May a Woman Be a Pastor?

Written by Father Bill 11 Comments

Dr. Harold HoehnerDr. Harold Hoehner, distinguished professor of  New Testament studies  at Dallas Theological Seminary created a kerfluffle in some quarters with a paper he delivered at the November 2006 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.  I have not seen the paper, but Dr. James Hamilton, assistant professor of Biblical Studies at the Houston campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary expresses dismay with Hoehner’s paper in a blog dated a short time after the ETS meeting.  Dr. James HamiltonNoting that Hoehner’s view in the ETS paper is essentially the same as what he wrote in his commentary on Ephesians, Hamilton quotes from Hoehner’s commentary to summarize an idea in both the commentary and ETS paper:

Some may question the validity of women pastors or pastor-teachers, but it must be remembered that these are gifts and not offices. Surely, women who pastor-shepherd among women should cause no problem at all (Titus 2:3–4). But in fact, Priscilla, along with Aquila, taught Apollos the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:25–26) which would indicate that a woman may not be limited to teaching only women” (Ephesians, 546).

Hamilton then states the nubbin of his concern with Hoehner’s idea about women and the gift of pastor-teacher:  

It is shocking to me that Dr. Hoehner here expressly affirms that women can do what Paul expressly forbids them from doing in 1 Timothy 2:12. On the basis of an example recorded in the narrative of Acts, Dr. Hoehner is prepared to overturn a direct apostolic prohibition.

Several issues are entangled here:

  • Is pastor-teacher in Ephesians 4 a spiritual gifting, similar to other charismata?
  • If so, is pastor-teacher a gift given to men only, or to men and women alike?
  • If women can and do possess the spiritual gift of pastor-teacher, may such women so gifted serve as elders in the church?

Is Pastor-teacher a spiritual gift?

As a specific term, “pastor-teacher” appears in Ephesians 4:11, along with apostles, prophets, and evangelists. In these verses, it is the individuals who are said to be given by Christ, not gifts to individuals. The identification of these ministering persons (i.e. apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor-teachers) with the charismata of 1 Corinthians 12 follows from the latter passage expressly mentioning prophecy in a list of charismata.  From this fact, one might conclude that the other persons in Ephesians 4 possess corresponding charismata namely the charism of apostleship, evangelism, and pastor-teaching. 

Against this inference is the way Paul seems to speak to a related but different notion in 1 Corinthians 12 when he says that “God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, gifts of healings, … [etc.]” In fact, one commenter at Hamilton’s blog, Ray Van Neste, puts the point this way:

Even the labelling of the items in Eph 4 as “spiritual gifts” is suspect.  This passage does not lists ‘gifts’ in the same way that Paul does in 1 cor for example.  Eph 4 refers to people, not simply gifts.  Paul says Christ has given these people (even ‘offices’) to the church.  The background of the OT quote there supports this as well (particularly as argued by Gary Smith [JETS article several years back] and followed by O’Brien).

If “pastor-teacher” is not a gift, if it is not one of the things Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 12, then the question about “female pastors” becomes far less cogent.  But, for the moment, let’s assume that pastor-teacher is indeed a charism of the Spirit and ask the next question:

Is the gift of pastor-teacher given to women as well as men? 

In an absolute sense, we cannot say “yes” or “no,” for no statement of the New Testament expressly answers this question.  Our speculation would draw on two related questions:  (1) what would a gift of pastor-teacher look like in practice and (2) do we ever see women ministering in such a way? 

The ministry of a pastor-teacher seems fairly straight-forward: to teach in such a way as to promote and secure the spiritual maturity of those to whom one ministers with this spiritual gifting.  Hamilton cites several passages in the NT linking the notion of shepherding (in an ecclesiastical sense) to teaching, all of them rooted in Christ’s charge to Peter: “Feed my sheep.” Do women perform this function in the New Testament?  Titus 2 comes immediately to mind (older women ministering to younger women) as well as Lois’ and Eunice’s rearing of Timothy in the Scriptures (1 Timothy 3:15, 2 Timothy 1:5). 

