Women as Pastors?
This article was first published on the IFCA International website.
Sir Christopher Wren was the greatest architect of his day (1632–1723) having been granted Knighthood for his achievements in 1673. His skills were greatly in demand, and he was given responsibility for rebuilding fifty-two churches in London after the Great Fire in 1666, including what is regarded as his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1710. In 1689 the city of Windsor commissioned him to design and oversee the building of their town hall that stands to this day known as the Guild Hall. When the structure was completed, however, the mayor refused to pay the bill insisting that it needed more columns than the ones Wren had originally designed. It didn’t matter that the columns holding up the building were more than adequate, the mayor wanted more. So, Wren added four more columns to the building, each identical to the first but with one exception: they lacked one inch from reaching the ceiling. They were not holding up anything!
As I am coming toward retirement and the end of my full-time pastoral ministry and reflect upon the numerous changes within the church, I’ve been forced to ask myself, are the issues that I’ve held to and fought for tenaciously cosmetic in nature or are they foundational and functional? Are they primary or secondary? Are they load bearing for the Lord’s building, the Church, or are they meaningless and insignificant? None of those issues is more significantly pressing and challenging today than the issue of women in ministry and women as pastors.
In my office is a picture of my graduating class from Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM, 1979). When I show it to people, I ask them to point out three of the most obvious features. Most get one or two–rarely do they get all three. Those three are: We are all wearing coats and ties, something that was mandatory. We were taught to dress like professionals in Church leadership roles. Second, and sadly, in a class of close to 150 only 5 were blacks (this included international students). Finally, we were all male. There were no women in my graduating class. Times have certainly changed!
John MacArthur in a recent sermon on women in ministry cited the following statistics from 2017. Eighty percent of Americans are comfortable with a female pastor; sixty-two percent of practicing Christians are open to women pastors, forty percent of evangelicals are fine with women pastors. More than half of seminarians pursuing the three-year M.Div. degree—a degree designed to prepare pastors—are women. Twenty five percent of seminary faculty are women and eleven percent of seminary presidents are women. In 1960, two percent of clergy were women. Today, twenty-seven percent of pastors across the country are women–and the figure is on the increase.
Recently, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, one of the nation’s largest churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention ordained three women as Elders on Mother’s Day. That same weekend, Bible teacher Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of the late Billy Graham spoke at the 83,000 member Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, also affiliated with the SBC. Afterwards Lotz said, “If people get all weirded out by the fact that I’m a woman in the pulpit when men are in the audience” she continued, “I just respect them, but I agree to disagree, and I just have to follow the Lord and what he’s called me to do.” The Southern Baptists are being forced to deal with this issue whether they want to or not. Additionally, many large and small churches have women on staff who are part of the teaching team. This issue is here to stay and at the doorstep of every church.
I grew up in an IFCA church and home. My Dad, John Hornok, was part of the IFCA from his days as a student at the Moody Bible Institute until his death. Dad was profoundly influenced and had a deep and abiding love for Dr. William McCarrell, one of our fellowship’s founders. No one had a greater influence on my dad than Billy McCarrell. As I’ve reflected on the many changes in the Church today, I wonder if Dr. Billy McCarrell, Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, Dr. M.R. DeHaan, Dr. William Pettingill, Dr. Judson Rudd, Dr. Louis Talbot, and Dr. Charles Feinberg would even recognize the Church today? The battles they fought are far different than the ones we face. Those godly men rose to the occasion of defending the truth. I wonder: How would the founders of our fellowship handle this issue, and are we going to be true to the founding principles of our fellowship? Are we prepared to defend, without apology, our historic position regarding women in ministry?
Here’s what I know to be indisputable directives to any fair-minded person. First, the Bible makes clear that God created both men and women in His image, of equal value and dignity as human persons (Ge 1:26-27; 5:12; Jas 3:9; Ga 3:27-29). However, there is a clear distinction in the roles and responsibilities each is to fulfill in both the church and home (1Ti 2:12; Eph 5:23). In other words, even though we all have equal worth and value, there is a functional difference between men and women that is seen in the terms “headship” and “submission.” These functional differences are played out in the church and home and in no way lessen or call into question the equality of men and women.
Second, Paul’s first letter to Timothy was intended to provide Timothy and us with a blueprint for how the church is to function. In the purpose statement for the epistle, Paul writes: “… in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one should act in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1Ti 3:15). The commands of Paul’s inspired letter are not optional but a divinely given mandate. We do not have the liberty to pick and choose which directives we will follow and which we ignore. I must also add, it is neither sexist nor bigoted to insist that these directives be followed.
Third, because of the clear and indisputable qualifications a woman cannot serve as an elder. An elder, if married, is to be the husband of one wife (1Ti 3:2). That means simply that he is to be a one-woman man; a man fully committed to his wife.
