May women serve as teaching elders (i.e., pastors, bishops, presbyters, etc.)?

22 Oct

I recently found an article by one of my favorite thinkers and writers, Nicholas Wolterstorff, defending female teaching elders as biblical.  Wolterstorff is a rather theologically conservative reformed protestant, and there are others on the theological right when it comes to biblical reliability and authority who hold his view on this issue.  From what I can tell, their best argument (at least in terms of explicit allowance for female teaching elders) comes from 1 Corinthians 11 starting at verse one:

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife[a] is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife[b] who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.[c] 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

Looking only at verse 5, it appears that in some assemblies of Christians, women were offering public prayers and prophesying.  Shouldn’t that mean that Paul does not forbid women from holding the office of teaching elder?  Praying as undershepherds over the flock during Sunday corporate worship?  Preaching the Word of God to the gathered assembly of God?

The problem with jumping to this conclusion is manifold, especially in light of passages addressed to church order like these:

1 Timothy 2:11-15

11 A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women[c] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

And 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

33 For God is not a God of xconfusion but of peace.

As in yall the churches of the saints, 34 zthe women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but ashould be in submission, as bthe Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

And of course you have Paul basing these exhortations establishing spiritual male-headshp on the “nature” of creation (permanent and enduring), not merely cultural practice (temporary and flexible).

So what are we then to make of the earlier passage in 1 Corinthians, with Christian women praying and prophesying in public gatherings of Christians?

As far as I can tell, four main arguments are proffered against interpreting these to allow female eldership in the church:

First, Prophesying is not preaching;  From New Testament scholar and exegete Dr.Thomas Schreiner:

It is imperative to see that prophecy is not the same gift as teaching, for the gifts are distinguished in the New Testament (1 Cor. 12:28). Women served as prophets in the OT but never as priests. Similarly, they served as prophets in the New Testament but never as elders. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 makes it clear that as women prophesied they were to adorn themselves in such a way that they were submissive to male headship and leadership (1 Cor. 11:3). This fits with what we have seen in 1 Tim. 2:11-15. Women are not the recognized leaders of the congregation, and therefore they must not function as teachers and leaders of the congregation. The fundamental issue in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is not the adornment of women. Scholars are not sure, in any case, whether the adornment described represents a veil or wearing one’s hair up on one’s head. Such adornment was required in Paul’s day because it signified that women were submissive to male leadership. Today how a woman wears her hair or whether she wears a veil does not signify whether or not she is submissive to male leaders. Thus, we should apply the principle (though not the specific cultural practice) to today’s world: women should be submissive to male leadership, which manifests itself in not serving as pastors and teachers of men.

Second, a private local assembly (prayer meeting) is not public corporate worship (church).  From Lutheran commentator R. C. H. Lenski:

It is quite essential to note that no modifier is attached to the participles [praying and prophesying] to denote a place where these activities are exercised. So we on our part should not introduce one, either the same one for both the man and the woman, for instance, “worshiping or prophesying in church,” or different ones, for the man “in church” and for the woman “at home.” By omitting reference to a place Paul says this: “Wherever and whenever it is proper and right for a man or for a woman to pray or to prophesy, the difference of sex should be marked as I indicate.” Whether men are present or absent when a woman prays or prophesies makes no difference; also vice versa. Each remains what he is or what she is apart from the other.

An issue has been made of the point that Paul speaks of a woman as prophesying as though it were a matter of course that she should prophesy just as she also prays, and just as the man, too, prays and prophesies. Paul is said to contradict himself when he forbids the women to prophesy in 14:34-36. The matter becomes clear when we observe that from 11:17 onward until the end of chapter 14 Paul deals with the gatherings of the congregation for public worship and with regulations pertaining to public assemblies. The transition is decidedly marked: ‘that ye come together,’ i.e., for public worship, v. 17; ‘when ye come together in the church’ (ekklesia, no article), v. 18; and again: ‘when ye assemble together,’ i.e., for public worship, v. 20. In these public assemblies Paul forbids the women, not only to prophesy, but to speak at all, 14:34-36, and assigns the reason for this prohibition just as he does in 1 Tim. 2:11, etc.

It is evident, then, that women, too, were granted the gift of prophecy even as some still have this gift, namely the ability to present and properly to apply the Word of God by teaching others. And they are to exercise this valuable gift in the ample opportunities that offer themselves. So Paul writes “praying and prophesying” with reference to the woman just as he does with reference to the man. The public assemblies of the congregation are, however, not among these opportunities — note en tais ekklesiais, “in the assemblies,” 14:34. At other places and at other times women are free to exercise their gift of prophecy. In the present connection [11:2-16] Paul has no occasion whatever to specify regarding this point … The teaching ability of Christian women today has a wide range of opportunity without in the least intruding itself into the public congregational assemblies.

