Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Today we jump feet first into a boiling debate over whether female church leaders should be called pastors. The question comes to us from a listener named Nick. “Hello, Pastor John! My church is changing its view on the use of the word pastor to include women, saying Ephesians 4:11 is the only place in the Bible where the Greek word for pastor is ever used, and that it doesn’t have any specific qualifications there. Women could fill this role and still be under male headship and a male elder board, almost more like a deacon or deaconess who leads specific ministries in the church — like a pastor over worship, or a pastor over women’s ministry. But would this change in title be in line with other parts of Scripture?”

Well, let’s clarify first that this is a kind of intra-complementarian debate; that is, a debate among complementarians — a debate among those who agree that the New Testament calls for spiritual, mature, gifted, qualified men to bear the official responsibility in the local church for governing and teaching leadership. Complementarianism means more than that, more than just those qualifications for church leadership — for example, in the home and in society — but that’s the relevant part for this debate. It’s a debate among those who agree on that point, and the question is whether it’s biblical or wise or misleading to use the word pastor for various roles that women can play, various appropriate roles that women play. That’s the issue that I’m addressing and that I’ve been reading about recently.

“It is misleading and unwise to use the English word ‘pastor’ for women in ministry.”

My answer to the question is that it is misleading and unwise to use the English word pastor for women in ministry, and that the attempt to say that it is more biblical to use it is built on a misunderstanding of how language works, as well as the supposed use of the word pastor in the New Testament. And I’ll give four reasons for why I think it’s misleading and unwise and ill-founded.

1. Pastor ordinarily connotes preaching and overseeing.

The English word pastor in the English-speaking world today is taken, by almost everyone who knows the word, to refer to a person with official leadership in the local church that ordinarily involves preaching and governing, and would be roughly the same as lead elders or overseers. That’s the ordinary meaning of the word in English.

So the question becomes, Should a word with that ordinary meaning in English be used to refer to laypeople in the church — men or women — who do not have that kind of official leadership role of preaching and teaching and governing as elders and overseers? And the answer of some is yes, we should use that word because the New Testament uses the term pastor for non-authoritative roles of shepherding. That’s the argument they would give.

2. Greek has only one word for shepherd and pastor.

My second reason for thinking it’s misleading and unwise and ill-founded to use the word pastor for those who are not elders or overseers in the church is that this argument that I just mentioned doesn’t work — namely, that the New Testament uses the term pastor for non-authoritative roles of shepherding.

So let me state the obvious: The New Testament was written in Greek and of course doesn’t use the English word pastor at all. That may seem silly to even observe that, but it’s significant. It has a word in Greek, poimēn, for shepherd. That noun is used eighteen times in the New Testament, one of which is sometimes translated pastor — namely, Ephesians 4:11 — where Christ has appointed pastors and teachers in the church. But the ESV, for example, translates this “shepherds and teachers.” And if we do that, then the word pastor never occurs in the entire English Bible. The other translations only have it there at Ephesians 4:11. The ESV doesn’t even translate it there as pastors, but simply as shepherds. That’s the way it’s translated throughout.

“Shepherding in the New Testament is consistently associated with the leadership of elders and overseers.”

The noun poimēn means “a shepherd,” and most of its uses are literally those who tend the flocks, like in Luke 2:8. There were shepherds out in the fields tending their flocks by night at Christmas. Then it comes to mean Jesus as the good shepherd or the great shepherd, as in John 10:11 or in Hebrews 13:20, and it refers once to those who shepherd and teach God’s people — namely, Ephesians 4:11. And it also, of course, refers in Revelation 7:17 and once in Luke to the ruler of God’s people, as in Matthew 2:6.

Here’s the catch in translation: In English, we have two words, shepherd and pastor — two distinct words. In Greek, there are not two words; it’s just poimēn. There’s one word, and it means shepherd. There was no other word that carries the meaning of the English word pastor. So, if you really want to recover something like New Testament language — which is the claim being made — if you go back to the New Testament language, you would make a case for calling church leaders shepherds, not pastors. That’s the real claim if you want to get back to originality of usage in the New Testament. It’s highly misleading to claim that in applying the word pastor to laypeople, we are recovering New Testament usage. That’s highly misleading when the word pastor does not even occur in the ESV, and only once does it occur in other versions.

3. Elders and overseers shepherd the flock.

My third argument for why it is unwise and misleading and ill-founded to call laypeople pastors is the observation that when the New Testament does describe its church leaders as doing the work of a shepherd (with the verb poimainō, which has the same root as the noun poimēn), they were thought of not as laypeople, but as elders and overseers. I’ll give you three clear instances.

1. In Acts 20:17, Paul calls together the elders of Ephesus, and he says to them in Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves [you elders] and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” So now you have two words of authoritative position, elder and overseer. This is their task: to shepherd the church of God. So, here Paul virtually identifies shepherding with the task of overseeing, and he is speaking to elders about their special responsibility in the flock.

2. In 1 Peter 5:1–2, Peter says, “So I exhort the elders among you . . . shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” So, Peter uses the same two words as Paul does — namely, elder and the task of overseeing — and he calls these overseeing leaders to “shepherd the flock.”

3. In John 21:16, Jesus says to the apostle Peter, “Shepherd my sheep.”

So, not only is there no New Testament word that corresponds to pastor as distinct from shepherd, but the idea of shepherding in the New Testament was consistently associated with the leadership of elders and overseers.

4. The title pastor for a woman undermines the New Testament teaching on church leadership.

My fourth reason now for saying it’s misleading and unwise and ill-founded to use the word pastor for non-elders or non-overseers — people without official governing and teaching responsibilities in the church, men or women — is that the title Pastor Mary or Pastor Jane is going to inevitably communicate, over time, especially to our young people growing up in the church and to people newer to the church, that the office of pastor, as almost everyone understands it in English, is properly filled by women.

In other words, I think those who are arguing for the use of the word pastor for women ministering or men who are not elders or overseers are undermining the teaching of the New Testament about church leadership, even as they aim to do the opposite.