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What Does the Bible Teach about Female Pastors? Saddleback’s Anticlimactic News

Photo of Bobby HarringtonBobby Harrington | Bio

Bobby Harrington

Bobby is the point-leader of Renew.org and Discipleship.org, both collaborative, disciple-making organizations. He is the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN). He has an M.A.R. and an M.Div. from Harding School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 10 books on discipleship, including Discipleshift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman), The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick) and Becoming a Disciple Maker: The Pursuit of Level 5 Disciple Making (with Greg Weins). He lives in the greater Nashville area with his wife and near his children and grandchildren.

Saddleback Church, the notable megachurch led by mega-bestselling author Rick Warren, recently made news by ordaining its first three women pastors. The shift from male-only pastors stands out against the church’s larger Southern Baptist Convention affiliation.

The move is being hailed as bold and historic. But just how significant and newsworthy is the move?

In order to learn the significance of Saddleback’s move, I spoke with a friend of mine who works at Saddleback, Steve Gladden. Steve is Saddleback’s Pastor of Small Groups and has been since 1998. He confirmed what I suspected: At Saddleback, “pastor” is a general term for the person who heads up a particular ministry. As such, they make a distinction between elder and pastor. This distinction is hinted at on Saddleback’s website, where Steve himself is listed as “Pastor of Small Groups,” as well as “an Elder of the church.”

Their distinction between “pastor” and “elder” is also evident in the tweet of one observer, who applauded the decision, even if she saw it as long overdue. Then she added, “p.s. still no women elders.”

So, what does it mean when a church ordains women pastors, but not elders?

On the one hand, if “pastor” is taken to mean “minister,” then the news coming out of Saddleback could seem much ado about nothing. Women in the New Testament are called to various types of important ministries—even as the New Testament model reserves the position of elder for qualified men.

We at Renew.org are no strangers to difficult questions regarding gender and church positions. In our wrestling with the relevant Scriptures, we have become convinced that the best way we can live out New Testament teachings in the church today is for the main pastor/teacher and the elders to be qualified males.

But we don’t at all take that to mean that churches with male elders and preachers should automatically feel affirmed in how they do leadership.

These Scriptures point us to a model completely foreign to the large-and-in-charge model of church governing that many churches settle into. On the contrary, the roles of main pastor/teacher and elder are first and foremost servant roles for the purpose of empowering men and women to minister and lead to the fullness of their God-given abilities.

So, if “pastor” is being used to mean “minister,” then Saddleback is actually aligned with Renew.org on this issue. This recent news out of Saddleback isn’t nearly as newsworthy as a lot of people would want it to be—whether those of a more leftward tilt who would like to see Saddleback go more egalitarian, or those on the far right who are looking for confirmation that Saddleback is a heretical church.

On the other hand, there is, I believe, wisdom in using stories like Saddleback’s as an opportunity for a larger discussion on how we use biblical terms. As Alexander Campbell famously advised, “We choose to speak of Bible things by Bible words.”[1] The Saddleback decision to ordain women as pastors encourages us to ask: Is “pastor” the best word to refer to ministers?

The best way to discern the best way to use the word “pastor” is to zoom out and look at church leadership structure as we find it in the New Testament.

Once the apostles died, God had a leadership structure in place for the local churches in the New Testament. They had a common structure and a similar format so that churches could carry on in the absences of the apostles (1 Tim. 3:14-16).[2] This leadership structure focused on four key roles.

Evangelists

These are church planters and developers. Timothy was an evangelist who worked with the church in Ephesus. The apostle Paul wrote two letters to him, outlining his role as an evangelist and how the church should be structured (1 & 2 Timothy). Titus was another evangelist who also received a letter with similar instructions for his work on the island of Crete (Titus). A third evangelist was Philip (Acts 21:8). Evangelists in the Bible followed the apostles, working as their delegates. Today, many church planters and preachers function in a similar role. Their work is to establish and build churches according to the teaching of the apostles.[3]

Elders/Pastors/Overseers

After churches have been established, the most important leadership work for the long-term health and maturity of the church is given to older and wiser Christian men called “elders,” “pastors,” or “bishops.” These three terms (as we will see) all refer to the same group of men (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4).[4] These men are given the responsibility of “watching over,” “protecting,” “guiding,” “leading,” “teaching,” and “equipping” the church.

Teachers

Evangelists and elders usually function as the main teachers in the local church, but in addition to these are others, also gifted in teaching, who build up and strengthen the local church (1 Cor. 12:28; James 3:1).

