If a woman can’t be a husband, she can’t be a pastor, right?

Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church

What sort of person makes a good pastor?

In his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul lists sixteen desirable qualities (see 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Tit. 1:5-9). Pastors or overseers or elders should not be new converts, he says. Nor should they be money-grubbing alcoholics prone to fits of temper. Ideally, they should be good parents because leading a church is like leading a family.

And apparently pastors should also be men – at least that’s the impression we get when we read things like this:

A church leader must be a man… (1 Tim. 3:2, NLT)

The only problem is, Paul never said this. Not ever.

Despite how his words may appear in your NLT or KJV, Paul never said, “If any man desires the office of a bishop.” He said, “If any one desires the office of a bishop” (1 Tim. 3:1). Since we are all one in Christ, any one may desire the office of pastor, regardless of gender.

“Any one” means any one

When describing the ideal pastor, Paul’s language is remarkably gender neutral. Which is interesting given the patriarchal world he lived in. Rabbis were men. Jewish priests were men. But Christian pastors could be men or women. This was new.

If there was ever place to insist or suggest that pastors or elders must be men, Paul’s list of qualifications was the place. Yet Paul says nothing. Evidently he did not have a problem with women pastors.

However, Paul did have one male-specific word in his list, and that word is husband. Paul said an elder must be the husband of one wife:

For this cause left I you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed you: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife… (Tit. 1:5-6a)

Can a woman be a pastor? Since pastors must be husbands, women can’t be pastors, or so the argument goes. However, the you-must-be-a-husband test falls short for two reasons.

First, Timothy, who was in charge of the Ephesian church, did not pass this test. Nor did Paul. Or Jesus. None of them were married. If managing one’s household well is a prerequisite for being a shepherd, on what basis could Paul or Timothy oversee any church? They didn’t have households to manage. Either Paul was a hypocrite who didn’t keep his own rules, or the husband-of-one-wife requirement does not mean what we think it means.

Second, the husband-of-one-wife rule also applied to deacons (1 Tim. 3:12), yet there were female deacons in the church (Rom. 16:1). If females can be deacons, they can be elders, and in the Bible, they were.

Husband of one 

Paul was a savvy church planter who knew how to recruit pastors. He understood that a shepherd ought to be gentle, peaceable, and all the other things. But why does he have to be a husband of one wife? Because someone who has two or more wives will be a lousy shepherd.

Do you see? Paul was not ruling out divorced people or unmarried people. He was talking about polygamists.

Probably not suitable

In the world that Paul inhabited, it was not uncommon for a man to have several wives. In one of the oldest commentaries on this passage, John Chrysostom said Paul was not saying an overseer must have a wife; he was prohibiting his having more than one. “For even the Jews were allowed to contract second marriages, and even to have two wives at one time.”

That was Jewish men; Gentile men weren’t much better.

Among the Romans, marriage was widely regarded as an inconvenience that interfered with a man’s natural passions. A wife who cheated could be killed with impunity by her husband, but a man who cheated was untouchable. Consequently, Gentile men were often unfaithful. Even if they were monogamous in marriage, they were polygamous in practice.

A man who had multiple wives, or who acted like he had multiple wives, was a faithless man. Such a man could not possibly be trusted to care for the bride of Christ. “Don’t make him an elder,” said Paul to Timothy. “Instead, recruit reliable people. Choose those who are faithful, not philandering; steady, not shifty; loyal, not lascivious.”

Paul never says an elder must be male or married; he says he must be the husband of only one wife. It’s the number that counts. “If he’s married, it had better be to one woman only.”

And Paul never says women cannot pastor or shepherd others, for that would contradict everything he believed about the new creation. Paul understood that the Spirit gives gifts to all of us, not half of us. If he met women who felt called to lead or shepherd he would have encouraged them to fan their gift into flame.

Paul was surrounded by capable women leaders, and he praised them in his letters. If he was opposed to women leading, he had ample opportunity to say so. Yet he never did.

Neither should we.

Extracted and adapted from Dr. Paul Ellis’s new book, The Silent Queen: Why the Church Needs Women to Find their Voice.