Priscilla’s alleged teaching ministry to Apollos is simply that — alleged.  Both Priscilla and Aquila are credited by Luke in Acts with a teaching ministry to Apollos, but nothing is known as to what if anything Priscilla had to do with teaching Apollos.  Egalitarians would have us believe that Priscilla conducted Bible class while Aquila served tea.  Even if this speculation were granted, it would hardly direct Apostolic prohibition of such a ministry, as one finds in 1 Timothy 2. 

Still, the teaching-shepherding work of the church falls as much to women as motherhood falls to women, whether it be biological motherhood (Eunice), extended-family motherhood (Lois), or “spiritual” motherhood (cf. 1 Tim. 5:2).  And if it is reasonable for women to do the work of pastor-teachers to others, it is no less reasonable to suppose the Holy Spirit would give a special gifting for this work to some of these women.

May women with a gift of pastor-teacher serve as elders in the church?

 Hamilton says “no,” arguing that elder and shepherd are so closely identified in the NT passages that a prohibition against women serving as elders would necessarily extend to a ministry as a pastor-teacher.   Again, if pastor-teacher is NOT a spiritual gifting on a par with the other expressly named spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, then the question about women pastors does not arise.  On the other hand, if one understands pastor-teacher as one of the charismata, this still does not force the conclusion that women may serve as elders, for that scope of ministry is expressly prohibited by Paul to women as far as men being the targets of such ministry.

 The standard egalitarian claim goes like this:  “If I am gifted for ministry X, then I am entitled to perform ministry X in the Church.”  This claim stated in this fashion masks a further claim, namely that to perform ministry X one must be able to perform that ministry toward any and all persons in the Church.  This is what Paul directly contradicts in 1 Timothy 2, where he prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men. 

Does this mean that no woman may have a spiritual gift of teaching?  Or a spiritual gift of pastor-teacher?  Of course not.  And, this was a point made by Charles Ryrie in a theology class in which I was enrolled at Dallas Seminary 30 years ago.  If Paul restricts the scope of a woman’s teaching ministry, this does not mean she has no teaching ministry.  If Paul restricts the scope of a woman’s ministry to rule over a certain domain, by excluding men from those domains Paul does not deprive her of all domains over which she may rule.  Paul never said women may not teach or exercise authority.  He said they may not teach men, that they may not exercise authority over men.  This is the chief complaint of the egalitarian that by circumscribing the scope of their teaching and ruling ministry, Paul has utterly denied women these ministries.

Fortunately for the Church, no one ever thought this way until the past 50 years or so.  Instead, women have been ruling and teaching with vigor, perseverance, and fruitfulness for about 20 centuries.  And, the Church is blessed by these women who taught and ruled their domains in accordance with the Law of Christ. 

The source of the confusion

Much confusion, and much occasion for egalitarian duplicity, arises from the way Baptists equivocate with the word “pastor.”  It is the standard term of art in their communion for what the Bible calls an elder, and what the Presbyterians call a teaching elder.  Having settled on “pastor” as the name of the chief minister in their congregations, Baptists’ commendable compliance with Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2 makes it difficult for them to speak of “pastoral ministry” being done by women.  If they speak of female pastors, this registers in Baptist ears as if women were entitled to serve as the chief officer of the congregation.  To avoid this notion, however, traditional Baptists speak with great reluctance about  women as doing pastoral work, thus providing egalitarian agitators with occasion to malign Baptist compliance with Pauline teaching on how churches should be organized and how ministry should be done. 

Christian communions which follow the Western catholic (note the small “c”) ecclesiology do not have this problem.  Romans, Lutherans, and Anglicans have a bishop (NT episkopos, an overseer) as the chief ecclesiastical officer whose ministry is carried out by his vicars (representatives) who are called priests or presbyters.  Local administrative ministry is vested in deacons (as the office was created in Acts). 

