The Gospel is best displayed in a community of faith when both men and women flourish as they use their uniquely designed and equally important spiritual gifts for the work of God-glorifying ministry.
Male and female share a common humanity and equal worth before God. They are equal in essence (Gen. 1:26-27) and equal in dignity, worth, and importance. Galatians 3:28 further delineates male-female equality in Christ’s redemptive work. Both are saved by faith, both fully united with Christ, and both fully co-heirs of all of the riches of His kingdom.
In our modern culture, men and women share many of the same roles in the workplace and elsewhere. The church is often criticized because it does not conform to the values of the culture that eliminate distinctions between the roles of men and women. We look to Scripture, not the culture, for our values, holding fast to a Gospel that is very often counter-cultural. Nevertheless, the witness of the church to the culture has at times been undermined because of the sinful attitudes of Christian men toward the abilities and intellect of women. Such attitudes are disobedient to Scripture’s clear teaching that women are equal in dignity before God and are fully co-heirs of grace.
In God’s sovereignty, His ordering of creation does not establish sameness between man and woman, but rather one with certain unique roles tied to a gender and certain shared roles between the genders, all within the context of their complementing differences. For the church, Scripture clearly teaches that oversight and authoritative teaching are reserved to the office of elder, and being male is one qualification of being an elder. But this qualification is not about female gifts or their intellect somehow lacking. Rather, God is showing us symmetry between the leadership of the local church and the leadership of a family. It is the same relationship between Christ (the groom) and the church universal (His bride). The leadership of the church, therefore, points to the created order and to God’s redemptive design.
Therefore, we believe from Scripture that men and women are equally permitted and encouraged to serve in ministry roles throughout Fellowship, with two specific exceptions: 1) authoritative oversight of the local body of believers is reserved to the elders (whom Scripture requires to be men), and 2) ministerial contexts in which men are to exercise spiritual authority over other men. Apart from these exceptions, it is the strong desire of the Elders that both men and women should be equally pursued to use their gifts for the work of ministry to the glory of God.
The Bible describes the office of elder as carrying with it the authority of governance over the local body of believers (Acts 15:2, 6, 23; 16:4). Elders are called to exercise that authority in humility and in a spirit of gentleness as ones who are under the authority of the chief shepherd, Jesus Christ, to whom they must give an account one day (Hebrews 13:17). From the description found in 1 Tim 5:17-25 and Titus 1:5-9, the role of elder is to be filled by qualified men who can be empowered with the responsibility to govern and teach the body. While women are not Scripturally permitted to become elders, it is also true that typically most men in the local church will not become elders either. Thus, the issue of authoritative leadership in the church is not one of men vs. women, but rather a question of who is qualified and called to be, and set apart as, an elder. Other than the office of elder, women may (and are often needed to) serve and lead in our body.
One area in our church where women and men serve alongside each other and give administrative leadership is in the oversight of ministries and staff functions. These roles are consistent with the role of “deacon” in the New Testament church, even though Fellowship does not have an official office called “deacon.” The role of a deacon is not to oversee the church1, but rather to assist the elders in ministry so that the elders may devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:1-6). We believe from Scripture that men and women are allowed to serve as deacons.2
Many of the type of duties historically performed by deacons in the New Testament are still performed in our church by those who are biblically qualified to be a deacon (1 Timothy 3:8-13). They may be members of staff or lay leaders. Examples of these duties include caring for those in need and providing administrative leadership over ministries, staff, finances, facilities, and events.
These duties may be performed by qualified men or women, subject to the oversight and authority of the elders.
Both men and women may serve as pastors at Fellowship, provided they are called and equipped toward that purpose. The role of a pastor is to spiritually shepherd the flock of God (Ephesians 4:11). Most churches in the United States have about 100 members and only one or two pastors who are the leaders of their congregations. However, large churches typically have multiple pastors on staff in order to effectively shepherd and care for the body. At Fellowship, our pastoral staff work under the day-to-day leadership of our Teaching Pastors. These Teaching Pastors are elders and, because of Scripture’s qualifications for elders, are necessarily male. Depending on the ministerial context, our remaining staff pastors may or may not be elders and may be men or women.3 Since a pastor exercises spiritual authority over the flock, pastoral leadership of a congregation, ministry, or individual must be in keeping with Scripture’s boundaries concerning women having authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12). Our pastors who are women will work under the leadership of male pastors whenever the ministerial context calls for exercising spiritual authority over a man.
