Is Eldership Gender-Neutral? A Response to Katia Adams image

Is Eldership Gender-Neutral? A Response to Katia Adams

Recently I came across a stirring and powerful message from a woman whom I greatly respect. She was calling the Church to celebrate the vital place of women in Christian mission and ministry, and to recognise the ways in which we have (whether intentionally or accidentally) marginalised the contribution of our sisters. She grounded her message in Genesis 1 and 2, pointing out the ways in which male and female are called upon to exercise dominion together, to be fruitful and multiply together, to recognise one another as equal in value, status, substance and worth. She highlighted the wordplays (ish and ishah, adam and adamah), the image of God (1:27), the commission to humanity (1:28), the parade of animals (2:19-20), and the delight of Adam at finding someone just like him (2:23). It was such a compelling presentation that I made it the opening session of the THINK conference.

Advance 2017 General Session #2- Jen Wilkin from Acts 29 US Southeast on Vimeo.

A few weeks later, I came across another message from a woman whom I greatly respect, in this case Katia Adams. In many ways, at least for the first forty-five minutes, she was trying to do the exact same thing as Jen Wilkin. The rhetoric, tone and shape of the argument were different, but much of the substance—the call to celebrate the contribution of women in Christian mission and ministry, the importance of Genesis 1 and 2, the shared commission to exercise dominion, the equality of male and female in value, status, substance and worth, the wordplays, the image, the parade of animals, the delight of Adam in finding someone just like him—was strikingly similar. Personally I think Jen’s argument was much stronger for being grounded in both equality and complementarity (women do X, Y and Z better than men, and we will be impoverished if we don’t honour and celebrate that) rather than mere equality—which for various reasons  is not always the best category to use in this discussion—and I found Katia’s objections to the translation of ezer as “helper” somewhat puzzling. (Surely the problem is not with referring to God as your “helper,” or setting up an Ebenezer as a “stone of help”, but with assuming that “help” implies inferiority. Right?) But the argument of the first forty-five minutes was pretty much the argument we were making at THINK a few weeks ago, and I agreed with almost all of it.


In the final twenty minutes, however, the two speakers diverged. Jen took questions on how this should all be worked out in the local church, especially in the context of church planting, and made a number of very challenging points of application (which I recommend everyone watch). Katia used her time to challenge a complementarian reading of 1 Timothy 2-3 and Ephesians 5, arguing that the latter teaches mutual submission in marriage, and that the former gives no indication that elders should be men. I have respected Katia for years—we first met a decade ago while studying the Pastoral Epistles, she was the best preacher in the group, and so I invited her to teach on the course I was running—and her husband Julian is one of the few who has had a life-changing impact on my life and ministry. But as I listened to her presentation, I noticed a number of omissions, inaccuracies and misrepresentations of scholarship which were not very helpful.

One of them relates to the motive of those she disagrees with. There are several ways of interpreting Ephesians 5:21-33, and there are good exegetical arguments on all sides. So it is very unfair to dismiss all those who do not read it the same way as you—including, we should note, several prominent egalitarians—as the result of “an intellectual superiority at the hands of those who would want to say that God did not create men and women equal.” There may well be people out there these days who interpret Ephesians 5 on the basis that men are superior to women (although, having read around it a fair bit, I have still not encountered one), but if so they are in a tiny minority. At any rate, this sort of loaded rhetoric, lumping your interlocutors together and impugning to them the worst of motives, serves nobody. It is the equivalent of saying that egalitarians gets their convictions from culture rather than from Scripture, a charge which Katia (quite rightly) rejects as prejudicial and inaccurate.

Several of my other concerns relate to New Testament Greek. On a number of occasions, Katia argues that the English translations are the problem, and that if you can read the original, you will come to a different conclusion to the one in your version. There are times, of course, to quibble with specific translations; regular readers will know that I do it myself. But when you quibble with all of them, and the lexicons, and the commentators—and especially when you do so by misrepresenting the way the Greek language works—there is a problem.

Katia says, for example, that “the translators haven’t helped us” by translating hēsuchios as “quiet” rather than “peaceful.” This is simply untrue; hēsuchios does in fact mean “quiet, well-ordered” (BDAG), and is paired with ēremon or eirēnikon (“peaceful”) for exactly this reason. She challenges the male pronouns in 1 Timothy 3, arguing that the translators have based it on a misreading of 2:11-15 (!), rather than the obvious point that the overseer is to be a “husband of one wife” (3:2). She contends that Paul’s use of “head” simply reflects a relationship of “unity and empowerment,” of “sameness and equal essence”, with no reference to authority whatsoever; this neither reflects current scholarship on the word, nor works with the reference earlier in Ephesians to Jesus having all things put under his feet, and being given to the Church as the head of all things (1:22). To a listener without New Testament Greek, this can all sound very compelling, especially if it is presented emphatically and with references to the original languages. But when critically examined, it does not hold up.

