“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:19, TNIV).
Recently I heard someone say that while they support women in leadership, ultimately all final authority should be male. They went on to say that though women may exercise their God-given gifts in new spheres of service such as teaching adults, as deacons, or even as a pastor, Scripture teaches that men should exercise ultimate authority in a church, marriage, denomination, or Christian institution. This perspective is commonly held by “soft complementarians” who are willing to grant new opportunities of service to women. While we are grateful for this bit of progress, the belief that men hold the final position of authority represents a further biblical challenge.
Does the Bible really suggest that men are to hold the final place of authority? To put it another way, does Scripture actually link Christian leadership with authority? Scholars like Linda Belleville offer a challenge to this assumption. Examining more than 100 New Testament references to the term authority, Belleville suggests first that it is not an individual or an office to which God commonly extends authority, but to the whole church. Thus, when two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, Jesus is with them, imparting his authority to their corporate lives and service. Jesus also said that what the church binds on earth is bound in heaven, and what the church looses on earth, is likewise loosed in heaven (Matt. 18:18). Similarly, Paul locates authority not in an office or an individual alone, but in the collective body of believers–the church. Paul told the believers at Corinth that they as the church hold authority to judge the world as well as the angels (1 Cor. 6:2a, 3a).
Secondly, authority is given to individuals in the faithful use of their spiritual gifts. Serving others is the point of one’s spiritual gifts–“the manifestation of the Spirit” given “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Paul tells us to fan into flame the gift within us (2 Tim. 1:6). If “your gift is prophesying, then prophesy,” Paul says in Romans 12:6. Because authority was service, Paul identified female and male leaders not through a title or office (which today implies authority), but through the service they performed. Here are a few examples of female leaders whose leadership, like men’s, was that of service:
- Phoebe is called a deacon in the church of Cenchrea, as well as a benefactor (Greek prostates)–a term that aligned her leadership with working hard for others, noted in the verb form of prostates (1 Thess. 5:12). Though 1 Timothy 3:12 requires deacons to “be faithful to their wives,” Phoebe is the only deacon cited in Scripture.
- Overseer: The most common term for pastoral guidance or oversight such as that offered by an overseer (Greekepiscopos). There is archaeological evidence of female overseers (episcopos) who served the early church. Scholars argue these were often single women who had greater freedom to serve as overseers. We know of women who gave oversight to house churches, including Lydia, Chloe, the Elect Lady, and Priscilla along with her husband Aquila.
- The term elder (Greek presbyteros) is a word that implies authority invested in an office, which was not extended to an entire congregation. Elders were appointed (1 Tim. 5: 17, Titus 1:5). As Belleville suggests, elders were known not by their authority, but through their service (e.g. preaching, praying, caring for the ill, refuting error, and offering spiritual guidance). While there are no women mentioned by name as an elder, neither is there a man referred to as an elder. The one exception is Peter, who calls himself an elder.
- Junia is called an apostle in Scripture, and Paul states that she was prominent among the apostles. Her leadership was service in the form of evangelism, and she was imprisoned with Paul and her husband Andronicus as a result of missionary work (Rom. 16:7).
Scripture refers to few individuals (male or female) as elders, deacons, overseers, or pastors because the focus is on service not specific individuals holding positions of authority. What mattered was one’s devotion to Christ and living out his love in the world through service. Perhaps that is why Paul reminded Christians in Rome not to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think, but with sober judgment to count others as better than themselves, remembering that though each person may have a distinct spiritual gift, the gifts are for serving others. For “each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5b). The spiritual gifts are first and foremost a responsibility to serve. Perhaps this is why Paul, though an apostle, most often referred to himself as a slave or servant (Rom. 1:1, 1 Cor. 9:9, Titus 1:1).