Honoring Older Women as Spiritual Mothers in the Church

Eunike C. Indrawan

Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

The relationship between men and women at home, in the church, and in society remains a subject of debate in contemporary evangelical churches. Most of the discussions focus on texts such as Ephesians 5:21-33 and Colossians 3:18-19 (for defining relationships between husbands and wives) or 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 (for defining relationships between men and women in the church).  These four texts are also often discussed in relation to each other, resulting in a widespread tendency to define biblical manhood and womanhood through the lens of marriage relationship. However, as Scott Swain rightly points out in his blog post on theological anthropology, “taking the husband-wife relation as paradigmatic for what it means to be a man or a woman more generally is potentially reductionistic” (emphasis original).[1] Drawing from 1 Timothy 5:1-2, Swain argues that in discussing the gender-specific roles that God has given us, we must talk about human beings in two sexes (i.e., male and female) and four roles (i.e., husband/wife, father/mother, son/daughter, and brother/sister).

In this paper, following Swain’s footsteps, I will also look into 1 Timothy 5:1-2 more closely. But more specifically, I will focus on one of the four different relationships mentioned in these two verses, namely, the relationship between adult men and older women in the church (1 Tim. 5:2a). Why did I choose to do so? From my observation, the relationship between spiritual sons and their spiritual mothers in the church is the least discussed in contemporary evangelical circles.[2] Christians generally agree that an older man should be a spiritual father to a younger man (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4) and an older woman should be a spiritual mother to a younger woman (Titus 2:3-5). However, because of the scriptural command in 1 Timothy 2:12 that a woman is not to teach or exercise authority over a man, there is a tendency among evangelical Christians—especially those who identify themselves as complementarians—not to cultivate mother-and-son relationships in the church, fearing that they will violate God’s command in 1 Timothy 2:12. But in the very same letter where Paul commands women not to exercise authority over men, Paul also commands Timothy—an adult man—to encourage and treat older women respectfully as spiritual mothers (1 Tim. 5:2a). Although Timothy was a minister of the gospel who held a position of authority at the church of Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3-4; 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 1:6; 4:1-2), Paul also commanded him to honor the older women in the church.

Drawing from 1 Timothy 5:2a, in this paper, I will argue that an elder-member relationship is not the only type of relationship that a male elder has with the female members of the church. When a man is ordained as an elder, his new status as a church leader does not nullify his status as a spiritual son of the older women in the church. Thus, a male elder who is in a position of spiritual authority over the female members of the church is at the same time a spiritual son who should learn from the wisdom of his spiritual mothers in the church. More specifically, I will argue that although the church should not ordain women to the office of elders, the church should let her older female members be spiritual mothers to both her spiritual sons and daughters in the church.

In what follows, I will develop my argument in five stages. First, I will point out that the charge to honor older women is given in the context of the broader use of the term “elder” (זָקֵן /πρεσβύτερος) to refer to a class of people, not the more specific use of the term to refer to the office of elder. Second, I will exegete 1 Timothy 5:1-2 in context, highlighting how these two verses are part of the overarching theme of God’s household in 1 Timothy. Third, I will survey the theme of honoring mothers in the Pastoral Epistles and the rest of Scripture. Fourth, I will give some specific examples of mother-and-son relationships in our contemporary churches. Lastly, I will zoom out and reflect on how we can apply what we have learned about mother-and-son relationship to other relationships mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:1-2.

Elder as a Class of People and Elder as an Office

In our day and age, we are more familiar with the word “elder” as a technical term, that is, someone who is officially appointed as a leader in a local church (Acts 14:23; 15:6; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Pet. 5:5; cf. Exod. 18:13-27; 24:1; Num 11:16-25; Deut.1:9-18; Matt. 15:2; 21:23). However, when we look at both the Old and New Testaments, we see that the word “elder” (זָקֵן /πρεσβύτερος) is also used in a broader sense. Besides the more technical use to refer to an appointed leader in a community, more generally, an elder refers to an aged/bearded person, whose age/beard represents his maturity, accumulated wisdom, and experience (Gen. 18:11; 25:8; 35:29; 44:20; Exod. 10:9; Lev. 19:32; 1 Kgs. 12:6-15; Job 32:4; Prov. 20:29; Joel 2:28; Zech. 8:4; Acts 2:17; 1 Tim. 5:1-2; Titus 2:2-3).[3]