Fourth, while a strong and compelling case can be made for a woman to serve as a female deacon–a servant in the church–those arguments, however, do not transfer to the role and office of an elder. These are clearly two separate and distinct offices and female deacons do not exercise final spiritual authority within the local church, as do elders.
Fifth, in a book filled with numerous controversial passages, none has been more contentious and debated in recent years than Paul’s directive in 1 Timothy 2:11-14: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” In my opinion, the text is not as difficult as it might seem, especially when related to the context. In the first ten verses Paul calls for the men to pray and the women to adorn themselves with proper clothing. How we behave in church as men and women has an impact on the cause of the gospel. Having mentioned the women, Paul expands to discuss the role of women in the church regarding teaching and authority. On this issue, men are to assume an authoritative role and the women are to submit to the man’s leadership. It must be underscored that Paul is talking about an authoritative role in the church. This leadership does not apply to the workplace or public life. Sadly, many insecure and overbearing men have automatically assumed that this applies outside the church and it does not. It is telling that in the more than sixty translations found at the Bible Gateway website, all but a handful get this passage right in their translations. These verses make clear that God’s design for a woman in the church is to quietly receive instruction from the godly, qualified male leaders within the church.
Years ago, I learned a simple lesson for interpreting the Bible, “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, lest it result in nonsense.” Today’s progressive attempts to circumvent this teaching are based on a painful twisting and distortion of the text. Paul is not addressing a local problem at Ephesus where he was forbidding uneducated, dominating women from teaching or women teaching false doctrine. Paul is laying down a consistent standard for the Church that was applicable in the first century and continues to this day.
Sixth, the historical position of the church for more than 1900 years has been that women should not be teaching pastors in the Church nor to assume an authoritative senior leadership role. Robert Yarbrough, professor of New Testament Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, examined the scholarly articles in the standard bibliographical reference tool New Testament Abstracts and noted that it was only in 1969 that the progressive, revisionist view began to appear in the literature of the academy. Then, in the period from 1969 to 1991, a comparative flood of articles was produced. He concluded that the rise in the progressive interpretation, following the women’s movement of the 1960’s, is indebted significantly, and at times probably culpably, to the prevailing social climate rather than to the biblical text.1
Likewise, Harold O. J. Brown observes, “When opinions and convictions suddenly undergo dramatic alteration, although nothing new has been discovered and the only thing that has dramatically changed is the spirit of the age, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that that spirit has had an important role to play in the shift.”2 Understanding then that the popularity of the progressive interpretation of the last thirty years found its impetus in secular culture and that the interpretation runs contrary to the prevailing interpretation of the preceding 1, 970 years (some sixty-plus generations), the burden of proof certainly rests upon the progressive revisionists!
Seventh, limiting the role of women in the church from senior leadership as a pastor or ruling elder does not mean that women have not had a significant leadership role and ministry in Scripture. God used women such as Deborah, Miriam, Huldah, Dorcas, Lydia, Priscilla, and Chloe in a profound way. Additionally, the biblical restrictions on senior leadership in the church does not negate the responsibility and function women have in teaching other women (Ti 2:3-5), children (Dt 6:6-7; 11:19; 1Ti 2:15; 2Ti 1:5), and even men (Acts 18:24-26) provided it is not done in a public church gathering. Submission by a woman in the home and church does not mean that she must sit by passively, never interact with Scripture or express herself in the proper setting. Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 calls on women to assume the role of a learner in the local church. She is to continually receive instruction, not give it. Given the reality that women are often more widely read than men, more relational, intuitive, verbal, and natural communicators, men would be foolish not to ask for and listen to the wisdom and insights that one’s wife and other women might offer. Only a prideful, arrogant, and insecure man does not realize that he can learn from his wife or another woman.
Finally, while some argue that the New Testament does not provide us with a pattern for church government or an explicit ecclesiology, I would strongly disagree. The function of elders in Scripture is to govern or rule the church (1Ti 3:4-5; 5:17; Acts 20:28; 1Pt 5:2; 1Th 5:12; He 13:17), and to teach (Eph 4:11; 1Ti 3:2; 5:17; Ti 1:9). Because this responsibility is restricted to men, it is not an artificial or non-functioning pillar, but an indispensible truth which we must defend.
I believe the above are indispensable, non-negotiable truths. God’s design is for men to lead and teach. Our impact as the Church is only enhanced when we follow God’s design. The lie of Satan is that we are defending a pillar that holds nothing up!
- Robert W. Yarbrough, “The Hermeneutics of 1 Timothy 2:9-15” in Women in the Church, Andreas J. Köstenberger, Thomas R. Schreiner, and H. Scott Baldwin, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 167.
- Harold O. J. Brown, “The New Testament Against Itself: 1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the Breakthrough of Galatians 3:28” in Women in the Church, 199.