Unfit to Lead? Women, Singles, and Childless

 “Women can’t be pastors and elders, the Bible says an elder must be ‘a husband of one wife.'”

Wait a minute. What did you say?

There are some passages of the Bible that are challenging to those of us that think that women should be included at all levels of leadership. I’ve addressed the two toughest ones in previous posts (see my response to 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians). Of course, I think that the Bible says that women should be included in leadership. But I understand that some have read the Bible differently.

But I do not understand those that claim that the Bible’s instruction for elders to be a “husband of one wife” has anything to do with gender. Over and over again I hear this same passage cited by those that oppose women’s ordination as if it should end all conversation. To be clear: I don’t often hear scholars claiming that this passage is important for the discussion. In fact, this complementarian advocacy text by conservative scholars has only two passing references in more than 300 pages. But this Scripture gets cited over and over again by pastors and faithful church people in Facebook posts, blog comments, and casual church conversation.

This isn’t literalism, this is unthinking literalism. If we take that interpretation to it’s logical conclusion, the result is ludicrous.

Here is the passage:

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife (older translations often rendered this “husband of one wife”), temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. (1 Timothy 3, NIV)

If you are to take this passage as limiting the role of elder to men, then the immediate conclusion of this unthinking literalism is that elders must also be married. Singles need not apply. If the gender of  “husband” is important, then surely the marital status is required as well. But, the same Paul that gave such unequivocal preference that Christians remain single could not possibly have also required that elders be married. That isn’t logical. Of course, Paul said that he too was single (1 Cor. 7:8). Could he really limit the qualifications of an elder in such a way that even he wouldn’t qualify? I can only imagine how a requirement to be married can be reconciled with the first 1500 years of church history when the entire church was under the care of an unmarried, celibate priesthood.

Of course, those who remarry (after divorce or widowhood) and polygamists would be excluded, too. One or the other of these was likely Paul’s intention; he was concerned that church leaders not be ones without marital faithfulness.

But these aren’t the only implications for an unthinking literalism.

Paul also requires that elders’ children be well-behaved. Those that ascribe to unthinking literalism must also require that elders be fathers. If a husband has no children then they can’t possibly be well-behaved children. No children, no calling to be an elder.

If your reading of scripture limits the highest levels of leadership to only those who are male, married only one time, and have children, then you need to rethink your reading of Scripture. Almost every prominent leader in Scripture would be excluded: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Deborah, David, Solomon, Daniel, Paul, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene,  Phoebe, Junia, and Jesus. Likely none of the Twelve would qualify, though it’s not known who might have married and had children.

So how did we get here? A good deal of the blame can be placed on the popularity of the verbal plenerary notion of the inspiration of Scripture. To simplify, this notion of inspiration is predicated on the idea that the words that are on the pages of the Bible are the precise words of God for all eternity, whatever the human author might have thought they were writing. There are much more dynamic notions of inspiration within the tradition but this one has dominated evangelicalism. If you believe that the words on the page (and not primarily the ideas, intent, and action of the author, for instance) are God-given, then it is easy to mistake the word “husband” as being an important and God-ordained aspect of that sentence.

Not too much blame should rest here, of course. Even those with a verbal plenary notion of Scripture can see that the intent of the author is to talk about faithfulness in marriage and not maleness or even marital status. Even a careful plain text reading can avoid the confusion.

I think much more of the blame can be placed on those in Christian leadership that should know that this isn’t a legitimate reading of the text from any stretch of the imagination. But to read the text this way supports an agenda in which these leaders are invested. So they nod their head when someone quotes the verse. Maybe they even quote the verse themselves in a passing dismissal of women’s leadership. But they never take people through a careful exegesis of the passage.

