The debate about whether a woman is permitted to be a pastor continues to intensify. Although there is scant historical precedent for it, many today claim that either men or women may be pastors. Throughout the centuries, Christian theologians have reflected on this issue, and the preponderance of them have concluded that the pastoral role is exclusively assigned to men. This has been the position of the Southern Baptist Convention since its earliest days, though a few Southern Baptist churches have disagreed and installed women pastors. In the current discussions of gender roles, there is a need for clear thinking about what the Bible says.
The question requires careful analysis. Southern Baptists have claimed that their doctrinal positions were either taught in the Bible or were, at the least, not contrary to the explicit teachings of Scripture. And so it is here. This article addresses some of the larger concerns revolving about the issue of women serving as pastors. The exegesis of specific texts is a necessary starting point for the discussion, but the issue goes beyond isolated texts. There is a consistent pattern of biblical teaching on the subject. Our approach will be to identify these patterns and deal with the greater issues they raise. This discussion, which is necessarily brief, should be complemented by a serious and detailed exegesis of the relevant texts.
While the Bible does not support the practice of women serving as pastors, numerous passages speak clearly and forcibly to the inherent worth and value of women. Women in the New Testament engaged in significant ministry, performing valuable service in sometimes-difficult situations. This is readily seen in the Acts of the Apostles. Both Priscilla and Aquila spoke privately to Apollos at Ephesus (Acts 18:24-26), correcting his incomplete and flawed theology. Further, women clearly played a significant role in the work of the Apostle Paul. In his letter to the Romans, Paul identified sixteen significant helpers in ministry (16:1-16), and at least ten of them were women. Who knows what the health of the church at Philippi would have been were it not for Lydia (Acts 16:13-15), apparently a benefactor to the church, and others such as Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3)? And of course, women made a significant contribution to Jesus' ministry. Luke recalled with appreciation their financial support and company with Him (Luke 8:1-3).
The question at hand is not whether women are of equal value to men, nor is it whether they can minister effectively. It is, rather, the nature of their ministry in the church. More specifically, it is permissible for a woman to serve as senior pastor?
The place to begin in this, as in other biblical questions, is to ask, "What does the Bible say?" Even a cursory reading of the pertinent texts reveals three important observations: 1) there were no known women pastors in New Testament times; 2) none of the instructions regarding church order include instructions for women pastors; and 3) some texts on church order explicitly forbid women to occupy that role. Paul, in 1 Tim. 2:12, states, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man" (NIV) . This verse is introduced by a statement that women should learn "in silence," and it is followed by the statement that "she must be silent." The word silence means being possessed by a calmness of spirit and peaceful disposition. It is set as the opposite to "teaching" and "having authority over a man." Paul does not expect that women will not or can not learn or teach (compare with Titus 2:3-5 and 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14,15). He states that they cannot teach or have authority over men. Thus, they cannot have a pastoral position, or perform the pastoral function, for that puts them in authority over men.
It is logical to conclude, therefore, that the issue would not be raised today if discussion of the parameters for pastoral leadership were confined to the biblical record.
Biblical exegesis requires sensitivity to the context of a passage. When Scripture is taken out of its context, faulty conclusions and blurred perspectives result. Two matters impact this discussion significantly - the issues of literary context and cultural context. Let us first examine literary context. Each biblical writer directed his word to specific issues. The task of the biblical expositor is to determine the precise nature of those issues.
An example of the importance of correct contextual analysis occurs in Galatians 3:28. In explaining the meaning of justification, Paul said that in Christ there is "neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female." The outstanding social characteristic of Christianity is that ethnic ("Jew nor Greek"), economic ("bond nor free"), and gender ("male nor female") distinctions have no bearing on salvation, nor upon equal standing among all Christians. It is obvious that the context of the statement is its explanation of the impact of justification. This is a soteriological statement: it speaks to the doctrine of salvation. The teaching is that all believers, without regard to social distinctions, have equal access to God through Christ, and, consequently, are to be unified in the Body of Christ.
Near the end of his life, ten to fifteen years after the writing of the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul wrote to both Timothy and Titus, giving them pastoral instructions about how the church is to be organized. Both 1 Timothy and Titus provide clearly for a hierarchical approach to church order in which men rather than women were to occupy that role.
