Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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.[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, Syntyche, the Chosen Lady, and other such women, functioned as pastors: they cared for spiritual and material wellbeing of their congregations. [See links below for articles on some of these women.]


Footnotes

[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] 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)
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).
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.
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 via Wikimedia)


Explore more

Here are links to my articles on whether women were eldersbishops/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

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

28 thoughts on “Are there women pastors in the New Testament?

  1. I thought you were going to talk about the shepherds of the OT, from which the concept was birthed, and why we are compared to sheep. And wasn’t Rebecca the first named woman shepherd of the OT.

  2. Oh, I hope I didn’t disappoint.

    Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and her sisters were probably shepherds:
    “Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. Exodus 2:15b-16

    And Rachel was a shepherd:
    “. . . Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess.” Genesis 29:9b

    Couldn’t find a reference to Rebekah being a shepherd.

    I guess “shepherd-sheep” terminology is used because the Israelites could readily identify with it. It was a common industry. Many Israelites were involved in caring for sheep, including some famous people: Jacob, Moses, David, etc.

    1. Look at Exodus 18:21-26, able men such as fear Yah.
      Numbers 11:16-25, gather 70 men of the elders of Israel.
      Numbers 27:16-23, set a man over the congregations.

      Always the man was to rule and be in authority. As said, the man is to be head.

      1. Hello Mac,

        Christian ministry is not about ruling fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s about following Jesus’s example and humbly serving them, even washing their dirty feet.
        https://margmowczko.com/jesus-teaching-on-leadership-and-community-in-matthews-gospel/

        And a few verses from the Hebrew Bible about bronze-age Israel do not set a precedent for service in the New Covenant community of believers, especially when there are other verses that show women, such as Deborah, Huldah, and the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah, leading and ministering.

        In his lists of ministries in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:28, and Ephesians 4:11 in the Greek, Paul never says that some of these are off-limits to women, this includes the ministries of teaching and leading. (See also Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16 cf. Acts 2:17-18).

        Paul valued the ministry and input of women.

        And nowhere in the Bible does it says “the man is to be head.” I’ve written about the Greek word Paul used for “head” here:
        https://margmowczko.com/tag/kephale/

  3. Thank you for the link to my study concluding that the only explicit local church leadership title given to a named person in the New Testament is Phoebe “deacon of the church of Cenchrea.” Anyone reading this is welcome to purchase my Man and Woman, One in Christ for $17.75 (Zondervan list $29.99) at http://www.pbpayne.com, which lists many endorsements for the book.

  4. Thank you for leaving a comment, Dr Payne.
    I have your book. And I use it and recommend it.

  5. Again, on the of those who can serve as pastors. pleease read 1 Peter 5.1-4 and you have another area where the Word supports men only as pastors. Just as you refer to the word for elder in your article, here in 1 Peter, the appointed elders are to serve as overseers. The criteria for an overseer (1 Tim. 3.1-7 and Titus 1.5,6) does specifiy that an overseer is to be the husband of one wife.
    I share this perspective because most people who argue for women to be pastors simply leave out these texts. This undermines the leadership of the church and therefore renders her unsubmissive to Christ as her head.

  6. Rich, I just read 1 Peter 5:1-4 again and there is nothing in the Greek that specifies this passage is only relevant for men, unless you think that because Peter is a man then only men can be like Peter. (My everyday New Testament, for devotional reading and study, is the Greek New Testament.)

    The Greek word presbyteros is a grammatically masculine adjective, but just because it is grammatically masculine it doesn’t mean that it cannot apply to women. For example, Abraham and Sarah (a woman) are called presbyteroi (plural) in Genesis 11:18 in the LXX.
    More about elders here: https://margmowczko.com/women-elders-new-testament/

    In Greek, many masculine words can apply to both men and women. Adelphoi is a grammatically masculine word and sometimes means “brothers,” but at other times it means “brothers and sisters” or “siblings.” More on this here: https://margmowczko.com/adelphoi-brothers-and-sisters/

    I have several articles where I discuss 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and, to a lesser extent, Titus 1:5-6:
    https://margmowczko.com/category/1-timothy-3/
    Note that Paul does not use the word “pastor” in either of these passages of scripture, and my article above is specifically about the word “pastor.”

