John Piper: Calling female church leaders 'pastors' is 'misleading, unwise and ill-founded'

John Piper, founder of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, speaks at the MLK50 Conference hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Gospel Coalition in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 5, 2018.
John Piper, founder of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, speaks at the MLK50 Conference hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Gospel Coalition in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 5, 2018. | Rocket Republic /Flicker

Theologian John Piper said it's “misleading and unwise and ill-founded” to call female church leaders “pastors” amid an ongoing debate about the role of women in the Church. 

In a recent episode of his podcast, Piper, the founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, responded to a reader whose church is changing its view on the use of the word pastor to include women.

The readers’ church claimed that Ephesians 4:11 is the only place in the Bible where the Greek word for pastor is ever used, and that it doesn’t have any specific qualifications there.

“Women could fill this role and still be under male headship and a male elder board,” the reader said. “But would this change in title be in line with other parts of Scripture?”

Piper first stressed it is “misleading and unwise to use the English word pastor for women in ministry,” adding that the “attempt to say that it is more biblical to use it is built on a misunderstanding of how language works, as well as the supposed use of the word pastor in the New Testament.”

In English, the word pastor is understood to mean a “person with official leadership in the local church that ordinarily involves preaching and governing,” Piper contended. But the New Testament, written in Greek, “doesn’t use the English word pastor at all,” he explained, adding that Greek has only one word for shepherd and pastor: "poimēn."

“It’s highly misleading to claim that in applying the word pastor to laypeople, we are recovering New Testament usage. That’s highly misleading when the word pastor does not even occur in the ESV, and only once does it occur in other versions,” Piper said. 

“[Not] only is there no New Testament word that corresponds to pastor as distinct from shepherd, but the idea of shepherding in the New Testament was consistently associated with the leadership of elders and overseers,” he added.

It’s also “misleading and unwise and ill-founded to use the word pastor for non-elders or non-overseers” in the church because doing so communicates “that the office of pastor, as almost everyone understands it in English, is properly filled by women,” Piper cautioned. 

“In other words, I think those who are arguing for the use of the word pastor for women ministering or men who are not elders or overseers are undermining the teaching of the New Testament about church leadership, even as they aim to do the opposite,” he concluded. 

Piper is a self-professed complementarian. Complementarians hold to the belief that Scripture restricts women from serving in church leadership roles, as the Bible establishes male authority over women. Instead, women are called to serve in equally important, but complementary roles to their husbands and to male leaders in the church.

 In contrast, Egalitarians insist that Scripture does not warrant such restrictions.

Although a longstanding debate, the subject of gender differences and their implications for church ministry has risen to the forefront in recent years thanks to movements like #MeToo, #ChurchToo, and the public downfall of several prominent church leaders due to sexual impropriety.

Additionally, a 2016 Pew research report found that women were leaving the Church faster than men, corroborating an earlier report from the Barna Research Group. 

Kadi Cole, author ofDeveloping Female Leaders: Navigate the Minefields and Release the Potential of Women in Your Church, told CP that in her experience, churches on both sides of the debate are struggling to help women take on more leadership. 

After interviewing over 1,200 female ministry leaders from across the globe, she found that while women make up 61% of church congregations, less than 10% serve in any sort of leadership role. She encouraged churches stuck in a binary way of thinking about women in the church to look at the “bigger picture.”

“Complementarian churches are finding that women’s leadership is not where they want it to be, whether it’s their children’s ministry, Bible studies, or any other ministry typically led by a woman. They’re realizing they haven't done a good job developing the leadership capacity of those women who are in leadership,” she explained. “And in churches that are full-on egalitarian — there are churches who have ordained women for over 120 years, and they still don't have anyone on their senior or executive leadership teams that are women.”

“The theology piece is an issue obviously, but it's not the main issue in my mind,” she added. “All across the board, we’re missing out on what women can bring to the table and really knowing how to develop and leverage their gifts in the mission that God has called our churches to."

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