The Qualifications of the Office of Elder (3): Adult Males: The Scriptural Defense

Previous article in this series: September 15, 2013, p. 487.

The position that we defend in this article is that men only, and not women, may be elders in Christ’s church. To be more clear, we do not hold that any man may be an elder. The qualifications set forth in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 restrict the office to certain gifted and spiritually qualified men. But they also prohibit women from holding the office.

Having given three reasons in our last article why we must vigilantly defend this position, let us now see that this position is not one we dreamed up, but is the teach­ing of Scripture itself.

I Timothy 3 and Titus 1

I Timothy 3 and Titus 1, which set forth the qualifica­tions for officebearers, indicate that women may not serve in the special offices in the church.

The list of qualifications begins in I Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 by saying that a bishop must be “blameless, the husband of one wife….” I Timothy 3:4 requires the elder to be “one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity.” In addition, I Timothy 3:1, 5 refers to the elder as being a “man.”

In two ways these verses make clear that elders must be male, and may not be female.

First, they specify that the elder is to be the husband of a wife, rather than the wife of a husband. We grant that by these words, “the husband of one wife,” God requires the elder to be a one-woman man—not a polygamist or an adulterer, but an example of faithful devotion to his wife. Our point now is that the Spirit of inspiration did not express this idea generally, “faithful to one’s spouse,” but specifically, “the husband of one wife.” The English words “husband” and “wife,” and the Greek words that they translate, are gender specific. An elder may not be the wife of one husband; he must be the husband of one wife.

Second, I Timothy 3:4 specifies that the elder must “rule” his own house well. Again, the Spirit of inspiration does not merely require an elder to be faithful in carrying out his (her) domestic duties. Rather, He directed Paul to use the word “rule”—referring particularly to the duty that God assigns to the husband and father.

I Timothy 3:5 indicates why an elder must be a male: “For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” The church of God needs rulers; it needs rulers who can objectively discern with their intellect, not their emotions, what is right and best for the church. It needs rulers who have proved themselves, by their example in their family, to be good rulers. For all the gifts that women have—indeed, some have exceptional gifts of organization and ability to direct (distinct from ruling) a household well—God did not create women with the necessary gifts to rule the home, and therefore to rule the church.

I Corinthians 14:34-35 and I Timothy 2:11-14

Our second reason for saying that women may not hold the office of elder (or any other church office) is that some Scripture passages expressly prohibit women to hold positions of authority in the church.

I Corinthians 14:34-35 reads in part, “Let your women keep silence in the churches . . . for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” In the New Testa­ment, the word “church” never refers to a building; it refers either to the body of believers, or to the official worship of the church. The latter is the case here. In worship, women may not speak.

I Timothy 2:11-14 also forbids women to teach in the church. Verse 12 says, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Verses 13 and 14 ground this requirement in two historical, unchangeable facts: first, Adam was created as the head of Eve; second, Eve’s fall into sin was due to her being deceived by the devil.

Whereas I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 specifically taught that only males may hold office in the church, these verses speak to the place of women in the church more generally. However, that they are more general does not make them less clear: if I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 did not explicitly, in as many words, forbid women to hold office, these verses do: “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over a man.” Express prohibitions are clear.

God’s Consistent Will

Our third reason for restricting the office of elder to men is that this has been the consistent will of God for His church and covenant people throughout history.

Never in the Old Testament were women appointed as judges of the cities, tribes, and nation, charged to administer God’s law. (I consider this an indisputable fact—Ex. 18:21, Deut. 1:13, 15, and II Chron. 19:8 cannot be read any other way). Never did a queen rule in Jerusalem over the covenant people of God, on God’s behalf. Except Athaliah, of course—but she was not appointed by God; she usurped the throne by murdering its rightful heirs, and was bent on destroying the true worship of Jehovah.

