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On Church Organization in the Pauline letters

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In order to understand the information in the Pastoral Letters regarding the organization and administration of churches (cf. Part 6), a survey of the evidence from the Pauline corpus as a whole will be useful. Here it is important to distinguish the letters where there is little or no question of authorship by Paul, and those which many critical commentators regard as pseudonymous. The undisputed Pauline letters are (roughly in chronological order):

  • 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Romans, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon; to which I add 2 Thessalonians and Colossians

All of these would have been written in the period c. 48-60 A.D. The letters most often thought to be pseudonymous are:

  • Ephesians and the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus)

If these are authentically Pauline, then they probably would have been written c. 60-63 A.D.; if pseudonymous, then they would be later productions, the Pastorals often dated to the end of the 1st century (c. 80-100) or even the beginning of the 2nd. I discussed the situation regarding the Pastoral letters briefly in Part 5, mentioning that, in my view, the evidence for pseudonymity is a bit stronger for 1 Timothy. Personally, I am inclined to the view (on objective grounds) that 2 Timothy is genuinely Paul’s work, and probably so for Titus as well. I leave open the (reasonably strong) possibility that 1 Timothy is a later work, written in imitation of 2 Timothy (and possibly Titus), and will use this as a working hypothesis for the short study below.

The Earliest Letters

Of the 7/9 ‘undisputed’ letters of Paul (cf. above), it is interesting to note that church organization and administration does not play a major role, at least in terms of providing specific detail as to how congregations are (or ought to be) governed. Paul writes a good deal about his own ministry work, along with that of his fellow missionaries, including his (and their) role as apostle (a)po/stolo$)—1 Thess 1:2-10; Gal 1, etc. This derives from the very early Christian idea of one who was sent forth (to preach the Gospel, etc) as a representative of Christ. Early tradition centers this idea with the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19 par; Acts 1:13, 16-26), and those first believers (in Jerusalem) who witnessed the resurrected Jesus and participated in the initial wave of missionary activity (Acts 1-2ff; 1 Cor 15:5-11; on Rom 16:7 cf. Part 4). These missionaries and preachers played a leading role in the founding of the first congregations all throughout Syria-Palestine and the wider Greco-Roman world. When addressing the congregations, in the earliest surviving correspondence (1 [and 2] Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians), Paul gives little indication of a well-defined church structure, tending to emphasize the ideal that all believers have a place (and important roles to play) in the body of Christ—1 Thess 1:3ff; 4:9; 2 Thess 1:3-4, 15; 3:6ff; Gal 3:26-29; 6:15-16; 1 Cor 1:2, 10ff, 26-31; 2:14-16; 3:1-4, 21-23; chaps. 11-14, etc. The only passage which suggests definite leadership roles within the congregation is 1 Thess 5:12f:

“And I ask of you, brothers, to have seen [i.e. to recognize] the (one)s laboring [kopiw=nta$] among you and standing before [proi+stame/nou$] you in (the) Lord and putting (things) in mind [nouqetou=nta$] for you, and to give them the lead [i.e. judge/esteem/consider them] over and above [i.e. abundantly] in love through [i.e. because of] their work.”

The three verbs (participles) indicated here are not titles or official positions, but rather describe roles and regular activity (“work/labor”) within the congregation. The second verb (proi+/sthmi) implies a leading role—one who provides guidance, help (and protection) for the congregation (cf. Rom 12:8; 16:2, also 1 Tim 3:4-5 etc). The third (nouqete/w) indicates teaching and instruction (cf. 2 Thess 3:15; Rom 15:14; 1 Cor 4:14 etc). Such persons are to be accorded positions of honor and respect within the congregation. In Galatians, the rhetorical thrust of the letter prompts Paul to downplay positions of (supposed) authority in the Church—even that of apostle—subordinating all human authority to the truth of the Gospel (Gal 1:6-9, 11-23; 2:1-10ff; 6:11-16).

