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Biblical conservatism and women pastors: A Southern Baptist pastor's understanding

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Can you be biblically conservative and have women as pastors in the church you pastor or are a part of leading?

My background

I have pastored a Southern Baptist Church in Colorado Springs called Vanguard Church for more than 25 years. I am a graduate of Liberty University and Dallas Theological Seminary. I became a certified, bonified church planter apprentice of the Home Mission Board in 1997. Our church has partnered to help plant 75 other church plants and we have seen 3,323 people make a public profession of their faith in Jesus Christ and follow Him in believer’s baptism.

I am an evangelical conservative who believes the Bible teaches that women can be pastors and teachers in the local church.

Currently, I'm on my 96th reading of the Bible.

Why do I tell you all of this? Because I want you to know where I come from and how seriously I take this discussion.

My experience at Dallas Theological Seminary

When I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary in the early '90s, I was in a preaching class where the females were not allowed to teach and preach the Bible to me as a student because I was male and they were female. So, the female students would have to meet privately with the teacher and teach their sermon to the teacher without anyone present. Then I would leave the preaching class where women were not allowed to teach me and go to my Hebrew class to learn Hebrew from my female professor.

By the way, my Hebrew professor was one of the best teachers I have ever had and maybe the best. So, even 30 years ago, my conservative seminary saw the value in women teachers. Just not women preachers.

Biblical references to female figures

All throughout the Old Testament, we see female leaders, teachers, and prophets. At one of the most critical moments in the life of Israel, God used a female prophet in 2 Kings 22. She directed God’s people and taught them how to return to the Lord by paying attention to “the scroll,” which we call the Bible today. Her message was so powerful that they took it back to the King. God used a woman to ignite the greatest reform Israel has probably ever seen in its history under the leadership of King Josiah. Her words motivated the King to do and be what few if any Kings had ever done.

I could point out many other examples in the Old and New Testament of female leaders, disciples, teachers, and yes, as we would call it today, pastors. But let me just pick one small example in Colossians. In Colossians 4:15, Paul says to the Colossians:  "Please give my greetings to our Christian brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and those who meet in her house."

Nympha led a house church, a life group, a small group, a location of a multi-site church, and so forth and so on in comparison to today’s church and church structure. She was an associate pastor of a congregation that met in her home.

And unless you think it wasn’t a church. Listen to Paul’s words in the following verse.  "After you have read this letter, pass it on to the church at Laodicea so they can read it, too. And you should read the letter I wrote to them."

Nympha, a woman, led a church in her home.

So, how do we reconcile the examples of female leaders in Israel in the Old Testament and the examples of female leaders in the church in the New Testament? Paul is pretty clear in Timothy that women should not teach men. He is also very clear in Corinthians that women should be silent in the church. The same guy who wrote Colossians wrote Corinthians and Timothy. So, how do we reconcile these seemingly discrepant verses in the Bible written by the same author under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Is Paul or God schizophrenic? Are there contradictions? Is there a chance there is more going on here than we realize at first and is there the possibility that a healthy study of the languages that I learned partly from women at DTS could give us better insight?

I have been on a journey for decades to better understand this so that I can properly represent what I believe the Bible teaches, be God-honoring in how I lead a local church, and give credence to the challenges that females face in trying to be leaders, teachers, and yes, pastors in the local church. How do we honor tradition, rightly divide God’s Word, and properly apply it in our context today?

As I wrestle with this issue of women in leadership in the church, please know this is not so I can then add other progressive things to it. Hopefully, when we are done here, you will see that I am not progressive at all, but you will see how from Scripture I got where I am today.

Addressing cultural biases

We don’t have to go too far in this discussion to see that there are cultural biases that have always been. I think Deborah the judge and leader of Israel said it best.  This is what the Bible says about Deborah.  According to Judges 4:4, Deborah was the wife of Lappidoth. She was also a prophet who had become a judge in Israel.

In Israel, a judge was the highest office in the land at the time. This is what Sampson and Samuel were as well.  In Judges 4:6, Deborah sends for Barak, the leader of the army. She said to him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel commands you: Assemble warriors…I will give you victory…”

She was saying, “Thus says the Lord.” This is what a prophet does and this is what a preacher or pastor does. She had the authority of God and she spoke as a pastor speaks today to God’s people.

Now we see the cultural biases of Deborah’s day as we see it today in the following verses.  In Judges 4:8, Barak told her, “I will go, but only if you go with me!” “Very well,” she replied, “I will go with you. But since you have made this choice, you will receive no honor. For the Lord’s victory over Sisera will be at the hands of a woman.”

And God gave Israel victory through a woman.

For thousands of years, culture has wrestled and continues to wrestle with the reality of a woman and her role in leadership. As a father of four daughters and only one son, I have raised all five of my children to be leaders. I have raised my daughters to all be leaders and have the capacity to run their own businesses if they chose to. I am married to a brilliantly gifted woman with the gift of leadership and teaching. I think she is better than me.

