Part 1: History and Confessions
Part 2: Priesthood of the Believer
Part 3: Spiritual Gifts
Part 4: Offices in the Church
A gray area tends to exist with reference to the differences between “ministry” and “deacons” in the New Testament. In English and in the practice of the church there is generally a clear distinction between “ministers” and “deacons,” especially where the subject of ordination obtains. This distinction breaks down in the Greek. The word most often rendered “ministry” is diakonia, simply a cognate of diakonos, which may be rendered “minister” or “deacon.” The Greek word diakonos appears as a technical term in 1 Tim. 3:8, 12, designating an office that of “bishop” and/or “presbyter” (1 Tim. 3:1; cf. Titus 1:5, 7, for interchange of “bishop” and “presbyter”). Even here the term is not fixed, for Timothy is a diakonos (1 Tim. 4:6). Another ambiguity appears in 1 Tim. 3:11, where gynaikos can mean “wives” or women,” i.e., wives of deacons or women as deacons. Outside the Pastorals, the term diakonos is so fluid that it may be used for anyone who serves in any way. Among those called “deacon” in the New Testament are included anyone who serves (Mt. 20:26), the servants who drew the water at the Cana wedding (Jn. 2:5), political rulers (Rom. 13:4), Christ (Rom. 15:8), Apollos and Paul (1 Cor. 3:5), and Timothy (1 Thess. 3:2). During the course of the first century and the realization of a more distant parousia, the term gradually acquired a technical usage for a specific church office (1 Tim. 3:8, 12; 4:6).
In Romans 16:1-2 we read: “Phoebe, who is a deaconess of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.” Paul called Phoebe a diakonos. She is called a “deacon,” not a “deaconess.” The reference to Phoebe is unique, however, in two aspects.
First, Paul refers to her using the specifically masculine noun form diakonos, rather than some feminine alternative reflecting the more general idea of service. The term “deaconess” does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. In fact, the designation “deaconess” did not develop until the late third or early fourth century. This is significant because in Paul’s reference to women in 1 Timothy 3:11, the apostle does not use the word deacon (diakonos). His choice of a feminine noun (gynaikas) opens the possibility that he was referring either to women office holders or, less likely, to the wives of male deacons. If in the first century there existed no word for “deaconess” but only “deacon” (a word Paul applies to Phoebe), then to distinguish between men and women deacons Paul would have been without a word. Furthermore, if Paul had intended to speak of deacon “wives” he had a word to use which would not have been gynaikas.
Second, Paul places Phoebe’s ministry within a specific congregation, for she is a diakonos “of the church at Cenchreae.” This is the only New Testament occurrence of the word followed by a genitive construction linking a person’s service directly to a local church. Usually Paul uses the genitive appellation to denote a broader application as a “minister of Christ” (Col 1:7; 1 Tim 4:6). The idiosyncrasies of his commendation provide strong evidence that Paul intended to designate Phoebe as serving in some important official capacity in the Cenchrean church. She was a deacon, an office to which a congregation could appoint both men and women.
In reviewing Romans 16:1-2, a number of fascinating conclusions and questions emerge. “Phoebe, who is a ‘deaconess’ of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.” 1) Phoebe is a “deaconess” of her church. 2) The Roman church is commanded by Paul to receive her in a Christian manner. 3) The Roman church is to help her in her ministry in whatever matter she may have need of them. If this be the case, then if she asks something of them are they to obey? Does obedience imply submission to authority? Does Phoebe, having been sent by an Apostle, have authority over the Romans? Obviously Paul implicitly trusts the judgment and decision making abilities of Phoebe. Why should he not? She has helped Paul and Paul knows her. 4) She has been a helper of Paul, now the Romans are to help her.
A further thought emerges: It is not impossible that the carrier of the Epistle to the Romans, the magnum opus of the Pauline Scriptures, the ultimate systematic treatise of grace and faith, the document that influenced Luther and Calvin and launched the Protestant Reformation to save Christianity from the Catholic Church, the Scripture that influenced Barth and launched the Neo-Orthodoxy movement to save Protestantism from German Liberalism, was entrusted to a deaconess named Phoebe. Obviously, Paul trusted her. Obviously, God trusted her.
