Should a Woman Serve as Pastor?

by Dr. Rick McClatchy

The proposed revision to the Baptist Faith and Message states, “the office of pastor is limited to men."  Current SBC president Paige Patterson said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “This is a statement from Southern Baptists that our positions and our perspectives are not going to be dictated by the culture.  They're going to be dictated by Scripture. If we stand alone, we'll stand alone."

There you have it.  Those who believe the Bible reject women pastors, and those who give in to culture accept women pastors.  Such thinking is pompous poppycock.  Patterson should have said, “I believe the Bible teaches that a women should not serve as a pastor.”  That would have been an accurate statement, and I would have defended his right to say such.  However, when he asserts that those who support women pastors do so not on scriptural grounds but rather because they follow the dictates of culture, he goes too far.  There are people who adamantly support women pastors on biblical grounds.  I am one of them and will make what I understand to be the biblical case for women pastors.

Jesus and Women

Jesus was very radical in the way he treated women and involved women in his ministry.  In order to appreciate what Jesus did, one must understand the culture in which Jesus lived.

The Jewish Culture-- In Jewish law a woman was considered property rather than a person.  She either belonged to her father or husband.  She was not allowed to study the Law.  In the synagogue women were shut apart from the men so they could not be seen.  Nor could a woman actively participate in the synagogue services; she had to passively sit and listen.  Nor could she teach the children in any formal manner.  A woman was not required to attend the sacred feasts and festivals.  

One Jewish morning  prayer said by free Jewish men was to thank God that they had not been born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.  One Rabbi is quoted as saying not to talk much with women because, “Everyone that talks much with a woman causes evil to himself, and desists from the works of the Law, and his end is that he inherits Gehenna.”  A strict Jewish Rabbi would not greet a woman on the street, not even his wife, daughter, mother, or sister.  The duty of a good Jewish woman was to send her sons to the synagogue, to attend domestic concerns, to leave her husband free to study the scriptures, and to keep house until he returned (William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, rev. ed. pp. 66-67).

The Greek Culture-- The Greeks as a whole held a low view of women.  There were women priestesses in the Greek religions, but these women were most often sacred prostitutes.  Proper Greek women were confined to their quarters; they never went in public alone and never attended public assemblies.  Women’s purpose was essentially to serve their husbands  (Ibid. pp. 67-68).

Jesus’ Response-- When we turn to Jesus, it is clear that he disregarded the common practice of the Jews and Greeks and extended his ministry and message to women.

Jesus, contrary to custom, talked with and taught women.  He taught the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4:27).  Jesus talked publicly with the unclean woman who touched his cloak (Mt. 9:20-22).  When he taught and fed the multitudes, women were in the crowd (Matt. 14:13-21 & Mk 6:30-44).  When he healed a Canaanite woman’s daughter, he talked to her in public (Matt. 15:22).  He commended Mary for listening to his teaching when Martha complained that she wasn’t helping with the housework (Lk. 10:38-42).

Contrary to custom, Jesus allowed women to be deeply involved in his ministry.  The gospels record that there were women who traveled with him to assist in his work.  The gospels do not tell us all of their names, but included in this group of women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph (Lk. 8:1-3 & Matt. 27:55-56).

Jesus broke with the common treatment of women.

(1)     He talked in public to women.

(2)     He taught women about religion in public forums and private forums.

(3)     He gave women an active role in his ministry.

The Early Church and Women

The early church, following the lead of Jesus, had women actively involved in all aspects of church life.  In the book of Acts one sees a church open to women.  Women were praying with the apostles prior to Pentecost (Acts 1:12-14).  On the day of Pentecost Peter proclaimed the dawning of a new day in which God’s spirit would empower men and women to speak and teach God’s message (Acts 2:17-18).  Paul taught a group of women in Philippi (Acts 16:13).  In Berea, Paul taught women (Acts 17: 12).  Priscilla was one of Apollos’ teachers (Acts 18:26).  Philip had four daughters who were prophets (Acts 21:9).

Paul’s letters indicate women were deeply involved in his ministry.  Perhaps the best example of women’s involvement is in his letter to the church at Rome.  In the sixteenth chapter of Romans, Paul mentions numerous women in active and prominent roles in the church. The first is Phoebe who served as a deacon in Cenchreae (vs. 1-2).  Priscilla is called his fellow worker (vs. 3-4).  Mary is mentioned as diligent worker in the church at Rome (v. 6).  Junia, a woman, is a called an apostle (v.7 see NRSV, KJV, NKJV).  Three women—Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis—are mentioned as hard workers for the Lord (v. 12).

In other letters of Paul, one finds references to women praying and prophesizing in public worship (1 Cor. 11:5) and contending at his side in the cause of the gospel (Philip. 4:23).  Also, in his letter to Timothy, Paul gives instructions about women deacons (1 Tim. 3:11).

Coupled with these examples of women in ministry are three basic theological truths, which seem to indicate women should be involved in all aspects of the church’s life.  First, There is no indication that any spiritual gift was limited to men (1 Cor. 12:7-11, 14:31, 1 Peter 4:10).  Second, all God’s people were called his priests without any hierarchy of males (1 Peter 2:9, Rev. 1:6, Rev. 5:10).  Third, all human distinctions were removed in Christ who united them (Gal. 3:28). Paul believed that through faith in Jesus Christ all become God’s children--one family in which those things that separated them were broken down.  Now Jews and Gentiles were of the same family, the Christian master now saw the slave as an equal brother (Philemon 16), and the man now saw the woman as an equal human being and as a sister in Christ.

