What Does the Bible Say About Women Pastors?
Does the Bible forbid women pastors?
Christians are divided on this issue, and to be upfront, it is a secondary issue and not one of primary importance (like the existence of heaven and hell, Jesus as the only Saviour etc.). Still, the Bible does address this topic, and in our effort to be faithful to the Scriptures, we need to carefully examine what the Word of God says and stand by it unapologetically. Additionally, the leadership of Jesus’ Church is an important thing to get right, so we should not approach this question flippantly.
The most straightforward text in the whole Bible on this issue is 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which says
 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.
In today’s feminist society, these words may seem shocking and repulsive. Yet we must treat them with reverence as the Lord’s instruction. There are several mistakes that one can make when interpreting this passage. Here are a few:
- Isolate the passage from the rest of the New Testament. This may be the primary text on this issue, but it is not the only one. We should consider the entire scope of teaching to arrive at the most accurate view.
- Let our emotions get the better of us. When dealing with a potentially volatile issue, our emotions can override our thinking and lead us to false conclusions. We need to remain rational and interpret the Bible soundly and not based on our initial emotional response.
- Fail to embrace the spirit of the text. Words matter, but even Jesus pressed that we can become too legalistic if we do not grasp the general spirit that a text is written in.
- Allow culture to override Scripture. Our own understanding of certain words and phrases are shaped by the culture we live in. When studying the Bible, we are reading across cultures and so need to make a conscious effort to keep our culturally shaped views from intruding on the meaning of the text.
The obvious meaning of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is that Paul is indeed forbidding women as pastors. It is the conclusion that one would come to from a plain reading of the text. The idea of teaching or exercising authority are the two distinguishing marks of an elder/pastor in the Bible (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). It is what separates elders from deacons and other members of the church. If Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, forbids these two functions from women in the Church, then he is closing off the opportunity for women to pastor men. Yet the matter is not so simple, so let’s probe a little further by asking some important questions.
What is meant by teaching and exercising authority?
Since these are the two functions that are explicitly spoken of, we should seek to understand exactly what meaning the author had in mind.
Thankfully, we do not need to get into complicated word studies to learn what Paul had in mind. The english translation is a sound translation of this text. The word “teach” in verse 12 has no hidden meaning to it. This word, and everywhere else it is used in the New Testament, means simply to instruct with authority. It is the function of elders/pastors to teach the truth and to contend with false teachers. Teaching can have a variety of styles to it, including preaching to large crowds or giving counsel one-on-one.
Similarly, exercising authority means exactly what it sounds like. This function in the New Testament belongs to elders, also known as “overseers”, who are to shepherd God’s flock as the leaders of Christ’s Church. Exercising authority is not the same as giving counsel, sharing wisdom, and in some cases making decisions. These are not functions that are being necessarily forbidden in 1 Timothy 2:11-12.
What role or roles are being forbidden to women?
There appears to be only one role being withheld from women: as elders/pastors over men in the Church. Since the “teaching” and “exercising authority” duties are held by elders, and Paul specifically uses the phrase “over a man”, we should not extend these restrictions any further than Scripture does. This would mean that women could:
- teach children
- teach women
- teach youth
- have authority over children
- have authority over youth
- have authority over other women in certain circumstances
- function as a guest speaker in church gatherings
- write and publish
- speak on Christian radio/podcasts
These, and many other leadership roles, are not Biblically withheld from women. Essentially, anything that is not an elder role over men is within Scriptural bounds. Of course, women who are in positions of leadership still need to meet other spiritual qualifications and demonstrate competence for their role (as any leader would), but their gender would not alter their qualification in any circumstance other than eldership.
Isn’t this command from Paul based on his cultural views?
This is an important question. I have heard it said by many who permit women pastors that Paul’s command is not binding in modern times because of the cultural view of women in his day. For instance, it was common for men and women to sit on separate sides during church gatherings, and (some say) that women would attempt to speak with their husbands across the room if they did not understand what was being said by the preacher. This would warrant Paul’s command to “learn quietly” and “remain quiet”.
Another factor is that women were not commonly well educated in Paul’s day. They would have been unlearned, often unable to read at all, and therefore unfit to serve as teachers. By contrast, women in our society are often highly educated and there are no real distinctions in the ability to learn between men and women.
While these arguments point out some significant cultural truths, the problem with basing one’s opinion on them is that Paul does not base his command on culture or the level of education among women. So, these arguments do not really push against the actual reasoning Paul uses.
What is Paul’s basis for making the command?
