Saturday, August 6, 2011

Women Elders in the Church: The Role of Gender in Church Leadership

photo by Alison Stamp

"We must have women elders!" said the pastor of Mission Springs Community Church in Fremont, California. "We will drive people away from Christ if we don't allow women access to the highest church office."

His progressive congregation had women serving everywhere but the elder office, and no females were prevented from ministering with their varied talents. However, those who disagreed with his new agenda were regarded as culturally obsolete and a roadblock to growth. He then added two women to the elder board, but the move shocked his people and tragically drove away a third of his congregation.

Why was it such a problem?

Ordaining Women and Bible Interpretation

The way a Christian views Scripture determines his beliefs, and there are three ways to approach Biblical interpretation:
  1. The Bible is the Word of God.
  2. The Bible was the Word of God.
  3. The Bible may become the Word of God.
If the ordination of women is the desired result from Biblical study, the second or third method would have to be used. One would have to approach the Bible as the Word of God using the past tense. Unfortunately, when the Bible is viewed as text that "was" the Word of God, anything in it can be dismissed, including major doctrines. After all, the entire New Testament was written to an ancient culture, not to people existing today. Granted each book in the New Testament was written to a specific audience, but the books were then circulated among all believers to eventually become canon, and a source of instruction for all Christians everywhere.

However, most Protestants follow the first method, believing the Bible to be the literal and plenary Word of God. Christians considering the historical context of Biblical passages still recognize the New Testament as God's Word for the entire church age, and timelessly applicable to current issues.

So what does the Bible say about women elders? Theologian David Cooper said, "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense."

Church Leadership, Women Priests and Women Elders

The Apostle Paul assumes all elders are male by his description of an elder in I Timothy 3:2-12 (NIV) when he uses the pronoun "he," the phrase "husband of but one wife" and the subsequent description of his wife. The elder's wife is not an elder herself, though she is supposed to have the same godly character. There are no women elders in the New Testament.

There is an example in the Old Testament of a woman named Deborah who had to rule during an unstable time in Israel's history (Judges 4-5) because no man was courageous enough to take the reins. However, even Deborah showed she understood God's ideal design when she expressed amazement that "a mother in Israel" had to fill the void (Judges 5:7).

Yet women do have the gift of leadership, and there are many avenues outside the senior pastor or elder office where they can lead. Titus 2:4-5 indicates that older women are to teach younger women to be family-minded and responsible homemakers. Considering today's divorce rate and the breakdown of the family unit, women could make the world a better place if they took the passage to heart.

Roles in the Godhead Trinity

Christians believe that humankind was made in the image of God (Gen.1:27) and the family unit reflects the Triune aspect of God's being. The husband correlates with the Father, the wife correlates with the submissive Son who obeyed His Father's will, and children, fruit from a marriage union, correlate with the Holy Spirit. There are roles in the Godhead, though the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equally God. This reality is dimly seen here on earth, reflected in the family unit.

Feminists view this argument as Arianist heresy, but the answer to that is that most things on earth are imperfect pictures of spiritual truths. Just as Jesus' parables taught just one aspect of a complex subject, so the family unit shows one aspect of God's mysterious personality. "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then (in heaven) we shall see face to face." (I Cor. 13:12, NIV) When Christians meet God in heaven, they will finally grasp and understand the mystery and complexity of the Trinity, reconciling the roles of the Godhead with their equality.

Jesus gave no indication He had an inferiority complex about His role in comparison to His Father's. He was "in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, ... made himself nothing... a servant... he humbled Himself and became obedient to death." (Phil. 2:6-8, NIV). He then received an exalted position from His Father, just as woman is the crowning glory of man.

Ordaining Women Priests and Elders

Two different teachings about women elders are disseminated among Christians. One view holds men to be ultimately accountable while the other advocates an egalitarian approach. They hotly debate, but the Christian out in the field must grapple with any practical application. Since the church is a "calling out" of believers from the world, it is important that Christians model God's truth before a dysfunctional world. If the church conforms to the world rather than transforms it, they are failing that responsibility.

Women who yearn for headship imply they regard their position as sub-par, yet a supporting role is God's plan and there should be no shame in that. It's widely agreed that the church's blueprint is to have women fully exercise their spiritual giftedness alongside male elders, and showcase marriages in which husbands lead and cover their supportive wives.

It is clear that the role of women in the church is a subject of much debate. Ultimately, an individuals' interpretation of the Bible will determine his view.


D. A. Carson. Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1996).

Gilbert Bilezikian. Beyond Sex Roles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1989).

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