Biblical Qualifications for Elder and Bishop/Overseer
We come now to the central issue in the ordination debate: whether candidates for the Christian Church’s headship offices of elder and bishop/overseer must be male.
“This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” 1 Timothy 3:1-7
“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” Titus 1:5-9
These passages seem to describe a man. But those who favor the ordination of women argue that they should be interpreted in a unisex way, to mean men or women as the case may be.
They point out that some of the Greek original is gender neutral. For example, the Greek doesn't say, “if a man desires the position of Bishop” but, “if anyone (Gr. = tis) desires the position of Bishop” (1 Tim. 3:1) and not, “if a man is blameless,” but, “if anyone is blameless.” (Titus 1:6). They point out that sometimes in Scripture the male case is inclusive, meaning that it also applies to women. For example, the Tenth Commandment states, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife,” but women should read it as enjoining, “thou shalt not covet they neighbor's husband.” Likewise, proponents of female ordination argue that, “husband of one wife” should be read inclusively to mean “husband of one wife or wife of one husband, as the case may be.”
Did the Apostle Paul intend to specify a man, or should we understand these qualifications to apply to either a man or a woman? How should we interpret him? As Seventh-day Adventists and good Protestants, we must make Scripture its own expositor by allowing it to interpret itself.
The Wider Biblical Context
“A text without context,” it is said, “is a pretext.” We cannot rightly interpret the passages in 1 Timothy and Titus without studying their context, including both their immediate context and the wider context of the entirety of Scripture.
We have examined much of the wider biblical context in previous installments, including the fact that Adam was formed first, was viceregent of Planet Earth, and had responsibilities that were given to him before Eve was created. We have learned that there is role differentiation in the human family just as in the Godhead and among the unfallen angels. And we have learned that there is a principle of male spiritual headship that applies in the Christian Church: “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Cor. 11:3)
We can trace this principle through the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation. Only males officiated in the offering of sacrifices (Gen. 8:20; Judges 13:19; Job 1:5; Heb. 11:4). The founders of the twelve tribes of Israel were all male (Gen. 48:1,5; 49:1-28). Although the Lord called on the entire nation of Israel to be a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6), only men were appointed to offer the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:3) and to later serve as priests in the sanctuary (Ex. 28:1; 29:9-10; Num. 3:3).
The genealogy of Jesus is traced through the male lineage (although four women are also mentioned) (Matt. 1:3,5,6). Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, became incarnate as a man so that he could function as the Second Adam and redeem the failure of the first Adam (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus had many female followers (Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:27-30), yet in choosing his specially ordained disciples, He chose twelve men to lead His church (Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; DA 290-297). After the death of Judas, the remaining disciples cast lots to choose his replacement. Both candidates were men, although several prominent female followers were available (Acts 1:12-23).
This pattern of male spiritual responsibility and leadership is the larger biblical context for the Christian Church’s headship offices of elder and bishop/overseer.
The Immediate Context
In 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Paul lists the biblical requirements that must be met by anyone who aspires to be a bishop. Immediately before listing those criteria, he wrote this:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control (1 Timothy 2:11-15).
The chapter divisions in our modern Bibles did not exist in Paul’s original letter to Timothy but were added much later. Hence, it is reasonable to read 1 Timothy 2:11 through 3:7 as one uninterrupted thought regarding the qualifications of a bishop/overseer. And lest anything rest on but one text, note that there is a similar passage in First Corinthians: “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:34-35).
a. The Teaching Issue
Now, if an elder or bishop must be “apt to teach,” as is specified in 1 Tim. 3:2, and women must be quiet in church and are specifically forbidden from teaching, then obviously a woman cannot be an elder or bishop. Authoritative teaching in the church is limited to men. Therefore, the offices of elder and bishop, which require such teaching, are also limited to men.
Proponents of women's ordination point out that Priscilla is shown teaching a man, Apollos (Acts 18:24-28). First, she is not doing this by herself, but in conjunction with her husband, Aquila. Second, the Greek term Luke uses in Acts 18:26, a cognate of ektithemi, means “set out,” “explain” or “expound,” whereas the word used by Paul is didasko. Paul uses a cognate of didasko both in 1 Timothy 2:12, where he says he does not permit a woman to teach, and in 3:2, where he says that anyone who aspires to be a bishop must be “apt to teach.” He forbids the woman to do the very thing an aspiring bishop must be prone to do.
