When Anne and I teach our co-leadership (mutual equality and mutual authority) marriage message, we are frequently asked our opinion on women being encouraged to serve as elders.
The following is a conversation we had with a couple I refer to as “Diane” and “Jack.” My desire is to illustrate how selective literalism can impact a church’s elder selection process and treatment of women.
Diane asked, “Tim, can you give me an example of selective literalism?”
“I’ll try,” I said. “How about the issue surrounding women being encouraged to serve in all positions and offices in the local church—without restrictions? More specifically, let’s look at how selective literalism comes into play regarding women serving as elders.”
“Diane,” I said, “if a woman has the gifts, maturity, temperament, and calling from God to be an elder, do you believe she should be encouraged to serve in that position?”
Jack replied, “No! Tim, as much as I encourage Diane and other women to use their spiritual gifts in church, I think an elder is a church governmental office. And I believe this position is reserved for men only. As a matter of fact, the elders at our church recently studied this subject. And I was invited to sit in on the process; frankly, I’m fairly well-versed on this issue.”
“That’s great—what is your church elder selection process?”
He responded, “First, let me say that women serving in elder positions has become somewhat of a hot-button issue for me.”
“Why is it a hot-button issue for you?” I asked.
Jack said, “After processing with many godly church leaders that I deeply respect, I agree with these men who believe that there is a move by a liberal minority in the church pushing for the acceptance of women elders. Thankfully, our church is sticking to what the Bible says.”
“Exactly what does the Bible say?”
He responded, “Requirements for elders are clearly spelled out. One example is in 1 Timothy 3; it says a man should aspire to the office of overseer or elder—a man, not a woman. To me this is not up for discussion or debate. Allowing women to be elders is not about tolerance or becoming more progressive. The Bible is crystal clear; only a man is to become an elder.”
“Are there additional crystal clear elder requirements at your church?”
Jack continued, “Yes, our church leaders follow the Bible passages in 1 Timothy and Titus that say an elder must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. An elder must not be addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle and free from the love of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity.”
"Thanks. So do I understand you correctly—an elder in your church must meet all these requirements?”
Jack replied, “Our leaders do not expect men to live perfect lives. But yes, they must meet these requirements or be working on growing in and living out the elder requirements listed in these passages and elsewhere. But Tim, the bottom line is that this is not rocket science. A person is either a man or a woman, and the Bible says that only men can aspire to the office of elder.”
“Thanks, Jack. I’m familiar with your church’s elder position. In fact, I would guess the vast majority of churches would be in your camp on this issue. But, for the sake of illustration, this passage clearly states that in addition to being a man, an elder must be the husband of one wife—is that correct?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Jack, what if an elder candidate is divorced and remarried? Now he has had two wives—a first and a second. Does that exclude him from the biblical requirement for an elder to be the husband of one wife?”
Jack said, “I know that issue can be controversial; our church prayerfully takes a divorced elder candidate situation on a case-by-case basis.”
“So an elder at your church must be a married man—the husband of one wife. And if he is divorced and remarried, he can still be considered for an elder position—is that correct?”
“Yes, but where are you going with this?” Jack asked.
I replied, “The passages you quoted state that an elder must be a man and be married. They also state that he must have children. Children is in the plural, meaning more than one child. Is that how you read and interpret this text?”
Jack said, “Yes, our church position is that a man who leads his family well will lead the church well.”
“Jack, does every elder at your church have at least two children?”
He responded, “Yes. Well … no, actually. We have one elder with one child.”
“But according to this text, an elder must be a husband and have children—meaning more than one child.”
Jack answered, “Well, although the text says an elder must be married and have children, our church does not get hyper-legalistic about this. In fact, as I review our elder board, in addition to having an elder with one child, we have a married elder with no children. Come to think of it—we recently added an unmarried man who brings experience and wisdom to our elder board regarding how singles are treated in our church. But, Tim, what does all this have to do with selective literalism?”
I said, “Jack, I’m trying to answer Diane’s question and give an example of selective literalism. Often people select certain parts of certain passages—in this case 1 Timothy—to be interpreted literally. It appears your church leaders have determined that the text clearly says an elder must be a man—and they take that part literally and absolutize that portion of the passage.”
“That’s correct,” Jack replied.
“But the Bible contains additional elder requirements. Jack, why doesn’t your church insist that an elder meet all the requirements?”
Jack shook his head. “I guess I’m not sure.”
“It seems to me that if all the elder requirements were equally applied to your elder selection process, this would eliminate the majority of your church members from being eligible for the position of elder.”
Jack asked, “How do you reach that conclusion?”
“Elder requirements taken literally exclude many people, including all married men who do not have children, all married men who have only one child, all married men with rebellious children, all single men, as well as all women. Jack, please help me understand. Why do you think your church leaders take literally and absolutize one part of a passage on being an elder—gender—but they do not interpret the many other elder requirements in the same literal way?”