1 Corinthians

The Corinthian correspondence (esp. 1 Corinthians) provides by far the greatest detail as to how congregations (are to) function. While the leading position of Paul and his fellow missionaries (Apollos, et al) as apostles and “servants” (cf. below on dia/kono$) remains prominent (cf. all through chaps. 1-4, 9; 16:10ff), the congregation is described in rather egalitarian and “democratic” terms; note the following:

  • The theme of unity which is set in contrast to divisions/groupings based on the authority, etc. of prominent individuals (1:10-17; 3:1-9, etc), including Apollos, Cephas (“Peter”) and Paul himself. The argument running through chapters 1-4 also functions as a warning toward those who might seek to control/influence believers on the basis of their gifts and talents.
  • In chapters 5-6 the emphasis is on the ability (and expectation) of believers to govern their own affairs, in a prudent and common-sense fashion. No mention is made of appeal to the authority of official positions in the churches, other than that of Paul (the apostle). Indeed, 5:3-5 suggests a straightforward division of authority: (a) the apostle, and (b) the assembled congregation (as a whole).
  • The lengthy and complex line of argument in chapters 8-10 has, at its core, that the “strong” in the churches should subordinate their own (personal) authority and interests to the good of the congregation (especially of the “weaker” members).
  • The discussion of corporate/community life and worship in chapters 1114 presents a model of many roles and functions, operating more or less equally—and in unity—within the congregation (the ‘body’ of Christ). Note the many different “gifts” of ministry mentioned in 12:4-11 (and the roughly contemporary list in Rom 12:4-8). Similarly, it is expected that many different people could (and should) participate actively in the worship-meeting (chap. 14, esp. verses 26-33). There is no suggestion that any of these roles were reserved for specific “offices”. Moreover, it is clear that men and women both could take active speaking/preaching roles in the meeting, as long as certain customs were properly observed (11:2-16). The two ‘highest’ gifts or roles were that of: (1) apostle, i.e. the missionaries who were involved in the founding of the churches and their oversight; and (2) prophet, i.e. one who communicates the (revealed) word and will of God to the congregation. Cf. 1 Cor 12:28-31; 14:1ff, 24, 29-33, 37-39; Rom 12:6; Eph 4:11.


The Greek word dia/kono$ (diákonos, “servant”) can range in meaning from a waiter of tables (cf. Acts 6:1-6) to a person who holds public office (including a religious office). It is used 21 times in the Pauline corpus, including 12 (or 16) times in the undisputed letters. In most instances, Paul clearly understands it, not as the title of an official position (i.e. deacon), but in the general sense of “minister”—that is, of Christ and the Gospel. He likely views it as partly synonymous with dou=lo$ (“slave”)—i.e. slave/servant of Christ, which Paul applies to himself (and others) frequently in his letters (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10, et al). The word certainly has this general (Christian) meaning in Rom 16:1 (cf. the discussion in Part 4); 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:15, 23; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; and cf. Eph 3:7; 6:21; 1 Tim 4:6. It is also used in a general sense of Christ (Gal 2:17; Rom 15:8), and human (civil) authorities (Rom 13:4). Only in 1 Tim 3:8-12 does dia/kono$ likely refer to a distinct office (or official position) in the Church; on Phil 1:1, cf. below.

Philippians 1:1

Paul’s greeting in Phil 1:1 includes the somewhat unusual phrase (in italics):

“…to all the holy ones [i.e. “saints”] in (the) Anointed Yeshua {Christ Jesus}…(together) with (the) overseers and servants/ministers“.