Interestingly, there are two other appearances of this Greek term in connection with women in the New Testament. The first is in Titus 2:3-4, where the older women are instructed to be “teachers of goodness” (kalodidaskalos) to the younger women. That is a positive reference—it is a good thing when the older women teach goodness to the younger women. The second appearance, in Revelation 2:20, is a very negative reference—Jesus rebukes the church of Thyatira for allowing “that woman Jezebel” to teach (didasko). They should not have permitted her to teach.
b. The Authority Issue
The offices of elder and bishop/overseer are authoritative offices. The Bible says that the elders “rule” the church. “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17). “Remember [heed, pay attention to] those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (Heb. 13:7).
Elders are not only to teach authoritatively (didasko) but also to suppress false teaching. An elder is to “hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, . . . whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain. . . . Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith . . .” (Titus 1:9-13).
It is clear from these passages that both the “rulership” and “rebuking” function of an elder calls for him to be in authority over men in the congregation. Hence a female elder would conflict with the admonition in 1 Tim. 2:12 that women are not to have authority over men. Having stated explicitly that women should not teach or be in authority over men, Paul obviously intended that an office that requires rulership of the church, including rebuking false teaching, should be limited to men. He then proceeds to spell out what kind of men are suitable for the office of elder.
The Passage Itself
Both 1 Timothy and Titus require that the candidate for elder or bishop/overseer be “the husband of one wife.” Nowhere does it say the candidate may be the “wife of one husband.” This fact seems to indicate that an elder or bishop/overseer must be a man.
But as we noted above, proponents of female ordination argue that this could be read in a unisex way, just as we could read “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” to also prohibit women from coveting their neighbor’s husband. Is there anything in these passages besides the phrase “husband of one wife” that indicates the gender specified?
Yes, there is. The bishop is to have his “children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)” 1 Tim. 3:5.
In the Bible, who is to “rule the house”? Scripture is clear in specifying the patriarchal (“rule of the fathers”) model of family government. The husband is the head of the home. This is clear in the Old Testament (Gen. 3:16; 18:12; 1 Peter 3:6) and just as clear in the New: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her . . .” (Eph. 5:22-25) “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them” (Col. 3:18-19) “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives . . .” (1 Peter 3:1).
From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture recognizes the husband and father as the head of the home. If a woman is ruling the house, something has gone wrong to create a non-ideal situation; there has been a divorce or an abandonment, or the husband’s tragic death.
Clearly, given the Bible's unchanging teaching that men are the rulers of the home, Paul's statement that if someone “does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” cannot apply in a unisex way. Hence, an elder or bishop/overseer must be a man.
By the way, Ellen White was just as clear on this point as the Apostle Paul: “He who fails to direct wisely his own household, is not qualified to guide the church of God” (Signs of the Times, Nov. 10, 1881). “If a man does not show wisdom in the management of the church in his own house, how can he show wisdom in the management of the larger church outside? How can he bear the responsibilities which mean so much, if he cannot govern his own children?” (5 Manuscript Releases, 449-450).
When we bring all the scriptures together on the subject, let every word have its proper influence, allow Scripture to be its own expositor, and form our theory without placing one text in opposition to another, this is not a close case. The headship offices of the church--elder and bishop/overseer—are reserved for men.
The opposition to the doctrine of male headship in the church is not based upon Scripture. It is based upon culture. The modern Western mind is shocked and scandalized by the Bible’s consistent and unapologetic patriarchy, which could scarcely be more in conflict with contemporary culture and values.
Frequently Asked Questions:
1. Was Paul, in 1 Tim. 2:12-13, responding to a heresy that had arisen in Ephesus holding that Eve was created before Adam, and Adam sinned first?
A theory advance by proponents of female ordination is that when Paul wrote:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression (1 Timothy 2:11-14).
he was laying down a rule only for the church in Ephesus, where some women were teaching that Eve was formed first, and that Adam had eaten the forbidden fruit before Eve.
This theory has been disputed by capable scholars, but the problem is the method itself. Someone tells an extraneous, unverifiable story that limits to a given time and place a teaching that would otherwise have universal application. This purports to be within the “historical-grammatical” hermeneutic, but it effectively redacts Scripture by using an extra-biblical explanation. How is this different from outright criticism?
