My good blogging friend, Junkster, sent me this study after he was inspired by a comment of Dr. James Willingham's in this SBCVoices post, to take a deeper look at 1 Timothy 5. He gave me persmission to post it here:
5:1 Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren;
(Presbuterw mh epiplhchv, alla parakalei wv patera, newterouv wv adelfouv,)
5:2 The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity.
(presbuterav wv mhterav, newterav wv adelfav en pash agneia.)
The context of 1 Tim 5:1-22 is a set of instructions for relating to various people in the church -- elder males, younger males, elder females, younger females, elder widows, younger widows, all summarized in the instruction in 5:21 to "observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality." Thus the passage is providing instructions for fair treatment of all in the body, whether old, young, male, or female, while recognizing and acting according to the unique needs and circumstances of each. We may do different things with or toward different people, but we are not to elevate some over others just because of their gender and/or age.
Verses 1 & 2 give the instruction to entreat (rather than rebuke) various people. Verse one deals with entreating "elders" (presbutero, the singular masculine form of presbuteros, which we are to entreat "as a father") and then younger men ("as brothers"); verse two gives the same instruction for "elder women" (presbuteras, the plural feminine form of presbuteros, whom we are to entreat "as mothers"), and then younger [women] ("as sisters").
Given the parallel construction of these two verses, the appropriate translation should be consistent. One could either translate presbutero as "elder men" (referring not to the concept of a specific church function, but just to "old dudes") and presbuteras as "elder women" (referring to "old ladies"). Alternatively, one could translate the former as "male elders" (referring to the church function) and the latter as "female elders".
Well, now, that changes things a bit, huh?
The question of which way the words should be translated, either "old men” and “old women", or "male elders” and “female elders", cannot be discerned from those two verses alone. But the rest of the passage gives insight into the appropriate translation -- in instructions regarding "widows" (chera) in verses 3-16, and in further instructions regarding elders in verses 17-22.
The instructions regarding "widows" in verses 3-16 indicate some sort of formal recognition by the church of specific individuals that fall into that category. Reference is made to "the list" ("the number" in KJV), which is katalego, referring specifically to some sort of registry used to keep track of people (also used of enlisted soldiers elsewhere). In this passage, the list is to be used to keep track of who should and should not receive direct support from the contributions made to the church. Thus Paul uses "widows" to refer to individuals who have a specific designation within the church, including what functions those persons are to perform in the church (prayer, good deeds, service to others, etc.).
In verses 17-22, Paul comes back to elders, first giving instructions to provide "double honor" to those who "direct the affairs of the church" ("rule well" in the KJV, a poor translation) and then giving instructions on how to deal with an accusation against an elder -- not to be done except "before two or three witnesses". (The KJV translation, which, by the way, is a better translation in this case than the NIV, which says "brought by two or three witnesses." Translated correctly, the instruction is, if you are going to listen to someone making an accusation against an elder, there need to be others present to hear the accusation, not that the accusation has to come from more than one person. Big difference.) Also, verse 22 refers to the “laying on of hands”, the normal way of indicating that someone is being prayed over to be set apart for a specific task or function in the church.
So we see that both "widows" and "elders", in context, are specific designations, filling specific functions in the body. The overall context of the passage is dealing with relating to those who have those specific, designated functions in the church.
Thus, we can conclude that "elder' in verse one is not referring just to a man of advanced age, but to the concept of one who fills the church function of elder. And, if we use sound principles of translation, the correct translation in 5:2 should then be "elderesses" or "female elders".
One of the things we can see from this is that the KJV translators (and most since) had a vested interest in maintaining the hierarchical status quo, and they allowed their own cultural biases and assumptions to influence their translations.
There's no good reason to translate presbuteras in 5:2 as "elder women" unless you are trying to avoid the conclusion that the Bible indicates that both men and women can be elders.