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1. Does the Bible Support Ordaining Women as Elders or Pastors?--Part 4 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Does the Bible Support Ordaining Women As Elders or Pastors?--Part 4
Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Ph.D.
Director, Public Campus Ministries, Michigan Conference

    In the previous discussions (parts 1, 2, and 3), we looked at: (i) the evolving (and sometimes conflicting) arguments for women's ordination, (ii) what the key issues are (and are not) in the debate over women's ordination, and (iii) what the Bible teaches about gender-role differentiation between men and women, when such a role distinction originated (whether at Creation or Fall), and whether it is still applicable today. The issues addressed in (iii) above concern spiritual leadership or headship in the home and the church. In this present article, we shall attempt to explain why the Bible gives no evidence of women priests in the Old Testament, nor women  apostles, elders or pastors in the New Testament.
Biblical and Theological Obstacles Against Women’s Ordination

    Our discussion thus far leads us to the conclusion that the Bible's teaching on headship is still valid today--even as it has always been since creation. This understanding adequately explains the absence of biblical precedent for ordaining women, not only as priests in the Old Testament but also as apostles and elders/pastors in the New Testament. The headship principle, not an accommodation to culture, is also the basis for the specific prohibitions against women having "authority over men" (1 Tim 2:11ff.; 3:2; Titus 1:6; 1 Cor 14:34-35).

    In this section, we will examine certain issues which raise biblical obstacles to women's ordination. Does the Bible include gender among the qualifications for the leader of the worshiping community? What are the key Bible texts which bear on this question, and what do they mean? When these issues are clear, two other questions which are often asked will need addressing: Was the Bible's instruction on this theme shaped by the culture of those times (and therefore not applicable outside of that culture)? and Is the Bible silent on the question of ordination for women?

Qualification for the Office of Apostle and Elder/Pastor

    The New Testament teaches that the offices of both apostle and elder/pastor should be filled not just by human beings of either gender but by males. In discussing the qualities for apostles and elders/pastors, the New Testament writers made clear that such an office holder should be a man, not a woman. If they had believed that any person could qualify, irrespective of gender, they would have used the generic term anthropos, a word which refers to human beings, male or female, without regard to gender. Instead, they employed the specific term aner/andros, a word that means a male person in distinction from a woman (see Acts 8:12; 1 Tim 2:12), a person capable of being called a husband (see Matt 1:16; John 4:16; Rom 7:2; Titus 1:6).

    Replacement of One of the Twelve. The book of Acts records that shortly before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the 120 male and female disciples who were gathered in the upper room sought guidance to find a replacement for Judas. Significantly, they first sought biblical guidance on whether to fill the vacancy (Acts 1:14-20). Both the 120 and Luke, the writer of Acts, understood the apostleship as an oversight office; the Greek term used in Acts 1:20, translated "bishoprick" (KJV), "office" (RSV) and "leader" (NIV), is episkopos, the very word Paul used to describe the office of elder/pastor (1 Tim 3:1, 2; Acts 20:28; cf. Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Pet 5:1-3 for the corresponding term presbuteros). Notice the qualifications in choosing Matthias as an apostle in place of Judas:

"Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection." . . . [After proposing Barsabbas and Matthias, the 120 prayed,] "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs" (Acts 1:21-25 NIV).

    Why did the 120 men and women in the upper room appoint two men, and no women, as candidates from which to select an apostle to be added to the eleven? Were there no qualified women "who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us"? Was there no woman with a "heart" acceptable enough to God "to take over this apostolic ministry"? This is not likely. Obviously, there were capable women among the 120 disciples, since all of them--male and female--were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

    The absence of a woman candidate is not happenstance, either, according to the text. The reason why women were excluded as candidates for the apostleship, even though some of them undoubtedly met most of the requirements set forth in verses 21-22, is clearly given in verse 21: "It is necessary to chose one of the men [andron, from aner] who have been with us." On the basis of Scripture, the 120 male and female disciples of Christ (including Mary, the mother of Jesus) understood that the oversight (episkopos, v. 20) function of apostleship may only be exercised by a male (aner), not a female.

