Should Christian Women be Allowed to Hold Leadership Roles in the Church?
When outlining his recommended qualifications for spiritual leadership in the Ephesian church, the apostle Paul tells us that "Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task" (I Timothy 3:1). Paul then goes on to provide a separate breakdown of qualities for "deacons" (3:8) and "the women" (3:11). Traditionally, I Timothy 3:1-13 has found frequent use in the universal sense as an assessment tool for identifying potential candidates to fill church offices.
However, modern interpretation is challenged by gender-specific pronoun usage in English translations, leaving much room for ambiguity as far as Paul's true views of women in ministry. So, from a leadership development standpoint, how might the qualities listed in I Timothy 3:1-7 apply to female lay leaders or ministry students today, since in I Timothy 3:11, women are addressed separately from “the overseer”? Should Christian women aspire to be overseers in the church, or does Paul hold that title in reserve for male leaders?
By taking an inductive approach, we can focus on two important interpretive questions that help to drive proper application of this passage. First of all, how does the conjunctive phrase “In the same way...” link the qualities of the overseer/bishop (3:1-7) to the role of the women/wives (3:11)? Second, what is the significance of Paul’s placement of his point concerning the role of the women, right in the middle of his discussion about the role of the deacons?
In the Same Way...
According to Strong’s Concordance (2015), the conjunctive phrase “In the same way...” (New International Version) stems from the Greek word hosautos, which is translated in the King James Version as “Likewise.” According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon (2015), “often in Grk. writ. [sic] the verb must be supplied from the preceding context” (¶ 1). This conjunction is used twice in I Timothy 3:1-13, once in regard to deacons (3:8) and once in regard to the women (3:11).
Considering the typical use of conjunction to link a verse or passage to the immediately preceding verse or passage, we can presume that Paul intends to compare the role of deacons to the role of overseers, then to compare the role of the women to the role of deacons. However, Paul’s repetition of the same phrase in relation to both roles does create the potential for some ambiguity about whether he is comparing the women to the deacons (the closest subject, structurally speaking) or to the overseers (the initial subject of the passage) or to both.
He, She, or Whoever?
In 3:11, the New International Version refers to “the women,” whereas the King James Version refers to “their wives,” linking this verse more specifically to the previous paragraph about deacons. According to Strong’s Concordance, the KJV translates the original Greek word gyne 129 times as women and 92 times as wife. Overall, BlueLetterBible.org (2015) outlines the biblical usage of the word as primarily referring to “a woman of any age, whether a virgin, or married, or a widow” and secondarily as “a wife” (¶ 1).
Considering the inclusiveness of the word gyne to refer to women in general or to wives in particular, the New International Version’s reference to “the women” seems more apt to denote any women—including, in this context, the wives of deacons—in a position of responsibility or influence within the church. The use of this word could then, for that matter, refer to all of the women in the church, instructing that Christian women in general should refrain from malicious talk (an assertion certainly supported by the surrounding context of I Timothy). However, Paul’s placement of his point about women in the middle of his discussion about deacons suggests that he has a particular caliber of leadership quality in mind for the women he is addressing here.
Plus, according to Comfort (2009), the possessive pronoun their, found in the King James Version of the text, does not appear in the original Greek. This point further emphasizes the inference that the word gyne in the original language was intended to refer to “wives” in general or, more appropriately, “women” in general, not "their wives." The insertion of the male possessive was a liberty taken in the translation, not intended in the original text.
According to Payne (2009), “Unfortunately, practically all English versions of I Timothy 3:1-13… give the false impression that Paul uses masculine pronouns, implying that these church leaders must be male. In Greek, however, there is not even one masculine pronoun or ‘men only’ requirement for the offices of overseer and deacon” (p. 445).
This lack of masculine pronouns supports the inference that the passage is intended for “anyone” or “whoever” aspires to become an overseer, not limiting the role to either gender.
Worthy of Respect
The imperative “to be worthy of respect” (New International Version) or “be grave” (King James Version) is also used twice in these verses, once for deacons (3:8) and once for the women (3:11). According to Strong’s Concordance, the original Greek word semnos is only used four times in the KJV, with its biblical usage meaning primarily “august, venerable, reverend” and secondarily “to be venerated for character, honourable [sic]” ( 1).