McBeth’s argument that the expansion of ministry roles has led to the expansion of roles for women offers an intriguing and hopeful outcome to the debate about women’s ordination. Women who now serve in an unordained capacity are filling the roles that have opened as the ministry has expanded. All Christians are called to serve and some actually recognize this call. Ordination is like a baptismal ceremony. A Baptism does not make a person a believer; only the Holy Spirit makes a person a believer. Similarly, ordination is only a symbolic recognition for the church of what the Holy Spirit has already done or is doing. Whether or not the church ceremonially ordains women or not, the Holy Spirit will ordain who He wants and no tradition will impede.
Now we come to the heart of the argument of this paper: women can be pastors. Complementarians might welcome the conclusion that the New Testament church appointed women as deacons, which would be in keeping with their perspective on a woman’s place in God’s order – those called to serving/helping ministries. For complementarians, however, the possibility that women acted as elders is more problematic. Without question, women serving in this office would entail the “exercise of authority” that they would find incompatible with the male leadership principle.
From her study, Mary Evans concludes, “There is no woman anywhere in the New Testament who is ever described as and elder or a bishop.” This seems to confirm the complementarian contention. Evans and complementarians may be technically correct. With the possible exception of 1 Timothy 5:2, nowehere does a biblical author uses either of the Greek designations for this office (episkopos or presbyteros) in conjunction with specific women. But this must be placed within the context of two other considerations. As Evans herself then adds, “No man is ever described as being a bishop and the only men who are specifically referred to as elders are Peter (1 Peter 5:1) and the writer of 2 and 3 John, both of whom refer to themselves in this way.” As a result, we cannot build a case against women elders from the lack of personal designations in the texts. In addition, as with other “doctrines” of ordination, the New Testament nowhere directly prohibits the appointment of women to this office. Therefore, persons who would exclude women from the eldership on biblical grounds must develop their case from inferences.
It has generally been the case among Baptists that terms such as elder (presbyteros), overseer (episkopos), and pastor (“shepherd”) are synonymous terms for the same office or function within a local congregation. This view is based upon the Acts 20:17, 28. While many people and many denominations might separate the terms into separate offices, Baptists have tended to view the separate terms as describing a single office. This is much like the numerous names attributed to Jesus (the Christ, the Son of Man, the Second Adam, the Prince of Peace, etc.) All these designations refer to the same person but attribute to him different “functions.” If we then say an elder is a pastor is an overseer then we have at least simplified the discussion.
The term elder (presbyteros) (Acts 20:17; 1 Tim 5:17-18; Tit 1:5; Jas 5:14; 1 Pet 5:1-4) could refer either to chronological age or to a specific ministry within the community. The name suggests spiritual oversight, for elders fulfilled certain ministries such as anointing the sick (Jas 5:14) as well as preaching, teaching, admonishing and guarding against heresy (Tit 1:9).
The designation bishop (episkopos) means “one who supervises” (see Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9). Hence this office is “almost always related to oversight or administration.” Bishops directed the ongoing functioning of the congregation in the various aspects of its corporate ministry. They were to “shepherd” or guide the people of God (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). And by providing administrative leadership, they coordinated congregational ministry (1 Tim 3:5; 5:17).
The primary function of the elders is to be responsible for the caring and the teaching of the congregation. As “leaders” they give guidance and direction to the church. As teachers they oversee the life of the church, to preserve its faithfulness. Titus 1:9 say that the elder “must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to refute those who contradict it.” Elders are also the governing overseers. 1 Timothy 5:17 says, “Let the elders who rule well (or govern or oversee or manage well) be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching." So it is evident that there exists a diversity of functionality among elders. All must be able to handle the word of God and be able to recognize false doctrine and correct error; but some “labor especially in preaching and teaching.”
