Is it Biblically Permissible for a Woman to be called a “Pastor”?8
The internet has been abuzz ever since the comments of John MacArthur concerning Beth Moore and whether or not women are permitted to preach. For the sake of clarity, let’s put aside the latter question and instead address the issue of whether or not it is biblically permissible for a woman to be called a “pastor”.
Many would argue that there is no difference between the two. They insist that those who are “pastors” are the ones who regularly, week in and week out, preach and teach the Scriptures from the pulpit, typically on a Sunday morning at the corporate assembly of God’s people. But is this what we find in the NT? I’m not so sure.
It’s important that we spend some time looking at how the NT actually makes use of the noun “pastor” or “shepherd” and the verb “to pastor.” You may be surprised by what you see.
The verb “to shepherd” or “to tend sheep” or “to rule” is poimaino. It is used 11x in the NT. It is used with reference to Jesus in Matthew 2:6; Revelation 2:27; 7:17; 12:5; and 19:15. It is found in Luke 17:7 and 1 Corinthians 9:7 in the general sense of someone who tends or shepherds sheep. Jesus exhorts Peter to “tend” or “shepherd” his sheep in John 21:16. In Jude 12 we read of false teachers who are described as “shepherds feeding themselves.”
The only texts where the verb to shepherd or to pastor is used of leaders in the local church are Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2. In the former Paul is addressing the Elders at Ephesus, and in the latter Peter is likewise giving instructions to Elders.
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [i.e., bishops or elders], to care for [poimainein; present, active, infinitive] the church of God, which he obtained with is own blood” (Acts 20:28).
“shepherd [poimanate; aorist active imperative] the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2).
Clearly, these two texts where the verb is used indicate that an essential role or ministry of the Elders in a local church is to shepherd or to pastor the people of God. Thus, it stands to reason that all Elders must, in some sense, be pastors. But nothing in the way this verb is used should lead us to believe that all pastors must be Elders. No text asserts the latter.
The noun poimen (“pastor” / “shepherd”) is found 18x in the NT. Jesus saw that the people were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). The word is used in a similar way in Matthew 25:32; 26:31; Mark 6:34; 14:27; John 10:2. In Luke 2:8 we read of the “shepherds” “keeping watch over their flock by night” (likewise in Luke 2:15, 18, 20).
Jesus refers to himself as “the good shepherd” (twice in John 10:11). The word is used in similar fashion in John 10:12, 14, 16. In Hebrews 13:20, Jesus is described as “the great shepherd of the sheep” and in 1 Peter 2:25 he is called “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
There is only one text where the noun “shepherd” or “pastor” is used of leaders in the local church.
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [poimenas; masculine, accusative, plural] and teachers” (Eph. 4:11).
In this latter text, Paul is identifying several representative gifts that Christ has given to the church. We know that prophets are those with the gift of prophecy and that evangelists are those with the gift of evangelism and that teachers are those with the gift of teaching. Whether or not apostleship is a spiritual gift or office (in some sense of the term) is a debatable question. It would seem, then, that we should conclude that pastors are those with the gift of pastoring.
Contrary to what many in the charismatic world believe, there is nothing in this text that would lead us to conclude that Paul is identifying five specific offices or governmental positions. One often hears of the so-called “five-fold ministry” in Ephesians 4:11. But everywhere else where Paul lists spiritual gifts (such as prophecy, teaching, evangelism, etc.) he simply mentions certain representative gifts. He could just as easily here in Ephesians 4:11 have mentioned mercy instead of teaching, or tongues instead of prophecy, or helps instead of evangelism. These five nouns refer to people who were blessed with a particular gift, not a position of authority in the local church. Of course, apostles are of a different order and did exercise authority over churches.
Some insist that the nouns “pastor” and “teacher” are one gift, and thus translate it “pastor-teacher.” The argument from the Greek text is that each of the first four nouns has the definite article (“the”) preceding it, but the definite article is absent from “teachers.” Some insist that when two plural nouns, connected by kai (“and”) have only one definite article, we are to understand them as closely related or in some sense overlapping in meaning. Other Greek scholars disagree. There appears to be no consensus. Some also take the kai as explicative or appositional and translate it to mean, “that is,” hence “pastors, that is, teachers” (in this way identifying the two).
