Before I explore any of the other arguments that have been advanced concerning the selection and ordination of elders in the church, I would like to address one extra-biblical argument that is commonly used to support the selection of women into this office of leadership – the utilitarian argument.

The utilitarian argument basically states that since it is sometimes difficult to find good men in the church who would be willing to serve as its elders, it would make sense for the church to expand its pool of eligible persons to include godly women as well. Allowing women in office would effectively double the pool of persons that are eligible to serve as elders, and thus reduce the strain felt by the few men who would otherwise be constantly called upon to serve in this capacity time after time. If the current model isn’t working, then what would be wrong with switching to a model that would allow for women to take on this role as well as men?

This argument seems to be persuasive to many primarily because it seems to make a lot of sense as a solution to overworked elders, but should it really be used and considered as a legitimate primary apologetic for women in office? It is true that with its post-modern mindset, our society often values the utility of an argument above the degree to which it is true of false, but is utility really a proper basis for Christian judgments and decisions over-against God’s Word? Utility may sometimes, or even often be accompanied by truth, but it can just as often detract from more important and fundamental considerations. Moreover, the immediate benefits of a given solution often prevent the mind from probing into and acknowledging its potential long-term negative effects. A solution that seems to work in the short-term may therefore improperly focus on effects rather than causes, and in the end fail to achieve its intended purpose.

To bring this into perspective, consider what may happen if this proposition of allowing women to serve as elders to lighten the load on men is carried out. What, then, will happen when some of these men, seeing that they may no longer be needed as elders, decide that they would prefer to no longer be called upon for this service? What if at some point neither the men, nor the women are willing to serve? Will this solution have truly fixed the situation? No, if wouldn’t; it may have delayed the outcome for a time, but it would not have solved the problem in the long run. If a church cannot deal with getting men to serve as elders now, what prevents it from having no one who is willing to serve in this capacity in the future? If there is a functional solution to this latter problem, then there must be a correspondingly functional solution to the former problem. But if there is no solution to the former – other than that which has been proposed above – where would this utilitarian argument ultimately lead?

Well, one must admit that if widening the parameters of eligibility to include godly women will help to reduce the strain on male elders, widening it to include non-professing members will likewise help to reduce the strain on professing members, should a similar shortage of willing, professing members present itself in the future.

But such a proposition would truly be unbiblical!”, one might reply, “We can’t allow non-professing members to fill the office of elder, for Paul states that an elder must not be a recent convert, much less a non-professing member!”

This is true, of course, but if it is proper to hold an argument from utility above the proscriptions of Scripture in the former case, doesn’t it follow that the church would have even less trouble in filling its offices when its restrictions are made even more loose than they would otherwise be when only professing men and women are allowed to fill this office, (or any other office, for that matter)? Logically it must, but since this is a patently absurd proposition, the argument must contain a flaw somewhere in its logic. It must be agreed, then, that an argument’s perceived utility can never be held above the authority of Scripture – anything that contradicts the expressed rule of Scripture must always be rejected. And this is the main point that must be made and held to with all seriousness: utility may be properly used in some cases in which the Scriptures are silent on an issue, but it can never be used against the Scriptures themselves, especially given the imperfection of our judgments and the perfection of God’s judgment.

If anyone, then, allows a utilitarian argument, such as this one, to be raised above the Scriptures in such a way that the passages that most clearly address the issue must be reinterpreted to conform to its conclusions, it is clear that they are then placing their personal judgments above those of God. Such arguments are equivalent to a declaration that our human wisdom is greater than God’s. Against such thinking Paul clearly writes:

Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”

1 Corinthians 3:18-20 (NIV)

Anyone who wishes to build upon the doctrines of the church must first check that they are actually building upon the foundation of the Scriptures, rather than tearing it down and building an entirely new structure in its place. Let those who address this issue look to God’s Word first, and to man’s wisdom only when the Scriptures do not address it with sufficient clarity and force. Utility is at best a secondary argument, and shouldn’t even be considered in cases where the Bible addresses an issue directly. When we, as a church, allow man’s wisdom to supersede the express will of God in His Word, it will be no wonder when our members then put their own priorities above God’s whenever they are called to serve as His ministers and governors in His Church.

The real problem in a church that cannot get men to submit to a call to serve as elders is not the size of its pool of candidates, it is the state of the heart of its members and a misdirection of their priorities. If this problem is to be solved, it will be through training in the Word, through the direction of the elders who are currently serving in the church, and through true Christian fellowship and spiritual growth among its believers. Men need to be taught to be responsible leaders, not to have their leadership responsibilities undermined by role removal. If men are indeed called to be leaders in the home and in the church, an abrogation of this responsibility can only serve to weaken their commitment to carry it out. All members of the church must learn to put God’s priorities above their own, and not to shirk their responsibilities simply because they are inconvenient. If we are not willing to sacrifice a little to further God’s cause in His church now, how can we expect ourselves to sacrifice still more in the future, when we are faced with difficult persecution? Unwilling nominees are not a symptom of insufficient basic resources, they are a symptom of a local church body that is lukewarm at best. This is the real problem where the issue presents itself, and the solution is not to simply widen the parameters of eligibility until all of its members are lukewarm, but rather, to bring about a shift in its priorities away from ours and towards God’s.