Wednesday, June 11, 2014

If a Woman Aspires to Be an Elder, Does She Desire A Noble Task?

This is part of a sermon which was the third of a five-part series centring on a recurring phrase in the letters of Paul to first century Pastors Timothy and Titus. Five times in his letters Paul writes: “Here is a trustworthy saying.” On this occasion Paul is addressing the collateral damage stirred up by false teachers in Ephesus who filled the people with selfish ambitions: It’s time for Timothy to rearrange priorities and give them some words to aspire by. The version of the sermon that follows is slightly abridged and was, of course, written for a live congregation.


There are two things we need to talk about in 1 Timothy 3:1. The first has to do with the fact that, at first glance, today's "words to live by" seem to contradict the words of Jesus:

In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul says: “If anyone aspires to be an elder, he desires a noble task.” 
In Mark 9:35 Jesus says: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

Are they on opposite wavelengths? How do we reconcile these statements? To answer that we just need to see what it means to aspire to church eldership.

In the verses that follow in 1 Timothy 3, Paul sets up the "noble task" of church leadership in such a way that it is obviously a far cry from selfish ambition or craving for power. Here we see that the trustworthy saying and Jesus’ saying are not contradictory because eldership is servant leadership.

In 3:1 we can’t think of “desiring” in terms of wishful thinking and “aspiring” in terms of clutching or grabbing; rather we must think of them in terms of “stretching after” and “giving yourself to” something good. If we understand what Jesus is about, then, aspiring to leadership will not mean taking or usurping it (like the false teachers in Ephesus)—it will mean aspiring to be found worthy of the call, having been formed by the practice of self-giving love.

So I don't think this trustworthy saying means that everyone will be called to be an elder, but it does show us what Christian aspiration looks like.

There's lots to think about there, but that was just the first thing. The second thing we need to talk about as we look at this “trustworthy saying” today begins with a riddle:

When is a trustworthy saying not a trustworthy saying? 
More specifically, for whom is this trustworthy saying not a trustworthy saying?

Look closely at the saying as it is translated here and you see there’s a group for whom it seems not to apply. Those who are “she” instead of “he”. In most of the churches in the my tradition this saying does not apply to women. In 2000 our denomination decided that local churches could vote to open eldership to women, but in the 14 years since only about 10-20% of the churches in our denomination have done so (see more on our history here).

As a result, most of the women I know have been taught not to aspire to be elders because for them the desire is not good. Are we right about that?

In this day and age such a thing might seem increasingly odd. But the restriction is not being invented out of thin air. In fact, the main reason for it is found right here in the chapter prior to our trustworthy saying today:


At first blush it seems pretty clear why, in our denomination as in most of church history, the saying about church leadership has only applied to men.

But wait a minute then: So why would our denomination move to allow this in 2000? Why is the Alliance even meeting this July to consider whether women can be senior pastors? Is it remotely possible there's another, even better, way to read this? Even if we are unconvinced, we should try to understand why others in our churches might think so.

What is Paul saying here? Is this a timeless rule giving leadership to men, because Eve came second and was the one who was first deceived? Does this particular “trustworthy saying” have permanent marker scrawled across it saying “no girls allowed”? Allow me to briefly give 8 reasons why I think it does not.

{1} First of all, remember that this is a letter. It begins as a private letter from Paul to Timothy and by the providence of God we come to recognize it as Scripture for us today. But it is Scripture for us today first by being a letter to someone else, from another place and time. That doesn’t mean it is irrelevant today, or that we can pick and choose from it as we wish, but it does make it different than the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.

{2} Secondly, let’s notice how we already read this as a letter to someone else, wisely applying the spirit of it rather than mimicking its every detail. Right before we come to the instructions about women and authority we see that men are called to pray with their hands raised, and women are told not to wear braids or gold or pearls. Do these instructions still apply? Yes, but how? In one culture it might be braids, in another it might be bangs. In one we raise hands, in another we kneel. The point remains. It was Spirit-inspired, so today it could be Spirit-illumined.

Which leads us back to the verses in question. There is no doubt that Paul feels comfortable restricting women from teaching and assuming authority in Ephesus. But does that mean women should aspire to eldership never at all?

{3}The third thing to note is that Paul’s instruction is for women to “learn”. This would not have been unheard of in Ephesus at that time, but it was certainly not the norm. Women were not normally the beneficiaries of higher education. In the church it was a bit different, however. Timothy was who he was in part because his mother and his grandmother had been taught the Scriptures and had in turn taught him.

