Calling women 'pastors' 'undermines' New Testament teaching on church leadership, says John Piper

Theologian John Piper appears at the Sing! Conference in Nashville, Tennessee on August 20, 2019.Leah Klett/The Christian Post

Theologian John Piper has claimed that it is "misleading and unwise and ill-founded" to apply the term 'pastor' to women leaders in the church. 

He addressed the useage of the term in a recent episode of his podcast on his website, in which he sought to answer a question put to him by a Christian whose church is revising its definition of pastors to include women. 

The church believes that as Ephesians 4:11 does not make any reference to gender, it is appropriate to also use the term 'pastor' in relation to lay women in ministering positions within churches. 

However, the question to Piper was whether permitting this use of the term 'pastor' was in line with other parts of Scripture. 

"My church is changing its view on the use of the word pastor to include women, saying Ephesians 4:11 is the only place in the Bible where the Greek word for pastor is ever used, and that it doesn't have any specific qualifications there," the question reads.

"Women could fill this role and still be under male headship and a male elder board, almost more like a deacon or deaconess who leads specific ministries in the church — like a pastor over worship, or a pastor over women's ministry. But would this change in title be in line with other parts of Scripture?"

Piper, a complementarian whose interpretation won't be shared by egalitarians, said: "My answer to the question is that it is misleading and unwise to use the English word pastor for women in ministry, and that the attempt to say that it is more biblical to use it is built on a misunderstanding of how language works, as well as the supposed use of the word pastor in the New Testament."

He argued that one of the reasons for this was because while in English the term 'pastor' is interpreted as a "person with official leadership in the local church that ordinarily involves preaching and governing", the original Greek of the New Testament doesn't share this understanding. 

Greek, he said, has only one word for shepherd and pastor - 'poimēn'. 

"It's highly misleading to claim that in applying the word pastor to laypeople, we are recovering New Testament usage," he said.

"That's highly misleading when the word pastor does not even occur in the ESV, and only once does it occur in other versions. 

"[Not] only is there no New Testament word that corresponds to pastor as distinct from shepherd, but the idea of shepherding in the New Testament was consistently associated with the leadership of elders and overseers." 

He concluded by arguing that New Testament teaching would be undermined if churches were to use the term 'pastor' for women. 

"The title pastor for a woman undermines the New Testament teaching on church leadership," he argued, adding that calling someone, for example, 'Pastor Mary' or 'Pastor Jane' was "going to inevitably communicate, over time, especially to our young people growing up in the church and to people newer to the church, that the office of pastor, as almost everyone understands it in English, is properly filled by women".

"In other words, I think those who are arguing for the use of the word pastor for women ministering or men who are not elders or overseers are undermining the teaching of the New Testament about church leadership, even as they aim to do the opposite," he said.