The Role of Elder, the Gift of Shepherding

I note a common theme around discussions of limiting the role of pastor to males only. The concern is that we are limiting women using their giftedness in the Body of Christ. This is a legitimate concern to address. I think in many cases conservatives have not adequately used the giftings of women in their congregations, hence the popularity of parachurch women’s organizations.

But we need to correctly frame the problem of our use of women’s gifts in the Body of Christ, and we need to speak of it precisely from Scripture. And I want to say boldly that limiting the role of overseer/elder/pastor to males only is not the same as the very real problem of not giving opportunity for women to use their spiritual gifts in our local congregations.

First, what are the gifts of the Spirit as the Bible discusses them? There are three main passages on spiritual gifts:

I Corinthians 12
7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.  

Ephesians 4
7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. … 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,  

Romans 12
6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. 

Some may argue whether the list in Ephesians 4 is what we would consider spiritual gifts, but by the wording in verse 7, it seems so. Also, there is some confusion because we have conflated the gifts around the idea of pastoring (shepherding, teaching) with the office of overseer in a church. All overseers must pastor and should have the gift of shepherding, but there is also a type of pastoral care that should be found in the Body of Christ outside the authoritative role of elder/overseer. For instance, mentoring and parenting are both shepherding situations that those not in the role of elder do.

Note that NONE of these three passages on spiritual gifts use the Greek words for elder or overseer, episkope that Paul uses in I Timothy 3 or presbuteros that Peter uses in I Peter 5. These are the words we associate with the office of pastoral authority in the local church. The episkope (pronounced episcopay) in a church should likely have a number of these spiritual gifts, especially the gifts of teaching and shepherding, wisdom and exhortation. But note that these gifts are not synonymous with the role of episkope, which I am convicted by the language Scripture uses in I Timothy that God limits to men only.

The role of overseer/pastor/elder in our churches today is not a spiritual gift, and denying it to women does not keep them from exercising their spiritual gifts. I personally believe I have the gift of teaching and shepherding. Others have confirmed that for me, so I feel reasonably comfortable saying it. I have been in churches that did not give me much opportunity to exercise those gifts in the church. I primarily use the gift of shepherding while raising my children, but I am also now in a church (with male only elders) that has given me great opportunity to use my gifts among our congregation. If church leaders value those gifts in women, the opportunity to use those gifts as women abound without taking on the role of elder/overseer.

On the flip side, it is good for male leaders, particularly elders in complementarian churches, to recognize that the gifts of the Spirit don’t seem to be limited by gender. The implication then is that women as well as men are gifted in such ways, and the Church needs to use those gifts for the maturity of the overall membership. Women are gifted with wisdom and exhortation. Men are gifted with wisdom and exhortation. Pastor, do you see the value of such gifting among the women in your church? If so, how do you develop those gifts? How do you use them for the overall health of your church? Because that is what such gifting among the women as well as the men in your congregation is for – to equip your congregation for maturity and unity in the faith. Steward those gifts!

24 Responses to The Role of Elder, the Gift of Shepherding

  1. Anonymous May 11, 2015 at 12:14 pm #

    I have been thinking a lot about this subject lately; more specifically how these gifts translate into practical use. How do you put the teaching and shepherding gifts into action Biblically? Do you only use those gifts to minister only to other women? Or are there times these gifts can be used for men too?

  2. Wendy May 11, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

    Personally, I teach at our local community college, so I have a natural outlet. Teachers should teach, and there are all kinds of opportunities. The question of whether a woman should teach a man at church seems debatable. I like how my church (and Tim Keller's) handles it — that a woman can do anything a non-ordained man can do. That would allow her to teach most any Sunday School class. But only an ordained man can preach from the pulpit.

    I think such gifts have specific practical use (I am a paid teacher and I shepherd my children as their mother) and general practical use (I informally shepherd friends or readers who ask me for advice at times).

    Most of all, I think when we've identified our gifts, we should then stay engaged with God to open up the ways for us to use them Himself — if they are gifts from Him for the good of His Body, chances are He has a good plan for their use. It might take some waiting to see HIs plan for their use, but I think He always has a plan.

  3. Christina Kroeger May 11, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

    I agree wholeheartedly! Realizing the distinction between role & gifting brought a lot of freedom as I wrestled with this topic. Reading Kathy Keller's Jesus, Justice, & Gender Roles flushed it out for me a lot. Thanks for posting this!

