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A humble (I hope) reply to my good friend John Piper on the question of whether it is biblically permissible to refer to a woman as a “pastor”

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In the fall of 2019, I wrote several articles on my blog arguing that the NT allows for the possibility of a woman being referred to as a “pastor”. My friend Denny Burk responded to each one on his blog, to which I posted a friendly response yet again on mine. You can read those earlier articles here on my blog.

More recently, my good friend John Piper took up where Denny left off and argued that it is “misleading,” “unwise,” and “ill-founded” to apply the word “pastor” to a woman. In case you are wondering, yes, John was responding to me and my articles. I know this because he sent these same arguments to me several months ago in a personal email.

You probably know this, but I’ll say it anyway. No living person has exerted a greater and more sanctifying influence on me than John Piper. I love him dearly and respect him as much if not more than any other Christian I’ve known. So please read my response below as one that comes out of a thirty-five-year friendship with John. He and I are in complete agreement that local church governing authority is restricted to qualified men. We are both complementarians. That said, I will quote John’s article paragraph by paragraph, with my comments in bold print following each one.

John begins by affirming what I did,

that this is a kind of intra-complementarian debate; that is, a debate among complementarians — a debate among those who agree that the New Testament calls for spiritual, mature, gifted, qualified men to bear the official responsibility in the local church for governing and teaching leadership. Complementarianism means more than that, more than just those qualifications for church leadership — for example, in the home and in society — but that’s the relevant part for this debate. It’s a debate among those who agree on that point, and the question is whether it’s biblical or wise or misleading to use the word pastor for various roles that women can play, various appropriate roles that women play. That’s the issue that I’m addressing and that I’ve been reading about recently.

My answer to the question is that it is misleading and unwise to use the English word pastor for women in ministry, and that the attempt to say that it is more biblical to use it is built on a misunderstanding of how language works, as well as the supposed use of the word pastor in the New Testament. And I’ll give four reasons for why I think it’s misleading and unwise and ill-founded.

1. Pastor ordinarily connotes preaching and overseeing.

The English word pastor in the English-speaking world today is taken, by almost everyone who knows the word, to refer to a person with official leadership in the local church that ordinarily involves preaching and governing, and would be roughly the same as lead elders or overseers. That’s the ordinary meaning of the word in English.

So the question becomes, Should a word with that ordinary meaning in English be used to refer to laypeople in the church — men or women — who do not have that kind of official leadership role of preaching and teaching and governing as elders and overseers? And the answer of some is yes, we should use that word because the New Testament uses the term pastor for non-authoritative roles of shepherding. That’s the argument they would give.

Of course, John is correct when he says that in the English-speaking world the word “pastor” ordinarily refers to a person with official leadership and governing authority. That is precisely why I wrote my articles, to argue that this shouldn’t be permitted, that it is inconsistent with the way the word is used in the NT. John’s point is not an argument against referring to women as pastors but a simple acknowledgment as to why it typically isn’t.

As you’ll read below, John himself pushed back against “the ordinary meaning” of the word “hedonism” in English to coin a label for what he calls “Christian hedonism.” So it’s not illegitimate to challenge normal English usage in order to make what I believe is a biblical point. More on this below.

2. Greek has only one word for shepherd and pastor.

My second reason for thinking it’s misleading and unwise and ill-founded to use the word pastor for those who are not elders or overseers in the church is that this argument that I just mentioned doesn’t work — namely, that the New Testament uses the term pastor for non-authoritative roles of shepherding.

So let me state the obvious: The New Testament was written in Greek and of course doesn’t use the English word pastor at all. That may seem silly to even observe that, but it’s significant. It has a word in Greek, poimen, for shepherd. That noun is used eighteen times in the New Testament, one of which is sometimes translated pastor — namely, Ephesians 4:11 — where Christ has appointed pastors and teachers in the church. But the ESV, for example, translates this “shepherds and teachers.” And if we do that, then the word pastor never occurs in the entire English Bible. The other translations only have it there at Ephesians 4:11. The ESV doesn’t even translate it there as pastors, but simply as shepherds. That’s the way it’s translated throughout.

The noun poimen means “a shepherd,” and most of its uses are literally those who tend the flocks, like in Luke 2:8. There were shepherds out in the fields tending their flocks by night at Christmas. Then it comes to mean Jesus as the good shepherd or the great shepherd, as in John 10:11 or in Hebrews 13:20, and it refers once to those who shepherd and teach God’s people — namely, Ephesians 4:11. And it also, of course, refers in Revelation 7:17 and once in Luke to the ruler of God’s people, as in Matthew 2:6.

