Scripture contains many passages that are difficult to interpret—even Peter said so (2 Pet 3:16). What is “baptism for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15? Who were the Nephilim of Genesis 6? What did Peter mean when he said that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19)? What does the Bible mean when it says that God regrets doing something (1 Sam 15:11)?
Some of those difficult passages concern the matter of women in the context of church gatherings. Does 1 Corinthians 11 require women to wear head coverings in corporate worship? Does 1 Corinthians 14:34 mean that women cannot speak at all in church gatherings? What does Paul mean when he says that women should “remain quiet” (1 Tim 2:12)?
Whenever we encounter difficult passages like these, we ought to follow an important principle: interpret unclear passages of Scripture in light of more clear passages. And a corollary principle is this: we ought never to base a core doctrine off of one or two unclear passages.
When it comes to the issue of whether or not women may preach and/or hold the office of pastor, it has become common to argue in favor of women preachers or women pastors on the basis of unclear texts of Scripture.
However, several texts regarding the nature of pastoral ministry are clear, and it is my goal in this post to briefly summarize these key texts and what they conclude regarding women and pastoral ministry.
The Gift and Office of Pastor Are the Same
It has become increasingly common for some to argue that though a woman may not hold the office of elder within the church, she may have been given the gift of pastor-teacher, and therefore she may exercise that gift within the church, even with men present.
Often Ephesians 4:11 will be quoted to argue that pastor-teacher is a gift given without qualification to both men and women within the church, which is different from the office of elder.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.Eph 4:11–12
The key problem with this line of thinking is that this passage does not describe abilities given to individuals but rather offices given to churches. In other words, Paul is not describing certain giftedness that God gives to particular individuals; rather the gifts that God gives are particular offices within the church.
Paul does not say that God gave individuals the ability to be an apostle, the ability to prophesy, the ability to evangelize, or the ability to shepherd and teach. No, Paul says that God gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to the church for the purpose of equipping saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. Paul’s argument is that God gave individuals to the church, not abilities to individuals.
Now, of course, God did give these individuals whom he gifted to the church abilities requisite with their offices, but that is not the primary point of the text. Ephesians 4:11–12 describes offices within the church, not giftedness of individuals.
Therefore, “pastor-teacher” is an office gifted to the church.
In light of this clear understanding of what Paul is saying in Ephesians 4, the next question must therefore be, who qualifies for the office of pastor (poimēn)?
Only Men May Serve as Overseers/Elders
Scripture is clear that only men may serve in the office of overseer, if for no other reason than one of the qualifications for overseer (episkopos) given in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 is that he must be “the husband of one wife.”
Likewise, in Titus 1, Paul gives as a qualification for elder (presbyteros) that he must be “the husband of one wife.”
Once again, it would be impossible to argue from these two key passages regarding qualifications for overseers and elders that these can be held by women.
Pastor, Overseer, and Elder Refer to the Same Office
On the other hand, Ephesians 4 does not say that overseers or elders have been given as gifts to churches, it says that pastors have been given to churches. So some may argue that while women clearly may not serve as overseers or elders, there are no biblical passages that clearly argue that only men may serve as pastors.
However, here is another truth that is unmistakably clear in Scripture: pastor, overseer, and elder refer to the same office.
Let me show you why this is unmistakably clear. First, in Titus 1:5–7, Paul clearly refers to the office of elder and the office of overseer interchangeably:
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain.
Paul clearly describes one office using both the term elder (presbyteros) and overseer (episkopos).
Similarly, after Paul lists qualifications for an overseer (episkopos) in 1 Timothy 3, he uses the term “elder” (presbyteros) in the same context in 1 Timothy 5:17. Clearly, Paul considers “overseer” and “elder” to be two terms that describe the same office.
So what about “pastor” (poimēn)? Three additional texts clearly identify this term with the other two.
First, in 1 Peter 5:1–2, Peter admonishes elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” In addressing elders, Peter uses verb forms of the terms for pastor (“shepherd”; poinaino) and overseer (episkopeo). He is describing one office of the church using three terms: elder, pastor, and overseer.
Second, earlier in 1 Peter 2:25, Peter uses the terms shepherd (poimēn) and overseer (episkopos) interchangeably with reference to Jesus.
Third, in Acts 20:17–38, Paul assembles the “elders” (plural of presbyteros) of the church at Ephesus, refers to them as “overseers” (plural of episkopos), and exhorts them to “shepherd” (verb form of poimēn) their “flock” (poimnion) (v 28).
What is clear from these texts taken together is that the terms overseer (episkopos), elder (presbyteros), and pastor (poimēn) refer to one singular office, a gift that has been given to churches by God for their spiritual benefit.
And, consequently, if Scripture is clear that only men may serve in the office of overseer/elder, then it follows also for the interchangeable term “pastor” mentioned in Ephesians 4:11. This is the clear teaching of Scripture against which all other less clear passages must be interpreted.
Women Are Not Permitted to Teach Men
One other matter must be addressed, however. Someone might agree that a woman may not serve in the office of overseer/elder/pastor, but she may be gifted in teaching and preaching and may therefore be permitted to preach in a church context as long as a church’s pastors permit her to do so.
On the contrary, another very clear biblical text prohibits such:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.1 Tim 2:12
Here again is a very clear text. A plain reading of this verse prohibits a woman from teaching Scripture (i.e., preaching) or in any other way exercising authority over men.
Some may argue that the passage only prohibits “authoritative teaching,” and therefore preaching under the authority of her pastors is permissible. But this argument fails both grammatically and logically. Grammatically, the “or” in this verse indicates that these are two separate activities that are prohibited. And logically, the preaching of God’s Word is always, by definition, authoritative.
Further, this very prohibition leads into chapter 3 where Paul gives the qualifications for an overseer, inextricably connecting the activity of preaching to the office of overseer/elder/pastor.
Scripture is clear: women may not serve in the office of pastor, which embodies both the activities of pastoring and preaching.
Women Sharing the Gospel or Teaching Women and Children Is Not the Same as Preaching
One final point needs to be addressed. It is common for those who argue that women may either preach or serve in a pastoral function that to deny this is to deny a woman’s ability to share the gospel or teach other women or children. But this is simply not the case.
Scripture is clear, first, that all Christians are called to fulfill the Great Commission, not just pastors. Christian women should indeed share the gospel with others; this is not at all the same as preaching or pastoring.
Further, Scripture is also clear that women may and should teach Scripture to other women and children:
Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children.Titus 2:3–4
God certainly gifts Christian women with spiritual maturity, wisdom, insight, and teaching abilities so that they can teach other women and children to know and love God.
Praise God for how he gifts his people and his churches, and may we trust in how God has wisely chosen to do so.