  4. Wendy May 11, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    I need to read that book! I've owned it for years but have always had something else to read ahead of it. 😛

  5. Anonymous May 11, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

    Thank you, Wendy, for answering my questions. I know the topic of women teaching men is highly debated and I honestly want to determine what is Biblical. The church I attend now, I attend by default. It is the church my husband was attending when we were first married, and this has been difficult for me as I don't agree with some of their positions. (Or they take a position on issues I don't consider fundamental).

    To more thoroughly investigate this issue, I will have to do some research to see if Tim Keller has any books or resources out on this topic to see how he comes to the conclusion he does. And I would love it if you could point me to any resources you might have available on this topic.

    I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the verses in 1 Timothy 2 that speak about woman not teaching or having authority over men. I think this is the verse my church uses to justify their positions on this topic.

    My church allows non-ordained men to preach from the pulpit all the time, but would never allow a woman to do the same. (Even a missionary woman would not be able to speak from the pulpit as the main speaker). Women with gifts in teaching are restricted to teaching children or in women only settings. A woman from my church would not be allowed to teach a bible study at a homeless shelter because there may be men in attendance.

    I appreciated your comment that God would open up the ways for women to use those gifts He gave them. (That made me smile).

    Thanks again!

  6. Wendy May 11, 2015 at 7:01 pm #

    Jennifer, I have problems formatting links through blogger, but if you copy and paste, here is a post on Teaching with Authority — I and many others believe this is specifically referring to teaching as an authoritative elder. Here also is Tim Keller's statement on women deacons, which I firmly believe to Biblical.

  7. Diane Klettke May 12, 2015 at 12:44 am #

    Thank you Wendy. This post is very timely, as I just read the passage in 1 Timothy 2 and I have been praying for understanding. I also read your related post that you referenced in response to Jennifer.
    I have served as elder, a teacher in various capacities in church and in a parachurch organization, and I have preached from the pulpit (on one occasion). I have also had excellent spiritual input in my life through several women in authority. However, I do not want my experience to dictate truth for me, hence my current search for understanding on this topic. Having just asked God to lead me to understand what this scripture means, I am delighted with the timing of this post. I will prayerfully consider what you have said.
    Also, I am quite willing to accept that it is God's intent that women not serve as Elders, but I am still struggling with the fact that Paul also has a condition on women having teaching authority over men. I will review your comments about this, and continue to pray about this.
    I am not a theology scholar but I do try to see and understand things from a spiritual perspective, therefore I do wonder what the spiritual implications of Paul's admonition might be.
    If woman are allowed to usurp man's authority in these areas, does it eventually have the effect of spiritually dis-empowering men to the point where they may become passive in spiritual leadership? In the same passage Paul also mentions Eve taking the lead, while Adam assumed a passive role in following her example, and the disastrous results of that. I could probably comment too on Miriam's role of leadership until she questioned Moses' authority and was severely reprimanded for it by God.
    Anyway, what was helpful for me in your article was to isolate spiritual gifts somewhat from offices of authority, which I have always muddled together in my mind. This will help me, I think, as I seek revelation from the Lord.

  8. Wendy May 12, 2015 at 1:02 am #

    Diane, I'm glad something here was helpful to you!

  9. Gloria May 12, 2015 at 1:43 am #

    Sorry it my question is repeated, I clicked “publish” but I don't see it on the thread so I'm not sure if you got my question. Here it is again:

    Please explain the difference between teaching (as in a mixed Gender Bible study) and preaching (from the pulpit.)

    Also, can women lead corporate prayer – from the pulpit – or should only males (or ordained men) do that?


  10. Wendy May 12, 2015 at 4:33 am #

    Gloria, those differences are affected by your denomination and view of pulpit and ordination. I hang with the presbyterians now, and non-ordained men are not allowed to preach during Sunday service in our denomination. We sometimes have women or non-ordained men speak during service, but it takes a distinctly different form than the actual sermon. Personally, I think that if you would be comfortable having a non-ordained man do something, it's fine for a woman to do it as well, including leading in corporate prayer. I do have a high view of the pulpit and believe preaching during corporate worship should be reserved for ordination.

  11. Rebecca Aske May 12, 2015 at 10:09 am #

    If the role of an elder is not a gift, but a governing position then couldn't a woman be ordained as a pastor if she has the gift of teaching and shepherding? What is your definition of ordination? For example, the elders in a previous church were all men. None of them were ordained except for the senior Pastor, yet they governed the church, had authority over the Pastor and preach from the pulpit. So could a woman be ordained and be the teaching pastor of a church under the male eldership of her church? Or do you define/equate the term pastor and elder to be one and the same. I realize I have several questions in this and probably haven't articulated them very clearly! Thanks for your teaching on this subject.

