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A Biblical Eldership Is a Male Only Eldership

November 21, 2023
By Alexander Strauch

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Eikon.

There are many books and articles on leadership. Too many. But few courageously address the issue of male only pastoral leadership and why it is necessary. The Bible teaches that the church’s elders are to be men, yet this foundational, biblical truth is relentlessly attacked and deemed totally irrelevant by most people.

In this brief article, I will focus on Paul’s instructions to his beloved church in Ephesus. Ephesus was one of the four major epicenters of early Christianity and where Paul labored in the gospel for nearly three years. What Paul writes to this believing community is Holy Scripture and essential to our theme of a male-only church eldership.

Male Leadership in Marriage and the Home

While in prison in Rome, Paul wrote his magisterial letter to the Ephesians. In this letter he makes this stunning and authoritative statement about husbands and wives in Christian marriage:

For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:23–27)

“As Christ Is the Head”

Paul’s basis for the husband’s headship (leadership) is not first-century Greco-Roman culture. Instead, it is Christ and his church. This is the most compelling argument that male headship in Christian marriage is not cultural, but of divine origin: the husband is the head of the wife (and here is the analogy), “as Christ is the head of the church.”[1] Certainly, Christ’s headship over the church is not a relic of an ancient cultural patriarchy. Furthermore, Christian husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). One cannot love his wife as Christ loved the church and cruelly use and abuse her. Scripture speaks clearly here of loving, Christlike family leadership, not selfish narcissism. Thus the Christian husband leads, protects, and provides.

“As the Church Submits to Christ”

So too, the basis for the wife’s submission is not first-century Greco-Roman society. It is Christ and his church: “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (v. 24). In Christian marriage, the wife represents the church that freely and willingly submits to Christ’s headship; the husband represents Christ, the self-giving, loving head of the church.

Thus headship-submission in the marriage relationship is not culturally conditioned. On the contrary, “it is part of the essence of marriage.”[2]

The Home Supports the Church and the Church Supports the Home

Since the family is the fundamental social unit and the man is the established family leader, we should expect that men would also be the leaders of the extended church family, “the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). The local church family should be a model of godly male headship from which individual families can learn how to follow God’s design for the family. Stephen B. Clark succinctly states the principle of male headship in the home and in the church:

If the men are supposed to be the heads of the family, they must also be the heads of the [church] community. The [church] community must be structured in a way that supports the pattern of the family, and the family must be structured in a way that supports the pattern of the [church] community.[3]

To this statement, Paul would say: “Amen.”

Male Leadership in the Household of God

If Ephesians 5 is the crowning passage on Christian marriage, then 1 Timothy 2 is the crowning passage for male-only leadership in the local church family. The letter of 1 Timothy instructs Timothy and the church on “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Essential to proper behavior in the household of God are the moral and spiritual qualifications for its leaders (1 Tim. 3:1-7). All these qualifications assume the elder is a man.

When we look at the verses immediately preceding the elders’ qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–13, we see that Paul restricted women from being pastoral elders:

I desire . . . likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel . . . [and] with what is proper for women who profess godliness — with good works. . . . I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim. 2:8–10, 12–14).

First Timothy 2:8–13 is part of the larger context beginning in 2:1 and ending in 3:16. The apostle’s instructions regarding Christian men and women in the gathered assembly (vv. 8–12) are intimately connected to, and govern his instructions for, the elders and deacons of 1 Timothy 3:1–13. All these instructions are part of God’s arrangement for men and women, leaders, and followers in “the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Following Paul’s instructions prohibiting women from teaching and leading men in the gathered assembly, Paul describes the qualifications for those who oversee the local church (1 Tim. 3:1–7). These qualifications assume a male subject. The overseer is to be “the husband of one wife” and one who manages “his own household well” (1 Tim. 3:2, 4). Since 1 Timothy 5:17 states that elders lead and teach the church, and since women are not to lead and teach the church, it follows that women cannot be elders/overseers.

“An Apostolic Command”

Paul knew that this issue needed to be stated with authority and clarity, so he declared in unambiguous language: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet ” (1 Tim. 2:12). Could he have stated this any more simply and clearly? In the local church community, women are not to teach or take authority over the men in the gathered church. This is the authoritative, binding word of the Apostle Paul.