    This decision by the 120 conformed to the pre-fall headship principle, which ascribed the leadership role to men. It was also in harmony with the example of Jesus Christ who, after a long night of prayer, chose twelve male apostles (Luke 6:12-16). The disciples in the upper room were "with one accord" (Acts 1:14; 2:1) in their choice of a male replacement, and the risen Christ rewarded their unity and faithfulness to Scripture by pouring out His Spirit upon them at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).

    Choosing an Elder/Pastor. In the action of the 120 disciples in choosing a replacement apostle, we find a prescription for Spirit-empowered ministry: unity, prayer, and fidelity to Scriptural guidelines. This last point was reiterated when the apostle Paul instructed that an elder must fulfill certain qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-6; Titus 1:5-9). Among these, an elder/bishop "must be . . . the husband (aner/andros) of one wife" (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6).

    In other words, the elder or pastor should be a man, not a woman. An additional point underscores this: the elder should be able to exercise spiritual leadership in his home. He is one who "must manage his own family well" (1 Tim 3:4, 5 NIV; Titus 1:6).

    When this qualification for the office of elder or pastor is understood in light of the pre-fall headship principle, and when we take into account the examples of Jesus Himself in ordaining the twelve apostles as well as that of the 120 in commissioning Matthias as an apostle in place of Judas, it is clear that Paul's prescription that an elder be a male (aner) is not arbitrary.

    Until it can be shown that the qualification for an elder to be the "husband of one wife" is no longer valid, women should not be ordained as elders or pastors of the church. Showing that this qualification is no longer valid will not be easy for advocates of women's ordination in light of two additional statements by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11ff. and 1 Corinthians 14:34.

    To these crucial Bible texts, we now turn our attention.

Crucial Bible Texts: 1 Timothy 2:11-14; 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

    The key texts linking the headship principle with the teaching authority of elders and pastors are 1 Timothy 2:11-14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Are these texts culturally conditioned to Paul's time and place (the local situation in Ephesus and Corinth), as some proponents of women's ordination suggest?

1 Timothy 2:11-14. Central to the debate on women's ordination is 1 Timothy 2:11-14:  

“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

    As we have shown in a previous section of this chapter, the issue here is not muzzling women into silence. Still, because Paul does place some restriction on women in this passage, radical proponents of women's ordination argue that Paul could not have written such a text because it allegedly contradicts his statement in Galatians 3:28,  or that if he did write the text it was his own private opinion. As we have mentioned earlier, this is the position of the liberal-feminist Adventist book The Welcome Table.

    Bible-believing Adventists reject these liberal interpretations, asserting that Paul's statement "I suffer not . . ." does not express mere private opinion but rather a divinely inspired judgment (cf. Rom 12:1; 1 Cor 7:25). Our concern, however, will be whether 1 Timothy 2:11-14 has permanent validity for the leadership of the Christian church.

    Unlike the liberal-feminists (as found in The Welcome Table), "Evangelical feminists" proponents of women's ordination (e.g., some of the authors of the Andrews University book Women in Ministry) suggest either (1) that Paul's statement is culturally conditioned to his time and place, or (2) that if it is still valid today, it only applies to the relationship between husband and wife, not to the male-female relationship in the church. Both of these objections fail to account for what the text actually says.

    First, Paul did not give cultural or sociological factors in Ephesus or in the New Testament times as the reason he prohibited women from exercising the role of authoritative teaching. Scholars have ventured myriads of contradictory guesses of "the real reason" behind Paul's statement.  Interesting though some of them are, these guesses reflect the reluctance of scholars to accept the explicit reason Paul himself gave in the text.

    Whatever the cultural or sociological situation may have been in Ephesus--Gnosticism, witchcraft, worship of the mother-goddess Diana (Artemis), mysticism, feminism, etc. --the apostle Paul employed a theological reason to address the specific problem that occasioned his statement. His stated reason was, "For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression."

    Paul pointed back to the pre-fall creation ordinance of headship, reiterated after the fall. By appealing to the divine arrangement from creation as the reason why the woman is not to have authority over the man, the apostle dispelled any suggestion that his instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 was culturally conditioned or time-bound.

    The second argument favored by "Evangelical feminist" proponents of women's ordination, that the prohibition applies only to marriage and not to the church setting, overlooks the passage's context which deals not only with the relationship of men and women in the home but also includes the church. Paul stated his purpose in writing the epistle: "I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim 3:14-15 NIV, emphasis added; cf. 1 Cor 11:3-16).

