Female “Pastors” in Baptist Churches: A Debate
The debate text below is intended to help Christians think through the issue of gender and the pastorate in Baptist churches. The text was originally submitted as a seminary assignment in a Systematic Theology class at a Southern Baptist seminary. It is the position of Pulpit & Pen that the office of pastor in a New Testament church is limited to males.
Resolved, that in Baptist Churches, the role of senior or preaching elder or pastor (for the purpose of this debate senior/teaching and preaching elder and pastor titles all refer to the role of proclamation in a local church) is a gender specific role restricted to male believers.
The resolution must be affirmed. New Testament ecclesiology, considered in light of Baptist beliefs about the divine inspiration and authority of scripture, makes it clear that the role of teaching elder (or senior pastor) is restricted to male believers within Baptist churches. This assertion rests upon the following three propositions:
- Baptist churches are designed to adhere to the New Testament church model.
- The New Testament Church model proscribes female eldership and prescribes male eldership
- Baptists believe the Bible, including the New Testament, is the authoritative and divinely inspired word of God.
If Baptists are anything, they are Biblical. “Baptists have a long held belief that they ought to do church in the same way the New Testament churches did…Baptists believe that the Bible contains specific teachings about how they ought to organize and govern the church.” This is certainly not a new belief. “Even the briefest glance at early Baptist writings confirms that they sought to draw their teachings directly from Scripture…they consciously and conscientiously sought to draw every teaching and practice from Scripture…One could wipe out all the religious groups of the seventeenth century and there would be the Baptists tomorrow.” Since Baptist churches strive to reflect the New Testament church model, one must consider what a New Testament church looks like (in regards to eldership) when considering the resolution. Because “sometimes the Bible describes patterns of action and belief that are to be followed” better than it pictures them, it is best to consult the Pastoral Epistles to do so.
Female eldership was specifically proscribed by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to Timothy. Regarding positions of authority within the church, Paul writes, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” Specifically regarding eldership, the Apostle Paul declares that elders must be “above reproach, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, gentle, peaceable, and free from the love of money.” All these things both men and women can be. However, these are not Paul’s only prescriptions. Elders must also be, “the husband of one wife.” Obviously, this is a requirement that a woman cannot fulfill. Paul’s Epistle to Titus echoes these remarks. Paul’s requirements for deacons in 1st Timothy are quite similar to those of elders; he also requires them to be “husbands of one wife.” This statement does not denote the exclusion of women as Deacons in the way that Paul’s previous statement about Elders being the husband of one wife does. This is because Paul specifically addresses female deaconship requirements by stating, “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, temperate, and faithful in all things.” (Because Polyandry was not a part of Paul’s culture, a statement requiring female deacons to be wife of one husband would have been preposterous to include in the epistle.) Thus, Paul clearly allows for a virtuous male or female to serve in the capacity of deacon, but forbids women (no matter how virtuous) from serving in the capacity of the authoritative role of Elder. Nowhere does any other New Testament author contradict Paul’s proscriptions or prescriptions for the office of Elder. Nowhere else in Paul’s own Epistles does Paul himself contradict or confuse his instructions to Timothy and Titus (though the message of Galatians 3:28 is misconstrued by some as doing so). The New Testament clearly presents a church model that exhibits exclusive male eldership.
Though there is some disagreement about the confessed degree of Biblical inerrancy among Baptists, readily observable Baptist groups universally agree that the New Testament is the divinely inspired word of God. Thus, the New Testament church model (which proscribes female eldership) is a divine one inasmuch as Baptists are concerned. Because God Himself is immutable, it does not logically follow that His divinely inspired New Testament Church model is mutable. Thus, although the role of women in society in general has greatly changed since the time of the New Testament’s writing (thanks in large part to the Biblical message itself); the Biblically prescribed role of women Christians remains the same. So, too, does the Biblically prescribed role of male believers. New Testament ecclesiology limits church eldership to male believers; Baptists affirm that New Testament ecclesiology is divinely inspired. Therefore, the resolution must be affirmed.
The resolution requires one to recognize that a blanket restriction upon all Baptist churches can be imposed; this is incongruent with the very nature of such churches. Due to the congregational and confessional nature of Baptist churches, this resolution must be scrapped in its entirety as nonsensical. Therefore, it cannot be affirmed. This assertion rests upon the following three propositions:
- A Baptist church is congregational.