How do I, as a biblically conservative male, make sense of all of this?

Even if you don’t agree or see it the way I do, would you journey with me so I can show you how I biblically got here?

I will use the NET Bible translated by Dallas Theological Seminary to form my arguments, thoughts, and conclusions on this matter. What I am about to share is also our church, Vanguard’s biblical view, and philosophy of leadership.

Some key questions to ask

Here are a few questions that I started with: Are there instructions and guidelines in the Bible about local church leadership? If so, do you know what they are? What is the role of men and women in the local church according to Scripture? What is the point of having roles and guidelines for the church according to Scripture?

Let’s begin in 1 Timothy 2 where Paul addresses these matters.

"First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, even for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, since he wants all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth."

When Paul says “men,” what is he referring to? It is the Greek word (Anthropos), which means what?  Humanity.

"For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus, himself a man,  who gave himself as a ransom for men, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time. For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle — I am telling the truth; I am not lying — and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth."

When Paul says, "men" and "man,” what is he referring to, or what aspect of Christ is he referring to, His humanness or His maleness? The Greek word (Anthropos), means humanity or humanness.

In the sixth verse, when Paul says, “men,” what is he referring to? It is the Greek word, "Anthropos" which humans, humanity.

Paul continues by saying, "So I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute."

When Paul says “men”, who is he referring to? The Greek word is "Andros," which means males or husbands.

Why did Paul ask the Andros (men) to lift up their hands and not fight? What is significant to this?

Anger is obviously a real issue for males/husbands. He wants males to release anger through worship instead of fist fighting.

Paul continues, "Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, but with good deeds, as is proper for women professing reverence for God."

When Paul says, “women,” what is he referring to? The Greek word is "Guna" which means wife or female.

Does verse 9 mean they can’t wear these things and do these things?

It is an emphasis. The focus should be on their spirituality more than how they look physically. Paul continues, "A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man. She must remain quiet." (see 1 Cor. 11:2-3) "For Adam was formed first and then Eve."

What does it mean for a woman to learn in quietness and all submissiveness? How is she to remain quiet? Paul is referring to attitude and not action. He is not speaking about the absence of words, but about the style or mood of use. The man should be the spiritual leader of his home. A wife (and that is how we interpret the above passage is not to have authority over her husband. Paul says, "I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man." This is a husband/wife passage based on the illustrations and the application Paul draws at the end of the passage.

If an adult woman is in submission to her husband’s spiritual authority, she is eligible to exercise whatever spiritual gifts God has entrusted to her including the gift of prophecy/teaching.

Look at 1 Corinthians 11:2-3 (context is the local assembly):  

"I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God."

What is the meaning of “head” (kethale) in this passage? Kethale (head) is used to demonstrate order.  The literal meaning is “superior rank” and is the symbol of the father of a family. Paul is making a statement concerning the order of males and females. God has established authority and a chain of command in which things are to be done in the local assembly (Christ over man, man over woman, God over Christ).

The fall of man

Now let’s go to 1 Timothy 2:13, which says, "For Adam was formed first and then Eve."

Who are Adam and Eve? Look at Ephesians 5:31 for the answer: “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh."

Paul is quoting Genesis 2:24. Adam was the first husband. Eve was the first wife. Paul is establishing roles and authority in the home and in the marriage.

Paul continues in verse 14, “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression.”

Why was Adam not deceived, but Eve was?  We must look at Genesis 2:15-18 to answer.

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

You cannot be deceived if you know the truth.

What happened in verse 14 to the family and spiritual leadership? (Guna is the focus) What does this word refer to?  Wife in this context. Paul continues in verse 15, "But she will be delivered through childbearing, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control." [1]

What is the point of verse 15? Look at Genesis 4:1 for the answer.

Genesis 4:1 “Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.  She said, ‘With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.’”

The key here is the Hebrew phrase:  “qnyty ish et YHWH.” 

What is Eve saying? She is in essence saying, “I have created man or male with the help of the Lord” or “Just as God, I have created a man or male.”

Why is this phrase significant?  A woman will find her greatest satisfaction and meaning in marriage, not seeking the male role, but in fulfilling God’s design for her.

What about single women?

It doesn’t apply; it is not in the focus.

What about women who can’t have children?

Unfortunately, this is a part of the brokenness of our world. This passage is extremely painful for women who can’t have children. When a woman can’t reproduce a human being, it does have a deep and lasting impact on her life. We do believe it is possible to employ alternative means to fulfill this potential longing but we understand that it does not necessarily resolve the overall tension and pain the heart feels through this sorrow of loss of ability.

But this brings us to a closing thought.

A man or a woman is not under a certain authority because of their gender, but because of God’s sovereign design and plan.

Practically speaking how does this play out in the local church?

We believe the fundamental misunderstanding in this issue has to do with order and value.

