Q: My church does not believe that women should be elders, based on the phrase in 1 Timothy 3 that says elders must have one wife. Does this phrase really exclude women and single people from being elders? How should I approach this subject at my church?
A: Actually, the language in 1 Timothy 3:2 is “episkopos” — bishop or overseer, whereas in Titus 1:6 it is the “presbyteros” — elder — who is required to have no more than one wife. Strange as it sounds nowadays, ancient Jewish law permitted Israelite men to have more than one wife. In the New Testament era, it was a matter of some satisfaction that Hebrew males enjoyed this prerogative while Gentiles did not. Ancient literary records speak of two or more wives among the priestly class, and even Josephus appears to have been married to two women at the same time. A collection of documents discovered in the Judean wilderness preserve a legal brief of two women who had been married simultaneously to the same man and were now contesting against each other the right to his property. The practice of polygamy among Hebrew men continued until it was abolished by the code of Justinian in 565.
The aforementioned biblical passages give us a composite list of characteristics that make a person unsuitable for the office of elder: not open to reproach, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not quarrelsome, not overbearing, not pursuing dishonest gain, not a lover a money, not a recent convert, not having trouble managing his own family.
The direction that a male elder have only one wife appears to serve as a specific disqualification for those with multiple wives. It is not necessary, however, for an elder to be married at all. Indeed, the Apostle Paul maintained that his singleness gave him far greater freedom to further the cause of Christ (1 Cor. 7:32–35). One may consider the young Timothy, presumably still unmarried, upon whom the presbytery had laid hands (1 Tim. 4:14).
A church is best served by heeding the call to quality of life that is required for an elder. A church that refuses to allow women to serve in the office of elder might well reflect on the list of both positives and negatives that should be considered in the selection of elders. In point of fact, the letter to Titus (2:3–5) also gives a list for those who hold the title of presbytis, the feminine word that corresponds to the masculine presbytes. In some versions presbytes is translated “elder” while the feminine term in the next verse is rendered “old woman.” Though often translated as “old woman,” presbytis was used in early Christian literature to denote female presbyters (Lampe, Patristic Greek Lexicon lc 2B). There is a qualification list for these women: reverent in life style, not slanderers, and not addicted to much wine. They must be hieroprepeis (worthy of the priesthood), again an indication of fitness for a special office. They were also to be “teachers of good things.”
It might be helpful to point out to a church nominating committee the qualifications of a woman whose life and conduct best reflect these scriptural instructions for eldership. We will be more faithful to the Word of God as we seek such persons to serve the body of Christ.