The Gender(s?) of Elders and Deacons

I’ve been on a bit of a gender roles binge lately, writing several articles (on Gen. 1-3, Eph. 5, 1 Tim. 2, Gen. 3:16, and Gen 2:18). It’s one of those hot-button topics that I’ve wrestled with for a long time, and I’ve finally chewed on it enough to have what I hope is a semi-reasonable laymen’s view that can be somewhat articulated, which has very much evolved over time.

I’m theologically conservative, in the sense that I wish to conserve the Christianity laid out by Jesus and the ones he has commissioned to be the leaders of the Church, the Apostles. I believe there is one, three-in-one God. Jesus is truly God and truly human. He was born of a virgin and rose bodily from the grave, making an atoning sacrifice for our sins, being the first-fruit of the final resurrection. All of Scripture is God-breathed and therefore infallible and inerrant in what it teaches. The faith has been, once and for all, delivered to the saints. Yet, I’ve found that, using the same hermeneutical tools as I have done to obtain those beliefs, I end up landing that a form egalitarianism is the better interpretation of the Bible when it comes to the gender roles debates. I’m sure if people besides myself read this blog, I’d be labelled as theologically liberal in this area for that, which is unfortunate. You can read my work and judge for yourself. I kind of take it as a badge of honour, though, that as I’ve searched Scripture, I’ve not landed in any consistent human-made camp, since I think that ought to be expected when trying to follow Jesus. Obviously the goal isn’t to not fit in a camp. Our goal is to be in Jesus’ camp. Not to be boastful; I’ve been wrong a lot – and I’m probably wrong about a lot of things now – and Jesus is very patient with me. Glory to God!

But, anyhow, preamble ramblings aside, today I want to add another set of brief thoughts to the church gender roles debate, as well as reflect on the overall gender roles conversation.

There’s a couple times in Paul’s letters where the qualifications for church elders and deacons are described (1 Tim. 3, Ti. 1). There’s debate about whether these qualifications are a checklist to be followed or if they’re paradigmatic, acting as general guidelines to help us that aren’t meant to be held legalistically. On this view, Paul is not setting out a set of rules, but describing a type of person who would be a fit for these roles, and he’s showing that by giving a few practical examples of ways to see their character manifested. I think a paradigmatic view is way more reasonable, but I won’t enter into that debate today. I want to focus on something else. In those qualifications, you’ll notice that they’re written in a way that assumes that the elders and deacons are men. “The husband of one wife,” for example, is one of the qualifications.

To me, there are three ways this can be interpreted when it comes to gender roles.

The first is the complimentarian view, saying that the assumption in the qualifications that they are male is because only men can be elders and deacons. This view, it seems to me, could be true on either an overall checklist view or a paradigmatic view.

The second view is that Paul is actually setting only men as elders and deacons, but that is not because he is setting that as the transcultural ideal for all time. Rather, he is presenting only men as elders and deacons for within that cultural context. This would be saying that limiting eldership and deaconship to men was an appropriate contextualization for the witness and health of the church at the time, but was not meant to be an instruction for all time, just like the numerous other examples of instructions in the New Testament that are not for us. The idea that the church could and should be contextualized is an idea that I was never introduced to growing up, but is deeply engrained in the Bible. God honours cultures. The Family of God podcast series by the Bible Project lays some good foundations for it. It’s too big a conversation to enter into today, but I go into it a bit in my Eph. 5 post. This view, it seems to me, could be held with either a checklist view or a paradigmatic view.

The third view is to say that the male assumption in the guidelines is paradigmatic in a way similar to Psalm 1. In Psalm 1, it describes the ways of a righteous man, but we recognize the man is paradigmatic of any righteous person, male or female. Another example of a paradigmatic male is in Genesis 2:24. It’s not just men that need to hold fast to their wives, but wives, too, need to hold fast to their husbands (though they didn’t have a choice in many contexts in human history). Similarly, this view would interpret the male-only aspect of the qualifications as paradigmatic. Paul is simply describing a person who he envisions as a good elder or deacon, and the person he is envisioning just happens to be male, just as Psalm 1 is envisioning a righteous person who just happens to be male. Also, if this view is the correct interpretation of the texts, it does not rule out that the church had only men as a contextualization. If this were true, our second view above would be an incorrect interpretation of the texts in-themselves, but not an incorrect interpretation of early church practice. Though it’s maybe possible to hold a checklist view with this last belief, it seems to fit much more naturally in a paradigmatic view for the overall instructions.

Three views: complimentarianism, contextualization, or paradigm.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The view you or I take will have virtually nothing to do with the texts about elders and deacons themselves. This includes the complimentarians in the room. All three views fit and are reasonable interpretations of the texts-in-themselves and are, at least in principle, in step with theological conservatism as I sketched earlier. What we’ll believe will be nearly entirely decided by our study of other texts and how they affect our background information. The gender roles debate here is just a giant example of the logicians saying: “one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.

For example, if you believe that Genesis 1-3 presents a wholly non-complimentarian view, you will come to believe that either the second or third view I presented is true. If you believe that Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2) was a deacon – a view reinforced because she’s also called a patron, as I mention in my 1 Tim 2 post, as well as given more credibility by extra-Biblical sources like Pliny the Younger’s letter that called women deacons – you’ll decide on the second view or the third view. But, if you pick the second, you’d clarify, in light of Phoebe, that the contextualization was not for the church of the Mediterranean world as a whole, but even more specifically for the churches in Crete and Ephesus, where Titus and Timothy were serving, or perhaps only for a particular moment in the churches during Paul’s life.

Alternatively, if you come in as a complimentarian when it comes to church leadership – and having interpreted Phoebe as only a servant of the church in a general way (the word for “deacon” used to describe her can also be used in that way) – you’ll likely take our first option.

I find that, in general, when it comes to interpreting the New Testament gender role passages, whether egalitarian or complimentarian, your view is likely decided by what you come in with, myself included. I’m struck even more by the weight of our interpretation of Genesis 1-3, our foundational story. Although I do think that my work on Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2 can stand on their own, since I do give reasons beyond appealing to Genesis, my views, as well as whether you agree with my views, are largely shaped by our preexisting thoughts. So much of our interpreting, from either side of the debate, is simply the outpouring of our already held beliefs, which are (or ought to be) extremely shaped by our view of Genesis.

Given all this and my previous work, you’ll likely guess that I believe the correct interpretation is either the paradigm view or the contextualization view. I lean to a paradigm view (with contextualization in practice, probably). However, I’m not actually sure which, nor do I care that much, to be honest. Absent contextual considerations, the question whether it’s possible for women to be elders and deacons today is answered in the affirmative, regardless.

The view you take will likely be decided by the view you already have. So the question becomes: what view should be the one that we come into these texts with? According to Jesus in Matthew 19, it all (mostly) hinges on Genesis 1-3.

Keep Pondering,


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