Does the Bible Allow Women to be Pastors?

by Brandon Sutton

Christians are good at arguing with one another on hot-topic issues (especially on social media), but nowhere do the arguments get stirred up more than at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). 


As I write this article, the SBC Annual Meeting is taking place. Many issues have been and will be addressed. Some new. Some not-so-new. One of the not-so-new issues revolves around whether women can be pastors. 


Last year, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, the largest church in the SBC, revealed that it had begun installing women as pastors. In response, some members of the SBC desired for Saddleback to be disfellowshipped from the convention for violating the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), the doctrinal confession of the SBC. What ensued was a firestorm. Some suggested that the BF&M be re-studied to see if it allows for women pastors. Others laughed at such an idea. 


All this to say, the question of whether women can hold the title or office of pastor is still relevant. 


What Does the Bible Say? 


The Bible is clear on this issue. The office, role, function, and title of pastor are reserved only for biblically qualified men. Let’s look at the Scripture. 


The Title of Pastor 

First, there are only two biblical offices recognized in the church by Scripture – elder and deacon. While churches have the liberty to employ different titles, these are only two offices required (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Phil. 1:1, Titus 1:5-9). When it comes to other titles and job descriptions churches might use (Youth Director, Ministry Assistant, Counselor), there is no direct biblical guidance on qualifications, including gender roles.


The second thing to point out is that while some denominations and churches distinguish between the terms elder, pastor, bishop, shepherd, and overseer, the Bible uses those terms interchangeably to refer to one office—the office of pastor. So, when we talk about an elder, pastor or shepherd, we are talking about the same office. 


One clear example of how these terms are used interchangeably is in Acts 20:17, where Paul “called the elders of the church to come to him” (Acts 20:17, emphasis mine). At the end of Paul’s farewell discourse, he said, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, emphasis mine). In this one passage, Paul used the terms elder and overseers interchangeably because they mean and refer to the same thing—a pastor. Numerous other examples prove this point (Titus 1:5,7; 1 Peter 5:1-2). 


This is essential groundwork for the discussion because as we turn to Paul’s first letter to Timothy and look at the qualifications for an overseer (1st Timothy 3:1-7), we know we’re looking at the office of pastor, bishop, and shepherd. 


Underlying Theology 

The context of 1st Timothy can't be overlooked in this conversation. Paul says in no uncertain terms why he wrote this first of two letters to Timothy. "I hope to come to you soon," the Apostle tells his protege, "but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth" (1st Timothy 3:14-15). Paul's letter was written to a young pastor with the intention of instructing him on how the church should be ordered. He wants Timothy to know what kind of church he should build, and there is nothing more important, in terms of the church's organizational structure, than who is qualified to lead. Given that this is the context of 1st Timothy, and that Scripture is binding on the church throughout all ages, we are to conclude that these instructions are for local assemblies today. 


When we look at the qualifications for an overseer (1st Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9), there are several indicators that the office is reserved for men only. First, the overseer must be “the husband of one wife.” Women can’t be husbands. Only men can be husbands. This seems obvious, but then again, our culture has warped language in many odd ways in recent years. Second, he must manage his own household well. In Paul’s mind, men are the head of the family. It would be unfathomable for Paul that women would take this role upon themselves. Finally, the overseer must be “able to teach”—that is, teach the Bible to the church. To Titus, Paul wrote, “He,” the overseer, “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). So, the pastor must be able to teach fellow believers the Word of God. 


Herein lies the major problem for women pastors. In 1st Timothy 2:12, Paul said, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (c.f. 1 Cor. 14:33-35). This passage makes it impossible for women to hold the office of pastor because it strictly prohibits women from teaching and taking spiritual authority over men in the church, which are the two most basic and important functions of the pastoral role. Pastors must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), and they are called to rule with authority (1 Tim. 5:17). Women are prohibited from doing both. Therefore, women cannot possibly meet the biblical qualifications to be a pastor. If they can’t meet the qualifications, they cannot be a pastor in God’s church according to Scripture. 


This would mean any church that hires a woman to be its pastor is defying the Word of God. Paul was an apostle. He spoke for Christ. Therefore, he spoke the words of Christ. And if He spoke the words of Christ, 1st Timothy 2:12 and other relevant passages are the words of God Himself. 


Some churches may not knowingly defy the Word of God. They install women as pastors because they don’t see any problem in doing so. That’s because they either don’t know what the Bible teaches on the subject or have believed one of the many false, alternative positions on this subject.


In my next article, I will address some of the prominent objections to the position I outlined above. But for now, I will end with this: what I have written is a brief description of the biblical position concerning the fact that only men can be pastors. That’s intentional because a simple, clear explanation of the Word should be sufficient. When God speaks, we listen and obey. We don’t question Him or say, “Did God really say?” Otherwise, we not only fall into the temptations of the Devil, but we join him in his work. 

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Brandon is the Associate Pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon, TN and leads the Recovery & Redemption ministry for the church. Brandon is married to Sherrie and has a daugher, Emma.


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