A Survey of Male-Only Ordination in Key New Testament Texts

There can be little doubt that in years to come, when historians look back on our generation, the challenge of cultural pressure on the church will loom large. First, the theory of evolution challenged the Christian doctrine of God as Creator. This led to an assault on sexual morality, which has recently reached a crescendo in the cultural embrace of homosexuality. Having conquered sexual ethics, our culture has moved immediately to the topic of sexual identity. This being the case, it is essential that Christians and churches stand firmly on the biblical teaching of man created in God's image as male and female.

Given this context, it is not surprising that the fault line of biblical authority in Protestant denominations, one after another, has fallen on sexuality and gender relationships. For some years now, the evangelical community has upheld biblical inerrancy by standing firm on a complementarian view of men and women. In the face of increasing cultural scorn, the pressure mounts. Claims are made that our witness of Jesus is compromised by the belligerence of our stance toward cultural demands, and denominations face increasing challenges to compromise and accommodate.

With this vital cultural context in mind, it will be good to review the biblical case for gender complementarianism - the teaching that men and women have distinct, different, and complementary roles - especially as it pertains to the offices of the church. To this end, it will be helpful to review three biblical passages that, while not exhausting the biblical data, are widely seen as bulwarks of the complementarian position. In each case, we will not only recall how these passages speak to the issue but also how the arguments against them reveal the particular challenge of our time.

Acts 1:21-26

The first of these passages is Acts 1:21-26, where Peter instructs the church on the selection of a new apostle to replace Judas Iscariot. Acts 1:13 lists the names of the eleven people selected by Christ as his apostles, and all are male. In Acts 1:21, Peter specifies that the new apostle must be "one of the men" who had accompanied Jesus. The Greek word for "men" is the plural of andros, which the lexicon defines as "an adult male person of marriageable age."

This statement is relevant to the principle of male-only ordained leadership in the church, including both elders and deacons, since it is indisputable that Jesus appointed only males, with not one woman, to the apostolic office. Some will counter that Jesus' decision was demanded by the social conventions of this time, which supposedly left our Lord with no other possible approach. The idea is suggested that if Jesus were to start the church today, he would of course include women as apostles. But a little reflection will cause us to pause. The composition of the apostolate was of foundational importance to the future history of Christ's church. Is it not troubling to suggest that the Son of God would have compromised an important principle due to contemporary cultural pressures? If he did, what else did Jesus compromise under pressure? Moreover, is there a shred of evidence that Jesus ever bowed to wrong-minded cultural conventions? Jesus was literally willing to be crucified rather than go along with false cultural practices pertaining to the church's doctrine and worship. Moreover, the evidence of the Gospel shows Jesus refusing to bow specifically to false gender restrictions. In a culture where a rabbi was disgraced for speaking even to his own wife or daughter in public, Jesus displayed close public fellowship with his female disciples. His treatment of the Samaritan woman (Jn. 4) and the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8) are prominent among many instances where Jesus brazenly flouted false gender conventions. It seems best, then, to accept that Jesus intentionally ordained only males to the apostolate and to reflect reverently on the implications of this fact for ordination in today's church. Jesus' ordination of only males to the office of apostle does not end the discussion on women elders and deacons. But if we will make a primary commitment for Christ to be Lord and King of his own church, so that his sovereignty and wisdom is glorified in our own actions, we will be biased to follow the principle that he so clearly exhibited: male-only ordination to church office. In a context where few watchful believers can doubt that secular views of sex and gender are drawing churches away from biblical authority, we should be resolved to follow the wisdom and example of Christ.

1 Timothy 2:11-14

This leads us to a second key passage, Paul's prohibiting of women "to teach or exercise authority over a man" (1 Tim. 2:12). This would seem to be conclusive as to female ordination, since the whole point of ordination is the conferring of spiritual authority in the church to office-bearers, which includes elders and deacons. Given the strength of Paul's statement, it is not surprising that a wide variety of exegetical strategies are taken to blunt its edge or minimize the scope of its authority. One approach is to state that the word authentein means not to exercise but to usurp authority. However, verse 11 states that women should "learn quietly with all submissiveness" and must not "teach. . . a man." If authentein means only to usurp authority, it is impossible to see how a woman could obey the requirement to be quiet and to sit under male teaching if women are permitted to have authority over men.

A second approach against the validity of this passage is to assert that Paul's teaching here pertained only to the local situation in Ephesus. Paul did not intend, it is claimed, to establish a broad principle, but he was concerned with harmful associations with the prominent temple of Artemis and its cultic female prostitutes. The problem with this approach is that it makes a historical feature that Paul fails to mention the absolute key for its interpretation. Moreover, what else in 1 Timothy involves only local matters rather than universal principles? Why is it only restrictions on women in office that we deem local, on the basis of uncertain extra-biblical materials?

In fact, Paul tells us the basis for his restriction of women from teaching and exercising authority over men: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor" (1 Tim. 2:13-14). Paul appeals not to contextualized apologetics but rather to the order of God's design in creation. It is Paul who moreover states that the events of the fall indicate that the woman is less suited to exercise authority in the context of deception.

Christians today live in an age of rebellion that seeks to strike at the very foundations of how God created human identity and society. Our neo-pagan culture pursues an agenda in which all creation distinctions are destroyed and merged into oneness. According to progressive cultural revolutionaries, there is no longer a distinction between the Creator and the creation, life and death, truth and error, children and parents, or male and female. Seeing this strategy is a help to Christians who seek to gauge the significance of our resistance to cultural demands. Instead of conforming to secular demands that involve rebellion against God as Creator, Christians must confront the pagan vision of life with a Christian witness to biblical truth. By grounding male-only ordination in God's creation order, Paul identifies a vital arena in which our basic witness as Christians requires us to stand firm in the face of pagan demands for gender egalitarianism.

1 Timothy 3:1-13

The final passage for us to consider is Paul's qualifications for the offices of elder and deacon, given in 1 Timothy 3:1-13. When Paul states that an elder must be "the husband of one wife" (1 Tim. 3:2), he again uses the noun andros, signifying a male adult. The same wording is used for deacons in verse 12, showing that the office of deacon is likewise restricted for males. Those who would urge us to consider women deacons will note that when 1 Timothy 3:11 says that "their wives must likewise be dignified," that it is conceivable for this to be taken as deaconesses. Much is also made of Paul's description of Phoebe as a "deaconess," despite the conventional interpretation of this word in its common meaning of "servant" (Rom. 16:1).

The best that an argument for female deacons can achieve is a state of ambiguity based on disputed texts. But if this is so, how should we handle the ambiguity? I would urge that the overwhelming biblical pattern of male-headship practiced by Jesus and taught throughout the Bible should prevail. If male-only ordination pertains to the apostolate, the eldership, and the Christian home, by what logic would we assume that the diaconate breaks this pattern and promotes female participation in ordained offices, especially on evidence that is uncertain at best?

A Question of Our Witness

There is little doubt that church leaders who urge an embrace of women into ordained church offices are motivated at least in part by a desire to remove barriers to our witness of the gospel. The reality is, however, that our witness to God as the Creator, to Jesus Christ as the Lord of his church, and to the Bible as an abidingly relevant source of truth is ultimately compromised by accommodating cultural demands in the blurring of gender distinctions. Recent history shows a well-worn path that leads from such an acceptance of cultural authority over against the Bible. The biblical teaching on male-only ordination is not reasonably in doubt. What is in doubt is our commitment to the authority of Scripture in the face of mounting cultural demands.

1.  For a detailed analysis, see Peter R. Jones, One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference (Escondido, CA: Main Entry, 2010).