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 from Paul’s latest ebook, Can Women Pastor? Available now on Patreon.

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

  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

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