Egalitarian advocates can sometimes be responsible for such lazy exegesis as well. Countless blog posts and sermons have quoted Paul’s message of inclusion in Galatians (“neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,” Gal 3:28, NIV) as if there is a straight-forward implication for the ordination and leadership of women. The passage is clearly about how each of these groups stand before God as rightful heirs of the Kingdom. It isn’t a passage intended to abolish all distinctions in all cases. I would tend to agree with Tim Peck’s assessment that there are implications which might lead to our discussion of women’s leadership and ministry, but these are implications and are not what Paul was explicitly intending. 

Those that suggest that I Timothy 3 forbids women from being elders are either interpreting with an unthinking literalism or they aren’t being honest. Christian leaders need to be more careful than that. Whatever your position on this or any other theological issue, we would all do well to be honest with our exegesis even when it is inconvenient for the position that we want to defend.  We need not bend the Bible in such a way that it speaks with only one voice. This too is an artifact of a rather limited notion of divine inspiration that is increasingly under fire in both the church and academy.

Let’s instead approach the whole of Scripture as a polyvalent and trustworthy rule of faith…one that we take seriously enough to read with care. 

For all that I have written on Women in Ministry.

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  1. says

    Thank you so much for writing this!! I was taught growing up that you did have to be male to be an elder based on those verses, but I hadn’t before considered the concept of being married and having children as a requirement as well! I am forever thankful for the freedom and love that Jesus lavished on us!! Thank you for standing not only for women but the church as a whole! God bless you!

  2. says

    I agree too much literalism focuses on this verse (especially when ratting on priestly celibacy). One person from my own church said he thought this verse was referring to more Paul’s concern with polygamy. That what St. Paul is trying to say is that if the man is married he must have been married to only one wife and must not be polygamous or re-married.

    Hence, one’s marital status is generally taken into account when an Anglican priest in our church is ordained. Likewise so in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. In Western Rite Catholicism, the priests are required to be celibate unless they have prior served as pastors or priests in previous churches (married bishops who convert from Anglicanism are required to give up their episcopal title).

    Eastern Rite Churches allow married priests but they must be married before they are ordained and if they are celibate when ordained, they cannot marry afterwards. Bishops are required to be celibate. I kind of wish that Anglicans would enforce priests to be married prior to ordination as well as so many women are just attracted to Mr. “Religious” Man.

  3. Shani Connors says

    Thank you so much. This has been thrown in my face for years. Men of God whom I have great respect for have used this to tell me that the call of God on my life was not real. Thanks again!!!

  4. Michelle says

    Thank you for this!

    I do have one thought/complaint/question, though.

    It’s not that I am literal/unthinking when it comes to Gal. 3:28:

    26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (NIV)

    It’s that i don’t understand why being “in Christ” is something that is limited to the afterlife, and thus indicates that the sole meaning of the above text is that we are all equally saved. I am ignorant of the original language, so have no argument to make from it, i admit.

    Are we not in Christ now? Here, on Earth? Isn’t the implication also that our cultural and societal distinctions (i.e. hierarchies) do not matter in the church, which we are (we are the church, the hands and the feet)?

  5. says

    Even those who engage in “unthinking literalism” (as you aptly put it) with some passages will insists on context and metaphorical understanding with others passages. It’s an inconsistent hermeneutic and inhibits a full understanding of God’s word, but there it is.

  6. Berenger2 says

    Thank you so much for your blog, it’s such a great resource. I’m a new Christian. A woman, lead to speaking and maybe ministry. But more than these things I find it difficult to be led by a group of people who see themselves as closer to Jesus than me by virtue of birth. That I need their ‘covering’. Very strange. I’m not too familiar with Paul’s letters. But have read and re- read accounts of Jesus’s time as a human, as if they were old love letters I never knew had been sent. I am certain if He wanted segregated leadership teams – or all male leadership teams He would have spelled it out to us, as He did so much else. God would not forget to tell us.

    At my church they half-hearted lying used Jesus’s choice of 12 men as their reason. But of course they were Jewish men. It makes me laugh because my dad is part Jewish… So where does that leave us??? I do love my church though, they are growing and the pastor protects me from the worst of this I think.


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