Here Paul seems to distinguish two groups (or positions) that are set apart from the congregation as a whole. The second of these (dia/kono$, “servant”, i.e. ‘minister’) has been discussed above. The first word requires special comment.

e)pi/skopo$ (epískopos)—This word fundamentally means “one who looks (carefully) over something”. It occurs only five times in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:7; 1 Pet 2:25), but cf. also the related verb e)piskope/w (Heb 12:15; 1 Pet 5:2). This careful examination (“looking over”) is usually understood as being done by an authority or person appointed (as a representative) for such a task. The related noun e)piskoph/ sometimes has the specific meaning of the actual visit (or time of the visit) made for examination/inspection—in Jewish tradition, for the time God visits the earth for Judgment (Lk 19:44; 1 Pet 2:12). Acts 1:20 (citing Psalm 109:8) uses e)piskoph/ in the sense of a position (that of apostle), and so also in 1 Tim 3:1. The best translation for e)pi/skopo$ is “overseer”; it really should not be rendered in the New Testament as “bishop”, not even in the Pastoral letters.

The word is used only once in the undisputed letters of Paul (Phil 1:1), but also occurs in the context of early Christian (and Pauline) tradition in Acts 20:28. In that narrative setting, Paul is addressing the “elders” (presbu/teroi) of the churches of Ephesus, who have come to visit him, at his request, in Miletus (v. 17-18). Here is the instruction he gives them in verse 28:

“Hold (attention) toward yourselves and to(ward) all the herd [i.e. flock {of sheep}], in which the holy Spirit has set/placed you (as) overseers [e)pisko/pou$] to (shep)herd the congregation [e)kklhsi/a] of God, which he made (to be) round about (himself) [i.e. he acquired] through (his) own blood.”

Assuming that this reflects authentic historical tradition, it would correspond roughly to the time of Phil 1:1 (c. 60 A.D.). All that is really indicated here is that elders (certain of them at least) are to oversee the welfare and protection of the congregations, especially against false teaching. Their roles are described only generally in this regard. They are to continue and preserve/maintain the work done by the founding missionaries (Paul and the other apostles), and so act with some measure of (apostolic) authority, if only by example. One or more elders would fulfill this role for each congregation (usually a house-church) in each city or location. What of the situation implied by Paul in Phil 1:1? The fact that these two roles/positions—e)pi/skopo$ and dia/kono$—are not discussed anywhere else in the letter (nor really in any of the other [undisputed] Pauline letters) strongly suggests that we are still dealing with a very generalized distinction, which I would summarize as follows:

  • e)pi/skopo$ refers to the elder (or elders) who has come to exercise the leading role(s) in overseeing the congregation; these persons may have been appointed by Paul (or other apostles) and confirmed (presumably) through a ritual process involving the laying on of hands.
  • dia/kono$ refers to any/all persons exercising (leading) ministry roles in the congregation, presumably according to the spiritual “gifts” and abilities recognized in 1 Cor 12ff; Rom 12:6-8, etc.

Ephesians 4:11

Eph 4:11-12 contains a list of “gifts” similar to those in 1 Cor 12:4-11 and Rom 12:4-8, only the emphasis is not so much on the Spirit—rather they are said to have been given by Christ. Also, the various gifts in the earlier letters have been ‘replaced’, it would seem, by more clearly defined roles in the Church—five are listed:

(1) Apostles, (2) Prophets, (3) Preachers, i.e., those proclaiming the Gospel, (4) ‘Shepherds’, and (5) Teachers

The first two match the two ‘highest’ gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians, while preaching/proclamation of the Gospel and teaching are natural functions for any Christian minister. In early tradition, it seems clear that “shepherd” (poimh/n) is generally synonymous with e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”), as attested both in Acts 20:28 (above) and in 1 Pet 2:25. Most likely, poimh/n was the older, and more widely used term, going back to Jesus’ own words and the Gospel tradition (regarding Peter, etc)—cf. Mark 6:34; 14:27 par; John 10:2-16; 21:15-17; 1 Cor 9:17; 1 Pet 5:2. The corresponding (traditional) word in English is “pastor”. It should be noted that many commentators believe that Ephesians is pseudonymous, serving as a kind of compendium of Pauline teaching, much as it is assumed for the Pastoral letters. Whether or not this view is valid, it does seem that this passage reflects some degree of development—i.e. a five-fold ministry instead of the more diverse ministerial roles indicated within 1 Corinthians. On the other hand, assuming Pauline authorship, it is possible that these five roles effectively summarize what Paul has in mind when he uses the term dia/kono$ (“servant”) to refer to the (leading) ministers in the Church.