Most seriously, she thoroughly (although no doubt unintentionally) misrepresents the meaning of Paul’s present tense verb epitrepō in the phrase “I do not permit,” which has implications not just for this discussion but for the way we read apostolic instructions more generally. This is her claim:

It is not actually “I do not permit.” It is the words “I am not permitting.” It is not a universal command, if you understand the Greek; it is the time when Paul uses something, a phrase, which is his advice in a moment, not a universal teaching.

This is very misleading. The present tense in Greek can, of course, be translated either “I permit” or “I am permitting.” But if we take the present tense as grounds for limiting Paul’s instructions to one specific situation, as Katia does here, then an awful lot of Paul’s teaching in this letter unravels. “God wishes that all will be saved” would become “God wishes now that all will be saved, but this could change in due course” (2:4). “Children should learn to show godliness to their own household” would be Paul’s advice in a moment, not a universal teaching (5:4). When we read that “the law is not laid down for the just,” we would have to conclude, “but it might be in the future” (1:9). And so on, and so on. This is simply not how the Greek present tense works. There have of course been scholars (Fee, Bilezikian, Payne), especially a generation ago, who have argued that Paul’s instruction was limited to the present situation, even if they are in a minority; but this is not because they think there is a grammatical obligation to translate the Greek verb with a present continuous. That is why all major translations (KJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, NIV, NASB, JB, and about thirty others I consulted) use a simple rather than a continuous present, and why commentators on both sides of the debate dismiss the idea (Phil Towner says “the grounds for this are lacking,” Bill Mounce calls it “the least convincing of the three attempts to weaken Paul’s language,” and so on). Appealing to the Greek, and then saying things which fly in the face of what commentators, translators and lexicons all tell us, is very problematic.

All of this comes to a head in Katia’s comments on 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Her contention, as I understand it, is that eldership is gender-neutral (the word here is actually “overseer” not “elder”, but I agree with Katia that the same office is in view); there is nothing in the Greek text that says elders are male. So what do we make of the instruction that an overseer must be “the husband of one wife” (3:2)? This is hardly a gender-neutral requirement; the church is a family which has, and desperately needs, both fathers and mothers (e.g. 5:1-2), and this is a very strong indication that Paul sees overseers as fathers. (While we’re on the subject, so is the requirement to lead his household well and keep his children submissive in 3:4). As such, even egalitarian commentators often agree that these requirements “present the overseer as a husband and father” (Towner), and that “Paul refers to the bishop throughout as a man” (Wright). In this text, at least, eldership is not gender-neutral.

Sometimes people dismiss the relevance of this point, on the basis that only a man would need to be warned about marital faithfulness, so there is nothing particularly male about it. But we know this is not the case from 5:9, in which a woman is only to be enrolled as a widow if she has been “the wife of one husband.” Alternatively, some argue that overseers/elders have to be men in this particular church, but not in others, because the heresy afflicting the church is coming through women. Quite apart from the fact that the only named false teachers here are men (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 2:17), this argument ignores the fact that the same requirement is present in Titus 1:6, which is talking about an island several hundred miles away: “if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife …” Paul’s eldership qualifications are not limited to a specific situation in Ephesus; they are virtually identical in Crete, and presumably everywhere else. Again: eldership is not gender-neutral. Being an overseer/elder, as one friend of mine likes to put it, is more like being a father than being a parent—but that does not for a minute mean that the church does not also need mothers (e.g. Rom 16:13; 1 Tim 5:2; cf. John 19:27!)

The Church is a family, and it will only flourish to the extent that we value, honour and esteem women and men, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Frequently we have not—and, in my opinion, this has happened in part by insisting that all sorts of things can only be done by elders which the Bible doesn’t—and that is why I have urged people to watch Jen Wilkin’s video, consider Jennie Pollock’s reflections on mothers in the church, listen to what women like Hannah Anderson are saying, read widely, and come to a conference in which we talk about these things theologically. Women and men are equal in value, and neither is inferior or superior to the other.

But we are also different. Mothers and fathers are different, in the Church as in the family, and nobody wins if we ignore the distinctions. Husbands and wives are different, and as we submit to and serve one another, we will express this submission in different ways, modelled on Christ and the Church. Furthermore, throughout Scripture, those charged with the responsibility for guarding God’s sanctuary and protecting his people are male: Adam, the Levitical priests, the twelve apostles, local church elders, and of course Christ himself. All of this matters.

God created one species, with one mission: be fruitful, multiply, fill, subdue, have dominion. God also created two sexes, beautifully different, with two contributions to make to that mission. Katia and I disagree about the way this relates to eldership in the local church, but we celebrate the reality together, and rejoice in being brothers and sisters together. May God help all of us as we partner in “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

← Prev article
Next article →