Complementarians deny that women house-church hosts were probably overseers. A few interpret 1 Timothy 3:1-13 as Paul’s barring of women overseers. Can this be defended?
This article responds to Mike Winger’s video ‘Women in Ministry Part 4: Women Leaders in the New Testament: Were Women Overseers, Elders or Deacons?’.1The video can be found on Mike’s own site biblethinker.org and on YouTube.
Because of its length we have divided this article into a Part A and a Part B. Part B is here.
Please do not misunderstand our title ‘What Winger Presently Gets Wrong’ as implying any personal criticism of Mike. On the contrary, by including his name in the title, we are acknowledging the prominence of the ministry to which the Lord has called him. His Bible teaching is often of good quality and of much benefit to many people. He is a valued brother in Christ. But on this topic of Women in Ministry we are convinced that he has made mistakes and has misread Scripture.
Of course, Mike tries hard to think clearly and teach biblically. But if you think that Mike consistently succeeds in that aim, this article will give you reasons to reconsider.
Who are we, and why are we responding to Mike Winger?
Andrew Bartlett is based in the UK. He is the author of Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (2019). He has been studying Scripture for nearly 60 years. In his day job as an international arbitrator and judge, he specializes in dispassionate analysis of texts, evidence and arguments. He has a degree in theology and has served in lay leadership in several churches.
Terran Williams is a South African pastor-teacher, with a ministry of planting and nurturing churches. He is the author of How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy (2022) and a number of other books.
‘Complementarianism’ subordinates women under men’s authority in the church and in the home. When Andrew and Terran wrote their books, Andrew was a member of a complementarian church and Terran had just completed his long tenure as a leading pastor of a complementarian church. They each engaged with leading scholarly complementarian works and independently concluded that God’s word does not subordinate women under men.
Mike Winger started releasing his video teachings on ‘Women in Ministry’ soon after Terran’s book was published. Because Mike’s lengthy videos have been watched by many thousands of people, he has emerged as one of the world’s most influential complementarian teachers. On reviewing Mike’s videos, Andrew and Terran found that there were substantial inadequacies in Mike’s research, reasoning, and handling of Scripture.
Since the ordinary believer is more likely to get their information about Scripture from free online resources than from scholarly books, Andrew and Terran decided to team up and write some freely available responses to Mike’s teaching. Terran credits Andrew with doing the lion’s share of the work.
We love Mike’s heart. He says: ‘If you’re a scholar who’s really studied in this area and you want to give me pushback, I really would like to read it now. If I’m wrong, I want to know it. Love to see that pushback.’ [Part 8 video, 0hr6mins] We commend Mike for his openness, and we thank him for his invitation.
This article takes up his invitation. We are hopeful that his engaging with our feedback will result in a good conversation in which we all make progress in our understanding of God’s word.
You can see our articles on other videos by Mike at https://terranwilliams.com/articles/. Or use these links:
- Part 2 (Genesis 1–3) — www.bit.ly/40lo9oh
- Part 3 (OT Women) — www.bit.ly/3jAjCNX
- Part 4 (NT Women) part A — www.bit.ly/3JDVRiB
- Part 4 (NT Women) part B — www.bit.ly/3X08GXx
- Part 5 (Women Apostles) — www.bit.ly/3mMssJV
- Part 7 (Galatians 3:28) — www.rb.gy/2qoig3
- Part 8 (Meaning of Head) — www.bit.ly/3RwliET
- Part 9 (“Wives submit”) — www.bit.ly/3l8CmVv
- Part 10 (Head Covering, 1 Cor 11) — www.bit.ly/3JV6kpD
- Part 11 (“Women be silent,” 1 Cor 14) — www.bit.ly/3naLVUL
- Part 12 (Meaning of Authenteō, 1 Tim 2:12) — www.rb.gy/7iki8r
CONTENTS OF PART A
Conclusions to Parts A and B
Postscript: Is deacon Phoebe a ‘leader’ in Romans 16:2?
What did NT women do or not do?
Near the end of his discussion of New Testament women, Mike says there is-
‘a need for women’s ministry throughout the church. If male pastors are going to fulfil all the roles that, all the needs that, women have in the church, that’s going to create all sorts of problems and affairs and insufficient ministry, as men try to understand the needs of women’ (1hr59mins).
We agree with him that there is a need for women’s ministry throughout the church.
But Mike goes wrong many times in his Part 4 video on New Testament women.
The video is over 2 hours long. We will be selective and discuss five important topics where there are major errors in what he says. We say this with a mixture of surprise and sorrow. The errors are so big that we should probably use capital letters and call them MAJOR ERRORS. That is not just because we disagree with some of his conclusions. It is because there are big and sometimes elementary errors in his research and reasoning and he has misunderstood and misrepresented what other scholars have written.
Here is a quick summary of Mike’s views on the five topics. We will use true and false to show which statements are reasonably justified and which are unjustified.2This article draws especially from Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts(IVP, 2019).
According to Mike:
1. Qualifications for elders
- 1 Timothy 3:1-7, where Paul sets out the qualifications for church elders, is ‘the ultimate elder passage’. True.
- The qualifications include ability to teach. True.
- The qualifications are masculine. They plainly require that all elders be men. False.
- They constitute ‘a very strong argument’ against the egalitarian position that women may be elders. (1hr11mins to 1hr14mins). False.
2. Qualifications for women deacons
- 1 Timothy 3:11 is a statement of qualifications for women deacons (2hr00mins). True.
- Understood in that way, this verse proves that only men could be elders, because there are no qualifications for women elders (2hr02mins). False.
3. Church hosts
- The egalitarian claim that women who hosted churches became church elders is ‘not true’ (0hr15mins). It is ‘completely false’ (0hr24mins). It is a ‘serious, egregious scholarly error’(0hr13mins). False.
- Priscilla, with her husband Aquila, taught Christian doctrine to a man (0hr36mins). True.
- Priscilla did not teach him with authority like an elder (0hr37mins). False.
- Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to Rome (Romans 16:1-2). True.
- Despite the ESV’s translation as ‘servant’, Phoebe was probably a deacon (1hr39mins). True.
- Paul did not describe Phoebe as his or anyone else’s ‘leader’ (1hr51mins). True.
- The idea that the letter carrier would explain the letter to the recipients was not a real custom in the ancient world (1hr20mins). There is no evidence for it and Phoebe would not have acted as an authorized teacher explaining Paul’s letter to the Romans. The idea is ‘weird’ (1hr23mins). False.
Faults in Mike’s reasoning and research
The mistakes apparent from his Part 4 video include:
- too-superficial examination of the Bible text being interpreted (topics 1, 2, 4),
- inadequate attention to literary and historical context (1, 2, 3, 4, 5),
- insufficient familiarity with New Testament Greek (1, 2, 5),
- unskilled use of Greek lexicons (5),
- inadequate research (1, 3, 4, 5),
- omitting to consider important opposing arguments (1, 2, 3, 5),
- mis-reading and misjudging what other scholars have said and written (3, 5),
- flawed logic or flawed reasoning from the text (1, 2, 3, 5),
- over-simplification (4),
- misapprehending the chronology of events in the New Testament (1, 3, 4), and
- unevidenced or mistaken assertions about the historical realities of life in New Testament times (1, 3, 5).
It is painful to set out his mistakes like this. But the topic of women’s ministry is important. We owe it both to Mike and to you, the reader, to identify the errors.
However, Mike deserves a word of mercy about his mistakes. There are powerful factors that drive them, as we shall explain.
Human fallibility and partisan mindsets
Mike makes severe criticisms of some things written by egalitarian scholars. He speaks with emotion and eloquence, using words such as ‘completely false’, ‘bogus’, ‘weird’, ‘egregious scholarly error’.
We agree that what egalitarian scholars write is sometimes incorrect. The same is true of complementarian scholars. Things have been said or written which on close examination turn out to be wrong.
