This is a controversial topic that our ministry gets asked about consistently. It tends to incite debate but my encouragement is for Christians on all sides to think Biblically, rather than emotionally. Our aim ought to be to engage Scripture, present truths as best as we can, steer clear of character assaults, and make logical arguments with a generous dose of grace.
The controversy surrounding women as pastors or elders in a church mostly stems from one specific verse about teaching and authority, and one specific verse about an elder’s gender. Emphasis has been added in bold below. Here are the controversial passages:
1 Timothy 2:11-12: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”
1 Timothy 3:1-3: “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife…”
Scholars have weighed in on both sides, feminists have exploded in outrage, and many churches are divided over how to answer the question, is it biblical for women to be pastors and elders? By “elder,” we refer to the πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros), ἐπίσκοπον (episkopon), or Ποίμαινε (poimaine). Those terms mean “elder,” “overseer,” and “pastor/shepherd.” We see these used interchangeably to describe those that we know as our church leaders today. These are leaders who hold an authoritative role in the church. They are those who function as the primary teachers of God’s word for the entire church.
There is a lot to cover here, and many faulty arguments and presuppositions are used in an attempt to blur the clear truth. These include strategies like undercutting Paul’s New Testament authorship, questioning biblical reliability, poorly defining Greek terms like αὐθεντεῖν (meaning “to exercise authority over”), and limiting truths to only being cultural for times long past. We won’t be able deal with everything in one blog entry, but for further study, I recommend this Q & A with leading theologians, Andreas Kostenberger and Thomas Schreiner.
When we let the Bible speak authoritatively across all ages, three things are clear:
- Women are esteemed co-laborers in the faith who share the gospel in many contexts.
- Men and women are both used by God in powerful ways.
- Only qualified men can function as pastors and elders.
By the end of this article, those three truths will be argued for. Of course, if someone doesn’t believe the Bible to be the inerrant, sufficient, and authoritative word of God to man, it will be easy to find wiggle room on whatever aspects of this issue do not fit with their opinion or agenda.
The words that start the war
It’s not always the fact that Paul penned these words that starts hot debate. Egalitarians (people who believe that women can be pastors and elders) don’t always take issue with Paul’s imperative commands, depending on their interpretation. This debate over women not being allowed to hold the role of pastor or elder can even be docile, as long as interpretations stay within certain parameters. There could be more, but here are a few acceptable arguments for egalitarians:
- Paul’s words were only directed at Ephesus because of the local feministic culture.
- Paul’s words were due to the lack of education opportunities for women back then.
- Paul’s words were referencing women who were using authority negatively.
In contrast to those interpretations, there is one interpretation that isn’t as widely acceptable as it once was. This is that Paul’s words were applicable then, and now. He was laying down a timeless principle for church leadership across all ages, not just at Ephesus.
Is there a biblical foundation for such a position? To find out, unbiased interpretative steps are key. No matter how a passage makes us “feel,” we need to submit to what Scripture says.
Let’s answer some basic questions then decide if it’s biblical for women to be pastors and elders.
What was the context of Paul’s words?
Paul’s words are set against the backdrop of a charge given to the elders when Paul departed from them back in Acts 20:28 as he said, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” You could summarize the letters of 1 and 2 Timothy like this: Instruction for what an elder must do and who an elder must be. The context surrounding Paul’s words on women fall under that contextual umbrella. Paul wanted the church instructed clearly for its own health. He cared deeply for Timothy and the flock at Ephesus. This drives the flow of every word Paul writes, culminating with a charge to “preach the word” on the final leg of his ministry marathon (2 Timothy 4:2).
To the original audience this would have been quite clear. Paul was providing a framework for the roles of men and women within church worship. He first explains that there is to be prayer for “all men” (2:1), including government and the conversion of people through the Church’s witness concerning Christ (2:2-7). He goes on to explain that men should be unified in their holiness, engaging in prayer that is from a pure heart and uncontentious (2:8). This harkens back to Paul’s words to Timothy to “fight the good fight” (1:18) and to be “keeping the faith” (1:19) unlike certain blasphemers (1:20). Such divisive men would be detrimental to the unity of the Church, making her vulnerable to false teaching. These men would undoubtedly be useful to Satan as wolves who prey upon easy targets. Hence the seriousness of Paul’s words for keeping the faith and functional order within the Church. Out of that flow of thought on functional order within the Church, Paul commands that women dress modestly in a way that puts focus on God and not on themselves (2:9), to be known for their good deeds and godliness more than flaunting their good looks (2:10), and to quietly receive instruction in submission to male teachers in the Church (2:11) who would no doubt be qualified to hold authority in the Church assembly (3:1-7). Using the Genesis account, Paul doubles down on the reasoning behind his command in stating that it was Adam who was created first, and Eve who was deceived (2:13-14). Lastly, he ends with an encouraging note that women will have influence over the next generation through rearing godly children, and thus, while not holding authority over men in the Church, they do hold authority over raising men who will one day lead the Church (2:15). A powerful eco-system in God’s order!
Does Paul address the role of elders in other places?
This is where arguments limiting Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 to only Ephesus fall flat on their face. To another church on Crete, Paul instructs Titus in a similar way. If Paul wanted to limit the application of his words on elders to just Ephesus, he would not have provided the same list to Titus who was serving the Church at Crete (Titus 1:5-9). Upon closer investigation, one can even see that Paul leaves out the phrase “able to teach” from the list for Titus but does say these overseers must be able to “exhort with sound doctrine” (1:9). It appears that Paul alters the language of his list somewhat. But does Paul adjust the gender? No. If Paul was only advocating for male leadership at Ephesus, and leaving things open ended in other places, then when he adjusted the language in the list to Titus, why did he still insist that elders be the “husband of one wife” (1:6)?