Deacons

Deacons are not mentioned in Ephesians 4 alongside as evangelists, elders, and teachers because their work is not so much equipping the church for ministry as it is doing or coordinating the various works of ministry (1 Tim. 3:8-12; Acts 6:1-8; Romans 16:2).[5]

I am not delineating the roles of prophet, apostle/missionary, etc. here because these roles are less permanent to the local church. These four mainstay roles form more of a timeless leadership structure for the local church. These people, when appointed and functioning in a biblical manner, equip the church for a strong and lasting community life.

To better understand the best use of the word “pastor,” let’s now zoom in and look more closely at how the word is used in the New Testament.

In various places, the Bible describes the appointment and function of mature Christian men to the leadership role of elder—a word that is used synonymously with two more words: “overseer” and “pastor.” For this elder-overseer-pastor role, it is common to simply use the term “elder.” But again, in the New Testament, let’s not lose sight of the fact that these men are called “elders,” “pastors” (shepherds), and “overseers” (bishops), depending on the point of reference. All three terms refer to the same group of men. This is best seen if we look at a passage from the New Testament, which employs these three distinct terms to describe the same group of men:

1 Peter 5:1-2 – To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds (pastors) of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers (bishops)—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve.

Two other places which use these words interchangeably are Acts 20:17-28 and Titus 1:5-7.

The following is a short summary of the three terms. Each term accents a different part of the singular role of elder-pastor.
  • Elder = An “elder” is typically an older, wiser Christian (the term used in the ancient world is a man who was “about 50 years old”). These are persons of experience and wisdom, who have learned many lessons that can help others in life, in their families, and in walking with God. Although age is not a set criterion per se, the concept of an “older, experienced, godly person” captures the idea behind “elder.” In family language, these are the “dads” of the church.
  • Overseer = The word “overseer” emphasizes how these people have “oversight” or responsibility, as they manage church affairs. Included in this is the responsibility to watch over the church and provide direction to the church’s ministry activities. In this sense, an overseer is the one who is responsible for what happens in the local church.
  • Pastor = The word “pastor” or shepherd is taken directly from a farming context. Shepherds feed and lead their sheep. The relationship of a shepherd to his sheep is one of closeness and trust. King David used the imagery of God as his shepherd in the 23rd Psalm to describe God’s loving guidance and provision in his life. Like shepherds, “pastors” guide and care for the sheep (Christians) in the local congregations.

Each term provides a unique accent to the role to which the local church calls these men. As a composite sketch, these three terms provide a broad view of the dynamics, both personally and organizationally, in which these leaders involve themselves.

So, back to the original question: Is “pastor” the best word we can use for the head of a particular ministry in the church?

Although we don’t want to be overly rigid in our use of words, it would seem wiser and clearer to reserve “pastor” for the team of shepherds who lead and guard the entire flock. On the other hand, at the church which I serve, we have found “minister” to be a dignified and biblical word for the ministry roles our women and men play. For a further look at some practical advice on these issues of church leadership and gender by a couple of women leaders, including one of the women ministers at our church, click here.

If Saddleback had ordained those three women as “ministers” over important ministry roles (instead of “pastors”), it may not have seemed historic or headline-worthy, but it also wouldn’t have left people scratching their heads. When possible, it’s probably better to “speak of Bible things by Bible words.”


[1] Alexander Campbell, The Christian System: In Reference to the Union of Christians, and a Restoration of Primitive Christianity, as Plead in the Current Reformation, Fifth Edition (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1901), 104

[2] A careful reading of 1 Timothy 3:14-16, shows that 1 Timothy was written to help establish criteria and roles for a lasting structure in the local church. Within the canon of scripture there is a pattern of evangelists, elders, teachers, and deacons carrying on the ministry in the absence of the apostles. For more information see Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996).

[3] See Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 329-333; and the much older, but excellent work by W.L. Heyden, Church Polity (Chicago, Illinois: S.J. Clarke, 1894).

[4] These terms are used interchangeably in Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5, referring to the same men and the same role. For more information. The most readily available book on elders is Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call To Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Lewis and Roth Publications, 1995). But see also the older work of J. W. McGarvey, A Treatise on The Eldership (Murfreesboro, Tn.: Dehoff Publications, Reprint Edition, 1956) and Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), pp 318-327..

[5] The best book on men and women by a single author is James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), and he does a decent job discussing male and female deacons. But see the discussion on female deacons in Carroll Osborn, Women in the Church: Refocusing the Discussion (Abilene, Texas: Restoration Perspectives, 1994) and Steven Sandifer, Deacons: Male and Female (Houston, Texas: Keystone Publishing, 1989). See also the website of the “Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” for helpful material at WWW.cbmw.Org.