This should not be too surprising. James’ authoritative word is realistic:
‘Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect …’ (James 3:1-2, NIV)
This important Scripture reminds us that all Bible teachers are fallible, and stumbles are to be expected.
In discussions of the topic of women’s ministry, on top of the ordinary fallibility of human teachers, there are additional factors which make the mistakes particularly frequent and particularly hard to correct.
The discussion has become polarized, with most participants being in one of two opposing camps, complementarian or egalitarian. And in the United States especially, the discussion has become mixed up with a culture war in a time of rapid social change. This tends to generate heightened emotions and a partisan mindset, us versus them.
It is an observable fact of life, confirmed by studies of cognitive bias, that a partisan mindset tends to magnify misperceptions of evidence, absence of good listening, reliance on weak arguments, and other misjudgments.
What makes it even harder is that many scholars and pastors have heavily invested in publicly promoting a particular viewpoint, or are in seminaries or churches where any questioning of the accepted view would result in dismissal from employment. In such circumstances it is very, very hard for people to examine Scripture without being strongly influenced by partisan preconceptions.
These difficulties are sometimes further aggravated by conscious or unconscious feelings about the direct, personal implications of what is taught. Men can feel insecure and defensive. Women can feel belittled or patronized.
All of these human realities need to be kept in mind when we are assessing scholars’ or pastors’ arguments on the topic of women’s ministry. Here are some reminders that may be useful:
- In this climate it becomes all the more important to take great care in using sound methods of reasoning, basing one’s conclusions squarely on the words of the Bible’s text, assisted by relevant historical evidence. This is what Mike tries to do.
- There is a pressing need for humility and calm. We all have much to learn. We cannot always be sure. We may be wrong. ‘We all stumble in many ways.’ So, we must listen to one another very carefully, and judiciously weigh what is said. ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (James 1:19, NIV). Mike tries to do this also.
When one is assessing controversial claims, partisan argumentation produces a particular practical difficulty which has had a noticeable, adverse influence on Mike’s videos. Derived from Andrew Bartlett’s experiences as a lawyer, Judge and international arbitrator, he gave the following brief explanation in his 2019 book:
‘Appreciation of the other side’s point of view is made much more difficult when they deploy weak arguments. Because of their firm belief in their own position, they tend to underestimate the weakness of their poorer arguments. Accordingly, they overlook the negative impact of those arguments, which is to make it hard for the opposite side to hear their better points.
A judge needs to be on the alert when what is served up for consideration is unpersuasive. The fact that someone presents poor arguments does not show that they are in the wrong. Their position may be justified by good reasons which they have not thought of, or which have become obscured among the dross. In the same way, when wrestling with the interpretation of Scripture we must not let the weakness of scholars’ poorer arguments distract us from seeing the force of their stronger ones.’3Men and Women in Christ, 365. (emphases added)
In short, people arguing a partisan case often state an argument badly. That makes it easy to reject it, because the argument is obviously false. But this should not lead to the automatic rejection of the partisans’ position. Sometimes a better argument would establish it.
Several times in his series, Mike states candidly that he saw so many weak arguments on the egalitarian side that their poor handling of Scripture depressed him. It is clear that this made it hard for him to hear their better points. The weak arguments have distracted him. The adverse effect of this phenomenon was further increased by occasions when he mistakenly thought that their arguments were poor because he misunderstood what he was reading.
In his Part 1 video ‘Why We Can’t Think Biblically About It’, Mike identified what he called seven ‘huge mistakes’ that people make in the way they approach the question of Women in Ministry. Disappointingly, he overlooked a number of mistakes which he himself has made, including the mistake of being influenced by the fact that in a partisan debate people use poor arguments. Throughout his series to date, he is not successful in guarding against this.
We emphasize again that we are neither making nor implying any criticisms of Mike’s character as a person and as a dear brother in the Lord; our criticisms are only of his reasoning. Nor are we criticizing the spirit in which Mike approached his task. We gladly acknowledge that Mike knows he is fallible, and he repeatedly indicates that he is willing to receive pushback from his audience. And he tries hard to be dispassionate in his analyses. That is clear from his frequent and carefully explained disagreements with poor arguments put forward by other complementarians. We commend him for all of that.
Like Mike, and like every other scholar or teacher, we remain learners. If you find some mistakes in what we write here, we will be pleased to receive correction. Please write to us at terranwill -at- gmail.com.4You’ll need to replace “ -at- ” with “@”. Please put these words in the subject-line: Winger Part 4.
Now we turn to the five topics, in order to explain what Mike has got wrong.
1. Qualifications for elders
We’ll begin with a quick summary of where we are heading with 1 Timothy 3:1-7:
|Paul sets out here the qualifications for elders. It is the ultimate elder passage. (1hr10mins)
|We agree that these are the most complete and explicit instructions about appointing church elders.
|The qualifications are masculine. They plainly require that all elders be men. (1hr12mins)
|This is a common misconception, derived from the influence of traditional English translations. It is not correct.
|The qualifications include ability to teach. (1hr13mins)
|Correct, but the qualifications are not compulsory requirements. They are indicators of suitability.
|The qualifications constitute a very strong argument against the egalitarian position that women may be elders. (1hr14mins)
|Not so. The reverse is the case. If Paul had meant to specify that elders must be men, he would have said so plainly. He did not, whether in this passage or anywhere else. (Nor did Peter or any other NT apostle or teacher.)
Mike proceeds on the basis of treating the New Testament terms ‘elders’, ‘overseers’ and ‘pastor-teachers’ as for practical purposes all meaning the same thing – people tasked with overseeing and shepherding a particular local community of believers. While there are nuances that could be explored, this is good enough for the purposes of the present discussion.5It seems reasonably clear that every overseer (episkopos) is an elder (presbuteros), but there are differing views on whether every elder is an overseer. And it may be that a pastor-teacher could be either a locally-based elder or itinerant.
Before we look at Mike’s reasoning, it’s helpful to know about four features of the Greek in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.
Feature 1 – the use of ‘tis’
The passage begins: ‘If anyone (tis) desires to be an overseer …’
The word ‘tis’ is the indefinite pronoun. It is usually translated as ‘anyone’ or ‘someone’, and sometimes as ‘a certain person’. In regard to men and women, it is entirely gender-neutral in meaning.
This use of tis is important. If Paul had meant to specify that only men could be elders, it would have been natural for him to have started with a word with a male meaning (as, ‘If a man desires to be an overseer …’).
Paul’s use of ‘tis’ is doubly important because of the context. If we look at Paul’s immediate lead-in to what he says here, in 2:8 Paul is talking about men, and in 2:9-15 Paul is talking mainly about women. Given this context, it would have been not only natural, but almost essential, for Paul to commence with a clear signal that he was switching to talking about men and only men, if that had been his intention. But he continues in 3:1 with ‘If anyone [tis] …’. Thus, it sounds as if he is intentionally introducing the qualifications for eldership with a word that applies both to men and to women.
Similarly, part way through the list, in v 5, as if to re-emphasize the gender-neutrality of his intention, Paul uses tis again: ‘For if someone (tis) …’
Feature 2 – the idiom, ‘one-woman man’
The second qualification mentioned in v 2 is that an elder must be a mias gunaikos andra. This is a Greek idiom. Literally, it reads: ‘a one-woman man’. It refers to sexual chastity, that is, compliance with the Christian ethic of only engaging in sexual intercourse within the marriage of one man to one woman. It is not a requirement of maleness and of being married. This will become clearer below.
Feature 3 – the convention of using male terms for mixed meaning
Where a Greek writer wishes to refer to both men and women, a standard way of doing so is to use an appropriate noun for males. For example, the Greek for ‘brothers’ (which differs in form from the Greek for ‘sisters’) can be used to refer either to men alone or to both men and women. The same is true of the Greek for ‘man’ (adult male), which is used in the expression ‘one-woman man’.6The primary meaning of anēr is a male adult, but in Acts 17:22 Paul uses the plural expression andres athēnaioi (‘men of Athens’) to address a mixed audience at the Areopagus, for in verse 34 Luke reports that a woman named Damaris was among the andres (‘men’, plural of anēr) who believed Paul’s message. The same word anēr is used gender-neutrally in the singular in James 1:8, 12, 20 (for the gender-neutral context, see 1:5 tis and 1:7 anthrōpos). For further discussion, see Men and Women in Christ, 319-321. So, here, Paul’s masculine expression ‘a one-woman man’ could either refer specifically to a man who is chaste or it could encompass also a woman who is chaste. We must be guided by context.
