Dr. Arnold Cook

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WOMEN AS ELDERS: Biblical Option or Pragmatic Choice?

By Bert Warden

There is a crisis in ecclesiology in evangelical circles at this turn of the century and it is becoming more and more apparent. Namely, pressure is being exerted upon the church both externally and internally to allow women to serve as elders. Some would maintain that this is nothing to be concerned about, but let us see.


Societal pressures -- militant feminism

Externally, today’s society, spurred on by militant feminism, is saying that since men and women are equal, the church has no right to exclude women from eldership.

What right society has to dictate how the church should be governed, I cannot fathom, but in any case this same pressure is being exerted upon the family. Marriage is a 50/50 relationship it is said, so wives do not have to be in submission.  Conversely, husbands have no right to exercise authority over their wives and/or their children.

The problem is that in the eyes of militant feminism, any semblance, indeed every vestige of male ascendancy, is to be eradicated from our society. Patriarchy is the great archenemy. Indeed in some circles even the idea of God as our Heavenly Father is being challenged.


Pressures from within the church -- egalitarianism

Internally this pressure has created a real problem for the church. We do not want to appear to the world as bigoted and narrow by excluding women from doing anything. Hence among us there are many sincerely convinced egalitarians who are saying, "Yes, we are not being fair, why should not women be permitted, yes even welcomed, to serve as elders in our church After all, many women are more talented and gifted and mature than their husbands. Why neglect this great potential asset?

Reinforcing the above is the argument that women for decades have been serving as senior pastors in some Pentecostal and Holiness denominations, many of them with great blessing on their ministries. But since when have talent and giftedness or blessing and success been criteria for appointing elders in the church?  None of them are mentioned in Scripture as qualifications for holding that office.

Don't get me wrong.  In no way do I believe that God is going to "zap" any church that appoints women elders, but that does not indicate His approval.  In His grace he often blesses us in spite of ourselves, a fact for which we can all be thankful!


No scriptural basis

The great stumbling block to this proposed magnanimous and egalitarian view of church government is the silence of the Scriptures on the subject. There is not a shred of evidence in the New Testament that the idea of women elders was ever considered. Besides that, the witness of church history and the weight of centuries of sound Bible exegesis concur. Whence then this new revelation?

Out of the few passages of Scripture which can be used to support it, two of the favorite ones are Gal. 3:28 and Joel 2:28-32. The former is probably the most relied upon, but if one carefully studies the context it becomes clear that the "neither male nor female" inclusiveness here mentioned had nothing whatever to do with the functions or offices of either sex.  It had everything to do with each being valued equally and accepted by and belonging equally to Christ (3:29), nothing more, nothing less.

To adduce the legitimacy of female church leadership from these and other scattered biblical inferences and incidents of women in leadership, e.g. Deborah, is an illusion. To accept it for merely pragmatic reasons is, to say the least, to dishonor the plain teaching of God's word.


The cultural argument and the "new" hermeneutic

There is no way that female leadership can be inserted into a biblical ecclesiology without assuming that the biblical norms supporting male leadership are merely cultural, the product of the particular times in which the Bible was composed and therefore not applicable to all times and in all circumstances..

Such reasoning says that the passages in Timothy and Titus with regard to the appointment of men only as elders was merely reflecting the culture of the day and need not be considered as binding today. Likewise it is even reasoned by some that the idea of the husband being the head of the home is also out of tune with present reality.  This is the "new" hermeneutic which has sprung from the "new" view of inspiration, that the Bible is "authoritative" but not infallible. I say "Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. ----To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word it is because there is no light in them." (Isaiah. 8:16,20; see also 2 Tim.3:16)


The argument from Bible typology

One big stumbling block to egalitarian ecclesiology is found in Ephesians 5:22-33, a key Christological statement of the New Testament. This sublime passage encapsulates God's ideal for the church and for marriage. It links the headship of the husband in marriage with the headship of Christ in the church. Would the Holy Spirit liken the eternal relationship of Christ with his church to the earthly relationship of a husband with his wife if this latter were a merely cultural idea and therefore subject to change?

It is worthy of note that the Christian teaching on marriage and the family in the New Testament, mainly enunciated by Paul, was far and away superior to the practices in the culture of his time and to a lesser degree even better than the Jewish practices he had been brought up with. His teaching is God's unchangeable ideal for the marriage relationship.

In this Ephesians passage the headship of the husband over the family is firmly established and is akin but not equal to the headship of Christ over the church. As the latter headship is unchangeable so is the former. But firmly established also are the duties and obligation attached to the husband's headship, loving his wife and giving himself for her as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. There is no room here for domination or dictatorship.


The slippery slope

So what conclusion shall we come to?

If we break with the biblical concept of the husband's headship in marriage by asserting that such teaching is merely cultural we do violence to the analogy regarding Christ's headship of the church. Do we dare do that?

If we set at naught the plain teaching of the New Testament, and appoint women elders on the shaky basis of Bible inferences and incidents, again using the "cultural" rationale, do we not also in this case abrogate the plain teaching of the Word of God?

What then is there to stop further erosions to the Bible's authority? Maybe its condemnation of the homosexual life style is also merely culturally based. Sad to say I have already heard that idea broached by one well known Christian. And where will it stop?

The pressure is on. One evangelical denomination and then another, is caving in and deciding that women can be appointed as elders. The inevitable corollary is the appointment of women as senior pastors. Will this trend become a landslide, with those of us who hold out against it being labeled as intolerant bigots, the new "fundamental extremists" of the modern era?


Church history --- the rich legacy of women in ministry

Down through the ages of church history and continuing now, women have had and do have marvelous ministries in the church. The New Testament itself makes clear that women prayed, prophesied and taught in the early church. Christian women of means ministered to Paul and the other apostles, as their earlier counterparts had ministered to Jesus during his time on earth. Later on some of the great missionaries were women. Others have contributed largely to the inspirational literature and hymnody of the church, founded and served in Christian institutions, and on, and on.

Christian women, besides being the indispensable helpers of their husbands and nurturers of their children, have done all these things and left an indelible and godly heritage to the church, but overwhelmingly they have not been elders. And I doubt today that most women would even have thought of the idea until provoked by the feminist furor that has come upon our culture.

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