“Well, I guess our church leaders don’t interpret the passage the same way that you interpret it.”
“But is there any part of my interpretation that is not clearly articulated in these Bible passages?”
Jack replied, “Okay, as I review these texts, all those elder requirements are clearly listed. Frankly, I don’t know why all these requirements are not considered in our church elder selection process.”
“Before we move on, can I ask who wrote the Timothy passage on elder requirements?”
“The apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” Jack said.
“That’s correct—and as we review the apostle Paul’s life and writings, we see that he led a celibate life and encouraged others to do the same. And as far as we know, the apostle Paul was not married; he was not ‘the husband of one wife.’ In addition, there is nothing in the Bible that indicates the apostle Paul had any biological children. Therefore, if all the elder requirements were applied equally, the apostle Paul—the person who wrote these passages on selecting elders and who was an overseer of many churches—would be disqualified to serve as an elder.”
Jack said, “In my involvement with our church’s elder selection process, I don’t ever recall considering that perspective.”
“I offer another thought for your consideration. If your church leaders required that a person meet all the requirements clearly listed, would Jesus Christ—who was not married and did not have any biological children—be allowed to serve as an elder at your church?”
Jack said, “That question is so over the top!”
“Jack, does it make any sense for the apostle Paul to have written elder requirements that would exclude Jesus Christ and himself from becoming elders? Is it possible Paul wrote extremely strict elder requirements for churches in a culture where women were discounted, devalued, untrained, and uneducated—and not for all churches for all time?”
Jack replied, “Truth-be-told, I’ve never thought of that perspective, and I admit you’ve given me a lot to think about.”
“Jack, as we wrap up, can I make an observation?”
“Sure,” Jack replied.
“Jack, this conversation began with Diane asking me a question about selective literalism. Do you see how, when we began talking about different perspectives, Diane was barely involved—almost excluded—in our conversation?
Jack said, “I guess you and I did do most of the talking.”
“Jack, we did all the talking. And my observation is that many church leaders do the same thing. For thousands of years, misogyny, gender hierarchy, and domineering male leadership have influenced fallible interpretations of a handful of Bible texts. This has created a culture in churches and denominations where women are discounted, devalued, and restricted from using all the gifts the Holy Spirit has given them. In my experience, it’s the men doing the leading, teaching, preaching, and unfortunately—all too often—very little listening.”
He responded, “I guess as I think about the leaders in my church, what you’re describing may be true.”
Diane asked, “Tim, what next steps do you sense in all this?”
“Diane, I believe the best next step is to begin with an apology. For example, as I review my conversation with Jack, I am sorry for unintentionally excluding you. I was wrong—please forgive me.”
“From a larger-story perspective, I am also sorry for the ways throughout history that male church leaders have been unkind and discounting to women. Diane, do you and Jack ever consider all that churches are missing out on because of the ways church leaders restrict women from using all the gifts the Holy Spirit has given them?”
Diane replied; “I know so many gifted women who God has given incredible leadership, teaching, and preaching gifts—and they would be amazing church elders.”
She asked, “Tim, what do you observe as far as functional equality for women in the church?”
“I see more and more church leaders becoming champions for women. Similar to when church leaders revisited fallible interpretations of a handful of slavery texts, they are now revisiting fallible interpretations of a handful of gender texts. And similar to the abolition of slavery, many church leaders are abolishing gender restrictions, and joyfully celebrating women as functional equals and co-leaders.”
“What do you envision for the future?” Diane asked.
“Personally, when I hear about co-leadership in marriage, and full functional equality for women in the church, I envision a day when women’s gifts are fully celebrated. And they are treated as equals—intrinsically and functionally. In the last chapter of our book, we write:
‘What if … when Jesus told His followers about the ‘greater things’1 they would do, He was not referring to global evangelism, healings, demonic deliverance, and raising people from the dead? What if Jesus was describing a time when His followers would return to God’s original design of equality and shared authority for men and women?’2
Anne and I envision God inviting his church to step into what we believe can be its finest hour. This will include Christ-followers passionately embracing God’s original co-leadership marriage principles, gifts-based ministry, and the full inclusion of women—without restrictions.
As this occurs, the church will be energized in amazing only-God ways. This will open the door for unbelievers to investigate the newfound unity, celebration of diversity, and culture of community modeled within marriages and communities of faith. And this will provide opportunities for Christ-followers to share with others the ‘good news’ about the quintessential love of an amazing triune God.
All that is to say, Diane, revisiting your question when you asked for an example of selective literalism: when a person selects a certain portion of Scripture and interprets it literally, and then selects other portions of Scripture, or in this case, the exact same passages, and does not interpret them the same way—that is an example of selective literalism.”
1. John 14:12
2. Tim+Anne Evans, TOGETHER: Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage. 191.