Dan Wallace, the premier evangelical Greek grammarian, believes that in a construction of this sort the first noun is a subset of the second. In other words, “all pastors are to be teachers, though not all teachers are to be pastors” (Greek Grammar, 284). That certainly makes sense, as it is difficult to see how a person can pastor or spiritually shepherd people if he/she cannot teach. But a teacher need not be someone who shepherds or pastors. But perhaps we’re drawing too fine of a distinction here between the two gifts. I suppose it is possible that someone might have the gift of pastoring and not be gifted to teach. Nothing in the NT precludes this possibility (unless Wallace’s suggestion above is unequivocal).
In any case, even if we take Paul as referring to only four gifts, “pastor-teacher” would still be a gift, not an office or position of governing authority. It is certainly the case that a “pastor” or “pastor-teacher” may also be appointed to the office of Elder or Overseer, but nothing requires us to believe that all “pastors” or all “pastor-teachers” are necessarily Elders.
Why, then, do most evangelical churches use the word “Pastor” to refer to an authoritative office, most often equated with that of an Elder? I identify two reasons.
First, tradition! We have become accustomed to speaking of pastor and Elder in this way and it is difficult for many to break from the habit of doing so. It would call for considerable humility in acknowledging that we were wrong and that we have not accurately interpreted the NT on this point. It would also require that denominations and local churches make changes in their long-standing and cherished doctrinal statements, something they are strongly disinclined to do.
Consider, as one example, the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) that serves as the doctrinal standard for the Southern Baptist Convention. In Article VI we read this:
“While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
In point of fact, as we have seen, this statement is false. They should have said, “the office of Elder is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” But many (most?) SBC churches do not have a plurality of Elders. The Senior Pastor often is recognized as “the Elder” of the local church, with Deacons serving in a slightly lower authoritative role.
The point being that most evangelicals think of “pastor” as an office that carries governing authority and the responsibility to preach and teach and apply the Word of God to the conscience of God’s people on a regular (weekly?) basis. Whereas this may often be the case, in that one man who holds the office of Elder may also be designated as the Senior or Lead Pastor, nothing in the NT suggests, far less requires, that anyone who has the spiritual gift of pastoring will be an Elder or will serve as the primary expositor of Scripture.
There are several reasons why a person may well have the gift of pastoring but not serve as an Elder. It may be that the individual is too young. Although the NT nowhere gives us a specific age requirement for serving as an Elder, it may be that a person does not have sufficient experience in church leadership because of their comparatively young age. But that doesn’t mean they don’t or can’t have the spiritual gift of pastoring and be referred to as a “pastor”. There may well be other qualifications of an Elder (see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) that such a person does not yet possess. But this need not be a determining factor as to whether or not they should be referred to as a pastor.
Second, fear! I sense that another reason why many continue to affirm that “pastor” is an authoritative office and that all pastors are also Elders is the fear that to predicate this noun of a woman will launch us down a slippery slope into full-scale egalitarianism. Many complementarians are afraid of the answer to this question: “If a woman can be a pastor, why can’t she be an Elder?” The simple answer is two-fold. First, as we’ve already noted, “pastoring” is a spiritual gift that may be found in numerous individuals of both genders who do not yet (or never will), for a variety of reason, qualify as Elders. Second, I believe 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 restrict the office of Elder to qualified males.
Thus, I conclude that the NT makes room for recognizing women as pastors, or even pastor-teachers. Of course, yet another task is determining in what contexts, how often, and to whom a woman might exercise the spiritual gift of teaching. Mary Kassian has written on this at www.desiringgod.org in an article titled, “Where Can Women Teach? Eight Principles for Christian Churches” (October 26, 2019). But that need not detain us here.
Thus I conclude from the use of the relevant terminology in the NT that a woman may well be given the spiritual gift of pastoring and thus bear that title, just as one with the gift of teaching may be called a teacher and one with the gift of prophecy may be called a prophet or one with the gift of evangelism may be called an evangelist, etc.
In sum, there is no indication in the NT that the spiritual gift of pastoring, unlike the office of Elder, is gender specific. The Holy Spirit may well grant this gift to both men and women. Therefore, I believe that one may continue to embrace a biblically based complementarianism while speaking of certain women as “pastors” in the local church.