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Can Women Be Elders?

Can Women Be Elders?

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Published by Brandon Rhodes
This paper considers the question of whether women can be elders in the church, and comes to a culture-conditional conclusion.
This paper considers the question of whether women can be elders in the church, and comes to a culture-conditional conclusion.

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Published by: Brandon Rhodes on Mar 14, 2007
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“Can women be elders or senior pastors?” Ask Culture.

Brandon Rhodes TH 508: Theology II Dr. Lockwood Box # 679 April 28, 2006

In the 19th and 20th centuries, a long-enduring, slowly-fomenting movement reached its “tipping point” all across the western world: women were beginning to stand up and redefine their role in society. Traditional functions, norms, and mores about women’s relationship to the various power structures of capitalism, patriarchy, churchcultic conduct, civics, and education all were re-evaluated. Some endured, others ridiculed, others thrown out. To be sure, the women’s rights movement and the feminist school of thought that came out of it have done much good for the world. Also many troubling ideas, attitudes, and behaviors have come out of it. One particular question that society has asked itself about women is what their roles can be in church life. Can women become elders or ordained as senior pastors? What about Paul’s admonitions for women to keep silent and not have authority over their husbands? To secular society, these questions have always seemed rather ridiculous: if a woman can be a CEO or school teacher, then of course she should be able to serve in a leading or teaching role in a local church! Yet the Bible seems at first blush straightforward with its answer: No, they cannot. Still, dissent against the long-held conservative interpretation of these passages is growing. Many self-professing biblical inerrantists believe women can be pastors and elders, which seems contrary to the scriptures in the eyes of many equally strong biblical inerrantists. To resolve the issue, this essay will first overview the key passages relating to answering whether women can be elders or senior pastors. From there, the bigger question of the relationship between Christ and culture will be considered, as well as what hermeneutical decisions may sway the exegete one way or another. An answer will then be synthesized at the end. Underlining the process of answering this question is the

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acceptance that, because the plain reading of the scriptures have a clearly conservative/traditionalist flavor, the burden of proof will lie on the less traditional position of admitting women as elders and senior pastors. Further, because the question at hand is built on one’s understanding of authority and women’s conduct in church, passages not dealing directly with eldership or ordination will be included. 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 – Heads coverings and authority amid orderly worship Here, Paul reminds the Corinthians that “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (v.3). He then explains how head covering in various contexts and depending on the gender of the wearer can either honor or dishonor God or their spouse. Women, Paul says, should have long hair and “ought to have a sign of authority on her head” (v.10). Traditionalists believe that Paul’s exhortations are for all believers for all time. Their logic with this is fairly simple: because the Bible says so, thus shall we do. To them, Paul was establishing a tradition that was not intended to pass away.1 As he concludes the section, he tells the Corinthians that “if anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God” (v.16). This seems clear proof to the traditionalist that Paul’s words not only carry apostolic authority, but also apply verbatim today. Their position is that ““Men are to exercise authority and take leadership in the church. Women should acknowledge that authority and support it in every Christian way, including how they dress and adorn themselves when they attend public worship.”2 Traditionalists imply that this passage speaks of a biblical view of authority that has certain timeless expressions, such as head coverings and hair lengths.
1

Robert D. Culver. Let Your Women Keep Silence in Women in Ministry: Four Views. Edited by Bonnidell Clouse and Robert G. Clouse. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 26-27.
2

Ibid, 32.

