Q: #338. Should a woman be a pastor/elder?
A: This is a very controversial subject, and I will try and answer with as much sensitivity as I can. In studying this, it looks to me like there is about an even split today between “yes” (there should be gender restrictions on certain offices in the church, called “complementarianism” and “no” (any office in the church should be open to males and females, called “egalitarianism”). On the other hand, I can find no real evidence that this is a historical viewpoint. Historically, it appears that women haven’t really served in this capacity until about the last 100 years or so (beginning of the 20th century). It is always a bit troubling to me when a Christian teaching or practice is relatively “new.” However, of course, the most important thing is what does God say about it. Let’s look at this.
First off, it should be noted that the word “pastor” (Gr: “poimen“) is only used once in the New Testament in (Eph 4:11). (“Poimen” is also used 17 times for the word “shepherd.”) However, the word “elder” or “elders” is used 67 times. The Greek word for “elder” is “presbuteros.” A look at this word in Strong’s reveals 3 primary meanings: #1. in relation to “age” (Lk 15:25)(Jn 8:9)(Acts 2:17)(the feminine form of this is used in 1 Tim 5:2), #2. “of respect to rank or positions of responsibility:” (Mt 16:21)(Mt 26:47)(Lk 7:3), #3. “in Christian churches those who…..were appointed to have the spiritual care of, and to exercise oversight over, the churches.
This last definition of “elder” is what we are focusing on. Does the Bible tell us that women should be in a position to “have spiritual care of, and exercise oversight in a church?” The primary verses used to say they should not are found in 1st Timothy:
(1 Tim 2:12-14) But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. (13) For Adam was first formed, then Eve. (14) And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
There are also the following verses regarding women in the church:
(1 Cor 14:34-35) Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. (35) And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
In addition to those verses, there are several sections of scripture, (1 Tim 3:2-7)(Titus 1:5-9)(1 Pet 5:1-4), that speak about the tests an elder/bishop/overseer needs to pass in order to hold that office. A bishop, overseer, and elder are all essentially the same in the New Testament. The same Greek word “episkopos” is used for bishop (1 Tim 3:2)(Phil 1:1)(Titus 1:7)(1 Pet 2:25) and overseer (Acts 20:28). An elder and bishop are used interchangeably in several passages (Acts 20:17,28)(Titus 1:5-7), as well as elder and overseer (1 Pet 5:1-2). One of the primary qualifications for this office is that an “elder/bishop” must be: “blameless, the husband of one wife” (Titus 1:6)(1 Tim 3:2). In the verses that follow, (1 Tim 3:3-7) and (Titus 1:9), we also see the words “man” “his” “he.” These seem to pretty clearly indicate that the office is for a man and not a woman.
Finally, we also can see over and over through the Old and New Testament a pattern for male leadership. Of course, God the Father and Jesus are male, as is the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:16-17,26)(Jn 16:7-8,13-14). The 12 disciples were male, all angels are male (i.e. Michael, Gabriel, Lucifer, Abaddon/Apollyon), the Old Testament priests were all male, the 12 tribes of Israel each came from a male, and all books of the Bible were written by males to name a few.
Putting these things together seems to make a pretty clear case that a woman should not hold this office. However, let me say this… I believe the issue is more a case of “submission” than of “teaching.” I am not going to go in depth on this here, but I believe that the verses in (1 Cor 11:2-16), where Paul speaks about “head coverings,” best make this case. I speak in depth about “head coverings” here. In short though, all through the Bible, God has ordained a pattern of male leadership with female submission. I believe this is why, in the verses above, Paul added verses 13-14 following (1 Tim 2:12), saying “Adam was formed first, then Eve.” He was making a statement that because Adam was “formed first,” he was meant to be “first” or the leader. It also seems clear that Eve fell into sin, in part, because she did not follow God’s ordained pattern. In addition, the wife is commanded to submit to her husband (Col 3:18)(Eph 5:22-24)(1 Pet 3:5-6).
