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Women elders?

October 2014 | by Thomas Scott

The eligibility of women for ministerial office is one of the most contentious issues in the church today. Is there an answer? The Bible does not leave us without guidance on this important matter.

God makes arbitrary choices; for example, his arbitrary choice of the Israelites as a people for his own. They were a small and insignificant people group, with nothing in particular to commend them, yet God chose them to be his people — an arbitrary choice (Deuteronomy 7:6-7).

Levites

Another arbitrary choice was the allocation of the priestly office to the Levites. From the twelve tribes God chose one tribe to serve him and said, ‘The Levites are mine’ (Numbers 3:12). When Aaron and his sons were being consecrated, no reason is given for God’s choice of the Levites (Exodus 29).

In the sealing of the twelve tribes in Revelation, there was nothing special about the Levites and they received the same treatment as the other tribes (Revelation 7:5-8). God passed over the other tribes in the allocation of spiritual office, but not because they lacked skills or for any other reason — it was an arbitrary choice.

We can dispute the allocation of spiritual office with God, but it is not wise, as the account of King Saul taking the evening sacrifice shows. He was a Benjamite. On the occasion when Samuel the prophet was delayed, Saul took it upon himself to perform the burnt offering at the evening sacrifice.

Samuel arrived just as Saul completed the offering. He told Saul that he had sinned greatly and, as a result, God would remove the kingship from him (1 Samuel 13:8-14).

Usurping spiritual office was the watershed event in Saul’s life. Up until then, God had blessed him and his kingship had thrived, but, after he took the evening sacrifice, God withdrew from him and gave the kingship to another, to David. Saul’s life unravelled from then on, for God was not with him.

No criticism of Saul’s skill in performing the evening sacrifice is offered; the Bible does not say that it was badly performed. We can believe Saul was skilful, for we are told that he was ‘an impressive young man, without equal among the Israelites’ (1 Samuel 9:2). His failing was that he was not a Levite. Only those who are explicitly permitted may serve in spiritual office before God and contravention is a serious sin.

Biblical warrant

It is God’s prerogative to choose who may handle spiritual matters and those who wish to hold spiritual office must have explicit biblical warrant. The Levites had explicit warrant and the Benjamites did not.

Unfortunately, the issue of who may serve in spiritual office was not settled with Saul and the question of women in spiritual office is a pressing issue in several denominations in our day. There is no explicit warrant in the Bible for women holding ministerial office. Indeed, there is the opposite, for Paul says, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach’ (1 Timothy 2:12).

Does that mean women are inferior to men in God’s sight or that he values them any less? Not in the least! The Bible makes it plain that everyone who is in Christ, that is, every Christian, is equally valued by God.

‘For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:27-28).

God did not value the other eleven tribes any less than the Levites and he does not value women any less than men, but he does make arbitrary decisions on who may serve in spiritual office.

Slippery slope

Ordaining women to spiritual office is the start of a slippery slope to ecclesiastical libertarianism. I attended the Church of Scotland (CoS) General Assembly in Edinburgh in May 2009, when the issue of appointing an actively homosexual minister to a CoS church was discussed.

In the debate, the shrewdest analysis of the situation came from a woman minister who spoke from the gallery in favour of the appointment. She spoke humorously and I laughed at times (perhaps I should not have laughed, but I did).

However, as well as her humour she made a serious point. Briefly, what she said was that the case against the appointment of homosexual ministers was lost in the 1960s when the CoS decided to appoint women elders and ministers.

The CoS breached Scripture on the issue of women in spiritual office and now the evangelicals in the CoS were vainly trying to hold back the flood. She was right and the vote was 326 for the appointment and 267 against.

The Bible can be scathing on those who question God’s arbitrary decisions. Paul asks: ‘Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, Why did you make me like this? Does not the potter have the right to make, out of the same lump of clay, some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?’ (Romans 9:20-21).

Scripture gives us clear guidance on who may hold spiritual office. For us, the real question concerns the primary standard of the church: is it the Bible or the mores of contemporary society?

Tom Scott

The author is a retired civil engineer, who has returned to university to study theology.  He lives in Scotland.