- A Baptist church is confessional.
- Recognizing a restriction across all “Baptist churches” requires one to step outside the congregational and confessional scopes and recognize a creed and extra-congregational authority.
There is no Episcopal or Presbyterian authority from which the decision to restrict a church role may come in a Baptist church. “Baptists have objected to both of these systems of church governance.” Baptist churches are congregational. “Congregationalism locates the authority of the church in each local body of believers. No person or organization is above or over it except the Lord Jesus Christ alone as its head.” Restrictions upon church roles (upon anything!) in a Baptist church come from within the church itself. While a body of local believers is free to restrict the role of teaching elder to male believers in its own church, it cannot step outside of its congregational limitations and do so for another church. Thus, while a local Baptist church may say, “The role of teaching elder is restricted to male believers at our church,” it cannot say, “The role of teaching elder is restricted to male believers in Baptist churches.”
Not only would making such a statement be discordant with congregationalism, it would be creedal in nature. “Baptists have always been confessional. The difference between a confession and a creed is that, in a confession, one declares what he believes. One declares it freely and without coercion. In a creed, one declares what he must believe, or, more specifically, what others must believe.” While an individual Baptist may declare, “I believe that the role of teaching elder is restricted to male believers,” he cannot say, “Others must believe that the role of teaching elder is restricted to male believers.”
Because the resolution requires one to step outside of the bounds of congregationalism and confessionalism it must be entirely dismissed as nonsensical. Thus, the resolution can’t even begin to be considered. It would make more sense for one to argue for or against a resolution that says, “Yetis should be restricted from throwing snowballs at mountaineers who attempt to scale the Himalayas.” Non-congregational and creedal Baptists, like Yetis, do not exist. However, unlike Yetis and other mythical creatures, a non-congregational and creedal Baptist is a logically impossible being akin to a square circle or a married bachelor. The resolution cannot be affirmed because the resolution itself is absurd.
REBUTTAL TO FOR
The propositions “Baptist churches are designed to adhere to the New Testament church model” and “Baptists believe the Bible, including the New Testament, is the authoritative and divinely inspired word of God” are integral to the argument for the proposition. While these propositions themselves are true, the overall argument to affirm the resolution completely ignores the fact that the New Testament church model is a congregational and confessional one. The argument to affirm the proposition hinges on the proposition, “The New Testament Church model proscribes female eldership and prescribes male eldership.” The congregational and confessional nature of Baptist (New Testament) churches must be considered before any proscriptions and prescriptions about eldership that are apparent in the New Testament. It is not the Apostle Paul, Timothy, or Titus who call persons to fulfill the role of elder in a Baptist church, but the members of the individual church itself. If the members of an individual Baptist church do not confess to an interpretation of the New Testament that prescribes exclusively male eldership, it is unlikely that the role of elder will be gender-restricted in their church. Thus, to say that “in Baptist Churches, the role of senior elder is a gender specific role restricted to male believers,” requires the recognition of a universal confession of scriptural interpretation across all Baptist churches that simply does not exist.
This nonexistence is evidenced by the positions of numerous Baptist churches affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). Both of these organizations affirm female eldership and churches affiliated with these organization exhibit female elders. Even the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), whose confession of faith states, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,” is not devoid of affiliated churches with female senior elders. Currently, a job advertisement for a Senior Pastor role at First Baptist Church Murfreesboro listed on the SBC’s website reads, women and men are encouraged to apply.” Clearly, in practice, there is no universal restriction against female eldership in Baptist churches. The congregational and confessional nature of Baptist churches precludes such a restriction. Even the SBC recognizes this by stating, “The Baptist Faith & Message and resolutions are not binding upon local churches. Each church is responsible to prayerfully search the Scriptures and establish its own policy.” Churches that call a female to the role of senior elder may be incorrectly interpreting Paul’s scriptural prescriptions, but this assessment has no bearing whatsoever on the affirmation of the resolution. Under congregational and confessional church polity, they are free to do so. The theological soundness of their dubious interpretation of scripture is irrelevant. Therefore, the argument for the resolution is unsound and the resolution itself cannot be affirmed.
REBUTTAL TO AGAINST
Baptist churches are confessional. Baptist churches are congregational. These propositions are factual. However, the proposition “recognizing a restriction across all Baptist churches requires one to step outside the congregational and confessional scopes and recognize a creed and extra-congregational authority” contradicts the former propositions. Recognizing that Baptist churches are confessional recognizes a restriction on creedalism in Baptist churches.