However, this does NOT mean that God views a woman as less valuable than a man! God loves men and women equally. Jesus died for ALL men and women. In Christ, men and women share equally in the promises and blessings of God. But, God does make some distinctions between men and women, and one of these distinctions is that they are not positionally equal. The same can be said of Jesus’ relationship to the Father. Jesus is equal to the Father (Phil 2:5-6). He IS God! However, He also submits to the Father (1 Cor 11:3)(1 Cor 3:23) (1 Cor 15:24-28)(Jn 4:34)(Jn 5:30)(Jn 6:38)(Jn 14:28). Just as Jesus positionally submits, so the woman is to positionally submit to the man.
Therefore, can you see how these verses on “submission” would be a problem for a woman in a position of leadership within the church? She would not be “covered,” and she would be exerting authority over a man, which is not God’s ordained plan.
Let me close by making a few points..
First, I am aware that several different points are made to support women as pastors/elders, and I have read most of these points, but I do not find them convincing. For example:
#1. There are verses taken out of context: i.e. (Gal 3:28) says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is used to say that God does not view females or males differently, but in context it is clearly referring to SALVATION in Jesus Christ, not leadership.
#2. There are leaps of logic: i.e. the argument that when Paul mentions Priscilla and Aquila, he puts her first, so he must have thought she was the more spiritually mature person and leader… (because “historically” a man’s name would be first) (Aquila is actually first in 3 of the 6 times they are mentioned in the KJV.)
#3. There are interpretations of Greek words that aren’t the real meaning. One example of this was a study I read which said the Greek word for “servant,” used to describe Phoebe in (Rom 16:1), was “diakonos,” when instead it is “diakonia.” This is important because “diakonos” is the masculine form of the word for “deacon.” “Diakonia” is the feminine form, and where we get the word “deaconess.” There is a distinction between them.
#4. There is the argument that “If you understand the history of that time then you would know that…,” except no one ever shows exactly WHERE history records this.
#5. Because the Bible gives examples of women in positions of power, it means they can be a pastor/elder. Yes, there are examples of this: i.e. Deborah was a judge (Her position in leadership is an exception, and appears to be because there was a lack of male leadership [see: Judg 4:8-9,14]. In addition, it should be noted that God later gave credit for victory to a man [see: Heb 11:32], rather than Deborah.) and Esther was a queen (Es 5:2-3,12). However, these examples do not carry over to leadership within the church.
Those who are interpreting the Bible in this way seem to me to be practicing what is called “eisegesis.” This is: “the process of interpreting a text or portion of text in such a way that the process introduces one’s own presuppositions, agendas, or biases into and onto the text” (source: Wikipedia). Carrying this out to women as “pastors/elders,” practicing eisegesis would be to say: “I believe that a woman should be allowed to be a pastor/elder, so let me find a way to make the Bible justify my position.” We should instead be practicing what is called “exegesis,” meaning “an explanation or critical interpretation of a text” (Webster’s Dictionary). In other words, our beliefs should come AFTER careful reading and studying, rather than reading and studying to find support for what we believe.
Having made the point that the Bible doesn’t seem to justify a woman being a pastor/elder, the Bible does show MANY other opportunities for women to work in ministry! There are prophetesses (1 Cor 11:5)(see: Q: #232), evangelists (Mk 16:15)(Mt 28:19-20)(1 Pet 3:15)(Prov 11:30), women teaching women (Titus 2:3-5), women teaching children (2 Tim 3:14-15)(2 Tim 1:5), women helping widows (1 Tim 5:16), and a case can be made for deaconesses (see: Q: #285). I would also add this. As a man, I have been taught many amazing things about the Bible from women. I DO believe that women can teach men things, and I do believe it is wrong to say they cannot do so. In fact, you can make a pretty good case that most of the ministries for women have an aspect of teaching to them. This is why I said above that it seems to me to be more about “positions of leadership” and “submission” than about “teaching” per se. The question to me comes down to: “Can a woman teach a man things about the Bible without being in a position of power over him?” I believe it is possible.