Can a woman be a pastor? Yes? No?

Dichotomy and Division

This January I spent two weeks at an ancient languages summer school. One of my classmates in Greek class came up with a flow chart to help work out where to place the accent in verbs. It’s one of those charts where a question is posed and you answer either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and, depending on your answer, you take a step in a particular direction where another question is posed, and again you need to answer either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You keep going until you reach the end of a particular path and there you find out, in this case, where to place your accent.

I remember using a similar system to classify organisms (particularly Australian native trees) into their relative genus and species during my brief science days. This kind of system is called a dichotomous key.

I began imagining how a dichotomous key could be used by churches to help them choose new ministers. An opening question might be: Does the person have an obvious, vibrant Christian faith – yes or no? Or, Does the person have a thorough and sound knowledge of Scripture – yes or no? Or, Does the person have a clear call to vocational ministry – yes or no? Gradually the focus of the questions would get narrower and more specialised to fit with the unique situation and needs of a congregation.

In reality, most churches use dichotomous reasoning when choosing a minister whether they realise it or not. However, instead of the questions posed above, the first question seems to be, Is the person a man – yes or no? A ‘no’ answer usually results in the candidate being instantly rejected, and the woman’s character, gifts, qualifications, and experience aren’t even considered.

I can’t help but feel that there is something askew with a view that places gender above character, calling, godliness, and giftedness. And there is something wrong with a system where, potentially, every man can be considered for ministry, but every woman is automatically disqualified.

Many people refuse to consider women for leadership and teaching roles in the church because they believe that the Bible prohibits women from these vocations. Understandably, they do not want to ignore scriptural injunctions and go against God’s will. However the very few Bible verses that seem to prohibit women from ministries that include public speaking, while they may seem plain and clear in the English, are actually far from plain and clear in the Greek. There are significant textual and hermeneutical uncertainties with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12.

Implementing restrictions on women’s ministry on the basis of these verses – which were written to specific churches undergoing their own set of circumstances in a culture vastly different from our own – is unsound and fraught with difficulties. This is evidenced by the variety of ways different churches implement their own interpretations of these two verses.

By only encouraging men in ministry, and by limiting what women can do and can become, a distinction is being drawn between the sexes, a distinction that divides the church into two classes. In some churches this divide is deepening. And yet I do not see this dichotomy between men and women in the New Testament. Spiritual gifts are not dependent on gender (Acts 2:18). And equality and unity, even in ministry, are taught as being basic Kingdom principles.

In many ministry situations the question of whether a minister is a man or a woman has little practical or spiritual relevance.


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