Why Aren't Women Allowed to be Pastors in the Church?
There used to be a time when most Christians presumed that only men could be pastors and elders in the church. And if you ever happened to go to a Sunday service where a woman was preaching at the pulpit, you probably accidentally visited one of those "liberal" churches that didn't take the Bible very seriously. In most conservative circles, this was the general Christian culture that was simply presupposed.
But now? Times are changing. According to Christianity Today, "Female leadership is on the rise in many churches, which has ignited further discussion on the subject." That's probably because there are now more women attending seminary than ever before. As a result, a 2017 Barna study shows the number of female pastors has now increased three times what it was 25 years ago. In fact, another study shows that 20% of mainline Protestant churches are now led by women.
In other words, churches are beginning to trend the same way as the rest of society: women being empowered in leadership positions. But while such diversity is normally be celebrated, not every Christian institution is catching on. In fact, there are still many well-known churches, denominations, and organizations that are staunch in their stance against women serving as pastors. Seems crazy, right? In today's day and age, how can any institution deny a qualified individual to serve in a position due to her gender? It all sounds so oppressive.
And if you grew up in a conservative church your whole life, you may feel the same way. You probably won't vocalize this because it's presumed in your church's culture that women just can't be pastors and you've learned to accept this. But when you hear the same male voices preaching every week while qualified women at your church are relegated to serving in the church nursery, you may wonder, "Why can't women be pastors?"
The Benefit of Women Pastors
As mentioned above, there are more and more churches that are beginning to affirm female pastors. These churches hold to a view called egalitarianism, which advocates that all people - despite race, sexuality, or gender - deserve equal opportunities. In mainstream society, this egalitarian belief has been spear-headed by the feminist movement that has clearly impacted society's acceptance of women in secular leadership positions. But this movement is also influencing the church as well. Why so?
Well, there are biblical reasons like Galatians 3:28 where Paul declares that in Christ, "there is no male and female." If Paul sees no gender distinctions, then why should the church? But even more than biblical reasons, there seems to be so many practical benefits for including women in your congregation's leadership board.
First of all, there are statistically more women than men in the church. So how can church leadership properly make decisions when they fail to include someone who represents more than half the congregation? It'd be like having an all-white pastoral staff leading a predominately African-American congregation. How can such a group properly represent and understand this group? And yet this is how so many women feel in a church led exclusively by men.
Second, it seems like a lot of churches could really benefit seeing things from a female perspective. Take for example the recent #MeToo scandal that has been devastating evangelicalism. Wouldn't it have been helpful if women were present in those elder meetings when responding to these scandals? Wouldn't it have been insightful to have someone who actually understood what the victims were going through? Wouldn't this have prevented the bumbling responses that so many of these churches made?
Third, if only men are allowed to be pastors, who's ministering to the women in the church? Sure, you can start a woman's ministry and raise up female mentors; but everybody knows when you're really struggling, you should probably talk to your pastor. But if they’re all men, just how helpful can your pastor be? And doesn’t such vulnerable encounters open the door to sexual abuse? Wouldn't it be nice if there were just female pastors available who could minister to the female population in the church?
Lastly, isn't it just weird plain weird and unfair that women can serve as lawyers, doctors, politicians, CEOs, MMA fighters and even Ghostbusters - and yet they're not allowed to serve as pastors in the church? Aren’t women just as, if not more, gifted than their male counterparts? Therefore, to prevent women from having in such crucial roles in the church seems to come at the detriment of the church.
So Why Women Can't Be Pastors in the Church?
So why on earth would anyone not allow women to be pastors? What types of Christians think this way? Well, they're out there and are still the majority in evangelical circles. Christians who hold such beliefs are traditionally called complementarians... and, yeah, I happen to be one of them.* Yes, I know. Typical male who's part of the oppressive patriarchal system. Now it could be I'm blindly misogynistic or traditional. I’ve wondered that about myself too. But man, I can’t help but think there are valid reasons why the pastoral office is reserved for men.
So what are those reasons?
1) The Distinct Gender Roles Display a Distinct Glory
The first and most important thing that needs to be established is the purpose God has behind gender distinctions. Is gender something that's simply arbitrary? Is it simply biology? Is it something that has been nullified through the gospel? Or did God have a greater intention behind gender distinctions? No Christian tradition denies that men and women are equally created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). But are the gender roles equally similar?
Complementarians believe that God has a divine reason in making us male and female: the genders are counterparts in reflecting His glory. As author Mary Kassian writes, "Though both sexes bear God’s image fully on their own, each does so in a unique and distinct way. Male and female relationship reflects truths about Jesus that aren’t reflected by male alone or female alone.” And this glory is seen in how the gender roles are distinct from one another - both in the household (Eph 5:32) and in the church (Titus 2:1-6). So before talks of equality or fairness, we need to answer the divine intention behind gender.
