Can a Woman Be a Pastor? Looking at the New Testament

Sandra Glahn's picture

Recently someone raised this question: Were there any mentions in the New Testament of men/women who were actually titled "pastor"? I keep hearing arguments that there were no women pastors in the Bible, but I can't find any men called "pastor" either.

The observation that no one, male or female, is called “pastor” is absolutely correct. We don’t see “Pastor Paul” or “Pastor Mark” or “Pastor John” in the Bible. Or “Pastor Phoebe” for that matter.

In the same way that no one person is ever referred to as the giver (imagine “Giver Aquila”), the exhorter (Exhorter Priscilla?), the evangelizer, the teacher, the mercy-shower…there is also no one in the New Testament referred to as the pastor. Even in their correspondence with local congregations, the writers of New Testament epistles never greet local “pastors.”

“Pastor” as a Gift in the New Testament

For starters, “pastor” in the New Testament is a spiritual gift, not an office (such as “elder” or “deacon”). A person who holds church office might possess the gift of pastor/shepherd, but pastor/shepherd is not an office. Let’s take a look at how New Testament writers used the word “pastor.”

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul said that Christ descended and ascended “so that he might fill all things. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:10–12).

We have a couple interpretation options for the phrase “and some, pastors and teachers.” Some see “pastors and teachers” as two separate gifts; but others read “pastors and teachers” as one: “pastor-teachers.” My colleague Daniel B. Wallace, who wrote a Greek grammar used in Ivy League schools, wrote a journal article in which he concluded there are two gifts and that the first gift (pastor) is the subset of the second (teacher); thus, “all pastors are to be teachers, though not all teachers are to be pastors.”

Note what Paul said is the gifts’ purpose: not personal glory or even the sole benefit of one’s nuclear family, but for the building up of the body of Christ. Paul uses a metaphor of a physical body. Each person is a “member” in the same way fingers, eyes, and ears belong to a physical body. And every member needs every part. The goal is a healthy body. On a literal level, varying gifts in the church are for the spiritual health of the entire group.  

Paul and also Peter mention other spiritual gifts besides those mentioned in Ephesians 4: prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, mercy (Rom. 12:6–8); word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, gifts of healings, miracles, prophecy, discerning spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:8–10); and speaking and helps (1 Pet. 4:11).   

So “pastor” is a spiritual gift. And we must distinguish a gift from an office. As explained by the former head of the New Testament department at Dallas Theological Seminary, gifts and offices are two different things. We sometimes get the idea that each congregation has only one person with the office of pastor. Yet not only is “pastor” not an office, but each local church may have multiple people with the gift of pastoring. We would never think of other gifts so singularly, such as the gift of giving. Or the gift of mercy. The church has many who possess the same gifts but exercise them differently. 

While a gift is given to each person by the Spirit at conversion for use in service to the body of Christ, not every person holds office. And office is based not on conversion but character. So having looked at spiritual gifts, let’s see how the Bible differentiates them from offices, because knowing how they differ will help us answer the question that started this conversation.

Conflating Office with Gift

In telling Timothy how to organize the church in Ephesus, Paul does not refer to “pastors” nor does he instruct Timothy to set up leaders to function like CEOs. Rather he speaks of elders, deacons, and perhaps even widows. Paul writes that if someone (not sex-specific) aspires to be an elder, that person desires a good thing (1 Tim. 3:1). He goes on to list the qualifications: 

  • Without fault
  • “Of one woman a man” or “of one wife a husband” (some see this as a requirement that the elder be married; others see it as character-related—i.e., he cannot be a womanizer; others see “husband of one wife” as excluding polygamists. Whatever the phrasing means, the fact that Paul assumes an elder is married to a woman is what makes people conclude the apostle did not have in mind female elders. But hold on—he is going to have some similar qualifications for “widows.”)
  • Sober
  • Modest
  • Honest
  • Given to hospitality
  • Skilled at teaching
  • Not addicted to alcohol
  • Not a bully
  • Gentle
  • Peaceable
  • Not greedy
  • Good manager at home with respectful children
  • A good reputation in the world

Having laid out the qualities he wants Timothy to seek in elders, Paul turns to describe deacons (servants). The Greek word itself, diakonos, is the generic word for “servant.” Notice how Paul’s labels are devoid of power and rank. Not even “leader.” Certainly not “ruler.” But, rather, “older person” and “servant.” And here’s the kind of person he wants filling the office of diakonos (3:8):

  • Dignified
  • Not two-faced
  • Not a heavy drinker
  • Not greedy for money  
  • Holding on to the faith with a clear conscience
  • Someone tested and proven to be without fault

Paul then says, “In the same way, women…” Or “in the same way, wives” (v. 11). The challenge here: there are not separate words for “woman” and “wife” in Koine Greek. So we don’t know if he means female deacons or the wives of deacons, except by context.

