Women Really Did Work as–and Were–Overseers, Elders, Pastors: A Close Look at 1 Timothy 5:9-10

When we focus on the term “offices,” we overlook the vital truth that pastors (also called shepherds), elders, overseers (also called bishops) must do and be rather than just hold an office. The three titles are functional (doing) and spiritual and moral (being), more than formal (official). (We also take a look at 1 Peter 5:1-5 and 1 Timothy 3:11, 12-13).

Let’s explore this thesis, by comparing three passages, plus 1 Peter 5:1-5 and 1 Timothy 3:11, 12-13 (later), describing male elders and overseers and pastors, with elderly widows. All of them took care of the churches–the women functioned as pastors, elders, and overseers throughout their redeemed lives, because they were those things, when they saw the needs arise and because of their high-quality character and walk with God.

As usual, I write to learn for my own growth and clarity.

I use the NIV here, but if you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.

COMPARATIVE TABLE

Let’s begin with the three passages in the Pastoral Epistles in parallel columns. The first column is about older women, and the second two are about older men. The points of similar functions between the women and men are in bold font, in the men’s columns

Older Women and Men Being and Functioning as 

Overseers, Elders, Pastors

1 Timothy 5:2, 9-10 1 Timothy 3:1-7 Titus 1:5-9
1 […] exhort […]  2 older women as mothers […]

No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, 10  and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.

1 Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)  He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment  as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. 5 […] you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. 6 An elder must be blameless,  faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

COMMENTARY

As usual, I number my points for clarity and conciseness.

(1). In Greek the (comparative) word in the nominative case for male elder is presbuteros (singular, and pronounced press-boo-teh-ross) and presbuteroi (plural and pronounced press-boo-teh-roi). For women it is presbutera (singular, press-boo-teh-rah) and presbuterai (plural, press-boo-teh-rye). The words are the exact same one, except one is masculine and the other is feminine, and singular or plural, as seen by the endings. In Titus 1:5, it is used for older men, and in 1 Timothy 5:2 it is used for older women. (In Titus 1:6, the NIV supplies the term, for clarity.)

Note how in Titus 1:5-6 (see 1 Timothy 5:17), “elder” and “overseer” are used interchangeably, so they are synonyms, but their nuanced meanings are not obliterated. Otherwise, why have two entries for the two words in a Greek lexicon?

Note that the sixty-plus-year-old widows worked in those shepherding roles for many years, during their married life, so Paul rewards them, so to speak, with being admitted into a registry or list of some sort.

Finally, I believe that the list of virtues or qualities is suggestive, not exhaustive. In fact, all of Paul’s (and other NT writers’) vice or virtue lists are suggestive and not comprehensive.

(2).. Commentators say that “older women” in 1 Tim. 5:2 is not official or formal, but informal, so let’s not make a big thing of it. It is not a title. In contrast, “elder” in Titus 1:5 (and 1 Timothy 5:17) is formal and official–a title. And many translations of 1 Timothy 3:1 say something like: if anyone desires the office of overseer (or bishop) …. So this title “elder” (male) is official, while the word “elder” (female) in 1 Tim. 5:2 is unofficial.

This is a possible interpretation.

But it is not the full picture. Let’s move beyond officialness and our (uptight) concerns today to find neat and restrictive categories and boxes and instead look at the real-life ministries which real-life women actually did, two thousand years ago. And besides, the noun office does not exist in NT Greek, anyway.

So let’s develop the picture along different lines.

(3). According to 1 Timothy 5:9-10, a righteous widow had to meet certain requirements. She had to be over sixty, and the male elder (overseer) is also of mature age; he cannot be a new convert. She had to be faithful to her husband, and so must the male elder (overseer) to his one wife (no gay or lesbian pastors or elders or overseers, please!). One of her good works involved raising children, which speaks of managing her household well. The male elder or overseer also had to manage his children and household. She had to be hospitable, and so must he. Devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds speaks of pastoral work of an overseer and elder, in a summary phrase: “all kinds of good works.” A male elder or overseer also had to do good works (“good reputation” and “loves what is good”), presumably demonstrating this by putting things into practical action with good results.

In Greek, “faithful to his wife,” though the best meaning of the phrase, literally reads “husband of one wife” or “wife of one husband.” Both men and women had to be faithful to his or her spouse.