2 Timothy and Titus

There is actually very little information regarding the structure and organization of the churches in these letters, which, perhaps, could be seen as an (additional) argument in favor of their authenticity (in contrast with 1 Timothy). In 2 Timothy, the focus is almost entirely on Paul’s (personal) instruction to Timothy. According to the (assumed) historical situation, Timothy would be serving as Paul’s (apostolic) representative, exercising authority and care over all the congregations in a particular region (trad. the area around Ephesus, cf. 1 Tim 1:3). He is exhorted to follow Paul’s example, and to preserve correct teaching and tradition (as it has been passed down to him). Very little detail is given with regard to ministerial roles in the churches, apart from a reference (in passing) to the practice of the laying on of hands (1:6). In Titus, the apostolic role is set out more precisely (Tit 1:5ff; 2:1ff), and several of the points of instruction are treated much more extensively in 1 Timothy; note especially:

  • The reference to the establishment of elders (presbu/teroi) in each town/congregation (1:5-6ff); such elders are called “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$), as in Acts 20:28 (cf. above). Cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13.
  • The guidelines on how to give instruction, and on the roles of men and women, etc., in the churches (2:1-10, cf. 1 Tim 2:1-10ff; 5:1-6:2).

In my view, it is incorrect to read a later, developed view of bishop into the reference to “overseers” in Tit 1:7ff. Here in Titus (and 1 Timothy), it is clear that the “elders” are understood as men (i.e. gender-specific), and perhaps also in Acts 20:17, etc. Interestingly, presbu/tero$ (whether singular or plural) is not used in any of the undisputed letters of Paul, only in the Pastorals (1 Tim 5:1-2, 17, 19; Tit 1:7).

1 Timothy

Here, in all of the New Testament writings, we find the clearest (and most extensive) information about specific ministry roles or positions in the Church. They are:

  • “Overseer” (e)pi/skopo$)—3:1-7
  • “Servant/Minister” (dia/kono$)—3:8-12
  • “Widow” (xh/ra)—5:2-16, i.e. female “elders”, ideally widows over the age of sixty, with a specific position and duties in the congregation
  • “Elders” (presbu/teroi)—5:17-20

Commentators continue to debate the precise meaning of e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) here. Much depends on one’s view of the authorship (and dating) of the letter. If it is authentically Paul’s work (and written before c. 64 A.D.), then it is likely that he is simply referring to the elder (or elders) appointed to oversee the congregation. On the other hand, a later (c. 80-110) pseudonymous writing may assume something closer to the bishop of subsequent ecclesiastical tradition—i.e., one who exercises authority over all the churches in a particular city or region, entailing a more direct hierarchical chain of government. According to the (presumed) historical setting of the Pastorals, only Timothy and Titus themselves, as Paul’s (apostolic) representatives, function in anything like this wider role. It is, I think, unwise to read the developed meaning of e)pi/skopo$ too readily into 1 Tim 3:1-7. Similarly, it is unclear whether, or to what extent, dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”) here fits the (later) office of deacon. The pairing of dia/kono$ with e)pi/skopo$ may simply be building upon the (earlier) terminology used in Phil 1:1 (cf. above). The “overseers” and “ministers” seem to be understood as gender-specific roles (1 Tim 3:2-5, 12); however, the reference to “women” in 3:11 could conceivably refer to female ministers (cf. Rom 16:1-2 and the separate note on v. 11). The widows (5:2-16) are generally the female counterpart to the (male) elders in 5:17-20.