Gathering “intel” from other texts like Titus 1 is helpful, but not exhaustive. The question ultimately begs, is this issue limited to being about women and elders, or is there a larger theme at play?
Surveying the New Testament landscape, a clear theme emerges: God has ordained male headship as the normative pattern, not only in the church, but in the home as well.
Where does the New Testament teach “male headship?”
God’s design is for men to lead in authority and to use that authority in the way that Christ did — to model sacrificial love and serve! It is not God’s design that male leaders abuse their authority, abuse women, or throw their weight around like a bully. They are to lead from God’s word to help steer those under their care towards God’s will. The New Testament is not silent on male headship. Paul’s words are not limited to Ephesus and certainly not limited to only elders in the church. Here is just a short list of truths from specific texts and supporting texts that affirm male headship and an ongoing pattern for this as a timeless principle:
- Pastor-elders are to be men; the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:1-3)
- Christ is Head of every man; man the head of woman (1 Cor. 11:3)
- Hold firm to the traditions you’ve been taught on Church order (1 Cor. 11:2)
- This is practiced by the Churches (1 Cor. 11:16)
- Obey your leaders and submit to them (Hebrews 13:17)
- Women encouraged in role of teaching women and children; not men (2 Tim. 1:5; Titus 2:3-5)
- The husband is the head of the wife (Eph. 5:23)
- Wives submit to husbands (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18)
- All are spiritually equal in Christ (Gal. 3:28)
- Women are weaker vessels physically and emotionally, which should lead to male understanding and protection (1 Peter 3:7)
- No woman wrote a NT book
It’s quite difficult to argue that Paul’s words on female elders are limited in context and that male headship is not God’s design when it appears all over the New Testament for both the church and the home!
Dialing us back in on the disallowance of women as elders, John MacArthur succinctly explains the spiritual equality and exceptional gifts of women, while rightfully identifying the unique roles God has given each of the sexes. He writes,
As in the Old Testament, spiritual equality does not preclude differing roles. There are no women pastor-teachers, evangelists, or elders in the New Testament. None of the authors of the New Testament were women. The New Testament nowhere records a sermon or teaching of a woman. While the daughters of Philip are said to have prophesied (Acts 21:9), neither the occasion nor the message is defined. There is no reason to assume they had an on-going preaching ministry, or that they taught during the public worship. They, like Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46ff.), or Anna (Luke 2:36-39), delivered some messages of truth elsewhere. As noted in chapter 6 of this volume, a comparison of 1 Corinthians 11:4 and 14:34 indicates women are permitted to pray and speak the Word, but Paul here makes clear that such allowance is not in the assembly of the church.
On that note, let’s look at two arguments that some egalitarians and most feminists (they are not one and the same) turn to when frustrated by these truths. The first argument is that those who hold to a biblical view of male headship view women as “useless” for anything but cooking, cleaning, and birthing babies. The second argument is that male headship is inhumane, abusive, and misogyny.
God used women powerfully then, and He still does today
God has used women mightily throughout the ages. Across the entirety of the Bible, and today, women are used by God to declare truth, teach, and be a witness for the gospel around the world. However, as we’ve seen, this is not to be done as an authority over the church or as an elder. Here is a simple list of women used powerfully by God throughout the Old and New Testaments, but never as elders (or priest in the OT):
- Esther saved God’s people (Esther 4)
- Ruth’s loyalty changed history; she was in the lineage of Christ (Ruth 4)
- Hannah’s faith and courage made history (1 Samuel 1)
- Abigail influenced a king (1 Samuel 25:30-33)
- Deborah was a judge [not a priest] (Judges 4)
- Mary told everyone about the resurrection (John 20:14)
- Priscilla, along with her husband, helped guide Apollos (Acts 18:18-28)
- Chloe helped Paul (1 Cor. 1:11)
- Phoebe was highly commended by Paul as a servant (Romans 16:1-2)
- Philip’s daughters prophesied (Acts 21:9)
- Women prayed and prophesied in the assembly (1 Cor. 11:4)
That is an incredible group of women and if we added history and modern day women of God we’d have countless.
None of this means that women can be elders. Like a man who can hold his wife’s hand in the delivery room can still never birth baby, women can be useful to God in countless ways as spiritual equals but their role can never be, elder. These are not issues of inequality. They are divine designs for functionality. We know who is supposed to do what and how it’s all supposed to look. If only a select group of qualified men are allowed to be elders, then the Church is better protected from abusive imposters. If the list can be changed, we are opening ourselves up to wolves in sheep’s clothing. Worse, we are trampling on Scripture.
Is this an infringement on human dignity?
Emphasis on human dignity has continued to rise over the past fifty years — and rightfully so — which has led to positive reform in many areas of society. However, we must humbly ask, does an emphasis on human dignity and gender equality have to rewrite God’s design for gender roles?
We most certainly can fight for human rights while upholding God’s beautiful design for marriage, the home, and the Church. Gender distinctions do not immediately equal human rights abuses or inequality. In fact, one could argue that false victimization can lead us to places we do not want to end up theologically or societally. All people of all colors, genders, and races are to be seen as equal image-bearers of God. None of that changes gender roles in God’s design. There are specific things God has called each sex to fulfill in the fullest sense. We do well to follow His design.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Timothy (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 85