Seems to me that if appointing anyone to the church office of elder or deacon– man or woman– would significantly divide the church over whether such an appointment was forbidden by the Bible, the better part of wisdom is to avoid such action until the church can act with unity. The New Testament is clear that church leaders need to be above reproach so that by their own example they can encourage others to submit to the truth and authority of the Word of God.
Having said that, let me explain why I am not quicker to come down on one side or the other.
Over the last few decades I’ve seen how divided church scholars, pastors, and lay people are over this issue. Some believe that the New Testament plainly says that the church offices of elder and deacon need to be filled by men who are “the husband of one wife.” Others counter that the Scriptures never directly say that these positions must be restricted to men, but rather uses masculine terms because men would have been the most natural choices for such responsibility in first century communities.
One side points out that the Apostle Paul says that he does not allow a woman to have authority over a man. The other side replies that what Paul means is that he does not allow a woman to usurp authority over a man, and in the process chooses a word for “authority” used only one time in the New Testament (1Tim 2:12). According to Strong’s Lexicon, and Vine’s Word Studies, this word can mean either (1) one who with his own hands kills another or himself ( 2) one who acts on his own authority, autocratic (3) an absolute master or (4) to govern, exercise dominion over one.
Others say, rather than trying to take our stand on arguable issues about what Paul said, let’s look at what he did. For example, they might point out that in last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans he showed that, over time, men and women worked together in serving the needs of the church. As Paul ended that letter he wrote, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant (servant is the same word translated elsewhere deacon) of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ. Greet Mary, who labored much for us. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my countrymen and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. (Rom 16:1-7).
Once again, however, there has been a lot of debate on the significance of this passage. While there is general agreement that such a passage, along with the rest of the New Testament, shows the partnership of men and women in the early church, scholars disagree about whether Phoebe was a “servant” who held the office of “deacon”, whether Junia was a woman, and whether Junia was an apostle in a formal sense or rather a “sent one” in a general manner.
Together with so many others, I’m forced to conclude that when principles of historical, grammatical interpretation are carefully used the issue remains unresolved with people on both sides. In other words when every effort is made to determine what the biblical text meant in the time and place in which it was written, and when every attempt is made to do justice to the inspired words that were chosen, it seems that the text is open not only to legitimate issues of interpretation, but also differences of application.
I’ve noticed that many of the most conservative among us have concluded over the last couple of decades that we can make a better case for women deacons than women elders. Part of our openness has to do with Paul’s comments about the servant/deacon Phoebe. Yet, in other places Paul’s list of qualifications indicates that Deacons must also be “the husband of one wife.”
In addition, the evidence for whether the Bible intends for church offices of elder and deacon to be restricted to men only is confused not only by church history, but by the more recent actions of missionary-sending churches that allow women to take positions of spiritual leadership on the mission field that would not have been permitted at home.
Unfortunately by standing in the middle in an attempt to respect the whole counsel of God; by trying to say no more or no less than a historical, grammatical interpretation calls for; and by trying to respect the consciences and faith of individuals and congregations on both sides of this issue; I end up doing a half-step dance with a changing culture while stepping on the toes of all sides.
But what I really believe is what I began with. What is most important is whether individuals and congregations are willing to defer to one another so as to take the position that they believe is most consistent with the authority and spirit of Scripture.
So that’s where I take my stand-and dance…