Women in the Church: Part 6 – The Pauline Letters

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Having already examined five primary passages in the Pauline letters—1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33b-36; Gal 3:28; Rom 16:1-2ff, and 1 Tim 2:11-15—in some detail, it remains to survey other portions of the Pauline corpus which relate in some way to role of women in the Church. As a way of organizing and presenting the evidence, I have decided to divide them roughly between:

(a) Passages which emphasize the equality and/or reciprocity of the genders, and
(b) Those which indicate that women are in some sense subordinate to men, or may be restricted from fulfilling certain roles

The situation, of course, is considerably more complex than this simple division suggests; however, I believe that it genuinely reflects two aspects of Paul’s thought and teaching regarding gender roles, etc. It also happens to follow the two basic views or approaches to the subject by Christians today. A serious error of modern commentators and church leaders, etc, is that they tend (or wish) to focus on just one side of the question, to the exclusion of the other.

1. Passages which emphasize the equality and/or reciprocity of the genders

1 Thess 2:7, 11—Paul uses mother/father (female/male) imagery, applying them equally, in turn, to the role and function of apostles. Cf. also Gal 4:19, etc.

1 Corinthians 7—According to the language and (reciprocal) style Paul uses throughout this chapter, men and women (husbands and wives) have equal status—i.e. in the context of marriage, especially with regard to sexual relations. There is no emphasis whatsoever on headship/submission here.

1 Corinthians 12-13 & 14:1ff—Spiritual “gifts” (charismata) relate to all believers—note the use of pa=$ (“all”) repeatedly in 12:6, 11-13, 19, 26, 29-30; 13:2-3, 7; 14:5, 18, 23-26, 31. There is really no indication that any of the gifts or roles mentioned in these sections (with the possible exception of “apostle”, cf. below) apply only to men or are restricted for women. According to 11:2-16 (cf. Part 1) women may function as prophets, which is the second ‘highest’ gift/role after in the church after apostles (12:28ff). This means they may exercise a role that involves preaching/teaching, and 14:3 would suggest that women who prophesy also instruct/edify men in the assembly. Only 14:34-35 refers to any restriction on the participation of women in the worship meeting, but the context of this reference needs to be examined closely (cf. the discussion in Part 2). The emphasis on unity among believers (in the corporate setting) also means that all gifts/roles in the church ultimately are subordinated to the love-principle (chap. 13, cf. Gal 5:14ff).

2 Cor 11:2-3Female imagery is applied to believers as a whole, without qualification or comment. Note above on 1 Thess 2:7, and cf. Rom 7:2-3; 9:25.

Rom 12:4-8—Cf. 1 Cor 12-14, and also Eph 4:11-13. It is possible that the language “the one teaching [o( dida/skwn]”, etc., in vv. 7-8 is gender-specific, but Paul does not make a point of it. He frequently uses masculine terms and (grammatical) gender when referring to believers (men and women) generally or collectively.

Along with these passages, one should note instances where Paul makes special mention of certain women, indicating they are fellow ministers/missionaries or otherwise hold prominent/leading roles in the churches. In addition to Phoebe and the others mentioned in Romans 16 (cf. Part 4), we have:

  • Prisca and her husband Aquila (1 Cor 16:19, also Rom 16:3; 2 Tim 4:19, and cf. Acts 18:2, 18, 26).
  • Chloe (1 Cor 1:11)—a prominent (and wealthy) person in Corinth, who may have been important in the church.
  • Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3).
  • Apphia (Philemon 2), specifically called “sister” in context with the “brothers” of v. 1.
  • Nympha (Col 4:15)—like Prisca, she hosts a congregation in her house, and presumably has a prominent position in the church.

When Paul refers to such women in relation to himself and other (male) ministers, he generally does so without any distinction. See especially in Rom 16:1ff and Phil 4:2-3, where terms such as “servant/minister” (dia/kono$), “co-worker” (sunergo/$), and perhaps even “apostle” (a)po/stolo$, cf. Rom 16:7), are used equally of women.

