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.[1]

When Jesus is called a poimēn, the word is typically translated as “shepherd.” 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; 25:35; 26:31; Rev. 7:17; 12:5; 19:15).

The only time the word “pastor” is used as a noun and applied to ministers other than Jesus, is in Ephesians 4:11.[2] Here the word “pastor/shepherd” is grammatically linked with the word “teacher” indicating that one of the main functions of pastors is teaching. But Paul is not referring to any person in particular in this verse.[3] Furthermore, no gender is specified in Ephesians 4:11 or in any other New Testament verses about ministry gifts.[4]

While many Christians may have pastoring abilities, the Bible speaks of pastoring as a leadership function (cf. John 21:15-17). The Jewish understanding of being a shepherd, or pastor, was one of leadership, and leaders are sometimes called “shepherds/pastors” in the Old Testament, especially in the book of Jeremiah.[5]

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 and Syntyche, the Chosen Lady, and other such women, were female church leaders who functioned as pastors. [See links below for articles on some of these women.]


[1] Some NT verses that mention the titles or descriptions of church leaders, particularly those of elders, apostles, prophets, and teachers, include 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). Supervisors/overseers (episkopoi) are mentioned in Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and Titus 1:7.

[2] The verb poimainō is used of Christian ministry in John 21:16, Acts 20:28, and 1 Peter 5:2. 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!

[3] 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.

[4] 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. (An article about Paul’s theology of ministry is here.)

[5] The frequent criticism of Jeremiah was that Israel’s shepherds (i.e. leaders) were careless and self-absorbed: Jeremiah 2:8; 10:21; 12:10; 22:22; 23:1-4. God tells David that he is to shepherd (i.e. lead) his people: 2 Samuel 5:2; 7:7; 1 Chronicles 11:2.
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)

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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.

Image Credit

A Shepherdess with her Flock by Belgian artist Eugène Verboeckhoven, 1871. (Source: Sotheby’s, New York, 08 November 2012, lot 34 via Wikimedia)

Related Articles

Articles on whether women were eldersbishops/overseers, or deacons, or whether they preached in New Testament times.
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 Chosen Lady in 2 John

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja