Poking Holes in the Egalitarian Beachball: Seven Arguments against Female Pastors
We don’t argue that preaching and pastoring is for qualified men in order throw water on the zealous young woman who has a knack for understanding the Bible. If our young daughters ask, ‘Can I be a pastor?’ Our answer doesn’t stop at “no,” as if we’ve just clipped some wings. Rather, our answer is to explain that God has so composed the church body in his divine wisdom such that her gifts are to be used in a thousand possible constructive and upbuilding ways, but that God has the particular task of pastoring and preaching for qualified men. We want to direct God’s people to the God-ordained avenues that will bring most blessing to the church, the most flourishing to men and women, and the most glory to God—precisely because we trust him.
What are we to tell our young daughters when they ask, “Can I be a pastor?” Or when they’re a bit older and ask, “Why can’t women be pastors?” Wouldn’t it be nice for our girls not only to know God’s answer but also to understand and embrace his reasons? Here’s another scenario: you’re on a plane with a business partner when a youngster a seat away says, “My mommy is a pastor.” Your colleague asks, “Can women be pastors at your church?” That’s similar to the situation a member of my church was in just recently.
These are realistic scenarios and real people. These are also understandable questions.
In our age, women do many of the same things that men do. While trash collectors and plumbers are mostly men, men and women often work side-by-side in sales or management or hospitality. There are a few reasons for this apparent interchangeability of the sexes. Our economy in America is based on knowledge-work and depends less on the physical body, where differences between men and women are obvious and pronounced. Reproductive ethics aside, medical technology means that we also have less children to bear and nurture. The world around us also assumes a given of equality between the sexes in virtually every way. For these reasons, to teach that pastoring and preaching are reserved for qualified men may seem arbitrary at best or cruel and dismissive (even abusive) at worst. Whatever we make of the reasons for the ordering of the sexes in our modern world, this is the context we inhabit.
This month’s theme at Christ Over All emerges in a context of vigorous debate among evangelical Christian leaders concerning the merits of various biblical arguments for and against women serving as pastors and preachers. This is a time for scrutinizing arguments for the sake of truth and the church, which is in fact the pillar and buttress of truth (1 Tim. 3:15). But this is also a time for clear, concise, and compelling words to church members and friends so that they may see the truth as beautiful, reasonable, and good.
That’s the contribution I mean to make among the articles offered this month at Christ Over All. Here are concise and conversational responses to seven popular arguments for women pastors and preachers. These answers are written to poke holes in the egalitarian beachball, that pie chart we introduced earlier this month displaying the frequency of these arguments in a current debate raging among Southern Baptists. It’s the nature of hole-poking that not everything is getting said, but just enough to hopefully move the hearer in the right direction. This is also why I’ve linked these answers to pieces published earlier this month that address these and similar questions in article-length treatments.
Concise Responses to Seven Arguments for Female Pastors and Preachers
Let’s get on the plane together and pick up that conversation with our seatmate. We’ve just heard a little girl introduce her mom as a pastor. A discussion kicks off when our seatmate offers up a simple question, and then another, and then another. By considering our responses to these questions in this imagined (and less heated) setting, we will gain wisdom for conversations of every kind, from elder meeting discussions to convention floor debates.
1. Doesn’t the Bible teach that women can pastor and preach?
This is a good question. This question starts in the right place, with the Bible. It esteems pastoring and preaching as honorable. I’m also glad for the opportunity to answer it, as many are confused and curious about what the Bible says. Having said that, no, this is not what the Bible teaches. I assume you are talking about the office of pastor/elder, and the work of teaching and preaching when the church gathers.
Maybe you have heard of instances in Scripture of a woman teaching—even correcting—a man in private (Acts 18:26), or of how women were the first to testify to the resurrection of Jesus and did so to men (Matt. 28:8). Or perhaps you’ve heard that every church member speaks God’s Word to each other (Eph. 4:15). All of that is wonderfully true. But none of these instances actually describe the authoritative monologue given to an audience from Scripture that is preaching. Furthermore, we actually have passages written directly at this specific question. These passages are clear: the roles of pastoring and preaching are reserved for qualified men.
Where does the Bible teach this and, importantly, why? The Apostle Paul instructs Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12). Some attempt to deny the force of this passage by saying that Paul restricts teaching to men because of something specific to the first century culture. The argument usually goes like this: the Apostle Paul prohibits only uneducated women from preaching; but if they just got educated, then the prohibition no longer exists. Some argue, alternatively, that feminism overran Ephesus (the city where Paul wrote 1 Timothy) so that Paul was offering a corrective for that cultural context alone, but not ours. Paul, however, roots his argument not in culture but in creation; he grounds his prohibition by saying, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:13, 14). By grounding his argument in creation, Paul’s argument cannot be bound to the first-century, but rather it applies to all men and women across cultures.
As we might expect, in the very next passage, Paul outlines qualifications for the office of pastor (also called an elder or overseer): “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1, emphasis mine). Paul assumes that this office of elder—an office that that includes public teaching and shepherding—is for qualified men only (see also 1 Tim. 3:2).
All of this sounds restrictive, but in truth it is freeing. Here’s what this means: men and women are made in God’s image. In that way, they are the same. Yet they bear God’s image as men and women, to reflect his glory in ways inflected according to their gender. These roles assigned by God correspond to his design for men and women not only in his creation, but also among his redeemed new creation people, the church.
This may seem odd to us, but that is because our world is at odds with God’s design for men and women.
2. Don’t churches that restrict women from pastoring and preaching actually protect male hierarchies that oppress women?
We can imagine that this evil motive restricts the roles of women in some places, just as all good authority can be misused. Where that is the case, however, the answer is not for women to assume the roles of men. Rather, the answer is for both women and men to fulfill their biblical roles. Men who oppress women are not being true to the servant-hearted masculinity God calls them to. And pastors who oppress women are directly disobeying their charge of “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3). These are unfaithful pastors.
In the home, a true man and husband provides for and protects his family. He leads with love and consideration. He uses his authority for the good of his family. But if a husband abuses his wife, the answer is not for the wife to become a husband! The answer is for the husband to be a real man and to actually husband—and not hurt—his wife. So it is in the church. In fact, the Apostle Paul drew on these broadly understood household relationships to instruct on roles within the church, or what he calls “the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). Hence, a pastor “must manage his own household well . . . for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4). This is another reason that the role of pastor is reserved for men. In the household of God, pastors are the men of the house.
In the same way that it is not possible for the wife to become a husband no matter what she may call herself, so it is impossible for a woman to become a pastor, biblically understood. As there are realms of authority in the home, so there are in the church, with one clarification: in the household of God, God is the father, the chief caregiver and authority. It is his household. And in his household, every sister has “elder” brothers, pastors who care for these women and provide for and protect the whole family.