Bible Answer

Can a woman serve as a pastor?

Should we have a problem with woman pastors in the church? I understand that men have authority in the church, and I know there are no woman pastors mentioned in the Bible, but I don't see much difference between woman pastors and woman evangelists. 

First, some background on leadership in the church is important to answering this question, so we recommend you familiarize yourself with our article entitled "Presbuteros, Episkopos, Diakonos" explaining the differences between the various church leadership roles of elders, overseers, and deacons.

Having read our article, you should now understand that the Bible provides for two levels of leadership in the church: one focused on teaching and governing (called elders, bishops or overseers) and a second group focused on service (deacons). Deacons are always under the authority of the elders.

The qualifications for elders and deacons are given in 1Tim 3. Looking more closely at the passage from 1Tim 3, we find interesting distinctions between Paul's criteria for elders versus his criteria for deacons.

1Tim. 3:1  It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.
1Tim. 3:2  An overseer, then, must be above reproach,  the husband of one wife,  temperate, prudent, respectable,  hospitable,  able to teach,
1Tim. 3:3  not addicted to wine  or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.
1Tim. 3:4 He must be one who  manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity
1Tim. 3:5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of  the church of God?),
1Tim. 3:6 and not a new convert, so that he will not become  conceited and fall into the  condemnation  incurred by the devil.
1Tim. 3:7 And he must  have a good reputation with  those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and  the snare of the devil.

First, elders are described as men exclusively. Notice Paul's consistent use of the male pronoun in describing elders, together with mentions of "husband" and managing a household, which was the exclusive role of men in Paul's day. Furthermore, Paul makes no mention of women whatsoever. Finally, Paul teaches elsewhere in the New Testament that women are not permitted to teach a man or hold authority over a man.

Therefore, a woman may never serve as a leader over the church. Should a church elevate a woman into a role of elder or overseer, the church is in disobedience to the word of God.

On the other hand, Paul's criteria for deacons is markedly different:

1Tim. 3:8   Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,
1Tim. 3:9  but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
1Tim. 3:10  These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.
1Tim. 3:11  Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.
1Tim. 3:12  Deacons must be  husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.
1Tim. 3:13 For those who have served well as deacons  obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Paul's description of deacons begins with male pronouns and a specific reference to men (e.g., v.10), but then Paul switches to describing qualifications for women in v.11. Then in v.12, Paul returns to discussing the men. Paul's inclusion of women in this passage is clear evidence that Paul anticipated women serving as deacons in the church. Since deacons are under the authority of elders/overseers (who are always men), then it makes sense Paul allowed female deacons. Woman deacons would still fall under male authority in the church.

Furthermore, the Bible gives us evidence that women served as deacons (called deaconess) in the early church. For example, Paul mentions a deaconess in his letter to Rome:

Rom. 16:1  I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea;
Rom. 16:2  that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.

The Greek word for servant in v.1 is diakonos, which is the same word translated as deacon elsewhere in the New Testament.  Furthermore, when Paul describes Phoebe as a helper of many, he uses a Greek verb often used in describing Paul himself as a leader and benefactor over the church. Taken together, the natural reading of Romans 16:1-2 proves that women served as deaconesses in the early church.

What do these conclusions teach us about woman pastors? This is a more difficult question because technically speaking a pastor is not a position of leadership in the church. According to the Bible, a pastor is a type of spiritual service within the body. Just as some are gifted in prayer or teaching, some are gifted to pastor or shepherd God's people. We find the clearest mention of pastor in Paul's teaching in Ephesians:

Eph. 4:11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers,

Curiously, this is the only mention in all the New Testament letters of the role of pastor (poimen in Greek), and Paul includes the term pastor in a list of spiritual gifts. Apostles, prophets and teachers are all roles requiring specific evidence of specific spiritual gifts, and these giftings (apart from the unique role of apostles) were not automatically considered positions of church authority because they could be found among women just as with men. 

So, Paul's inclusion of the term pastor in a list of spiritual gifts strongly suggests he considered pastoring to be a spiritual gift rather than a position of authority (though unfortunately in the church today it is used as a defacto position of authority). Therefore, the question is can a woman use her spiritual gift of pastoring within the church without violating the Bible's restrictions on women leading men?

We believe the answer is yes, provided the woman pastor conforms to the Biblical role and not to the modern version of the same.

We have already established that church leadership is provided by elders and that elders must be men. Furthermore, leadership roles and spiritual gifts are independent of one another. A prophet can be an elder, an evangelist can be an elder, a teacher can be an elder, and a pastor can be an elder. On the other hand, not all teachers are elders, not all evangelists are elders, and therefore not all pastors are necessarily elders. With these constraints in mind, a woman can legitimately serve in the role pastor provided she doesn't assume a leadership or teaching position over men specifically.

Since the Bible doesn't use the term "pastor" as a title of church leadership, women can serve as pastors in the sense of shepherds over a flock. The Spirit empowers both men and woman with the gift of pastoral ministry, so the church should encourage woman pastors to serve in their gift by shepherding God's people in appropriate ways. In this way, woman pastors provide valuable service to the body, particularly as shepherds over women's groups, children's ministries and outreach/evangelistic ministries.

Nevertheless, a woman pastor must serve under male headship. A woman pastor cannot serve as an overseer or elder in the church, though she could serve as a deaconess under the authority of male elders. Furthermore, while a woman pastor may refer to herself as a "pastor" (in the same way that a woman may call herself a "teacher" or "evangelist"), a women should be careful not to use that title to imply she has authority over men.

Finally, a woman pastor (or teacher) cannot exercise teaching or shepherding authority over a man or mixed-gender groups. She must limit her pastoral duties to shepherding women's groups and children unless she is pastoring as a team with her husband.

We have additional articles if you are interested in reading more about a woman's role in the church.