Here’s the catch in translation: In English, we have two words, shepherd and pastor — two distinct words. In Greek, there are not two words; it’s just poimen. There’s one word, and it means shepherd. There was no other word that carries the meaning of the English word pastor. So, if you really want to recover something like New Testament language — which is the claim being made — if you go back to the New Testament language, you would make a case for calling church leaders shepherds, not pastors. That’s the real claim if you want to get back to originality of usage in the New Testament. It’s highly misleading to claim that in applying the word pastor to laypeople, we are recovering New Testament usage. That’s highly misleading when the word pastor does not even occur in the ESV, and only once does it occur in other versions.

I don’t see how this is an argument against the legitimacy of referring to some women as pastors. All that John has done is to point out the obvious, a fact that no one denies, namely, that the Greek word poimen can be rendered either “shepherd” or “pastor” and that perhaps we should refer to local church leaders as “shepherds” rather than “pastors”. All that John has done is to argue that the very word “pastor” itself is not the most accurate English term to translate poimen, but that “shepherd” is more accurate. So? What does this prove? How is this an argument against applying the Greek word poimen or the English word “shepherd” to women?

3. Elders and overseers shepherd the flock.

My third argument for why it is unwise and misleading and ill-founded to call laypeople pastors is the observation that when the New Testament does describe its church leaders as doing the work of a shepherd (with the verb poimaino, which has the same root as the noun poimen), they were thought of not as laypeople, but as elders and overseers. I’ll give you three clear instances.

1. In Acts 20:17, Paul calls together the elders of Ephesus, and he says to them in Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves [you elders] and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” So now you have two words of authoritative position, elder and overseer. This is their task: to shepherd the church of God. So, here Paul virtually identifies shepherding with the task of overseeing, and he is speaking to elders about their special responsibility in the flock.

No, I would suggest that Paul does no such thing. He does not identify shepherding with the task of overseeing. Rather he identifies overseeing as involving shepherding. Yes, all overseers are to shepherd or pastor people. But nowhere does Paul or any other NT author say that anyone who has the spiritual gift of pastoring necessarily serves as an overseer. It is one thing to say that all Elders “pastor” or “shepherd” God’s flock. It is another thing entirely to say that no one else does. All Elders are also called on to “teach” the flock, but no one would argue that teaching is the exclusive responsibility of Elders. So why is it argued that everyone who has the gift of pastoring must be an elder/overseer? Of course, one more thing that John has failed to do is address the argument I put forth that pastoring is a spiritual gift, not an authoritative office.

2. In 1 Peter 5:1–2, Peter says, “So I exhort the elders among you . . . shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” So, Peter uses the same two words as Paul does — namely, elder and the task of overseeing — and he calls these overseeing leaders to “shepherd the flock.”

Again, I agree, but what does this prove? It only proves that if you are an elder/overseer one of the responsibilities you have is to pastor the flock of God. No one denies this. But that is not the same thing as saying that if one has the Spirit-imparted gift of pastoring that he (or she) must also be an elder.

3. In John 21:16, Jesus says to the apostle Peter, “Shepherd my sheep.”

So, not only is there no New Testament word that corresponds to pastor as distinct from shepherd, but the idea of shepherding in the New Testament was consistently associated with the leadership of elders and overseers.

Yes, it was “consistently associated with the leadership of elders and overseers” in that to be an elder one must also pastor or shepherd God’s flock. But what John assumes and fails to demonstrate is that a person who has the spiritual gift of pastoring is always an elder. That is something the NT nowhere asserts.

Another thing Peter says is that all elders/overseers are to be “examples” to the flock. But does this mean that someone who isn’t an elder can’t serve as an “example” to God’s people? Of course not. All elders must be “one-woman” men, that is, faithful to their spouse. But non-elders also are called on to be faithful to their spouse. So my point is simple: the fact that the NT twice (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-2) exhorts elders to pastor/shepherd God’s flock does not mean that only elders pastor/shepherd God’s flock.

As I pointed out in my response to Denny Burk, it is not at all difficult to understand how one may “pastor” or “shepherd” God’s people without holding an authoritative office. Here at Bridgeway we have more than a few women who encourage and warn and counsel and teach and exhort and pray for and lovingly rebuke other believers and provide profound and extremely wise and timely insight into situations that call for decisive action and yet they are not Elders.

