Male Elders in 1 Timothy 2-3

God’s Word calls qualified men to teach and pastor God’s flock. In discussions of this topic, 1 Timothy 2–3 are central to explaining why Paul did not permit a woman to teach or have authority in the church and why the pastoral office is grounded in creation and not culture. For those interested in the most recent scholarship on the debate, the third edition of Women in the Church is a good place to begin. In this post, I will provide a brief introduction to 1 Timothy 2–3, a passage that clearly affirms male eldership in the household of God.

Paul’s first letter to Timothy contains vital and abiding instructions for the church and its leadership. Paul writes to his apostolic delegate, Timothy, toward the end of Paul’s life and ministry in order to leave a legacy and pass on the pattern of church leadership to his foremost disciple. These instructions are not limited to first-century Ephesus (where Timothy was at the time) but abiding principles grounded in God’s creation order (Paul writes similar instructions to Titus, who is on the island of Crete).

The Church as God’s Household

Underlying Paul’s instructions is the metaphor of the church as God’s household. While in some of his other letters Paul uses the metaphor of a body with many members and Christ at the head, here (as well as in Titus) Paul conceives of the church in terms of an ancient household. It is well-attested historical fact that in both first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman households, the father (paterfamilias) was the head. Similarly, Paul stipulates that male elders be responsible for God’s household, the church.

In the ancient world, households consisted not only of the nuclear family (parents and children) but also included relatives (such as widows) and even household servants. The head of the household had the important task of caring for all the members of his extended household and of ensuring that their needs were met. Likewise, male elders were to care for the needs of all church members.

Proper Conduct in God’s Household (1 Tim 3:14–15)

The most relevant instructions regarding church leadership in 1 Timothy are found in chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 2 opens with the words, “First of all, then, I urge that ….” (ESV). Here we have the beginning of a set of instructions Paul gives to Timothy for ordering the life of the church, particularly its leadership. The unit concludes with the words, “I am writing these things to you so that … you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (3:14–15).

So here we see that chapters 2–3 are built on the metaphor of the church as God’s household. We also see that Paul thought of these instructions as general directives on “how one ought to behave” in God’s household, which he solemnly calls “the church of the living God” and, in yet another metaphor, “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” For this reason we can be sure that the instructions on church leadership in chapters 2–3 contain abiding—rather than merely culturally relative—instructions for the church.

Male Elders (1 Tim 3:1–7; 5:17)

In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul introduces the “trustworthy saying” that, “if anyone aspires to the office of overseer (episkopē), he desires a noble task.” He stipulates that an overseer (episkopos) be “above reproach” and a faithful husband and adds several other qualifications (vv. 2–3). He adds an analogy between the natural and God’s spiritual household: “He must manage (proistēmi) his own household well, …, for if someone does not know how to manage (proistēmi) his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (3:4–5). All of this presupposes the standard order of the ancient household with the man being in charge as the head.

In a later parallel passage, Paul elaborates, “Let the elders (presbyteroi) who rule (proistēmi) well be considered worthy of double honor [i.e., they are due both respect and financial remuneration], especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (5:17). The “elders” mentioned here are the same as the aforementioned “overseer[s]” (episkopos, 3:1–2), and the word translated “manage” in 3:4–5 is here rendered “rule,” that is, exercising authority by virtue of one’s office (NASB: “lead”; NIV: “direct the affairs”). Also, there is a plurality of elders (presbyteroi is plural). And while all elders “rule,” not all preach and teach (though all must be “able to teach,” didaktikos, 3:2). This was the responsibility of “pastor-teachers” (Eph 4:11: poimēn/didaskalos).

It is therefore clear both historically and contextually that Paul holds qualified, spiritually mature men responsible for the care of God’s household. If there were any doubt, the fact that he refers to “faithful husbands” (anēr) underscores that Paul had men, not women, in mind. Some, such as Sam Storms, have argued that the language of the New Testament permits female “pastors,” but as Denny Burk has shown, the biblical evidence shows that pastors (i.e., shepherds) are always male leaders in the covenant community.

