When I first taught this material, I passed out a survey on questions involving the role of women. After the class had finished with the survey, I asked, “Which question was the hardest?” A godly woman said, “Whether a woman can be an elder.” A number of other women, good, submissive, dedicated, hard-working lovers of the Lord, nodded their heads. I was surprised, but they were right, and they were well ahead of me in their understanding of scripture.
The issue arises because the lists of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy and Titus require an elder to be the “husband of one wife” (better translated “one-woman man”). Admittedly, it would be hard for a woman to meet this standard. The question, however, is whether the reference to an elder being male is intended to be an eternal requirement or whether it is limited to the culture and time in which Paul wrote.
Plainly, in First Century Grecian and Jewish society, a woman would not have been accepted in such a position — and very few women would have been suitable for the role in any event. And so, did Paul refer to elders as male because all First Century elders were male, or because male elders were God’s eternal plan?
Before we delve into the lists of elder qualifications found in 1 Timothy and Titus, some other key verses should be considered:
Elders and Deborah
Deborah ruled the nation of Israel as spiritual and civil leader. She was a prophetess and a judge. Thus, Deborah’s position was far more authoritative than our elders today. Therefore, the notion that there is an eternal law that prevents women from having spiritual leadership is plainly false. God called Deborah, and God cannot sin.
Also, it’s clear from numerous Old Testament passages that, going back to the Egyptian captivity, men called elders governed the ancient Israelite cities. Deborah therefore was over the elders of Israel. While we don’t know that much about the exact role or authority of the Old Testament elders, they evidently served a role in the ancient cities comparable to the role of elders in the modern church. If not, why did the New Testament writers choose to use this term for certain church leaders?
There are numerous other examples of female leaders in the Old Testament, which we’ve discussed previously. If Miriam was a “leader” of Israel, then she had a higher position than the elders of the day. If the king was answerable to Huldah, then the elders of the day were that much more so.
Plainly, there is no eternal law of male headship that prevents a woman from having authority over a man. God would not have given these examples for us otherwise.
New Testament prophets and elders
A similar argument is apparent in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, Paul lists the church offices in order of rank, listing apostles first, prophets second, and elders (pastors) beneath both (neither list includes deacons). But we have seen Junias, a woman, counted among the apostles in Romans 16:7. We see many women counted as prophets in the New Testament. In fact, Paul’s discussion of prophets in 1 Corinthians 12 follows closely after his discussion of women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11. Surely, he still had women in mind.
We have seen the evidence for women deacons. And so what eternal principle decrees that women may be above and below the elders in rank but not be an elder?
We must also take note of what prophets do. They are not soothsayers, predicting the future as a curiosity. They foretell the future as a warning. Prophets foretell and forth-tell. The forth-telling involves warning, instructing, exhorting, and rebuking. When the New Testament calls a woman a “prophet,” it does so following 1,500 years of prophetic history. Read a few books of Old Testament prophecy and imagine a woman uttering those words. It will expand your horizons!
Note also Joel’s prophecy of the coming of the Christian Dispensation that was quoted by Peter in Acts 2:17-18-
(Joel 2:28) And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
God spoke through Joel to declare that both sons and daughters would be prophets. Twice He emphasizes that the gift will fall on both men and women. Since the coming of the Spirit on women in the Old Testament was less common than for men, a sign of the coming of the Messiah would be the equality of the sexes in terms of gifts of the Spirit.
Therefore, I seen no reason to suppose that the female prophets of the New Testament were in any sense inferior to the prophets of the Old Testament. And, of course, it is the New Testament itself that places prophets above elders.
Now one might dispute this by arguing that the gift of prophecy is a miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit, and only due to the special inspiration given women prophets are they higher than elders. But this argument fails to consider that 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and other passages tell us that even non-miraculous gifts, like the gifts of shepherding, leadership and administration, are gifts of the Holy Spirit. In other words, if a woman has the gift of leadership or pastoring, it’s because God gave her that gift, and she is just as entitled to use it in God’s service as the gift of prophecy.