2. Passages which emphasize subordination or restriction of roles for women

Gal 1:1ff; 1 Cor 3:5ff, etc—In the vast majority of instances where Paul uses the terms dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”) or a)po/stolo$ (apostle), he applies them to men—most often himself, but also Apollos, etc. Only once is dia/kono$ used specifically of a woman (Rom 16:1-2, cf. above). Similarly, in the New Testament, the term a)po/stolo$ is only used of men, with the possible exception of the reference to Junia in Rom 16:7. This relative imbalance may simply reflect circumstances of culture and social convention at the time, rather than a rule regarding the role of women in ministry. Admittedly, the evidence for women in these leading roles is fairly slight (cf. above), but it is significant enough (especially in light of Rom 16:1-2, 7) that it should, at the very least, give one pause before denying the positions to women outright.

Gal 6:6; 1 Cor 2:15-16, etc—It is possible that masculine gender expressions such as “the one instructing”, “the one (who is) spiritual”, “he judges”, “him”, etc, in certain passages assume a gender-specific context, indicating that men are (to be) in leadership roles (cf. on Rom 12:4-8 above)

2 Cor 8:17-18ff; 9:3ff—Here the representatives sent to the congregations appear to be men, i.e. “brothers” in the stricter (gender-specific) sense. This, however, does not necessarily mean that women were forbidden from such roles. Note again Rom 16:1-2, where Phoebe, a leading figure (minister) in the churches of Cenchreae/Corinth, likely is the one carrying the letter on Paul’s behalf, and he introduces/recommends her formally to the churches of Rome.

Phil 1:1, 14—It is possible that here in v. 1 dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”), along with e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) refer specifically to men, though this depends somewhat on the relationship with 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9 (cf. below). If “brothers” in verse 14 is taken in a stricter, gender-specific sense, it may assume that certain speaking/preaching roles are (to be) filled by men.

Col 3:18-19 (and Eph 5:22-24ff)—Here Paul (or the author) is referring to the marriage relationship—husband and wife—within the Christian community. The verb u(pota/ssw literally refers to being under (an arranged) order, but the passive/reflexive form often indicates obedience or even being (made) subject to a higher (ruling) authority. The wife/woman is to be “under order” (i.e. subordinate) to her husband (i.e. to his position/authority), but the same is not said of the husband/man (contrast this with the reciprocal language in 1 Cor 7); instead, it is said that he must love (and be gentle/caring toward) his wife. Much the same is stated in Eph 5:22-24ff, but the instruction has been expanded with the illustration of the relationship between Christ and the Church (his Bride) in vv. 23-24, which is worth quoting:

“…(in) that the man/husband is head [kefalh/] of the woman/wife, even as the Anointed (One) {Christ} is head of the congregation [e)kklhsi/a], he (being) savior of the Body—but (then) as the congregation is set in order under [u(pota/ssetai] the Anointed (One) {Christ}, so also the women/wives to the men/husbands in all (thing)s.”

Ephesians is considered by many (critical) commentators to be pseudonymous, but, even if this were granted, the statement here would still seem to reflect genuine Pauline teaching (cf. 1 Cor 11:3ff).

The Pastoral Letters—For the difficult critical questions related to these letters—in terms of authorship, date of composition, historical background and interpretation—along with a discussion of 1 Tim 2:11-15 in particular, cf. Part 5. Of all the letters in the Pauline corpus, these (esp. 1 Timothy) provide the clearest evidence for a restriction of leading/ministerial roles in the churches. In addition to 1 Tim 2:11-15, note the following passages in particular:

