Can a Woman be an Elder?
Many today are throwing out the (centuries) long established interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 that a person’s involvement in leadership and teaching can be affected by his or her sex. To some, a literal understanding and application of this passage stands out like a sore thumb, an embarrassment and hindrance in our modern, “enlightened” culture.
These verses do jump out abruptly and tersely—and seem clear on the face of it. In an effort to be relevant in our present day culture and “fair-minded” to women, new interpretations have unfortunately been put forward in an attempt to remain “biblical” yet soften the thrust of verses like these.
Responding to common views
Considerable pressure exists in evangelicalism to minimize or eliminate all gender based roles in church. We take the unabashed view that a woman’s profession of godliness, as noted in the previous verses of 1 Timothy 2, is not to include a teaching or leadership role over men. How, then, do we respond to the objections raised against this view point? Here are some of the more common ones:
1) Isn’t this passage culturally limited?
Since the 1 st century culture relegated to women an inferior status, Paul’s appeal was for women to take their proper place in that culture. Now, as the argument goes, since women today are not inferior, Paul’s teaching no longer applies.
Is this a valid argument, that 1 Tim 2:11- 12 was culturally limited? We believe not. If we consistently apply that kind of reasoning, we undermine other truths of Scripture. For example, one could conclude that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were culturally limited because other religions had similar rituals in that era.
Or consider substitutionary atonement of Christ—the idea of someone taking another’s place in judgment was probably more readily understood in the 1 st culture than our present day where a person must take upon himself his own destiny. What really matters is simply that God loves us. Of course, this is nonsense.
The actual substitution of Christ for us is central to the gospel message. We must be careful, therefore, not to appeal to “culture limitations” too easily. This is especially true in light of the clear command of Scripture about gender roles in the church.
2) Doesn’t this view lessen a woman’s value and assault her dignity?
This is patently false. Value and dignity do not depend upon personal autonomy, and individual freedom does not require a right to every possible role. For example, a man cannot become pregnant or carry a child. Is he any less human or valued? A person’s intellectual or economic limitations may prohibit him from becoming a nuclear scientist.
In neither of these cases is a person’s value or dignity lessened because of life or genetic circumstances beyond his control. Likewise, a limitation on women in writings authored by the Creator of life does not affect a woman’s full enjoyment of humanness or her dignity as a woman.
3) Doesn’t this refer to domineering teaching?
Some assert that the Greek word for authority (Grk: authentein) occurs only once in Scripture and really means “domineering”, in the sense that it is OK for a women to teach men, so long as it is not in a domineering or overbearing way. Others would add that Paul is warning against women who are false teachers. These are weak arguments on two counts. First, there is no reason why Paul would have singled out women for this command, since men likewise should not act in domineering ways (see Matthew 20:25).
Second, authentein does indeed occur only once in the New Testament, and standard lexicons include both “domineering” and “have authority” as meanings of the word. So we resort to studying the meaning of the word in other ancient Greek writings. But it can also mean simply to have authority.
George Knight II, in a major study of all occurrences of the authentien in ancient Greek, confirms the rendering have authority as the natural meaning. Wilshire Leland Edward likewise examined all occurrences of the word concluded that authentein means to exercise authority. Neither found domineering to be the meaning.
This fits well with the context of 1 Timothy. In rest of this letter, there is no clear indication Paul has in mind women who were domineering over men or were false teachers. In fact, the false teachers mentioned specifically were males. When women are pointed out in 2 Timothy 3:6-7, they are victims of false teaching, not purveyors of it.
4) Isn’t this limited to a specific problem in Ephesus?
Since Timothy was living at Ephesus at the time of writing, wasn’t this injunction meant only for them and not for believers everywhere? However, we would ask on what basis such a judgment is made when we so readily apply the rest of 1 Timothy to the church today? Also, as we pointed out earlier, there is no evidence that women dominating or promoting false teaching was the issue. Clearly, this is a weak argument.
5) Doesn’t Galatians 3:28 override this?
“In Christ there is … neither male nor female.” God does not contradict Himself. In both cases, He speaks clearly and unambiguously … and theologically! Galatians speaks of our equal standing in relationship to the promises of God attained through faith. 1 Timothy speaks of functioning in the church. One is Soteriology, the other is ecclesiology.
Our vertical relationship with God is not dependent upon our sex, but our horizontal relationships with each other is.
We conclude there is no reason to dismiss the face value of 1 Timothy 2:11- 12. In fact, a more literal translation of the underlying Greek would read, “not to teach, nor even have authority.” Godly femininity avoids exercising authority or leadership over men, for otherwise femininity sacrifices itself in an attempt to take on masculinity.
Editorial Note: This article was first published in the July 2006 edition of Elders’ Shopnotes. It is used here with permission.