Does 1 Timothy 5 Teach That Women Can Be Elders?

One of the arguments for egalitarianism or the belief that there are no distinctions of roles between men and women in the church is Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 5:2 where he refers to a group of women as presbuteras. Since the word for an elder in the church is presbuteros, some argue that Paul is affirming in this verse that women can serve as female elders.

But there is a reason why scholars translate the word as “older women” rather than “female elders.” The word presbuteros in Greek simply refers to an older man. This word was chosen to describe the elders of the church because those who are pastors must be mature in their walk with the Lord. Whether it is being used to describe elders or older men in general as it does in 5:1 must be determined by the context. In 5:2, the feminine form of the word is contrasted with the younger women indicating that Paul has age in mind, not an office of elder. In 5:1, Paul is referring to older men in general because it is contrasted with younger men. The context in which Paul is speaking is that of widows who need to be taken care of by the church, not a position of pastoral leadership.

Another take on this passage is that of Robert Morey who argues that while women cannot teach men in the church, they can serve as female elders. He notes that verses 9-11 speak of an enrollment of certain widows in the church which distinguishes them from the rest of the older women in the congregation. This group is known as the order of widows who have all but disappeared from the modern church. Morey argues that the order of widows are female elders who are the counterpart to the male elders of the church. While Morey is correct that the order of widows has fallen into disregard (see canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea), he is incorrect that they are female elders.

It is true that the qualifications for an elder in 1 Timothy 3 parallel the qualifications for the order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, but they just as equally parallel the qualifications for a deacon. If one person can argue that the order of widows are female elders, another person could just as equally argue that they are female deacons. The qualifications demonstrate that this is about more than just taking care of older women. These women were called to serve the church through their gifts in their old age in exchange for being taken care of by the church. The money they were given would go towards supporting themselves and the orphan children they cared for. That is why they must have the gifts of hospitality and the ability to care for the afflicted. This order is different than the office of elder and deacon because these qualifications are distinct from them.

Because the order of widows is limited to older widows, limiting an office of female elders to these women alone would not make the feminists happy anyway. So, to conclude his essay by saying, “If this biblical program would have been carried out in obedience for the last 1,900 years, we would not have the feminist issue today” is simply untrue because egalitarians want for female elders to be able to do all the things that male elders can. Limiting female elders to those who are older widows and saying that they cannot teach men would not make egalitarians happy since equality is incompatible in their minds with role differentiation. The feminist issue is the product of the sexual revolution, not the church’s neglect of using its widows.

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