Several years ago, I met with a group of younger women to discuss male eldership. One of them made a helpful point. “Young men in the church have the elders to look up to as models for mature Christian living,” she said, “but who should young women look up to?”
There are mature and godly women—the sort of women this young woman yearned to follow—in every church. But does the fact that these women are not in leadership roles make it more difficult for younger women to discern who the godly examples are? Is having exclusively male elders causing a problem?
Though a plurality of male elders is the consistent biblical model (Acts 14:23; 15:6; 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Pet. 5:1–2, 5), many think male-only eldership is a problem for women in the church. Stories of bullying leaders who have abused their authority cast a negative light on traditional church leadership structures where the plurality of elders is limited to older men. Wouldn’t it be better if the church’s leadership were more representative of its membership’s demographics? Doesn’t limiting leadership to men make it more difficult for godly women to be both seen and heard?
The truth is that having only male elders can present challenges. But if male-only eldership is the biblical pattern and, therefore, a part of God’s good design (as I believe it is), then those challenges can be overcome. Here are three safeguards that can help us handle the biblical structure for leadership with care and wisdom.
1. Elders must reflect godly character.
The Bible tells us that an elder must be “above reproach, . . . not arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:7–8). These qualities reflect the standard set forth by Jesus, who told us not to emulate the leadership style of the Gentiles, who “lord it over” those in their charge but instead to serve with humility and grace (Mark 10:42–45). Peter similarly urged elders to be “eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2–3, NIV). There’s no place for domineering or abusive leadership in Christ’s church. Godly leaders will be servants, always seeking the welfare of others above their own.
2. Elders must demonstrate maturity.
Though the title “elder” doesn’t refer to chronology so much as to maturity, there’s no doubt that godly wisdom and character are gained and displayed over time. Contrary to the spirit of our culture, in God’s economy, being older is not a detriment but an advantage. Age should engender respect (Prov. 16:31; 1 Tim. 5:1).
A mature elder performs a fatherly role in the church family. In fact, I’d suggest that asking whether it’s good for an elder to be male is like asking the question, “Is it good for a father to be male?” There are immature fathers who aren’t worthy of respect, but that doesn’t negate the male nature of the role.
Contrary to the spirit of our culture, in God’s economy, being older is not a detriment but an advantage.
Now, the church’s elders aren’t explicitly called “fathers” in the Bible, but it’s a reasonable inference, for the church is an extended family (1 Tim. 3:15). One of the requirements of eldership is managing one’s household well (1 Tim. 3:4), and Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:1 are also suggestive: “Do not rebuke an older man [presbuteros, the same Greek word used for ‘elder’ in other contexts] but exhort him as if he were your father” (NIV).
As spiritual fathers, elders are to guard the flock, protecting the sheep from the wolves that can come and spread falsehood. They nourish the church with wise teaching. This fatherly role, when exercised with maturity, is a part of God’s good design.
3. Elders must be attentive to congregational needs.
We live in an age of identity politics, in which every demographic and identity group competes for preeminence and power. The church should be different. We are a loving family, called into being by God’s gracious gospel. But to shepherd this family well, wise leaders will be attentive to the needs that arise from peoples’ particular situations and life circumstances.
As spiritual fathers, elders are to guard the flock, protecting the sheep from the wolves that can come and spread falsehood.
We must be aware of and address our blind spots just as the apostles raised up leaders to care for the Hellenistic widows in Acts 6. Is your elder team sufficiently aware of the needs of single men and women in your church family? Single parents? Ethnic minorities? As “older men,” are you in touch with the needs of children and teenagers, or the challenges of raising kids in a smartphone culture? Have you given attention to the new economy that can create instability and uncertainty about employment?
Elders must keep up with new trends in society and be engaged through mutually enriching mentoring relationships with younger men. Wise leadership makes the effort to stay in touch with the needs of people, working to apply the unchanging gospel of Christ to every circumstance.
Titus 2 Ministry
The meetings with younger women in our church about male eldership were one of the ways our team sought to hear and address congregational needs and desires. As I mentioned above, elders perform a fatherly role in the life of the church. But those women raised the question, “Doesn’t the church also need mothers, mature women with a godly perspective?”
It does, and I believe wise elders recognize this.
Throughout church history, the church has developed various structures to care for the needs of women. The list of widows in 1 Timothy 5 and the instruction to older women to teach younger women in Titus 2:3–5 are two of the first.
In response to the excellent questions from younger women in our church and our recognition that our leadership had blind spots when caring for women, we created what we call the Titus 2 Team, a group of five spiritually mature, godly women appointed by our elders to assist the elders in their pastoral care for the women of our church. These women provide a form of visible female leadership that’s respected and honored. They meet regularly with the elders, and one member of this team prays publicly each month during a worship service. This is not the only option for elder-led churches seeking to care for women, but it’s one that our church has found helpful.
Yes, pastors shepherd the whole church; the elders are available for anyone. But we recognize sometimes it’s helpful for a woman to be the key person who addresses another woman’s needs and concerns. The Titus 2 Team has given us a structure that helps us to ensure the needs and God-given gifts of women in our church are not neglected.
Is male eldership a problem? It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. When the church family is led by mature, godly men who act with humility and wisely seek the welfare of the whole body, male eldership is a gift. Through attending to the input and insight of all—young and old, men and women—godly male elders are part of God’s beautifully designed community of grace.