“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an elder must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.”1 Timothy 3:1-3 (ESV)
This blog post is the fifth of a few entries on the topic of women in ministry leadership.
I recommend that you read the first few entries before this one if you haven’t already done so. The first one can be found here: What about Junia?
Qualifications for Elders in the New Testament
I would like to make just a few observations about the qualifications for elders as they’re written about in the New Testament letters.
There are three lists in the New Testament that detail these qualifications. They are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 5:1-5. Yet it should be noted that they aren’t identical. That is, there are qualifications on some lists that don’t show up on others. 1 Timothy states that elders should not be recent converts, but neither Titus nor Peter mention this qualification. 1 Timothy and Titus both mention elders as needing the ability to teach but Peter does not mention teaching at all. Peter explicitly states that elders are not to “domineer over those in [their] charge;” and while such a statement might be implied by qualifications like “gentle” or “not violent,” neither 1 Timothy or Titus have language quite as clear on the subject.
Taking all of this into consideration, should we conclude that Paul and Peter were tailor-fitting qualifications with specific congregations in mind? Or, were these lists non-exhaustive and should instead be read as signifying an overall kingdom-ethic? I think the second option is the best way to understand these lists.
Who Might Be Left Out?
What is more interesting, to me at least, is to approach these lists with the question: who might be left out?
The lists found in 1 Timothy and Titus are very much paternocentric. They assume that the person they are describing is a male, a husband, and has children. There are not commands that necessitate these qualities, per se, but many of the virtues within the list presuppose them. It would be hard to be the “husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2) if you aren’t a man. It would be hard to say that your “children are believers” (Titus 1:6) if you have no kids.
These assumptions are all obvious to us now. But there may have been more that the first century Church would have brought to this list that we do not necessarily think of today.
For example, the way we typically translate the phrase μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα is “husband of one wife.” However, a more literal rendering of this phrase is one-woman man. Paul likely used this phrase to describe a married man. But was he also using it to specify that this individual must not have multiple partners, or should not be one who participates in Greek cultic prostitution? Was it also a comment about divorce and remarriage? And more, would believers on Crete or in Ephesus think that a wealthy individual could become an elder? How does a rich person demonstrate that they are not “lovers of money (1 Timothy 3:3)?” Would tithing be sufficient?
One other assumption that the early church absolutely would have brought to this list that we do not in our modern American context today is that of military service. That is, a believer who was also actively serving in the military would have been automatically seen as disqualified from serving in the office of elder.
The early church was pretty thorough and clear in their denunciation of this. Believers in the first few centuries were firm in their stance that the Christian faith was incompatible with military service because it forced you to be violent, or at least to support a system that propagated itself with violence. Tertullian, the early Christian thinker who coined the word “trinity,” wrote an entire book on the subject called The Crown. In Origen’s treaty Against Celsum, he states that Christians are never to participate in wars, even just ones; and believers are prohibited from killing even the guilty (Against Celsum 8.73). And Lactantius, another early Christian author, put it even more bluntly: “a just man may not be a soldier” (Divine Institutes 6.20).
Titus 1:7 and 1 Timothy 3:3 both cite violence as something that disqualifies individuals from eldership. The early church would have assumed this to mean that men serving in the Roman military were unable to serve in this capacity.
There’s A Difference Between Assumptions and Qualifications
If we were to understand these lists as merely containing checkboxes that must all be checked for an individual to serve as an elder, neither Paul nor Jesus could serve as elders. Paul was a single guy. So was Jesus. And neither of them had kids.
This is why I think that it’s important to recognize the difference between the qualifications that these lists contain and the assumptions that are there behind the text.
Would the cultural ideas that are assumed within these lists automatically disqualify you if you don’t fit the normative mold? It is really hard to know with certainty about what the New Testament authors would have thought about this. That’s because, besides certain authors claiming to be elders themselves (1 Peter 5:1, 2 John 1:1, 3 John 1:1), we have no instance of any individual named as an elder. There are many times where individual people are labeled as coworkers, apostles, deacons, and laborers. Yet, there are no direct instances where someone is called an elder except when Peter and John refer to themselves as such.
However, there are people within these other categories that do break free of the normative paternocentric mold. Phoebe is called a deacon in Romans 16:1. She is also called a benefactor in Romans 16:2, and likely helped fund Paul’s missionary journeys and letter distribution. And more, because the letter to the Romans was commended, or carried, by Phoebe to the Roman house churches, it is likely that she was the one who both read and interpreted Paul’s words to the believers there.
Priscilla is another character in the New Testament that functionally served as an elder without ever being labeled as such. Priscilla was a coworker, or laborer, alongside Paul. She helped lead a house church network in Ephesus. Notably, her and her husband Aquilla corrected Apollos’ theology in Acts 18:24-26. The act of correcting is something that elders are specifically called to undertake (Acts 20:28-30, Titus 1:9). Priscilla is also prominently mentioned first in Paul’s greetings to the Roman Christians in Romans 16:3-5. This is a big deal. It signifies her high status within that congregation.
To sum things up, we should not read the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 5:1-5 as check-lists in which each box should be filled. Instead, they should be understood as non-exhaustive character inventories that aim to present a person who is mature in their faith and able to teach.
We should also not strictly adhere to the cultural assumptions behind these lists as such assumptions are not applicable in all locations. There are female characters in the New Testament that break the paternocentric mold by functioning as elders. And if we were to adhere to these assumptions, we must also be comfortable saying that neither Jesus nor Paul could serve as elders in our churches.
So, with all of that being said, to my mind, women very much *are* able to serve as elders.
 These are the big three that are most cited in conversations about the qualifications for elders. Yet, there are actually a few more areas in the New Testament that are relevant in this conversation too. Consider: Acts 20:28-32, 2 Timothy 2:24-26, and Hebrews 7:17.
 What did the early church do with those like the Centurion in Acts 10 who came to the faith while serving Rome as high-ranking officers? Or, why didn’t John the Baptist call the soldiers who came to him for repentance to leave the military? It seems like the early church understood their stance on pacifism as having its beginnings in Christ’s resurrection. They were the representatives of God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom marked with peace and not violence. Tertullian, however, places it a bit earlier by making this comment about Jesus’ comments to Peter in Luke 22:49-51: “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” Similarly, Tertullian wrote: “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts.” Origen made a concession, however. Christians could remain soldiers after their conversion only if they abstained from violence, even if it was state sanctioned: “The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established. Brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator…give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.”
 See: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/phoebe-carrier-of-pauls-letter-to-the-roman-christians/
 Some claim that because Priscilla is always mentioned with her husband Aquilla, she did not have independent authority to lead on her own. Aquilla had “headship” over her and she was only able to function the way that she did because of him. I disagree with this precisely because Priscilla is always named first whenever the two of them appear in scripture. But Nijay Gupta has a good article that dispels some of the myths surrounding her role. Check it out here: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/cruxsola/2019/05/why-i-believe-in-women-in-ministry-part-9-gupta/