There's a purely cultural case for an "equal" (i.e., identical) role for men and women in the church. It goes something like this: For crying out loud, it's the 21st century!!!! However, I've been wondering if there might be a biblical case for female pastors (or elders, bishops, presbyters). It's obvious that some people think there is—even some people who would not be too keen on the aforementioned cultural argument (NT Wright, for example). What might such a biblical case look like?
This isn't something to which I've given too much attention so far. I've heard, considered, and accepted the arguments against female pastors that are used within my (conservative evangelical) "wing" of Christ's body. (In fact, it's pretty much a defining feature of that "wing" to take such a position.) But I want to give a hearing to the other side of the argument.
If there is a biblical case for female pastors, it might look something like the following. I'd need to do some more reading to figure out whether it's a good case (comments welcome!), but here goes…
- Those texts that seem to say that women should not preach (for example) have either been misunderstood, or are tied to the original cultural context in such a way that they do not apply today. (NT Wright makes that case, and it's not entirely fanciful.)
- The nature of the "headship" that a husband has towards his wife, and the created difference between men and women, are such that it would be perfectly appropriate, at least in some cultural contexts, for a woman to exercise the kind of authority that an elder has.
Then I think there are two possible routes…
- The New Testament pattern of church government is normative and unchanging.
- The New Testament gives evidence for a specific office of "widow", or "older woman", or "female elder", or "presbyteress", with responsibility for teaching the younger women, and this is reflected in the practices of the early church. (See this article by Robert A Morey.)
- We should at least recover that biblical office, even if we maintain a distinction between "presbyter" and "presbyteress".
- Society in New Testament times was largely segregated on gender lines. In our society, that is much less the case, so that the roles of "elder" (i.e., male elder) and "female elder" now overlap to the point that they are largely indistinguishable.
- The New Testament pattern of church government is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, and records what the church, in its Spirit-led wisdom, instituted for the context in which it arose. For example, a need arose for some people to be given responsibility for the distribution of food to the widows, and hence the church, in its wisdom, instituted a new office, which seems to be the office of "deacon" (though that term isn't used in Acts 6 itself).
- There were cultural reasons that explain why the church, in its Spirit-led wisdom, had only male elders (and similarly there were cultural reasons why Christ chose only men as his twelve disciples).
- The needs of the church in today's culture are such that there is no longer any reason to restrict the office of "elder" to men.
The argument would need a lot of fleshing out to make it compelling. Provisionally, I could probably go along with most of the points there, but I think the clincher would be the second point, regarding the difference between men and women, and the nature of the authority that a pastor exercises. What does "headship" mean? And what kind of authority does an elder have? These are questions of principle, rather than appeals to proof texts. And they are big questions...