1 Timothy: Women in the Church Pt. 3

Read related posts here.

This part of the discussion will seem strange to those outside Churches of Christ, but it was a question I was asked to address in my class so I’ll include it here also.

The autonomy of individual congregations has long stood as a core tenet of belief within Churches of Christ.  The basic argument proposes that the New Testament describes no church organization above the local congregations.  In fact, the only instructions for church governance detail the appointment of elders and deacons in local churches.  The elders in each location are responsible for the teaching and faithfulness of their congregation. (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb 13:17)

Thus Churches of Christ insist we are not a denomination, which would be unscriptural, as we have no overseeing administrative offices.  There is no hierarchy of clergy, nor any requirement to pay dues to use the name “Church of Christ”.  Theoretically, each congregation is free to make its own decisions on belief and practice.

However, a traditional competing doctrine muddies these autonomous waters.  Through the middle of the 20th century many churches of Christ developed the logic that if there’s one Bible and we all read it with an open mind, we should all come to the same conclusions.  Therefore, churches across the US (world?) should share the same doctrines and practices.  This line of reasoning excluded opinion and cultural values/customs from the church.  Anecdotally I have been led to believe that a general uniformity of teaching and practice appeared and churches that didn’t measure up were disfellowshipped.

I find it really quite remarkable that such a broad fellowship of autonomous congregations could ever develop a significant degree of uniformity.  Apparently no one gave much thought to the innate contradictions of these two beliefs.  The doctrine of autonomy was applied only to church leadership to exclude the possibility of formal church hierarchies involving offices such as bishops or synods.  As long as this type of congregational autonomy could be maintained the churches could continue to distinguish themselves from all the other unBiblical (sinful) denominations.  Yet there was very little scope given for doctrinal autonomy.

I pointed out in my first post on this topic that many of the possible applications of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are pretty subjective.  So who makes the decisions?  In the traditional Church of Christ practice, a degree of “conventional wisdom” supported by  teachers or publications well-known within the movement established the orthodox beliefs.

I believe that in issues with this level of subjectivity the best people to make decisions are the elders at each congregation.  They can take a word like “authority”, consider the cultural values of their community, and decide what roles within the church comply with Paul’s teaching in this passage.  As a consequence, different churches will reach different conclusions and practices.

Is saying a public prayer an act of authority or of service?  While I believe we serve one another through prayer, I can understand how some people might view anyone that stands before the congregation as automatically possessing authority.  However, since neither of us can prove ourselves right or the other wrong our churches will probably have different practices as we exercise our autonomy and our elders “watch over the souls” of each congregation to the best of their ability.

These two doctrines raise a lot of questions about the balance between congregational autonomy and cooperation, between the local church and the universal church.

  • How do you believe you should respond when you see a “sister congregation” teaching or practicing something with which you disagree?
  • I suggested in my class that although God is the ultimate judge we each make practical decisions about who to fellowship with and support, both individually and congregationally.  Some practices should have no impact on our relationships (eg. Lord’s Supper before or after the sermon) while others are vital (eg. deity of Christ).  In your eyes, how important is the role of women in the church in determining who you fellowship with?
  • If anyone has some more insight into the origins of these two doctrines (congregational autonomy, and uniformity of practice) within the Restoration Movement, I’d love for you to leave a comment. (Please don’t just leave a list of Scriptures. I’m aware of those.)
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9 comments

  1. K. Rex Butts

    I’m curious to know why you believe the elders alone are the best goup within the church to make such subjective decisions and why you think that elders and deacons are the only group of leaders given the responsiblity of “church governance” in scripture. Seems like Paul expected the evangelists/preachers named Timothy and Titus to have some leadership responsibility that would contribute to the governance of the churches they were serving in Ephesus and Crete. And what do we do with texts like 1 Corinthians 12.28 and Ephesians 4.11-12 which both assume other leaders involved in the overall leadership of the church.

    I know that in much of the Christian world, the senior preacher/pastor (or whatever title is worn) is elevated to a place of leadership authority above other church leaders such as elders and/or deacons. In our fellowship, we have taken the extreme opposite so that the eldership is above all the other leaders of the church. Practically this has meant that all the decisions effecting the church, its unity and mission, are left to the elders…which seems to be a contradiction of Ephesians 4 and the specific responsibilities placed upon Timoth and Titus.