Paul forbids women elders not based on culture or personal views but on the order of creation. This is made plain by the very next verses (1 Timothy 2:13-14):
 For Adam was formed first, then Eve;  and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
The “for” in verse 13 shows that what Paul is about to say is the basis for the command. Women cannot be elders (teach or have authority over a man) for or because Adam was created first by God, and it was Eve who was deceived by the serpent. This is important for a number of reasons.
First, the appeal to the creation order means that cultural barriers are removed. Adam was not formed first because he lived in a male-driven society. Neither did Paul choose this command because of cultural conditioning that had brainwashed his view. Instead, it was simply God’s plan to do it that way.
Second, the appeal to creation means that sin is not a factor. Adam and Eve were created perfect, and everything was “very good” before they sinned and the Fall took place. It can’t be argued that the order of creation is a mistake or is distorted because of sin, since there was no sin at that time.
Third, the appeal to creation means education level is not the basis for the command. There is no reason to believe that Adam and Eve were all that different in terms of their knowledge. Nothing from Genesis gives us any hint to believe that God’s choice to make Adam first had anything to do with learning abilities. Again, it was simply God’s choice to do it that way.
Fourth, the appeal to creation means that sexism cannot be accused. Adam and Eve were both created in the image of God; they are therefore equals with the same value as human beings. Neither is more important than the other, but merely different.
Was Paul right to use the order of creation as the reason to forbid women pastors?
In short, yes. If you were to suggest otherwise, you would be questioning that Paul was writing under the inspiration of the Spirit, therefore questioning if 1 Timothy even belongs in the canon of Scripture, and even subtly questioning if any of Paul’s writings belong in the Bible. If one would still put this suggestion forward, that is a topic for another blog post.
What about Paul’s mention of Eve’s deception? Is he implying that women are more gullible than men?
This is something that some scholars have suggested. However, I am not comfortable making that statement because I’m not sure that Paul was making a sweeping generalization about women. It could be argued that Paul is saying that women are more easily deceived than men and therefore not suited to lead as elders, and there are other passages that hint at the same thing (2 Timothy 3:6 for instance). Still, you could read the verse another way. Some have suggested that women were disqualified from eldership because their representative, Eve, lost them that opportunity by falling prey to the serpent’s deception. I am not convinced either way. I prefer to stick to Paul’s first and primary reason (the order of creation) and do not need any further explanation. God does not need to give reasons for his decisions in order for us to obey them.
Are there other verses that teach an exclusive male eldership?
Not exactly, but there are numerous passages and Biblical examples that would support this line of thinking. Some would include:
- Genesis 2:18-13. As already mentioned, the order of creation is the reason for male eldership.
- 1 Timothy 3:2. Just a few verses after the passage we are studying, Paul lists one qualification for eldership as being “the husband of one wife”. The assumption seems to be that elders would only ever be a “husband”, not a wife.
- Ephesians 5:22-33. In addressing how households should operate, it is plainly said that “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church”. The concept of headship indicates leadership. It seems fitting then, that as men are to be heads of their households, so also the family of God should have men as the head as well (under the ultimate headship of Christ). In addition, how could a woman pastor have authority over her husband in the Church while having him be her head in the home?
- Titus 2:3-5. This passage says that women should teach other women, be “working at home” and “submissive to their own husbands”, again showing a deference of leadership to men.
- Old Testament elders are men. There is no record of any of Israel’s elders being women. Instead, the family heads and community leaders are always listed as being men (Deuteronomy 1:13, Exodus 18:21 for example).
- Old Testament priests are men. The priests of Israel are all men in the lineage of Levi.
- Israel’s kings are men. There is no mention of any woman being queen over Israel.
- Israel’s judges are men, with the exception of Deborah. Only one woman is mentioned as being a judge over Israel, showing the pattern of male leadership to be consistent. More on Deborah shortly.
- The disciples and apostles are all men. Though there are some important women in the ministry of the early Church, none of Jesus’ disciples or the apostles are women.
These verses individually do not prove male eldership, but together with 1 Timothy 2:11-12, there is an overwhelming pattern of male leadership in the Bible.
What about women in the Bible who are leaders?
There are some women in the Bible exercising forms of leadership. How can we square the teaching of Paul away with their examples?
- Deborah. As the only female judge among 13 mentioned, Deborah is the most prominent example of female leadership in the Bible. Most certainly she performed duties such as teaching and exercising authority over men. The reason Deborah does not nullify the command in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is because she is not under the authority of the New Testament. Her leadership did not violate any commands in the Old Testament, the Bible of her day. Therefore, she does not stand as an example of female eldership under the New Testament framework.