2) The Church Reflects a Family Household
The New Testament is filled with metaphors to describe the church. Body of Christ. Temple of God. Holy Nation. But one metaphor that's relevant for this topic is "household of God" (1 Tim 3:15). Just as a family household is supposed to be under male headship (Eph 5:23), God's household is meant to reflect the same leadership pattern. As scholar Vern Poythress writes, “Paul teaches that in the church, God’s household, women are not to exercise authority over men, just as in a human family they are not to exercise authority over their husbands."
Now of course, if you don't believe men should lead a family, then this probably doesn't mean much for you. But if you do, then it makes sense that the only way a church can properly reflect a household is if the leadership structure looks the same where men are called to take the responsibility of headship.
3) 1 Timothy 2:12
Without a doubt, the main reason why churches don't believe in female pastors is 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul writes, "I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet." Yikes. Egalitarians try to dismiss this passage by saying we can't take it literally since that would mean women can't speak at all in the church; or they'll say it's referring to a situation unique to 1 Timothy; and there are even some who argue that Paul didn't write this letter, so it's not authoritative (!).
But you can't easily dismiss the passage this way. Paul isn't saying women can't literally speak or even teach - it's about teaching and speaking with "authority." And this situation can't be unique to 1 Timothy because Paul repeats this command in 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 where he writes "women should keep silent in the churches." And if you think Paul didn't write 1 Timothy, you have a whole lot of scholarly evidence that says otherwise.
4) Church History
It's worth noting that the egalitarian movement within the church is a modern phenomenon. That's because historically, Christians always maintained that the pastorate was reserved for men. As professor William Weinrich observes, "[T]he church – East and West and in a multiplicity of cultural and social settings – has consistently maintained that to men alone is it given to be pastors…It has been only in the last half of the twentieth century that the major Protestant church bodies have begun to accept women as regular preachers and pastors.”
So while some may feel that Christians like me are blinded to the patriarchal influences of the past, I can't help but feel that egalitarians may be blinded to the feminist influences of the present. I mean, isn't it strange that the church's desire for women leadership is taking place at the precise moment that our Western society is making this a defining issue? Christians should therefore pause before abandoning a view that has been held for centuries by the church in order to adapt to this cultural moment that we happen to be living in.
5) The Church Isn't About Us
But how does this make sense? Why do men get to do something in the church that women can't? Why can't women practice something that they're gifted and passionate about? This seems to go against the feminist ideology that women deserve equal opportunity in all areas of life. And it feels only fair for them to have such opportunities.
And yet, when did the church become about us? Isn't the church meant for something greater than equal opportunity? As author Courtney Ressing writes, “What we do in the church has nothing to do with our rights and everything to do with God’s glory. Feminism, at its core, is about rights and authority. The local church, at its core, is about God and his authority over us.” In other words, we need to remember the church has less to do with us and more to do with God desiring to express His glory.
Confession: I Think Women Should Be Pastors
If I were to be honest, I don't fully get why women aren't allowed to be pastors. And if I were to be really honest, there are a lot of moments where I actually think women should be pastors.
If it were up to me, I'd have women on my elder board at church. I truly believe they can see and contribute to things that men simply can’t.
If it were up to me, I'd have a woman preach at my church. I learn so much from the women I interact with and I think some of them would make far better preachers than a lot of the men that I meet.
If it were up to me, I'd have women shepherd the congregation at my church. I truly believe a lot of the sexual scandals in the church today would have been prevented if we had less men shepherding and more women involved.
If it were up to me, I'd fully endorse and accept women to be pastors at my church.
But here’s the thing: it's not up to me. That's because I didn't create the church. God did. He not only created the church, but He died for it and, to me at least, His word makes it pretty clear that he wants men to lead His church. Why? Again, I don't know. But I echo Kathy Keller's sentiments when she writes:
“Why did God arrange things this way, with a gender-based division of labor? At the end of the day, I still don’t know. I could speculate, but speculation often leads to error. I will follow that ancient divine who said, ‘Where God has shut his Holy Mouth I will not venture to open mine.’ I have found it fruitless, leading only to self-pity and anger in my own life, to question God’s disposition of things when I do not understand. Confidence in his goodness…has been a better choice”
Therefore, I confusingly yet humbly submit to what God seems to be clearly saying in His Word. I will always do my research and consider what others have to say, but I will ultimately trust what God has to say. That's because while I live in this temporary cultural moment, "the word of our God stands forever" (Isa 40:8).
*[Ed. Note: It's best to view complementarianism within a spectrum. While more conservative complementarians (e.g. John Piper) believe women should not be able to serve in any leadership position in both the public sector and in the church, there are others who believe women are allowed to serve in any leadership position except the office of a church elder. Personally, based on what I read in 1 Tim 2:12, I subscribe to the latter because I believe Paul is strictly speaking in the context of the church].