Per the text itself, this apostolic instruction is the opposite of time-bound and culturally conditioned; it is based upon the order of creation and the history of Fall, history that is common to the entire human race, to every human being who has lived since Adam and Eve. Paul’s teaching applies universally, not just to the local situation of First Century Ephesus.
2. If the fact that Adam was created first signifies male headship, wouldn’t the animals be superior to Adam because they were created before him?
At best, this is an argument with the apostle Paul, since it is Paul who, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives the order of creation as a basis for male leadership in the church. (At worst, it is an unseemly attempt to ridicule an unwanted but plain biblical teaching.) It is unwise to argue with the logic of an inspired writer.
Humans and animals are in different categories (animals were not created in the image of God). God explicitly gave humanity dominion over the animals (Gen. 1:26), which nullifies any priority-of-creation argument as between humans and animals.
3. Does the phrase ‘husband of one wife’ Exclude Single Men from Being Elders?
This could be read as requiring that the candidate be married, and/or as a prohibition on bigamy and polygamy. That the apostle Paul was ordained (Acts 13:3), and yet describes himself as single in 1 Corinthians 7:7, argues for allowing single men to serve as local elders and bishops/overseers. But wherever one comes down on this issue, it should not divert or distract from the teaching that the headship offices are restricted to men.
4. Didn't Jesus choose twelve male apostles because of the culture of His day?
Jesus was obedient to the word of His Father, not the culture of man. “He saw that the requirements of society and the requirements of God were in constant collision.… He could not sanction the mingling of human requirements with the divine precepts” (DA 84). Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-26), with Zachaeus (Luke 19:1-10) with the gentiles (Luke 7:1-10; Mat. 15:21-28) and the “unclean” people he touched and healed (Mark 1:40-45), and other acts indicate that Jesus was never a slave to the cultural expectations of His time. Jesus did what was required by God, not what was expected by the society of His day.
5. Does Galatians 3:28 provide Biblical grounds for ordaining women to the gospel ministry?
No. Galatians 3:28 is about equal access to God through Christ. It does not change the Biblical requirements for the offices of elder and bishop/overseer.
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28).
By baptism all are united in one spiritual family. All have the privileges of a child of God. At our baptism, God the Father’s words “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” now are said of us. Without any distinction “Every soul may have free access to God” (PK 369).
The passage does not mean all Christians have been given the same gifts or assigned the same tasks. Neither does the passage mean there is no gender differentiation in leadership roles, because that would contradict other clear passages of scripture.
Galatians 3:28 does not represent a change in Paul's thinking about gender roles in the church. For that to be true, Galatians would need to have been written after First Timothy, but it was written well before. Moreover, if we interpret Galatians 3:28 so that it contradicts such passages as 1 Cor 11:3-16 and 1 Tim 2:12-13, then we have not “formed our theory without a contradiction” but instead are setting Scripture against Scripture.
6. Was Junia, of Romans 16:7, a female apostle?
“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among [or are esteemed by] the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Rom. 16:7 (NIV)
So was there a female apostle? Proponents of female ordination argue that “Junia” was both a woman and an apostle, and since apostles had authority over men in the church, indeed even over elders/bishops/overseers, Junia demonstrates that women can be ordained to gospel ministry.
First, theologians, Bible translations, and even the underlying Greek manuscripts disagree about whether Junia was a woman. The church fathers were divided, with John Chrysostom (AD 359-407) believing Junia was a woman, but Origen (AD 185-254) believing Junia a man. Epiphanius of Salamis (died AD 403) uses the masculine form, Junias, and claims to have specific biographical information, writing that “Junias, of whom Paul makes mention, became bishop of Apameia of Syria.” Ellen White states, “Paul in his letters to the churches makes mention of women who were laborers with him in the gospel. . . . ‘Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me’” (North Pacific Union Gleaner 12/4/1907). This seems to indicate that White believed Junia a woman, but it is not definitive because she also lists several men in that passage.
