“This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Timothy 3:1-4, NKJV).
“Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well” (1 Timothy 3:12, NKJV).
“Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5:17, NKJV).
The verses I have quoted above are sometimes used to support the view that only men should hold positions of leadership in the church. “Leadership” is defined in various ways, depending upon one’s particular faith community or denomination. Some churches bar women from all of the roles listed. Others allow women to be deacons, but not elders or bishops. Some equate the term “elder” with pastor, and say that this is an office a woman may not hold. Still others only insist that the “senior pastor” be male.
Despite often insisting that the Bible is “crystal clear” with regard to its teaching on the role of women, patriarchal traditions seem unable to come to an agreement on the extent to which a woman’s authority should be limited.
The view that only men should hold positions of authority becomes even more tenuous if we examine what the New Testament has to say about bishops, deacons and elders in its original language. In the New King James Version of the Bible, bishops, deacons and elders are all described as fulfilling the function of “ruling.” Other English translations may render this term as “leading.” In each case, the word translated as ruling or leading is a form of the Greek verb “proistemi.” Many complementarians seem unaware that the noun form of this word is used to describe the church ministry of a woman named Phoebe. According to the apostle Paul she was a “prostatis” in the church at Cenchrea (Romans 16:2). If we translate proistemi and prostatis consistently for men and women, Phoebe is described as a “ruler” or “leader” there.
So, just as male bishops, deacons and elders fulfilled the role of ruling or leading in the church, so did Phoebe—a woman.
Some complementarians have told me that because deacons must be “the husband of one wife,” they cannot possibly be women. Women may indeed not be husbands, but I don’t believe the apostle Paul is writing to address questions about women in ministry here. Judging from the evident context of his letter, he is actually prohibiting male polygamy. What does this say about women in ministry? Actually nothing at all.
And Phoebe may also have been a “deacon.”
The same Greek word used to describe husbands who are deacons is also used to describe Phoebe. In addition to calling her a “prostatis,” the apostle Paul refers to her as a “diakonos” in Romans 16 verse 1.
But, some have told me, it is clear that the men who were bishops or deacons were told to “rule their houses well,” to demonstrate that they were fit leaders for the church. Surely this must include authority over wives? On the contrary, all of the verses dealing with a man “ruling his house” specifically indicate that his authority pertains to “his children.” Nowhere in the New Testament is a Christian man commanded to rule his wife.
Children, of course, require adult care and supervision because of their level of developmental maturity. Women, on the other hand, are developmentally equal to men; they do not require adult supervision.
So, the next time someone takes Bible verses about bishops, deacons and elders out of context in an attempt to rationalize a tradition of male authority in the church, you may want to remind them of Phoebe—the proverbial fly in the ointment.1
1 “In English, the phrase fly in the ointment is an idiomatic expression for a drawback, especially one that was not at first apparent” (Wikipedia).