The Church of England (Anglican) set off a firestorm of protests and complaints when earlier this month its General Synod voted to begin ordaining women, not only as priests, but also as bishops. Roman Catholic leaders protested the move calling it an “obstacle” to Christian unity. One Catholic publication suggested that the move rejects the Catholic and Orthodox theology of Apostolic Succession and the nature of the priesthood. Protestant evangelicals, meanwhile, complained that it represents a capitulation to modern, secular culture and a departure from Biblical truth, often citing I Timothy 3:2, which says that a bishop must be the husband of one wife. Who is right?
In my book PURSUING POWER: How the Historic Quest for Apostolic Authority & Control Has Divided and Damaged the Church, I show the historic development of the New Testament episcopas (bishop) from a ministry of service into an office of power. I demonstrate that it was when the episcopas became associated with “power” rather than “service” that women began to be excluded, and the “bishopric” became the domain of men only. That the current controversy is still centered in “power” and not “service” only highlights the need for all sides to seriously consider a return to Jesus and the New Testament. (Jesus actually never used the word bishop/episcopas)
Since Catholics, Evangelicals and Anglicans, with some important qualifications and differences, would agree that what we teach must be based in Scripture I would like to point out, from Scripture, why a woman is not excluded from functioning as a New Testament episcopas. Since Jesus never used the word I will base this discussion on the most oft quoted passage in this regard, which is Paul’s statement in I Timothy 3:1-5 wherein he says that the episcopas must be the husband of own wife. Here are 5 reasons that this passage, and particularly husband of one wife, does not exclude women from serving as a New Testament episcopas.
The Episcopas is Not an Office but a “Service,” i.e., a Responsibility.
The word “bishop” or “overseer” in this passage is a translation of the Greek word episcopas, which literally means to “watch over.” It did not originate with the New Testament, but was actually a secular word that Paul borrowed and used in regards to the responsibility of Christian leaders. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, episcopas was used of teachers who had the responsibility to “watch over” the academic progress of their students, of the superintendent of a building project, of watchmen stationed on a city wall, and of army scouts. Paul used it to designate the responsibility of elders to “watch over” the affairs of the congregation.
Paul does not use the word “office” or “position” in this passage (nor anywhere in the New Testament). Such words were added by the translators who thought they were helping clarify the passage. I am convinced, however, that they actually skew the meaning of the passage, which should be left as actually stated by Paul. What Paul is referring to is not an office, but a “work,” i.e., a function, or responsibility. He literally says in 3:1, This is a faithful saying, If anyone aspires to oversight, they desire a good work.
The functional nature of the episocopas is confirmed by Luke in Acts 20:17, 28 where he uses the word interchangeably with presbuteros (elder) and poimen (pastor) in referring to the leaders of the church in Ephesus. At this early date episcopas was still a ministry of service rather than an office of power.
Writing in the 5th century, the famous African church father, Augustine, noted that a mark of the true church is that its leaders are servants. He then went on to explain that the original meaning of episcopas is related to responsibility, not authority. “Therefore,” said Augustine, “He who loves to govern rather than do good is no bishop” (vol. 2 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 413).
Reason # 2
Throughout this discussion Paul uses Gender Inclusive Language.
Nowhere in this passage (I Timothy 3:1-5) does Paul use the Greek word for man, aner, but instead uses the gender inclusive personal pronoun tis, which means “someone” or “anyone.” For example, in 3:1 it is not if a man as the KJV and NKJV have it, but if anyone (NIV) or if someone (NRSV). This is also true of vs. 5 where Paul again uses tis, not aner, to confirm that oversight is not restricted to males. If Paul had wanted to exclude women from this function of oversight, he could have easily done so by using male-specific language. Instead, he uses gender inclusive language throughout the discussion.
Women were known to be heads of households, whichPaul says is a proving ground for serving as an overseer (3:5).
Verse 5 says, If
a man anyone does not know how to manage their own
household . . .. As mentioned above, Paul purposely uses a gender inclusive
personal pronoun, tis, in this verse. As in vs. 2, it is not if a man,
as the KJV and NKJV have it, but if someone (NRSV) or if anyone
(NIV). Managing a household was not the province of the male in Paul’s world,
for in his travels he had encountered women who were heads of households. In
Philippi, he and his team were received by Lydia and she and her household were baptized
(Acts 16:15) and her estate became the base for Paul’s ministry in that city.
In I Corinthians 1:11, Paul mentions those of Chloe’s household who had brought him unfavorable news about
the Corinthians. Chloe too is a feminine name and is further proof that women
managed households in the ancient world, which qualified them to serve as
overseers in the church.
In the pagan, patriarchal culture of the Greco-Roman world, men could carry on multiple, illegitimate sexual relationships, but women could not.
I once had a eureka moment while meditating on this verse that highlighted and underlined for me the fact that Paul was not excluding women from oversight when he said the overseer must be the husband of one wife. Interestingly, because there is not a separate word for “husband” in Greek, this passage literally reads that the overseer must be “a man of one woman.” Again, this particular criterion would not relate to a woman for women did not have the legal right or the cultural freedom to divorce and remarry and carry on illegitimate relationships as did the men. Women would be considered sluts and whores if they carried on in this way, but for men it was acceptable in that culture. It was necessary, therefore, for this condition, that relates particularly to men, to be included in this list of criteria for tis (anyone) who would serve as an overseer.
Women too Can Serve and Do Good.
I suggest to you that Paul had no problem with women serving and doing good, which is what New Testament leadership is about. We have been so brainwashed in an official, institutionalized, hierarchical form of Christianity, that we have a hard time grasping the open, free-flowing nature of New Testament Christianity.But if we can catch the vision of what the Spirit is saying in this regard and move from gender-determined roles based in “power” to Spirit-guided functions rooted in “service,” who knows what exploits may be wrought for God in the days ahead!
Dr. Eddie L. Hyatt is an author, historian, theologian and Bible teacher. This article was drawn, in part, from his latest book, PURSUING POWER: How the Historic Quest for Apostolic Authority & Control Has Divided and Damaged the Church, available from Amazon and his website, http://www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.