We need not now explain why the Old Testament mentions the occasional prophetess—Miriam, Deborah, Huldah—because the office of elder in the church of Christ is not the New Testament equivalent of the office of prophet in Israel, but of the office of king. Still, by referring to such women we are reminded that the Israel­ites did recognize the exceptional gifts of some women at various times throughout their history. However, Israel did not use these gifts as a reason to make the women rulers of the nation.

Because God at no time made expressly clear that His will changed with regard to women in positions of authority, but rather made expressly clear that His will did not change in this regard (I Cor. 14 and I Tim. 2), the church of Christ must understand it to be the consistent will of God for His church throughout all history that only men—and then, qualified men—fill the offices of authority in the church of Jesus Christ.

This is not male chauvinism. This is not to ignore the weaknesses and sinful natures of men in the church. This is simply to recognize the will of God.

Objections

Three possible objections to all that we have said may be stated and briefly refuted.

First, someone familiar with the Greek language might point out that the word translated “man” in I Timothy 3:1, 5 is not gender specific; what the King James Version translates as a noun referring to a male is actually a pro­noun meaning “someone,” and could refer to either male or female.

We agree that the Greek word as such can refer to a male or female.

This does not mean, however, that God permits women to be elders. As with any pronoun that could refer to either male or female, or to singular or plural (such as our use of the word “you”), one must ask: what (who) is the antecedent? To whom, in this sentence, does the pronoun refer? And the answer in I Timothy 3:1-13 is that the pronoun refers to males, husbands, rulers of homes.

The second objection is that Paul prescribed that males be elders because in his day men were the rulers of homes and of society. Because things are different in our culture today, elders may be either male or female.

This objection is an insult to the Holy Spirit’s ability clearly and accurately to instruct the church of all ages regarding the Lord’s revealed will. The Lord’s revealed will for the church does not depend on the church’s cul­ture or the time in history in which she lives; rather, it depends on foundational principles that never change. Moses warned Israel against this very kind of thinking in Deuteronomy 30:11-14: God’s law was not written in a different language (“in heaven”), nor was it intended for people of a different culture (“beyond the sea”); it was given plainly to the Israelites. So with all of God’s Word, as applied to male eldership: God’s will regarding male el­dership transcends culture. Scripture even indicates this regarding the point at hand: the qualifications for elder are written to two different churches—Ephesus (I Tim. 3) and Crete (Tit. 1). They existed at the same time in history, and as part of the same Roman empire, but were distinct churches, with different backgrounds and particular customs and cultures. But God’s will regard­ing male eldership transcended geographic and cultural differences.

The third objection is that Scripture is not clear on the matter of whether or not women are permitted to or excluded from the holding of church office.

Although we referred briefly to this objection in our last article, we note it again, because this is the basic argu­ment of those Reformed church bodies that now permit women to hold office: the Scripture does not clearly say we may not. This, we are told, is why good and sincere Christians are found on both sides of the issue. If Scrip­ture were clear, all Christians would see it the same way.

Our response is threefold. First, this is an attack on all of Scripture. If Scripture is not clear, it is not reliable and trustworthy, and cannot be profitable, as Paul told Timothy it was (II Tim. 3:16). Second, this is an attack on the Holy Spirit, as we just pointed out in responding to the second objection. I go farther: it is a lie against the Holy Spirit. It charges the Spirit of Christ with the inability to speak clearly, when in fact, as God, He speaks most plainly. Third, it ignores this fact, illustrated from creation: at high noon on a cloudless day, the sun in the heavens shines forth with all its glory and splendor—but not all see it. Some do not see it at all. Others do not see it clearly. They are blind—either completely, or partially. This is the issue with regard to the Scriptures—they are clear, but the minds of men are blinded.

Forget not, dear reader, that such blindness manifests the depravity that is common to all, even to us. Where­fore, as we stand firm on the matter of excluding women from the offices, let our prayer always be that of blind Bartimaeus, “Lord, that I may receive my sight” (Luke 18:41), and our supplication that of the psalmist, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Ps. 119:18).