Another challenge: there is not a female form of the word “deacon” in Paul’s lexicon. In the same way English does not have a “teach-er” and a “teach-ess,” Koine Greek at the time of Paul did not have separate words for “deacon” and “deaconess.” So “diakonos” is not sex-specific.   

Do we see Paul refer to a female as a diakonos elsewhere? Yes, we do. In his letter to the church at Rome, he refers to a specific woman, Phoebe, as a diakonos (Rom. 16:1). Some translate the word here as “servant” because they assume a woman could not be a deacon, even though these same translators render diakonos as “deacon” elsewhere when it refers to men. But that’s not super consistent translation practice, is it?  

In fact, Paul describes Phoebe not just as a diakonos, but as a “diakonos of the church at Cenchreae.” That is, he links her to a specific church—a wording that in early church writings was commonly used to designate someone who held office in that congregation.  

Did the early church have women deacons? Indeed, they did. So, all the more reason to view Phoebe as a woman deacon and also view the reference to “the women” in 1 Timothy 3 as instructions about female deacons rather than deacons’ wives. Church history here is on the side of female deacons being a thing.

So what are the character qualities Paul lists for women holding the church office of deacon?

  • Dignified
  • Not given to foolish talk
  • Sober
  • Faithful in everything they do  

Then he concludes by summing up what all deacons should be:

  • Faithful to one’s spouse
  • Have managed children and one’s own households well

The reference to spouse and children seems to assume marriage. But what about the unmarried? Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it, because Paul will address it. Let’s look first at some elders—which, again, helps us answer the original question:

The author of the Book of Acts records how Paul, knowing he was set for Jerusalem, called together the “elders” from the city of Miletus, located on what we know today as the coast of Turkey. In Paul’s farewell address to these elders, “He charged them to be shepherds of the flock of God” (Acts 20:28). His imagery is of a shepherd with sheep. Indeed, the word “pastor” is derived from the Latin “pascere,” meaning fed or grazed. A synonym of “pastor” is “shepherd.” So their title is “elder” but their function is to pastor or shepherd. Indeed, every elder shepherds; but not every person with the gift of pastor/shepherd is necessarily  an elder.

A different apostle, Peter, used the same metaphor when he wrote, “Therefore, I have a request for the elders among you… I urge the elders: Like shepherds, tend the flock of God among you. Watch over it. Don’t shepherd because you must, but do it voluntarily for God. Don’t shepherd greedily, but do it eagerly. Don’t shepherd by ruling over those entrusted to your care, but become examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive an unfading crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:1–4).

Notice the words “elder” and the gift of “pastor” are not used in the same context. They are not exactly the same thing.

The Neglected Office

If older men (i.e., elders) are like fathers in the church, widows are the corresponding mothers. To see this, we return to talking about singles. In Paul’s discussion about older people holding office, he refers to “widows.” The Greek word translated as “widow” (χήρα) certainly includes a woman left without a husband. But in Paul’s context, the word “widow” was also used to describe a woman who was mate-less—a “without-a-man woman.” The Jewish philosopher Philo (25 BC–AD 50) said of priests, “they are permitted with impunity to marry not only the virgin, but the widows also; not, indeed, all widows, but those whose husbands are dead” (italics mine). In other words, in Philo’s world a “widow” is an older unmarried woman. This use of “widow” also shows up in the church fathers. For example, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch (AD 35–108) wrote to a congregation in Smyrna about “the virgins who are called widows” (Ign. Smyrn. 13).

With all this in view, note that Paul’s description of “widows” falls in a section about church office. He lists these qualifications:

  • Is at least 60 years old
  • Was the wife of one husband/or a one-man woman (italics mine; note how parallel this is to the elders’ qualifications)
  • Has a reputation for good works
  • Has raised children
  • Has practiced hospitality
  • Has washed the feet of the saints
  • Has helped those in distress
  • Has exhibited all kinds of good works

Paul goes on to instruct Timothy, “But do not accept younger widows on the list, because their passions may lead them away from Christ and they will desire to marry, and so incur judgment for breaking their former pledge.”