    Significantly, the context of 1 Timothy 2:11-14 is not a discussion about husbands and wives but about men (Greek aner) and women (Greek gune), whether married or not.  The immediate context for the passage is found in verses 8-10, which give instructions on Christian dress and adornment. In order to deny that verses 11-15 apply to church life, one must limit the instructions on dress and adornment to apply only to the home setting, a view no Bible-believing Seventh-day Adventist will support.

    Moreover, the passage immediately following verses 11-15 (1 Timothy 3:1-7, describing the qualities of an elder/pastor) clearly shows that Paul was addressing the church context. Thus, the larger context not only establishes the headship principle but also applies it to the church setting (3:14, 15)--not just to the local church at Ephesus, but to the Christian church at large.

    Paul grounds his restriction on women in Scripture itself, showing by example that theological issues must be settled by the written Word of God, the Christian's ultimate source of authority. It is also significant that Paul gave this command in the context of church matters, indicating that his prohibition of women to "teach and have authority over men" goes beyond the home.

    In order for the church to endorse women's ordination to the gospel ministry, proponents will need to show from Scripture that Paul was mistaken in his teaching that male headship/leadership was established at creation and reiterated after the fall (1 Tim 2:11ff.). They will also have to justify from the Bible the basis for limiting the headship principle only to the home or marriage setting when the context does not do so.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Another key text in the debate over women's ordination is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands a home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

    As noted earlier, Paul's command that women "keep silence" in the church does not mean that women cannot pray, prophesy, preach, evangelize or teach in the church. For in the same letter to the Corinthians in which Paul tells women to keep silence, he also indicates that women may pray and prophesy, provided they are dressed appropriately (1 Cor 11:2-16). Also, the instruction that women should "keep silence in the churches," just like the command in the same chapter that tongue speakers with no interpreter present should "keep silence in the church" (1 Cor 14:28), suggests that Paul wanted women to exercise their gift to "speak," but within certain appropriate guidelines.

    Our concern in this passage is, therefore, whether 1 Corinthians 14:34 has permanent validity for the leadership of the Christian church. Just as they do 1 Timothy 2:11-14, "moderate" or "progressive" proponents of women's ordination want to consign 1 Corinthians 14:34 to the culture and times of Paul. They interpret "the law" in this passage as a reference to "a Jewish custom."

    Two brief responses will be given. First, if "the law" refers to "a Jewish custom," how could such a custom apply to the Corinthian church, which no doubt had Gentile converts? How could such a "Jewish" command be binding "in the churches," including the non-Jewish churches? Similar questions will still be raised if one argues that "the law" is a "Corinthian civil law," for how could a civil law in Corinth be binding on non-Corinthian Christians "in all the churches"?  

    Would it not be more consistent biblically to understand "the law" as a reference to the divine arrangement of role differentiation established at creation (see 1 Cor 11:3, 8-9; 1 Tim 2:13)? In fact, in an earlier verse (1 Cor 14:21) Paul uses "the law" to mean the Old Testament Scriptures, suggesting that when he sees "the law" in verse 34, he has in mind the pre-fall headship principle recorded in the Old Testament (Gen 2:20b-24). This principle or "law" the apostle now applies to women (including married women [v. 35]) "in the churches."

    Second, in Paul's prohibiting women to speak, the key phrase "but they are commanded to be under obedience" indicates that the kind of speaking Paul ruled out is one which involved not being "under obedience," that is, one which constituted an exercise of authority inappropriate to them as women or wives. Thus, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, like 1 Timothy 2:11-14, prohibits women from exercising the authoritative teaching function entrusted to leaders of the worshiping community. This explains why Paul restricts the teaching and leadership role of elder or pastor to males (aner, 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6).

    Significantly, Paul supports his restriction on women on the basis of Scripture ("the law," 1 Cor 14:34; cf. 14:21) and not on socio-cultural barriers; this is in harmony with the view that the Bible must always remain the ultimate authority on issues of faith and practice. It is also worth noting that the command was given to govern the conduct of women, whether at church or at home (1 Cor 14:33-37). Paul saw a connection between the pattern of authority in the church and in the home.

