing the question of how we interpret the word “weaker” in 1 Peter 3:7. You can read the start of the discussion here.

I had some curiosities on Hutch’s thoughts so I asked a couple questions. This led to Hutch posting a three fold answer which you can read here. Be sure to read the comments so you can follow along with the discussion.

The Challenge: Hutch has been great about answering all my questions and challenges and it was only fair of him to issue a challenge back. He has asked that I walk him through why I believe women can be elders and deacons and how I can believe that while still being true to Scripture.

The Disclaimer: The Disclaimer: This discussion was started between friends who share similar understandings of issues related to this topic (i.e. women teaching, women being silent, submission, etc.) I will not be going in depth on these issues—only on elders and deacons. Also, questions and comments are welcome but I reserve the right to delete comments that seem divisive or disrespectful. The goal is to keep this a friendly discussion.

The Argument:
*Plink* That was my soapbox, which is smaller and daintier than Hutch’s. Also, it is pink.

Let’s begin by looking at the passages. 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6-9. I highly encourage you to read as many versions as you can handle.

The Translation Issue:

Q: The 1st Timothy passage repeatedly says “he” and “man.” How can this be talking about women, too?

A: Although the word "man" is used in 3:1, 5 the Greek word used is tis, a neuter word meaning male or female. Paul could have used the word andron which specifies male only, but he didn’t. Already we have a hint that elders and deacons can be men or women. In Titus 1:6, the word is also tis.

Verse 11 speaks directly to women. Right in the middle of explaining the qualifications for elders and deacons, Paul addresses women. The NIV translates 3:11 as “their wives.” However, in the Greek there is not a definite article nor is the possessive case used. The Greek word is gunaikas which could be translated as women or wives. Since there is no possessive article there I don’t believe we should be reading “their wives” or “their women.” Simply, “women” is the correct translation.

Q: But it doesn’t say women deacons…just plain women. If Paul isn’t addressing the wives of deacons, isn’t he just simply addressing all women?

A: Since the previous verses and the ones that follow talk about deacons, I think it can be safely assumed that Paul is referring to deacons who are women. It is true that Paul could have said, “Likewise, women deacons (gunaikas diakonos)…” but he didn’t. Still, trying to understand this as an instruction to all women right in the middle of talking about deacons just doesn’t make sense. Why would Paul do that? Not only does it not make sense in the context, it doesn’t fit with Paul’s style of writing. When Paul goes off on a tangent, he makes it clear that he is going down another thought path and then makes it clear again when he gets back on topic. While it’s true that the word diakonos does not appear in verse 11, the context lends itself to understanding that the women he is referring to are female deacons, not any woman and not the wives of deacons.

So now we have Paul addressing Elders, Deacons, Male Deacons, Women Deacons, and All Deacons again. This whole line of thinking is linked by the Greek word hosautos which means “likewise” or “in the same way” or “for the same reason”. Paul is showing us this line of thought: Elders are supposed to be this way…For the same reason, deacons are supposed to be this way….For the same reason, women deacons are supposed to be this way. Hosautos links the entire list of qualifications with one another. It links the deacons with the elders in v. 8 and then links them to women in v. 11. While the translation issue is clearer in suggesting that women can be deacons, I believe this “likewise” link also suggests that women can also be elders.

Rules vs. Principles

Q: But what about the “must be the husband of one wife” requirement? Surely, this means elders and deacons must be men only.

A: Hutch maintains that these qualifications are hard and fast rules. I do not agree. One of the biggest problems I have with seeing this list as a set of rules instead of principles is that Paul himself did not meet or practice these requirements (as he apparently appointed Phoebe, a women, to the position of deacon. More on that later.). Neither did Jesus, for that matter.

If we take this as a list of inflexible rules we must not only reject women, but single men (like Paul and Jesus), widowers, men with young children, men with only one child, sterile men and men with barren wives, young men (like Timothy, the recipient of the this letter and the one who was to appoint the elders) and men whose children do not believe. We might even have to reject men whose children are grown and out of the house—in which case, we would be ruling out “older” men. Most scholars agree that in the early church, there were no differences between episkopos (bishop/overseer/elder) and presbuteros* (presbyter or elder, used in 1 Tim 4). Both words describe the same function. Presbuter literally means “older man”. So…could the church really reject “elders” who are in the truest sense elders (older men)? And, more importantly, can we really suggest that Paul or Jesus could not be an elder because they were not married?

One might argue, “But Paul is not an elder, he is an apostle.” That may be true, but Paul is claiming to be an authority over the Elders. It does not make sense that he would set up requirements for the leaders of the church when he, as a leader of the leaders does not/cannot meet the same requirements. Additionally, Jesus as the supreme leader of the church does not meet the husband or father requirement either.