English-speaking Bible readers sometimes struggle to comprehend this convention of using language that has a primarily male meaning in order to refer to both men and women. So, perhaps an example from a modern language may help to make it clear. In France, if we have a group of five male friends, we refer to them as ils (‘they’, masculine) and as amis (‘friends’, masculine). If we have a group of five female friends, we refer to them using different words: elles (‘they’, feminine) and amies (‘female friends’). But if we have a group of friends consisting of five men and five women, the correct way of referring to them is as ils (‘they’, masculine) and as amis (‘friends’, masculine). The use of the male terms does not tell the reader whether the friends are all males or are a mixed group. Only clues in the context can answer that question. The Greek of the Bible works in a similar way.
So, here, if only women had been in Paul’s mind, then he would have used the female version of the same idiom – a ‘one-man woman’ – as in 1 Timothy 5:9. But the male form (‘one-woman man’), intended generically, works for men and women alike.
What is the context that guides us here? It includes (a) the fact that Paul was talking mainly about women in 2:9-15, (b) the use of the gender-neutral word tis to introduce the list in v 1, (c) the absence of a plain statement that only men may be elders, (d) the repetition of tis to continue the list in v 5, (e) the fact that the other sixteen desired qualities or behaviours do not indicate any requirement of maleness but are all appropriate for both men and women, and (f) Paul’s avoidance of male pronouns and possessives, which we explain next.
Feature 4 – the apparently deliberate absence of male pronouns and possessives
There is an important difference between Paul’s Greek and those English translations which follow traditional renderings here. We’ll take ESV as an example.7We often refer to or quote the ESV in this article. We do this simply because it was produced by complementarians and is a favorite among complementarians. Our use of it does not imply endorsement of it as a version or preference over other versions. In these verses we read: ‘he … He … his … his … his …he … He … he … he … he … ’ (seven male pronouns and three male possessives). None of those is in Paul’s Greek. There are precisely zero male pronouns or possessives in this passage.
If one were back-translating the ESV of verses 4 and 5 into Greek, the expression ‘his own household’ (ESV) would become (rendering literally) ‘the own household of him’. But Paul’s choice of words here is ‘the own household’.
And ESV’s expression ‘keeping his children submissive’ would become (rendering literally) ‘having children of him in subjection’. But Paul’s choice of words here is ‘having children in subjection’.
It seems that Paul is actively avoiding male pronouns or possessives, because he is thinking of both male and female candidates for eldership.8This is not the only example of Paul choosing his words to make inclusivity clearer: see his addition of ‘and daughters’ to his Old Testament citation at 2 Corinthians 6:18.
Some modern translations accurately take into account the above features of the Greek text. The result is that there is no indication in those translations that an overseer/elder (or ‘supervisor’ or ‘church official’) must be male. Here is the CEB:
‘… if anyone has a goal to be a supervisor in the church, they want a good thing. 2 So the church’s supervisor must be without fault. They should be faithful to their spouse, sober, modest, and honest. They should show hospitality and be skilled at teaching. 3 They shouldn’t be addicted to alcohol or be a bully. Instead, they should be gentle, peaceable, and not greedy. 4 They should manage their own household well—they should see that their children are obedient with complete respect, 5 because if they don’t know how to manage their own household, how can they take care of God’s church? 6 They shouldn’t be new believers so that they won’t become proud and fall under the devil’s spell. 7 They should also have a good reputation with those outside the church so that they won’t be embarrassed and fall into the devil’s trap.’
And here is the simpler English of the CEV:
‘… anyone who desires to be a church official wants to be something worthwhile. 2 That’s why officials must have a good reputation and be faithful in marriage. They must be self-controlled, sensible, well-behaved, friendly to strangers, and able to teach. 3 They must not be heavy drinkers or troublemakers. Instead, they must be kind and gentle and not love money.
4 Church officials must be in control of their own families, and they must see that their children are obedient and always respectful. 5 If they don’t know how to control their own families, how can they look after God’s people?
6 They must not be new followers of the Lord. If they are, they might become proud and be doomed along with the devil. 7 Finally, they must be well-respected by people who are not followers. Then they won’t be trapped and disgraced by the devil.’
Is the list legislative or indicative?
The next important matter for consideration is the nature of the list that we are reading. We customarily describe it as a list of ‘qualifications’. But that description could be understood in different ways. We need to address the question whether the qualifications are definitive or indicative. In other words, is Paul meaning to lay down absolute requirements, which are compulsory, or is he giving indicators of the kind of people who are suitable for appointment?
Evidently, the crucial character qualities in verses 2-3 are not to be read in an absolute sense, since no candidate for eldership is ever 100% perfect in being ‘sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable … gentle’ (ESV). And the gift of being ‘able to teach’ (v 2) is a matter of degree.
Then what about the more circumstantial factors in verses 4-7? Being a recent convert is a contra-indication in this list (v 6). Yet in Acts 14:23 Paul appoints recent converts, as the situation demands (see 14:1-23). And ‘outsiders’ (v 7) did not always think highly of Jesus, Peter, John, Paul and other apostles. But that did not disqualify them from leadership of God’s people.
Through church history and still today, the list has been read as indicative of suitability. This is a letter written by Paul to a close colleague, who would be expected to understand Paul’s intent and apply it sensibly. This passage is not a church constitution, setting out in a legal document a list of mandatory requirements for appointment to the eldership.
Attempts to read the list as definitive (that is, as legislative) lead to absurdities.
Consider verse 4: ‘They should manage their own household well—they should see that their children are obedient …’ (CEB).
If we read this as definitive, a person with only one child cannot qualify (because the word ‘children’ is plural, in Greek as in English). Nor could an unmarried person qualify, if they follow the Christian sexual ethic, because they will be childless. Yet in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul emphasizes how an unmarried person can give priority to the Lord’s affairs because of their freedom from responsibilities as a spouse. And what if they do not have a household to manage, because they are living with a senior relative, or with a friend, or have been engaged in itinerant ministry? Such a person also would not qualify.
On such a reading, Paul himself would not qualify, nor even the Chief Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Similarly, if ‘one-woman man’ were a definitive requirement to be male and married, neither Jesus nor Paul would have the qualities required for eldership.
We are not aware of any major church groupings, irrespective of whether they permit or restrict women’s leadership, who read these qualifications in such a wooden way as compulsory requirements. As a reminder of the indicative nature of the list, it can be helpful to call the listed factors ‘indicators’ rather than always describing them as ‘qualifications’.9Some may wonder, then, why Paul uses in v 2 the Greek word ‘dei’. This is regularly translated as ‘it is necessary’, but the degree of compulsion which it connotes is variable. An example may help. The same word is used in John 4:4, where John writes that it was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria. Just possibly this could allude to a sense of divine compulsion, although there is no indication of that in the text; rather, it appears to be simply a way of saying that Samaria was en route between Judea and Galilee. In a literal sense, it wasn’t ‘necessary’ for Jesus to go through Samaria, because Jesus could have travelled via the Jordan valley instead, as some Jews did in order to avoid Samaria; but the more direct route was via Samaria.
Scholars agree that women not excluded
Prominent complementarian scholars, who understand New Testament Greek, accept that the indicators in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 do not exclude women from being elders. The same applies to the parallel passage in Titus 1:5-9.
