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4. Elders

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There are several names used for the primary leaders of the church. In 1 Timothy 3:1-2, they are called “overseers,” some versions translate this as “bishops.” We see in other places including 1 Timothy 5:17, they are called elders. In 1 Peter 5:2, they are called shepherds or pastors.

In some denominations, these are three separate positions: pastors are over the elders, and bishops are over the pastors. However, in Scripture, these are different names for the same position. (1) Evidence for this is the fact that Paul only lists two leadership positions (overseers and deacons) when teaching Timothy about how the church should be run in 1 Timothy 3:1-15. (2) Also, Acts 20:17, 28-30 and 1 Peter 5:1-2 use the titles elders, bishops, and pastors (shepherds), interchangeably. For example, 1 Peter 5:1-2 says:

So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly

Likewise, in Titus 1:5-7, the term elder and bishop are used interchangeably.

Why does Scripture give three different titles for the same position? The different titles focus on the different qualities of the office:

  • Elder refers to the spiritual maturity and wisdom of these leaders.
  • Pastor is a shepherding term referring to their care for others.
  • Bishop refers to their oversight or rulership of the church.

Qualities of Elders

What are qualities of elders? In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul wrote this:

This saying is trustworthy: “If someone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a good work.” The overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money. He must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity. But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God? He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact. And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap.

  1. They must desire to be overseers or pastors (v. 1). He says, “if someone aspires to the office of overseer.” God is looking for willing leaders. Again, in 1 Peter 5:2, Peter said this to elders about their attitude in serving, “not merely as a duty but willingly.”
  2. Their inward call must be affirmed by the outward call of the church. The fact that the qualities of elders are given to Timothy implies that the church’s leaders (and possibly the entire congregation) need to affirm these qualities in potential elders. In fact, in Titus 1:5, Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:6-9).
  3. The qualifications are primarily character traits. They must not be “violent,” which literally means “not a giver of blows”1 (v. 3). They must manage their own household well (v. 4). They must be given to “hospitality,” which means “to love strangers”2 (v. 3). Elders are to be examples of godly character within a church. In fact, in 1 Peter 5:3, Peter directly called for the elders to “be examples to the flock.”
  4. The only skill needed is that they must be “an able teacher” (v. 2). Since they must be able to teach, it means they must know the Word of God and be competent in explaining it to others. This skill in teaching may include preaching from the pulpit, but not necessarily. The most effective teaching is one-on-one or in small groups.
  5. They must be men.
  • The requirement of male leadership is clear from Paul’s use of male pronouns throughout the passage.

Again 1 Timothy 3:2-7 says,

The overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money. He must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity. But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God? He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact. And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap.

  • The requirement of male leadership is also taught in other Pauline passages.

Titus 1:6 says, “An elder must be blameless, the husband of one wife, with faithful children who cannot be charged with dissipation or rebellion.” First Timothy 2:12-13 says, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. For Adam was formed first and then Eve.” Similarly, 1 Corinthians 14:34 says, “women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says.”

The traditional view that only males can serve in pastoral leadership is called the complementarian view. This view recognizes that males and females are equally made in the image of God and given gifts by God. However, in the home and in the church, God has given the two sexes different roles. Males are called to lead in both the home and the church (cf. Eph 5:25-27, Titus 1:6). This view comes primarily from taking the previously mentioned texts at face value.

Egalitarian View

The view that women can serve in church leadership (and for some also lead the home) is called the egalitarian view. This view would say that God has made both males and females in God’s image and there are no differing roles.

What supports are used for the egalitarian position, specifically for women serving as pastors in churches?

1. Egalitarians support their position by teaching that the verses calling for women to not teach males or pastor in the church were referring to specific situations in those churches or that culture and therefore should not be universally applied to churches today.