    I believe a better model of leadership which seems to be more consistant with scripture is that God has given the local church evangelist(s)/preacher(s), elders/shepherds, deacons, teachers, etc… and each groups within this leadership has certain responsibilities for the service of the church so that the church can be what Jesus intended it to be. Decision making then would naturally consider the concerns of each and involve the consideration of each leader. I am further convinced that if each leader pursues such leadership as a self-sacrificial servant of the church under the lordship, that such decision making will come through prayerful dialogue that, though there may not be initial uninamity of agreement, will emerge in a unified consensus. And this is so, because every leader is truly listening to the concerns of the other leaders rather than just trying to push his will upon the rest.

    Such a leadership dialogue regarding the role of women, perhaps specifically involving the women passing the plate, might look something like…The deacons saying we need more servers and the only ones volunteering are women; the elders/shepherds voicing concerns about the implication of how such a break from tradition might negatively impact the spiritual health of the church; the evangelist/preacher(s) saying that including the women might actually help remove an unnecessary barrier between the gospel and a culture in which women have much more liberty than what they appear to have in the church; the teachers suggest that perhaps a small class with a cross-selection of the church membership might be beneficial to not only begin teaching the church about the issue but also gauge how the church might actually react to such a potential change; the elders…; the preachers…. And AFTER MUCH prayer and prudent dialogue, a decision is made by all of the leadership rather than what is the will of one leader or group of leaders within the leadership.

    I think such a hypothetical scenario has all of the leadership working together for the church rather than working in strife with one group of leaders working against the other leader.

    What do you think? I hope my long post helps us deal practically with the larger issue of church leadership and controversial/subjective issues.

    Sometime later, we can talk about why a fellowship of churches striving to be the New Testament Church – no more, no less, has ignored the gift of prophesy and the prophet(s) given to the local church (I think we have prophets among us but at best, we don’t recognizes them as such, and at worst, we sadly surpress their ministry).

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

    • ozziepete

      Thanks Rex. It looks like we’re moving into 1 Tim. 3 before I’ve finished discussing chapter 2! 🙂 Let me clarify that when I mentioned the elders I’m not considering an authoritarian eldership. I guess I do see some type of church leadership tree with Christ at the top and elders over local congregations, followed by deacons and then other ministry leaders. However, I don’t see why that arrangement can’t still be consultative, or dialogue or service based. In fact, the elders must be involved in the lives of those they shepherd.

      I certainly don’t have a complete grasp of the church leadership roles described in the New Testament. In the passages you cited the roles of prophet, teacher, evangelist, etc. are referred to, but not described. How do they interact with elders and deacons? Were they itinerant or located? Is there a hierarchy? Who determines whether someone’s an “official” prophet, teacher, pastor etc.? Even in Timothy & Titus we’re not really told the process other churches should go through to appoint elders & deacons. There’s obviously a lot to talk about there.

      I guess I’m happy to give elders the final say over church doctrinal issues because it’s the leadership role the Bible tells us the most about, and that seems to be the responsibility it describes.

      Even in Ephesus with all the roles described in Ephesians 4, when Paul couldn’t visit the city he called the elders to meet with him, not the teachers, prophets, etc. (Acts 20:17) (Yes, I know those roles may not be exclusive.) Then he said to them, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God….” In 1 Tim 4:17 the elders are described as the people who “direct the affairs of the church”.

      OK, I’ll leave it there. I believe God does make the elders responsible for the spiritual well being of the congregation. But they also need to listen and work with the congregation as a whole (including women) and not just make random decisions that pander to their likes and dislikes. They have some authority, but must not be authoritarian. Elders meetings should not take place in an ivory tower.

      • K. Rex Butts

        Peter,

        I too believe God has made elders/shepherds responsible for the well-being of the Christians (local church) under their watch/care but I don’t believe that responsibility consitutes the entire picture of leadership responsibility in the church and therefore do not believe decisions made should be entirely their decision (though they certainly should be included).