Recognizing that Baptist churches are congregational recognizes a restriction against hierarchical and Presbyterian church polity in Baptist churches. Therefore, it’s counterintuitive to assert that it isn’t logical to recognize a restriction within Baptist churches because they are congregational and confessional in nature. The restrictions against non-congregational church polity and creedalism themselves come from an extra-congregational authority…the New Testament. The very reason that Baptist churches are Congregational in the first place is that such is the model of the New Testament church. The very reason that Baptist churches exposit confessions instead of adhering to creeds is their recognition of the authority of scripture alone. To be Baptist is to confess the authority of the New Testament. Therefore, since the New Testament is the basis for Baptist polity and it addresses gender roles in Eldership, the resolution is not nonsensical.
The argument against the proposition (or, more accurately, for the absurdity of the proposition) is an attempt to run an end-around the clear biblical requirement of exclusively male eldership in the local church. The idea that gender restriction within the Baptist church represents some kind of logically impossible abstraction is absurd in itself. Churches in New Testament times were Baptist in polity and their elders were exclusively male (or at least meant to be exclusively male as far as the Apostle Paul, was concerned). A church with gender-restricted eldership isn’t some kind of logically impossible abstraction, it’s an actuality. There are numerous such churches. These churches recognize that “a church should have three biblical offices” of elder, deacon, and church member and that “only qualified men can occupy the office of elder-pastor.” This is the church model based upon the authority of scripture. A New Testament church restricts the role of teaching elder to male believers. If anything is logically impossible, it is a Baptist church that doesn’t adhere to the New Testament model. In no way does congregationalism or confesionalism limit the scope of Baptist polity. The New Testament itself restricts the role of elder to male believers. Congregationalism and Confessionalism do not somehow trump the authority of scripture. The argument against affirming the proposition is invalid.
The rebuttal to the affirmation is based on the idea that scripture is up for interpretation. This idea that “every Christian has the freedom and right to interpret and apply scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit” is a flawed one. This idea, which is advocated by the female-elder-affirming CBF, assumes that scripture was meant to be interpreted. It’s true that the New Testament was written in a first century language and that modern Christians must linguistically “interpret” that first century language in order to translate the text into their own modern languages. However, the theology espoused by the New Testament is not and was not open to interpretation. The first century language of the New Testament was quite clear to first century church members. They certainly weren’t “interpreting” gospels and epistles. Modern translations are just as reliable to modern readers; even renowned textual critic Bart Ehrman affirms this. The idea that individuals have the freedom to do anything (sin, deny God, etc…) should not be confused with the fact that individuals do not have the right to do anything. Scripture is not open for theological interpretation; it’s not meant to be interpreted, it’s meant to be followed. If a Baptist church truly desires to reflect the New Testament church model it will prayerfully search the scriptures and establish a policy that limits eldership to male believers in accordance with clear, reliable, New Testament theology.
The resolution itself is nonsensical due to the congregational, confessional nature of Baptist churches. Congregationalism and confessionalism aren’t restrictions, they are realities. These realities are steeped in the example of the New Testament church model, which shows that only the individual members of a specific Baptist church can set church requirements and restrictions; those requirements and restrictions are limited in scope to that specific church. The resolution considers Baptist churches in general. Therefore, to affirm the resolution requires one to step outside the bounds of his own authority and make a decision for all Baptist churches in addition to his Baptist church. The resolution must be scrapped in its entirety because making such a decision is nonsensical. Because the resolution must be scrapped, it cannot be affirmed.
[Contributed by: Seth Dunn]
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 (Hankis 2005) p. 28
 (McBeth 1987) p. 63
 (Hankis 2005) p. 28
 1 Timothy 2:12
 1 Timothy 3:2-3
 Titus 1:6-8
 1 Timothy 3:11
 Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8, James 1:17
 (Hankis 2005) p. 23
 (Dagg n.d.) p. 279
 (Vestal n.d.)p. 5
 (Southern Baptist Convention 2000) – The Baptist Faith and Message
 (Southern Baptist Convention 2012) – Job Description
 (Southern Baptist Convention 2012) – FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions
 (Breshers 2010) p.318
 Ibid p. 320
 (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship n.d.) – Frequently Asked Questions about the Fellowship
 (Wingerd 2006)