Complementarians would point out that the context of those verses and the repetition of Paul’s teaching in different contexts argue for his teaching being universal. For example, in 1 Timothy 2:12-13, when Paul says, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. For Adam was formed first and then Eve,” he does not make an argument unique to the Ephesian church or to that culture. He makes a creation argument—“For Adam was formed first and then Eve.” Paul argues that God’s creation of Eve after Adam demonstrates his leadership over her. Adam’s leadership is also demonstrated in the fact that he named his wife (Gen 2:23, 3:20), just like he previously named the animals at God’s prompting (Gen 2:19-20). Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 (NET), when Paul gave instructions for women to practice restraint in their speaking in churches, he said: “… As in all the churches of the saints, the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says.” Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians was not only for Corinth but for “all the churches of the saints” (v. 33). In addition, he pointed to the law as evidence. He probably referred either to the same creation argument used in 1 Timothy 2:13 or to the fact that only men were allowed to be priests in the Old Testament. Essentially, Paul said, God made it this way from the beginning—both in marriage and in the tabernacle/temple.

2. Egalitarians support their position by stating that gender roles have been abolished in Christ.

They would use verses like Galatians 3:28-29, which says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is slave nor free, there is neither male nor female —for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.” Complementarians would argue against this since the context of the verse is Paul arguing about our equal standing in Christ, not our various roles. If male and female roles in the home and church were abolished, this would also be true of slaves and free (which in those times was often equivalent to an employee and employer), yet Paul teaches slaves to submit to their masters and women to submit to their husbands in other writings (Eph 5:23, 6:5, Col 3:18, 22). People can be equal in Christ and have differing roles, even as people in the work force are equal in worth and yet commonly have different roles.

3. Egalitarians support their position by emphasizing examples in Scripture of potential women in leadership.

For example, Romans 16:7 says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my compatriots and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” Junia was a common female name during that time. Therefore, taking this text into consideration alone, it is possible that she was an apostle. Some might point to the women at the tomb when Christ resurrected. They were sent out to declare to the apostles that Christ had resurrected (Matt 28:7). It’s often said, “Those women were preachers!” In addition, Deborah, who was a prophet and judge of Israel (Jdg 4-5), is used as an argument for women serving in pastoral leadership.

How do complementarians handle those arguments? (1) They would typically first state that none of those women, necessarily, served in positions forbidden in the New Testament. They were not pastors in the church. In fact, Paul even spoke about women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11:5 and so did Luke in Acts 21:9. Also, it’s possible that Paul spoke about Phoebe as a deaconess in Romans 16:1, though not a pastor. The ministries that those women served in don’t necessarily conflict with Paul’s teaching that women could not serve as pastor/elders. Women are called to serve, make disciples, preach the gospel, and lead in some circumstances, as all believers are. The question is, “What is the proper context of their serving?” (2) With Junia being “well known to the apostles,” the text is ambiguous—meaning it’s not clear whether she was an apostle or “well-known” by the apostles. As far as being an apostle like the Twelve, it seems clear that she wasn’t one of those. In Acts 1:21, when selecting a replacement for Judas, Peter declared that the next apostle had to be a male. He said, “Thus one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus associated with us, beginning from his baptism by John until the day he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness of his resurrection together with us.” With that said, the word “apostle” simply means “sent one,” and therefore could be used in a general sense to refer to those commissioned and sent by churches to serve, like missionaries today (cf. 2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25, “messenger”). If Junia was an apostle, the text could be referring to her as a missionary—not somebody who numbered with the Twelve. (3) With Deborah specifically, not only was she not equivalent to a pastor of a church, but also the book of Judges is not meant to be prescriptive of how things should be. The book shows how disobedient Israel was, including their leaders. Each judge in the book seems to get worse, finishing with the worst judge, Samson. He was the leader of Israel, but he married a woman from Israel’s enemy, the Philistines. He was a drunk who continually entertained prostitutes, which eventually led to his death. With Deborah’s narrative, the focus seems to be on how there was no male leadership in Israel. In Judges 4:9, she said to Barak, “I will indeed go with you. But you will not gain fame on the expedition you are undertaking, for the Lord will turn Sisera over to a woman.” Deborah’s narrative, like most narratives in Judges, shows how bad Israel had gotten. It doesn’t show what should be normative for the people of God in that era or the current one. In fact, in Isaiah 3:12, Isaiah describes God’s judgment over Israel in this way: “Youths oppress my people, women rule over them” (cf. 3:1-7).

