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Bridging the opposing views of woman pastors

Unsplash/Priscilla Du Preez
Unsplash/Priscilla Du Preez

Do women qualify for the office of pastor? Two recent CP articles take opposite views and each offers useful observations about the issue. Is there a way to bring those two different views closer?

First, I must make a disclaimer. I am a layman with a ministry and have no professional or vocational stake in this subject. I write without concern about ordination papers, seminary education, or pastoral office in a local church.  Still, I have a passionate conviction about the matter of women, pastoring, and pastoral office. My remarks here present two practical considerations that could bring some measure of harmony to local-church ministry.

My first consideration is this: there is a crucial difference between the task of pastoring and the office of pastor.

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The work of Christian ministry is for all believers, not just the ordained and certainly not just men. Clearly, the Christian life is the Christian ministry. Every believer is not called to the office of pastor in a local church, but every believer is commanded to pastor — to make disciples wherever he or she goes, to care for Jesus’ sheep, and, when allowed, for other people too. With all due respect, what Christian presumes an exemption from this holy calling!

Pastoring, serving, and ministering share common traits, though they do not come from the same Greek word in the New Testament. The main point in this article allows for those three English words to be interchangeable. Not only do they define the Christian life, but they also, like the office of pastor, involve spiritual leadership.

That leadership for all believers, though, has fallen upon hard times. According to a Southern Baptist friend, the typical mindset about ministering is this: “It’s the pastor’s job; he’s paid to do it.” Maybe that notion will cease when God destroys and remakes the entire earth (2 Pet. 3:10-13), but in the meantime, we can all work together as it’s everyone’s responsibility, not just the pastor’s.

The Scripture presents a holistic explanation of ministry by men and women. The language in Exodus 38:21 and Numbers 1:50 clearly assign particular duties in the Tabernacle to the Levites, and the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus were men. But if we are seeing here maleness mainly in ministry, what about the faithful work of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Ruth, Deborah; and later, how about Eunice and Lois, Priscilla, Lydia (the businesswoman who heard the Gospel, believed, was baptized — as was her family — and showed hospitality to the missionaries (Acts 16)?

Scripture says rather little about these women (and about some godly men too), but their lives mattered for the ministry, the Kingdom under construction.

Those lives, in fact, would be explained more fully in the New Testament. The scattered tribes were a “holy priesthood,” a “royal priesthood” directed to proclaim the wonders of God.

How were they to do so? By practicing their spiritual gifts. Again, who were some of the recipients of these gifts? The most godly, mature believers in the ancient church? Exemplary Christians, like those in Thessalonica? No, not at all.

Some of those recipients lived in Corinth — the same church guilty of sins like division, tolerance of sexual immorality, and malpractice of the LORD’s Supper. These people were hardly prime applicants for a Christian college today, hardly stellar candidates for admission to a Baptist seminary.

The point here is clear: 1 Corinthians 12 (about spiritual gifts) makes no distinction between ordained and non-ordained believers. The gifts were for all to use in love, men and women ministering to each other and to others in general.

Why, then, is there so much debate about women and pastoring? The discussion is better phrased as women and the position of pastor, as my second consideration attempts to show.

A local church has two positions, deacon and pastor, with qualifications noted for each (1 Tim. 3). All of the qualifications are essential, of course, but one is particularly applicable to the matter of women and the position of pastor.

I Timothy 3:12 prescribes that the pastor must be the “husband of one wife” (KJV, CSB, NASB). Over time, Christians have debated how to apply that statement (divorce vs. no divorce, marriage vs. remarriage, married vs. single, etc.). In 2011, the NIV offered an interesting translation; a pastor must be a man “faithful to his wife”, like the rendering in Bill Mounce’s interlinear: a pastor must be a “man of one woman,” what may be stated as a “one woman man.”

Overall, these translations, along with the other qualifications in 3:12, link the man’s local-church identity to his domestic identity. Local-church leadership reflects home leadership, and that position of leadership is the husband’s.

Today, tragically, many courageous mothers, without a husband, struggle to guide their children, to work outside the home, and to do their best. These women deserve respect and support for their diligence, but their situations result from a corrupted model of leadership. And in one sense, it has little directly to do with the ordination of a pastor in a local church.

The more pressing point is that 1 Timothy 3 and other Scripture present male headship in the family and in the local church.

Where does this headship-leadership position originate? In Eden, in the very existence of the first man and woman (Gen. 1-2). Adam was created before Eve, and she was created from his body, not from her own or from the soil, as he had been. The differences here point to Creation itself as setting forth a positional hierarchy, bringing order and perfect harmony to Eden as God had made it. It was a sinless, perfect place, with two perfect people living there.

Tragically, as we all know, the man and woman rebelled against God and ruined their relationship with Him, with each other, and with themselves. What followed was disorder and disharmony, as the man and woman evaded their culpability for their sin and tried to blame someone else (Gen. 3:16-19).

The point here? The positions implicit in Adam and Eve before the Fall became explicit afterward, to protect men and women from power struggles and destructive wrangling over matters already established by God and addressed in Scripture.

God’s world is a world of hierarchy, order, and harmony — our sinful nature notwithstanding. If God’s omniscience applies to all eternity (past, present, future), His creation model anticipated the Fall and subsequent problems, including those today.

His leadership model, in turn, requires committed and prepared leaders, whether ordained men or non-ordained men and women. A seminary education can help, though I never attended one and have to speak cautiously here.

In itself, a seminary degree qualifies no man to assume the position of pastor. God’s mercy and grace are essential, as are the required studies in the Old and New Testament, Hebrew, Greek, theology, etc. The same divine mercy and grace apply as well to any deacon or other Christian who ministers as a missionary; a musician; or a leader of youth, or adults. I offer this reminder to ask if the pastorate today (either task or position) is overly vocationalized?

Decades ago, an acquaintance of mine (not a Baptist) was, in his words, “studying for the ministry.” He was nearing graduation, and I still hear him saying that he was looking for a “preaching job.” At the time, I did not grasp the possible implications of his comment. Was he part of a minority who defined ministry as employment? I hope so, but surely seminary leaders have a strong understanding of this matter and they are the ones to deal with this issue.

My only intent in citing this matter is to remind myself and encourage other nonordained believers to attend to our ministerial responsibilities as the Bible directs. If we practice our spiritual gifts in love, maybe disputes about pastoral tasks and pastoral positions would fade away and we would serve more effectively where we are.

Does this sound too idealistic? Too heavenly-minded to work on Earth? It is unless it acknowledges the sinful nature within each person, Christian and unbeliever. That recognition, need not discourage but call each redeemed man and woman to personal accountability to God first, then to each other; and that accountability points to the blessing of hierarchy embodied in the position of the pastor within each local church.

Branson Woodard became a Christian in 1974. He studied the Bible and literature at undergraduate schools and later completed MA and doctoral degrees. For more than 35 years, he taught undergraduate and graduate students in such courses as 18th century English literature, literary criticism, John Milton, and C. S. Lewis. Some of his work has appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Grace Theological Journal, and book-length essay collections.

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