It is worth noting that there is an organic relationship between “elder” as a class of people and “elder” as an office. The men who are appointed to the office of elders are taken from the class of elders. We see this principle mentioned explicitly in Numbers 11:16. The LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men from the elders of Israel (מִזִּקְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל – MT, ἀπὸ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων Ισραηλ – LXX), whom you know that they are elders of the people (זִקְנֵ֥י הָעָ֖ם – MT, πρεσβύτεροι τοῦ λαοῦ – LXX) and officers over them…” (my translation). [4] In this verse, the first “elders” refers to the class of elders, that is, older people in Israel. The LORD told Moses to gather seventy men from these older people and then clarified further that these seventy men are those who are known to Moses as elders and officers over Israel. Here, the word elders refers to those exercising leadership over the Israelites.[5]

Other Scripture texts give specific descriptions of the qualifications for the office of elders. In Deuteronomy 1:13, Moses recounted how the LORD had commanded him to choose wise, understanding, and experienced men and appoint them as elders. Likewise, in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, we read that an elder or overseer must be above reproach, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, upright, holy, and disciplined. While these two New Testament texts limit the office of elders to godly men only, the broader class of elders (i.e., older people) includes both men and women (Gen. 18:11; Exod. 10:9; Zech. 8:4; 1 Tim. 5:1-2; Titus 2:2-4). Respected older men and women mentioned in the biblical literature include Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18:11),  Isaac (Gen. 35:29), Jacob (Gen. 43:27), Naomi (Ruth 4:15), Job (Job 42:17), Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-7), Simeon (Luke 2:25-26), and Anna (Luke 2:36-37).

In the Pastoral Epistles, there are two texts (1 Tim. 5:1-2; Titus 2:2-3) that mention both old men and old women, and thus, are pertinent to the discussion on elders as a class of people. In this paper, I choose to focus on  1 Timothy 5:1-2 for two main reasons. First, Titus 2:2-3 focuses more on the characteristics that each group of people (old men, old women, young women, young men) must possess, while 1 Timothy 5:1-2 focuses more on how Timothy should relate to each group of people (encouraging older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters). Since the topic that I want to explore is the relationships between adult men and older women in the church, 1 Timothy 5:1-2 is a more relevant text that speaks specifically on this issue. Second, the theme of the church as God’s household is prominent in Paul’s first letter to Timothy (1 Tim. 3:15). Understanding the church’s nature as God’s family is crucial to understanding God’s command to honor, encourage, and care for older women as mothers. In the next section, we shall turn to this overarching theme in 1 Timothy.

God’s Household in 1 Timothy

In his article, “The Church as Family,” Vern Poythress surveys how the theme of family relationships is prominent in 1 Timothy.[6] Paul calls Timothy his child (1:2, 18). His love for Timothy and the discipling relationship between them are evident throughout the letter (3:14-15; 4:6-16; 6:20). In 5:1-2, Paul commands Timothy to treat different people in the church in a manner that respects their genders and ages: as fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters. In 5:3, 9-10, 16, Paul exhorts the larger Christian family to care for those who are truly widows. In talking about the qualifications for elders, Paul specifies that an elder must manage his own household well, for the same wisdom and skills necessary for good family management will also apply to the management of God’s family (3:4-5). Finally, in 3:14-15, Paul says that he is writing these things (i.e., the letter) so that Timothy may know how to conduct himself in the household of God (οἴκῳ θεοῦ),[7] which is the church of the living God (ἐκκλησία θεοῦ ζῶντος). Here, Paul is explicitly describing the church as God’s family. Why does he do so? Is it merely a metaphor, or is there something more intrinsic to the idea of the church as a family?