41 Comments on If a woman can’t be a husband, she can’t be a pastor, right?

      • Brandon Petrowski // September 22, 2020 at 2:47 pm //

        Hi Paul,
        I was sharing with someone about this. They asked me about when it talks about ruling household well and their children being “proper”, why would Paul tell women to rule their household well when women didn’t rule the household in that patriarchal society? I mentioned the Proverbs 31 woman in reference to the household. Then they tied this question to the passage of women “submitting” to their husbands with the whole husband being the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. I know that passage finishes with husbands are to love their wives as Christ laid down his life for the church, but I wasn’t sure it fit what they were asking in regard to gender roles and leadership. They acknowledged there are and should be women in leadership, but they felt some passages complicate the issue with what was known about Jewish society. It left me confused. Wondering your thoughts?

      • Trying to merge patriarchal traditions with what Paul preaches is like trying to mix oil and water, so I understand your confusion. Your friend seems to think submitting and headship imply a hierarchical arrangement. This is understandable, since it is the picture many of us have inherited, but rest assured this sort of hierarchy has nothing in common with what Paul spoke about when he spoke about submission and headship. I speak at length about these things in my forthcoming book and I have a couple of articles on submission coming out here on E2R in a week or two.

      • Brandon Petrowski // September 27, 2020 at 5:14 am //

        👍🏼

  1. What about 1 Tim 2:12? Maybe a distinction should be made that a woman should not possibly be a head pastor or only a pastor to women & children? Your thoughts please. 🙂

  2. Jeremiah Henson // September 17, 2020 at 6:42 am // Reply

    Fantastic Answer! Well done!

  3. First I support Women in ministry but you can’t use 1 Tim 3:1 as support for a universal ministry for all because Paul uses τίς in the masculine. If he wanted to use it to mean anyone regardless of gender he would have used the neuter τί!

    • Hi James. Thanks for your comment. As far as I know, τίς is an indefinite pronoun that is used many times in scripture to imply anyone. It’s a fair translation. If Paul had intended to say man, why didn’t he say man?

    • Hello James,
      I don’t know Greek and I don’t really even know what ‘‘tis’ means, but I did just see an article about it. Here is an excerpt: “ My answer: The subject of 1 Tim 5:9 is the feminine χήρα, which, apparently without exception in Greek literature refers only to women. Furthermore, 5:9 has a feminine participle that makes it unambiguous that the one-man woman specifically describes a woman. There is no corresponding element in the context of 1 Tim 3:2 that makes it unambiguous that “one-woman man” (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα) specifically describes a man. 1 Tim 3:1 specifically states that “whoever [τις, the same word used of widows in 1 Tim 5:4] desires the office of overseer desires a good work.” Paul clearly intends this to encourage people to desire this good work. Is it likely Paul would identify the subject as “whoever” and encourage them to desire this good work if for women it was forbidden fruit?” Your comment caught my eye with that same Greek word.

  4. DEAR PAUL ELLIS, TELL ME WHAT YOU BELIEVE.DO YOU BELIEVE THAT A WOMAN CAN BE YOUR HEAD? OR THE PASTOR OF ONE MAN?

    • Headship is a separate issue from pastoring, but yes, a woman can be a pastor or shepherd. Any believer can. Christ is the Great Shepherd and as he is so are we in this world.

  5. Great points brought up with single pastors and deacons! I also found from Marg Mowczko on how Philip B. Payne brought up two complementarians (AKA those who believe women and men have different roles) who studied the text and found out that 1 Timothy 3 does not exclude unmarried men or women from the role.

    • This is funny, I just read and article by him this week and referenced him above! Incidentally I loved his article and especially his tone of writing! So calm and peaceful.

  6. Marlow M. Loreto // September 17, 2020 at 1:20 pm // Reply

    Please re-read this verses you mention, another verses for reference. Don’t read single word or one verse, just read it as a whole article written by Apostle Paul…

    • Hi Marlow. Please note that I don’t normally publish comments that are just cut and pasted scriptures. If you have something to say about the article above, I’d love to hear it. And if you’d like to know how I address other scriptures, you can find them in the Archives > Scripture Index.

  7. Brandon Petrowski // September 17, 2020 at 4:41 pm // Reply

    Well said, thanks for clarifying.

  8. Usually agree with you…but Timothy 3:4 and 5 talks about a man being able to be able to run his own home, otherwise how can he run the church…This is pretty clear the elder/pastor must be a man….thx.