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1 Corinthians 14:34-37 – “Women should remain silent in the churches” Paul says that “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says” (v.34). Predictably, Traditionalists believe Paul’s words on this are eternal law that exists regardless of cultural context. To pick only this section of Paul’s exhortation for orderly worship to not be followed would be like erasing the parts of the Bible that readers don’t like, they say. If distaste is the only reason for not applying Paul’s words here verbatim, then the Traditionalists are right. Cherry-picking the Bible is dangerous and wrong. Yet the larger context is Paul’s exhortations for orderly worship, not gender roles or marriage or eldership. The Corinthians had been abusing the more visible gifts of the Spirit during corporate worship, and Paul sought to reprimand them for this by explaining the heart and guidelines for worship. If women speaking up or asking questions caused disorder, then it was common sense that he should encourage them to ask their questions afterwards. Tagging this verse on to a broader issue such as authority or women elders seems to miss Paul’s point, which he states in verse 33 and applies in verse 40: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace”, and “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” This context cannot be ignored to push a Traditionalist agenda. 1 Timothy 2:8-15 – Concerning propriety and authority Few passages have been subject to so much scorn and lambaste as these, particularly verse 12, in which Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.” He does not mince words here, and cites scripture in verses 13-15 to back up his point. Paul’s repeating such similar instructions as he gave in 1 Corinthians 14 for women to not speak up during teaching seems to

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support the Traditionalist claim that he had a certain rule in mind for all Christians. Further, his drawing on the creation-fall story is seen as further proof that these instructions are as veritable and longstanding as Genesis itself. Furthermore, if women cannot exercise ecclesiastical authority, as Traditionalists say 1 Timothy 2:12 demands, and if elders exercise authority (1 Tim 3:2) and teach (1 Tim 5:17), then they cannot be elders. There are several compelling reasons why this verse might not be as strong a support for the Traditionalist position as it seems. Central to the controversy is Paul’s use of an extremely rare word for authority. Only used this one time in the Bible and rarely in secular Greek literature, Paul using authentein instead of exousia as he uses elsewhere means he had a particular meaning in mind. One scholar, Alvera Mickelsen, has tied unique word choice with Paul’s rather peculiar, if seemingly disjoint, formula from Genesis. She writes that authentein “appears with the genitive in 1 Timothy 2:12. Kroeger suggests that if this was the meaning Paul had in mind, he may have been prohibiting women in Ephesus (influenced by Artemis worship) from teaching a Gnostic type of mythology in which woman (Eve) was originator and enlightener of man (Adam). If this is the case, the next verses contain Paul’s refutation of that teaching”.3 This presents a more plausible understanding of all of the unique elements in this passage than the Traditionalist interpretation, which says that Paul invokes his maxim of female silence because they are more naïve and easier to deceive.4 It sufficiently explains authentein’s use and Paul’s odd citation within the bigger context of the spiritual and social going’s-on in the Ephesus at the time of writing.

3

Alvera Mickelsen, In Christ There Is Neither Male Nor Female in Women in Ministry: Four Views, 202203.
4

Culver, 36-37.

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Walter Liefield also helps illumine this passage by noting that the teaching Paul had in mind was not what contemporary American Christians might think of; that is, teaching from the Holy Scriptures. According to Liefield, because the New Testament did not exist, Christian doctrine was largely taught in a catechistic manner, based on transmitting the apostolic tradition. Thus there was a peculiar and historically limited kind of authority that dealt with oral transmission than teaching the written scriptures.5 Liefield succinctly and compellingly argues the point that “Whatever the theological or circumstantial reasons Paul had for prohibiting women from teaching, the fact is that this teaching depended on the authority of the teacher in a way it does not today.”6 Thus this scripture need not be read as an unbending, categorical rule of church order for all time. Finally, the Greek words translated as “man” and “woman” in the NIV may also be translated “husband” and “wife,” thus emphasizing his instructions as primarily concerning honor within a family, not the larger church family. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (parallel passage in Titus 1:5-11) – Guidelines for elders Paul gives Timothy some rules for what an elder should be like. Pertinent to this discussion is that Paul constantly uses male pronouns and says that elders must be “the husband of one wife” (v.2). This unquestionably lends support to the Traditionalist view. Deacons are described next and are described as being men. However, the Bible mentions one woman, Phoebe, as a deaconess in Romans 16:1. Therefore if Paul used masculine pronouns for an office that is gender-nonspecific, argue more egalitarian voices, then the use of gendered pronouns for other offices cannot be used as very certain

5

Walter L Liefield in A Plural Ministry View: Your Sons and Your Daughters Shall Prophecy, in Women in Ministry: Four Views, 151.
6

Liefield, 150.