Plus, Paul encourages singleness as an asset to ministry and leadership for both men and women, saying that those with families will have divided attention (1 Cor. 7:25-35). He wishes that everyone could be celibate like himself. Does he wish this for everyone except church leaders (a group which includes himself)?

However, if we read this list of qualifications as a set of principles, Jesus and Paul do meet the requirements. And so can certain women. Hutch argues,
“What still applies and what doesn’t? How do we determine Paul’s mind here? If he calls for specifics, but we’re just looking for principles (like a husband and a good father), do we chuck those and just say that he has to run things well?... To start parsing out which of the list we follow and which we principilize gets a bit dicy.”
But here’s the thing about principles: we don’t simply “chuck” the ideas we don’t agree with—we apply the principles to the specific situation.

If this is a list of exact requirements then we must find out exactly how long someone needs to be a Christian before they are no longer considered a novice. How long? Anyone? But if this is a list of principles we can consider each individual’s walk with Christ on a case by case basis. This is the point of verse 10’s instruction on testing deacons (and elders, too because of that “likewise” link).

Women in Ministry

As far as Paul appointing women goes, the evidence indicates that women were indeed entrusted with leadership positions in New Testament churches. There were women prophets (Acts 2:17-19; 21:9), women teachers (Acts 18:26; Titus 2:3), women church leaders, including Phoebe, the diakonos (deacon), (Rom. 16:1, 3-5; Phil. 4:3; Col. 4:15), and even a female apostle by the name of Junia (Rom. 16:7). Paul made significant use of women in his ministry. He applauds several women as fellow-laborers in the gospel (Rom. 16:1-15; Phil. 4:2f.) and asks the church to give submission to them (I Cor. 16:16).

Men and Women in Church Leadership

As a whole, the New Testament emphatically requires everyone to use their spiritual gifts in the ministries of the church, regardless of marital status or gender. Church organization is never described as a gender based hierarchy. Instead, we are told over and over again how we are to submit to one another and work in unity. Men and women together, in all tiers of church life, acting as one body. (Matt. 19:4-6; John 17:11, 20-23; Acts 4:32; Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-14; Eph. 4:4-6; etc.).

Furthermore, as I have already brought up in the comments over at Hutch’s blog, Paul stated that in Christ there is neither male nor female and that before the Lord there is neither man without the woman nor woman without the man (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 11:11f.). Racial distinctions (Jew/Greek), class distinctions (slave/free), and gender distinctions (male/female) have become completely irrelevant to how the church should function. Unity and ministry are inseparably linked. Therefore, since we are not divided in any way (race, class, gender) we have a ringing mandate for both males and females to participate in church leadership without raising the gender difference as grounds for discrimination. In fact, any type of discrimination among believers is biblically forbidden!

Here’s the point: The Holy Spirit gives gifts without regard to gender. Scripture teaches us that these gifts and callings of God are given to all members of the body of Christ (Rom. 12:3-8; I Cor. 12:4-11; Eph. 4:7-11; I Pet. 4:10-11). None of these gifts or offices is the exclusive prerogative of men and there is no mention of women being excluded from such ministry roles. Furthermore, the text teaches that no individual has the right to excuse oneself (v. 14-16) and that no one has the right to exclude someone else from doing ministry (v. 20-22).

The members of the church are meant to use their spiritual gifts to full capacity. If we say that certain women are not “allowed” to use their spiritual gifts in these leadership areas, not only are we grieving the Holy Spirit and disregarding his example, we are hindering the church. We cannot walk if we keep cutting off our toes. And do we really want to present a maimed bride to Jesus?

Conclusion: I do not claim to know all the answers. Like Hutch I am on a journey of discovery and I too am getting whacked on the head by God’s word. It is with a spirit of humility that I make these arguments for women in church leadership. Hutch stated that he didn’t know what to do with Phoebe. So, he decided to understand the difficult in light of the easy. That is a fine thing to do—except when the seemingly easy is also the jagged piece that doesn’t seem to fit with the whole. Sound doctrine must come from an overview of all the scriptures on a subject. Then we fit the seemingly hard to understand into the context of the whole, not the other way around. What we have done with teaching on women in ministry is backwards. We have ignored the practice of women being used in ministry and concentrated on a few Scriptures that may have missed out on the translation boat when the translators took their voyage. I’m simply proposing that we understand the pieces that don’t seem to fit (like Paul seemingly saying that Elders and Deacons are to be men only) in light of the overwhelming evidence from the entire Bible that God’s plan is for men and women to work, live, minister, learn, worship, and lead together.