Poythress points out that the idea of the church as God’s family is based on our relationship with Christ. Those who are in Christ are God’s children and fellow heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:16-17). Because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, we are reconciled to God (Rom. 5:6-11), adopted as his children, and enabled to call him Father (Rom. 8:15; cf. Matt. 6:9).[8] We must treat older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters “because [we] are part of the very same spiritual household.” [9] As Poythress profoundly says, “Each person in God’s household is not an abstract, faceless mask to be treated according to an invariant recipe, but a full person who is to be recognized as suchas a man or a woman, an older person or younger, an adult or child” (emphasis mine).[10] Paul exhorts Timothy not “to treat each person in a manner mechanically identical with every other person,”[11] but rather, “in a manner that respects differences of age, sex, and personality.”[12]

In the rest of the article, Poythress expounds on two specific things. First, he argues that just as husbands and fathers ought to exercise godly leadership in their families (Eph. 5:22-6:4; Col. 3:18-21), so wise and mature men—not women—ought to exercise godly leadership in the church (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).[13] Second, he argues that a church’s management should reflect the characteristics of a household’s management. A wise husband and father will encourage his wife and children to use their varied skills, abilities, and gifts. His leadership is not threatened, but rather, enhanced by the full flourishing of the family as a whole.[14]  Moreover, although there are divisions of labor and management within a family, there are also some clear boundary lines. Children must submit to their parents, and parents are responsible to manage their children. Wives must submit to their husbands, and husbands are responsible to manage their wives and the entire household. Thus, he argues that the role of men and women—both in the family and in the church—is  “irreversible, not interchangeable.”[15]

While I agree with Poythress’ two points, I also need to point out that we cannot compare the relationship dynamic in the family and the relationship dynamic in the church in a strictly one-to-one manner. Why not? Let me spell it out. In a human family, a man cannot be a father and a son to the same woman. Of course, a man can be a father and a son at the same time, but he will have those two different roles in relation to two different people. He is a father to his daughter and a son to his mother. A godly Christian man should love both his daughter and his mother, but the way he shows his love to each of them will be different. As a father, he shows his love by protecting his daughter and bringing her up in the instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). As a son, he shows his love by obeying and honoring his mother (Eph. 6:1-2; Exod. 20:12).

In contrast, when we talk about relationship dynamics in the church, an adult male can have two different roles in relation to the same woman. Why so? Because in the church, we have both the concepts of “elder” as a class of people and “elder” as an office. The former is the one that resembles a human family in terms of age differences. For an adult male like Timothy, an older man at the church would be his spiritual father and an older woman would be his spiritual mother. But when we talk about “elder” as a church office, then a younger man like Timothy can hold a position of authority over people who are older than he is, both men and women (1 Tim. 4:11-13). A thirty-five-year-old ruling elder is in a position of authority over a seventy-year-old lady who is a member of the church. But at the same time, this older lady is also his spiritual mother. She is both one of his flock whom he should shepherd faithfully and his spiritual mother to whom he should listen attentively. He is both her elder to whom she should submit reverently and her spiritual son whom she should nurture lovingly.

In summary, because the church is God’s family, godly older women in the church should have a space to mentor and care for their spiritual sons just as they mentor and care for their spiritual daughters. Now, the way spiritual mothers do this will be different from the way spiritual fathers—including, but not limited to those holding the office of elders—do it. Later in this paper, I will give some specific examples of how this might look in our contemporary churches. But before we go there, let us first dive deeper into the idea of honoring mothers in the Pastoral Epistles and the rest of Scripture.

Honoring Mothers in the Pastoral Epistles and the Rest of Scripture

In the previous section, we have seen how the theme of family relationships is prominent in 1 Timothy. Now let us look more specifically at mother-and-son relationships in 1-2 Timothy. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he charged him to continue in what he had learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom (τίνων, plural) he had learned it (2 Tim. 3:14). The use of the plural pronoun τίνων indicates that Paul was reminding Timothy of the various teachers and mentors who had taught him, including Lois and Eunice, Timothy’s own grandmother and mother. These two ladies had been faithfully training Timothy in the sacred writings since his childhood (2 Tim. 3:15) and passed on their faith to him (2 Tim. 1:5). Lois and Eunice’s faiths were well known to Paul, and Paul reminded Timothy to be thankful for these motherly figures in his life and honor them (cf. Exod. 20:12).

