Can Women be Pastors? (A Semi-Response to Scot Mcknight)

Can Women be Pastors? (A Semi-Response to Scot Mcknight) April 29, 2016

I initially started this piece as a stand-alone response to general, broader conversations on the issues of Complementarianism and Egalitarianism. However, in seeing these two posts (here & here) from Scot McKnight, whom we are privileged to share blog space with at Patheos, I decided to address some of what he brought to light. Most of this post is not geared toward things he raised in his own posts as the body of this was written prior to his posting – yet undoubtedly, some of the counter-points are. I also realize my status as a small fish in the big pond, therefore, I doubt to elicit much of a response to this. While Complementarianism is not the sole focus of this piece, as dictated by the title, I firmly believe that capitulation on the biblical model for headship starts with the office of an elder. If you can prove that women can be pastors and have this authority over men in the church – it is essentially a non-issue to carry this principle through to the household. Therefore, this will be the primary objection within this post.

The Bible is no exception to doctrinal disagreement in the broader church, especially in the debate between Complementarianism and Egalitarianism. Though this is certainly not the most contested set of beliefs drawn from the scriptures, there are plenty of reasons people have not been fond of the teaching followed by those who hold to the belief that, though women and men have equal footing before the cross, men are designated by the scriptures to have authority in their own homes and in the church (Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). However, before we venture into whether or not women are to be pastors, this topic deserves a fair bit of initial qualification to some common objections. In spelling these out, we will see that a plain reading of the text doesn’t need much nuance or massaging to draw out the meaning.

What about braided hair and adornments? This is a fairly common objection drawn from the context of 1 Tim. 2 (verses 9-10), yet if we pay close attention to what is being said, the objection falls short of its aim. Paul gives the qualification of modest and discrete choices of adornment, that the Godly quality of the woman would be seen far before her beauty. This passage by no means condemns looking nice, braiding the hair, or wearing any jewelry – however, it does demonstrate that godly character is befitting the woman of God. Some will use this though to utilize the bandwagon fallacy, arguing that many don’t adhere to vv. 9-10, thereby, vv. 11-15 are invalidated, however – disobedience to what the command is perceived to be would not prove the remaining context to be false.

Secondly, people often relegate this passage (specifically vv. 11-15) strictly to the church of Ephesus to say that only the women of this church were forbidden to teach. Nowhere does Paul make mention of this in the letter to Ephesus as a temporal or conditional prohibition – nor does the early church offer a retraction of this statement as the letter circulated to churches in other regions. While the grammatical-historical reading of scripture should be adopted, we also shouldn’t seek to obscure the text’s current applicability – especially when the general, historical trajectory in orthodox Christianity has been in line with biblical headship. Yet we ought to be careful in assuming that even the grammatical-historical reading lends one to say only Corinth faced this command, given contrary evidence to circulation of the epistles in the early church and lack of clear witness to demonstrate the contrary.

What about Ephesians 5:21? Eph. 5:21 states that male and female are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ – yet we must always ask what the context of these passages are. Though many have used this passage to seek to refute male headship, the very next two verses show Paul issuing the statement that wives are to be subject to their own husbands, as to the Lord – for the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church. It seems to go without saying that the church does not have authority over Christ. So what does this passage refer to then when it speaks of mutual submission? This is Paul’s general address to the Ephesian church – he then goes on to show what this mutual submission looks like on the most fundamental levels of structure within the church and households. Husbands and wives, parents and children, servants and master, all show a mutual submission to Christ even though they function with differing roles. In this mutual submission to Christ, they are to act in accordance to what the context of these two chapters is drawing the focus toward: being children of light; imitators of God. Thus, proper headship does not lend itself to domination – but in the husband continually laying his life down sacrificially for his wife.

What about Galatians 3:28? Gal. 3:28 is often used as a defense against Complementarianism as well, seeing that Paul states that there is neither male nor female – but all are one in Christ. Again, this is a matter of looking to the context of what this passage is speaking to; Paul further says, in reference to salvation, that there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female. There is never any question among Christians of the inherent differences of Gentiles and Jews, or for that matter, slaves or free persons. This passage refers in no capacity toward leadership, the structure of the church, or the structure of the household. We do well to understand the focus of the passage if proper exegesis is to take place; soteriology is the focus – not roles.

What about other females who held positions of authority? This generally refers to passages such as Paul’s opening greeting from Romans 16 with the deaconess Phoebe, Priscilla, whom Paul refers to as his fellow worker in Christ, Mary, and others.

Three things must be noted here:

1.) Phoebe, though a deacon, is not an elder (see the Pastoral Epistles, namely 1 Tim. 3:8 & Titus 1:7 where deacons are distinguished from elders).

2.) Priscilla, though a fellow worker in Christ, is not given explicit mention of what this work entailed – and neither is the work that Mary partook in.

3.) While some women in the NT may have held churches in their homes, the narrative by no means indicates to the reader that they were the elders of these same churches.

It is generally faulty to assume an argument from silence , especially when we have other, clear passages referring to the structure of church leadership. Another passage generally referred to in this matter would be with respect to Priscilla teaching Apollos in Acts 18:26, however, this event takes place within the home of Priscilla and Aquila and makes no mention of this being under the auspices of an established church. Secondly, as is the case with all narrative literature: narrative does not necessarily establish normative or sanctioned practice for the believer. The case of Deborah in the book of Judges carries this principle, as it is even indicative that her acting as Judge in Israel would come with the consequence of open shame for Barak (see Judges 4:9).