Along with the repeated conjunction in these verses, repetition of this imperative, used the same way for the women as it is used for the deacons, implies an equalizing responsibility between the deacons and the women to reflect the qualities or character of the overseer. After detailing the attributes of the overseer, Paul suggests, “In the same way [as the overseer], deacons are to be worthy of respect” (3:8) and “In the same way [as deacons], the women are to be worthy of respect” (3:11). If the women are to be worthy of the same respect as the deacons, and the deacons are to be worthy of the same respect as the overseer, then the women are to be worthy of the same respect as the overseer.
This connection supports an equal expectation of character from both the deacons and the women. Whether or not that expectation was being met at the time of Paul’s writing, Paul is setting the bar for the conduct he wants to see from these parties in the church.
Paul goes on to note additional, slightly differing qualifications for deacons and the women. In 3:8-9, deacons are to be “sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.” In 3:11, the women are not to be “malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” With his repetition of comparative language linking these additional qualifications to the attributes of the overseer in 3:1-7, Paul seems to be equating these desirable qualities among the deacons and women with the desirable qualities of the overseer.
In other words, in order to be “worthy of respect” like the overseer, deacons must be “sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain,” etc. Likewise, in order to be “worthy of respect” like the deacons and like the overseer, the women must be “temperate and trustworthy in everything.” By addressing these separate but similar traits with such an emphasis on comparative language, Paul implies different, but equally important, considerations for deacons and women.
Equal Roles in Ministry
In chiasmic style, Paul makes his point about who should “serve as deacons” (3:10), then refers to the women “[i]n the same way” (3:11), then emphasizes the importance of the relationship between a deacon and “his wife” (3:12). In 3:8, according to NIV footnotes (BlueLetterBible.org, 2015), “The word deacons refers here to Christians designated to serve with the overseers/elders of the church in a variety of ways” (¶ 1). “The women” of 3:11 are “[p]ossibly deacons’ wives or women who are deacons” (¶ 2).
With Paul’s brief chiasm, making his point about the women in the middle of his point about deacons, Paul implies a connection between the role of deacons and the role of the women, whether the women are deacons or wives of deacons. This connection does suggest a limitation of Paul's focus on “the women” to those women who either serve in a capacity equal to that of deacons or who serve as wives to deacons, rather than including all of the women of the church in general.
Either way, Paul elevates the significance of “the women” in the workings of the church, indicating that whether a woman serves equally as a deacon or she is simply married to a deacon, her conduct is just as important.
But Can She Teach...?
Right before he outlines the qualities of the overseer in I Timothy 3:1-7, in 2:11-15, Paul forbids “a woman” from teaching or assuming authority over men. Payne (2009) and Comfort (2009) note this is the only verse in Scripture that forbids a woman from teaching. So a seeming contradiction presents between Paul’s restrictions on women’s behavior in I Timothy 2 and his later suggestion of women’s equality in the church in I Timothy 3.
However, keeping in mind the inference that Paul is outlining his expectations for church conduct in 3:1-13, we can presume that the current state he is addressing in 2:11-15 falls short of that recommended ideal.
This inference is supported by Paul’s instructions in 2:9-10, where he is apparently addressing a lacking situation among the women of the church. If the women must be told that they should “dress modestly, with decency and propriety” (2:9), “appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (2:10), we can safely assume these women are not presently behaving in a manner that makes them “worthy of respect” (3:11).
In 3:11, then, Paul is encouraging the women to conduct themselves with Christian character and to embrace the same spiritual leadership qualities he recommends for the male leaders within the church. Although the women are not currently equipped to teach or assume authority, Paul provides formational instructions for them to step up into an equal role alongside the men.
First She Must Learn
As Comfort (2009) explains, the verb in 2:12 is present tense indicative, linking Paul’s instructions here to a specific situation at the church where Timothy ministers. The verb tense supports the inference that Paul was addressing an isolated incident within the church, not issuing a blanket statement for all Christian women.
Cunningham and Hamilton (2000) point out that almost in the same breath, Paul commands that “a woman” must learn (2:11), countering the cultural disadvantage of women who were traditionally restricted from receiving education. Considering the logical order of verses 2:11 and 2:12 and the existing issue of uneducated women in the church, it is reasonable to understand that until “a woman” has learned, she should not be permitted “to teach.”