Let us give you two extreme statements or examples we often hear in this debate:

The first is, “The woman’s place is in the home and nowhere else.”

How do you reconcile Proverbs 31 with this? How do you reconcile prophetesses in the OT along with Judges like Deborah and also Phoebe the deaconess in Romans 16 and Aquila and Priscilla? Or women proclaiming the truth of God’s Word in worship services in 1 Corinthians 11?

The necessity of order

The second extreme statement is, “A woman can do anything a man can do.”

This debate is not about value but order. It is not a question of ability but design. No one should ever say a woman couldn’t do the job of an elder. We know they could. Elder is about the order that reflects the Trinity and the Home.

In the local church, we believe there is order to the Trinity, the Church, and the Family.

The Trinity has: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. This is the order in which it is always spoken of in Scripture.

The Church has: elders, deacons, and church body

The Home has: husband, wife, and children

These three entities represent order.

The Father is not more valuable than the Son nor the Son more valuable than the Holy Spirit. It is not a value discussion it is an order discussion.

The elders are not more important than the deacons or more important than the church body. It is an order discussion.

The husband is not more important than the wife, just as the wife is not more important than the children. It is an order discussion.

Each of these entities has order for the sake of functionality. It is not to determine value or worth.

We believe the church should reflect the Trinity and the home should reflect the church. There should be order in all of these and they should be similar in how it functions.

In the Trinity, the Father is in charge. In the Church, the elders are in charge. In the home, the husband is in charge.

The Father makes the rules. The Son dies for those who can’t keep the rules (all of us). The Holy Spirit convicts about the rules.

The elders make the rules so to speak. The deacons care for those who are affected by the rules. The church body lives and is governed by those rules.

The husband makes the rules. The wife establishes order and accountability to those rules for the children. The children abide by the rules and flourish from them.

It is important to note that I am not so much referring to the marriage here as much as the order of the family. Ephesians establishes that the husband and wife are to be in mutual submission to one another, so the relationship has a dynamic to it that is also true of the Trinity and the Church.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely but for the sake of order and chain of command, this is how I see it.

So, nowhere in the Bible does it say, “God says, a woman cannot teach an adult male.”

Church polity/government is somewhat determined by the “elders” or the governing board of the church regardless of its title (trustees, deacons, congregational rule, and so forth and so on)

My biblical understanding is that man should be the spiritual leader of his home. A wife (and that is how I interpret the above passage) is not to have authority over her husband. 

If an adult woman is in submission to her husband spiritually, I believe she is eligible to exercise whatever spiritual gifts God has entrusted to her including the gift of prophecy/teaching.

In Corinthians 11 even Paul said women “when they prophesy in church” should do it this way.  Even he doesn’t forbid them from teaching, so the assumption is he is referring to a certain type of woman and we believe that type of woman is the type of woman who is not in submission to her husband spiritually and/or seeking the design of a man instead of seeking fulfillment in how God made her.

In our local church, the elders govern the church. They have given the senior pastor the authority to teach the congregation. The senior pastor under the authority of the elders has established a multiplying model of teachers in the church that includes females who are in spiritual submission to their husbands.

Our local church believes the Bible teaches that teaching is a spiritual gift (Romans 12:3-8) and we believe that ALL gifts come from the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit does not discriminate between believers based on gender, race, or socio-economic background.

So, we believe females have the gift of teaching. We do not believe the gift of teaching is an office. We do believe there is the office of teacher (Ephesians 4:11) and we call that office, the senior pastor, who is the teaching member of the elder board.

The elders give the senior pastor the authority to choose teachers and the senior pastor does not see anywhere in Scripture where God forbids women from teaching men. We do see a prohibition from Paul not to allow wives to teach or have authority over their husbands. If a woman is married to a man who is not the spiritual leader of the relationship, she would not be qualified to teach. If she were single then she would need to be in spiritual submission to the elder board through the senior pastor.

So, why don’t we have female elders?

For two reasons: elder is an office, not a gift. And second, "elder" is not about value but order and God has a set order that we see time and time again in the Trinity, the Church, and the home.

We believe the authority of the teaching resides in the elders, not the teacher. The teacher is exercising his or her gift under the authority of the elders discharged to the senior pastor to lead, guide, and develop.

I hope this is clarifying.


I believe that the two extreme statements: 1) A woman’s place is in the home and 2) A woman can do anything a man can do, are not helpful in this discussion and do not address properly the order and value that God intends for us to have as the Body of Christ. Being an elder is not about value or worth, it is about order. And teaching is not about order or value, it is about giftedness and ability under the proper order ordained by God.

[1]The NET Bible, (Dallas, TX: Biblical Studies Press) 1998.

Kelly Williams is co-founder and senior pastor of Vanguard Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  His books include: The Mystery of 23, Friend of Sinners and Real Marriage. He also maintains a blog.  

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