Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Should Women Be Pastors?

This was a question we dealt with in our Pastoral Ministries course last night. I guess we can say that I am not one to avoid controversy. Let me say from the beginning, that this is in no way intended to be a slight toward women who are serving the Lord faithfully in a variety of roles in churches today. If a woman says that she feels called by God to be a pastor, I may disagree with her about that calling, but I will commend her nonetheless for obeying what she senses the Lord calling her to do, and I will pray for her in her work. When I was a new Christian, I was a member of a church that had a female associate pastor, and I had a great respect for her as a sister in the Lord. When I came to formulate a position on this issue some years ago, I was as open minded as anyone could be about it. I knew women who were pastors, I had been in a church with where a woman was the associate pastor, I had publicly defended a female pastor's ministry in a church business conference, and I went to the Scriptures with an open mind about the issue, content to let the Bible formulate my conviction on the issue. I know that there will be many who disagree with what I say here, and I would welcome interaction with you on that point. But please, let us speak to one another in love. I should also point out that, to my knowledge, Immanuel Baptist Church has never taken an official congregational position on the issue, and therefore I do not claim to speak for any members of the church I am called to pastor. The Southern Baptist Convention, in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, did affirm in Article VI on the Church, "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture." Because SBC churches are autonomous, and the BFM2000 is a non-binding confession of faith, there are SBC churches which have female pastors and pastoral staff members. But the question is not what is in practice, or what does the denomination hold, but rather what does the Bible say about this thorny issue? The Bible is the inspired word of God and is our infallible guide in all matters of faith and practice, therefore we must allow it to speak to this question.

Can women serve as pastors/elders/bishops? (In a previous lecture, I argued that all three of these terms refer to the same "office" in the New Testament, so the question is relevant for pastors and elders and/or bishops [overseers]). This question is more common today than ever before. The answer is more controversial than ever before.

In order to affirm that women can be pastors, we must find both biblical examples and biblical exhortations. In fact, we find neither. No passages speak of women who served in this role, and none give instructions for women serving in this role. The only possible exception would be to see the instructions given in Titus 2:2-5 as applying to “elders” rather than “older” Christians. If that is the case, then 2:2 would speak to male elders while 2:3-5 would speak to female elders (presbutis). However, the word used in 2:2 is not presbuteros (as is used in reference to the office) but presbutes, which seems to relate more generally to older men. Presbutis in 2:3-5 would be the feminine counterpart of that word, not the feminine counterpart of presbuteros.

The strongest case I could make for women serving as pastors would have to be based on this text. Interestingly, I have not encountered any argument for female pastors that uses this text at all. They may be out there, but I have not found them in my research. Typically, those who argue for women as pastors either do so with unapologetic disregard for biblical precedents, or else they will appeal to Miriam as the song leader of Israel, Deborah as the judge, Phoebe as the deacon, the daughters of Philip who were prophetesses, or Anna the prophetess,. Sometimes there will be mention of Priscilla, who established churches with her husband Aquilla and with him instructed Apollos in the things of the Lord, or Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus commissioned to take the news of His resurrection to the apostles, or to some of the other female followers of Jesus found in the Gospels. However, it surely does not escape our notice that none of these women are described as serving the New Testament churches in the role of poimen (pastor), presbuteros (elder), or episkopos (bishop). These great women of faith, and others like them, may be used to inspire and exemplify women serving in a number of ways in the church, but not as pastors.

In contrast to the office of pastor/elder/bishop, consider the case of deacons. It is still not commonly accepted for women to serve as deacons, and it is a controversial subject. However, there is much more biblical support for this than for women serving as pastors. In 1 Tim 3:8-13, Paul gives the qualifications for deacons (immediately following the criteria for pastors). In 3:11, he speaks directly to women (gune). Note that this occurs in the midst of the passage, not added to the end. Some argue that it refers to “their wives,” and this very well could be the case since gune can mean women or wives. However, the third person plural possessive pronoun (which we would translate as their) does not occur, and the odd placement of the verse (prior rather than posterior to the criteria of being the husband of one wife), would make an odd fit. Also unusual is the absence of any criteria related to pastors' wives in the immediately preceding context. Surely, if a deacon’s wife warrants specific qualifications, the pastor’s wife does all the more. (Also note that if this means wives, then certainly husband of one wife cannot mean something different here than it does for pastors. If the Catholic church is correct that a priest must be unmarried [married only to the church], then it must mean the same for deacons, and that cannot be the case if this text speaks to their wives. I think both are incorrect; I do not believe it speaks to wives, nor do I believe it speaks to a celibate ministry).

Are there any examples of female deacons in the NT? Perhaps. In Romans 16:1, we read of Phoebe, who is described as “a servant of the church at Cenchrea”. The word translated as “servant” here is diakonon, the same word rendered elsewhere as deacon. While in some contexts that word can mean generally “servant,” there seems to be a connection with her service to “the church at Cenchrea,” rather than more generally, “to the Lord,” or “to the saints.” It seems to me that it is highly plausible to see Phoebe as a female deacon.

Would women serving as deacons be contradictory to other Scripture about women teaching or having authority over men (1 Tim 2:12)? Not necessarily, for the ministry of deacon was not initially intended to be a teaching or authoritative position, but one of humble, need-meeting service (Acts 6:1-7). The role of pastor however is always described as one of teaching and having authority (e.g. 1 Tim 3:2, 5:17; Heb 13:17; et al.).

On the basis of these reasons, I conclude that women may, and should, be involved in many ways in the ministry of the church, as is expected of all believers, even potentially serving as deacons. However, the absence of mention of women as pastors (either as examples or exhortations), and the roles of teaching and authority involved in pastoral ministry (cf. 1 Tim 2:12) would prohibit women from serving in that capacity.

Once when I shared my position on this question with a sister in the Lord, she said that I had previously been dishonest about my position on this issue. She said that I had told her before that I supported women as pastors. I reminded her that the question which was presented to me on that previous occasion was concerning my opinion on women "in ministry." I remained convinced that every Christian woman, indeed, must be in ministry, as all of those who are redeemed by Christ have been saved to serve the Living God (Eph 2:8-10; Heb 9:14). The great cast of faithful women in Scripture who serve the Lord in a variety of ways ought to be of great encouragement to men and women in the church today. However, the absence of mention of women serving as pastors (either by example or exhortation) seems compelling enough to convince me that the office of pastor/elder/bishop is restricted to biblically qualified men.

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