Second, we do not know from the Greek, which is commonly translated as “who are of note among the apostles,” whether Andronicus and Junia were “noteworthy apostles” or “well known to the apostles.” It makes a big difference whether Andronicus and Junia(s) were well known to the apostles or were themselves highly regarded apostles. But if they were noteworthy apostles, why are they never noted in the book of Acts, where the acts of the apostles are recorded? Why is there no mention of them anywhere except in this “greetings and salutations” section at the end of Paul's letter to the Romans?
A female apostle is an extraordinary claim and it would require extraordinarily clear biblical proof, which is not present here. We cannot be expected to believe that Junia was a noteworthy female apostle, when the entire teaching and context of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, limits organized spiritual leadership to men? Even granting that Junia was a woman, the better reading of this ambiguous passage is that Andronicus and Junia were well known to the apostles, not themselves apostles.
7. Should licensed or commissioned women perform the exact same functions as an ordained male minister?
The work of men and women in ministry is clearly distinct in both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White, and steps need to be taken to restore this distinction in Seventh-day Adventist church ecclesiastical practice, so as to reflect gender roles as inspired counsel presents them. Moreover, the current working distinctions between local elders and ordained gospel ministers in the SDA Church are not biblical—what is allowed or denied one should be allowed or denied the other.
8. Isn't Defending Gender Roles from Scripture Just Like Defending Slavery from Scripture?
Unlike gender roles, slavery cannot rightly be defended from Scripture. True, we do not see Jesus or Paul openly calling for the abolition of slavery, and there is an important lesson to be learned from that: Christianity does not seek to remake society by tackling its sinful institutions all at once, but by first converting people and changing hearts and minds, one person at a time. These converted people, when they eventually reach critical mass in a society, will seek to reform their society. Had the early Christians attempted to destroy slavery—an institution deeply entrenched in Roman society—the followers of Christ would have been immediately extirpated by the Roman authorities.
But Paul's epistle to Philemon effectively demolishes slavery's philosophical underpinnings, and replaces them with a Christian worldview that makes Onesimus the brother of Philemon, to be treated as his brother, not as his property. Some of history's most prominent abolitionists and anti-slavery activists have been committed Christians, including most notably William Wilberforce, and also Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, Charles Finney, Theodore Weld, George Bourne, George Cheever, Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, etc.
Unlike slavery and social class distinctions, which are human institutions, sex and sex roles were created by God (Gen. 5:2; Mat.19:4; Mark 10:6). Neither slavery, racial segregation, social caste, nor economic station can therefore be compared to gender roles. The assumption that defending gender role distinctions with the Bible is like using the Bible to defend slavery is based upon the idea that gender role distinctions are just as unjust and oppressive as slavery. But this notion is entirely alien to the biblical worldview, in which God created men and women different with different roles from the beginning, and called His creation “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
9. Is violence against women, and the objectification of women, a result of biblical patriarchy?
No. If this were true, God would be to blame for the abuse of women, because He established the patriarchal system. Jesus would be to blame for electing twelve male apostles. Paul would be to blame for refusing to give women ecclesiastical authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12-13). The biblical model is not abusive, nor does it promote violence against women; rather, men are enjoined to servant leadership, to protect women and treat them with respect, reflecting the sacrificial love of Christ for His church (Eph 5:25).
The shoe is very much on the other foot. One of the most noteworthy opponents of patriarchy and proponents of what was called “women's lib” was the late Hugh Hefner, who was also the most influential objectifier of women. That is not a contradiction; typically, it is when women are not under the protective authority of a loving father or husband that they are exploited and abused by other men.
10. Doesn’t Paul’s statement about ”submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:21) invalidate the principle of submission to heads or authorities?
Obviously not, because the following verses command wives to submit to husbands (Eph. 5:22-25). Never is the husband commanded to submit to the wife. Submission to one another is defined by a series of relationships all of which are non-reciprocal, giving the lie to the notion that Paul is teaching reciprocal submission. The wife should submit to the husband, the child to the parent, and the servant to the master, always in the fear of God, keeping allegiance to God supreme. We see the same in Col 3:18-25, and in 1 Pet 2:13-3:7 we have a similar outline, beginning with the principle of submitting to every level of authority God has established, including governmental authority.
The submission of wives to husbands, like that of children to parents (Eph. 6:1), should be only “as is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18). Absolute or unqualified obedience to any human being or human authority is not permitted to the Christian believer, as the Bible is clear that “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).