On Men, Women, and Ruling Elders

In a 2005 presentation to the study conference on women and ministry leadership (the one that led to the 2006 resolution on women in ministry leadership), a leading MB pastor makes the clear point that the only thing that is not appropriate for women is teaching “in the position of authority, or for our purposes, they may not teach in the position of a ruling elder.” (p. 10) Neither value, nor gifting, nor service are the issue for him. The ultimate issue is authority – it belongs solely to a man to have this authority, the authority of a ruling elder. Women can teach in a multitude of contexts, but not authoritatively. That much is clear.

Authority and “Ruling Elders”

The question that immediately arises in my mind is this: “What is a ruling elder?” That is the 64-dollar question. Closely related to that question is a second one, which concerns what the authority of a ruling elder implies.  Let’s spend some time unpacking those questions.

The idea of a ruling elder (who is contrasted with a pastor or teaching elder) seems to come from a Presbyterian or Reformed understanding of Paul’s instructions about leadership in 1 Timothy 5. 1 Timothy 5:17 reads this way in the ESV: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” The key idea for most complementarians is that there is a certain group of elders whose responsibility it is to rule. In these churches, the task of decision-making is entrusted to the group of ruling elders that serve a congregation and not to the congregation itself. The association is with doing this in an authoritative way, as those who have been placed in a role of responsibility over the members of the church body. And as a result, they are worthy of particular honour and respect. In this context, the pastor or teaching elder is seen as being a first among equals alongside the ruling elders, and his teaching carries the same weight as the decision-making of the rest of the group (called a session in Presbyterian polity, but more commonly known outside Presbyterian circles as a board of elders).

Do Elders “Rule?”

This sounds good, and I appreciate the intent of those who interpret the passage that way, but there is a problem. The Greek verb προΐστημι that is translated “rule” here in the ESV does not refer to having authority over others in the sense of making decisions for them or making definitive statements as a teacher/preacher. On the contrary, it is a word that describes functional and managerial authority, especially where Paul uses it in the NT. Let’s look at some examples:

1 Timothy 3:4 – “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive…”

1 Timothy 3:12 – “Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.”

Sometimes Paul uses the word to refer to leadership:

Romans 12:8 – “8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Interestingly, the marginal note in the ESV on the word in question indicates that it may mean “gives aid” rather than “leads.”)

What is surprising is that while the ESV generally translates προΐστημι in a managerial sense – which seems to fit the context – it changes the tone in a couple of places. There are two places where the ESV renders προΐστημι differently, once as “rule” in 1 Timothy 5:17, and once as “are over you” in 1 Thess. 5:12. It is not clear why authority would be prominent in these two places and nowhere else this word is used. The NIV translates it differently, and I think more in line with the consistent trajectory of Paul’s other teaching on leadership and authority. 1 Timothy 5:17 reads “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” And 1 Thess. 5:12 reads “Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you.”

What we’re really talking about is someone who is leading in the sense of administering a delegated responsibility. Fans of elder-led polity point to the fact that elders were appointed rather than elected, but the same narratives that mention this fact also refer to the ratification of those elders’ decisions by the congregation. We don’t have a model from the NT of elders unilaterally directing and deciding for the church except where they have been assigned a responsibility. The same holds true for deacons.

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