Complementarian Douglas Moo says that the phrase ‘one-woman man’-
‘may mean . . . that the male elder/overseer must be faithful to his wife, without excluding unmarried men or females from the office. . . . [I]t would be going too far to argue that the phrase clearly excludes women.’10Moo, 1981. ‘The Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15: A Rejoinder.’ TrinJ 2, New Series: 198-222, 211. Our agreement with Moo on this conclusion should not be misunderstood as implying agreement with the details of Moo’s reasoning.
Complementarian Tom Schreiner says:
‘The requirements for elders in 1 Tim. 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9, including the statement that they are to be one-woman men, does not in and of itself preclude women from serving as elders.’11Schreiner, 2010. ‘Philip Payne on Familiar Ground: A Review of Philip B. Payne, Man and Women, One in Christ.’ JBMW 15, no. 1:33-46, 35. Our agreement with Schreiner on this conclusion should not be misunderstood as implying agreement with the details of Schreiner’s reasoning.
In the big book edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), they address the question ‘Where in the Bible do you get the idea that only men should be the pastors and elders of the church?’ Their answer does not mention 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1.12John Piper & Wayne Grudem (eds), Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (reprinted 2021), 74. Grudem in Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth: an analysis of 118 disputed questions(IVP, 2005), 80, offers a different view on 1 Timothy 3, but without providing any satisfactory reasoning. See the discussion in Men and Women in Christ, 323-324.
Similarly, the Danvers Statement (published 1988), which codified complementarian thinking, does not place explicit reliance on 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 for its ban on women elders.13The Danvers Statement is promoted by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
The same is true of the Calvary Chapel Association ‘Statement of Faith’.14‘MALE LEADERSHIP IN THE CHURCH We believe in the pattern and principle of male leadership and responsibility in both the home and the church, according to the sacrificial example of Jesus. We believe this limits the roles of pastoral leadership and doctrinal authority to qualified men (I Corinthians 11:1-12; I Timothy 2:1-15).’ https://calvarycca.org/statement-of-faith/ [accessed 19 November 2022]. We understand this to be the association to which Mike’s own church in Bellflower, California, belongs.
Let’s now consider Mike’s three explanations for disagreeing with all of the above.
Mike’s first explanation
First, Mike describes the list as ‘the exact, specific requirements’ (1hr12mins). It sounds as if he understands the list as strict legislation.
But this is mere assertion; he does not provide any reasoning in support. Nor does he address the solid and widely-accepted reasons for regarding the list as indicative, which we have briefly laid out above. Are all elders and pastors at Calvary Chapel churches (like Mike’s) required to be householders, to be married and to have two or more well-behaved, believing children? Does Mike seriously regard Jesus and Paul as lacking the qualities that are needed in a church elder? We infer that he has not yet given serious thought to this question.
Mike’s second explanation
Second, Mike notes that some say that the whole list is gender-neutral, and he offers in rebuttal that the requirements are masculine. He says:
(A) He (the elder) is to be husband of one wife.
(B) He is to be one who rules his own house well, or manages his own household, which is specifically male in the text and in the culture.
(C) In verses 6 and 7, the text indicates ‘he’, which is masculine.
(D) While many requirements are character-related, and are also needed for other roles, the unique requirement for elders is ‘able to teach’, because elders are the official teachers in the church. (1hr12mins to 1hr14mins).
But Mike’s rebuttal does not hold water.
(A) He does not discuss the meaning of the idiom which CEB translates as ‘faithful to their spouse’. And he shows no awareness of the Greek convention of using male terms to refer to both men and women. He does not engage with the questions which the Greek text raises for us.
(B) Both of his points about the ruling of households are mistaken. In the Greek text, there are no masculine pronouns or possessives. And in the culture, there were households ruled by women (especially, wealthy widows). As far as we can tell, Lydia, Nympha and Chloe were all heads of households (Acts 16:14, 40; Colossians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 1:11). In any event, Paul specifically refers in the same letter to women ruling or managing their households (1 Timothy 5:14). Mike’s knowledge of the culture is deficient and he has failed to take these scriptures into account.
(C) Mike’s reliance on the word ‘he’, found four times in the ESV of verses 6 and 7, is an elementary error. It is hard to explain how this error arose, particularly since Mike indicates his awareness of scholars saying that the whole list was gender-neutral. To rely on the word ‘he’ in English translations of these verses, one would have to be unfamiliar with New Testament Greek, or would have to forget to consult the Greek text, and would have to simply disregard or close one’s eyes to what scholars have written about it.
(D) Mike’s point about the responsibility to teach is unexplained and lacks supporting reasoning. If he is relying on his commitment to the idea that only men can be teaching elders, his argument is circular.
In any event, he does not show that he has considered 1 Timothy 5:17:
‘Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.’
This implies that not all elders are active in teaching ministries.
Even if Mike were somehow right that a particular kind of authoritative teaching has to be by men, the qualifications for elders still do not rule out women who are ‘able to teach’, since they could be elders who do not undertake that kind of teaching.
Moreover, the biblical example of Priscilla, which we will consider in Part B, will show that ability and responsibility to teach do not require maleness.
Mike’s third explanation
Third, Mike says that the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 constitute a very strong argument against the egalitarian position that women may be elders. He mentions several further points for supporting this.
He says that 1 Timothy 3 can’t be explained away by special circumstances, or by women’s lack of Christian education, or by women being looked down on.
But these remarks do not appear to relate to any of the actual reasoning relied on either by egalitarians or by complementarian scholars who acknowledge that 1 Timothy 3 does not lay down a requirement for male elders.
Mike asserts that Priscilla (who did not lack Christian education) was in Ephesus. But he offers no evidence that she was there when Paul wrote 1 Timothy. She had left Ephesus in the previous decade, no later than AD 57. (Priscilla is discussed in topic 4, in Part B of this article.) And there does indeed appear to be a shortfall in women’s Christian education in Ephesus, for in 1 Timothy 2:11 Paul instructs that women should learn.15For information, Mike takes all the NT letters attributed to Paul to be genuine. So do we. Many contemporary scholars believe that 1 Timothy and even Ephesians were not written by Paul. We firmly disagree. We agree with the early Church Fathers, who were close in time, in geography and in culture; they read those letters in their native language and decided that they were genuine.
What should we conclude?
Superficiality and lack of research
The basic problem here is that Mike has not done sufficient research. He has not given close consideration to the Greek text. He appears unaware that prominent complementarian scholars do not rely on the list of qualifications for eldership as a sufficient basis for excluding women. He shows no knowledge of the widely accepted understanding that the qualifications must be understood as indicative rather than definitive. He has not understood or sufficiently examined the reasons why many scholars regard the list as gender-neutral.
It is disappointing that Mike’s consideration of this centrally important passage is so superficial and so full of elementary errors. In his video, he spends less than five minutes on it (1:10:55-1:15:15). In contrast, he spends nearly seven hours in another video, trying to interpret what Paul says about men’s and women’s head coverings or hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11.
Even Schreiner and Moo concede that Paul’s lists of qualifications for eldership do not exclude women.
This brings into focus a fundamental weakness in any complementarian position on women’s ministry.
In New Testament times, it could not simply be assumed that women should be excluded from eldership or other forms of leadership. Consider these factors:16For details, see Men and Women in Christ, 309-312 (chapter 14, under ‘What would be assumed about whether women could be elders?’).
- Even under the old covenant, some women were called by God into leadership of his people (for example, Deborah).
- Jesus contravened cultural conventions in his dealings with women and valued them as disciples. When he was raised from death, he revealed himself first to a woman (Mary Magdalene), whom he chose to be the first person to announce his resurrection, and he trusted her to make this announcement to his male disciples.
- At Pentecost, the Spirit was given to both men and women, in fulfilment of prophecy to that effect.
- The apostles taught the equality of men and women in Christ.
- The apostles’ conduct after Pentecost appears to have been predicated on the equality of women with men. For example, when Paul first entered Europe with the gospel, against convention he began his evangelistic work among a group of women (Acts 16:9–15). This was a remarkable action in ancient society. It affirms the value of women in the new Christian movement. Similarly, in his letters Paul commends named women for their work, using the same terminology that he uses when commending some well-known male leaders such as Timothy.
