Can Women Lead and Teach in the Church? (Part 6)

BIBLICAL FOUNDATION: 1 Timothy 3:1-13

What does the Bible teach about the offices of leadership in the church? This passage explains the qualifications of elders and deacons. While there are a number of characteristics listed for both overseers and deacons, only those that relate to the discussion on women in ministry and leadership will be highlighted. The following five sections will be explored: Context (1 Timothy 3:1-13); The Office of Overseer (3:1); Husband of One Wife and Able to Teach (3:2-3); Manages His Household Well (3:4-7); The Office of Deacon (3:8-13).

Context (1 Timothy 3:1-13)

The context of this passage is within the same letter from Paul to Timothy in the preceding discussion. These verses immediately follow 1 Timothy 2:11-15, in which Paul establishes the roles of male headship and female submission by appealing to Creation, the Fall, and the consequences to woman. Therefore, any office that requires the teaching of men or exercising authority over men will not be open to women.

 The Office of Overseer (1 Timothy 3:1)

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1). The Greek word episkopḗ (overseer) is also translated as bishop or elder, entrusted with the care and oversight of a church.[1] Some egalitarians hold to the view that Christ has entrusted final authority to all believers, viewing overseers as non-authoritative servant leaders.[2] Yet the larger majority of egalitarians contend that overseer is an office of leadership and authority in the church that is open to both men and women. Payne argues that Paul does not specify that women can be elders in this text due to the specific concerns in Ephesus that women were spreading false teaching.[3] He goes on to assert that 1 Timothy 3:1-12 do not include any masculine pronouns in the original Greek.[4]

It is crucial to note here that the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 has a direct impact on the understanding of this passage. Paul has just established that women are not permitted to teach men, nor exercise authority over men, according to the doctrine of Creation and in order to participate in resisting their fallen nature. Therefore, since the office of overseer includes teaching and exercising authority over men, it must not be available to women. Furthermore, it has already been shown in the preceding text that Paul was not addressing merely a particular circumstance, but an acknowledgement of the created order. MacArthur adds, “The indefinite pronoun tis (any) should be taken here as masculine, in agreement with the masculine form of the adjectives in verses 2-6.”[5]

Husband of One Wife and Able to Teach (1 Timothy 3:2-3)

“An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money” (1 Timothy 3:2-3). Most can agree that at the very least Paul here is referring to the sexual purity and marital fidelity of an overseer.[6] He is not merely, as some suggest, prohibiting polygamists and adulterers,[7] nor is he disqualifying single men.[8] Egalitarians assert that the emphasis here is on sexual faithfulness and is not exclusive to men.[9] Yet the Köstenbergers refute this stating, “The passage clearly refers to a husband and can’t legitimately be interpreted to mean ‘faithful wife.’”[10] They also note the close proximity of this verse to 1 Timothy 2:12 which clearly prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men.[11]

In addition, Paul indicates that overseers must be “able to teach”. Given the context of the preceding section in which women are not to teach men or exercise authority over men, it seems likely that Paul is referring to overseers as male in this requirement. This is also a notable distinction from the office of deacon in the verses which follow.

Manages His Household Well (1 Timothy 3:4-7)

He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:4-7). Paul emphasizes the link between the order of a home and the order of the church. An overseer must be one who manages his home and leads his children well. “The word manage (4,5) translates proϊstamenos, which is a word for ‘leader’, combining concepts of ‘rule’ and ‘care’, and which Paul uses elsewhere of presbyters (5:17 and perhaps Rom. 12:8). It indicates that, although pastoral ministry is a servant ministry characterized by gentleness, a certain authority also attaches to it.”[12] The word translated manage can also mean “presides” or “has authority over,” a role which men were to embrace in both the home and the church.[13] Paul identifies the important qualification that overseers much manage their household well. As an extension this, they must keep their children under control with all dignity, and are entrusted with the care and authority of the church.

The Office of Deacon (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

Paul transitions from the office of overseer to the office of deacon:

Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 3:8-13).