The Greek verb for “to exercise authority” (αὐθεντέω [authenteō]) means “to have authority over” or “to exercise authority.” It does not mean “to usurp authority” or “to instigate violence” or “to misuse authority,” which egalitarians mistakenly assert.[4]

The book Women in the Church, edited by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, provides a comprehensive look at 1 Timothy 2:9–15.[5] This book works through all the challenging interpretive issues of 1 Timothy 2, including a thorough and careful study of the Greek word authenteō, “to exercise authority.” Readers with lingering questions about the meaning and application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 are strongly encouraged to read this important work.[6]

The Original Creation Order Designed by God

Paul’s restriction on women certainly elicited criticism then, just as it does today. So, as in nearly all other references to distinct male-female roles, Paul immediately supports his instruction with Scripture: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:13–14). Paul anchors his instruction firmly in the Genesis account. Like Jesus, Paul takes his readers back to creation, back to Genesis, back to the first man and woman (Matt. 19:3–9).

Paul does not appeal to local culture, the lack of women’s education, or the supposed problems of heretical female teachers. He simply appeals to God’s original, timeless creation design and mandate (Gen. 1:27–28).

Do not miss that Paul uses the strongest conceivable arguments to prove headship/submission: (1) the timeless creation laws of Genesis (1 Tim. 2:13–14; 1 Cor. 11:7–12); (2) the universal practice of the churches (1 Cor. 11:16; 14:36–38); (3) Christ’s mission (1 Cor. 11:3); (4) the command of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 14:37); and (5) the Christ-church relationship (Eph. 5:23–27). Thus, the New Testament intends these restrictions to be permanent and universally binding on all believers and all churches.

Harmony with Other Scriptural Texts

Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2 is not an isolated, ad hoc teaching. It conforms precisely with his other instructions on the distinctive roles of men and women in the home and church (see 1 Cor. 11:2–16, 14:33–38; Eph. 5:22–33; Col. 3:18–19; Titus 2:4–5; see also 1 Pet. 3:1–7). It also conforms to the entire, overall example and teaching of the Bible. This is why secular feminists find the Bible hopelessly out of date and detrimental to all women. From their perspective, there is no chance of rescuing the Bible from itself by cleverly reinterpreting what it so clearly says about the role distinctions between women and men to agree with secular ideology. They simply reject the Bible as patriarchal and demeaning to women.

Gifted Women

The principle of male headship does not diminish the significance and necessity of a woman’s active involvement in the Lord’s work. Our passage does not imply that women have no ability to teach or lead. We all know that women as well as men have spiritual gifts; they can be excellent teachers and have leadership and administrative abilities. A Christian woman may be a teacher, medical doctor, an evangelist, or owner of a business (like Lydia, Acts 16:14).

First-century Christian women played an indispensable role in the Lord’s work. Some of Paul’s co-laborers in the gospel were women (Rom. 16:1–15; Phil. 4:2–3). Yet their active role in advancing the gospel and caring for the Lord’s people was accomplished in ways that did not violate male leadership in the home and church. When the local church gathers, men are to take the lead in teaching and governing the church family. In this way, the local church displays God’s wise design for men and women in the home and “the household of God.”

To survive the secular tsunami flooding over our churches, and especially our young people, we need strong Christian men and women of faith who believe the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God, and courage to teach and defend God’s perfect design for men and women in the home and church.

Alexander Strauch has served in the leadership and teaching ministry of Littleton Bible Chapel (near Denver, Colorado) for over 50 years. He is the author of Biblical Eldership, Paul’s Vision for the Deacons, Men and Women: Equal Yet Different, Leading with Love, Love or Die, If You Bite & Devour One Another, and The 15 Descriptions of Love (1 Corinthians 13). These books have been translated into over 40 languages. In recent years, he has also made an impact on churches around the world through the ministry of

[1] Arguments to the contrary are made by egalitarians like Beth Allison Barr, who alleges, “Echoes of human patriarchy parade throughout the New Testament—from the exclusivity of male Jews to the harsh adultery laws applied to women and even to the writings of Paul. The early church was trying to make sense of its place in both a Jewish and Roman world, and much of those worlds bled through into the church’s story.” The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021), 35. Notice the not-so-subtle suggestion that the apostle Paul himself “parades the patriarchy.”

[2] George Knight III, “Husbands and Wives as Analogues of Christ and the Church: Ephesians 5:21–33 and Colossians 3:18–19,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006) 176, emphasis original.

[3] Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1980), 630.

[4] See Cynthia Long Westfall, “The Meaning of αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2.12,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism, 10 (2014): 138–73.

[5] Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, eds., Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:915,  3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).

[6] See Al Wolter’s, “The Meaning of Aὐθεντέω” in Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:915,  3rd ed., ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016),  65–116.

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