Some have pointed to Galatians 3:28 as justification for women serving as pastors. However, it is a misuse of Scripture to produce ecclesiastical patterns from soteriological passages! While Paul clearly affirms the equality of men and women in salvation, he equally and just as clearly affirms the priority of men in church leadership. There is no conflict. The contextual issue is crucial for an accurate exposition in this, as in all areas. Readers must exercise great care, therefore, to determine the nature of the issue under discussion in order to understand and apply the message relevantly today.
Biblical teaching regarding church order goes hand in hand with its teaching regarding family order. Indeed the instructions for one often interrelate with instructions for the other.
One finds a similar tension in biblical teachings on family order that occurs in the doctrines of salvation and the church. Passages teaching the equality of women, reveal an important principle: in their standing before God and with each other, men and women are equal in several ways. First, they have equal value as persons (Gal. 3:28). Next, men and women have equal responsibility to communicate intimately in marriage relationships. This is seen in God's plan that marriage is to be a companionship of equals (Gen. 2:24). It is never biblically warranted for either the man or the woman to depreciate the social, intellectual, physical, or spiritual companionship of a spouse. Finally, the Bible affirms the equal responsibility of men and women in propagating life (Gen. 1:28).
On the other hand, the Scriptures teach a hierarchy of responsibilities. The wife is to submit to her husband (Eph. 5:22). Some insist the introductory words "submitting yourselves to one another" (Eph. 5:21) somehow tempers the command for wives to submit, but the explicit teaching of the passage is that wives are to submit; husbands are to love. This interpretation is confirmed by the clear parallel passage in Colossians (3:18), and the teaching of Peter (1 Peter 3:1), where submission is specifically commanded of the wife. The Greek term used for submission (hypotasso) suggests a voluntary submission based on a commitment to proper order. It does not imply an organization based on inability or inferiority. Indeed, this term seems to have been chosen by Paul to honor the unique value of the wife. In a beautiful tension, he affirms both value and order, both equality and subordination.
The models for family and church interrelate. They do so for two reasons. First, these are the two God-ordained institutions in which we find the spiritual resources for full Christian maturity. Second, these two institutions have unique ability to reveal God to a world blinded by sin. Family and church share the central place in God's economy.
The Scriptures frequently interrelate the family and the church. Paul clearly tied the two together in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. He addressed a disruption caused by some of the women in the church over hairstyles (often understood as "head covering"). In a carefully reasoned argument, Paul expressed a theological conviction. If a married woman will not proudly wear a symbol of her right relationship to her husband, her familial "head," she forfeits her privileges of praying and prophesying in church fellowships. Her ministry in the church is directly linked to her submission to her husband. Paul's words are forceful. Married women have no right to participate in the church service if they wish to assume the prerogative of family headship and/or if they wish to act as though they were single rather than married. Here proper family order is a prerequisite to a woman's participation in the church.
Paul addressed men similarly in the pastoral epistles. He argued that no man has the privilege of leading the church as bishop (pastor) unless he meets certain qualifications. At least one relates to family order: the pastor must "rule his family well" (1 Tim. 3:4; Tit. 1:6). Again, Paul's conclusion is clear and forceful. If a married man does not relate to his family properly, he forfeits his right to be pastor of the church. As before, proper family order is a prerequisite to pastoral leadership. The Bible intentionally interrelates church and family for both husbands and wives. The God-ordained leadership structure in the church is reflected in the family, and vice versa.
This understanding has implications that bear directly on the question of women pastors. Proper family relationships are a prerequisite to ministry in the church. Proper relationships require the husband to function as the head and the wife to willingly submit to his leadership. In the church, wives, submissive to their husbands, are not to "have authority or be the teacher" over men (1 Timothy 2:12). This precludes a woman serving as pastor, for to do so would be to take the place of headship.
Let us move the discussion to another level. The complementary principles of equality and submission are built into human structures for good reason. These principles tell us about God, for in the Godhead we see both equality and submission!