    My life is geared to being submissive to Christ, so I’m not sure where you’re going with your last statement.

  7. I think Phoebe was a leader of a church, based on the meaning of prostatis. In any case a pastor is just one example of an overseer, others being apostle, prophet, evangelist and possibly teacher. It is only because of the restriction in many churches where they ONLY see a pastor or perhaps pastors that people are not aware of the others.

  8. On Rich’s comment, the term often translated as “husband of one wife” also applies to deacons and yet Phoebe was also a deacon, so this is a puzzle that needs to be solved, as it can appear to be a contradiction and within the Pauline corpus no less, as if Paul contradicts himself.

    Comps tend to solve the puzzle by suppressing the implications of Phoebe being a deacon.

    Rather than do that, egals point out that the list of qualifications is written in a shorthand form in that no one thinks an elder must have kids, but IF they do have children, one should assess their parental skills as those are relevant to being an elder. Furthermore, there is evidence that the term in Greek applied to both genders.

    1. Paul did use the word Deaconesses, he use the word servant. There is no contradiction

      1. Paul used the Greek word diakonos (exact form diakonon) in Romans 16:1 NIV. This word is sometimes translated as “deacon” in Paul’s letters. It does not mean “deaconess.” The Greek word for “deaconess” was not coined until the early 300s. The first (surviving) recorded use of diakonissa (“deaconess”) is in the canon of Nicea. Before that male and female deacons were called but the same Greek word, diakonos.

        Diakonos is Paul’s word for a minister. He never uses the word with the meaning of an ordinanry servant. Since Phoebe is also identified as a prostatis (“patron, benefactor”) by Paul, which meant she was a relatively wealthy woman, she would have had servants and slaves of her own.

        Phoebe was not an ordinary servant. She was minister of the church at Cenchrea. However, all true Christian ministers are servants. Christian ministry is humble service.

        I commend to you our sister Phoebe, diakonos of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord, as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Romans 16:1-2 NIV

  9. Rich and I have had a few discussions. He was my inspiration for this article: https://margmowczko.com/protecting-the-weaker-sex/

    I also explained the one-woman-man idiom which still stumps a lot of Christians. Paul’s audience would have understood it as referring to sexual restraint. I have written about this idiom here.

    1 Timothy 3 was written well after Paul wrote his letter to the Romans that mentions Phoebe. The μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ (“husband of one wife”) qualification had not yet been penned when Phoebe was serving as diakonos of the church at Cenchrea.

    There is no dilemma or contradiction. There isn’t a gender-inclusive way to render μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ. Chrysostom (who knew Greek!) understood it as applying to male and female deacons in 1 Timothy 3:12: “… it must be understood therefore to relate to deaconesses [female diakonoi]. For that order is necessary and useful and honourable in the Church” (Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy, Homily 11).

    Romans 16:1-2 (about Phoebe) is pretty much the closest thing I have to a proof text on the issue of women in ministry. And Phoebe was probably the person who delivered the letter to the Romans. This job meant that she was effectively Paul’s envoy. In those days a usual part of the letter carrier’s job was to help explain the contents of the letter and verbally deliver any further instructions from the sender.

  10. I am really confused, as my Bible KJV says that a pastor must be the husband of one wife. Not the wife of one husband. Can someone clear this up for me please? Thank you and have a blessed rest of the week.

    1. Hi Wanda,

      A pastor and an “elder” (Titus 1:6ff) or an “overseer/bishop” (Timothy 3:1ff) are not necessarily the same thing, but I do understand your question.

      All the qualifications for overseers in Timothy 3:1ff are moral qualifications. The first overseers were hosts and leaders of house churches, and Paul wanted them to be people of moral integrity. One reason for this integrity was so that the church would not get a bad name to outsiders.

      The “one-woman-man” qualification refers to high level of sexual morality associated with fidelity, monogamy, and continence. It is not primarily referring to the gender of the person. (This is unclear in some English translations.)

