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 Issues | Ministry | Women and ordained ministry

Part 3 : Biblical teaching on gender and ministry - key texts

Qualifications for a Church elder

The letters of Paul to Timothy and Titus give instruction as to how the Christian Church and ministry were to be patterned as the Church  moves out of the apostolic era.  Paul is giving guidance to these two men and in particular instructing them about how others should be appointed to Christian leadership.

1Tim. 3:1-7 This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of an overseer, he desires a good work. An overseer then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behaviour, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Overseers, Bishops, Presbyters, Elders etc

The title 'overseer', is the Greek word 'episcopos' which is sometimes translated in English as Bishop.  However, it is widely recognised that there is no distinction in Scripture between this role and that of the presbuteros (presybter) or elders who are referred to in 1 Tim 5.17 and

1 Tim 4.14 as  well as frequently in Acts and elsewhere.

The English word priest derives from the Greek word presbuteros.  Hence the word priest is used in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer.  This causes confusion however because in English there is no separate word for the Israelite Priests or for the Priests of the pagan temples who are described by a different word (hiereus) in the New Testament


What can be seen from 1 Tim 3 is that there are certain standards expected of those called to this Christian ministry.  Mostly these have to do with the personal conduct of the person, but also to their ability to teach.

However, it can also be seen that it is assumed and stated that the overseers are men.

A similar list can be found in Titus:

Titus 1:5-9  For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you; if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.   For an overseer must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.

Here can be seen quite clearly the equation of elder (presbyter) and overseer (episcopos) and again the explicit expectation that the minister be a man.

Jesus' disciples

This practice and teaching in the early Church is entirely consistent with the example of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When Jesus appointed leaders in the new community he chose men.  He does not appear to have been bound in other areas by the social conventions of the day. Indeed, there were a number of women amongst Jesus' disciples including some who were very close to Him and who have been an inspiration and an example ever since. Nevertheless, Jesus did not appoint the women as leaders. This pattern was continued in the post-pentecost church and indeed has continued from then on until the last few decades.  As the Church spread from Israel to the graeco-roman world it encountered a culture that was male dominated but which had no shortage of priestesses, goddesses and families run by matriarchs.  But the Church did not attempt to compromise on the pattern which Jesus had established.

Christian tradition

Whist the practice of the Church through the ages does not carry any binding authority for Christians we note that from the beginning until the last few decades, almost without exception, the Christian Church has accepted and practiced what the Bible taught that its presbyters (priests) should be men.

Men and women are different.

The reason for all this goes back to creation, in that God has made men and women different. In recent decades many have tried to play down gender differences but this trend shows signs of beginning to be reversed in western culture as people emphasise more the differences between men and women.

Men and women complement one another, God has made us differently for good reason. Therefore in the marriage relationship men and women have different roles which makes the marriage a strong, if sometimes bewildering, relationship.

Headship in the Christian fellowship

Gender distinctions are also upheld in the Christian household in that the man was to provide leadership, even to the extent of being called the head (cf. Eph 5.23). Much ink has been spilt over the meaning of this word head but it properly refers to the lump above your shoulders (cephalus in Greek).

For most people this is the place from which the body is governed, hence the meaning of the word head as chief, ruler etc, as in 'head teacher'.

Some evangelicals in particular, in an attempt to justify their ideas about women's ministry, have argued that 'head' in Greek can mean source and hence origin, being a reference back to creation.

However, where head is used of source it echoes the fact that the head is at the top of the body  (like the head of a pint) - so the head of the river, is it's top most point.  The use of the word in this way was very rare in the Greek of New Testament times and it would be foolish to build an argument on such a dubious interpretation when plain meaning of Scripture is so straightforward.

What is more difficult, however, is what does the idea of being the head mean in practice? Here again we must fall back on our primary model, headship must be modelled on Christ, it is not a matter of rights or privilege, but of duty, service and love.

What is true of the Christian household is in some degree true in the household of faith (1 Cor 11.3). This appears to be why the presbyters, part of whose function is governance and discipline, are to be men (cf. 1 Ti 3.2f, Tit 1.5f). Again we assert that this is the natural and obvious meaning of Scripture. Moreover it is how earlier generations of Christians understood the Scriptures and how they put it into practice. Therefore, it we are to claim that this understanding is wrong, we must be absolutely clear as the basis on which we think it is wrong and on our own authority for acting in a different way. If our authority for changing our practice is simply our own logic, or the social trends of our day, then we will build the church on shifting sand.