The point:  the terms used to designate these officers of the Church employ the same terms as the New Testament for those offices, leaving terms such as “pastor” and “pastor-teacher” to name ministries which are performed by officers and non-officers (i.e. laity).  In this terminological universe (derived from the  Bible) there is “room” to speak of women doing pastoral ministry or women possessing a gift of pastor-teacher without simultaneously saying that such women are (or ought to be) officers in the Church. 


  1. Scott   |  Monday, 15 January 2007 at 6:43 am

    Let me as an Anglican Priest give my thinking about the topic above. It think in many ways we come to a similar point. The paper can be found here: Women as Priests

    Yours in Christ

  2. Fr. Bill   |  Monday, 15 January 2007 at 10:13 am

    Hello, Scott+,

    Thank you for the reference to your paper. It gives a good illustration of a point I was making at the end of my blog above, that the question of women pastors gets formulated very differently depending on the Christian communion which asks the question.

    Your paper does, indeed, arrive at the same place that Dr. Hamilton’s answer arrives at — women may not serve as pastors (in the sense that “pastor” usually carries in Baptist circles). You conclude by a variety of routes different from what Dr. Hamilton uses that women may not legitimately receive Holy Orders.

    So, in very general terms, you and Dr. Hamilton arrive at the same place. However, your routes are very different.

    Dr. Hamilton appeals primarily to Biblical prescription and to “bare” Apostolic mandate. I don’t use the word “bare” here to denigrate Hamilton’s approach. It is the standard way of doing theology in conservative Baptist circles. And, his approach should be more than sufficient to answer the question at hand: if women are forbidden by Apostolic mandate from teaching or exercising authority over men, it is virtually impossible to see how any woman could serve as an elder in the Church. For, how does any elder NOT teach or exercise authority over men?

    You, and others in the catholic (note the small “c”) tradition reach Hamilton’s conclusion by other routes. Several things jump out from your paper– things typical of those whose appeal is to the broader catholic tradition. There is the notion of Holy Orders, for example. “Ordination” in modern Protestant thinking is a very different thing from what catholic Protestants think of. Holy Orders, in the sense you use the term, is pretty much an alien concept among the grandsons of the Anabaptist/Zwinglian streams of the Reformation.

    Then there is the notion of the the Church itself. Ecclesiology among modern Protestants is a very different thing from what catholic Christians think about when the word “church” comes up.

    Lurking below the surface of your paper is the understanding of spirituality that operates with sacramental dynamics. And, if one credits these dynamics as Biblical, then they impact one’s thinking about Holy Orders and Chuch order and Christian ministry in ways that bring one to say “Women cannot serve as priests or bishops.” But, those considerations are probably not even on Dr. Hamilton’s theological radar.

  3. Scott   |  Tuesday, 16 January 2007 at 7:43 am

    Your analysis is correct. I was for many years a part of the Continuing Church movement which became separate from the Episcopal Church USA about 1980, largely over women as priests. This movement is largely composed of those from those who are Anglo-Catholic, there were a few Evangelicals here and there but the movement was mostly catholic.

    You said: Lurking below the surface of your paper is the understanding of spirituality that operates with sacramental dynamics. If it is lurking it is only because of the it was originally written to an Evangelical audience, albeit hypothetical. I had to miss a class in seminary and my makeup paper was to explain to an Evangelical why a woman cannot be a priest. This was the first edition of my paper.

    When I first read the assignment, my reaction was this is easy, until I reread and noticed the Evangelical clause. The bulk of my standard answers to the question of women as priests are catholic answers (small c). I have also noticed that a literal translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 uses the term husband and not man. There is also the Old Testament where women clearly had secular authority over men. Composing an answer based only upon Scripture was going to be a much larger project than was requested by my instructor. Being a catholic I think if an ecclesiastical answer does not contradict Holy Scripture the question is settled. I therefore answered ecclesiastically.

