I know that writing in support of egalitarianism in the church is likely to result in much antagonism. I understand why this is so. There is a lot at stake if the case for male superiority is weakened. It has implications for our privileged gender. Many good Christians find forms of complementarianism to make more sense of various biblical texts, though I contend it is often the coherence of their worldview that is being defended, not the major motifs and trajectories of Scripture.

Recently one person accused me of being more concerned with being a “progressive” than submitting to the plan of God for human gender. Such statements can be returned quite easily. It may be that one’s “conservative” views make them blind to the work of God. In fact, someone could aim to be “biblical” like those who argued for divorce on the basis that it seemed permitted freely in Scripture, yet Jesus stated that it was Moses’ response to the hard heartedness of the people (Matthew 19.8; Mark 10.5). So it is altogether possible that Scripture can be inspired to condescend to the place where humans reside.

While I don’t claim to know the mind of the Apostle Paul on many matters I do find some of his prohibitions against the full equality of women in the church to be this sort thing. What it quite amazing to me though is that within the same corpus of writings there are plenty of affirmative statements toward women and their full participation in the church. Sadly, many exegetes of the Pauline Epistles are quick to magnify those statements that seem antagonistic to women that they ignore the others.

One example would be how the same aforementioned person said this: “I don’t think women can be pastors/bishops. The requirements are clear – ‘the husband of one wife.'” He was referencing 1 Timothy 3.2 where a ἐπίσκοπος is required to be married to one woman only. I have a couple preliminary problems with this loose referencing of a proof-text:

(1) I am not convinced that the characteristics outlined in the Pastoral Epistles are universals. I think we should use them as a model for determining the type of people who should lead, but to argue that these epistles aren’t contextual seems misguided to me.

(2) It is common in language, even the English language, to make generalized statements referring to people in the masculine. I could say, “If a Republican is elected President this year I sure hope that he…” This statement may expose a gender bias, but it says little to nothing regarding gender qualifications for the office of the President.

These are immediate observations. Secondary to these points is the short-sightedness of this sort of proof-texting. In v. 8 the discussion has transitioned to deacons (διάκονος). We know little about the ebb and flow of early church government, but it does seem that an bishop/overseer has a more authoritative role than a deacon who is more of a “servant” to the church. As the author addresses the qualifications of deacons he mentions women deacons in v. 11. I know some translate γυναῖκας as “wives” like (surprise, surprise) the ESV, but I see this as an address to candidates who are women deacons. What is quite funny about this is that immediately in v. 12 the author writes, διάκονοι ἔστωσαν μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες (Let deacons be the husband of one wife.), which is the same statement given to bishops/overseers.

In the Epistle to the Romans, which few doubt as authentically from the Apostle Paul (in juxtaposition with the Pastoral Epistles), a woman named Phoebe is called a sister by Paul (ἀδελφὴ) and she is commended to the church at Rome as διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς ἐν Κεγχρεαῖς. If she is a “deaconess of the church in Chenchreae” then this is further confirmation of a woman as a deacon. Some argue that διάκονον should be translated “servant” here which is grammatically plausible, but I think such a suggestion is politically motivated. That she has this particular standing in a particular assembly makes it quite evident in my estimation that she has a particular office/role like the deacons elected in the Book of Acts and like those described in 1 Timothy.

So my friend who found the statement “a husband of one wife” to be something that disqualifies women from the role of overseer in the church has failed to notice the same phrase used to discuss deacons soon thereafter and that we have examples of women deacons in the early church.

Let me say one more thing about deacons. Some have noted that Acts 6.3 describes the Apostles as searching for “seven men” to be deacons and men were chosen. While I have disdain for the false dichotomy between narrative and didactic literature I do not think that in the context of Luke-Acts this particular author intends to promote a gender-exclusive role in the church. Of all the New Testament authors that of Luke-Acts is the most egalitarian by far. It is not a good argument to say that this is prescriptive as much as it was descriptive.