- After Pentecost, the apostles taught that ministry was gift-based, and that spiritual gifts were distributed among God’s people (Rom. 12:3–8; 1 Cor. 12:1–30; Eph. 4:11–13; 1 Pet. 4:10–11). There is no statement in the New Testament that certain gifts were reserved for men.
- Churches initially met in homes. This raised the question whether the householder (who might be a woman) should be an elder. We will consider this below, in topic 3.
- While first-century cultures regarded leadership by men as the general norm, we should not make the mistake of thinking that this was an inflexible rule. Even in wider society the prevailing cultural assumptions about leadership by men alone were far from absolute at any level. There were women who were exceptions to the usual practice. Women were leaders of local organizations, of provinces and even of empires. So, even outside the church it was possible for some women to exercise leadership. Indeed, some who responded to the gospel were leading women of high standing (Acts 17:4, 12).
In these circumstances, if there was to be a rule excluding women from eldership, it needed to be laid down in definite terms and clearly communicated to the churches.
Something so fundamental to the on-going leadership of churches could not prudently be left to hints or ambiguities. If around 50% of believers were to be ineligible for local church leadership, this had to be made very clear.
Where better to communicate with clarity a definite rule, than in the lists of qualifications for eldership in 1 Timothy 3 and in Titus? If we were going to find it anywhere, would it not be precisely there? But it is absent. The qualifications are indicative, rather than definitive, and (as prominent complementarian scholars candidly acknowledge) they do not exclude women.
The rule is likewise absent from every other passage which mentions local church elders or leaders.17See in particular Acts 14:23; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-5. The rule is not stated anywhere in the New Testament.
If such a rule were clearly stated somewhere, we would not be having this discussion.
Because there is no definite and clearly communicated statement in the New Testament that women cannot qualify as elders, the only way of constructing a case for restrictions on women’s ministry is by artificially ‘joining the dots’ from controversial interpretations of disparate passages, none of which is directly addressing the question of qualifications for eldership or pastoral oversight.
The problem can be understood visually like this. Scripture does not provide a box which keeps women under restriction and prevents them from being appointed as elders. There is no such passage. So, complementarians usually take two or more passages which are not about eldership – let’s depict them as these two triangles:
Then they join them together to make the box, like this:
Sometimes, they do not even do this, but instead concentrate on just one passage, and argue that the restriction on women is implied from it. When they do, it is not 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 on which they rely.
Complementarian scholars have devoted a whole book to the single question of whether women may teach or exercise authority in the context of a local congregation. The third edition is 411 pages long. The title is instructive: Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15. Eldership involves teaching and exercising authority in the context of a local congregation. But in this book, instead of relying on the qualifications for eldership in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, complementarian scholars labor to present an argument by implication from their controversial interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (which is not a passage that is directly about eldership). They do that because the qualifications for eldership do not provide the needed support for their position.
We invite all complementarians to consider this question: Since the supposed rule is not clearly stated in the lists of qualifications for elders, is it not possible that you are on weak ground when you insist on it? Seriously, are you likely to be right when you imagine it to be implied from other passages which are addressing different topics?
This fundamental weakness is one of the reasons why so many Bible-affirming Christians and Christian scholars are unpersuaded. If the apostles intended to ban women from eldership, they would have said so unmistakably, in plain terms. The ban is notably absent from the most relevant teaching, the teaching which expressly lays out the qualifications for eldership. On the contrary, the wording of the qualifications appears designed to open the door to women as well as men. The complementarian case does not appear realistically credible.
2. Qualifications for women deacons
In 1 Timothy 3, the qualifications or indicators for suitability for appointment as an elder are immediately followed by the qualifications or indicators for suitability for appointment as a deacon.
1 Timothy 3:11 stands in the midst of the indicators for deacons, which commence at v 8 and finish at v 12. Verse 11 says (in NIV):
‘In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.’
There is considerable disagreement among scholars over the meaning of this verse. Who are the ‘women’? Are they (1) women deacons, or (2) believing women generally, or (3) the wives of deacons, or (4) the wives of both deacons and elders, or (5) deaconesses whose responsibilities differ from those of male deacons?
The full discussion is complex. In this present article, because we are specifically addressing Mike Winger’s argument that church elders must be male, we will proceed on the assumption that Mike is correct in his interpretation that the ‘women’ in verse 11 are women deacons.18For fuller discussion and differing views, see Men and Women in Christ, 325-326 (in chapter 15, under ‘Do Paul’s requirements include or exclude women?’) and How God Sees Women, Appendix 5.
Mike considers that, understood in this way, verse 11 proves that only men could be elders (2hr02mins). His reasoning is crisply stated in his notes:
‘… if we see women deacons in 1 Tim 3 then how much MORE do we NOT see women elders in 1 Tim 3?
The deacon passage is so obviously about men that Paul must mention women separately.
But it’s the same sort of language that Paul used earlier for elders. Masculine. Without any mention of women.’
But this reasoning is faulty.
It repeats the mistakes about Paul’s use of masculine language for elders. He has misread the qualifications for elders, in reliance on some English versions, without closely considering the Greek text. He has not noticed the word choices and contextual indications which we have discussed above, which should signal to Greek readers that the elders passage (verses 1-7) applies to men and women. So the elders passage does not need an equivalent of v 11 to show that it applies to women.
And if Paul is meaning to speak of women deacons in v 11, it is not hard to see why he mentions them separately in v 11.
Let’s employ some disciplined historical imagination, remembering that Paul is dictating. When he dictates, he sometimes momentarily interrupts his flow when he wants to provide clarity on something he has just said – as he does, for example, in 1 Corinthians 1:16.
The starting point of the deacons passage is not the same as the starting point of the elders passage. In the elders passage the indefinite pronoun tis precedes the word ‘overseer’, indicating gender-neutrality. But the deacons passage starts in verse 8 with the word ‘diakonous’ (deacons, plural of diakonos, usually meaning ‘servant’), without any gender-neutral indicator, and proceeds to list some qualifications. This word for deacons is grammatically masculine (and so also the qualifications are expressed in grammatically masculine form). In Greek, the fact that a word has a grammatically masculine form does not of itself indicate that the meaning of the word has to do with males. But grammatically masculine words which refer to people do often have a primary male meaning, such as adelphos (brother) and anēr (man). And this use of diakonos as a designation of a recognized church office was a recent development in the churches.19There are pagan precedents from the third century BC onwards for applying this term to an attendant or official in a temple or religious guild (see LSJ). But the only known possible uses in the New Testament of diakonos as meaning ‘deacon’ rather than ‘servant’ in a church context, earlier than in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, are in Romans 16:1 (if Phoebe was a deacon, which is debated) and perhaps in Philippians 1:1 (if Philippians is earlier than 1 Timothy, which is also debated). This sense of diakonos does not appear in Acts or in James or in any of Paul’s early letters. Perhaps because of the newness of the term, it seems Paul wants to make clear that he is talking about both male and female deacons. He therefore breaks into his list by indicating in v 11 that what he has been saying applies to women as much as to men. He does this by repeating in summary form, as applying to women, the points he has made in vv 8-10. (Mike’s own analysis deftly shows that this is the nature of the contents of v 11: see at 1hr55mins.) Paul then continues and completes his list in v 12 (which is intended to apply to both men and women), adding an encouraging comment in v 13.
So, assuming that Mike is correct that verse 11 is referring to women deacons, that verse does not provide any support for a conclusion that elders must be men.
Moreover, we should pay attention to the wording of v 12, which Paul evidently intends to apply to both men and women. This verse contains a second use of the expression ‘one-woman man’ (this time, in the plural, ‘one-woman men’). This use reconfirms that Paul is using this expression in 1 Timothy 3 in a sense which indicates a criterion of sexual faithfulness for both male and female elders and deacons. This is because, after what Paul has said in v 11, both men and women are in view in v 12.
