Can Women Serve as Elders?
Littleton Christian Church has had women on Session (aka, the "Elder Board") for our entire 20-year history. Because we aim to be submitted to Scripture, it is always appropriate to examine anything we do as a church, asking, "is this biblical?"
Biblical passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-15, not to mention phrases like "husband of one wife" in 1 Timothy 3:2, seem to say women should not be elders, pastors, or in positions of leadership over men in the church. For many faithful believers, this is the end of it.
While I have great respect for those who find timeless principles in those passages, the ideas therein may be bound to a particular time and place. To be clear, men and women are different; God designed us to complement one another perfectly. Specifically, the gospel restores "complementarity without heirarchy."
Galatians 3:26-28 surveys the implications of the gospel like this:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In Paul’s Christian life, his primary mission was to demonstrate how the Gospel removed the traditional hierarchy of Jews over Gentiles among the Body of Christ as a gift offered through faith. He worked tirelessly to teach Jews the implications of Jesus' work as they wrestled with the inclusion of Gentiles. Paul wanted the gospel to reach as many ears as possible, and he clearly worked to remove any unnecessary barrier to that goal.
Let's apply this thinking to the issue of women in leadership. Apparently many women felt so empowered by the work of Christ that they were defying cultural norms by asserting leadership positions over men, leaving their husbands, and more. Paul urges believers to act with humility and submit to many cultural norms, because resistance was counter-productive for the spread of the gospel in that time and place. Later in Galatians (5:13) he presents this very concept:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.
Just as the Gospel removes the hierarchy between Jews and Gentiles, Galatians 3 says the Gospel removes the hierarchy of men over women and of masters over slaves in the Body of Christ. There is great evidence that Paul meant to weaken and ultimately destroy the institution of slavery by the way he wrote, but we also can see that he did not directly challenge this cultural norm - he saw that the gospel would move forward more effectively if that issue was set aside for a time. However, the time came when slavery as a whole had to be confronted because the gospel demanded it. Galatians 3 includes male and female in the list of divisions eliminated by the gospel.
If this is true, then we can more effectively discern the whole counsel of God in our church when we have godly, mature women in positions of leadership alongside godly, mature men.
In sum, we believe that there is a tension between Galatians 3 and the passages in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, and that the message of Galatians is the timeless principle. The work of Jesus has won liberty for all who believe, while the admonitions about men and women in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians are written to ensure that the gospel goes forward in those particular cultural settings.