Now, let us go back to 1 Timothy 5:1-2. Since Paul commands Timothy to encourage and treat older women in the church as mothers, then the fifth commandment to honor one’s father and mother also applies to Timothy’s relationship with his spiritual mothers in the church. Although the fifth commandment is often wrongly restricted to apply only to children (i.e., those who are young and still in their parents’ household), Patrick Miller rightly points out that the commandment was originally “directed toward mature adults, especially the male members of the community” (emphasis mine), which is evident by the use of the masculine singular verb כַּבֵּד (“honor”).[16] Moreover, the elaboration of the fifth commandment in the rest of Scripture further clarifies that this commandment applies to everyone in the community, including male and female adults, who are commanded to honor, listen to, obey, and care for their elderly parents.[17] Joseph provided for his brothers and elderly father when they were hit by a famine (Gen. 47:12). Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law Naomi and cared for her, giving her a son in her old age (Ruth 1:14, 16-17; 4:14-17). Jesus condemned the Pharisees for not caring for their father and mother for the sake of their tradition, making it clear that the commandment to honor one’s father and mother applies to the adult members of the society (Matt. 15:3-6; Mark 7:9-13). Proverbs 23:22 tells us that we should listen to our father and not despise our mother when she is old.

While the Scripture texts that I cited above refer more specifically to biological parents, it is worth noting that in 1 Timothy, the command to care for those who are truly widows (1 Tim. 5:3, 9-10, 16) comes right after the command to encourage older women in the church as mothers (1 Tim. 5:2a). While it is true that God commands us to care for widows because he himself cares for widows and the vulnerable (1 Kgs. 17:8-24; 2 Kgs. 4:1-7; Pss. 68:5; 94:6; 146:9; Zech. 7:10; Luke 7:11-17; Acts 6:1-6; Jas. 1:27), the placement of the instructions for caring for widows in 1 Timothy underscores the principle that the church is called to care for those who are truly widows because they are our spiritual mothers.[18] The instructions to honor (τίμα) those who are truly widows (1 Tim. 5:3) echoes the fifth commandment to honor (τίμα) our father and mother (Exod. 20:12 LXX). The fact that τίμα is a present-active-imperative verb implies that Timothy—and by extension, the church (1 Tim. 5:16)—is called to continually honor and care for those who are truly widows.[19]

Having looked at the theme of honoring mothers and spiritual mothers in 1-2 Timothy, let us now look even more broadly at the witnesses of the whole New Testament. Anna, the prophetess, is a clear example of a widow who has set her hope in God and continues in supplications night and day (Luke 2:36-38; 1 Tim. 5:5). In the Synoptic Gospels, we read that Jesus identifies those who do the will of his Father in heaven as his brothers and sisters and mothers, showing that those whom he identifies as his family is much broader than merely his biological mother and brothers (Matt. 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21). When Jesus was about to die on the cross, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son,” and to the disciple whom he loved (i.e., the apostle John), “Behold, your mother” (John 19:26-27). Jesus charged John—his disciple and a member of God’s household—to care for Mary as his own mother. In Romans 16:13, Paul sends his greetings to Rufus and his mother, whom he describes as someone “who has been a mother to me as well” (ESV; lit. “his mother and mine”, τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐμοῦ). This shows that Paul honors Rufus’ mother as his own mother.

In summary, the whole New Testament testifies to how adult members of the church should honor and care for their biological mothers and spiritual mothers. As the Westminster Larger Catechism states in its exposition of the fifth commandment, “The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections…” (WLC 127).[20] What they describe here also applies to the mother-and-son relationship in the church. Adult males in the congregation should revere their spiritual mothers, pray for them, imitate their virtues, listen to their counsel, and submit to their corrections. But what does this look like in our contemporary evangelical churches? Let us turn to this in the next section.