  • 1 Tim 3:1-13—The context makes fairly clear that “overseers [e)pi/skopoi]” (certainly) and “servants/ministers [dia/konoi]” (probably) are to be men. The only uncertainly is in the reference to “women” in v. 11 (cf. the note on this verse).
  • 1 Tim 5:2-16, 17ff—The widows in the congregation (vv. 2-16) have a role (as female “elders”) comparable to the (male) “elders” (vv. 17-20). This also suggests a definite division/distinction, especially if it is assumes that the elders (presbu/teroi) are men, as in Tit 1:5-9. According to v. 17, preaching and teaching are generally reserved as roles for the elders.
  • 2 Tim 2:2; 3:17—Similarly, teaching is to be done by “trustworthy men” (2:2), where a)nqrwpoi (“men”) is almost certainly used in a gender-specific sense; this is likely true for the expression “man of God” in 3:17 as well.
  • Titus 1:5-9—The context makes it clear that the “elders” (presbu/teroi), especially those appointed as “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$), are understood to be men.
  • Titus 2:3-5—The role of older women (i.e. female “elders”) would seem to be limited to instruction of the younger women. Here also we have the directive, stated briefly, that wives are to be “in (proper) order under” their husbands (using the verb u)pota/ssw as in Col 3:18-19; Eph 5:22-24, cf. above).


The passages which most clearly (and directly) emphasize restriction of roles for women, and/or their subordination under the men of the Community, are in those letters which are commonly regarded as pseudonymous—the Pastoral letters (esp. 1 Timothy), Ephesians (and Colossians). This means that there are likely to be significant differences of opinion as to what Paul himself actually believed and taught, depending on one’s view of authorship of these letters. Similarities and parallels can be found, to some extent, in the undisputed letters (e.g., 1 Cor 11:3-9ff; 14:33b-36; Phil 1:1), but it is methodologically unsound (and unwise) to read the teaching of the Pastoral letters, for example, back into 1 Corinthians, etc, without further ado. Each passage must be examined in the context of the letter and the situation which is being addressed. Overall, the evidence from the undisputed letters would indicate that women could serve in leading roles, as ministers in the churches, with few restrictions. A somewhat different picture is presented in 1 Timothy (and perhaps in Titus). The only role which seems to be reserved for men, without question, is that of the elder (presbu/tero$) who is to function as overseer (e)pi/skopo$) of the congregation. Unfortunately, these positions are scarcely mentioned at all in the undisputed letters—presbu/tero$ (“elder”) is never used, and e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) only once (Phil 1:1), briefly and without further comment (but cf. Acts 14:23; 20:28). Otherwise, while the evidence is relative slight (and occasionally ambiguous), women in the ‘Pauline churches’ seem to be recognized and allowed to function as ministers in various ways, including certain roles involving preaching and teaching. However, there continue to be differing views on the subject, and so it should remain open for dispute and discussion, without prejudice.

For additional background on this subject, see the separate article on “Church Organization in the Pauline Letters“.

Note of the Day (1 Tim 3:11)

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1 Timothy 3:11

An important reference in the Pastoral letters, related to the role of women in the Church, is 1 Tim 3:11, part of a section on “Church order” (3:1-13), in which Paul (or the author) discusses: (a) the position of “overseer” (Grk e)pi/skopo$, epískopos) in vv. 1-7, and (b) the position of “servant/minister” (dia/kono$, diákonos) in vv. 8-13. These terms are discussed in Part 6, including how they are used in the passage here. The only relevant occurrence of these words in the (undisputed) letters of Paul is in Philippians 1:1, where they are cited together as part of his greeting to the churches in Philippi: “…to all the holy ones [i.e. ‘saints’]… th(at) are in Philippi, (together) with (the) overseers and servants/ministers…”. This verse is also discussed in Part 6. Elsewhere, Paul always uses dia/kono$ in the general sense of a (Christian) ministerRom 15:8; 16:1 (cf. also 13:4); 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:15, 23; Gal 2:17; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; also Eph 3:7; 6:21; 1 Tim 4:6. Only in Phil 1:1 and 1 Tim 3:8, 12 does the term seem to apply to an official position or “office” in the Church. The word e)pi/skopo$ does not appear anywhere else in the undisputed letters, only in 1 Tim 3:2 and Tit 1:7, though it is also used in a (Pauline) tradition recorded in Acts 20:17ff (v. 28). According to Acts 20:28 and Tit 1:5-9, the e)pi/skopo$ is an elder (presbu/tero$) who is appointed to oversee a congregation, especially in the sense of providing care and protection (from false teaching, etc). The term is more or less synonymous with the older title “shepherd” (poimh/n), as indicated by 1 Peter 2:25 and Eph 4:11, and roughly corresponds to the word “pastor” in English.

