Women in the Church

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Annual Meeting is no stranger to noteworthy events. Ultimately, God brings a sense of unity and teamwork as churches work together for His kingdom but it is not without the unanticipated. The unexpected over the past couple of meetings has revolved around Saddleback Church, the largest church affiliated with the SBC. In 2021 Saddleback ordained three women pastors. The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 (BF&M 2000), the statement of faith for the SBC, speaks to this issue, when it says, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” A motion was introduced in 2021 to break fellowship with Saddleback Church. After a review by the Credentials Committee, it was sent to the Executive Committee of the SBC who deemed that Saddleback was not in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC over their ordination of female pastors. 

The vote by the full body of messengers came to the floor in the recent 2023 meeting in New Orleans as Saddleback appealed their disfellowship. Messengers denied the appeal of Saddleback. Additionally, in clarifying gender roles in ministry, the messengers to the recent meeting voted to amend the SBC constitution to state that a cooperating church “affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” Finally, messengers amended the BF&M 2000 to make clear that the office of pastor/elder/overseer is “limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” The churches of the SBC have overwhelmingly made it clear that they are committed to biblical complementarianism and the role of pastor as being for men only.

The inner workings of the SBC and the expression of those workings at the Annual Meeting are not important in and of themselves. The main reason I recount this whole episode is to consider the crucial question it brings to the forefront, “Can women be pastors?” Although the BF&M 2000 may bring guidance in answering this question, as a church with a high view of God’s word, we need to ultimately look to Scripture as “the supreme authority for doctrine, ministry, and morality, and is the standard by which all other sources of truth should be tested.” (1) The Bible is sufficient for “all life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). 

Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, pens a “summary” statement in 1 Timothy 2:12 that provides focus and clarity for us in considering the answer to, “Can women be pastors?” To “put all the cards on the table” before beginning, Paul will show us that God reserves the office and the properly defined function of pastor for qualified men by using the design of God described in Genesis as a framework.

Paul writes Timothy to instruct him on the kind of behavior that should characterize those of the church. He writes about false teachers, qualifications for leaders, and conduct in the church. In chapter two of 1 Timothy Paul consistently appeals to a structure of authority. Greg Gilbert describes it this way, “in creation: God designed and instituted a whole system of authority which had its pinnacle in his own rule over the cosmos, and it was that beautiful structure of authority which Satan attacked and intended to destroy through human sin.” (2) Specifically, in 1 Timothy 2:12-14 Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve;” We see clearly the appeal to Genesis here, “Adam was formed first, then Eve.” The design of creation supports Paul’s command in the previous verse that women not teach or exercise authority over men. This isn’t an arbitrary command nor is it a cultural command. It is founded on the structure of authority that God designed and established in the Garden of Eden. Satan attacked the design of God in the garden with the intent to destroy it. God created the world as a monarchy in some sense, with Himself as High King and man and woman, images of Himself, to reign under Him. Adam and Eve were to rule the cosmos as king and queen. Even in their marriage, there was to be a structure of authority. 

Authority, exercised properly, is a good, God-given aspect of His creation. Ultimately, God delegated and designed authority for our blessing and protection. This idea of “authority is bad” is a result of the work of Satan which began in the garden. Adam and Eve rejected the authority of God and joined Satan in his rebellion against the Creator of the universe and His good design. In this rebellion Eve would now desire to continue this upending of proper authority in the marriage relationship by desiring to master her spouse (Genesis 3:16). Adam, likewise, will twist his God-given authority into a domination of his spouse (Genesis 3:16) or a passive abdication of this responsibility as when he allowed Eve to take charge. This is why Paul refers back to Genesis in 1 Timothy 2.

Influenced by false teachers, the men and women in Ephesus in 1 Timothy were repeating the assault on God’s good order in Genesis. The church was to be a reestablishment of God’s original design where the structures of authority are reinstated. This reinstatement of authority explains 1 Timothy 2:12. Satan created disorder in authority structures. Paul is reminding Timothy of proper, God-ordained, original, creation structures and commanding him to order the church properly. Paul reserves the authoritative teaching and leading of the church to qualified men. 

This does not mean that women can never teach men in certain contexts. My wife and daughters have taught me scriptural truths from God’s word countless times in various times and places. Nor does it mean that a woman can never exercise any authority over a man. Karen Tayne and others have scheduled and led me in various responsibilities multiple times and will continue to do so. Neither does it denigrate women or assign them to a lower category of leadership and role. Women are created in the image of God and are indispensable members of the church and society. What it does mean is that the “authoritative or conscience-binding teaching and leading – the doctrinal instruction of the church in the Scriptures and the direction-setting governance of the church” (3) is reserved for qualified men as God designed. 

There are those that would argue, and this is where we get back to Rick Warren, that “pastor” is not an office in the New Testament. It is rather a gift. In other words, in their view, serving as pastor is different from serving in the office of elder. This seems to be a failure to see the interchangeability of the terms pastor/elder/bishop/overseer in the New Testament. The authors of the New Testament use these titles interchangeably, as different ways of referring to the same office. (4) The text of 1 Timothy 2:12 describes the function of this office of pastor/elder/bishop/overseer when it combines teaching and authority. Paul reserves qualified men for the authoritative leadership and instruction of the church. Those who hold the office and title of pastor, lead and teach authoritatively in the church. It isn’t just the office that is reserved for men but the function as well. 

What then are the implications of the fact that God reserves the office and the properly defined function of pastor for qualified men? It’s important to remember that Paul is reminding us that this command is a return to Eden. It is something to be praised that God has built the design of His church to mirror His original design. His design is a good, true, and beautiful thing. The rebellion has been defeated and God is on His throne! The church declares and proclaims that fact, even in its structure. There are implications that impact this structure in important ways and there are implications that impact this structure in less important ways and may lead churches to come to different conclusions in these lesser ways. Two examples may help to see these differences. Could a woman “fill the pulpit” and preach on a Sunday morning “under the authority of the pastors?” Preaching to the body seems to clearly fall under the function of a pastor and allowing that under the guise of “the authority of the pastors” seems sexist. If she can preach authoritatively, why can’t she hold the office? Could a woman give her salvation testimony on a Sunday morning from the pulpit and explain a Bible verse while she does that? Because she isn’t “representing” authority and isn’t fulfilling the function of a pastor this seems permissible but some churches may disagree legitimately. 

So, what roles can women fill in the church? Denny Burk puts it this way, “A friend recently said to me that complementarians often run the risk of minding the fences while ignoring the field. What she meant was that we can be so focused on boundaries that we forget the wide places in between…Yes, there are clear boundaries in Scripture for men and women in ministry, but this does not negate the opportunities for ministry that God gives to us all. No person should ever feel they are without a ministry. There’s plenty of room to roam in the field, and the boundaries help us to see that.” (5) Outside of the scriptural limitation of qualified men as pastors there are countless opportunities for women to serve the church. MacArthur Blvd Baptist Church wants to be a place where women can flourish, are empowered, and can serve well within those boundaries.

  1. https://www.macarthurblvd.org/a-high-view-of-gods-word/
  2. Gilbert, Greg, Can Women Be Pastors? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing), p. 13. Many of the concepts of this helpful book have been adapted for this article.
  3. Gilbert, p. 12.
  4. https://www.macarthurblvd.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/BELIEF_Shepherding.pdf
  5. https://www.9marks.org/article/can-women-be-pastors-but-not-elders/

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