Mother-and-Son Relationships in Contemporary Evangelical Churches

Before giving specific examples of what mother-and-son relationships could look like in contemporary churches, I first want to highlight that the same principle can be applied in different churches in various ways. I believe that the command to honor and care for older women in our church as spiritual mothers is normative, that is, it applies to God’s people in every place at all times. That is why I spent the bulk of my paper fleshing out this principle. But what will follow below, namely, how it applies in our contemporary churches, will be descriptive. How this looks like in a church in the United States in 2022 might be different from how it looked like in a church in Germany in 1990 or how it will look like in a church in China in 2030. I do not mean for any of what will follow to be prescriptive, but rather, to be examples that will hopefully encourage other members of God’s household in different times and places to apply the same principle in ways that fit their local contexts.

So, what are some examples of mother-and-son relationships in a local church? How does it look like for an older woman in the church to nurture and mentor her spiritual sons? What kind of situations will be fitting for an adult man to listen to the counsel of older women and to submit to their corrections? Here are some practical examples from my own experience and from others who have kindly shared their thoughts and experiences with me.

First, although in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the office of elders is limited to godly men only (1 Tim. 2:8-3:7; Titus 1:5-9), this does not mean that the elders should not seek advice from older and spiritually mature women. On the contrary, I believe that the elders should include the spiritual mothers in the church in some of their pastoral conversations and listen to their perspectives. It might be wise to invite older and spiritually mature women to attend the church’s session meetings from time to time, especially when the session is discussing a specific issue where a woman’s perspective is needed. For example, imagine that a female member of a local church is a victim of sexual assault. When the elders are giving pastoral care to this woman, it might be wise to have a couple of older and spiritually mature women of the church to be present. First of all, this will make the woman who was sexually assaulted feel safer. But more than that, the presence and perspectives of these spiritual mothers will also help the elders to better understand the position of the assaulted woman, and thus, to pastorally care for her in more fitting ways.

Second, a pastor’s wife who has been serving alongside her husband for decades should have a space to share her experience with both younger men and women of the church. As a woman, I have been in various meetings where older pastors’ wives shared their experiences with younger Christian women. Coming out of these meetings, one thing that always came to my mind was, “I wish my brothers in Christ were there too. They would have learned so much from what this lady just shared.” Younger pastors, elders, and Christian men who listen attentively to older Christian women will also be better listeners to their wives, daughters, sisters, and sisters in Christ. Learning from their spiritual mothers in the church is invaluable for the spiritual growth of pastors, elders, and other adult male church members.

Along the same line, older women who have served as missionaries or Bible translators and have come back to the United States should be given a space to share their experiences and expertise with their spiritual sons and daughters in the church. Some of these older female missionaries served as single women or widows, so their perspective and mentorship will be invaluable for younger men and women who are preparing themselves to be missionaries. A former female Bible translator who has translated the Bible into another language for decades will have insights in biblical exegesis that will benefit the pastors, the elders, and the whole church. What would be an appropriate time and space for this older lady to share her knowledge and expertise in the Bible with her spiritual sons and daughters in the local church?

Some of us might ask, aren’t we prone to violating God’s command in 1 Timothy 2:12 if we are looking for ways for these older women to share their knowledge and expertise, and therefore, to teach adult men? I don’t believe so. Why not? I believe that sharing one’s expertise through teaching and mentoring is not the same as teaching in the context of exercising spiritual authority. The latter is what pastors do in preaching in Sunday worship. They are proclaiming God’s Word to God’s people with authority (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2). The former, by contrast, can be done in various ways, such as Sunday School classes, Bible studies, community groups, one-on-one mentoring, etc. I believe that there are ways for older and spiritually mature women to teach, mentor, and share their expertise that are not violating male leadership and spiritual authority in a local church. Spiritual mothers in the church should have a place to mentor and nurture their spiritual sons and daughters without violating the spiritual fathers’ headship. Just as a wise husband and father will encourage his family members to use their varied skills, abilities, and gifts, the elders of a local church should also encourage their spiritual mothers to exercise their gifts for the benefit of the local church. Their leadership is not threatened, but rather, enhanced by the full flourishing of God’s family as a whole.[21]

