Bible translations & women pastors 2

If asked can women be pastors, many will immediately and without hesitation say, “No they can’t. Paul tells us quite clearly in 1 Tim 3:1-7, that eldership is male only.” The question is, does he?

Wanting to be those governed by the Word, we turn to our Bibles and read and note the frequent male references to “any man,” “he,” and “his,” in just a few verses, and we say, “There you are, look, it’s straightforward, obvious, male-only, Paul simply does not allow it.” End of!

Again, I ask, but does he?

With all these masculine pronouns and possessives in the first seven verses in most English translations, it would appear cut and dried, with no further argument. But, and it’s a big but, the Greek text reads quite differently. All the verbs in the Greek are generic, meaning they can be applied to either male or female subjects, and there are no masculine pronouns or possessives – none at all!

That means that when we read the first verse, we discover that Paul is actually saying, “This is a faithful saying: If someone desires to be an overseer (bishop or pastor), they desire a good work,” not “If a man…” If Paul had wanted to say that eldership was male-only, he could have used language that would have expressed exactly that (as many Bible versions have chosen to do), but he didn’t. He chose not to.

Several versions now translate it as, “whoever,” “anyone,” or “someone,” but unfortunately they revert to the masculine in the next clause, “he desires a noble task.” But that’s not how it reads. The 2011 NIV translates it as, “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” The NASB 2020 (which aims to be true to the original and grammatically correct) though does not, it reads: “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” Now this is interesting, as the NASB says that words that are not in the original are rendered in italics. If this is so, “man” should be in italics, yet it is not, thus giving the appearance that this is what Paul really said – likewise in the following verses (more on that below).

Now, of course, some may argue, “OK, I get the point on the Greek, but surely when Paul goes on to say that that person must be “the husband of one wife,” that seals it, and that’s why the translators have added the masculine pronouns and possessives.”

In the Greek though, “husband of one wife” is simply a “one-woman man,” an idiom or way of speaking. In other words, what we have here is a reference to marital faithfulness, something which would apply to any woman who desired to serve in that way, a “one-man woman.” If the phrase were to be taken literally, it raises more questions than answers, and the text presents us with more problems. For example, the reference to children is not singular but plural. Does that mean that no one could be an elder, or lead elder, who wasn’t married or didn’t have a minimum of at least two children? That would rule out singles and couples without children. We know that in both instances, no one reads it or takes it that way. The reference to a “one-woman man” then is not a reference or preference regarding gender, but can be taken to refer to marital faithfulness.

The passage becomes clearer when we read it in a way that truly reflects the Greek. The Common English Bible (2011) for example, renders the Greek into English in a way that recognizes the fact that there are no masculine pronouns or possessives in the text at all – though translators persist in putting them there.

Before we look at the CEB rendering, for contrast, here is a traditional translation (I’ve done an amalgamation so as not to make it version-specific; some versions have fewer pronouns and possessives. I’ve also deliberately underlined and put them in bold for impact):

“This saying can be trusted: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires something excellent. An overseer must have a good reputation. He must have only one wife, be sober, use good judgment, be respectable, be hospitable, and be able to teach. He must not drink excessively or be a violent person, but he must be gentle. He must not be quarrelsome or love money. He must manage his own family well and his children should obey him respectfully. (If a man doesn’t know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a new Christian, or he might become conceited and arrogant and so come under the same condemnation as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with those who are not Christians, or he might become the victim of disgraceful insults that the devil sets as traps for him.

That’s an awful lot of male pronouns and possessives in just a few verses – especially when they are not there. On that basis, it’s not surprising that we should draw certain conclusions from it as to male and female roles. The plain reading would seem to make it abundantly clear.

Sadly, the updated NASB 2020, continues to use male references: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, skillful in teaching, not overindulging in wine, not a bully, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.” (My highlighting). Note the only italicised words are “He must be…” “Man,” “his” and “he” are not, thus giving the impression that this is what the original says.

Here are the same verses in the Common English Bible:

“This saying is reliable: if anyone has a goal to be a supervisor in the church, they want a good thing. So the church’s supervisor must be without fault. They should be faithful to their spouse, sober, modest, and honest. They should show hospitality and be skilled at teaching. They shouldn’t be addicted to alcohol or be a bully. Instead, they should be gentle, peaceable, and not greedy. They should manage their own household well—they should see that their children are obedient with complete respect, because if they don’t know how to manage their own household, how can they take care of God’s church? They shouldn’t be new believers so that they won’t become proud and fall under the devil’s spell. They should also have a good reputation with those outside the church so that they won’t be embarrassed and fall into the devil’s trap.” (1 Tim 3:1-7 CEB).

The Common English Bible also translates what Paul has to say to Titus regarding the appointing of elders in the same way:

“The reason I left you behind in Crete was to organize whatever needs to be done and to appoint elders in each city, as I told you. Elders should be without fault. They should be faithful to their spouse, and have faithful children who can’t be accused of self-indulgence or rebelliousness. This is because supervisors should be without fault as God’s managers: they shouldn’t be stubborn, irritable, addicted to alcohol, a bully, or greedy. Instead, they should show hospitality, love what is good, and be reasonable, ethical, godly, and self-controlled. They must pay attention to the reliable message as it has been taught to them so that they can encourage people with healthy instruction and refute those who speak against it.” (Titus 1:5-9 CEB).

Another version that translates it in this way is the Contemporary English Version.

This is nothing to do with going liberal, being progressive, feminist or woke. This is about correctly translating the scriptures in order that we might rightly interpret them.

On this basis, we cannot use this passage to say that Paul is prohibiting women from functioning in the role of eldership or of lead elder, and whether male or female, the qualifications required are appropriate for both.

If you would like to read more on the topic, please see my book, Exploring the Role of Women in the Church, available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

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