This has extra significance because of the parallel passage about elders in Titus 1:5-9. There is no mention of deacons there. The list for elders in Titus starts gender-neutrally with tis. If, as we understand, the ‘one-woman man’ idiom is properly understood as applicable to both men and women, then there is nothing left in the Titus passage which a complementarian interpreter could rely on as providing any indication at all that elders should only be male. (Similarly, there is in Titus no equivalent to 1 Timothy 2, which complementarians rely on so heavily.)
Near the end of his Part 5 video on women apostles, Mike revisits 1 Timothy 3:8-13 (1hr11mins to 1hr14mins). He says this language is not gender-neutral.
That is formally correct, but it misses the point. It seems that Mike has still not understood the Greek convention that male terms can be used to refer either to men only or to a mixed population of men and women. Paul’s language here indicates that the qualifications apply to both men and women. Having provided the clue in v 11 that he is talking about women, not only about men, Paul can use male language in v 12 in the expectation that he will be understood as indicating qualifications for deacons irrespective of their sex.
3. Women church hosts as elders
Let’s be clear first about how this claim should be understood. When egalitarian scholars say that women who hosted churches became elders, are they claiming certainty? Or do they mean that it is probable that this was so?
When they merely state the claim, without explaining it, we cannot tell. But when they set out their reasoning, it is clear that they are talking about a probability.
They do not claim that it is expressly stated in the New Testament that particular women hosts became elders. They argue, rather, that this is to be inferred from what is in the text and from historical knowledge of the responsibilities of householders in Greco-Roman culture.
The question, therefore, is whether the claim is probably right or probably wrong.
Mike very firmly rejects the egalitarian claim that women who hosted churches became elders. He judges it is ‘not true’ (0hr15mins). It is ‘completely false’ (0hr24mins). It is a ‘serious, egregious scholarly error’ (0hr13mins).
We gently suggest that Mike was here overwhelmed by the difficulty of overcoming the distraction of poor arguments. His perception was that the case for women church hosts as elders was poorly argued. So he rejected it. But his perception was to a considerable extent mistaken. And he appears to have lost sight of the possibility that the case might be valid if explained to him more fully or argued more judiciously.
He gives nine reasons for his conclusion. We will look at each one.
His reason 1. The Bible text is not explicit about hosts becoming elders
Taking the example of Nympha, the text says: ‘Give my greetings … to Nympha and the church in her house.’ (Colossians 4:15, ESV).
This text does not say that Nympha was an overseer/elder of the church in her house.
Reason 1 is correct as far as it goes. It is the agreed starting point for the discussion. The egalitarian argument draws inferences from the fact that in Greco-Roman culture a householder carried a heavy responsibility for what went on in their own house.
His reason 2. It is untrue that ‘most commentators’ say Nympha was a leader
Mike cites egalitarian scholar Lynn Cohick, who says:
‘Because the church met in her house, most commentators correctly conclude that she held some sort of leadership role within the church.’20In the video, it sounds as if he is citing Linda Belleville, but this is actually Lynn Cohick, in Pierce, Westfall, McKirland (eds), Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural & Practical Perspectives (3rd edn, 2021), 186.
Mike says he looked at 18 commentaries, of which only three gave some support to the idea of Nympha’s leadership. He puts this forward as proof that Cohick’s statement is wrong. He says ‘this is questionable scholarship’ (0hr12mins).
It is fair to say that Cohick’s statement could have been more fully explained. But it is Mike who has gone wrong here; he has misunderstood what Cohick writes.
First, let’s notice that, while Cohick refers to ‘commentators’, Mike refers to ‘commentaries’.
Mike has experience of using Bible commentaries. He knows that Bible commentaries mostly do not say much, if anything, about the names at the end of a letter, especially if (as in the case of Nympha) the name is mentioned only once in the New Testament. Only a minority of commentaries will discuss the significance of such a name, and only a small proportion will say more than a few sentences. No Bible scholar would expect to find in most commentaries a discussion and conclusion on whether Nympha, being a church host, was a leader in the church.
Indeed, that is exactly the picture that Mike found when he looked at his 18 commentaries. Very few of them explicitly address the question whether Nympha, as a host, was a leader or was not a leader.
Moreover, Cohick’s expression ‘most commentators’ cannot sensibly be intended to refer to most commentators as compared with all commentators. Those commentators who do not address the specific question, whether being a church host made Nympha a leader, are simply not relevant here. Common-sense tells us that Cohick must be intending to refer to most commentators who address the question whether being a church host made Nympha a leader or not.
Therefore, Cohick is indicating that most commentators who have written on that question have correctly concluded that Nympha had some sort of leadership role.21We contacted Lynn Cohick. She said this was what she meant.
The truth of Cohick’s statement is consistent with Mike’s own survey.
There were three commentaries in his survey which explicitly addressed the question whether Nympha was a leader in the church which she hosted. In varying degrees, they were all either positive about it or open to it. According to the details in Mike’s written notes, none of the 18 commentaries explicitly addressed the question and then went on to reach a negative conclusion that Nympha, though a host, was not a leader. So, Mike’s survey shows some positives and zero negatives.22At 0:12:02 Mike says: ‘14 of the 18 said that they don’t conclude that she was a leader or so, like, they actually deny it, she was not a leader or they just don’t even acknowledge it.’ We have not examined the 18 commentaries. However, judging from Mike’s written notes, he mis-spoke here. His written summary says: ‘14 don’t conclude she was a leader or don’t seem to think it warrants acknowledgment even though they do speak in some detail about Nympha and the meaning of the greeting.’ His notes of what is in the individual commentaries do not identify any commentary which gives consideration to whether Nympha was a leader and then arrives at a negative conclusion.
On this evidence, Cohick’s statement is correct. And there is no shortage of other commentators who mention Nympha’s leadership, either positively or as a possibility.23For example, Tom Wright (Paul for Everyone, 2002); Todd Still (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 2006); Jerry Sumney (New Testament Library, 2008); Dennis Hamm (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 2013); David Pao (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; 2013); Paul Foster (Black’s New Testament Commentaries, 2016).
The mistake is Mike’s. In fairness to Lynn Cohick, Mike would do well to issue a correction.
His reason 3. It would make rich people the leaders
Mike says that the early church tended to gather in wealthy homes but did not show favoritism to the rich. Church leaders ‘are not necessarily wealthy, that is more rare’ (0hr15mins).
Mike is right to say this (see further 1 Corinthians 1:27 and James 2:1-5), but it is not a valid reason against women hosts becoming overseers.
First, the villas of the wealthy were not the only meeting places for churches.24For example, Priscilla and Aquila, who hosted a church, probably lived not in a villa but in an insula. Such a property would have downstairs rooms for business which opened onto the roadway, and rooms upstairs for habitation: Discovering Biblical Equality, 2nd edn (2005), 375. See further Men and Women in Christ, 167 n14, referring to work by Osiek, by Brookins and by Adams.
Second, and more importantly, whenever we have a clear New Testament glimpse of local church leadership in a particular place, it is always plural, never a single person. The egalitarian claim should therefore be understood to mean that the householder would become one of the elders in a particular place. To have one or more wealthy persons included in the eldership would not be in conflict with anything that we see in the New Testament.
Third, the result of Jesus’ teaching about leadership and status (for example, Mark 10:42-45) was that a householder who hosted a church inverted their status and became the slave of all, making their home and resources available to serve the believing community.
Before proceeding further, we need to note the limitations of the available evidence about the organization of the churches at the time when Paul was writing. In what we may call the ‘house model’ of eldership, we can envisage a plural eldership leading the assembly that meets in a particular house. In what we may call the ‘city model’ of eldership, we can envisage each home meeting being overseen by the householder host, with the plural eldership comprising all the overseers in the city. Of course, a mixture of the two models is also possible.
So, for example, when we read Philippians 1:1 and see Paul’s greeting to the overseers in Philippi, we do not know whether those overseers were organized according to the house model, the city model, or a mixture of the two.