In summary, what does one see happening in the early church in regard to women?

(1)     Women were actively involved in many areas–-teachers, prophets, deacons, apostles.

(2)     Women were included in worship and religious instruction as active participants.

(3)     The basic theology of spiritual gifts, priesthood of all believers, and oneness in Christ all moved toward the idea of women serving in an unlimited capacity in the church. 

Answering the Critics

In light of all this one may begin to wonder upon what basis do some people want to stop or restrict a woman from serving as a pastor?  There are two major texts that are used, and those two we must seriously examine.

1 Corth. 14:34-35--Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, “Women should remain silent in the churches.  They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.  If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (NIV).

This passage is hard to harmonize with the rest of the New Testament where we see women taking an active role in the church.  However, this passage is even harder to harmonize with what Paul said earlier in 1 Corinthians 11:15.  There  Paul said, “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (NIV).  Here Paul was talking about appropriate dress by Christian women so the outside world would not judge them wrongly.  But the key point one needs to notice is that Paul here speaks of women praying and prophesizing in worship.  I do not believe that Paul is so inconsistent that within the same letter he tells women how to dress when they speak in worship and then tells women to be silent.  So how should one understand what Paul says in chapter 14?

There are several explanations.  The first one is that verses 34-35 were not originally a part of the text.  The reason some people think this is because some of our ancient manuscripts (chiefly Western manuscripts) place verses 34-35 after verse 40.  Now whenever you find verses floating around in different places you automatically wonder if someone added this section to the letter later.  Now if these two verses were added by someone else, then there is no contradiction here.  The problem is solved.  However, as of the present that these verses were added  isn’t a certainty, and also none of the early manuscripts omit them.  For this reason I think this explanation should be rejected.

The best explanation is that Paul’s advice here is only temporary in nature.  The thinking of this view goes along this line.  Verses 34-35 are part of a larger section (vs. 26-40) dealing with order in church worship.  Paul was trying to bring some order back into church worship.

Apparently, the women at Corinth were the main ones who were causing disorder in the church worship service.  So Paul made a temporary rule for this bad situation--until the church got back on its feet functioning correctly, the women were to keep silent in worship.  It is much like the governor ordering martial law on a city that has been struck by disaster.  The martial law is temporary until things are restored to normal.  Paul’s command here is a temporary rule.  The ultimate goal is to be like the rest of the churches where there were no restrictions placed upon women.

Now some may disagree with that interpretation based on the last part of verse 33.  If one reads the RSV, NIV or TEV translations, these versions put the last part of verse 33 into the same sentence with verse 34.  Consequently, the verses read something like this, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.”  Clearly, women’s keeping silent in the churches was a practice of every church if we accept this translation.  However, the KJV, NAS, and Living Bible separate the last part of verse 33 from 34.  Instead, they make verse 33 one whole sentence.  The KJV reads, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace as in all the churches of the saints.”  The teaching being all the churches have orderly worship, not all the churches keep women silent.

One may wonder why the translators can’t decide whether to put that phrase, “as in all the churches of the saints,” with the sentence in verse 33 or with the sentence in verse 34.  The reason is that the original Greek texts did not have punctuation.  Translators had to guess where the sentences started and stopped.

The problem with placing the phrase with verse 34 is that the verse contradicts what Paul said in 11:5.  Thus, it is best to see verse 33 as one sentence as the KJV and NAS Bible does.  Also, the fact that verse 34-35 float around in the text suggests the early readers did not understand verse 33 to be tied with verse 34.

1 Timothy 2:11-12— The second passage requiring attention is found in Paul’s letter to Timothy.  Paul says, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (NIV).

The question must be asked why did Paul make such a command?  The rationale for this command is found in a church crisis caused by false teaching.  Where Timothy was working was an area plagued by false teaching  (see 1 Timothy 1:3-7).  Paul wanted Timothy to combat these false teachers (see 1 Timothy 4).  Now I believe these false teachers had made inroads into the churches through the women, especially the younger women (see 5:11-15).  So Paul tells these women in this church where Timothy is working to keep silent and not to teach in order to stop the spreading of the false doctrine.  Paul says in the verses immediately following, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (vs. 13-14, NIV).  Paul, evidently, wanted the women of the church where Timothy was working to keep silent because he was afraid they would deceive someone else as Eve did.  Again Paul is giving special orders to meet a bad situation.  These orders were not for all churches of all times.


The Bible teaches that women do have an active role in every aspect of the church’s life under the leadership of God’s Spirit.  The two times when Paul restricts women were under special circumstances – to establish order and to check the spread of heresy.  Paul was trying to get sick churches back into order.

Paul and the early church did not ever establish rules to limit the freedom of the Spirit’s work in the lives of women.  The Spirit can work in the life of any woman and lead her into an role in the church.  The church must recognize the Spirit’s leadership and not develop rules  which restrict the Spirit.

I may have misinterpreted the Bible.  I am not an infallible interpreter.  But, Paige, do not tell me that I advocate my position because I don’t believe the Bible.  Paige, you could tell me that I misinterpreted the Bible because my culture influenced me to interpret it that way.  However, that sword cuts two ways.  Could it be, Paige, that your culture, which has always tried to restrict women’s role, causes you to interpret the Bible the way you do?  Is it fair, Paige, to brand everyone who doesn’t interpret the Bible the way you do as someone who no longer believes the Bible?  Are you always perfect in your understanding of Scripture?



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