    In order for the church to approve ordaining women as elders or pastors, proponents must show that Paul's prohibition (in 1 Cor 14:34-35) of women exercising the authoritative teaching function is not grounded theologically on God's divine arrangement, but rather on a socio-cultural basis.

    To summarize, our discussion in this section, highlighting biblical and theological obstacles to women's ordination, should put to rest the argument that the Bible is silent on the question of ordaining women as elders and pastors. As we have shown, the Bible is not silent on the issue of women's ordination to the leadership role of the worshiping community. The lack of Bible precedent, as well as the presence of clear prohibitions in Scripture against the practice, speaks loudly against the so-called argument of silence. The only silence in Scripture on this issue is the same kind of silence awaiting those who search the Bible fruitlessly for a justification for Sunday keeping.


    This discussion of the key scriptural passages governing the male-female relationship has pointed out some major biblical and theological obstacles to ordaining women as elders and pastors. Besides the absence of biblical precedent for women in headship roles such as priest, apostle, elder, and pastor in the worshiping community of God, specific texts of Scripture seem clearly to forbid women "to teach or to have authority over men" (1 Tim 2:11, 12; cf. 1 Cor 14:34) and restrict the offices of elder and pastor to males (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6). These prohibitions are not addressed to the specific cultural situations in Ephesus and Corinth, but to the Christian church at large; they should not be explained as "God's adaptation to sinful human conditions," but rather as God's pre-fall creation ordinance for all humanity.

    Until it can be shown otherwise, our deliberation on the crucial biblical texts on the relationship of man and woman in both the home and the church settings leads us to conclude with the British evangelical scholar John Stott that

"all attempts to get rid of Paul's teaching on headship (on grounds that it is mistaken, confusing, culture-bound or culture specific) must be pronounced unsuccessful. It remains stubbornly there. It is rooted in divine revelation, not human opinion, and in divine creation, not human culture. In essence, therefore, it must be preserved as having permanent and universal authority."

    The Bible is not silent on the issue of women's ordination. It teaches clearly that men and women have equal standing before God as created beings, as sinners in need of salvation through Christ, and as people called to the same destiny. The Bible is equally emphatic in upholding role differentiations between male and female. Within the complementary relationship of male and female equality, male headship charges the man to be the Christ-like spiritual leader/overseer in both the home and church families, while the corresponding female role calls upon the woman to support/assist him willingly and nobly in his leadership function. This arrangement is not an indication of superiority of one over the other. "When God created Eve, he designed that she should possess neither inferiority nor superiority to the man, but that in all things she should be his equal" ( Testimonies for the Church , 3:484).

    The headship principle was not a result of sin, but was instituted at creation, reiterated at the fall, and can only be truly realized "in the Lord." As a part of the creation order, it is still valid today. The instructions of Paul show that the principle applies to the church and not just the home. The New Testament consistently indicates that the ones chosen for the leadership role in the church are to be males. The Bible texts from Paul's writings which speak most directly to this issue give a theological reason for the restriction, tracing it to Creation and to "the law."

    In light of these things, though the Bible nowhere uses the expression "women's ordination," it is far from silent on the issue, giving clear instructions regarding the leadership of the church: Only qualified males can serve in the headship roles of elders or pastors. Therefore, the idea of “women elders,” “women pastors,” and “women clergy” is not only foreign to Biblical Christianity, but also an oxymoron—a contradiction of terms (as say, a “Christian atheist” or a “pregnant male”).

    If our conclusions are valid, then any attempt to ignore or even reverse this divine arrangement will ultimately lead to a fate similar to that of our first parents when they yielded to Satan on this same kind of temptation:

"Eve had been perfectly happy by her husband's side in her Eden home; but, like restless modern Eves, she was flattered with the hope of entering a higher sphere than that which God had assigned her. In attempting to rise above her original position, she fell far below it. A similar result will be reached by all who are unwilling to take up cheerfully their life duties in accordance with God's plan. In their efforts to reach positions for which He has not fitted them, many are leaving vacant the place where they might be a blessing. In their desire for a higher sphere, many have sacrificed true womanly dignity and nobility of character, and have left undone the very work that Heaven appointed them" (Patriarchs and Prophets , p. 59).

    This statement does not condemn women's aspirations for self-improvement or a better life. Rather, it calls for all to seek to live according to God's plan.


Endnotes will be supplied