Our small group leaders play an essential role as the primary disciple-makers at Fellowship. While small group leaders do not exercise oversight of the church (and therefore are not required to meet the qualification of “elder”), they teach, encourage and admonish those whom they are discipling. Therefore, given the shepherding nature of a small group leader, wisdom, prudence, and the instruction of scripture all call for healthy boundaries in the gender of these leaders. Adolescent and adult small group leaders should be the same gender as the group members. Small groups with male and female members should be led by male and female leaders, with the male leader bearing the primary burden of leadership.
One of the responsibilities of an elder involves the teaching of sound doctrine and using their authority to hold the body of the church (men and women) accountable in the application of that doctrine to their lives. In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul states that women are not permitted to teach or have authority over a man. What Paul is prohibiting is teaching with authoritative doctrinal instruction, which would include exercising oversight and correction over men and women, even to the point of exercising excommunication, if the need arises. This role of exercising Biblical authority over the local church through teaching is a role performed by the elders of the church. When an instruction is not coupled with the exercise of authority, then the instructor is not required to be an elder and thus may be either a man or woman, provided that person is gifted and is equipped toward that purpose.
Examples of authoritative teaching to be performed solely by an elder or pastor qualified to teach would include most sermons during a Sunday morning worship service and equipping classes that primarily pertain to teaching church doctrine. Those functions within the church that do not involve the coupling of authority with teaching such as many equipping classes, counseling and prayer ministries, and occasional guest speaking (by those on staff and from outside of Fellowship) may be performed by any person, male or female, whom the elders discern is called to and gifted for that function. Ultimately, all instruction within the church occurs under the oversight of the elders. Accordingly, the elders will take an active role in determining the content of teaching at Fellowship and, when necessary, correct any teaching that is in error (with a spirit of gentleness and humility).
Similar to the role of authoritative teaching, it is the role of an elder to exercise oversight of the gathering of the body (i.e., a worship service) to ensure that it proceeds in good order (1 Corinthians 14:40). Under that oversight, and in the context of a modern worship service, we believe that both men and women may serve and lead from the “platform” through singing, playing instruments, in public spoken prayer, the reading of scripture, testimonies, words of encouragement, collecting offerings, serving communion, and public speaking to welcome the church and to communicate information about events happening within the church. While 1 Corinthians 14:33-38 would seem to indicate that women are not allowed to speak in a worship service, the context of this passage limits its application to judge the soundness of prophetic statements, a role performed by elders alone in the New Testament church. In fact, 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 clearly implies an ongoing role for women and men who are not Elders in the worship service. Those aspects of the worship service that involve authoritative pastoral oversight of the gathered body should are to be performed by a male pastor/elder.
1 The usage of the term “deacon” can be confusing in our modern church context. Some Protestant denominations use the term “deacon” to refer to a group of laity who supervise the pastor and financial affairs of the church. Scripturally speaking, those duties are exercising oversight of the church and are more consistent with the office of elder, not deacon. That is why Fellowship uses the title “elder” for the body of men who give oversight to our church. In this paper, the term deacon is used in its New Testament context to refer to the group of men and women who work under the oversight of elders in order to help them in the daily work of ministry.
2 The issue of whether women may serve as deacons involves a question of interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11. The Greek word “gynaikas” may be translated as wives or women, depending on the context. We believe that the grammatical structure of this passage (Paul using the term “likewise”) points to this verse being a statement of the qualification for women deacons, not wives of deacons. Other conservative, evangelical commentators and churches agree with this interpretation as well, but it is not a universally held position. Additionally, there is significant historical evidence that women served as deacons since the earliest days of the church.
3 Unlike an elder, a “pastor” is not an office in the New Testament church with specific qualifications. In fact, nowhere does scripture specify that pastors must be male. Instead, Scripture makes clear that in the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 1:9), all believers, male and female, have the responsibility to shepherd as they disciple others in the faith.