Can Women Be Pastors?

Sam Storms has written a brief article making a complementarian argument that would allow women to serve as pastors.1 He argues that pastoring is a gift not an authoritative office in the church. While all elders need to have the gift of pastoring, it does not follow that all “pastors” must be elders. After doing a brief survey of biblical texts that employ “pastor” terminology, he surmises:

It stands to reason that all Elders must, in some sense, be pastors. But nothing in the way this verb is used should lead us to believe that all pastors must be Elders. No text asserts the latter.

Because a pastor is not the same thing as an elder and is not an authoritative office, Storms argues that women can be gifted pastors serving in the local church. Storms then asks the question:

Why, then, do most evangelical churches use the word “Pastor” to refer to an authoritative office, most often equated with that of an Elder?

Storms says there are two reasons that churches make the mistake of treating the pastorate as an authoritative office. First, churches are beholden to unbiblical tradition and lack the humility to let scripture correct their practice. Second, Storms says that the fear of the slippery-slope into full-blown egalitarianism keeps churches from being corrected by scripture.

Storms cites the statement about the pastoral office in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 as an example of a view that is beholden to erroneous, unbiblical tradition. He writes,

Consider, as one example, the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) that serves as the doctrinal standard for the Southern Baptist Convention. In Article VI we read this:

“While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

In point of fact, as we have seen, this statement is false.

Finally, he concludes:

In sum, there is no indication in the NT that the spiritual gift of pastoring, unlike the office of Elder, is gender specific. The Holy Spirit may well grant this gift to both men and women. Therefore, I believe that one may continue to embrace a biblically based complementarianism while speaking of certain women as “pastors” in the local church.

What are we to make of this argument? Let me say up front that I regard Sam as a friend and brother in the Lord. I am very grateful for his complementarian commitments. So the disagreement that I am about to register should be understood in the context of my love and respect for him.

Nevertheless, I believe his criticism of my denomination’s statement of faith hits really wide of the mark. And I am taking the time to write this post to defend the Baptist Faith & Message 2000—in particular, its teaching about the pastorate. For that reason, I aim to show that not only is his exegesis mistaken but so also is his contention that our view of the pastoral office owes to unbiblical tradition and fear.

Why Does “Pastor” Appear in the BF&M?

It is true that Southern Baptists believe that “pastor” and “elder” are two ways of referring to the same office. This becomes really clear when you look at the two revisions to our statement of faith since its original publication in 1925. The chart below shows the relevant excerpts from the original BF&M and its two subsequent revisions. All three of them explain what the “scriptural officers” of the church are.

BF&M (1925)

BF&M (1963)

BF&M (2000)

“Its Scriptural officers are bishops, or elders, and deacons.”

“Its Scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.”

“Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.

While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Notice that the original 1925 version identifies two offices: bishop/elder and deacon. Notice also that the 1963 edition changes “bishops or elders” to “pastors.” Does this change in wording reflect a change in beliefs among Southern Baptists about the scriptural officers of the church? The answer to that question is clearly “no.” We know this to be the case because the principal author of the 1963 BF&M is the late Herschel Hobbs,2 and Hobbs was clear in his writings about the Baptist Faith and Message that he believed the terms pastor/elder/bishop to be interchangeable in scripture. In his book titled The Baptist Faith and Message, Hobbs writes:

The same office is variously called bishop, elder, or pastor… That these three words refer to the same office is seen in Acts 20:28. These words were spoken to the elders of the church in Ephesus (v. 17). Note “overseers” and “to feed [as a shepherd] the church of God.” Titus 1:5-7 uses “elder” and “bishop” interchangeably. And in Acts 20:28 “to feed as a shepherd” completes the picture of these words for the same office. In the New Testament, “bishop” never refers to one over a group of churches. And “elder” in the Christian sense always refers to the same office of bishop or pastor.3

The BF&M’s change from “bishop/elder” to “pastor” does not reflect a change in beliefs but a change in usage. For whatever reason, contemporary Baptists prefer to use the term pastor, but they haven’t changed their beliefs about the two offices.4 Nor have they changed their belief that all three terms (bishop/elder/pastor) are merely three ways of referring to the one office of leadership in the local church. Notice that Hobbs makes an exegetical case for using the terms interchangeably. In other words, the language of the BF&M reflects biblical exegesis, not unbiblical tradition or fear (as Storms alleges).