- Huldah. The only female prophet of her day, Huldah also did not live under the authority of the New Testament, nor did she break any commands by functioning as a prophetess. Women were not forbidden from prophesying even in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 11:5).
- Esther. Esther served as queen while Israel was under Babylonian captivity. However, she technically was the queen of Babylon and not Israel. Not only this, she still was under the authority of her own husband, the king.
- Priscilla. In Acts 18:26, Priscilla’s name is mentioned before her husbands name. Some have taken this to mean that she was the more prominent figure in their ministry together. This may be true. However, in Acts 18, the couple pulls aside a preacher names Apollos in order to correct him on something he had taught. This appears to be a brief time of discipleship for Apollos under the couple’s care but does not necessarily mean that Priscilla did anything to contradict 1 Timothy 2:11-12. We should not assume this to be the case since Scripture is not clear about it. Apparently, this couple also hosted church gatherings in their house (Romans 16:5), but there is no mention that Priscilla is an elder of that congregation.
- Phoebe. While being described as a “servant” in the Church, there is no mention of Phoebe functioning in an elder capacity.
- Lydia. A wealthy businesswoman and worshipper of God, she is never said to be a pastor in the New Testament Church.
- Nympha. Like Priscilla, Nympha’s house functioned as a church gathering place, but there is no mention of her being a pastor of that gathering.
Quite simply, there is not one woman in the Bible who is explicitly mentioned as being in the role of elder/pastor. Conversely, every time the role is mentioned, it is done with masculine pronouns.
What about Galatians 3:28?
This verse is one that some cite as support for allowing women to be pastors. It states:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The phrase “no male and female” is taken by some to mean that there should be no distinctions based on gender in God’s Church. Yet this is not an acceptable meaning for two reasons. Firstly, the passage is speaking of the openness of salvation to all. The sacrifice of Christ and forgiveness from God is available to all people regardless of race, social status, or gender. Leadership is not in mind. Secondly, there must be gender distinctions within the Church, otherwise one would need to permit homosexual relationships as a God-approved practice. Granted, there are people who would make that claim, but again, that is for a different blog post.
Are there any circumstances where a woman could be a pastor?
I would argue that there could be. The main one that comes to mind is on the mission field, where the gospel has been recently introduced to a people group and there are only a few converts to the faith. If the most qualified person to lead that group (based on spiritual qualifications, doctrinal understanding, literacy etc.), besides the missionary, is female, then I would think that would be a suitable thing, if only as a temporary fix. Even still, I have never heard of such extreme circumstances and I do not expect that they would be very common.
Are women who are currently pastors sinning?
This may be the toughest question of them all. It does seem to me that women pastors are not obeying the Bible’s teaching on this subject and therefore would be doing something that God does not approve of. That is one way to define sin. At the same time, most women pastors – perhaps all – believe they are within the bounds of Scripture. I have never met a female pastor who believed that what she was doing is contrary to the Word of God. It would be much easier to call it sin if that were the case. But since women pastors are leading with sincerity, believing that they are not living outside the bounds of Scripture, I am not very comfortable calling it blatant sin. I will leave that judgment up to God. I would hope though that the teaching of the Bible is taken seriously and wrestled with before one takes on a position of authority in the Church.
When I have had these discussions with those who disagree with the view I’ve laid out, one challenge that is posed to me concerns the call of God. How can I refute that God has called someone into ministry? How can I question that a person has felt God’s call on their life? This is a tricky issue to navigate. On one hand I do not like to presume that I know God’s voice better than someone else. Nor do I like to imply that someone has wrongly heard God’s call. On the other hand, I believe that any time we “hear” God’s voice it should be tested first by the Word of God. If what we think we have heard is not approved of by Scripture, then we have not truly heard the voice of God. Again, this is a sensitive matter but an important one nonetheless.
One final thought
Something else should be said in all of this. While I believe that women do not qualify Biblically as pastors, I would say that does not automatically mean that men do either. Quite the contrary! The qualifications laid out for pastors in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are steep. Many men who currently occupy pastoral roles do not qualify. Being male is just one qualification; there are about a dozen others that are meant to weed out those who are not meant to lead God’s Church. This why James warns that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). These are words to be taken soberly. Jesus’ Church functions best when it’s leaders meet all of the qualifications that God has laid out in his Word. It is no small thing to live up to.