They serve in areas of women’s ministry, inner healing and deliverance, lead evangelistic outreaches and often supply practical guidance to many who are facing challenging circumstances. And those are only a few of the ministry tasks into which they speak and provide leadership. And all this occurs as only called and qualified men continue to exercise authoritative governance as Elders/Overseers. As I have watched and greatly benefited from what these women do, I have no hesitation in contending that what they bring to the life of God’s people is a result of their having received the spiritual gift of pastoring.

4. The title pastor for a woman undermines the New Testament teaching on church leadership.

My fourth reason now for saying it’s misleading and unwise and ill-founded to use the word pastor for non-elders or non-overseers — people without official governing and teaching responsibilities in the church, men or women — is that the title Pastor Mary or Pastor Jane is going to inevitably communicate, over time, especially to our young people growing up in the church and to people newer to the church, that the office of pastor, as almost everyone understands it in English, is properly filled by women.

In other words, I think those who are arguing for the use of the word pastor for women ministering or men who are not elders or overseers are undermining the teaching of the New Testament about church leadership, even as they aim to do the opposite.

I simply say, not necessarily. It won’t undermine the NT teaching on leadership if we take the time to teach our people, especially our young people, that the NT does explicitly restrict the office of elder/overseer to men. It won’t undermine the NT teaching on leadership if we labor to explain how the NT term poimen is actually used, how that it isn’t said to be solely the responsibility of elders, that it is a spiritual gift and not an office.

In fact, it is precisely part of the responsibility of elders/overseers to take steps to ensure that our young people understand how biblical language is used, how not all elders possess every spiritual gift, how non-elders may often possess the same spiritual gifts that elders do, and that nowhere does the NT teach that only elders are gifted to pastor God’s people.

There are other NT words that need to be carefully explained to our people that otherwise might cause confusion, words like “predestination” and “election” and “fornication” and “homosexuality.” If we should discover that many of our young people are investing in these words meanings and implications that are inconsistent with Scripture, we must take steps to inform and instruct them otherwise. And that is precisely what I am advocating for in the use of the word “pastor” or “shepherd.”

As I briefly noted above, I might also appeal to John’s argument for why he thinks it helpful to use the terminology of “Christian hedonism.” One of the reasons John gives for using this language is that “it has an arresting and jolting effect” (Desiring God, 311). He refers to people’s “willingness to get over the offensiveness of the term Christian Hedonism and their willingness to yield to the offensive biblical truth behind it” (311).

Likewise, it may sound “offensive” to some to refer to women as “pastors” or “shepherds”. But if that is “biblical truth,” that is to say, if such is consistent with what the NT teaches, then we should labor all the more to explain that this does not mean they are elders/overseers but that they may be given this spiritual gift no less so than are men.

John responds to the objection that “hedonism” carries “connotations too worldly to be redeemed” by answering “with the precedent of Scripture” (312). He refers to Jesus using the word “thief” to describe his coming and his extolling of a “dishonest manager” as a model of shrewdness. I, too, respond to objections about calling a woman a “pastor” by appealing to the precedent of Scripture. And that precedent is that nowhere is it said that women can’t have this spiritual gift, and that nowhere is it said that only elders are pastors, and that nowhere is it said that all pastors preach authoritatively.

In several earlier articles I wrote on this subject I pointed out something that I wish to reaffirm here. It is not explicit biblical teaching but entrenched ecclesiastical tradition and settled public opinion about the meaning of “pastor” that drives the reluctance (refusal? fear?) to be open to the possibility that a woman might receive this spiritual gift.

In sum, I simply don’t see how any of the arguments put forth by my friend justify restricting the word “pastor” or “shepherd” to those who hold the office of elder.

 

1 Comment

Thanks Sam.

If there was an instance in the NT where we see a woman called a pastor/shepherd it would bolster your point but I don't know of any.

Older women are commanded to teach the younger and that would include biblical study but we don't see them called Pastors.

There are, hopefully, people in the local church who do the work of an evangelist but we don't necessarily call them "Evangelists."

Likewise there are many (men and women) who serve the local church in various capacities but we don't call them "deacons."

I think it is best to avoid the hair splitting distinction in language you advocate in order to avoid being a point of confusion in the church. It will grease the skids to more trouble.

The world (and those believers who may think like the world), will not be satisfied with anything less than full capitulation, which is, ordaining women to the office.

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