It is apparent from Scripture that there always existed more than one elder in each local congregation. In Jerusalem: Acts 15:22, "Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church to choose men and to send them to Antioch." In Ephesus: Acts 20:17, "And from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church." In all the towns of Crete: Titus 1:5, "This is why I (Paul) left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you." In all the churches James wrote to when he said, "To the twelve tribes of the dispersion": James 5:14, "Is any among you sick? Let him call the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord" (assuming that there are elders in every church). In all the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia that Peter wrote to: 1 Peter 5:1, "So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed." Finally, in all the churches Paul founded on the first missionary journey (and presumably on the other journeys as well): Acts 14:23, "And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed."
It would appear that most churches today are unbiblical in that they have a single pastor or a single elder in final authority. This concept is completely foreign to the New Testament church. They always had pastors (plural) and elders (plural). No one person was ever given a final voice of authority. Elders reached unanimous decisions after much prayer and deliberation as to what the final teaching of the Scriptures meant.
W.B. Johnson, the first President of the Southern Baptist Convention (1845), wrote in 1846: “In a review of these Scriptures, we have these points clearly made out:
1. That over each church of Christ in the apostolic age, a plurality of rulers was ordained, who were designated by the terms elder, bishop, overseer, pastor, with authority in the government of the flock.
2. That this authority involved no legislative power or right, but that it was ministerial and executive only, and that, in its exercise, the rulers were not to lord it over God's heritage, but as examples to lead the flock to the performance of duty ...
3. That these rulers were all equal in rank and authority, no one having a preeminence over the rest. This satisfactorily appears from the fact that the same qualifications were required of all, so that though some labored in word and doctrine, and others did not, the distinction between them was not in rank, but in the character of their service...
4. That the members of the flock were required to follow and imitate the faith of their rulers, in due consideration of the end of their conversation, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever...”
Southern Baptists as a whole have significantly departed from Mr. Johnson's summary of New Testament teaching on this matter. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit is able to work around and even through our ecclesiastical interpretations. Just as there are many who serve as deacons but are not recognized or ordained as deacons, so are there many who serve as elders put are not recognized as such. If complementarians and egalitarians can agree on anything it should be that the epistles of Timothy and Titus tell us that the qualifications for appointing elders has nothing to do with professional skills or degrees. The qualifications all regard personal character and morality. Those elders who do lead, teach and preach well are due more respect, but it is not a necessary qualification. In short, eldership is based on spiritual maturity. While it may be common that an elder is of advanced age this is not necessarily so. Take a young church plant that has only young adults as members. If there are a few members who have been believers longer than the rest and exhibit spiritual maturity, even if they are in their late thirties, they are the elders. And length of belief may not necessarily be a factor. Some believers mature very quickly and might be looked upon by other believers who are older and have been believers longer. What is common in these two scenarios is that believers will be able to discern those who by their spiritual maturity are the elders of a church. Whether or not these people are officially recognized as such by the church is of no great spiritual matter. Like deacons, they fulfill their function despite contemporary ecclesiastical standards. This is why even if current Baptist standards to do not recognize the Biblical standard the Holy Spirit, despite our ignorance, makes the church go as He pleases.
Now with this in mind, if we go to 1 Timothy 5, we see both elders (presbutero) and elderess (presbuteras). In Titus 2, we have a slightly different word for elder (presbutas) and elderess (presbutidas). Both are adjectival forms of the terms of 1 Timothy 5. There is much debate on whether these words signify “elder” or merely the “aged.” In the context of the Pastoral Epistles and with regard to the similarity between the requirements of both the 1 Timothy 5 and Titus 2 chapters, it is safe to say that Paul is speaking of the same function. Therefore, a woman can be and elder. If we then assert the plurality of eldership expressed in the Bible and then assert the notion that elder, overseer, and pastor all refer to the same office, then we must assert that the Bible clearly teaches that women can be pastors.
We must further note that, as with the deaconship, whether or not women are recognized as elderesses by the church in the symbolic recognition of ordination, they are already serving the elder/pastor function. The Holy Spirit moves despite the contemporary traditions of men.