Others of us might ask different kinds of questions. How about those older Christian women who are less mature? Or those older ladies whose theology is a bit shaky and whose Bible knowledge is pretty poor? Aren’t the pastors and elders—despite their young age—responsible for teaching them sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 4:2-5)? Yes, they are. But they need to do that with honor and respect, as a son relates to his mother (1 Tim. 5:2a). An older Christian lady once gave wise advice to me and other young female seminarians on how to relate to older ladies in our local churches. I believe that her advice applies to mother-and-son relationships too. In my paraphrase, this lady said, “You might be theologically more equipped than these older ladies at your church. But these ladies probably have read the Bible many more times than you do, have wrestled with it more than you do, have prayed to God more than you do, have been in sufferings and trials more than you do, and have walked with God longer than you do. So, honor these ladies as your spiritual mothers. Listen to their counsels, submit to their corrections, and ask them to pray for you. You’ll be surprised to see how much you’ll learn from them.”

Concluding Thoughts – How About the Other Relationships in God’s Family?

Throughout this paper, I have expounded on the relationships between adult men and older women at the church, looking specifically at 1 Timothy 5:2a and more generally at the concepts of elders as a class of people and elders as an office, the overarching theme of God’s household in 1 Timothy, and the idea of honoring mothers in the whole Scripture. My choice to focus on the relationship between spiritual sons and their spiritual mothers is by no means an attempt to be reductionistic. Instead, I hope that after seeing how the Scripture talks about mother-and-son relationships in the church, the readers will be encouraged to think in a similar fashion about the other relationships in God’s family, as mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:1-2.

A key principle that I want the readers to take home is this: As we, as adult Christians, relate to other adult Christians in our local church—whether they are of the same gender or the opposite gender, older or younger—we need to remember that our relationships with them might be more multifaceted than what we usually think. As a young woman at the church, I relate to different male church members differently. Some of them are my elders who have spiritual authority over me. Some of them do not hold the office of elders, but they are still significantly older than I am, and therefore, I need to treat them with respect like I honor my own father.[22] Some of them are my spiritual older brothers, who mentor and care for me as they care for their younger sisters. And some of them are my spiritual younger brothers, who look up to me as a big sister, ask me questions about the Bible, and are eager to hear my advice on spiritual matters.

Moreover, as I have laid out earlier in this paper, a person can have multiple roles in relation to another person. An older woman should submit reverently to the spiritual authority of a younger pastor, but at the same time, this pastor is also her spiritual son whom she should nurture lovingly (1 Tim. 5:2a). A younger woman might be a supervisor of an older man at a workplace, but at the church, she should respect this man as she respects her own father (1 Tim. 5:1a). Two men who are the same age might be a professor and a student at a university, but as Christians, they are brothers who are commanded to teach and admonish one another lovingly (Col. 3:16). A middle-aged woman should submit to the spiritual authority of a middle-aged pastor, but at the same time, they are also brother and sister who should encourage each other and be patient with one another (1 Thess. 5:14).[23]

Above all, we must remember that whether we are young or old, as Christians, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ with Jesus Christ as our oldest brother (Rom. 8:15-17, 29; Eph. 1:5; Gal. 3:28-29). As Scott Swain profoundly highlights in the conclusion of his blog post on theological anthropology, our sex identity is teleological. Although our gender roles here on earth include husband/wife, father/mother, son/daughter, and brother/sister, in the resurrection, we will no longer marry or be given in marriage (Matt. 22:30). “In that day, there will be no more husbands and wives and therefore there will be no more fathering and no more mothering. In that day, all will be sons of God (Rev. 21:7) and all will be brothers and sisters to the one appointed to be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (Rom. 8:29)” (emphasis mine). [24]

Therefore, as we relate to other Christians in our lives, and especially, in our local churches, we need to remember what God has redeemed us to be: the sons and daughters of the living God and brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. An older man whom you respect as a spiritual father is also your brother in Christ who needs your encouragement. An older woman to whom you listen attentively is also your sister in Christ who needs you to care for her. A younger man whom you mentor as a spiritual son is also your brother in Christ who might need to rebuke you when you do something wrong. A younger woman whom you nurture as a spiritual daughter might need to teach and admonish you in some areas of your life. The more we are aware of these multifaceted roles that exist in God’s family, the better we will be equipped to reflect on this principle as we are relating to other Christians in manners that best fit the context and are pleasing to God.