        I too confess an inadequacy to understanding the scope of biblical leadership for the church with so many exegetical and hermeneutical questions to consider. However, I don’t view church leadership in terms of a metaphorical tree with Christ at the top and below that other leaders according to rank. I certainly believe Christ is the “head” of the church and therefore the church should be in accordance with his will for the church. Instead of a metaphorical tree creating a hiarchiel structure, my present understanding would be pictured more like a three ring target. The center ring is, of course, Jesus Christ and thus the church revolves around him. The outer-ring is the church itself which revolves around its core (Christ) and must remain connected to its core if it wishes to remain the unique church which is a community unlike anything else in the world (rather than just becoming another social-club, charitable group, etc…). The middle-ring is the leadership which consists of the church’s teachers, deacons, preachers, elders, etc… (in no certain order) serving the church with their different roles and responsibilities so that the church continues to revolve around Christ in it faith maturity, unity and love, and mission.

        Whether I am right, wrong, or somewhere in between…I am convinced that biblical leadership is only biblical insofaras it strive to become a self-sacrificial servant of the church rather than a group of lords dictating the every move of a church…and we both know of at least one church where the results were painfully obvious of what happens when one group of leaders becomes the dictators of the church.

        Any ways…I am enjoying these discussions. I hope all is well for you in New York. If you ever get a chance to meet any of the people from the Ithaca (Cayuga St.) Church of Christ, say hello to them for me. They have two wonderful elders (Bill Hilker and Ron Hulrbut) whom were constantly placing the church before themselves and were a constant encouragement to me. And Drake Bassett, who preaches for them on Sundays, is an amazing student of scripture and man of faith whom I grew to have much admiration for. All of their leaders have wonderful wives who, as we both know, is, froma family standpoint, their Raison d’être.

        Grace and peace,

        Rex

        Also…if you every get a chance, you should meet Steve Connors who preaches at the Horseheads Church of Christ. That congregation was the closest to Ithaca (about 25 miles apart) so Steve and I met together on a regular basis and really became good friends.

  2. eirenetheou

    Few of us can conceive, understand, and process a “new” idea except in the terms of an idea we already have. So it is that the first Churches of Christ — a community of Jews emerging out of synagogues — found in the synagogues their model of congregational life and governance. As evangelists of the way of Jesus gradually moved in to the wider world beyond synagogue Judaism, the Jews became a minority and eventually — for several reasons — disappeared. By the beginning of the second century the dominant members of the Churches of Christ had quite different models for organizing and governing an assembly or community: craft guilds, social clubs, cities, and the Empire. Ignatius offers our first concrete evidence for the dominance of the episkopos, but he is promoting a tendency that is already full-grown in city churches throughout the Empire.

    Thomas and Alexander Campbell — Presbyterians baptized by a Baptist — gladly retained the model of the presbytery in the local congregation, but shied away from sanctioning the synods and associations in which they had encountered so much grief. Their emphasis on “autonomy” was learned the hard way, and those who trifle with it may soon discover why autonomy matters.

    The heirs of the Campbells among the twentieth-century Churches of Christ, having little history and no “theology” on which to found their ecclesiology — have evolved the model of the presbytery into a board of directors and made the preacher into a chief administrator who carries out what the board decrees. Success in business was, through most of the twentieth century, the most desirable “qualification” for eldership, as long as the prospective elder had sired at least one child, properly baptized, on only one wife.

    Paul’s model of the Body of Christ, as in 1 Cor 12-14, that Rex recalls to us, is a model founded on the gifts of the Spirit and the discernment and use of those gifts in the congregation. If we had taught the gifts of the Spirit, and had we been willing to recognize them and allow them freedom to develop when they appeared, then perhaps — just perhaps — we might not be struggling about issues of human power. As it is, we have exchanged the gifts of the Spirit for mere human “talents” and “abilities” — and the fruit of that exchange is there for all who may have eyes to see, not least in our doctrine of ministry founded on genitalia. “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”

    May God have mercy.

    d

  3. ozziepete

    d,

    I agree that too often elders meetings can resemble board meetings of local businesses, rather than prayer meetings.