    Yours in Christ

    (Young’s Literal Translation) and a woman I do not suffer to teach, nor to rule a husband, but to be in quietness

  4. Scott   |  Tuesday, 16 January 2007 at 8:05 am

    I somehow missed my closing sentences. The question I was asked, and the paper I have written, is about the question of women as priests. Fr Bill you are correct, women as clergy has much to do with how you define clergy. Another link to consider is In Defense of Limited Women’s Ordination by Anne Kennedy. She is an Evangelical Episcopalian.

  5. Fr. Bill   |  Tuesday, 16 January 2007 at 2:06 pm

    Hello, Fr. Scott,

    Concerning 1 Tim 2:12, the word is aner, the usual Greek word for a human male. It is true that sometimes it should be rendered “husband” in English (e.g. Joseph is the aner of Mary), but it always points to the biological maleness of its referent(s) (e.g. “Jesus feed 5,000 men (andres, plural of aner), besides women and children”). Aner would only be rendered as “husband” in English if the context indicated that the male being referred to relates to someone as a spouse.

    There is no such contextual marker in 1 Timothy 2, of course, which is why “husband” not only is NOT a literal translation (despite Young’s claim that it is), it is an interpretive translation with no underly support in the context of Paul’s statements. Throughout the passage, Paul alternates between prescriptions for men and then for women,

    2.8: “I desire therefore that the men (andres) pray …

    2.11: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission …”

    The point is to distinguish between appropriate behavior in church for men and women, not to warn bossy wives against hen-pecking their husbands.

    Anne Kennedy’s treatment of Paul is typical of egalitarians and leads to the very ditch in which the mainline Episcopal Church wallows at this moment. The ordination of women — even the so-called “limited” ordination of women that Mrs. Kennedy supports — is no less a step away from Pauline teaching on the sexes than ordaining Gene Robinson. This is why Episcopals — particularly those who style themselves Evangelical — serve so well as case studies for how “low church” Evangelicals are evolving today. The latter are simply a few years behind the former.

  6. Lauren   |  Wednesday, 24 March 2010 at 7:03 pm

    I know that this is two years later … but I was just wondering if you had ever read Jon Zens argument “Are the Sisters Free to Function”? He has a different exegesis of this particular passage. He is a conservative scholar (from the Southern Baptist Convention) who believes in the inerrancy of God’s word, but he believes this particular passage to have an alternative interpretation. The whole article is good (for examining the scripture if nothing else), but here’s his VERY basic summary:
    1) 1 Timothy 2:11-15 says nothing about women being “silent.”
    2) There is no command (imperative) in 1 Tim.2:12 connected to women not teaching. Paul uses a simple present tense, “I am not now permitting….”
    3) The infinitive, authentein, does not mean “to exercise authority over.” The two infinitives, didaskein and authentein, are best correlated together as purpose or goal, thus translated as “I am not now permitting a woman to teach for the purpose of dominating a man.”
    4) Some key elements in 1 Tim.2:11-15 are clarified and elucidated by considering the pervasive influence of the Artemis cult in Ephesus: (a) women coming out of a goddess-based religion would need to be reminded concerning modesty in dress; (b) the need for a posture of learning on the part of some women because of the influence of false teaching; (c) because of the female-centeredness of the Artemis religion, it can be appreciated why a woman would teach with the goal of dominating a man; (d) because the Artemis cult believed that males originated from the goddess, it can be understood why Paul would point out that Adam was formed first; (e) because women were viewed as superior in Ephesus, it can be appreciated why Paul would mention that Eve was deceived into sin; (f) while many women looked to Artemis in connection with fertility and childbirth, Paul directs godly women to Christ as the promised Seed who was promised to Eve in Genesis 3:15.
    5) When the ekklesia began on the Day of Pentecost the first thing that was mentioned concerned males and females prophesying together. Women and men prophesying are mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor.11:4-5. In 1 Cor.14 Paul wished for prophecy – from the whole assembly – to be central. Thus, to use 1 Tim.2:11-15 as a basis to completely silence the sisters in Christian assemblies is hardly an accurate way to handle Scripture. It uses one context to cancel out the revelation of many others.