What about slavery? Some (see the second link above to Scot’s post) have seen fit to heap coals upon Complementarianism by alleging that there is abundant silence from complementarians (more notably, many in the early American church holding to a Reformed Soteriology) on slavery. Now, I’m no historical scholar – but even in introductory church history books we will find early on that not a few were outspoken over the matters of Christian slave-owners.

Click here to find a wonderful resource for those looking for many primary sources from the era of colonial slavery and beyond. Now, we can get into the semantics of that and debate the damages and abuses of men, but again, the disobedience of those claiming Christ does nothing to disprove the validity of a doctrine. It is quite clear that this abuse of the doctrine is a shameful disgrace which disfigures it and causes others to blaspheme, but it nonetheless does nothing to revoke the truth of the matter, if indeed it is true. What is does is raise a red-herring to the real question at hand: What does the text say?

What does the Bible teach? Quite clearly, the Pastoral Epistles teach that women are not to be pastors over men. Titus 1:5-9 establishes the precedent over and again using the masculine personal pronoun – yet also establishing that he must be faithful to his [one] wife (v. 6). Secondly, 1 Tim. 3:1-7 is almost verbatim in the qualifications listed for those aspiring to be elders in the church – also establishing faithfulness to one wife. It goes without much qualification that Paul is speaking about men with the office of elder in sight. Yet what is perhaps the most contested part of this teaching is found in Paul’s frank words in 1 Tim. 2:12, saying, “I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to use authority over a man…”

While these words are no less easy on the ears for many, it is nonetheless a fairly straight-forward reading of the text, unless one imparts much sentimentalism and other “qualifiers” into the text (i.e – trajectory hermeneutics). The idea for a proper hermeneutic though is not one which we insert potentials or build cohesively structured arguments from silence; this is a statement plainly made that would allow harmony when comparing to the qualifications found in the Pastoral Epistles. It is a misnomer to suggest that though deacons are never forbade from having women serve in this role that the pastoral office is up for grabs as well. The context of 1 Tim. 2 shows this to be clearly false.

Notice though that Paul does not demean or defame the glory of God in women in any sense. Notice that he does not forbid them to serve within the church, or place higher value upon a man than a woman. People continually wish to portray some skewed version of Complementarianism rather than what the text actually teaches. Truthfully, this is quite warranted in some measure simply because of those who have profaned the gift of being a living sacrifice for one’s wife. Make no exceptions – a man cannot lead his household in any sense unless he is dying daily for his wife. Daily. There are much higher standards upon the man and he ought to act accordingly, if not only for the sake of his wife, for the sake of his own hide because of the judgment that awaiting him. If a man abuses his role as husband, he clearly lacks an understanding of the gospel in how it relates to marriage – as the marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and His bride.

Abuse has run rampant and sin has marred what once functioned in perfect harmony. While Gen. 3:16 is equally contested, it nonetheless is a valid reading to understand what sin has done in the union of husband and wife, wherein men have often acted as savages and women have sought to rule over their husbands. The acts of abusive men ought to be brought to light so they can face jail time – let us all be very clear on this. Yet again, the sinful acts of people do nothing to negate the validity of doctrinal claims; wolves coming into the flock to prey upon sheep gives us greater commentary on the need for ever-watchful shepherds rather than sanctioning the demolition of a particular doctrine.

Yet what is perhaps most troubling in this whole endeavor from many Egalitarians is an inconsistent hermeneutic which generally seems to capitulate to the sanctioned cultural mores rather than submit to the text. Ligon Duncan writes, “The gymnastics required to get from “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” in the Bible, to “I do allow a woman to teach and to exercise authority over a man” in the actual practice of the local church, are devastating to the functional authority of the Scripture in the life of the people of God.” Yet this hermeneutical principle, generally, does not stop here.

What the Bible doesn’t teach:

– the bible does not teach that men are to Lord over women and demean them, but instead, to love them as Christ loves the church. This is the highest call a married man has to his wife; you portray the gospel to the world through how you love your wife. This causes the essence of biblical teaching on headship and submission to be drastically different than patriarchy – as patriarchy dictates the center of the household revolves around the man and his desires, whereas proper Complementarianism in the household revolves around Christ and submits to His Lordship. Proper leadership in the home does not involve a man who dismisses the wisdom of his wife, subjugates her to a lessor dignity than himself, or refuses to be a servant-leader in the manner of Christ.

– the bible does not sanction physical, verbal, or mental abuse over one’s spouse or female congregants. Nor do the scriptures teach sexism, domination, or prideful arrogance to be part of a male leader’s repertoire (or husband’s, for that matter). These sins need to be condemned from the church – perhaps the loudest from Complementarians, and turn those guilty of crimes over to the police. Furthermore, Paul requires submission to one’s own husband. Contrary to some conflated suggestions, women are not required to submit to every male they see.

– the bible does not demonstrate inequality, inferiority, or inability between the sexes; it dictates roles, offices, and service, out of a mutual submission to Christ and His design.

– the bible does not forbid women from teaching other women or children in the context of the church.

– the bible does not forbid women from using their unique giftedness within the church to serve the body of Christ. On the contrary – it calls them into service.

– the bible does not exclude women from evangelism, conversations about the scriptures, or even contributing toward one’s understanding of the faith if they are male.

– the bible does not teach a woman submits to the point of sin, personal detriment (i.e. abuse), or that she cannot confront others in a loving manner over their own sins or false doctrine.

– yet the bible also doesn’t teach that women can be pastors in the household of God.


Image Credit: The Pulpit by Bs0u10e0; CC 2.0

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