    I also agree that over the years Churches of Christ have sadly placed much more emphasis on church structure and governance than recognizing and practicing spiritual gifts.

    I agree that genitalia is a tragic criteria for selecting spiritual shepherds. It’s for this reason that 1 Timothy and Titus compile a list of character traits much more exhaustive than mere physiology.

    I believe I’ve stated earlier that Churches of Christ have traditionally done a terrible job of identifying opportunities for women to serve in the church. While I do not believe that the Bible permits complete equality of gender roles within the church, I agree that many women have had their spiritual gifts repressed because the men were unprepared to concede any of the power they’d accumulated. This needs to change.

    I’m not seeking to replace congregational autonomy with some type of denominational structure. It just seems to me that we haven’t done a good job of thinking through all the consequences of this. And maybe “autonomy” is not the best word to describe the Biblical relationship that existed between congregations.

    • eirenetheou

      i am glad, Brother Peter, that you see the need for “change” in attitudes toward the work and ministry of women and men among the Churches of Christ. The doctrine of ministry in most congregations is founded on genitalia, so that a ten-year-old male who has been baptized may “lead” prayer before a public assembly, mouthing words that he has heard others say, while godly women who have practiced a discipline of prayer for forty years or more sit mute. It is frequently the case — more often than not, in my observation — that men of 50 or 60 years may have no more practice in prayer or Bible reading or singing than a ten-year-old, yet they are “qualified” by genitalia alone to “lead” the public assembly in worship while other members of the assembly sit by, seething or drying up. There is something wrong with this picture, it is thoroughly unbiblical, and it is most certainly “tragic.”

      i do not believe in “the equality of gender roles.” i do not find “gender roles” of any kind in the New Testament. “Roles” are for play-actors. i believe, with our brother Paul, that “in Christ” there is “no male and female” (Gal 3:28). This is the “new creation” in which “we know no one according to the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16-18). No one should be “qualified” or “disqualified” for any work or ministry in the Church on the basis of sex. We should, rather, hear the words of Paul, and heed them: “Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. . . . For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (1 Cor 14:1, 31).

      God’s Peace to you.

      d

  4. Josh Freeman

    I’ve enjoyed reading the responses. I don’t have much input but a question: As far as congregations with no eldership…who or how should decisions be made? Concerning women in the church: I agree that we often “squash” women in today’s congregations of the Church of Christ. What are some of your suggestions on how this can be corrected? I realize this is not a “quick fix” answer but thought it would be interesting to hear your thoughts Peter. Also, I look at “roles” in worship like I do marriage. All are equal but given different roles and gifts. I love to see a congregation who is not run by the eldership but rather works alongside of their elders. Sorry for the randomness 🙂

  5. ozziepete

    Sorry I’m so late addressing your question Josh.

    I guess I don’t have a concise answer. I think the question of church governance in the absence of elders is a tricky one. I’m not a fan of “Men’s Meetings” as masculinity is never sufficient qualification for Godly leadership.

    The church (including women) may be willing to recognise the leadership of some Godly men who for one reason or another are not “qualified” to serve as elders.

    Or the men could humbly accept their shortcomings and work democratically with the women in the church, some of whom may have greater spiritual maturity than the men. My proviso here is that all the men and women should be prepared to step back should some of the men be identified as equipped to assume the responsibility of elders.

    Feel free to dispute these ideas. I’m really just brainstorming, as I don’t think there’s much in the way of clear teaching on the topic. However, I do appreciate that this represents the reality for many (small) churches around the world.

    • Josh Freeman

      No worries Peter, you’re a busy guy! I’ve always felt similar to one of your statements. I have always felt that in the absence of a qualified eldership, men and women should work together on decisions. This can be played out in a few different ways but both should be involved I feel. One of the biggest struggles I see in churches I have attended and some that a few friends have worked at is when an individual sets himself/herself up as the dominant “elder.” Of course there will always be the movers and shakers of the congregation, but I often see a struggle between what the congregation wants as a whole and what an individual or two want who are more dominant and overpowering. It’s a tough spot to be in. I thank God for congregations with elderships.

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