People sometimes ask me if I can name any woman who is called a pastor in the New Testament. The people who ask me this question are usually those who believe that only men can be pastors, and one of their claims to support this view is that no woman is called a pastor in the NT. But is their question reasonable or fair?
The Greek word for “pastor” (which is the same Greek word for “shepherd”) occurs as both a verb (poimainō) and a noun (poimēn) in the New Testament. But unlike the words minister (diakonos), elder, apostle, prophet, or teacher, “pastor” is not used in the New Testament as a title or description for any named individual, man or woman, except for Jesus Christ.
When Jesus is called a poimēn, the word is typically translated in English as “shepherd” rather than “pastor.” Jesus is called the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14), the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Pet. 2:25), the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4), and the Great Shepherd (Heb. 13:20 cf. Matt. 2:6; 25:31ff; 26:31–32). Moreover, Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he lays down his life for his sheep. This point is made three times in John 10 (John 10:11, 14–15, 17–18 cf. 1 Pet. 5:3–4).
Ephesians 4:11 is the only time the word “pastor” is used as a noun in the New Testament and applied to ministers other than Jesus. Here the word “pastor/ shepherd” (poimēn) is grammatically linked with the word “teacher” indicating that teaching is one of the main functions of pastors. But Paul is not referring to any person in particular in this verse. And no gender is specified in Ephesians 4:11 (in the Greek) or in any other New Testament verses about ministry gifts.
While many Christians may have pastoring abilities, the Bible speaks of pastoring as a leadership function (cf. John 21:15–17). And leaders are sometimes called “shepherds” (Hebrew: Greek: poimēn) in the Old Testament.
While I cannot name any woman, or any man for that matter, who is called a pastor in the New Testament, it is likely that Phoebe, Priscilla, Nympha, Euodia, Syntyche, the Chosen Lady, and women like them, functioned as pastors: they cared for spiritual and material wellbeing of their congregations. [See links below for articles on some of these women.]
 Here are some NT verses that mention the titles or descriptions of church leaders, particularly those of elders, apostles, prophets, and teachers: Acts 11:27; 13:1; 14:14; 15:1ff; 21:10; Romans 16:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 1 Peter 5:1–2; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1; etc. Philip is called an “evangelist” in Acts 21:8 (cf. Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:5). Church supervisors/ overseers (episkopoi) are mentioned in Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–7, and Titus 1:7. It seems the leaders of the church at Antioch were called prophets and teachers, with prophets mentioned first (Acts 13:1).
 The verb poimainō occurs in Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 7:17; 19:15 where it has been traditionally translated as “rule” in English translations. Darby’s translation and the Holman Christian Standard Bible are two of a very few English translations that have the verb “shepherd”: “and he shall shepherd them with an iron rod …” (Rev. 2:27 Darby).
 The verb poimainō is used of Christian ministry in John 21:16, Acts 20:28, and 1 Peter 5:2. And a participle (poimainontes) is used in Jude 1:12. This participle is translated as “shepherd” in a few English translations such as the CSB, ESV, NIV, NLT. The people in Jude 1:12 who were spoiling the church’s love feast may have been pastors!
 In reference to actual ministers who Paul identifies by name, the word “coworker” is used most frequently. Paul never identifies a fellow minister using the words pastor, elder or overseer.
The designations most often given to Paul’s fellow workers are in descending order of frequency as follows: coworker (synergos), brother (adelphos) [or sister (adelphē) as in the cases of Phoebe and Apphia], minister (diakonos) and apostle (apostolos).
E.E. Ellis, “Paul and his Coworkers” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Editors: Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 183.
 Here are verses that mention ministry gifts: Acts 2:17–18; Romans 12:6–8; 1 Corinthians 12:7–11, 27–28; 14:26–33; Ephesians 4:11–12; Hebrews 2:4; 1 Peter 4:9–11. None of these verses specifies gender in the Greek. (Articles about Paul’s theology of ministry are here.)
 In Numbers 27:16–17, Moses asks God for a leader to succeed him and he uses the imagery of a shepherd and sheep: “May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (NIV)
“Sheep without a shepherd” is used as a negative idiom a few times in scripture: 1 Kings 22:17//2 Chronicles 18:16; Isaiah 13:14; Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34 cf. Ezekiel 34:5; Zechariah 10:2; Micah 5:4.
God told David that he was to shepherd (i.e. lead) his people Israel (2 Sam. 5:2//1 Chron. 11:12; 2 Sam. 7:7). David recognised God as his Shepherd (Psalm 23), but David sometimes failed in his role (2 Sam. 24:17). Nevertheless, he is used in scripture as a type for the Good Shepherd who would come after him (Ezek. 34:23–24; 37:24).
The frequent criticism of Jeremiah was that Israel’s shepherd-leaders were careless and self-absorbed: Jeremiah 2:8; 10:21; 12:10; 22:22; 23:1–4; 25:34–38; 50:6 cf. Jer. 3:15. Shepherd-leaders are also criticised in Ezekiel 34:1–10.
Shepherd-leaders, good and bad, are mentioned also in the minor prophets, in Micah 5:4–5, Nahum 3:18, and Zechariah 10:3; 11:3–17; 13:7.
God describes himself as a caring shepherd a few times, in Isaiah 40:11, for example:
He protects his flock like a shepherd;
he gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them in the fold of his garment.
He gently leads those that are nursing.
In secular Greek literature also, chiefs and captains are sometimes called shepherds. In Homer’s Illiad, for example, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army in the Trojan War, is regularly called, “Agamemnon, shepherd (poimēn) of the people” (Illiad 2.243). (Source: LSJ)
© Margaret Mowczko 2011
All Rights Reserved
Postscript: December 2 2011
I found an article today by Philip B. Payne on the same subject as this post. Here is an excerpt:
Even if in the NT no women were identified by name as elders, overseers, or pastors, and many men were, this would not logically exclude women from those leadership positions any more than the actual lack of Gentile men identified by name as elders, overseers, or pastors in the NT excludes Gentile men from those leadership positions.
In fact, however, apart from Christ (Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4), no men or women overseers (ἐπίσκοπος) of a church or pastors (ποιμήν) of a church are named in the NT. John refers to himself in 2 John 1 and 3 John 1 as “the elder,” but nothing in either context associates this title with a local church or with administrative duties. The article indicates that this refers to something unique, which would not apply to local church administration. It probably identifies something like the last surviving elderly apostle and eyewitness of Christ. The only other NT association of ‘elder’ with any named person is Peter’s self-identification as a “fellow-elder (συνπρεβύτερος), a witness of Christ’s sufferings.”
The clearest NT identification of an individual with titles associated with senior local church leadership is not a man at all, but a woman: “Phoebe deacon … of the church in Cenchrea.
Here are links to my articles on whether women were elders, bishops/ overseers, or deacons, or whether they preached in New Testament times.
There are Female Pastors in the New Testament
The First-Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
Phoebe: Deacon of the Church at Cenchrea
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?
Nympha: A house church leader in the Lycus Valley (Col. 4:12)
Euodia and Syntyche: Women Church Leaders in Philippi
The Elder and the Lady: A Look at the Language in 2 John
Paul’s Theology of Ministry