      The “one-woman-man” phrase in Greek is used numerous times on grave inscriptions to relate that the deceased person was virtuous. It was understood in the ancient world as referring to sexual restraint. When Paul used the phrase, he didn’t use it to disqualify single men, widowers, or women, etc. Similarly, we cannot use the qualifications to prohibit a person without children to be a minister (cf. 1 Tim.3:4), otherwise we would exclude people like Jesus and Paul.

      Nowhere does it say that a pastor, elder or overseer/ bishop must be male. In fact, there are several women mentioned in the New Testament who functioned as pastors and leaders of their house churches. Also, the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1ff are free of masculine personal pronouns, which is unlike many English translations.

      I have written more about the phrase a “one-woman-man” here.

      I have written about the role of overseers in the mid-first century here.

      And I have written more about the ministry of women in the first-century church here.

  11. Ephesians 4:11 shows that pastor and teacher are two different offices.

    1. Hi Cassandra,

      The Greek indicates otherwise. Ancient Greek grammar concerning lists is different to English grammar.

      In Greek, you can commonly have either:
      ~ a list with no conjunctions at all between each item,
      ~ a list with a conjunction between every item.
      ~ or, as in the case of Ephesians 4:11, you can have a list which consistently uses one kind of conjunction (δὲ, which contrasts with the μὲν); but the introduction of a different conjunction (καὶ which is a correlative conjunction), signals something different is happening (i.e. the combining of “the pastors and teachers”).

      Furthermore, (although this doesn’t apply here) if you have a list without the use of conjunctions but there is just one (or possibly a few) items joined by a conjunction, then the items joined are treated somewhat as one item. I have come across this grammar countless times in ancient Greek literature, papyri and inscriptions.

      In Ephesians 4:11, it is not just the different conjunctions which indicates that “pastors” and “teachers” are somehow combined. The lack of an article for “teachers” (compared with a definite article for apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors) also indicates this.

      The NIV (2011) translates Ephesians 4:11 correctly and quite literally: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers,” The NIV adds the word “Christ” for clarity, but otherwise it is a precise literal translation from: “καὶ αὐτὸς ἔδωκεν τοὺς μὲν ἀποστόλους, τοὺς δὲ προφήτας, τοὺς δὲ εὐαγγελιστάς, τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους,”

      In the very early church very few ministers were called “pastors”; many more ministers were called “teachers”. It might be that “pastors and teachers” was the one kind of minister with two different names, or that being a pastor involved also being a teacher.

      I’m not sure precisely what you mean by “offices”. There is no word for “offices” in verses about Christian ministry in the Greek New Testament New Testament, and it means various things to modern Christians.

  12. The first thing to see is that the original question is carefully crafted to seem like it cannot be answered in the affirmative. But what is really reveals is that it cannot be answered in the affirmative by those using the common exegetical methods of comps, which is why they ask it.

    But this also means it entails deconstructing those common exegetical methods of comps which takes time.

    1. None. Women are not permitted to usurp authority over the man.

      1. No one should usurp anyone’s authorisation to minister. Men shouldn’t “usurp the authority” of other men. That’s not to say that women don’t have authority. The Bible is full of examples of women with spiritual authority.

        Moreover, according to New Testament teaching, legitimate Christian ministry is not an authority over another capable person.

        1. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
          1 Timothy 2:12‭-‬15 KJV
          http://bible.com/1/1ti.2.12-15.KJV

          1. I have no dispute with what 1 Timothy 2:12 says in the Greek, though the verse is more difficult to understand than the KJV translation indicates.

            All of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is Paul addressing bad behaviour from certain men and women in Ephesus. These verses do not represent his general teaching on ministry.

            Note also that it says “a woman” and “a man”, not “women” and “men.” This verse is not about church leadership.) Rather, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is probably about a couple in the Ephesian church who were behaving badly caused by the wife’s faulty teaching and coercion. Note that women do not bear children in church meetings (cf. 1 Tim 2:15).

            So what about all the women in the Bible who did teach men and are portrayed in a good light?
            https://margmowczko.com/created-order-1-timothy-212/

            Also, in case you’re interested, here’s a look at the context of “she will be saved through childbearing”: https://margmowczko.com/chastity-salvation-1-timothy-215/

  13. Marg, would you please describe l Cor- 11:3 , and what does it say in greek ? What will be the accurate meaning of the term “help meet ” in Gen- 2:18 ? Can you also feel happy to elaborate ” thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” in Hebrew. I am so curious to know all these in original language.

    1. Hello Arkkhit,

      I have several articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, including articles on the Greek word for “head” in verse 3 here:
      https://margmowczko.com/category/1-corinthians-11-2-16/

      I have several articles on the Hebrew phrase ezer kenegdo (“a help meet for him”) here:
      https://margmowczko.com/tag/a-suitable-helper/
      This is a good one for starters:
      https://margmowczko.com/a-suitable-helper/

      I have a few articles on Genesis 3:16, especially on the Hebrew word teshuqah here:
      https://margmowczko.com/tag/teshuqah/
      This one is fairly comprehensive:
      https://margmowczko.com/teshuqah-desire/

  14. Mam Marg, can a woman pastor preach standing from the pulpit of a church during her periods? How can a woman pastor feel easy to deliver the word of God when (if) she approaches her delivery date in pregnancy?

    1. Hello again, Arkkhit.

      Having a period is a normal healthy thing for most women. While there are some taboos about menstruation in some cultures, the New Testament says nothing about periods and preaching the gospel. Usually, only the woman knows she is menstruating. It affects no one else.

      Jesus’ kind and accepting treatment of the bleeding woman sends an important message (Matt. 9:20–22, Mark 5:25–34, Luke 8:43–48). Jesus had no problem with her touching him. In fact, he blesses her. We mustn’t consider menstruating women as unclean or as unwelcome in any way.

      Also, the New Testament says nothing about pulpits. Preachers, teachers, prophets and apostles, etc, did not usually speak from pulpits in the first century. I think you are mixing up modern customs with biblical practices. In fact, Jewish teachers usually sat when they taught, they didn’t stand. Jesus sat down when he taught (e.g., Matt. 5:1; 26:55; Mark 4:1). In Luke 4:16-21 it says that Jesus stood up to read from the scriptures but then sat down when he spoke about it.

      Paul taught that any gifted person could contribute to a church meeting, regardless of whether they were male or female. Paul wrote, “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26; cf. Col. 3:16-17). Paul only silenced unruly, unedifying, and faulty speech from women and from men.

      Nowhere in the New Testament does it state that any of the ministries Paul lists in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:28, or Ephesians 4:11 are off-limits to women. More on this here.

      If a woman preacher is unable to deliver the word of God in late pregnancy, the church can get someone else to preach or bring a teaching, just as they would do if a non-pregnant pastor was incapacitated for any reason and unable to preach or teach.

      I personally have no desire to be a pastor in the traditional sense. But I do function in some pastoral ways.

      The community of God’s people in the New Testament, the church, functioned very differently from how most churches function today. Most churches were small house churches where brothers and sisters were (ideally) equal.

  15. Hello, This is a great discussion here.

    I noticed that there was no mention of the following women: Deborah, Huldah and Philip the evangelist’s four unmarried daughters who prophesied.

    Do they count as women in leadership, to teach, preach and prophesy? Or is the issue about titles which Deborah and Huldah (OT) were given?

    1. Hi Mercy,

      This article is about the word “pastor” (poimēn) in the New Testament. The prophecying women you’ve mentioned had a leadership role and they instructed God’s people but they weren’t pastors of churches.

      I’ve written about Deborah, Huldah, Philip’s daughters, and “preaching” words in other articles.

      A more general article about women leaders in the New Testament (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) is here:
      https://margmowczko.com/new-testament-women-church-leaders/

      A short article on prophesying women is here:
      https://margmowczko.com/bible-women-leaders-had-one-thing-in-common/

      A longer article on female prophets in the Bible is here:
      https://margmowczko.com/prophetesses-bible/

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