Please Don’t Call Her Pastor

There is so much good ministry that women can and should be doing in our churches; we don’t help them at all by giving them an unbiblical and unnecessary job title.

Chris Hutchison on May 22, 2024

Our church is complementarian, which means that we value and embrace the God-given differences between men and women, including the various roles He’s given to each. Christ-like husbands are to lead their homes (Eph 5:22), Christ-like men are to oversee churches (1 Tim 2:12-3:7), and none of this is a bad thing.

Among complementarians—who all agree that the office of overseer/elder is restricted to men—there are some who argue that we should be free to use the title “pastor” for women. They argue that “pastor” is a spiritual gift, distinct from the office of elder/overseer, and nothing in Scripture restricts this gift to men. If a woman is involved in a biblically-legitimate ministry that involves shepherding care, then we can, or perhaps even should, call her a pastor.

I respectfully disagree. I submit that using the title “pastor” to refer to a woman is a significant mistake for four overlapping reasons.

1. It Works Against the New Testament Pattern

The word “pastor” just means “shepherd.” As a noun and a verb, the word is used in the New Testament in three contexts, referring to 1) literal shepherds, 2) the Lord Jesus, and 3) church leaders.

In this final and third context, “shepherd” (or “pastor”) is used as a noun only once, where Ephesians 4:11 speaks of “shepherds” being given to the church by the Lord. As a verb (“to shepherd”), it’s used once as a command addressed to Peter (John 21:16), once to speak of the self-serving “pastoring” of false teachers (Jude 12, translated “feed”), and twice in addresses to church elders/overseers.

In Acts 20:28, the first of these final two uses, the elders of the Ephesian church were summoned by Paul and charged to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for (lit. shepherd) the church of God.” The second use is in 1 Peter 5:2, where the elders were instructed to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.”

Notice that, other than Peter the apostle, there is only one group of people in the New Testament who are told to “shepherd” (or “pastor”) others: the elders/overseers of a church. Put another way, if we were to ask the question, “according to the Scriptures, who is responsible for shepherding God’s people?”, the only answer we would come up with is “the elders/overseers.” Those attempting to apply the word “pastor” beyond elders and overseers do so without Biblical warrant. 

2. It Misunderstands Ephesians 4:11

Sam Storms is a complementarian who believes women can be called “pastor.” One of the grounds for his argument is that Ephesians 4:11 describes pastoring as a spiritual gift, not an office. On the basis of that one verse, he argues that “‘pastoring’ is a spiritual gift that may be found in numerous individuals of both genders who do not yet (or never will), for a variety of reason, qualify as Elders,” and that “pastoring is a gifting that is to be exercised by those who hold the office of Elder. But nowhere does the NT assert that Elders/Bishops/Overseers are the only ones who can function as pastors.”1

Storms assumes far too much about the nature of spiritual gifts in Ephesians 4:11. The passage does not in fact identify shepherding/pastoring as a spiritual gift per se. It simply says that Jesus gave shepherds/pastors to the church. In other words, it is the shepherds/pastors themselves who are the gift; the ability to perform their task is not what’s being described.

Now, it’s true that Ephesians 4:11 lists “shepherds” alongside of “prophets” and “teachers,” both terms elsewhere associated with spiritual gifts. But we must be careful of two errors here: first, reading those other passages into Ephesians 4:11 without warrant, and second, misunderstanding the nature of those other passages within their own contexts. Kenneth Berding’s excellent book What Are Spiritual Gifts? demonstrates that we should be careful of assuming “special ability” every time we read “gifts.” Particularly in Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28-29, “ministry assignments” or even “offices” may be a more accurate way of understanding what’s in view.

That being said, Ephesians 4:11 itself says nothing about spiritual gifts. It simply says that Jesus gave shepherds to his church. Arguing for women pastors on the basis of this verse begs a great many questions.

3. It Misunderstands the Nature of Shepherding

Much of the confusion over this issue may stem from a modern misunderstanding of “pastoral care.” As I said in a recent sermon,

We easily think that the job of a “shepherd” is to be like a chaplain in a hospital, somehow distinct from the work of leading and teaching. And not all of this is all wrong. But it can miss that, like we saw a few weeks back, shepherds were primarily leaders. Their position had authority. They cared for the sheep, not by cuddling with them, but by braving the elements and the dangers to lead the sheep from one place to the next where they could find food and water. That’s why Psalm 23 and John 10 highlight the way in which the sheep follow their shepherd. The shepherd cared for and fed the sheep by leading them.

Shepherds had authority over the sheep. That’s why Peter twice makes a close association between shepherding and overseeing. In 1 Peter 2:25, he refers to Jesus as the “Shepherd and Overseer of your souls,” doubling up similar words for an intensified effect, as he so often does. Similarly, 1 Peter 5:2 instructs the elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” These are not two distinct instructions. Rather, Peter’s use of language suggests that “exercising oversight” is how the elders shepherd the flock of God.2Mark Dubis, 1 Peter: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), 160.

It’s thus incorrect to argue that there’s no necessary link between the function of pastoring and the authoritative office of elder/overseer. Rather, the New Testament repeatedly confirms, in various ways, how connected they are.

4. It Fails to Grapple With the Cultural Baggage

Even if the previous point is missed, it must still be acknowledged that the word “pastor” has a strong association with the office of elder/overseer in our culture. When the average Christian hears that a church has women pastors, they probably don’t think, “caring ministers distinct from the elders.” They’ll almost certainly assume that church has embraced egalitarian theology.

Shouldn’t the broad cultural understanding of the word “pastor” have something to say about how we use the word?

Consider the word “husband.” The word “husbandry” literally refers to the “management and conservation of resources” or “the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals.”3

In true Proverbs 31 fashion, my wife does a fair amount of husbandry, conserving and managing resources for her children and her… er, spouse. Further, any woman who works on a farm is technically a “husband.”

But wouldn’t it be quite odd for someone to start calling these ladies “husbands”? Particularly in an era of gender fluidity and relational confusion, wouldn’t we assume they had some sort of an agenda?

Similarly, when God’s good design for men and women is so under attack in our day, why would anyone who embraces that design deliberately add to the confusion by using such a loaded term for female ministry personnel? I really struggle to see the wisdom in this, particularly in the absence of a biblical demand to call anyone by the title of “pastor.” If we don’t have to, why would we?

In conclusion, I believe that it’s at best unwise, and at worst unbiblical, to use the title “pastor” for a woman, even if her role is distinct from an elder/overseer. There is so much good ministry that women can and should be doing in our churches; we don’t help them at all by giving them an unbiblical and unnecessary job title.

Picture of Chris Hutchison
Chris Hutchison is lead pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Nipawin, SK. Have any feedback or questions about what you've read here? Get in touch at .

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