4. Some egalitarians support their position because of a liberal view of Scripture.

For them, instead of seeing Scripture as without error in all that it teaches and to be the believers’ rule of life in all areas, they often question Scripture’s teachings and reject it on certain points. Commonly, they would reject a literal interpretation of Scripture and take a more spiritual or figurative interpretation. For example, they might accept what the Bible teaches about salvation by faith alone, but reject what it says about sexuality, homosexuality, male leadership, creation, miracles, and/or the resurrection, and take a more figurative view of those doctrines. Some might even reject the idea of Christ being the only way to salvation. They might be considered very similar to the Sadducees in Christ’s day. The Sadducees, though believing in the Jewish God and studying Scripture, often rejected a literal interpretation of Scripture. This led to not believing in angels, demons, miracles, or even the resurrection. Likewise, some accept women as pastors because of a liberal understanding of Scripture, which commonly rejects literal interpretations of certain verses and doctrines.

Complementarian View

What are the typical supports for the complementarian view—that only men can serve as pastors?

1. As mentioned, complementarians base their view on taking the New Testament verses which teach women should not serve as pastors at face value.

First Timothy 3:1 says, “… If someone aspires to the office of overseer, ‘he’ desires a good work.” Titus 1:6 says, “An elder must be blameless, the ‘husband’ of but one wife, with faithful children who cannot be charged with dissipation or rebellion.” First Timothy 2:12-13 says, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. For Adam was formed first and then Eve.” Similarly, 1 Corinthians 14:34 says, “women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says.”

2. Complementarians base their view on the continuity of male leadership from the Old Testament.

As mentioned, in 1 Timothy 2:12-13, Paul taught that women should not teach males in the church based on the fact that “Adam was formed first, then Eve.” He refers to the order of creation, arguing that God made Adam as Eve’s leader. Also, in 1 Corinthians 14:34, when Paul taught that women should practice restraint in their speaking while in the church, he argued that this submission was taught in the Law—the Old Testament. He says, “the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says.” Again, this could possibly refer to the order of creation argument, as in 1 Timothy 2:12-13. But he also might be referring to the leaders—priests and Levites—in the tabernacle and temple who were required to be male (cf. Ex 29:29-30).

3. Complementarians base their view on males and females being made in God’s image and symbolizing the equality, submission, and perfect love in the Trinity.

In 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul says, “But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” Since males and females are made in the image of God, they demonstrate aspects of God’s triune nature. In the Trinity, God the Father and God the Son are co-equal, but in their relationship, there is headship—the Son submits to the Father. In a marriage, Paul compares the woman to Christ and the husband to God the Father—the husband is the head of the wife just as God is the head of Christ (1 Cor 11:3). The husband and wife are co-equal, but there is headship in their relationship, as they are made in the image of God. This headship is also seen in the male leadership of the church. In the church, males and females are equal; however, all the members are called to submit to the designated male leadership in the church (cf. Heb 13:17). This equality and submission reflect the dynamics in the Trinity.

It should also be added that there is perfect love in the Trinity (1 John 4:8), and because of that, perfect love should be demonstrated in the home and church dynamics, along with submission and authority. These are true throughout society since people are made in God’s image. When love, submission, and authority break down, relationships and society in general break down.

The Elders’ Duties

What are the elders’ duties? There are many:

  1. They should rule or oversee the affairs of the church (1 Tim 5:17).
  2. They should focus on prayer and the ministry of God’s Word (cf. Acts 6:4).
  3. They should be servants (1 Pt 5:2).
  4. They should be godly examples for the flock (1 Pt 5:3).
  5. They should train members to do the work of ministry (Eph 4:11-12).
  6. They should help members mature from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity by teaching them Scripture (Eph 4:14).
  7. They should pray for the sick (Jam 5:14-15).
  8. They should set church policy (Acts 15:22).
  9. They should ordain other men (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, 1 Tim 4:14).
  10. They should protect the church from false teaching (Acts 20:28-31).

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. Who are elders and what do they do?
  3. What are the qualities of elders?
  4. How should elders be selected?
  5. Can women serve in the pastoral role? Why or why not? Support your position with Scripture.
  6. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

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1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (p. 111). Chicago: Moody Press.

2 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (p. 107). Chicago: Moody Press.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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