His reason 4. It is absurd to imagine a rule that, if a group meets in my home, that makes me automatically the leader of the group
Mike makes this point because Linda Belleville, after citing what Colossians 4:15 says about Nympha, continues:
‘While the reference is brief, the implications are noteworthy. Patronage of a house church was an authoritative role. The householder in Greco-Roman times was automatically in charge of any group that met in his or her domicile.’25Discovering Biblical Equality, 87.
We agree the rule as baldly stated by Mike would be absurd. Mike points out how ridiculous it would be if the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner became automatically the leader of Jesus’s group. And he gives other examples of the absurdity.
It is fair to say that this particular passage of Belleville’s writing could be more fully explained. But the seeming absurdity could usefully have made him pause to reconsider whether he had correctly understood what Belleville means.
We suspect Belleville would have the same view of the absurdity. If Mike had read more closely how her words continue, he would have seen the point which she is leading to in this particular paragraph, namely, because of the complex nature of first-century households, a female head of household would have needed good administrative and management skills, and ‘Paul thus places great emphasis on a person’s track record as a family leader, as it is a definite indicator of church-leadership potential (1 Tim 3:4-5; 5:14).’
As we understand it, therefore, Belleville is saying that Nympha became an authoritative patron (which is obvious from the NT text, being the provider of the venue for the church) and as a householder Nympha had church-leadership potential. Those are the ‘implications’ that are ‘noteworthy’.26This passage was written by Belleville in 2021. Elsewhere in the video (0hr13mins), Mike cites a claim by Belleville that Mary, Lydia and Nympha were ‘overseers of house churches (Acts 12:12; 16:16; Col 4:15)’. This was from Two Views on Women in Ministry (2005), 54. We agree that, stated in this form, the claim goes beyond the evidence which is cited. But there is more to say about Nympha. In other words, the householder is a leading candidate for appointment to eldership.
We will come back to Nympha later, to see how her particular case can give us more help in assessing the claim that women church hosts became elders.
What about Lydia? Mike indicates the unlikelihood of Lydia, a householder and businesswoman, becoming an elder of the church on the day she was converted (Acts 16:15). But he does not consider how matters may have progressed if the group of believers started to meet regularly at her house – indeed, the growing number of believers who gather at her home appear to be the genesis of the Philippian church (Acts 16:40).
There is nothing absurd about inferring that a regular host of a community of believers would become an elder of that church community. If, because of lack of good character or some other reason, a person who was willing to host a church in their house was unsuitable for eldership, it is reasonable to suppose that such a person would not be appointed and the church would not regularly meet in their house.
Mike does not cite any egalitarian who actually says, or means, that a host would be appointed as overseer instantly and automatically. By misunderstanding Belleville, he sets up a straw man for knocking down.
His reason 5. Why would Timothy and Titus need to appoint elders, if the hosts of the church immediately became elders upon their conversion?
This is a poor reason. We are not aware of any egalitarian scholar stating that a host would become an elder immediately upon conversion.
Further, this reason presupposes that Timothy needed to appoint elders because there were none already in post.
That is historically incorrect.
Paul’s first letter to Timothy is written in about 63/64 AD. But the Ephesian elders are already a recognized and functioning group before Paul meets with them at Miletus, in AD 57 (Acts 20:17-38).
There are two factors which drive Paul to give written instructions to Timothy about appointing elders. They are both connected with the crisis of false teaching which Paul returns to Asia to deal with, when he is released from his first Roman imprisonment in about AD 62.
At Ephesus, there are people in the church who desire to become recognized teachers, but who are unsuitable (1 Timothy 1:3-7). So, Paul sets out written instructions about suitability, to strengthen Timothy’s hand in dealing with them.
In addition, Paul has excluded two men who had been teaching falsely, who had probably been Ephesian elders (1 Timothy 1:19-20), so it is possible that some new appointments are needed for that reason also.
In Ephesus, the church has been in existence for a decade, so it is appropriate to say that elders should not be recent converts (1 Timothy 3:6). (A timeline of the Ephesian church can be seen in our discussion of Priscilla under topic 4 in Part B of this article.)
There is a different situation in Crete, where Titus is working. It appears that elders are needed in new churches (Titus 1:5). The luxury of not appointing relatively recent converts is not available, so, Paul’s instructions to Titus do not include anything about avoiding such appointments.
This practice is consistent with other evidence. In Acts 14:23 we see Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in new churches where no one had been a believer for more than a matter of months (see Acts 14:1-23; around AD 47-48). And historical evidence suggests that the apostles’ usual practice was to appoint church overseers and deacons from among their ‘firstfruits’, that is, their first converts in each town.27See Men and Women in Christ, 37, referring to 1 Clement 42.4 (written about 30 years after Paul’s letter to Titus).
None of this diminishes the practical pressures to appoint hosts as elders, which we will explain below.
His reason 6. It is impossible that the host automatically became the overseer of the church if the host was an unbeliever.
In principle, we agree with Mike on this. If churches met in households where the householder was not a believer, it would seem obvious that the householder would not be either the sole overseer or part of a plural eldership.
Whether there were in fact any such churches is another matter. Mike cites Romans 16:10, 11, 14 and 15, and Philippians 4:22, but he rightly does not claim that any of these verses actually shows that a church was meeting in the house of an unbeliever.
So, this is a theoretical point rather than a substantial one.
We are not aware of any egalitarian author claiming that unbeliever hosts became overseers.
His reason 7. There is a difference between having ‘some authority’ and being overseer of the church
Belleville writes:28Two Views on Women in Ministry, 37-38.
‘Offering one’s home as a meeting place involved more than cleaning the house and making coffee. Homeowners in Greco-Roman times were in charge of all groups that met under their roof. This was essential, since they were legally responsible for the group’s behavior (see, e.g., Jason’s responsibility to post bond [Acts 17:7]) – not unlike the fiduciary responsibilities of the chairperson of a board today.38’
Mike examines Belleville’s footnote 38, which refers to a book by Wayne Meeks. Meeks writes:29Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (2nd edn, 2003), 76.
‘The head of the household, by normal expectations of the society, would exercise some authority over the group and would have some legal responsibility for it.’
Mike makes a correct point that the phrase ‘some authority’ does not necessarily mean becoming a church overseer. There are various possible degrees of authority.
Nonetheless, it becomes clear that Mike has not understood the full intent of Meeks’ statement.
Mike says that the responsibility of the householder is like that in today’s culture, by which he means in the contemporary Western world (0hr22mins). This is historically wrong. The expectations of Greco-Roman societies were very different. Christian origins specialist Brian Capper says: ‘The conventions of reciprocity and hospitality would have been broken if women householders were denied authority in the gatherings which took place in their own homes.’30Cited at Men and Women in Christ, 308.
The extent of Mike’s misunderstanding will become clearer in our discussion of the next reason.
His reason 8. The normal expectation of the host’s authority did not apply in the Christian church
Mike turns to the next page of Wayne Meeks’ book and says that the following is the most important quote:31Mike says it is page 87. This is a slip; it is from page 77.
‘That hierarchy [of Greco-Roman households] offers no clue to the source of the kinds of power and leadership that rival and prevail over the position of householder, either in the person of the itinerant apostle and his fellow workers or in the charismatic figures in the local group … Apparently there were other models and social ideas at work.’ (ellipsis by Mike, emphases added by Mike)
Mike regards this quote as a knockout blow. He takes it to mean that Wayne Meeks refutes outright the egalitarian position that women householders who hosted churches probably became elders of those churches. Mike states with emphasis and repetition that the egalitarian claim is ‘completely false’ (0hr24mins).
Mike’s message is that Linda Belleville has radically misunderstood Meeks’ book.
However, it is Mike who has radically misunderstood.
Inadequate research has led him to misunderstand what Meeks is saying. Meeks certainly does not mean what Mike takes him to mean.
How do we know this? There are two reasons.
First, we should pay attention to the words which Mike omits from the quotation (the omission is indicated by the dots):
‘It leaves unexplained not only the occasional expression of antihierarchical sentiments but also the sense of unity among Christians in the whole city, the region or province, or even beyond.’
