Thursday, May 15, 2008


Female Elders in Churches

One question of ecclesiology is whether women should be elders. Walking in the rain today, I thought at first of an argument for that position, and then realized it cuts the other way.

The question is whether a passage such as the following implies that women in the America of 2008 should be ordained as pastors.Timothy 3 says

1 This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; 3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; 4 One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; 5 (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)

My first thought was that this passage has no such implication, because in Paul's time and place women would not apply for public positions anyway. No normal woman would "desire the office of a bishop", so that case could be disregarded. Or, if one did, prudential reasons would so obviously argue against it that, again, there was no need to put in a special comment.

If the passage were about the qualifications to be a tax collector or a soldier the the argument of the previous paragraph would be valid. Its flaw is that in the Greco-Roman world there were priestesses. In fact, they come to mind more easily than priests do. Think of the Vestal Virgins in Rome and the oracle at Delphi. In that cultural context, a new religious cult such as Christianity could get away with having priestesses. The Jews, to be sure, did not, but Christians already had broken with Judaism on the questions of pork, circumcision, and Temple, and having priestesses would hardly increase the size of the break.

Putting aside other reasons, then, the cultural signifance of Timothy 3 might cut the opposite way of what we usually think: it was not an accommodation to the culture of the day, but a purposeful break with the culture. The pagans have priestesses; the Christians will not. That reasoning would apply equally well today. The episcopalians have priestesses; the Christians will not.



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