So in terms of hand-on, real-world, practical ministry, there is no difference between the three columns, in substance, except ….

(4). One big difference is that the men had to learn and teach sound doctrine, while this is not stated for widows. Why not? For the epistle to Timothy, in another post we looked at women being domineering while they were teaching because some of them were most probably priestesses or leaders of some kind in the Ephesian temple to Artemis; many rich converted (1 Tim. 6:17-19), and only rich women controlled the temple of the goddess–no urban poor could control it. No doubt women were among the rich converts who had been priestesses or leaders in the pagan temple. After converting to Christ, they had to slow down and not dominate. Paul’s restrictions therefore were culturally relevant in Ephesus but do not apply elsewhere (unless any woman or man adopted a domineering attitude anywhere and in any place; in their case the restrictions do apply). It is easy to imagine that a rich widow, after she learned not to dominate and learned sound doctrine, could teach some truths.

At this next link, I look into the historical context and the august temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I lay out the evidence:

Are Women Allowed to Teach Men? A Close Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15

(5). Further, women were less educated, generally speaking, so they may not have had access to (handwritten) OT scrolls, and the OT was the Scriptures for the first-century Christians. These were widows after all, so they were not rich, as a class. They could not afford a scroll, and maybe their reading ability was deficient.

(6). Nonetheless, we saw in other posts that women really were teachers (if one understands Greek). In Colossians 3:16, Paul writes generically:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Col. 3:16, NIV, emphasis added).

And he writes:

When you come together, each one has a song, has a teaching, has a tongue, has an interpretation—let everything be done for edification. (1 Cor. 14:26, my translation, emphasis added)

The author of Hebrews also uses the general, inclusive pronoun:

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! (Heb. 5:12, NIV, emphasis added)

In Greek, “you” and “each one” is generic, which means everyone in the assembly, that is, men and women. The only way that traditionalists or restrictionists (who call themselves Complementarians) can exclude women from those generic words is to presuppose that women cannot be teachers in the first place. But this is the question under discussion, so let’s not assume the answer in advance.

Further, in 1 Corinthians 12:28 Paul lists three gifts to the body of Christ, even numbering them: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers. That verse comes in the context of everyone experiencing the gifts flowing through them as the Spirit distributes the gifts (vv. 4-7). We already saw that the Greek is clear about Junia being an apostle within the larger apostolic community:

Yes, Junia Really Was a Female Apostle: A Close Look at Roman 16:7

Women could be prophetesses, not only in the OT (Exod. 15:20; Judg. 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Is. 8:3; Joel 2:26), but also in the NT: Anna (Luke 2:36); all women (Acts 2:17); Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9).

So it is easy to believe that women could be teachers of a broader group than just young women (Titus 2:4). Priscilla was a teacher, functionally speaking, so her real-life role clarifies Paul’s general instructions in 1 Timothy 5:9-10. Female teachers who clarified doctrines or teachings did exist, though the majority of widows may not have belonged to this group of teachers. Yet functionally, in a household setting, it is easy to imagine, as noted, that at least one widow–particularly former priestesses in the temple of Artemis who had really powerfully converted and learned not to dominate in their teaching–taught some gospel truths on some occasions.

Are Women Allowed to Teach Men? A Close Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15

Titus 2:4 says women were teachers, on the island of Crete. Go here for the data:

Are Older Women Restricted to Teaching (‘Only’?) Young Women? A Close Look at Titus 2:3-5

At that link, I reached this conclusion:

Women teachers existed in the New Testament. In Titus 2:3-5 Paul was writing from a cultural point of view. Women occupied their own household and had to manage it. And older women naturally taught young women how to manage their own household, to love their husbands and children and develop the virtues, because young women also occupied the domestic sphere. But we must not over-read Paul’s words, when the church met in their household. It is easy to imagine that when the church service was going on, walls of separation between men and women sharing their faith, their songs, their revelations and their teachings collapsed.

(7). Paul further writes: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).

In that verse the Greek word translated as “direct” (proistēmi, pronounced pro-ees-stay-mee) can also mean, depending on the context, “be concerned about, care for, give aid” (Shorter Lexicon). Shepherding people in need and doing good deeds for them shows concern and cares for and gives aid to them. It is therefore easy to see that by their practical ministry, the over-sixty-years-young widows also “directed the affairs of the church” in that sense and should receive double honor. They were leaders to whom Paul was giving honor in 1 Timothy 5:9-10. Women like Priscilla taught.