Meeks is painting on a broad canvas. He is not confining his remarks about power and leadership to the context of an individual assembly in one household. He is concerned to understand how leadership functioned so as to produce a sense of unity in a whole city or even more widely.
In this context, Meeks is flagging up that, in addition to the responsibilities of the householder, there were other factors at work, which helped to shape the forms of leadership found across the churches. The leadership function fulfilled by a single householder host does not explain the sense of unity in a whole city or more widely.
Second, Meeks provides a cross-reference to his own writings elsewhere, where he concludes from the available evidence that women mentioned by Paul were in positions of leadership in local congregations. He mentions Priscilla, who was a church host, and says that with her husband she presided over house churches. He adds that in Pauline circles ‘women could enjoy a functional equality in leadership roles that would have been unusual in Greco-Roman society as a whole and quite astonishing in comparison with contemporary Judaism’.32Meeks, In Search of the Early Christians: Selected Essays (2002), 19-20. This republishes a 1974 article, ‘The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity’ HR 13:165-208. The article is cited in footnote 40 to page 81 of The First Urban Christians. That is in the same chapter as the quotation relied upon by Mike Winger. The footnote relates to Meeks’ observation in the text on page 81 that the role of women in the Pauline movement is nearly equal to that of men.
Therefore, Meeks certainly does not mean to contradict the idea that church hosts became elders. He gives Priscilla as an example of a woman host who, with her husband, presided over the church in her house.
Out of fairness to Linda Belleville, Mike would do well to issue a correction of his portrayal of her understanding of Meeks’ scholarship as radically defective, making clear that the radical defect of understanding was his own.
His reason 9. The example of Jason (Acts 17:5-9) shows only that society holds the householder to be responsible for the group; it does not show that the householder is truly the leader of the group
Again, Mike makes the elementary mistake of thinking that in the relevant respects Greco-Roman culture was similar to today’s Western culture (0hr26mins).
Jason had received Paul and Silas into his house in Thessalonica. Having given them hospitality, he was held legally responsible for their behavior when they preached in the synagogue and persuaded some of those who heard. Jason had to post a bond to guarantee their good behavior (17:9).
Such a scenario is inconceivable in modern Western culture. If we host two travelling evangelists in our house, and they go out and address a crowd somewhere in the town, and their message upsets someone, there is a possibility that the evangelists themselves might incur some legal liability under laws against hate speech or public order laws. But there is no possibility that we thereby incur some legal liability on the ground that we hosted them in our house.
The relevance of what happened to Jason is that it shows the heavy weight of responsibility placed on the householder by Greco-Roman society. Of course, it does not show Jason as the leader; but it shows why it would be natural for a householder host to be a leader of the hosted church.
The hosting of the assemblies of a church week by week would involve potentially far greater legal responsibility than Jason incurred by providing temporary bed and board to two visiting preachers.
That responsibility would create a powerful practical imperative for the host to be an elder (whether on the house model or on the city model). To host the group regularly, without retaining influence over what would be done, would be to invite disaster.
Moreover, the expectations of the patronage system should be kept in mind. The very fact of providing the venue would create a strong social obligation, owed by the group to the host as patron, to accept guidance from the host.33For a detailed description of the patronage system in both Roman and Greek culture and its relevance to understanding what we read in the New Testament, see David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, Purity: Unlocking the New Testament Culture. A second edition of this important book was published in October 2022.
Those practical pressures would be the same for a woman host as for a male host. For practical reasons, the woman host would need to be an elder. We are not suggesting that this must inevitably have led to an invariable practice. Rather, there is a high probability that the host, whether man or woman, would become an elder.
Results of examining reasons 1-9
We have now reviewed Mike’s nine reasons for saying that the egalitarian claim about church hosts is ‘not true’, ‘completely false’ and a ‘serious, egregious scholarly error’.
Reason 1 is common ground on both sides of the argument; it is merely the starting point for the discussion.
Reason 6 is irrelevant. Reasons 2, 4, 7 and 8 are based on misunderstandings by Mike. Reasons 3, 5 and 9 are also wrong.
We have noted some shortcomings in egalitarian scholars’ explanations. But our conclusion is that it is Mike who has made substantial errors here. He has misunderstood Cohick. He has mistakenly depicted Belleville as misunderstanding Meeks. Through inadequate comprehension and inadequate research, he has unwittingly ascribed to Meeks an understanding of women’s participation in first-century church leadership that is the opposite of Meeks’ actual understanding. And Mike shows insufficient historical knowledge of first-century culture.
The above discussion shows that there is a strong historical probability that householders who hosted church gatherings, whether men or women, became members of a church eldership team (whether on the house model or on the city model).
Women who hosted churches would have been excluded from eldership only if the apostles laid down and clearly communicated a definite and binding rule that no woman could become an elder. For only such a rule could realistically outweigh the powerful practical pressures which we have identified. But the apostles did not do so (see topic 1 above).
And there is another piece of historical evidence which supports the conclusion that women church hosts probably became elders, but of which Mike makes no mention.
Let’s look in a little more detail at Nympha, who hosted a church (Colossians 4:15). She was probably a wealthy widow.
In the Greek text of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the grammatical form of her name could be that of either a man (Nymphas) or a woman (Nympha). Older English versions showed her name as masculine (Nymphas) and referred to the church in his house. That was because many Greek manuscripts referred to the church in his house, and scribes added accents indicating that the name was masculine rather than feminine.
However, we now know that she was a woman, because the best extant Greek manuscripts of Paul’s letter to the Colossians refer to the church in her house. This textual evidence is recognized in most modern versions of the Bible, including ESV, NIV, NET and NRSV. That is because a change in the manuscripts from ‘his’ to ‘her’ is highly improbable, while a change from ‘her’ to ‘his’ is easily explained.
How did it come about that the earliest manuscript copies of Paul’s letter said ‘in her house’, but some slightly later copies said ‘in his house’? How did she suffer this involuntary gender reassignment?
A probable reason is not hard to find. Early scribes were well versed in Greco-Roman culture. They lived in it themselves, albeit after Nympha’s time. It is overwhelmingly likely they knew that if someone hosted a church in their house, it would follow that the host was a church leader. But they believed that women could not be church leaders. So they ‘corrected’ the original ‘her’ to ‘his’. In Capper’s words, the scribes ‘found Nympha’s evident leadership role so scandalous that she was turned into a man (Nymphas) in parts of the textual tradition’.34See Men and Women in Christ, 303.
So, scribes who lived relatively close to Nympha in time and in culture found her leadership position evident. But Mike Winger in 21st century California does not find her leadership position evident. What do you think? Who is more likely to understand what it would mean to host a house church in the culture in which Nympha lived and in which Paul’s letter was written?
In this Part A we have considered Nympha and Lydia. In Part B we will go on to consider Priscilla and Phoebe, who are both named in Romans 16, before summarizing our conclusions. These women are just a selection of those who are named in the Scriptures as God’s servants.
We draw this Part to a close by noting a remarkable imbalance in Romans 16. Among the many greetings to the Roman Christians, Paul commends for their work four named men and seven named women.35Pairs: Prisca and Aquila (co-workers, risked their necks), Andronicus and Junia (fellow-prisoners, outstanding among the apostles). Women: Phoebe (deacon, patron of many and of Paul), Mary (worked very hard), Tryphaena and Tryphosa (workers in the Lord), Persis (worked very hard in the Lord). Men: Urbanus (co-worker), Apelles (approved in Christ). Did he intentionally commend more named women than men as pushback against some in Rome who were reluctant to recognize the value of women’s ministry? We do not know. But the disproportionate naming of so many women in a letter that became Holy Scripture reminds us that God honors those who honor him. We should honor them, too.
We gladly acknowledge the honor that is due to all those Spirit-gifted and qualified women who presently serve as elders, pastors or teachers in Bible-affirming churches around the world.
Part B is here.