  12. Anonymous May 12, 2015 at 10:15 am #

    Thanks Christina for mentioning Kathy Keller's book. I will have to read that one.

  13. Anonymous May 12, 2015 at 10:20 am #

    Thank you for these references. I will be reading through both later today.

  14. Anonymous May 12, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    Sorry if I am not articulating my question clearly. I’m just really confused. And I’m just trying to sort this all out Biblically. I’m in the same boat as Diane, open to whatever is Biblical and just trying to determine what that is.

    I guess what a non-ordained man is able to do is what really needs to be defined. He can do anything but preach during corporate worship and have authority over the ordained elder?

    What Bible references can you give for only ordained men preaching during corporate worship? (And I’m not asking this to be confrontational, I’m seriously just trying to understand).

    I don’t know why I can’t wrap my head around this.


  15. Anita May 12, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    A friend pointed me to this post. It was part of a recent conversation and something that has been on my mind for some time. I feel God has gifted me as a teacher but have no outlet with which to use it. As I've gotten older, I am extremely curious to see what God intends to do with that gift. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place of the church not utilizing women's gifts and God not granting any children to me & my husband.

  16. Wendy May 12, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    That's a good question, Rebecca. In our church and denomination, the preaching pastor is part of the governing group of elders and sermons in the pulpit are reserved for one of them. Our elders are ordained in some nature. Our deacons (which include women) are not.

  17. Wendy May 12, 2015 at 2:40 pm #

    Rebecca, I should also say that I think it is fine to have women on pastoral staff, with the vision of them shepherding in ways that the elders find needed and helpful. It seems a matter of semantics at that point. The issue that women seem restricted from in Scripture is teaching with authority as an elder.

  18. Wendy May 12, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    Anita, I like your wording. Ultimately, it is up to God to use the gifts He gives us as He intended. We need to develop them. We need to be willing with them. But in my own life, there was a path I didn't create that led me to the places I could best use them (not to say I didn't try to make my own path once or twice too). I trust God will make a way for you as well.

  19. Anita May 12, 2015 at 8:58 pm #

    I laugh as I am reading your comment about trying to make your own path once or twice. Or in my case… many, many times. But more recently I have realized that all I am responsible for is to be obedient. Well, to be observant to what God is doing, what he is telling or teaching me and and then being flexible & open enough to be obedient. I have needed to wash my hands of the side of me that wants to make things happen. It just seems strange to me that God would give a gift and not use it. Maybe I need to open my eyes wider to see ways in which he subtlety but powerfully uses other people's gifts and my own case will become apparent. (or maybe not so apparent until after the fact)

    On another note, I have quickly fallen in love with your blog because of the depth & breadth of what you talk about. Hurray!! I love going deep into the scripture. 🙂

  20. Wendy May 12, 2015 at 9:04 pm #

    Thank you, Anita! I'm glad you've found my musings helpful. 🙂

  21. Terri Tippins May 13, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

    Just reading your comments. I have a question. You don't consider 'Pastor' a spiritual gift? Eph. 4:11 says, And he (gave) some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers………….If Jesus gives something wouldn't it be considered a gift? I am no Scholar but wasn't the word 'office' not in the original Greek but added by Translators?

  22. Wendy May 13, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

    Ephesians 4:11 is one of the passages I quoted above, but the ESV translates pastor as shepherd. I consider pastoring or shepherding a spiritual gift. I think teaching and ruling elders do pastor/shepherd. But that many in the church who are not elders are gifted that way as well. So I don't think the gift of shepherding is restricted to ruling elders in a church.

  23. Anonymous May 19, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    I really appreciate your insight on these matters. However, to reference a previous post, I am unsure that I understand if a deacon and deconness are one in the same. In your previous discussion and the comments the two were used interchangeably. I was raised in a small town in Georgia where men were ordained deacons and their wives were ordained deconnesses. I do not recall any single women or men being in these positions. I recently moved to a bigger city in Georgia and attend another baptist church where we have a female deacon. Thanks to your discussion I have a better understanding of how things differ from denomination to denomination, but is there a difference between a deacon and deconness or are they one in the same?

  24. Wendy May 19, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

    Anonymous, Biblically, I think they are the same. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the Bible only uses 1 Greek word for deacon, which is the same word used for servant. Deaconness is a made up English word for females in that role. The Bible just calls both deacons, it seems. Phoebe was called a deacon/servant, using the same wording Paul does in I Timothy.