Furthermore, in other churches Paul had planted there were women who were not only taught but were teaching others. So here the ultimate point is not to silence women for all time but to reinforce the way that Ephesus’ women should learn: in quietness and full submission. In other words, be good students.

Anyone who has spent any length of time in a classroom will know that there are times when this instruction desperately needs to be followed by both women and men, girls as well as boys. Some people need to remember who the teacher is. So why does Paul feel the need to say this to women in particular?

{4} This is the fourth thing I want to point out. What we know about the situation in Ephesus—based on nothing more than we’re told in 1st and 2nd Timothy—is that false teachers are have been having a field day in that church, primarily by worming their way into the homes of vulnerable uneducated women who in turn starting spreading those teachings—plus gossiping everyone’s business. Given this context, we can easily imagine why, after throwing the unrepentant false teachers out of the church, Paul might then have Timothy instruct the women to learn in quietness and submission, not to teach or assume authority in the church.

{5} Which brings us to a fifth reason why this just might not be a universal restriction (i.e., applied the same way for all time and in all places): That is the fact that in other of Paul’s churches the women were teaching and exercising degrees of authority!

Elsewhere Paul speaks approvingly of Lydia hosting a house church, of Priscilla teaching Apollos with Aquilla, and Junia being outstanding among the apostles. In Ephesus the women must not be teaching or taking charge—because of what’s been going on.

{6} Which brings us to a sixth reason why this restriction need not always apply the same way. The word Paul is using is not the usual word for exercising authority, but a word that implies usurping, or taking what’s not been given.

Why? Because just like Eve who was deceived, so too the women of Ephesus. This reference to Eve is not  a created order of male leadership and female submission, it is an illustration about going to the wrong teacher and getting deceived! Adam had the instructions; Eve went to the serpent alone. In Ephesus Paul’s kicked out the serpents, and now he’s installed Timothy.

So let’s go back to our trustworthy saying, asking whether even the women of Ephesus might yet aspire to be elders and to consider it a desirable task. Could it be Paul wants them not to assume or usurp authority (after all, Timothy is now the teacher and "the senior pastor" there!), but might still be happy to have them aspire to church leadership? Is that option available to us, or is the trust-worthy saying forever for men only?

{7} Let me give a seventh reason to reconsider. When you look closely at 1 Tim 3:1 in the original language you see the word “he” is simply not there. It literally says “If someone aspires to be an elder, __desires a noble task.”

In English we have to fill in the pronoun, and have usually just slipped in the “he” (since we couldn’t bear to say “someone” again). Some of our translations are more careful now. They say “Whoever aspires to be an elder desires a noble task.” This has the negative side-effect of losing the “if”—which accidentally implies that everyone could expect to be an elder—but it does retain the truth that the saying could well apply to whoever; to both the men and the women of the church.

But what about the parts that follow, where the elders are assumed to be “hes” and to the “husbands of one wife”? The truth is that even if there was a “he” in this verse it wouldn’t necessarily exclude the “shes”. It was simply the language of the time--like in Genesis 1, where it says: “God created mankind in his image, ... male and female he created them.”

{8} This leads to an eighth and final reason to wonder if the trustworthy saying might yet apply to all: We already make this cultural application away from the literal meaning in relation to other parts of the text. We saw this already in the way we apply chapter two's rules for posture and dress in worship, and we see it again in the way we apply chapter three's eldership qualifications: When the following verses say that elders must be husbands of one wife, we take the point that they can’t have two wives, not that they can’t have zero wives. No church that I know of has said single men or widowers may not be elders!

Often when I give my views on this it is presumed I haven't put in the necessary study, or have simply conformed to the culture I grew up in and will not change my mind to conform to Scripture. I guess all I can say to that is that I used to be a staunch defender of traditional gender roles, and that's exactly the culture within which I was brought up. I get it.

But in my first pastorate I noticed a mature woman in my church who exemplified to me that she was gifted in administration, discernment, and teaching. After I got to know her I asked her to tell me her story, and was startled to hear about how she had struggled privately and genuinely for many years with confusion about how she, a single women with gifts for teaching and organizing adults, was ever to find wholeness in Christ if she needed a man to "complete" her, and if her gifts were meant only for kids. I began to think again .

This wasn't enough to overturn my convictions, but it did lead me to ask: "What if I'm wrong?" It was then I noticed that not even Paul was universally consistent to his own ruling in Timothy, and it was then that I realized that church leadership can be something for all people to aspire to, including both women and men.