Third, adding to the location, there is also the fact that prophesying was a miraculous gift (extraordinary; not the intended norm but a supernatural interjection) and/or real possibility or likelihood that men were not (or were not intended to be given Paul’s forbiddance elsehwere) present at these private assemblies, if that is what they were.  Consider these commentators:

Commenting on 14:33b [Charles] Hodge writes:


If connected with v. 34, this passage is parallel to 11:16, where the custom of the churches in reference to the deportment of women in public is appealed to as authoritative. The sense is thus pertinent and good. ‘As is the case in all other Christian churches, let your women keep silence in the public assemblies.’ The fact that in no Christian church was public speaking permitted to women was itself a strong proof that it was unchristian, i.e. contrary to the spirit of Christianity. Paul, however, adds to the prohibition the weight of apostolic authority, and not of that only but also the authority of reason and of Scripture. It is not permitted to them to speak. The speaking intended is public speaking, and especially in the church. In the Old Testament it had been predicted that ‘your sons and your daughters shall prophesy;’ a prediction which the apostle Peter quotes as verified on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:17; and in Acts 21:9 mention is made of four daughters of Philip who prophesied. The apostle himself seems to take for granted, in 11:5, that women might received and exercise the gift of prophecy. It is therefore only the public exercise of the gift that is prohibited. The rational ground for this prohibition is that it is contrary to the relation of subordination in which the woman stands to the man that she appear as a public teacher. Both the Jews and Greeks adopted the same rule; and therefore the custom, which the Corinthians seemed disposed to introduce, was contrary to established usage. (9)



In his commentary Meyer writes:



Prayer and prophetic utterances in meetings on the part of the women are assumed here [11:5] as allowed. In 14:34, on the contrary, silence is imposed upon them. Compare also 1 Timothy 2:12, where they are forbidden to teach. This seeming contradiction between the passages disappears, however, if we take into account that in chapter 14 it is the public assembly of the congregation, the whole ekklesia, that is spoken of (verses 4, 5, 12, 16, 19, 23, 26 ff., 33). There is no sign of such being the case in the passage before us. What the apostle therefore has in his eye here, where he does not forbid the praying and prophesying of the women, and at the same time cannot mean family worship simply (see on verse 4), must be smaller meetings for devotion in the congregation, more limited circles assembled for worship, such as fall under the category of a church in the house (16:19, Romans 16:5, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 2). Since the subject here discussed, as we may infer from its peculiar character, must have been brought under the notice of the apostle for his decision by the Corinthians themselves in their letter, his readers would understand both what kind of meetings were meant as those in which women might pray and speak as prophetesses, and also that the instruction now given was not abrogated again by the “let women be silent in the church assembly.” The latter would, however, be the case, and the teaching of this passage would be aimless and groundless, if Paul were here only postponing for a little the prohibition in 14:34, in order, first of all, provisionally to censure and correct a mere external abuse in connection with a thing which was yet to be treated as wholly unallowable (against my own former view). It is perfectly arbitrary to say, with Grotius, that in 14:34 we must understand as an exception to the rule, “unless she has a special commandment from God.” (10)



J.J. Lias seems to favor Calvin’s first explanation, but mentions also the second:



Some difficulty has been raised about the words, “or prophesieth.” It has been thought that the woman was here permitted to prophesy, i.e., in smaller assemblies, and that the prohibitions in ch. 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12 referred to the more general gatherings of the Church. The subject is one of some difficulty (see Acts 2:18, 21:9), but it is perhaps best, with De Wette and Calvin (who says, “Apostolum hic unum improbando alterum non probare”) to suppose that the Apostle blames only the praying in public with uncovered head, and reserves his blame of the prophesying for ch. 14:34. As for the prophetic gifts of the daughters of Philip the evangelist, Acts 21:9, they were probably reserved for assemblies of their own sex. (11)



Early in the twentieth century the view that the “prophesying” in question was limited to house meetings was favored by Benjamin Warfield:

Precisely what is meant in I Corinthians 11:5, nobody quite knows. What is said there is that every woman praying or prophesying unveiled dishonors her head. It seems fair to infer that if she prays or prophesies veiled she does not dishonor her head. And it seems fair still further to infer that she may properly pray or prophesy if only she does it veiled. We are piling up a chain of inferences. And they have not carried us very far. We cannot infer that it would be proper for her to pray or prophesy in church if only she were veiled. There is nothing said about church in the passage or in the context. The word “church” does not occur until the 16th verse, and then not as ruling the reference of the passage, but only as supplying support for the injunction of the passage. There is no reason whatever for believing that “praying and prophesying” in church is meant. Neither was an exercise confined to the church. If, as in 1 Corinthians 14:14, the “praying” spoken of was an ecstatic exercise — as its place by “prophesying” may suggest — then there would be the divine inspiration superceding all ordinary laws to be reckoned with. And there has already been occasion to observe that prayer in public is forbidden to women in 1 Timothy 2:8, 9 — unless mere attendance at prayer is meant, in which case this passage is a close parallel of 1 Timothy 2:9.

The previous few excerpt were taken from here

Finally, the office of elder is not in view in 1 Corinthians 11; so nothing definitive can be said from this passage about that subject.  But elsewhere, where ministerial offices are in view, spiritual headship seems to be reinforced (1 Cor. 33-35).  Indeed, DA Carson dismisses much of the previous interpretative work (he argues that 1 Cor. 11 does refer to women prophesying with the tacit approval of Paul in congregational worship, that is church, and that men were present), but 1 Cor. 14 prohibits them from weighing or judging those prophecies, which is exclusively left to men holding the office of elder.  See his article on this here


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