In 1 Corinthians 12:28 Paul uses the noun kubernēsis (“leading” or “administration”), which is related to kubernētēs, which can mean in some contexts “the captain” or “navigator” (of a ship). In vv. 4-6 Paul writes that these gifts are distributed by the Spirit, as God works them to everyone, including women. And so it goes with leadership in v. 28–women may lead, too because none of 1 Corinthians 12 is gender specific (to men only).

Again, see this link:

Are Women Allowed to Teach Men? A Close Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15

And this post argues that the five gifts from Christ to the church, the new temple which he is building, is open to women, one gift being teacher:

Women, Men, and Five Ministry Gifts in Ephesians 4:11

(8). Paul tucks this verse inside his discussion of deacons:

In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. (1 Timothy 3:11)

In this verse, the Greek does not have the pronoun “their” (or even the article “the”), as if these women were the wives of deacons: “their wives” (though some interpret the verse that way). But this does not matter to me in this post. It is about the character of these women. The widows must have exhibited the same characteristics over their saved lives, while married before their widowhood, particularly when the qualities and activities in 1 Timothy 5:9-10 are suggestive and not exhaustive. (It is difficult to imagine they behaved in the opposite way!)

And consider these verses, which match the list of qualifications for elderly women in 1 Timothy 5:9-10:

12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:12-13)

So the wall of officialdom of these terms (overseer, pastor, overseers, deacons, elderly widows) has been lowered, because all of these groups shepherded and oversaw and served the flock, as they followed Jesus. This is what mattered most.

(9). Let’s see if we can figure out what the nouns pastor, elder, and overseer mean by searching out their verbs. We are in for a surprise, however, on the (comparative) word elder.

Let’s begin with the noun “pastor” or “shepherd” (poimēn, pronounced poi-main) and its verb (poimainõ, pronounced poi-my-noh). The noun for “shepherd” or “pastor” is the same word in Greek. The verb’s definitions are as follows: “herd,” “tend,” “(lead) to pasture”; “lead, “guide,” “rule”; “care for,” “look after” (Shorter Lexicon). I add: it means “to shepherd, to pastor.” The NIV translates it as “be a shepherd” (see below). These verbs describe the function of the shepherd, and the women, now elderly widows, had accomplished and were accomplishing those verbs. They were functional and ontological (in their being) shepherds or pastors, throughout their redeemed lives.

Once again, please see this post which says that five ministry gifts are open to women:

Women, Men, and Five Ministry Gifts in Ephesians 4:11

(10). An old church joke of the 1980s and first half of the 1990s, when the church growth guys and church planners were on the rise: A pastor pastors, a shepherd shepherds, and an overseer oversees. What does an elder do? Answer: An elder elds! (And a bishop bishops, which is likewise no answer at all!)

That is to say, in the NT, the word “elder” does not have a verb that fits the context of church leaders (the classical Greek of Aeschylus, Sophocles, et al. is another matter, hundreds of years earlier, for the verb is very rich.) It is the verb presbeuō (pronounced press-bew-oh), and in the NT it means only “be an ambassador, travel or work as an ambassador” (Shorter Lexicon). It is used only twice: 2 Cor. 5:20; Eph. 6:2, and in those verses it does indeed mean to do the work of an ambassador. Therefore, in the context of church leadership the NT writers did not make use of the verb presbeuō, but had to dip into the verb poimainō (“to shepherd” or “to pastor”) (and the next verb under no. 11), to summarize the function of an elder (see Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2).

(11). The noun for overseer is episkopos (pronounced eh-pea-sko-poss), and the verb is episkopeō (eh-pea-sko-peh-oh), which means in the right context: “oversee, care for” (1 Peter 5:2). It appears in one other verse, Heb. 12:15, which is not about church leadership. So the verb is used only twice in the entire NT, and only once is it about the function of the overseer and shepherd.

(12). Peter writes:

For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25)

So Peter sees “shepherd” (a.k.a. pastor–again, the same Greek noun) as synonymous with “overseer,” though I don’t believe we should obliterate the nuanced differences between the two roles. What is important for our purposes is that Jesus cares for souls. If elders, whether men or women, now widows, cared for souls–and certainly the righteous widows did–then they were following in Jesus’ footsteps and carrying on his leadership mission, in practical terms.