The Greek word diákonos (deacon) can also be translated minister or servant, and refers to the office that helps and serves the overseers, though does not possess any ruling authority.[14] The main discussion surrounding this passage involves verse 11, and whether Paul is referring to women deacons or to the wives of deacons. The Greek term gunaikas (from the word gunē) can refer to either women or wives.[15] There are three main reasons why women is the most likely interpretation. First, there is no possessive pronoun or definite article suggesting these women are the wives of the deacons.[16] Second, Paul gives no qualifications for the wives of elders, so it would not be likely that he would describe qualifications for the wives of deacons.[17] Third, at that time there only existed a masculine form of diakonos (deacon), so it was used to refer to both men and women.[18]

A second important feature of this passage is that Paul lists the qualifications for deacons following the list of qualifications for overseers in verses 1-7. There are two notable distinctions from the office of overseer and the office of deacon. First, one quality of an overseer is that he must be “able to teach,” indicating that they have responsibilities relating to teaching (1 Tim. 3:2). Second, an overseer “must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Although deacons are also required to manage their home and children well, Paul adds extra emphasis on the authority and leadership of overseers in this regard. These two distinctions indicate that the office of overseer has additional responsibilities in the areas of teaching and authority in the church that are not expected of deacons. An essential distinction between these two offices then, is that deacons are servants of the church that have a nonteaching, non authoritative role and submit to the leadership of the overseers.[19] In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul gives clear instructions that women are not permitted to teach or have authority over men. Given the above two distinctions, that the office of deacon carries no teaching or authoritative responsibilities, there is no reason why women should be excluded from the office of deacon. As Perry notes, “This conclusion is corroborated further by Paul’s clear description of Phoebe as a ‘deacon of the church in Cenchreae’ in Romans 16:1. Not only did Paul not prohibit diaconal service by Christian women, he dignifies it by commending Phoebe and by recognizing women among the candidates who were being evaluated for diaconal office at Ephesus.”[20] To this the discussion will now turn.

Summary (1 Timothy 3:1-13)

The above discussion has demonstrated the importance of the context that this passage follows immediately after Paul’s prohibition of women teaching men or exercising authority over men. The qualifications of overseer involves responsibilities in teaching and authority, such that they be able to teach, keep their children under control with all dignity, and manage the church well. Since overseers have responsibilities to teach men and exercise authority over men, this office is not available to women. These are notable distinctions from the office of deacon, who are servants of the church under the authority of the overseers. Since the office of deacon does not require the teaching of men nor the exercising authority over men, it is therefore an office available to women.

     [1]The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (1993), s.v. “overseer.”

     [2]Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 222.

     [3]Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 454.

     [4]Ibid., 445.

     [5]John MacArthur, 1 Timothy, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1995), 95.

     [6]John R. W. Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus, The Bible Speaks Today Series (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 94.

     [7]Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 447.

     [8]MacArthur, 1 Timothy, 104.

     [9]See Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to Lead: Paul’s Letters to Timothy for a New Day (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 71.

     [10]Kӧstenberger and Kӧstenberger, God’s Design For Man and Woman, 219.

     [11]Ibid.

     [12]Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus, 98; Kӧstenberger and Kӧstenberger, God’s Design For Man and Woman, 225.

     [13]MacArthur, 1 Timothy, 116.

     [14]The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (1993), s.v. “deacon.”

     [15]Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 249. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (1993), s.v. “women.”

     [16]Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, 249; MacArthur, 1 Timothy, 130.

     [17]Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, 250; MacArthur, 1 Timothy, 130.

     [18]Kӧstenberger and Kӧstenberger, God’s Design For Man and Woman, 226; MacArthur, 1 Timothy, 130.

     [19]Kӧstenberger and Kӧstenberger, God’s Design For Man and Woman, 229; Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, 250; Greg Perry, “Phoebe of Cenchreae and ‘Women’ of Ephesus: ‘Deacons’ in the Earliest Churches,” Presbyterion 36, 1 (2010): 11.

     [20] Perry, “Phoebe of Cenchreae and ‘Women’ of Ephesus: ‘Deacons’ in the Earliest Churches,” 33.

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