Women’s Focus on Family and the Home (1 Tim 2:9–15)

Against this backdrop, we should understand Paul’s teaching on women in chapter 2. There is no chapter break between chapters 2 and 3 in the original, so 2:9–15 (on women) and 3:1–7 (on men) are closely connected. The introductory “likewise” in verse 9 suggests that the issue of congregational unity, which Paul addressed in verse 8 with regard to men, continues to be Paul’s primary concern in what follows. The apostle goes on to speak about women’s modest dress and decorum, as well as self-control (sōphrosynē), in keeping with godliness (vv. 9–10). In fact, sōphrosynē, that is, having a proper sense of one’s priorities, which recurs at the end of the unit in verse 15, provides the frame for Paul’s entire discussion of women’s conduct in the church.

In verse 11, Paul urges women to learn in quietness and submission, while in verse 12 he states that he doesn’t permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man. The infinitives “to teach” (didaskein) and “to have/exercise authority” (authentein) contrast what Paul doesn’t permit women to do with what he does want them to do: learn and be “in full submission.” Teaching, as we’ve seen, is the domain of elders who must be “able to teach” (3:2; cf. 5:17; Titus 1:9). The exercise of authority, likewise, is the domain of elders who “rule well” (5:17; cf. 3:4–5). “Quietness,” of course, doesn’t mean women must never speak in church, just that they should willingly submit to male teachers and elders in the church (cf. 1 Pet 3:4). For details, see chapter 3 in Women in the Church; my commentary, 1-2 Timothy and Titus (EBTC);  “The Syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12”; chapter 6 of God’s Design for Man and Woman; and various resources on my website.

Thus we can see that Paul categorically and emphatically (“I do not permit”) stipulates that men, not women, are to serve as elders in the church.

In verse 13, then, Paul supports his teaching by appealing to the creation account, according to which God created Adam first, indicating primary responsibility (cf. 1 Cor 11:3, 8–9). In verse 14, he adds that not only was Adam created first, he also wasn’t deceived by the devil. The implication is that women’s shouldn’t serve as elders, lest the scenario at the fall repeat itself. Finally, in verse 15, Paul extends the Genesis frame of reference by affirming that women will be protected from Satan as they embrace their God-given roles in the family and the home (cf. Gen 3:16). Closure is provided by an inclusio referring to women’s “self-control” which echoes the same word used at the beginning of the unit in verse 9 above.

Unity and Order in the Church

The entire passage 1 Tim 2:8–15 revolves around what is appropriate for men and women in the church. Both injunctions that men pray without anger or quarreling and that women dress modestly and learn submissively are grounded in a concern for unity and non-disruption. Also pervasive throughout the unit is a concern for a proper authority structure to be upheld which is expressed, respectively, in learning/teaching, and in being in full submission/exercising authority. This is in keeping with Paul’s concern for God’s order in the church to be upheld (cf. 1 Cor 14:40). What Christian women are to do in the home is spelled out in greater detail in another passage, Titus 2:3–5.

Conclusion

God’s design for man and woman in marriage, family, and the church, God’s household, is beautiful, wise, and good. In God’s original plan, the man and the woman partner harmoniously in multiplying, filling the earth, and exercising dominion as God’s representatives created in his image (Gen 1:26–28). While the fall disrupted male-female harmony, Christ came to redeem us, not merely individually, but also in relation to each other. Thus, in Christ, there is again the hope that men and women can work together in tandem, in the church as well as in the home, to accomplish God’s purposes, for his glory and their own good. Soli Deo gloria!\

For Further Study

On 1 Tim 2:12, see Andreas J. Köstenberger, chap. 3: “A Complex Sentence Structure: The Syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12,” in Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, 3rd ed. (ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner; Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 117–62. 

On 1 Tim 2:15, see my articles “Saved through Childbearing? A Fresh Look at 1 Timothy 2:15 Points to Protection from Satan’s Deception,” CBMW News 2/4 (1997): 1–6; and “Ascertaining Women’s God-Ordained Roles: An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15,” Bulletin of Biblical Research 7 (1997): 107–44.

Note: The article was first published at Christ over All and can be accessed here.


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