Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ministry in the New Testament (Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons) or a Presbytera is not a “Priestess” (Part 2)
This is the second of two essays on on women’s ministry in the New Testament. In the previous essay, I addressed the question (1) “Did women exercise ministerial office in the New Testament period?”1 In this essay, I address the two additional questions: (2) How does the New Testament address the question of female bishops or presbyters? (3) What are the contemporary hermeneutical implications of what the New Testament says about women in office?
As noted in previous essays, the New Testament says very little about the actual practices associated with the more permanent ministries which I have called “office.” For example, the New Testament nowhere describes the ritual celebration of the Eucharist or indicates who presided at its celebration, nor does the New Testament ever use the word “priest” to refer to those who exercise office, both key concerns in Catholic discussions of ordained ministry. Although the New Testament nowhere identifies by name a woman who exercised the role of presbyter or bishop, it does not mention by name any man with these titles either.
In addition (as I also pointed out), the New Testament terminology for office is fluid, and a number of titles are used: “co-worker,” “apostle,” “deacon,” “teacher, “prophet,” “leader.” However, after the New Testament period, permanent ministry is particularly associated with the offices of overseer/bishop, elder/presbyter, and deacon. These offices are rarely mentioned in the New Testament. The book of Acts indicates that Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders” (πρεσβύτεροι, presbyteroi) “in each church” (Acts 14:23). As Paul concluded his third mission journey before returning to Jerusalem, he addressed the “elders” (πρεσβύτεροι, presbyteroi) of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17). Paul counsels them to keep watch over the flock over whom the Holy Spirit has made them “overseers” (ἐπίσκοποι, episkopoi) in order to shepherd the church of God (v. 28). In chapter 15, Acts mentions “the elders” in conjunction with “the apostles” (Acts 15:4, 6, 22, 23). In Phil. 1:1, Paul greets the “saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi,” along with the “overseers and deacons” (ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις, episkopois kai diakonois). This is the only letter in which Paul specifically addresses these office-holders by title. Again, there is nothing in these passages to indicate the sex of these office-holders, and the only person specifically identified as a deacon by Paul is the female deacon, Phoebe (Rom. 16:1).