FAQ: Women and Ministry

 

Admittedly, this is a controversial issue. But as a pastor, I do hold Scripture as my highest authority and must give an account when I stand before God for what I teach. I cover this issue more thoroughly in a chapter of Vintage Church, which I wrote with Dr. Gerry Breshears. What follows is a condensed summary of that chapter.

 

For starters, we need to put the qualifications of pastor-elder in the context of the entire Bible. First, God made humanity male and female, which means that men and women are equal yet different (Gen. 1:26–27). Second, the senior spiritual leadership of God’s people in the Old Testament was comprised of male priests. Third, Jesus chose twelve men as his apostles, although he befriended, loved, taught, honored, healed, and included women in his ministry—but never in a senior position of leadership. Fourth, in 1 Timothy 2:11–3:5 Paul writes:

 

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?

 

Paul begins by stating something quite controversial and unusual in his day—that women should learn theology. In our day, the application of this principle would mean that both men and women should be taught theology, be permitted to attend Bible college or seminary, and be encouraged to be theologically astute. Apparently, the women in Ephesus were behaving in an unruly and disrespectful fashion during church services. They were much like their Christian sisters in Corinth, whom Paul likewise commanded to be respectful toward church leadership (1 Cor. 14:33–35). Quietness here does not mean total silence but rather a peaceable demeanor, which is also required of everyone in 1 Timothy 2:2. Clearly, God’s intention is that Christian women would be well-informed theologians, and to do so they must first learn to respect the male pastors whom God has appointed to instruct them. 

 

Paul emphatically commanded that women should not teach or have authority over men in the church. While Paul’s command may seem straightforward enough to those willing to accept it, a wide variety of interpretive options has emerged.

 

Those who hold a hard complementarian interpretation of Paul’s command are prone to keep things tidy by simply telling women to teach only women and children (which is, admittedly, the cleanest place to draw the line). Those who hold a soft complementarian interpretation of Paul’s commands (as we do) believe that his pairing of teaching and authority refers to the highest authority in the church. While there is huge controversy about the meaning of the word Paul uses for “authority,” we follow the standard Greek lexicon understanding: “To assume a stance of independent authority, give orders to, dictate,” which describes well the elder-level authority in the church. [“Authenteno,” in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BDAG), edited and revised by Fredrick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)]. This also seems logical in the context, as what immediately follows in the next chapter of 1 Timothy is the requirements for elders-pastors, which include being a mature Christian man and an exemplary husband and father. 

 

Correspondingly, Paul forbids women to teach and exercise authority as elders-pastors. Later in his instructions to Timothy, Paul honors elders “who labor in the Word and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17 literally translated). “Teaching” likely refers to preaching and teaching as done by the elders, as every other time teaching is spoken of in the remainder of the letter, it is in reference to the teaching of an elder (1 Tim. 4:11; 5:7; 6:2). So at Mars Hill Church, only elders preach, enforce formal church discipline, and set doctrinal standards for the church.

 

By definition, the position we are arguing for is complementarianism. A complementarian church should encourage women to use the spiritual gifts and natural abilities that God has given them to their fullest extent. This includes anything from teaching a class, to leading a Bible study, overseeing a ministry, leading as a deacon, speaking in church in a way that is not preaching, leading worship music, serving Communion, entering into full-time paid ministry as a member of the staff, and receiving formal theological education—basically every opportunity in the church except what the Bible and the elders deem elder-only duties. Therefore, the issue is not whether a woman can be in ministry, but rather what ministry a woman can be in and remain faithful to Scripture.

 

 

Egalitarian

Complementarian

Hierarchical

Men and women are partners together in every area of ministry. All ministries and offices in the church are open to men and women. Gender is not a relevant distinction for excluding any person from any church office.

Men and women are partners in every area of ministry together. Women and men are encouraged and equipped to fulfill all ministries and offices of the church with the singular exception of the office of elder, which the Scriptures require to be a male-only office.

Women and men are created to operate in different spheres of ministry within the church. Women are not permitted to be an elder or deacon, serve Communion, teach men, lead worship, pray or speak in the church service, etc. Women should focus on building ministries for other women and children.

 

While those who oppose Paul’s clear teaching—that only qualified men should be elders-pastors—vary in the nuances of their arguments, at the heart of each is an insistence that male leadership in the governments of home and church are rooted in humanly defined culture and not in God-defined creation. Therefore, they will purport that this doctrine should change with culture rather than remaining constant. Again, the only problem with this position is the words of Paul in Scripture, where we find that he argues against female elders-pastors from the Genesis account of creation (1 Tim. 2:13, referring to Genesis 2 and 3).


Male elders are synonymously called overseers (also translated “bishops,” though the Bible does not use the term for denominational officials as English does) who pastor the flock (Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 5:2). In English, elders are typically called pastors. This can be confusing because, with the possible exception of Ephesians 4:11, the Bible does not use “pastor” as an office but as a function. A leader does the work of pastoring or shepherding, but is not called pastor but elder or overseer. Simply, the various words are used interchangeably to refer to the same person.

 

The Bible defines the qualifications of elder in two primary places (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:59), and the lists are virtually identical. Two things are noteworthy about this list. First, the list is primarily about men being good Christians, assuming that good Christians will make good pastors. Sadly, not all pastors are good Christians. Second, the qualifications for pastor are in large part tied not to his work at the church, but rather to whether he has been a good pastor in his home with his family and in his world with his neighbors and coworkers. Too many pastors are good pastors at the expense of being good husbands, fathers, neighbors, and the like. Take a moment to review the character qualities Paul lists as qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7:

 

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

 

Seventeen Qualifications for Elders-Pastors from 1 Timothy 3:17

 

Relation to God


  • A man – a biblically masculine leader

  • Above reproach – without any character defect

  • Able to teach – effective Bible communicator

  • Not a new convert – mature Christian

 

Relation to Family


  • Husband of one wife – one-woman man, sexually pure (this does not require a man to be married, as Paul, Timothy, Jesus, and widowed men could qualify)

  • Submissive children – successful father

  • Manages family well – provides for, leads, organizes, loves

 

Relation to Self


  • Sober-minded – mentally and emotionally stable

  • Self-controlled – disciplined life of sound decision-making

  • Not a drunkard – without addictions

  • Not a lover of money – financially content and upright

 

Relation to Others


  • Respectable – worth following and imitating

  • Hospitable – welcomes strangers, especially non-Christians for evangelism

  • Not violent – even-tempered

  • Gentle – kind, gracious, loving

  • Not quarrelsome – peaceable, not divisive or contentious

  • Well thought of by outsiders – respected by non-Christians