Finally, I would like to thank Hutch for his participation with me in this discussion. As a woman I have been elevated and honored. As a student of the Word I have been challenged and stretched. And as a friend and fellow Christian I have been motivated toward Christ and sharpened by a quality piece of iron. Thanks, friend. It seems right and fitting that you are the father of two future women—surely they will be cherished and raised with a healthy view of femininity because of your tender and thoughtful care. Let’s do this again sometime.

*As a side note, there is no basis, except for discrimination, for the fact that the word presbuter the word for “older man” is often translated as “elder” but the feminine of that word presbutera is translated “older woman”. The word presbuteros also means "older," and simply means those males and females in the church who carry out the functional positions of modeling servanthood, pastoral care, and developing the less mature ones. Is the goal for the church to be functional or positional/hierarchical? “Eldership is something that one does. It is not a slot that one fills.” (Barbara Collins)


  1. Jeana,

    Good thorough post. I dig it. Don't buy it, but you put out a convincing argument (This is the response I got from Harper regarding a huge ACS paper I did for him, and I thought it was hilarious, so that's why I used it here. :-) )

    Let's break it down:

    Translation issue

    Regarding tis: yes, you are correct that "tis" is used and it's neuter. Can't deny that. But that phrase Ei Tis is used NUMEROUS times throughout the New Testament and is often translated "If a man". However, my counter argument does not end there. The context confirms that Paul is talking about the guys. 1 Tim 3:2 says that the elder must "einai mias gunaikos andra" or "be of one wife/woman the husband faithful". The ending of gunaikos links it to the male word that follows which is andra. "Paul could have used andron which specifies male only, but he didn't." Yes he did. And in 1 Tim 3:12. Titus 1:6, Paul uses "mias gunaikos aneer". Notice the ending of wife again and aneer, another word for husband/man (translated as such over 200 times in the NT). So while the if clause does not specify male (as you said), the context of each clearly shows that Paul has a man in mind.

    Regarding verse 11 - while what you say is plausible, I'll steal an argument from the translation notes in the NET Bible: The translation “wives” – referring to the wives of the deacons – is probably to be preferred, though, for the following reasons: (1) It would be strange for the author to discuss women deacons right in the middle of the qualifications for male deacons; more naturally they would be addressed by themselves. (2) The author seems to indicate clearly in the next verse that women are not deacons: “Deacons must be husbands of one wife.” (3) Most of the qualifications given for deacons elsewhere do not appear here. Either the author has truncated the requirements for women deacons, or he is not actually referring to women deacons; the latter seems to be the more natural understanding.

    Good argument linking the elder/deacon continuance. I'll buy it.

    Rules vs Principles

    Based on the above: still think they're requirements. Still don't know what to do with Phoebe. Jesus and Paul, who says that they have to meet the requirements. They're both extremely special cases. Jesus, yeah, He is the foundation the church and he never could have been married (how can God be equally yoked?) . Paul wrote 1/3 of the NT, he's not exactly your every day occurance of a church leader. But I recognize we could go back and forth on this point for a long time, so I'll move on. (However, I will say your mentioning 1 Cor 7 and Paul's exhortation to be single is a convincing argument on your part).

    Women in Ministry

    Woman prophets, yes. Woman teachers, yes. Still don't know what to do with Phoebe. Junia, how the heck do you call her an apostle? I will grant that the NIV and NAS translations make it fuzzy, but the greek words for "outstanding among" (episeemoi en) is better understood as "notable/well known in relation to". The "among" could indicate equality, which in this case is misleading. Heck the word episeemoi is also used of Barabbas (Matt 27:16).

    Men and Women in Church Leadership

    This could be a big long section. And company just came over so I should cut this short. Maybe to be continued. :-)

    Thanks for walking me through your thoughts Jeana. I sure appreciate them, you and this discussion.

  2. You're right, I should have qualified that andron is used ONCE in the passage, "a one woman man." The inverse of that phrase is used later in 1 Tim 5:9, "a one man woman." But I still maintain that Paul is speaking to both men and women. Specifically to men, then all, specifically to women, then all again.

    I've read similar notes to the ones you sighted from NET Bible, but I'm finding more and more sources that agree that simply "women" is the best translation.

    Yes, Jesus and Paul are special cases, but I must say that by arguing that they don't HAVE to meet the requirements your overall argument is weakened. The point of hard and fast rules is that are absolutely no exceptions.

    Junia as apostle--I've always considered "among" to indicate equality, but you're right--it is fuzzy. Another point we could go back and forth on.

    Thanks for asking for my point of view and considering my thoughts with respect--that makes me feel really good. Also, I LOVE the Harper comment! I took ACS with him as well and received some similar comments on my papers. In fact, ACS is one of those MBC classes I wish I could take over again. I feel like I only really absorbed about 50% and now that it's sunken in I'd like another go at absorbing the rest. And Harper is an excellent prof, in my opinion.


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