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proofs. Traditionalists respond that deaconship is more of a function than an office (as eldership is), and so the parallel’s strength is weakened or invalid. Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither male nor female” One final verse in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church gives readers an ear to his essential view of women. In it, he states that “there is… neither male nor female”, which, although primarily soteriological, also speaks to social conditions. Paul believes that all Christians are equal before God, and that as the relationship between Jew and Greek should be transfigured by this new position, so also should the relationship between men and women. If this is true, then the Traditionalists who so far have a weak upper hand are in trouble. Indeed, their strongest rejoinder is that it is soteriological in context, not primarily social, and that although Paul believes in equality, he still recognizes gender roles. Both of these points, although not damning, are granted. Missing Pieces: Paul as Missionary, Hermeneutics, and Church Government The case so far is favor of the Traditionalist view, but the case is weak. But three final considerations have yet to be attended to. First, whenever reading passages used as proofs for the Traditionalist perspective, it must not be lost that Paul is writing as a missionary. Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that he is “all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some” (9:22b). He is contextualizing a principle of propriety in worship in such a way that is fitting for the culture. Liefield asks, “How can we avoid connecting this with the fact that Paul gives social perception as a reason for the submission of both slaves and women in Titus 2:5, 10? The situation is not that Paul’s teaching is culturally determined, but that his evangelism is culturally directed.”7 His concerns in all his instructions on these
7

Liefield, 133.

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matters seem to be, at their most basic, that husbands and God are honored, and that Christ is not wrongly or poorly represented. This builds on the second consideration: the confusion Traditionalists make between the hermeneutical steps of Principlization and Application. The principles behind Paul’s orders are to avoid shaming the Lord or husbands, and to not do things that would keep people from Christ. His particular applications of those principles were head coverings, quiet women, and male teachers and (debatably) elders. The contemporary reader should look to honor these principles without necessarily legalizing the applications Paul so prescribed 2000 years ago. Today, “by earnestly trying to make the same application (the silence of women) rather than following the same principle (avoiding shame and dishonor to the husband), we can actually commit the very error Paul sought to avoid – that is, offending people’s moral sensibilities and hindering them from accepting the gospel.”8 The church must always be vigilant to guard against this err. The final consideration is one of church government. If women are not permitted to have authority over men, as Traditionalists argue, then congregational models of church governance which place authority on male and female members is unbiblical. Because the Bible gives many instances in which entire local churches made decisions, the Traditionalist cannot keep with the position that congregational models are wrong. If, on the other hand, Paul’s use of authentein has in mind a different, now-defunct sort of authority separate from today’s ecclesiastical authority, then women are indeed permitted to vote. And if they are able to hold that kind of authority, then it is consistent to permit them to also be elders or senior pastors.

8

Liefield, 141-142.

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Conclusion: Ask Culture So, can women be elders or senior pastors? Regrettably, the answer is not universally a yes or a no. The answer, if we are to follow Paul’s method, lies in what culture’s answer is on issues propriety and authority. In first century Greece, Palestine, and Rome, the answer seemed to be a clear, No, which is just what is found in the Bible. But in 21st century America, equality between men and women in places of leadership is accepted and valued, and so is acceptable to be permitted in church government. This is another instance in which the Bible does not have so clear an answer as some may want or see, but gives anchoring objective principles to answers given by subjective culture.

Bibliography Robert D. Culver, Walter L. Liefield, and Alvera Mickelsen. Women in Ministry: Four Views. Edited by Bonnidell and Robert G. Clouse. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) All Scripture quotes taken from the Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983)

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