A Response to Denny Burk’s Response to my article on Women as Pastors5
My friend Denny Burk recently wrote a blog article in response to mine on whether or not it is biblically permissible to call a woman a “pastor”. I appreciate his taking the time to give serious consideration to my argument, but I fear that he has misunderstood the primary point that I labored to make.
Denny cites the development of the Baptist Faith & Message (hereafter BF&M) by pointing out that “all three terms (bishop/elder/pastor) are merely three ways of referring to the one office of leadership in the local church.” Burk contends that this is based on “biblical exegesis’ and not unbiblical tradition or fear. He then cites the commentary on the 2000 BF&M: “The Bible says that every pastor is to serve as a bishop who exercises and fulfills the ministry of the Word on behalf of the congregation as the gathered people of God.”
In point of fact, the Bible says no such thing. There is not a single text in Scripture which says that “every pastor” is also a bishop or elder. It most assuredly does say that every bishop or elder is to serve as a pastor. But the reverse is simply not true. That is the point of my article that Burk seems to miss.
Burk repeatedly asserts that “pastor” is an office. This is the very point I dispute in my article, and no biblical text has been cited to prove otherwise. The word “pastor” is never used of an “office.” It is a spiritual gift (see Eph. 4:11; much like the prophet has the spiritual gift of prophecy and the teacher has the spiritual gift of teaching and the evangelist has the gift of evangelism and the apostle has the gift of apostleship [see 1 Cor. 12:28-29]). Yes, those who hold the “office” of Elder are to fulfill their calling by pastoring God’s people. But nowhere does the NT say that a person who “pastors” God’s people (however we may end up defining the specific tasks in doing so) is necessarily also an Elder.
Burk contends that there is biblical evidence supporting the belief that the three terms (bishop/elder/pastor) are used interchangeably. Let me be clear. I completely agree with Denny that the terms “elder” and “bishop” are used interchangeably. No argument there. All the evidence he cites in the remainder of his article is evidence I also use to demonstrate this truth. So, “elder” and “bishop” or “overseer” are all referring to the same “office.”
However, Burk goes beyond the biblical text when he says that “Peter [in 1 Peter 5:1-2] draws together three different word-groups in reference to the one office of church leadership – overseer, pastor, and elder.” No, Peter does no such thing. Peter clearly says that an elder or overseer must “pastor” or “shepherd” God’s people. No one disputes that point. But neither this passage in 1 Peter 5 nor any other biblical text asserts that if one has the spiritual gift of “pastoring” that this person must also hold the office of Elder/Overseer/Bishop.
Burk also cites Peter’s description of Jesus himself as “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” So, yes, Jesus both shepherds God’s people and oversees them. But this in no way proves that in a local church a person with the gift of pastoring will always and invariably be an overseer. An overseer in a local church will always and invariably be responsible for pastoring or shepherding God’s people, but the reverse is being assumed by Burk, not demonstrated.
Burk then cites Acts 20:28 where Paul urges all the elders in Ephesus to pastor or shepherd God’s people. He concludes from this text, along with Acts 20:17, that “Luke also has all three word-groups appearing in this one chapter to refer to the one office.” No! That is not what Luke does. He assuredly equates the elder with the bishop/overseer, and assuredly encourages all such elders/bishops/overseers to exercise their gifting as pastors to shepherd God’s flock. But this is not the same thing as saying that “pastor” is an office. Pastor is a gifting that is to be exercised by those who hold the office of Elder. But nowhere does the NT assert that Elders/Bishops/Overseers are the only ones who can function as pastors.
When Burk turns to address how I apply this to women, he says that I am “incorrect to treat the office of pastor as something different from the office of elder.” But again: pastor is not an office! It is a spiritual gift. Burk is concerned that if we extend the pastoral gifting to women they will run afoul of Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:12. Needless to say, more needs to be said about how a person can have the spiritual gift of pastoring and exercise it appropriately without violating this Pauline injunction. But that in itself is no reason for denying that non-elders can still be pastors. I will have more to say in the future about how a “pastor” can be a woman who functions effectively in that particular spiritual gift without assuming the form of senior governmental authority that Paul restricts to men.
Burk believes that to make “pastoring” a non-authoritative gift “would strain the clear teaching of the function of a pastor in the New Testament.” But what is that “clear teaching”? Where is it clearly taught that to serve as a pastor one is necessarily exercising senior governmental authority? Answer: nowhere! So please listen closely. Those who hold senior governmental authority in the church, that is to say, those who hold the office of Elder/Bishop/Overseer, must also be pastors. But to say it yet again (and yes, I know it is getting repetitive), the reverse is not true. Nowhere are we told that to serve as a “pastor” one must also be an Elder/Bishop/Overseer.
Denny also contends that “the pastor teaches, leads, protects, and cares for the entire flock.” Again, I have to say, No. The ELDER/OVERSEER/BISHOP teaches, leads, protects, and cares for the entire flock. But no NT text says this is what all pastors do.
So, I fear that my good friend Denny has largely missed the point of my article. I refer to the BF&M as “false” because it identifies the spiritual gift of pastor as an office. It isn’t. Undoubtedly those who hold the office of Elder exercise the spiritual gifting of shepherding God’s people. No one disputes that point, least of all me. But merely to have this spiritual gift does not mean one is necessarily an Elder.
Consider the analogy with teaching. All Elders must teach. But not all teachers are Elders. Someone can possess the spiritual gift of teaching and make use of it in a variety of contexts in the local church, but that does not mean that this person is therefore also an Elder.
My conclusion is that Denny and I agree on the most fundamental truths of this debate. Elder and Bishop/Overseer are interchangeable. All Elders/Overseers should pastor God’s people. Only men are to serve as Elders/Overseers.
Where we disagree concerns the meaning of “pastor”. I’m still waiting for someone to show me where all pastors must be Elders. In the absence of such a text, and given the fact that “pastor” is a spiritual gift, not an office, I see no reason why a woman cannot be given that title. As I said in my article, the way in which a woman can then exercise that spiritual gift without violating 1 Timothy 2:12 is yet to be explored. I can think of numerous ways, especially as I see some women at my church, Bridgeway, who shepherd and care for people in our body but in no way do so in violation of 1 Timothy 2:12.
My affection and respect for Denny is equal to what he has expressed for me. So, I’m grateful for his willingness to engage with me in this conversation. It has served to sharpen my own thinking on this issue. But my conclusion remains intact: Yes, it is biblically permissible for a complementarian to refer to a woman as a “pastor”.