(13). Here are the pastoral duties of an elder according to Peter, and let’s highlight the two verbs “shepherd” and “watch over”:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another […] (1 Peter 5:1-5, emphasis added)

Note the NIV’s translation (in bold font) of the verbs poimainō in v. 2: “be shepherds” and episkopeō: “watching over,” also in v. 2. This makes “elder” and “overseer” synonyms (but without obliterating their nuanced differences). Peter does not make use of the verb presbeuō because, as noted, it does not fit the context of church leadership in NT Greek. In any case, the other two verbs in their context guide our understanding of the practical function and role of an elder, pastor, and overseer. Older women had been actually accomplishing those prescriptions in Peter’s passage, throughout their redeemed and married lives, particularly because the qualities and activities listed in 1 Timothy 5:9-10 are suggestive, not exhaustive.

In v. 4 Jesus is called the Chief Shepherd (archipoimēn, pronounced ar-khee-poi-main), so it could be argued that shepherd (or pastor) are synonyms, if we take away the prefix archi-. And therefore if a man or woman follows Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, in how he and she cares for his flock, then they qualify. I say the sixty-plus-year-young widows were doing his work of shepherding his people. One example: Jesus washed his apostles’ feet (John 13), and so did widows. (I see no reason to quarrel about the interpretation that the widows did this for practical reasons, while Jesus did this for a lesson in the humility of leaders. Both the widows and Jesus served.)

Further, Peter switches to a more generic use of elder in v. 5: the younger must submit to the elders, while everyone must clothe themselves with humility. Thus we should not hold on tight to our demand that we maintain the officialness of the title “elder.”

(14). The setting of the widows was their household; therefore, it is easy to affirm that the widows in 1 Timothy 5:9-10 were gladly willing to watch over and be shepherds to God’s flock in this setting, particularly if the church met in their houses. The widows eagerly took leadership roles where they were most comfortable, their household, even washing the feet of travelers or local believers whom they hosted. These righteous widows were indeed “examples to the flock”; and Peter, like Paul, would gladly approve of them as pastors, elders, and overseers when the hierarchical officialness is taken away from the real-life roles.

And so, the elderly women and widows in 1 Timothy 5:1, 9-10 easily fit within and accomplish Peter’s general requirements of an elder, for he is much less specific than Paul is in his requirements in the columned table, above.

(15). There is one cultural fact about synagogues which may shed light on these women who worked as and were pastors, elders, overseers.

Recall that Paul first went into the synagogue wherever he went, to introduce the Messiah. Female synagogue rulers were found in Asia Minor (modern western Turkey), Greece, and Crete. Seven tomb inscriptions in which women bear the title Elder in the synagogue have been found (so far) in Crete, Malta, Thrace, North Africa, and Italy (Linda L. Belleville in Two Views on Women in Ministry, ed. James R. Beck, pp. 44-45).

It is not outlandish to believe that Paul saw these cultural facts during his missionary journeys and therefore allowed women to take the lead in the church, as elders. He  also saw that the women were effective leaders who shepherded and watched over the flock of God, the church. How could he shut them down? He would not. Do we today shut them down? Some do.

(16).. And thus the many translations which translate 1 Timothy 3:1 as “office of overseer” (or “bishop”) are not quite right, for they inflate the simplicity of the down-to-earth roles to a high-level office. The NIV is better and hews closer to the Greek: “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” No word on a formal, hierarchical office, and, as noted, the word office does not exist in NT Greek, in any case.

(17). One objection that is easily shut down: only women over sixty can be elders-shepherds-overseers. So what does this mean, say, for the forty-year-old?

The reply is simple. The sixty-year-old women had been pastoring, “elding” (!), and overseeing all their redeemed lives before sixty; that’s why they could be admitted into an official registry of some sort, once they reached that age.

(18), Another objection: In Acts 20:17-38, Paul sent for the Ephesian elders to come to him in the city of Miletus. It seems they were men who went on the journey, Therefore only men were elders.

