“There were zero women pastors in the Bible and no women apostles. And there were no women pastors in nearly 2000 years of church history. Therefore, women cannot be pastors.”
This argument has been thrown at me on a number of occasions. There are a few things to unpack here. What does the New Testament say about pastors? Are there women pastors in the Bible? Are there women apostles in the Bible? Can we determine whether or not the early church had female leaders?
Pastors in the New Testament
The English word “pastor” comes from the Latin word for shepherd. In the New Testament, there is not a specific office of “pastor”. But the Greek word for “shepherd” (poimén) is used to describe one of the roles of a church leader, shepherding the flock. Other roles for church leaders include teaching, prophesying, evangelizing, and mission work.
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” Ephesians 4:11, NRSV
The Greek grammar in this verse suggests that shepherd and teacher are linked as one role, rather than two separate roles. Pastor (shepherd-teacher) only describes one task of an elder. When people are drawing connections between modern pastors and scripture, they are usually referring to the office of elder or overseer.
The office of elder (presbyteros) is mentioned many times in the New Testament, sometimes interchangeably with the term overseer or supervisor (episkopos). The word elder was used to refer to the Jewish leaders of the synagogues, and the term was probably carried over into the church to refer to its leaders. The word literally means “an older person,” but also specifically refers to an office in the church.
Requirements for Elders in 1 Timothy
“This saying is reliable: if anyone has a goal to be a supervisor in the church, they want a good thing. So the church’s supervisor must be without fault. They should be faithful to their spouse, sober, modest, and honest. They should show hospitality and be skilled at teaching. They shouldn’t be addicted to alcohol or be a bully. Instead, they should be gentle, peaceable, and not greedy. They should manage their own household well—they should see that their children are obedient with complete respect, because if they don’t know how to manage their own household, how can they take care of God’s church? They shouldn’t be new believers so that they won’t become proud and fall under the devil’s spell. They should also have a good reputation with those outside the church so that they won’t be embarrassed and fall into the devil’s trap.” (1 Tim 3:1-7 CEB)
In short, an elder is a spiritually mature leader in the church with strong moral character, and a good reputation, who is able to teach others.
The Evidence for Women Elders
New Testament churches met in the homes of believers, and many of these were led by women. Priscilla and Aquila hosted a church in Ephesus, and later in Rome. Priscilla is usually mentioned first when they are listed, suggesting that she is the more prominent partner and leader in their church. Priscilla is listed first when they correct the teaching of Apollos in Ephesus (Acts 18:24-26), which would be the pastoral role (shepherd-teacher) of an elder.
She is mentioned by Paul on two other occasions, when he sends greetings at the end of his second letter to Timothy, and again at the end of his letter to the church in Rome when he sends greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, and the church that meets in their home. It’s logical to assume that Priscilla was a leader or elder of the church in her home.
Other female church leaders mentioned in the New Testament are Phoebe the deacon (diakonos) of the church in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1), the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11), Nympha (Colossians 4:15), and Lydia (Acts 16:14,15). As the leaders of their households, these women would have had prominence over the churches in their homes, possibly also as overseers or elders.
Apostles in the New Testament
Apostles were not pastors or elders. The word apostle (apóstolos) means “messenger” or “sent one.” They were traveling missionaries. Mark 3, Matthew 10, and Luke 6 all record Jesus calling twelve of his many disciples, (mathetes) or “ones who learn,” and appointing them apostles to be sent out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.
In Luke 10 the exact same language is used when Jesus sends out the seventy-two. The word “apostle” is not used specifically, but the language and description of their mission is that of an apostle.
There were no women among the twelve because the twelve served a different purpose than the rest of the apostles. They were representative of the tribes of Israel, to whom Jesus initially brought his message. On the day of Pentecost, with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, we see a shift, and Jesus’ message is now going out to the whole world.
“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17,18 CEB)
From this point on, the number and gender of the apostles are no longer relevant. And after Pentecost, the apostles include Junia, listed as a female apostle in Romans 16:7.
Women Leading in the Early Church
Did women continue to lead in the church after the New Testament period? The early church had a lot to figure out. It was not a homogenous structure that existed in a vacuum. It was evolving from a loosely connected network of house churches that existed during a time of religious, cultural, and political change.
There is no one clear answer regarding the roles of church leaders in the earliest days of the church. Roles, practices, and offices were still being defined. Attitudes toward women varied across social settings and strata, but we know from historical evidence that women were extremely active in the first centuries of the church.
Plenty of evidence points to women holding church offices in the first several centuries of the church. We can say pretty conclusively that women were ordained as deacons because we have records in papyri and inscriptions, ordination rites, along with evidence from frescos, plaques, and tombstones. We also see women referred to as elders on a few occasions.
The ancient book of 4 Maccabees calls a woman an elder (presbytis), a woman named Sophia of Gortyn is described as an elder (presbytera) and ruler of a synagogue on a plaque, and the council of Laodicea, circa 360 C.E. banned the ordination of female elders (presbytides) (canon XI). So we know that the ordination of women elders was taking place in some churches up through the 4th century.
Cultural Influences on the Church
Cultural attitudes towards women in the first few centuries C.E. were largely negative. Women were seen as being of a lesser substance than men. Plato argued that men were superior to women and children and that the entire basis of society depended on these hierarchies (Laws 11.917a). And in the late second century, Tertullian wrote that women “are the devil’s gateway.”
“You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert, that is, death – even the Son of God had to die.” (On the apparel of women I.1)
Later, Augustine went so far as to say that women on their own do not bear the image of God (On the Holy Trinity XII 7.10). In this environment, it’s surprising that women were as prominent in the church as we know they were.
The New Testament view of women as equal to men in Christ is radical for its time and culture. Paul’s praise for the women who partnered with him in ministry shows that he valued them highly in a culture that considered women little more than property, or as vessels for having babies.
As Christianity moved from an obscure and often persecuted cult to the state religion of the Roman Empire, it’s only logical that culture had greater influence on the church. There is every reason to believe that the council of Laodicea was bowing to cultural views of women in their decision to cease the ordination of women.
So Then, Can Women Be Pastors?
Were there women pastors? It’s misleading when people say there are no women pastors in the Bible because no pastors are listed by name, male or female. The role that most closely parallels our modern role of pastor is that of elder. And there is evidence that women in the Bible and in the first few centuries of the church served as elders. We know that women were ordained as elders in some churches up through the 4th century.
Were there women apostles? Yes, there were women apostles. We even have the name of one, Junia, from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (Romans 16:7). It is probably that there was another woman elder in Rome, Priscilla. But the role of apostle is not directly related to the modern role of pastor.
Were there women among the twelve? No, but again this is not relevant to the modern role of pastor. The twelve were chosen to represent Jesus’ mission at that time, which shifted after the Holy Spirit empowered all believers at Pentecost. At that point, the number and gender of apostles become irrelevant.
If the issue of whether or not women can be pastors lies on these arguments, then there seems to be nothing prohibiting it, and it seems that they certainly can.