It is clear from 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 that “overseers” were understood to be men (i.e. male elders), but this is less certain with regard to the position of “servant/minister” (dia/kono$). In Rom 16:1, Phoebe is called dia/kono$—this is sometimes rendered “deaconess”, based on an understanding of the later Church office; however, as I have explained in Part 4 (on Rom 16:1-2ff), this is anachronistic, and the word as it is used everywhere except in 1 Timothy (and, possibly, Phil 1:1), should be understood in the general sense of “servant” or “minister” (of Christ). Still, the application of the word in the case of Phoebe is often thought to be relevant to the context of 1 Tim 3:8-13. In the midst of his discussion, on the qualifications for the “minister”, Paul (or the author) interjects:

“And these (persons/men) must first be thought acceptable (by examination), then they may serve as minister, being without (anything) calling (them) into question. Even so (for) the women (they are to be) reverent, not throwing (accusations) about, sober [i.e. discrete], trust(worthy) in all (thing)s.” (vv. 10-11)

The Greek word gunh/ (“woman”) can also mean “wife”, which has led to some ambiguity in this passage—do the “women” here refer to female ministers or to the wives of the (male) ministers? The answer to this question often reflects the particular interest or predisposition of the interpreter. Those who favor a more egalitarian approach to gender roles in the Church, or specifically women serving as “deacons”, will likely choose the former. On the other hand, those who take a more traditional-conservative view of the issue, emphasizing/preserving male “headship” and/or gender-restriction of the leading roles, probably will choose the latter. In defense of the interpretation as “female ministers”, the example of Phoebe in Rom 16:1 is typically cited (cf. above). However, while Rom 16:1-2ff certainly can be said to reflect a tendency by Paul to treat women equally as fellow ministers and missionaries, it is questionable whether this ought to be read into 1 Tim 3:11, especially in light of the (reasonably strong) possibility that 1 Timothy is pseudonymous (cf. Part 5). In my view, the context of First Timothy itself suggests that the “servants/ministers” in 3:8-13 are probably best understood as men. Note the parallel syntax in vv. 8 and 11:

  • Diako/nou$ w(sau/tw$ semnou/$ mh… “Just so for (the) ministers (they should be) reverent, not…”
  • Gunai=ka$ w(au/tw$ semna/$ mh… “Just so for (the) women (they should be) reverent, not…”

It would be a bit unusual if the author was re-stating the instruction, using “women” to indicate “ministers who are women”. This seems especially clear, given what follows in verse 12: “Ministers should be men [i.e. husbands] of one woman [i.e. wife], standing fine before (their own) offspring and (their) own house(hold)s”. Here “woman” certainly means “wife”, and so likely has this denotation in verse 11 as well. We might paraphrase the flow of the passage as follows:

8As for the ministers, just like the overseers, they should be reverent in behavior… and these (men) are to be tested (and) approved first, then they may serve as ministers without anything against them.
11As for the wives, just like the ministers, they should be reverent in behavior…trustworthy in all things.
12Ministers should be husbands of one wife (only), standing before and guiding their children and households well.”

The question of how this passage relates to Paul’s statements in Galatians, Romans, 1 Corinthians, etc (i.e., the undisputed letters) is a separate matter entirely. For those who have not yet read the discussion in Parts 1 through 6, this will help with a better understanding of the language and thought expressed by Paul in the relevant passages.