This challenge makes too much of indirect reasoning and indirect evidence. Even if the traveling elders were only men, this does not by itself prove that women were not elders. Also, the Greek language has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter, yet Greek uses the masculine gender to cover men and women (as do many languages with gendered nouns and pronouns). Women elders could have been present with the male elders. Also, women primarily occupied the domestic sphere, and it would have been inconvenient for them to travel. However, even if men only went to Miletus, the evidence suggests, nonetheless, as laid out in all the previous points, that women were elders, pastors, and overseers.

Now let’s tackle a major objection.

REPLY TO A MAJOR OBJECTION

However, more restrictive interpreters, who work extra-hard at reducing women’s full involvement in the pastoral ministry, see things differently. Here is one example from a leading authority in the Southern Baptist Convention. The biography at the end of his posted articles reads (omitting his degrees), as follows:

Dr. Richard Land […] served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

In his 2022 article “The Southern Baptists’ ‘pastor’ controversy: A study in terminology’s pitfalls and their consequences” for Christian Post, he writes:

The verb form of all three of these words describing the office of pastor: episkopos (bishop), presbutero (elder), and poimainō (“to shepherd, or pastor”) are found in the Apostle Peter’s first epistle (I Pet. 5:1-5). (source)

However, points nos. 9-13 show that he is wrong about the Greek. Only two verbs are used (Land says three, yet he lists only one) in regards to leading. Then he mixes in episkopos and presbuteros with the one verb poimainō, and the form of his comparative presbutero is not accurate, either (it should read as I have it). Peter does not use the verb for “elder” in this passage because it would make no sense. But these are finer points which we can overlook, though I hope the SBC are not basing their restrictions against women elders, overseers, or pastors on exegesis like this. (Dr. Land should have consulted a NT scholar.)

The bigger point is that he misses the essence of the passage in Peter’s epistle. It is not a prooftext against women, but it shows how they accomplished the real-life work of being a down-to-earth elder, pastor, and overseer for needy and troubled people. Women could participate in those three ministries (bundled into one, if one sees them as complete synonyms, though I do not), once we strip away the ministries’ needless officialness.

Further, do we want to make those overlapping ministries into an all-male exclusive club when the needs are so great? It would be churlish of certain Bible interpreters (the Complementarians) to insist that these elderly women were not doing the practical, hands-on work of a shepherd-elder-overseer, throughout their redeemed lives, two thousand years ago. They were in fact being and doing these overlapping ministries in their real lives. It is a sure thing that “when the Chief Shepherd appears, you [they] will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

CONCLUSION

Therefore, in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, the widows had been functioning as and were elders, pastors, overseers. They had been church leaders who shepherded and pastored and oversaw (and “elded”!) the people of God, throughout their redeemed lives. Their function (actually doing the work) tells us of their ontology (who they were): they were and did the work of elders, pastors, and overseers of God’s flock in Ephesus (and probably throughout the Christian communities, as in Crete, where Paul sent Titus).

I say that their doing and being “promotes” them to be part of church governance since they could offer much-needed insight from their experience of a lifetime of ministry. After all, they qualify to be registered on an official list precisely and only because of their shepherding and overseeing (and “elding”!) gifts. I can easily imagine a male elder asking these righteous widows for advice on a sensitive issue. In that case she is directing the affairs of the church. She is a leader, who guides the church. I see no high wall of separation between the male and female elders or pastors or overseers.

And so, may women today eagerly participate and willingly serve in the practical ministry of pastor-elder-overseer, but only if God has called them. Scripture, properly interpreted, certainly does not stand in their way. We need them because the needs are so far-reaching and intense.

And if today we insist on making these roles official, a career, then so be it. But I still don’t see how women can be excluded from accomplishing and occupying these roles in an official capacity as her career, in a modern context, if God has called and gifted her.

RELATED

Women, Men, and Five Ministry Gifts in Ephesians 4:11

Should Women Not Speak One Word in Church? A Close Look at 1 Cor. 14:34-36

Are Women Allowed to Teach Men? A Close Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15

Women Teachers: New Translation and Reinterpretation of 1 Timothy 2

And no, this is not a post advocating progressive, leftwing, postmodern feminism. I speak out against it and progressivism generally:

Warning to Evolving, Progressive Churches: Danger Signs

Warning to Evolving, Progressive Churches: Authority of Scripture

Warning to Evolving, Progressive Churches: Marriage and Sex

Warning to Evolving, Progressive Churches: Judgment Is Coming

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