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Concluding my Conversation with Denny Burk on whether it is Biblically Permissible for a Woman to be called a “Pastor”


This will most likely be the last article I write in response to my friend Denny Burk. In case you are just now dropping in on the conversation, Denny has responded twice to my argument that “pastor” in the NT is a spiritual gift, not an office. My conclusion from the way that the terminology is used in the NT is that women may well receive this gift. So, yes, I still maintain that it is compatible with complementarianism for a woman to be called a “pastor”.

I will try to keep this final response short.

First, Denny charges me with building my case on an “argument from silence.” He contends that I’m saying that since “the NT doesn’t say that women can’t be pastors, therefore they can.” But if it is such an essential element in NT ecclesiology that women can’t be pastors, wouldn’t you think the NT authors would say so explicitly? The silence in this regard is deafening, and quite substantial. Let us also not forget that “the NT doesn’t say that all pastors must be men.” Yet Denny insists that they are.

Let’s also apply this line of argumentation to other spiritual gifts. Is it not reasonable to conclude that since the NT doesn’t say that women can’t be evangelists, therefore they can? Or since the NT doesn’t say that women can’t exercise the spiritual gift of faith, therefore they can. And we could do the same with virtually all the spiritual gifts, since none of them is gender specific (with the possible exception of apostleship).

In other words, why should the NT be expected to tell us that women can be pastors, especially if it is a spiritual gift and is not inextricably identified with one gender to the exclusion of the other? So again, nowhere does the NT say that women can’t be exhorters or ones who show mercy or ones who have the gift of giving. We do not dismiss these possibilities because it is an argument from silence. We simply acknowledge that since there is nothing gender specific about faith or exhortation or evangelism or giving or showing mercy that any and all can potentially be the recipient of such gifts.

Second, Denny concedes that “it is true that there is no line in scripture that exactly says, ‘A woman must not be a pastor’ or ‘A woman may not have the gift of pastoring.’” But he then goes on to assert that “God has given us clear instruction about the function of a pastor and about whether a woman is permitted to exercise those functions.” No, in fact God has done no such thing. He has given us clear instruction about the function of an Elder or Bishop or Overseer (all of which are largely synonymous and interchangeable). All such individuals must be men and all such men must be pastors. But no text says or suggests that all pastors must be men.

I mentioned a possible analogy to this in my previous article. There I pointed out that all Elders must be teachers. But no one, not even Denny, concludes from this that all teachers must be Elders.

By the way, you shouldn’t be bothered by the fact that the NT doesn’t describe the functions of a pastor or provide us with specific qualifications for someone who might be so designated. The NT doesn’t do this for most spiritual gifts. We aren’t told the function of someone who has the gift of word of knowledge or the gift of giving or, for that matter, of any other spiritual gift. But this doesn’t hinder us in identifying when someone displays these charismata. I honestly don’t think it’s all that difficult to know what it means to say someone has the gift of pastor, any more than it is difficult to say that one has the gift of teaching or the gift of tongues or the gift of prophecy, etc.

Third, Denny contends that “we have more than enough revelation from God’s word to know that God does not approve of women serving as pastors.” In fact, we have no such revelation. None. The only basis on which an assertion such as this might carry weight is if the NT explicitly stated that to be a pastor is to be an Elder. But it doesn’t.

Fourth, Denny repeatedly states in his article that “in Scripture the primary role of the pastor is leading and teaching the entire flock.” No, that is the primary role of the Elder.

Fifth, Denny over and over again inserts the word “shepherd” in place of Elder to prove his point that the former always has authority over “all the flock” or the entirety of the church. In every instance and text that he cites, he replaces the biblical terminology of Elder with that of shepherd. He contends that “the shepherd/pastor metaphor has reference to the entire flock, not parts of it.” No, the office of Elder/Overseer has reference to the entire flock. They are to “pastor” or to “shepherd” the entire flock, but that does not necessarily mean that no one else, of either gender, can serve in a pastoral gifting to the benefit and blessing of a single individual or smaller groups within the body of Christ.

Consider the situation here at Bridgeway Church, where I serve. I have a young man who pastors the youth of our congregation. He is incredibly gifted as a pastor as he leads them, encourages them, prays for them, loves them, and tenderly cares for their spiritual welfare. But he is not an Elder (although one day he most likely will become one). Should we not call him a “pastor”? Is he not the shepherd over our youth? No one in the church thinks of him as exerting authority over the entire flock simply because he is referred to as a “pastor”. The same is true of our worship pastor. He fulfills the responsibilities entrusted to one who has the spiritual gift of pastor but is not yet an Elder. He knows, as does our Youth Pastor, that the extent of his authority and responsibility is limited.

Sixth, Denny again asserts that “the Bible clearly reveals that the pastoral gift involves functions that are exclusive to the office of elder/overseer – namely, the functions of leading and authoritatively teaching the entire flock.” Of course, as you’ve come to expect in reading these articles, my response is that the Bible nowhere reveals anything of the sort.

Seventh, do some pastors exercise authority over and teach the entire flock? Absolutely. Jesus does, as shown from the many texts that Denny cites. Elders do also, as we’ve seen repeatedly. But other pastors may make use of their gifting in less comprehensive ways and without the governing authority that inheres in the office of Elder.

Eighth, Denny points to numerous texts that speak of God as a shepherd and of Jesus as a shepherd. Since Jesus shepherds the entire flock, he concludes that anyone who is a shepherd in the local church has the same extensive authority and responsibility. But Jesus leads and teaches the entire church not because he’s a shepherd, but because he’s Jesus! As Jesus, Lord of all, he shepherds and leads all. But that doesn’t mean that a person in a local church cannot serve as a shepherd or have the spiritual gift of teaching unless he/she exercises authority over the entire congregation.

Similarly, Elders shepherd (or pastor) the entire flock not because they have the gift of pastor, but because they are Elders!

Ninth, Denny once again claims that “the pastor is one who performs functions that are otherwise exclusive to the office of elder/overseer.” I simply don’t understand how he can continue to make such an assertion in the absence of a biblical text that says this. Our church is blessed with a lady who pastors those in her care, prays for them, encourages them, teaches them, rebukes them when needed, and always faithfully loves and guides them, yet she is not an Elder and does not, in the use of her spiritual gift, in any way violate the guidelines of 1 Timothy 2:12.

Tenth, and finally, Denny is correct when he points out that “there’s a widespread assumption that pastors are office holders and that they do exercise authority/oversight over the whole church.” And it is precisely this “assumption” that I contend is built on tradition more than on Scripture. And it should be challenged, and changed.

I doubt if my arguments will persuade someone whose mind is already made up. But perhaps they may cause someone to take pause and give more serious consideration to the possibility of a woman exercising the spiritual gift of pastor. If so, I will consider my efforts to be successful.


I think we’re overlooking the obvious. The first
century church understood the Greek language
very well. They understood the scripture saying that
women shouldn’t teach or have authority over men.
If they didn’t understand something, they would have asked Paul directly. For almost 2000 years, the
Church obeyed. This wasn’t tradition, it was
obedience. Apparently, now 2000 years later, we know better. I just can’t accept that!
Thank you for these articles and exchanges - and the graciousness you have in explaining your position. Perhaps I missed this in the exchange - but I was wondering, and based upon your defense of the pastor to the youth here - is the primary difference you see in the scope of authority? Whereas pastor may be limited to a small (relative) portion whereas an elder is unlimited in scope? If so - what text(s) would you suggest teach that?
I've enjoyed reading these articles from you and Denny and truly appreciate both your graciousness toward one another and your convictions about what the bible is teaching us! Thanks for taking the time to address this issue!


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