Of all the qualifications for elders taught in scripture, the most controversial in our day is the requirement that they be men.
Why is this so controversial?
Because we live in an era when people both worship equality and misunderstand it.
The Bible is clear that both men and women are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). It is also clear that God, from the beginning, gave men and women different roles in his plan – even before the Fall. Adam was put in charge of the Garden to work it and take care of it (Genesis 2:15) and Eve was tasked with being his helper (Genesis 2:18).
Male and female roles across the board are beyond the scope of this article but the point is equality of worth does not require equality of function. Unfortunately many people today, even inside the church, do not understand this. They’ve drunk deeply from the well of the Spirit of the Age and believe that to deny women any role is to deny their worth and equality before God. This is the same spirit, by the way, that says men and women are completely interchangeable because gender itself is merely a social construct. But, you do not have to do the same job as another person to be equal to that person in value. Even among the persons of the Trinity there are differing roles yet all are equally God.
Scripture tells us the church is made up of people with a variety of gifts and that each of those gifts is necessary for the church to be healthy (I Corinthians 12). If we all had the same gift we’d have the kind of equality our culture seeks but we’d have an unhealthy church. As Paul says, if everyone is an eye we’d never hear anything!
What is the biblical evidence for male only elders?
The clearest passage is I Timothy 2:12-14:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
With a similar passage in I Corinthians 14:33-35:
For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
Notice the two functions Paul calls out in the I Timothy passage:
- Exercise authority
These are the functions of elders. They are, when taken together, uniquely functions of elders. Elders are the ones given leadership responsibility for the local church (I Peter 5:1-3, I Timothy 5:17) and the ones responsible for teaching the congregation (I Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:9). There are other passages you can point to but if a woman is not permitted to do these two things with regard to men, she cannot function as an elder because she cannot lead and teach a large portion of the church.
Some claim Paul is speaking from a cultural perspective, that this was true in the first century but does not apply today. Paul, however, doesn’t give us that option because he tells us why he forbids women to teach:
For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
This is not cultural it is creational. It goes back to the roles ordained by God for men and women from the beginning and to the dynamics of the Fall. Paul uses the same logic to argue against women teaching and exercising authority over men that Christ uses in Matthew 19:4-6 to uphold marriage as one man and one woman for life – that God ordained it so from the beginning.
So elders are to be men – always, in every era and every culture. It is the belief women can be elders that is a function of culture, not the belief they cannot.