[1] Scott R. Swain, “More Thoughts on Theological Anthropology: Man as Male and Female,” Reformed Blogmatics, last updated May 14, 2020, accessed May 11, 2022. https://www.scottrswain.com/2020/05/14/more-thoughts-on-theological-anthropology-man-as-male-and-female.

[2] Even evangelical commentators such as Mounce and Knight do not expound on the mother-and-son relationship in their commentaries of 1 Tim. 5:1-2. Their only comment on the word πρεσβυτέρας is that this word does not mean “women elders,” but rather, “older women.” See William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 269-70; George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 214.

[3] In Titus 2:2-3, the words used are πρεσβύτης (masculine) and πρεσβῦτις (feminine), cognates of πρεσβύτερος. Although these two words are used less frequently in the NT, in the LXX, πρεσβύτης is used interchangeably with πρεσβύτερος to translate זָקֵן. To read more on זָקֵן and its use in the OT and ANE world, see Paul D. Wegner, “זקן (2416),” Kenneth T. Aitken, “זָקֵן (2418)”, in The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol.1, edited by Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 1134-39. To read more on various uses of πρεσβύτερος in the NT, see BDAG 862; TDNT 931-933.

[4] A similar language is also found in Exod. 18:21: “look for able men from all the people…” (מִכָּל־הָ֠עָם – MT; ἀπὸ παντὸς τοῦ λαοῦ – LXX). See also Exod. 18: 25; Num. 11:24; Jer. 19:1.

[5] NIV translators seem to agree with my interpretation of the passage. They translate the verse as such: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders [זָקֵן] who are known to you as leaders [זָקֵן] and officials among the people.” They translate the first זָקֵן as elders (i.e., older people), but translate the second זָקֵן as leaders, emphasizing that the second זָקֵן refers to the office of elders.

[6] Vern S. Poythress, “The Church as Family: Why Male Leadership in the Family Requires Male Leadership in the Church,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 235-36.

[7] Οἴκῳ θεοῦ can either mean “the house/temple of God” (BDAG 698.1) or “the household of God” (BDAG 699.2). Since the idea of household order and arrangement is the most prominent in 1 Timothy, οἴκῳ in 3:15 most likely refers to God’s household/family.

[8] Poythress, “The Church as Family,” 233-34.

[9] Poythress, “The Church as Family,” 236.

[10] Poythress, “The Church as Family,” 238-39.

[11] Poythress, “The Church as Family,” 238.

[12] Poythress, “The Church as Family,” 241.

[13] Poythress, “The Church as Family,” 237-39.

[14] Poythress, “The Church as Family,” 243.

[15] Poythress, “The Church as Family,” 244.

[16] Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 174.

[17] Miller, The Ten Commandments, 181-98.

[18] Towner articulates a similar observation in his commentary on 1 Tim 5:1-2. See Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 330.

[19] For more elaborate discussions on this, see Bruce W. Winter, “Providentia for the Widows of 1 Timothy 5:3-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 39 (1988): 92, 94, 98; Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 215-16; Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 278-79.

[20] See also WLC 124, 125, 129.

[21] See Poythress, “The Church as Family,” 243-45. Schreiner also articulates a similar argument: “[t]here are…some ways in which women can instruct both men and women…if the function of authoritative teaching to men is not involved.” See Thomas R. Schreiner, “The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership: A Survey of Old and New Testament Examples and Teaching,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 223.

[22] Köstenberger articulates a similar idea in his commentary on 1 Timothy 5:1-2: “Humility demands that older men in the church, even if not in leadership positions, be treated with respect in keeping with their age.” See Andreas J. Köstenberger, Commentary on 1-2 Timothy & Titus (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2017), 158.

[23] See also 1 Tim. 6:2 (ESV): “Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.”

[24] Swain, “More Thoughts on Theological Anthropology.”