Over the course of five decades, the late J.I. Packer (1926–2020) wrote hundreds of articles for Christianity Today, but perhaps none ruffled more feathers than his 1991 piece “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters.” It was no secret where Packer stood on the issue, but this piece presented a penetrating analysis in which he summarized how “the present-day pressure to make women presbyters owes more to secular, pragmatic, and social factors than to any regard for biblical authority.”
Packer came out and said what could not be more obvious, on the one hand, but also, for egalitarians, more bothersome, on the other.
Women’s Ordination Made Plausible
Matthew Colvin belabors a similar point in his 2020 review of William Witt’s Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination. Colvin, an ordained presbyter in the Anglican Church in North America, explains that a shift in plausibility structure, brought on by modernity, is the key influence for those who advocate for women’s ordination — by which is meant affirming women to the office of pastor and elder (presbyter). Colvin writes, “Charity toward our forebears in the faith ought to lead us to ask, ‘What has happened to make women ordination seem plausible to people in our day, even though it was unthinkable to all past ages of the Church?’” (“Reviews of Icons of Christ”).
That is a good question, and one that Michael Novak swiftly answers in his 1993 First Things article “Women, Ordination, and Angels”:
This [women ordination] is doubtless because of the intellectual shift in our thinking from “natural law” to “natural rights.” In natural law thinking, natural differences between males and females (“natural” both in the biological-neurological and in the cultural-symbolic dimension) offered sufficient reason for accepting a differentiation of functions and roles. For centuries, the prevalence of organic, role-differentiated thinking allowed the traditional practice of excluding women from the priesthood to seem fitting and right. In the light of doctrines of “natural rights,” by contrast, according to which equal rights inhere in all persons qua [acting as] persons, this exclusion has come to seem arbitrary, and in the end unjust.
In short, the new plausibility structure in which women eldership is embraced, as Colvin describes, is a mixture of the secular egalitarianism Novak chronicled in 1993 and the disregard for biblical authority Packer cited in 1991.
Office for Manly Men
Swimming in such a plausibility structure for so long, many today might actually find a line in Packer’s article almost unbelievable, if not just simply backwater. Writing with his vintage clarity, Packer states,
The argument here is this: presbyters are set apart for a role of authoritative pastoral leadership. But this role is for manly men rather than womanly women, according to the creation pattern that redemption restores. Paternal pastoral oversight, which is of the essence of the presbyteral role, is not a task for which women are naturally fitted by their Maker.
“Manly men.” That’s hard to miss.
Some voices today even claim uncertainty about what men and women are, but thirty years ago Packer doesn’t just say men, but he even qualifies it with manly.
Christian Scripture is clear about male-only eldership, both in its propositions and story line, but Packer is extrapolating a deeper point. The pastoral office is not for males in general, but for qualified and duly appointed men — which Packer understands to entail their exhibiting masculine traits summarized by the adjective manly.
The office of elder is intended for manly men, and for good reasons — reasons that require unhurried reflection on the text of Scripture and unclouded attention to the natural world. Such unhurried reflection takes us deeper than biblical minimalism and arguments of silence are willing to go, and the unclouded attention is able to re-recognize what human history has always assumed, that manly means something.
Defending Packer and building upon his 1991 article, I’ll try to state the matter as straightforwardly as he would.
What Is the Responsibility of Elders?
“Elders teach and exercise authority in the local church,” writes Greg Gilbert. “That’s what they do; that’s why the office exists” (Can Women Be Pastors?, 23). Put another way, elders feed and lead — and the two are inseparable. The leading comes primarily through the feeding. This ensures that all oversight and care for the flock, including guarding the church’s doctrine and worship and mobilizing her for mission, is in constant submission to the word of God.
Paul requires that the elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 2:9; see also “able to teach,” 1 Timothy 2:3). Centered on the Bible, then, the elder builds (he instructs) and defends (he rebukes). He both pastors the flock to still waters and fends off wolf-like intrusions — by telling the church what God says.
This concept for elders didn’t pop out of nowhere, but its roots go back to the work of the Levites, the Old Testament priestly tribe, which travels back to Adam.
Adamic, Priestly Duty
In Numbers 3, when God issues the duties of the Levites, he tells Moses that they shall guard the people and their worship. One of the Hebrew words behind “guard” (shamar) in Numbers 3:7–10 is also used in Genesis 2:15 when God gives Adam, the man, his Edenic duties:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep [shamar] it.”
The Levites related to the temple and congregation the way Adam was supposed to relate to the Edenic temple and Eve. This tells us both about their work, that it’s fundamentally masculine, and the expectation on Adam, which he failed to meet. Whereas Adam should have guarded Eden and Eve against that which contradicts God’s word, he failed to rebuke the serpent’s lies.
This is what Paul refers to in 1 Timothy 2 as his ground for why women should not teach or exercise authority over a man (that is, perform Adamic duties). Paul explains, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Timothy 2:13).
Paul’s guidance for the church in 1 Timothy comes from his own (inspired) unhurried reflection on Genesis 1–3. When he says that Adam was not deceived, but rather Eve was, that is not to acquit Adam, but most likely to indict him! Eve was deceived because Adam failed to guard the garden and his own wife as he ought.
Adam’s failure was, in a word, leadership. He didn’t do what God had placed him in the garden to do. He was insufficiently masculine, and his failure led to the upending of God’s creation design. Rather than Adam obeying God’s command and guarding Eve as they exercised dominion over lesser creatures, the lesser creature, the serpent, taught Eve heresy while Adam passively stood by, disobeying God. God had intended authority to flow from himself to Adam, from Adam to Eve, from Adam and Eve to lesser creatures, but Satan attacked by turning God’s order upside down.
Humankind has been lost ever since, manifesting the characteristic sins of men and women described in Genesis 3:16–19, and distorting God’s creation design and structure of authority. As Gilbert explains, “The woman will seek to dominate and master man, and man will twist his authority into an abusive domination of women” (32). That’s in the world, though. It’s not to be so in the church and Christian households.
The redemptive vision to which Paul calls the church means restoring God’s original design, not assimilating to the sinful distortion. And this vision is especially featured within the church’s leadership — with “manly men” serving in the office of elder.
Really Call It Manly?
Far from arbitrary, the office of elder is reserved for mature men for good reason. Manly men are best fit for the office because the work of building and defending, of instructing and rebuking, is quintessentially masculine.
To instruct, to build, to feed requires initiative, assertiveness, and steadfastness characteristic of masculinity. The equally important task of rebuking, of defending, of leading is just the same, often requiring sacrificial watchfulness and an unemotional assessment of values. The work is Adam-like and Levitical. It’s manly.
Therefore, for “women elders” to actually function, it must mean that either one has altered the biblical office to accommodate a feminine essence, or women are acting like men.
We don’t have the authority to do the former, and the latter is out of step with God’s design. Some women might seem able to do manly work, and in some painful situations they must, but it does not make for long-term health and thriving. God’s design calls us to something more beautiful — manly men and womanly women doing manly and womanly things, respectively. With the elders being manly men.