Trouble in Corinth

As has been stated the Pastoral Epistles (Timothy and Titus) show us the Biblical instructions for the ongoing Christian community.  The pattern of male presbyters is entirely consistent with the practice of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Moreover, there do appear to have been some issues in the intervening years not least in the Corinthian Church.  For example in 1 Corinthians 14 we see evidence that there was an issue although it is difficult to be too  certain of the circumstances.  It is set in the context of the need for order in church meetings when it appears that in Corinth there were such things as tongues and prophecies.

In amidst instruction on how to deal with these the Apostle Paul addresses an issue to do with women, apparently married women.  His instruction is that they were to keep silent, they were to be 'submissive' rather than asserting  themselves and thus they were to uphold the Biblical pattern of marriage.   Paul even grounds this appeal in the 'law'. (1 Cor 14.34-35).

We cannot be absolutely certain about the circumstances but we see that the instruction is entirely consistent with what we have already seen from Scripture.


Creation Order

In I Timothy 2 v12-14 Paul addresses a similar issue and again is consistent, the role of teaching and authority in the Christian congregation was to be exercised by men and Paul does not defend this on cultural grounds, but argues that this stems from how God has made us i.e. Because Adam was made first he was given authority and leadership responsibility over Eve. This is therefore God's good design for his creation as this was the order set before sin entered the world. After they had sinned, God charged the responsibility to Adam even though Eve had been deceived first (Gen 3 v9).


The distinctive ministry of women

None of what we have seen above should be taken as meaning that women are inferior.   Elsewhere the Apostle Paul explicitly states that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal 3.28).  However, what we see is that the differences between men and women are to be reflected in Christian living.

There are several examples and instances of women ministering in particular ways in Scripture all of which are models for today so  long as they are not applied in such a way as they undermine what we have arleady seen.

The women with Jesus provided for him out of their  means (Luke 8.2-3)

Priscilla and her husband Aquilla had a joint teaching ministry when they instructed Apollos in their own home. (Acts 18.26)   It is interesting that Priscilla is named first, which could imply that she had the lead role, but this may be reading too much into the text.

Timothy had known the Scriptures from childhood (2 Tim 3.15) and it seems likely that he had been taught them by his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois who are both mentioned by Paul (2 Tim 1.5).

There were women prophets in the early Church including the daughters of Philip (Acts 21.8-9) and some women in Corinth (1 Cor 11.5).  These gifts of prophecy evidently died out pretty much by the end of the apostolic age, presumably because once the clear apostolic teaching, now contained in Scripture, had been passed on and made widely known, there was no need for such gifts.  But during this time God spoke through prophets both men and women.  It is not stated that the women exercised such gifts in the public  gatherings, although this seems a reasonable assumption, and if so no-one saw it as inconsistent with the idea that men should exercise a teaching role.  The prophetess was neither a leader nor a teacher.  God spoke through them.

Lydia was one of the first believers in Philippi (and hence in Europe).  A woman of means, she was the head of her household and when she came to faith her household were also baptized  (Acts 16.14-15).   She accommodated Paul and friends in her house.

Lydia also draws to mind the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31.10-31 whose management of household affairs is comprehensive and extensive encompassing business enterprises.

These various passages demonstrate that there is no expectation in Scripture that Christian women take a secondary or docile role.  There is much ministry to be done and whether it be in the home or outside it the Christian woman can and should serve God to the best of her ability.  Such faithful ministry is pleasing to God and should be honoured by His people. 

At times in Scripture and in the history of the Church it has been necessary for women to take roles which should have been exercised by men.  A classic example of this is Deborah one of the Judges of Israel (Jdg 4-5).  She reluctantly takes the role because the men will not .  Likewise in the history of Christian mission there have been instances of godly women who established churches and led them.  When the men had grown to Christian maturity they were willing to follow the pattern set down in Scripture of male leadership.  Though there may be times when it has to be otherwise, in the Christian household and in the Church our desire should be to honour and live out the distinctive roles that reflect our mutual dependence and our desire to please God.


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Part 4 : Some common objections to the classical evangelical position.

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