The “former pledge” he describes is not a marriage vow, nor is he saying marriage is bad; a few verses later he will say he wants younger widows to marry (v. 14). Rather, he is likely talking about vows of office. Think of the historical practice of single women in the church making celibacy vows (i.e., nuns), and again we have history pointing to an office in the church filled by women. 

In their recent work Christian Women in the Patristic World, Drs. Lynn Cohick and Amy Hughes included an exploration of early uses of the word and office of “widow.” They note that Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (AD 69–155), wrote to the church at Phillipi about “our widows [who] must be sober-minded as touching the faith of the Lord, making intersession without ceasing…knowing that they are God’s altar” (To the Philippians 4.3). And Tertullian (AD 160–220) mentioned the “order of widows” in the church, consisting of those whom he too compared to “the altar of God” (Tertullian, To His Wife, 1.7). Tertullian also wrote that a penitent sinner might come “before the widows, before the presbyters…imploring the tears of all, kissing the footprints of all, clutching the knees of all.”  

Interestingly, Paul had warned Timothy about the risk of putting young, unmarried women on the “rolls.” He said, “And besides that, going around from house to house they learn to be lazy, and they are not only lazy, but also gossips and busybodies (Paul is probably talking about going from house-church to house-church spreading false doctrine)  talking about things they should not. So I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us… If a believing woman has widows in her family, let her help them. The church should not be burdened, so that it may help the widows who are truly in need. Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching…. (1 Tim. 5:9–18).

He’s talking about who gets paid in the church. And in his view, it’s people who are older and who serve. Younger singles, he says, need to marry (it was the law at the time, and marriage had little to do with romance). But the older folks who met character qualifications would hold office and be paid. Those who worked hard to teach and speak would receive even more income.

Why does all this about widows matter? Because in the same way we have assumed women do not have a spiritual gift (“pastor”), we have also assumed they never held office (contra “widow”). But the church is a family with fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. As I said in my last post, the church is a two-parent and not a single-parent family.

Some Observations

So with all this in view, we may draw some observations:

  • Spiritual gifts are not the same as offices. Every believer/“member” has at least one gift to use for the building up of the body of Christ. But not every believer holds office.
  • The list of spiritual gifts does not include offices.   
  • Those whom Paul told to “shepherd the flock” were not “pastors” but “elders.”
  • “Pastor” and “elder” are not interchangeable. The office title is elder, not pastor.
  • There is nothing in the biblical text to suggest a sex-specific distribution of spiritual gifts. In fact, girls all over the world shepherd animals. In Paul’s day, people would not have thought of a literal shepherd as being only male. Females receive the spiritual gift of pastor/shepherd.
  • The qualification to receive a spiritual gift is that someone believes in Christ and is thus a member of the Body of Christ. Qualifications for offices are character-based. The Spirit gives gifts; the church recognizes character and appoints to office.

In conclusion, “pastor” is a spiritual gift. Because of this, many churches today that hold a high view of Scripture refer to women on paid staff as “pastors” because these women are shepherding people in their care. In the past in Protestant churches, men have typically been called “pastor” (e.g., pastor of evangelism, executive pastor), even if (as is often the case with executive pastors) the spiritual gift behind the job is administration or helps. Meanwhile, women serving in shepherding parallel roles have been given different titles (e.g., minister to women, director of children) to avoid using “pastor.”  The move toward changing that practice and calling women who shepherd “pastors” is actually not rooted in radical feminism, but rather in a desire to be more consistent with how the Scriptures use the term “pastor.” 

Are there any woman senior pastors in Scripture? No. But are there any male senior pastors? No.    

Now then, Paul, in writing a personal letter full of the singular “you” to Timothy, was not laying out what every church must do for all time. He was telling Timothy how to structure the church in Ephesus, which was filled with many, many single women (probably because they were coming out of the cult of the virgin goddess Artemis) in financial need. For the younger ones, Paul advised marriage—which solved the money problem as well as the legal one. Older single women with families to support them were to rely on them for provision. The older single women with no means of family support who also met character qualifications, Paul seems to envision as committing to a lifetime of vocational church work accompanied by financial payment. How we apply these details to our own settings requires understanding the historical context at the time and seeking to pull from it timeless truths.  

So back to the original question. Did anybody in the New Testament have the title “pastor”? No. Did men and women shepherd others? Absolutely.

Comments

May the good Lord open our mind of understanding so we could understand the scripture s better. A female pastoring a chucrh or owning a church is heresy according to the scriptures.
Stay blessed.

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