The equality element derives from God's unity. The Old Testament affirms that there is one God, and He is to be worshiped (Ex. 20:3; Dt.6:4). Yet in both the Old and the New Testaments that unity expresses itself in a consistent plurality. Historically, orthodox Christianity has referred to this plurality as "personalities." We refer to the interrelationships within the Godhead as the doctrine of the Trinity. Each member ("personality") of the Godhead is equal. God the Father is not greater than God the Son or God the Holy Spirit. The same is true of each of the others. God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit are not greater than the others. Equality in the Godhead is similar to the equality present among humans. Each shares the same value, the capacity for companionship, and cooperation in specific tasks. The three persons of the Godhead share deity. In that shared deity they find perfect companionship (communication and love). They also share a common mission, that of redemption. Each of the personalities is equal in essence.
Yet, reading the Bible one is confronted by a hierarchy existing among the three. Jesus acknowledged this when He declared in John 20: 21 "As the Father hath sent me, so send I you." The Bible reveals a consistent pattern in its discussion of the tasks God undertakes. There are two primary tasks: creation and redemption. Regarding creation, God the Father planned it. Jesus spoke creation into existence and he maintains it. The Holy Spirit "hovered upon the waters" (Gen. 1:2) to complete creation's process. In redemption the pattern continues. God the Father planned it and He elected to salvation. Jesus accomplished redemption by His death. The Holy Spirit applies the work of Jesus. Thus in the activities of God there is a division of labor and focus - what one writer called economic subordination.
The Godhead provides the unchanging model for the family and the church. There exists in each both essential equality and economic subordination. Equality is based on "who each is," a relational, interpersonal matter. Subordination is based on "what each does," a task oriented, functional matter. Both elements are present and are to be acknowledged in practice. Organizational subordination requires the recognition and appreciation of essential equality. Each is to value the worth of other. Communication and love is to characterize internal relationships, and each person must focus jointly on the task. When this occurs, there will be no jealousy, strife, contention, or claims of superiority or inferiority.
Summary: Should Women Be Pastors?
We have seen that the explicit texts of Scripture forbid women to serve as pastors. The biblical model for family roles supports that stance as well. It is not a matter of inferiority or worth, for all persons are of equal worth in their persons, reflecting the essential equality of the Godhead. It is a matter of function. There is no compelling reason to encourage women as pastors, and there are many reasons not to do so.
Common Objections to this Teaching
Some object to these conclusions, suggesting the following:
1. The Apostle Paul did not really take Gal. 3:28 seriously.
Some reason that if he had, he would have allowed all persons to have the same functions in the church. Although this is a complex issue, some observations are in order. The most obvious is that Paul frequently addressed the issue of gender in the church. Sometimes his discussion was occasioned by specific problems that arose, and there is always a pattern of consistency in his solutions: they all involve the issue of women's subordination. The pattern is found in each of the passages that deal with church order.
There is further evidence that Paul treated the gender issue uniquely among relationships in the church. In the culturally complex mix of first century churches, there was constant vying for power and leadership. For example, the church at Rome was divided at least in part over the questions of Jew/Gentile prerogatives. The emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in a.d. 49. They were allowed to return in a.d. 52, slightly before Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans. Officially, the Romans disliked Jews, and racial tensions were most pronounced. These issues threatened the church. Paul, therefore, appealed to their equality in Christ. Another example is the explosive issue of slavery. Paul appealed to Philemon to forgive his runaway slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ. In his letter, he consistently carried out the soteriological implications of justification by faith.
On the other hand, when the problems involved church organization, Paul took a hierarchical approach. In the above examples, Paul never addressed the issue of whether Jews or Gentiles, or slaves or masters, could be pastors. Racial and economic circumstances did not matter. However, male/female relationships did have significance in organizational hierarchy. When Paul addressed them, he appealed to the model of the Godhead and expected that the church would apply both the dimensions of essential equality and economic subordination.
2. This is purely a cultural matter: Paul lived in a culture where women were expected to be subordinate.
This issue also has many dimensions. Most agree that Rabbinic Jews had a higher regard for men than for women, though it is possible to cite evidences to the contrary. While some elements of Paul's' teaching on this subject are consistent with his Rabbinic background, on other occasions he set aside unnecessary Jewish traditions for the sake of the growth of an indigenous church. For example, he was the champion of grace rather than law, and at his initiative, the Jerusalem council confirmed that Jewish traditions were not necessarily biblical sanctions (Acts 15:8-11). Paul defended the right of Gentiles to develop Gentile church patterns. Though he was able to see beyond his Rabbinic background, yet he taught a functional hierarchy in the church. Why? Because his convictions were grounded in Scripture, and not simply inherited from his Jewish background.