It is worth highlighting at this point that the authors of the 2000 revision of the BF&M retained the title “pastors” from the 1963 revision. These authors agree with Hobbs and the 1963 BF&M that the Bible uses all three terms interchangeably. In their 2007 commentary on The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Albert Mohler, Chuck Kelley, and Richard Land explain:

The New Testament words that Baptists identify with the pastoral office include terms translated as bishop, elder, and pastor. Each term adds to our understanding of the pastoral office and the pastor’s responsibility… The Bible says that every pastor is to serve as a bishop who exercises and fulfills the ministry of the Word on behalf of the congregation as the gathered people of God.

Central to the pastor’s role is the responsibility to preach and teach… Above all else, the pastor must preach and teach the word of God.5

What does all of this information mean? It means that Southern Baptists have been consistent in their understanding of the “scriptural offices” of the church. They may have differences over a plurality of elders versus a single elder who leads. But they have been in consistent agreement that there are only two offices—pastor and deacon. They also agree that the New Testament refers to the one office of leadership with three different terms (bishop/elder/pastor). This belief is rooted in a close reading of the text of scripture not in unbiblical tradition or fear of egalitarianism. In fact, the change to “pastor” in 1963 occurred long before egalitarianism was a contentious issue in the SBC.6

Is the BF&M Correct to Use the Terms Interchangeably?

There is ample scriptural warrant for understanding the three terms as three ways of referring to the same office.7 Consider, for example, the apostle Paul’s words in Titus 1:5-7:

Titus 1:5-7 “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you… For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach…”

Clearly, “elder” and “overseer” are used interchangeably here. Likewise, in 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul uses the term “elder” where readers would expect him to say “overseer” based on his earlier usage in 1 Timothy 3:1-2. In doing so Paul shows again that “overseer” and “elder” are two ways of referring to the same office.

Paul is not the only New Testament author who speaks this way. Peter exhorts “elders” to “shepherd” the church by “exercising oversight” (1 Pet. 5:1-2). He says that the job of the elder in verse 2 is to “exercise oversight” (episkopeo). It’s the verb form of the term “overseer” (episkopos). Peter also draws in a third concept—shepherd (poimaino), which is the verb form of the noun for “pastor” (poimen, cf. Eph. 4:11). In two verses, Peter draws together three different word-groups in reference to the one office of church leadership—overseer, pastor, and elder.

In another text, Peter applies the terms pastor and overseer to Jesus himself: “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd (poimen) and Overseer (episkopos) of your souls.” Notice that even Peter uses “shepherd” and “overseer” interchangeably. Peter is reflecting what is true in all of the New Testament. The authors of scripture use these three terms to refer to the one office.

One other text confirms that these terms are used interchangeably. Consider Luke’s account of Paul’s final meeting with the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:17-38. Luke says that Paul gathers together the “elders,” calls them “overseers,” and exhorts them to “shepherd” the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17, 28). Thus Luke also has all three word-groups appearing in this one chapter to refer to the one office.

The bottom line is that three different biblical authors make use of the pastor/elder/overseer language, and they do so in a way that suggests the terms are interchangeable. We are on firm exegetical ground to regard pastor/elder/overseer as three ways of referring to the same office. It is this exegesis that leads Ben Merkle to conclude, “Because pastors and elders/overseers have the same function (i.e., shepherding and teaching), the two terms should be viewed as referring to the same office.”8

It is worth noting that this exegesis is not obscure. It is a common interpretation of these texts, especially among those who hold to two scriptural offices in the church.9 John Calvin, for example, writes, “In indiscriminately calling those who rule the church ‘bishops,’ ‘presbyters,’ ‘pastors,’ and ‘ministers,’ I did so according to Scriptural usage, which interchanges these terms.”10 It would be completely anachronistic to blame Calvin’s reading on a fear of egalitarianism. Such a concern was not even on the horizon for Calvin. Again, this reading is based on exegesis. Calvin comes to this conclusion based on his reading of scripture.11

How Does This Exegesis Apply to Women as Pastors?

Storms argues that the BF&M is in error to prohibit women from being pastors. He argues that since the pastor is not an authoritative office, women can exercise this gift in a way that honors the biblical teaching about male headship. The weakness of his argument on this point is twofold.

