The best argument for ordaining women

There is one argument for female ordination that always struck me as having considerable merit. It goes like this:

In 1 Timothy 3, we find the criteria for the offices of the bishop or overseer (Gr. = episkopon) and for the deacons (Gr. = diakonous). Many English versions begin the passage with “if a man desires the office of bishop, . . .” but the Greek does not read “man;” rather, the Greek reads “any” or “anyone” (Gr. = tis), so to translate the term as “man” is patriarchal eisegesis. True, the passage does state that a bishop must be “the husband of one wife” (3:2) but it says the same thing about deacons (3:12), and Paul tells us that Phoebe, a woman, was a deacon (Gr. = diakonon). (Rom. 16:1-2) If the requirement that a deacon be “the husband of one wife” does not bar female deacons, then the same requirement of a bishop does not bar female bishops. And since the bishop is comparable to our contemporary ministers and conference officials, there is no biblical obstacle to ordaining women.

There are several things I like about this argument. First, it does not criticize Scripture by saying things such as “the Bible is the product of a sexist culture,” or “Paul was a misogynist,” or “people back then just didn't understand what women are capable of.” A moment's reflection will suffice to show that this type of blatant criticism can be used against any biblical teaching we wish to avoid. Everything in Scripture was written thousands of years ago in a foreign country with a different culture, and if that excuses us from submitting to the written Word, then Scripture has no authority.

Second, this argument does not depend upon the truth of an extra-biblical story about what took place in a First Century Greco-Roman city. For example, some claim that a false origins narrative was promoted in Ephesus pursuant to which Eve was created first and Adam was the first to sin, and, in 1 Tim. 2:11-14, Paul was merely clearing up the confusion, and did not mean to say that women are not permitted to teach or have authority over men. This type of storytelling purports to be within the “historical-grammatical” hermeneutic, but it effectively redacts Scripture by using an extra-biblical teaching to limit to a given place and time a biblical teaching that seems to be universal and timeless.

Finally, it does not rely on an obvious misreading of the text, or on an attempt to bring in doubtful, distorted, or minority readings of the Greek original. It takes the text at face value, and grants both the accuracy and the authority of Scripture.

Since this argument is not clearly wrong in its form or method, it deserves serious consideration. First, let me set out William Miller's principles of Bible study, which Ellen White endorsed:

  1. Every word must have its proper bearing on the subject presented in the Bible;
  2. All Scripture is necessary, and may be understood by diligent application and study;
  3. Nothing revealed in Scripture can or will be hidden from those who ask in faith, not wavering;
  4. To understand doctrine, bring all the scriptures together on the subject you wish to know, then let every word have its proper influence; and if you can form your theory without a contradiction, you cannot be in error;
  5. Scripture must be its own expositor, since it is a rule of itself. If I depend on a teacher to expound to me, and he should guess at its meaning, or desire to have it so on account of his sectarian creed, or to be thought wise, then his guessing, desire, creed, or wisdom is my rule, and not the Bible.

With these principles in mind, we return to 1 Timothy 3. Are the criteria for bishop different from those for deacon? Yes, they are. One of the differences is that bishops must be “apt to teach” or “able to teach” (3:2), but this is not a requirement for deacons. Does this difference bear on gender? Yes, it does. A few verses before—and remember that chapter divisions are not part of the original epistle—Paul stated, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (1 Tim. 2:12. see, also, 1 Cor. 14:34). If a woman is not to teach but to keep silent, and an important aspect of the bishop's job is to teach, then a woman cannot be a bishop.

Why are women not permitted to teach? Two reasons are given: 1) Adam was formed first, then Eve, and 2) Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (1 Tim. 2:13-14) The order of creation indicates that Adam was given primary responsibility for the stewardship of the earth, whereas Eve was given delegated responsibility, a point explored in greater detail here. Man's primary responsibility for the earth carries over to the home and the church.

On the second point, about Eve having been deceived, we note that bishops and elders are responsible not only to teach but also to prevent the teaching of false doctrine. (Titus 1:9-16; 2:1) In order to prevent false teaching, the elder or bishop must not be deceived by it, but must discern it. (Titus 1:9) Hence, Paul's point about the woman having been deceived bears directly on the bishop's duty to discern false teaching, and to stop any false teaching from coming into the church.

Another difference in the criteria of bishops and deacons is found in 1 Timothy 3:11, in the section on deacons, where it mentions gunaikos, a Greek word that can be translated as either “women” or “wives” depending upon context. It states that they must be “dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.” The question is, should gunaikos be translated as “women” or “wives” in 1 Tim. 3:11? Historically, it has been translated both ways, with the translators of the King James Version rendering it “wives,” believing it a reference to the wives of the male deacons, and some translators rendering it “women,” apparently believing that Paul contemplated female deacons.

If we translate gunaikos as “wives,” it invites the question of why Paul should have mentioned wives in connection with deacons but not with bishops. Shouldn't bishops also have “sober, temperate and faithful wives”? Is it not, in fact, more important for a spiritual overseer of the church to be married to a wife of refined character? Yet there is no mention of gunaikos in connection with the criteria for bishops in 1 Timothy 3, nor in the similar criteria for elders in Titus 1:5-16. This leads me to believe that Paul does not intend to list the qualities desired in deacon's wives, but rather to authorize female deacons, a view that harmonizes with Paul's laudatory description of Phoebe as a deacon of the church in Cynchreae. (Rom. 16:1-2) Moreover, that Paul authorized female deacons but not female bishops harmonizes with his statement in 1 Timothy 2 that women are not to have teaching authority over men.

When we consider the work of deacons, we realize that women excel at this work, and that much of it can and should be done by capable and consecrated women. Today, we think of deacons as taking up the offering, tidying up the sanctuary, etc., but the first deacons were appointed to relieve the disciples from the burden of operating the church's food distribution system, so that the disciples could concentrate on teaching and preaching the word. (Acts 6:1-6) In other words, the first deacons were appointed to take care of people—to minister to the practical needs of the poor, the widowed, the elderly. Ellen White believed that there is still a need for a social welfare ministry in the church, and strongly recommended involving women in this ministry:

“Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands. In some cases they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister; but if they are devoted women, maintaining a vital connection with God, they will be a power for good in the church. This is another means of strengthening and building up the church. We need to branch out more in our methods of labor.” Review and Herald , July 9, 1895, p. 434.

Note that in Acts 6:6 as well as in this inspired passage, those who will carry out the social welfare ministry of the church are to be set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands. When Ellen White was living in Australia—including in 1895 when she wrote the above words—she attended services where elders, deacons, and deaconesses were set apart by the laying on of hands.

What emerges from 1 Timothy is a system in which the teaching authority of the bishop is reserved for men, but both men and women may be deacons. Only when so understood does the passage harmonize all the relevant Scriptures “without a contradiction.” If we read 1 Timothy 3 as dis-allowing female deacons, we have 1) a contradiction with apostolic authority in that Paul calls Phoebe a deacon, 2) a contradiction with prophetic authority, in that Ellen White seems to have approved of ordaining female deacons, and 3) a mystery as to why “wives” are specified for deacons but not bishops. On the other hand, if we try to bootstrap the permission for female deacons into a license for female bishops, we have a conflict with 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Cor. 14:34-35, which enjoin women to be silent in church and forbid them exercising teaching authority over men.

So while those who would erase sex role distinctions in the church are correct to argue that the phrase, “husband of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3 does not, by itself, bar female deacons or bishops, when we “bring all the scriptures together on the subject” and “let every word have its proper influence” female bishops are clearly not allowed.

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