  9. In Father’s view
    There is no respect of person’s
    No Male, Female, Jew, Greek
    Father by Son, reconciled us all to himself as Forgiven
    There is not anyone better or worse than another.
    Not from Father’s nor Son’s view.
    Be not of this world, while in it
    Thanks for the reminder of we are all equal

  10. EDIT A man who had multiple wives, or who acted like he had multiple wives, was a faithless man. Such a man could not possibly trusted to care for the bride of Christ. possibly BE trusted

  11. Terry Benischek // September 20, 2020 at 3:25 am // Reply

    Dear Paul, this comment is regarding your recent “you are going to come out more”…

  12. Reality is ; most men are not dying to have a woman leader. Most men probably won’t flock to female speakers not want to under them in a church. Often men sees their wives emotional ups and downs and presume all women are just too unstable to lead. And there are 4 Billion women in the world, so plenty of women for women to pastor over. I think people need father figures and strong men – that’s perhaps why God is referred predominantly by God as a father . And Jesus came as a man not a women. So bravo to female teachers but I don’t see a time when men will flock to them.

  13. Excellent article on this controversial topic. We don’t see many women pastors. I don’t think it has anything to do with God though. Traditions of men keep women into only serving in specific ministries like children and nursery and ladies bible study. Maria Woodworth Etter was a powerful preaching machine! She moved in signs and wonders and put the enemy on the run! Yet her powerful ministry wouldn’t be received by many because of wrong thinking. Had a fellow claim I was a radical feminist sympathizer and emasculated simply because I believe God’s gifts and calling are without gender. Traditions of men. Roles in marriage and roles in ministry are not the same thing. In families, children have roles, husbands have roles, wives have roles, parents have roles. The gifts and callings are individual and are irrevocable. God calls and anoints who He wills, He doesn’t need our approval!

  14. A bit dangerous, brother. A man should be the head of his household, is the chief representation of Christ to the Church, the bride. The same should apply in civilization in general for things to run best.

    In a sense I am sad that you are diverging from teaching the Gospel alone. You could discredit yourself by getting into a debatable tangle and end up seeming to be teaching a bunch of law. Like now, I disagree with you on a peripheral doctrinal matter which is not the Gospel of the Finished Work and our righteous standing in Christ.

  15. What about in 1 Tim. 3 The explicit mention “he” desires which is not given to women but Paul is assuming men desire the office of an overseer?

    The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. – 1 Timothy 3:1

    • As I explain in the preceding article, none of those gender-specific words are in the Bible. They’ve all been added by translators.

    • Bill Michaels // September 26, 2020 at 4:56 pm // Reply

      Ah, so you cite Chrysostom when it suits you but when he obliterates you’re first point, that being a husband can’t be a rule because it would apply to Paul or Jesus, he directly mentions this is*not* a rule for being a shepard.

      Chrysostom:
      A Bishop then, he says, must be blameless, the husband of one wife. This he does not lay down as a rule, as if he must not be without one, but as prohibiting his having more than one.

      Interesting.

  16. So you’re doubling down that all the other translations are just wrong. Got it.

    …and the reference to Husbands doesn’t mean men?

    If you’re going to pick and choose what elements of what translations are wrong, I think the the writing is on the wall for where you stand with everything else.

  17. The husband in 1 Tim. 3 gives clear warrant for the ‘he’ throughout the chapter. Unless you want to argue that you are corrected over dozens of translations and hundreds of editors and thousands of scholars?

    • It’s certainly true that many religious scholars have said women can’t lead, can’t preach, and should generally do what they’re told, but Paul was not one of them. After Jesus, no man did more to promote women in leadership. If Paul thought women could not be elders and deacons, he would’ve said so. Instead, he named and praised female apostles and pastors and got female deacons to convey, and by implication preach, his epistles.

      • Brandon Petrowski // September 29, 2020 at 12:54 am //

        I agree with Paul. Just read this a hour ago.. 1 Corinthians 11:11-12

        “11Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.”

        Women are not inferior or secondary to men. The reference to husband was to do with polygamy, which women didn’t practice and therefore didn’t apply to them. This did not rule out them being in leadership.

  18. Bill Branson // October 3, 2020 at 3:44 pm // Reply

    You still haven’t answered why the term ‘husband‘ in 1 Tim. 3 doesn’t give clear warrant for the ‘he’ throughout the chapter.

    • I didn’t realize this was a test. Tell you what, I’ll answer your question if you answer mine. Why did Paul call Phoebe a deacon if she wasn’t the husband of one wife as per 1 Tim 3:12?

  19. Everyone is focused on the term “husband”, but what about the term for “wife” in 1st Timothy 3:2 and 12?
    Is “wife” also a neutral term? Or does it refer specifically to women?
    If “wife” refers only to women, doesn’t that then imply “husband” to be male?
    I don’t know Greek, so hopefully someone with experience can answer.

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