First, as I have shown above, Storms is incorrect to treat the office of pastor as something different from the office of elder. Second, even if we were to accept his premise that “pastor” is not the same thing as an elder, he really hasn’t demonstrated how his definition of the pastoral gift wouldn’t be authoritative. In other words, the pastoral gift in the New Testament involves teaching and leading God’s people. Wouldn’t women pastors run afoul of Paul’s clear prohibition on women teaching and leading the men of the congregation? Paul is clear on this point:

1 Timothy 2:12 “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”

How can a woman both function as a pastor and obey 1 Timothy 2:12 at the same time? Perhaps Storms only means that women can exercise their “pastoral” gift over other women. But that point is not clear in Storms’ article. In order for Storms’ argument to work, he is either going to have to make “pastoring” a non-authoritative gift or make it a gift that women only exercise over other women. But to do so would strain the clear teaching of the function of a pastor in the New Testament. Like Jesus, the pastor teaches, leads, protects, and cares for the entire flock. How can this gift be open to those whom Paul says should not teach or lead the gathered assembly?

Conclusion

I love and respect Sam Storms and am grateful for his complementarian commitments. But I still believe him to be mistaken about the Baptist Faith and Message‘s teaching on pastoral leadership. It isn’t “false,” as he argues. Rather, the BF&M’s teaching reflects careful, long-established exegesis of the biblical text. For that reason, the BF&M’s prohibition on women as pastors stands on firm exegetical ground, not on unbiblical tradition or fear of egalitarianism.

A friend recently said to me that complementarians often run the risk of minding the fences while ignoring the field. What she meant was that we can be so focused on boundaries that we forget the wide places in between. And it is in those spaces that there is great freedom and opportunity for both men and women to have meaningful ministries within the church. Yes, there are clear boundaries in scripture for men and women in ministry, but this does not negate the opportunities for ministry that God gives to men and women. No Christian—male or female—should ever feel they are without a ministry. There is plenty of room to roam in the field, and the boundaries help us to see that.

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1 Sam Storms, “Is It Biblically Permissible for a Woman to Be Called a ‘Pastor’?,” Sam Storms: Enjoying God (blog), October 28, 2019, https://www.samstorms.com/enjoying-god-blog/post/is-it-biblically-permissible-for-a-woman-to-be-called-a–pastor-.

2 In his massive history of Baptist theology, James Leo Garrett identifies Hobbs as “the chief architect of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message Statement.” See James Leo Garrett, Jr., Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 468.

3 Herschel H. Hobbs, The Baptist Faith and Message (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1971), 80-81. See also the same argument in Herschel H. Hobbs, What Baptists Believe (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1964), 85: “Pastor… is one of three titles referring to the same office. The other two are ‘bishop’ and ‘elder.'” The same argument also appears in Herschel H. Hobbs, Fundamentals of Our Faith (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1960), 130: “The three words—overseer, elder, and pastor—therefore refer to the same office.”

4 John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 160. Gregg Allison offers an explanation for the change in usage: “Those who serve in the first office are called pastors, bishops, or elders. These terms are used interchangeably in Scripture. Whereas the Abstract of Principles focuses on the terms bishops and elders as proper titles for these officers, the common way of referring to them today is pastors and elders. An important reason for this minor change is to avoid misunderstanding: Many churches and denominations (the Episcopal Church, for example) have a three- tiered ministry of bishop, elders/pastors, and deacons, with ultimate authority residing in the bishop as supreme over elders/pastors. By contrast, Baptist churches, in accordance with Scripture, have a two-tiered ministry of elders/ pastors/bishops and deacons. To avoid the notion of a three-tiered ministry with bishops as more authoritative than elders/pastors, the term bishop is rarely used in Baptist theology.” See Gregg R. Allison, “Article XIV: The Church,” in Confessing the Faith: The Living Legacy of Southern Seminary’s Abstract of Principles, ed. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (Louisville, KY: SBTS Press, 2016), 95-96.

5 Charles S. Kelley, Jr., Richard Land, and R. Albert Mohler, Jr., The Baptist Faith & Message (Nashville, TN: Lifeway, 2007), 91.

6 In his 1858 manual on church order, John L. Dagg also uses the term interchangeably. See John L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 2012), 263. It would be anachronistic to allege that he did so because of a fear of egalitarianism. Egalitarianism was not a motivating factor. His reading of scripture was.

7 The following analysis comes from my commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. See Denny Burk, “1-2 Timothy and Titus,” in ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians-Philemon, 2017.

8 Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons, 40 Questions Series (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 56.

9 E.g., Gregg R Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 211-12.

10 See John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2, The Library of Christian Classics, XXI (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1060. Institutes 4.3.8.

11 Likewise, Louis Berkhof also sees the terms being used interchangeably. See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, New Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 586.

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