According to Ngewa (2009), I Timothy 3:1-13 does not outline a specific hierarchy for the church, as is commonly understood. Instead, Ngewa argues that the word overseer is generic, “referring to the whole category and not to an individual” (p. 60). Considering “the overseer” as a categorical term, “deacons” and “the women” might be viewed as two types of overseer. This view further emphasizes Paul’s intended equality for the two sub-roles.
Regardless, as Payne (2009) states, “The office of overseer requires someone ‘able to teach.’ Paul lays the foundation for women to fulfill this requirement by writing ‘Let them learn’ in I Timothy 2:11” (p. 449). Furthermore, according to Payne, “Throughout church history, deacon ministry has prepared people for overseer ministry. Since Paul includes women as deacons, one would expect that they could become overseers, too” (p. 449).
By mandating that women must be allowed to learn in the Christian church, Paul was also empowering women to become teachers in the Christian church. Historical evidence surrounding the role of deacons and overseers in the church implies that a woman who became a deacon would be positioned to then potentially become an overseer. In this respect, the qualities of the overseer (3:1-7) are directly applicable to women entering into ministry leadership.
Women in Ministry Today
With his use of inclusive, conjunctive, and comparative language throughout I Timothy 3:1-13, Paul makes clear that he views the roles of overseers, deacons, and women to be interrelated. Whether we view the roles of deacons (3:8-10, 12-13) and women (3:11) as sub-categories of the overseer role or as preparation for the overseer role, it is nonetheless evident that Paul sees the deacons and the women as equal parties in this specific church leadership context, reflecting respectable character “[i]n the same way” (3:8, 11).
The only scriptural challenge to this assumption is found in the single verse, I Timothy 2:12, where Paul proclaims a restriction on the teaching authority of “a woman” in the church. Considering the present tense indicative contained within the verse in question, Paul appears to be addressing a specific church situation known to Timothy, not “a woman” in general.
Furthermore, Paul’s placement of his point about the women in the middle of his discussion about the role of deacons comprises an emphatic statement on the equality of women, whether those women are deacons themselves or wives of deacons. Paul’s preceding qualifications for those who should “serve as deacons” (3:10) leads directly into his suggestion that, “in the same way” (3:11), women might serve the church. English translations move from the feminine qualifications in 3:11 into Paul’s point about the deacon’s family management, tying the relationship between “a deacon” and “his wife” (3:12) into the related roles of deacons and women.
Even if we do take 3:11 as referring to the wives of deacons, it is important to observe that no corresponding qualifications for the wives of overseers are present in 3:1-7. This would imply that the conduct of deacons’ wives is significant but the conduct of overseers’ wives is not—hardly a likely conclusion, further evidence against the interpretation of 3:11 as relating only to the wives of deacons.
Moreover, even if Paul did intend I Timothy 3:11 to refer exclusively to the wives of deacons, he is still elevating the role of those wives to an equal standing with their husbands, emphasizing the “same” importance of wives’ conduct within church affairs. However, since the original Greek does not include any specific masculine or possessive pronouns in this passage, it is much more likely that Paul is referring to women in general and to “anyone” or “whoever” aspires to take on these leadership roles in the church.
Overall, the chiasmic arrangement of the three sets of qualifiers in 3:1-7, 3:8-10, and 3:11 evidence an inarguable link between the qualities of the overseers, the deacons, and the women. Ultimately, Paul’s successive delineation of similar, equitable qualifications for the different roles implies that he envisions all three carrying equal influence upon the character of the church. For female ministry students today who aspire to roles of leadership responsibility in the church, then, the qualifications laid out in I Timothy 3:1-7 provide a roadmap for self-assessment and prayerful preparation equal to that of their male counterparts.
(2005). Life application study Bible: New international version. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale.
BlueLetterBible.org. (2015). 1 Timothy 3: New international version. Retrieved July 24, 2015, from http://www.blueletterbible.org
Comfort, P. W. (2009). Cornerstone biblical commentary: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Cunningham, L. & Hamilton, D. J. (2000). Why not women? A fresh look at scripture on women in missions, ministry, and leadership. Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing.
Ngewa, S. (2009). 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Grand Rapids, MI: HippoBooks.
Payne, P. B. (2009). Man and woman, one in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.