A case illustrating this is found in 1 Corinthians 11. Some women in the church were imitating the religious leadership of the Greek women in the community. These Greek women seduced men for "religious" sexual acts in the name of their gods. In their "religious" service, these women disregarded marriage relationships. Some women at Corinth also took initiative in the worship services, disregarding their relationships with their husbands. In addressing that church problem, Paul had the perfect opportunity to commend a form of church order that allowed for women in pastoral leadership. It certainly would have been relevant to the issue. Paul's argument was instructive. Rather than arguing Jewish culture against Greek culture, he tied his organizational instructions to his understanding of the hierarchy of the Godhead. As the relationships among the Trinity are supra cultural, so are those in the Christian family and the Church of Jesus Christ.
3. The biblical prohibitions against women pastors are given because women were not as well educated as men.
In the passages already surveyed, two principles are evident. First, Paul did not choose to argue for men pastors based on education. Education never entered the discussion either as a problem or a solution. Women may have been less educated, but surely there were uneducated men in the churches of the first century as well. Yet, Paul did not explicitly forbid them to lead. It is extremely difficult to argue that education was at the heart of Paul's ecclesiastical instruction.
Further, in the problem of the women in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul linked his argument for church order on proper family relationships, not on education. He allowed women to pray and speak, but only if their relationships with their husbands were proper. There is little discussion in Scripture of the educational qualifications of the pastor.
4. It is easy for the man to hold to a hierarchical position since men are not required to submit.
This objection betrays a shallow perspective on submission. In fact, everyone is required to voluntarily submit to someone else, thus everyone is capable of understanding subordination. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul assumed this principle as a starting point (1 Cor. 11:2). The wife submits to her husband. The husband submits to the Lord Jesus. Jesus submits to God. In His submission to God the Father, Jesus identified with both man and woman. In submission to the Lordship of Christ, men identify with the submissive role of women. Additionally, because each is called to submit to someone else, each should treat those who submit to them with the respect that allows for their complete fulfillment. These two principles combine to perfect community and understanding. Personal fulfillment is achieved in and through submission, and everyone is equal in the requirement for obedience.
5. The hierarchical organizational patterns are only necessary because of sin; that is, if people had never sinned, there would be perfect functional equality.
A corollary idea is that since Christians are to reverse the sinful order, the church ought to practice functional equality between the sexes, without regard to the culture of the world.
This argument fails to account adequately for Paul's treatment of the issue. It also fails to understand the theological model. True, Paul appealed to the sinful "order" (condition) in a parallel discussion (1 Tim. 2: 14, although 2:13 refers to the creation order as well). Yet, he did not always do so. In 1 Cor. 11:3 he appealed to the order of creation, not to the condition of sin. He clearly associates the need for such hierarchy to creation, time, and our humanness; not to sin.
Again, Paul understood economic subordination to exist in the Godhead (1 Cor. 11:3). Since none of the personalities of God ever sinned, this order could not be because of sin. It was a task subordination appropriate for time - for the human perspective. In accepting the organizational hierarchy, the church is actually operating consistently with the Godhead. This is confirmed in that Paul appeals, not to sin, but to a "pre-sin" order, the "order of creation." Thus, his argument is based on a situation that existed prior to creation, and the model prescribed in the Scripture is not the result of the sinful human condition.
Someday neither the church nor the family will operate with such economic subordination. Marriage is only an earthly economy (Matt. 22:30). The church is the bride of Christ and will have a corporate beauty in the image of God (Eph. 4:11-16; Eph. 5:25-27). Perhaps this, too, is analogous to the Godhead since someday "God will be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). Prior to the eternal state, however, there is a demand for functional organization. The organization prescribed for churches pictures God's functional organization in the Godhead. Therefore, based upon these texts and models, a woman's spiritual service is to be in those roles assigned her by God. These do not include the role of pastor.
Of all people, Christians should accept God's will in the most Christian of all institutions: the church and the family. These matters call for careful and prayerful analysis, for there is more at stake than initially meets the eye!
Richard R. Melick, Jr. is professor of New Testament and provost of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He authored the first of Broadman's The New American Commentary series, An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, and serves as consulting editor for the series. He wrote this article at the request of SBC LIFE.