John Piper: Calling female church leaders ‘pastors’ is ‘misleading, unwise and ill-founded’

John Piper, founder of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, speaks at the MLK50 Conference hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Gospel Coalition in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 5, 2018. | Rocket Republic /Flicker

Theologian John Piper said it’s “misleading and unwise and ill-founded” to call female church leaders “pastors” amid an ongoing debate about the role of women in the Church. 

In a recent episode of his podcast, Piper, the founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, responded to a reader whose church is changing its view on the use of the word pastor to include women.

The readers’ church claimed that 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.

“Women could fill this role and still be under male headship and a male elder board,” the reader said. “But would this change in title be in line with other parts of Scripture?”

Piper first stressed it is “misleading and unwise to use the English word pastor for women in ministry,” adding 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.”

In English, the word pastor is understood to mean a “person with official leadership in the local church that ordinarily involves preaching and governing,” Piper contended. But the New Testament, written in Greek, “doesn’t use the English word pastor at all,” he explained, adding that Greek 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. That’s highly misleading when the word pastor does not even occur in the ESV, and only once does it occur in other versions,” Piper said. 

“[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 added.

It’s also “misleading and unwise and ill-founded to use the word pastor for non-elders or non-overseers” in the church because doing so communicates “that the office of pastor, as almost everyone understands it in English, is properly filled by women,” Piper cautioned. 

“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…

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