  7. Shawn   |  Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 1:24 pm

    I believe the Bible means what it says about women being pastors. As a woman, I can tell you that I feel you are just splitting hairs. You can study the words of these passages all day and you will not change the meaning of what this means. The Bible says women should not be pastors. It seems very clear to me, I fail to understand why there is so much difficulty for others to understand this.

  8. Fr. Bill   |  Monday, 27 July 2009 at 4:56 am

    Hello, Shawn,

    Are you a Baptist? Did you read the last section of my blog?

    We do not disagree, though I suspect we use different vocabulary to express what we each agree about.

  9. Shawn   |  Monday, 27 July 2009 at 8:18 am

    Dear Fr. Bill,
    Hello and God’s many blessings to you. I want to first say, that I was not specifically addressing your comments, and I am sorry if I offended you. Yes , I do attend a Baptist church, but really I just consider myself a Christian. My husband and I were recently at a family gathering and were “set up” if you will, with this subject. The family members I am refering to are Assembly of God, and I truly don’t know what they base their faith on.
    Everytime we showed them scripture that stated what we believe, it was ripped apart and called primitive or outdated. It is my understanding, and believe me I am no scholar, that God never changes, He is always the same, so how can His commands be “outdated” or ” primitive”. We were told that if we tried to evangelize women with that attitude, we would drive them away from Christ and make them feel in bondage. I can tell you, I do not feel held down because I
    can’t be a preacher. I know my place as God commands it, and am perfectly happy with it.
    I know about 300 other women that would say the same. If you have any imput on this please share it with me. Thank you

  10. Fr. Bill   |  Monday, 27 July 2009 at 9:27 am

    Greetings, Shawn,

    Thank you for your clarification. I didn’t take offense; though, when I first took your comments as if they were aimed at this particular blog post, I sort of rolled my eyes, the way I do when a commentator will sometimes read just enough of a blog post to get riled and fire off a reply without reading the rest of it.

    We do, indeed, agree on everything you expressed in this second post as well. This is encouraging, for the kind of reception you received from the AG couple is pretty much what you will hear from a majority of evangelicals in America today, whether they are AG or not.

    As you rightly observed, Paul’s “restrictions” do not hinder any woman from evangelism or from defending Scripture in a setting such as the one you describe. What many overlook is that Paul restricts men too — not just any man may serve as an elder or bishop. He must first comply with a number of restrictions!

    At any rate, in 1 Tim 2, Paul is speaking to what we would call an “office” and what the office holders, the officers of the church as it were, are supposed to be doing, how they are to be chosen, and similar matters. Christians have called these officers pastor, priest, elder, presbyter, and bishop; but they’re still officers of the church, answerable to Christ for the care of the flock and the teaching and defense of the faith.

    Again, thank you for your additional comments. I appreciate them.

  11. Prophetess Sandy Johnson   |  Friday, 12 February 2010 at 10:20 am

    Dear Bill,
    I have enjoyed your article on may woman be called in an office in church. I have been face with people in ministry coming agaisnt me and saying that I am out or order. I left the church where I was one of the ministry on staff. They were doing everything agaisnt the word of God. God begin speaking to me about why must you stay there and die. He took me to Eli when he allowed his sons to do what they wanted and God wiped them all out. I told my husband about what God said, he released me to leave. God in the mist of all that birth a ministry out of me. I wanted out on faith as God gave me the instructions now everybody is agaisnt me. When I started New Beginning Transitioning for God Outreach ministries, I felt in my spirit that’s what God wanted me to do. I know God is not an arthur of confession, but because my husband is not the pastor everyone is telling me I am out of order. I agree with you being called by God is a gifted. I want whats best for the men and women of God that he has sent to be apart of his church. My church belongs to God, I am just there as a server. Should I step down as pastor and allow my husband to be the pastor even though God gave the call to me. I want to obey God, not man. My husband is starting to listen to others talk about me. He has sided with them to say I am out of order. He wants me to close the church down and come and join him and another minister that will be his asst pastor of another church. I feel he should let me continue to obey God can you help me with this? Peace and Blessing Prophetess Sandy Johnson

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