“How does a congregation conduct its business when there are no men qualified to serve as elders?”

When a church has no men qualified to serve in the role of elders, it must fall back upon the next level of scripturally sanctioned authority. There are several passages that contain principles that apply to this situation.

The Natural Order

There is a natural order that exists in the very nature of the divine scheme of things. In his first Corinthian epistle, Paul declares:

“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (11:3).

There are two issues of interest here:

  1. What is the meaning of the term “head”?
  2. Does the Greek term aner, in this instance, denote “man,” or “husband” – since it can mean either, depending upon the context?

The best evidence indicates that the word kephale (head) reflects, in this instance, the idea of “authority over.” A passage in the Greek Old Testament reads: “You have preserved me as the head of nations. People I did not know are subject to me” (2 Sam. 22:44).

The sense of “authority” is the prevailing view of the Greek scholars (Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon, 345; Danker, Greek-Englsih Lexicon, 542). Price says that in this passage the term denotes “one who holds a position of leadership and authority” (Bromiley, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia – Revised, II, p. 640).

It is the man, then, who is the “head” (authority figure) over the woman — not the reverse.

While many see the reference here to a husband’s authority over his wife (as in Eph. 5:23), this context hardly suggests that. Paul states that Christ is “the head” of aner. Is the Lord only the head of “husbands,” or is he the head of “man” in general? The latter would seem to be the most obvious. This is the sense reflected in most translations.

And so, for the moment, file away this sacred arrangement, having to do with the order of authority in terms of the male-female relationship – if not in society at large, at least in the church.

Apostolic Prohibitions

Second, there is an apostolic prohibition against a woman exercising authority over a man. Paul writes:

“But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness” (1 Tim. 2:12).

The Greek infinitive, authentein, rendered “to have dominion over” (ASV) simply means “to exercise authority,” or “to have authority” (NIV) over someone. Danker notes that, practically speaking, it signifies to “tell a man what to do” (150).

The apostle forbids the woman to occupy a role in which she wields authority over the man. The Christian woman is thus not permitted to function in a capacity in which she makes church decisions that the man is expected to follow.

As a concluding point, it must be noted that Paul’s instructions in this narrative are based upon truths that are anchored in the creation context (Gen. 1-3); they are not culturally oriented, therefore, as some allege. The restriction is applicable to the modern church.

Church Business

With these divine instructions before us, let us now apply them to the matter of how the church’s business is to be conducted in the absence of elders. Here are some basic facts:

  1. All matters pertaining to law are determined by the Scriptures; no human being has any “say” or decision-making capacity in this area.
  2. Expediency issues, i.e., optional methods of implementing the divine will, must be decided by someone – if the congregation has no elders.
  3. No one person (e.g., Diotrephes – 3 Jn., or the modern pastor system), or a quasi-eldership (e.g., a “board of directors,” or “finance” committee) is to function as a decision-making body for the church (though a corporate board may be empowered by the appropriate authority to function in a legal capacity on behalf of the church).
  4. Women are not to function in authority-wielding roles.
  5. The business of the church is to be conducted in a decent and orderly fashion (cf. 1 Cor. 14:40).

The most reasonable conclusion that results from these various components, then, is this: the church’s business, in matters of human judgment, and in the absence of qualified elders, should be administered by the men of the church. The mature men should gently and considerately guide the procedure. For example, young lads and new converts should not presume to exert themselves with the same degree of influence as more seasoned brothers in the faith.

When spiritual people who are interested foremost in pleasing God and seeing his cause prosper will follow these guidelines that are grounded in scriptural principle, peace will prevail and the business of the church will move along smoothly.