Can Men Be Pastors?

Tim Ritter

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Can men be pastors?

Can Christian men be teachers, preachers, elders, seminary professors, Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, small group leaders, police officers, elected officials, church treasurers, and so on and so forth? How does that line of questioning make you feel? Why does it sound so off, even offensive?

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Jesus taught that “to love your neighbor as yourself” is the basic ethical conclusion to be taken from the Hebrew Bible (Mk. 12:28-34). Alongside loving God, it functioned as the foundation and summary of the entire Law, the basic moral thrust of Israelite religion. Jesus broadened and universalized the ethical framework by expanding the definition of neighbor to include even outsiders and enemies (Mt. 5:43-48, Lk. 10:25-37). While the New Covenant made the Law itself obsolete, this “Golden Rule” was passed forward as the basis for Christian ethics.

Jesus clarified, rather than nullified, the human responsibility to love one’s neighbor as oneself. He focused the Golden Rule on power, drawing attention specifically to becoming a servant and washing one another’s feet as the seminal demonstration of Christian social ethics (Jn. 13:1-17).

Jesus illustrated what most poor and marginalized people intrinsically feel: That to truly love and treat someone as you’d have them love and treat you requires laying down your status and power over them. Power, status, and privilege are obstacles to neighborly love.

There is subjectivity in any ethical system: Who defines what is good? How is utility measured, and so forth? Ethical frameworks typically fail to inspire morality in part because each of us inserts our desires wherever the subjectivity is placed, deciding for ourselves what the greatest good is.

The genius of the Golden Rule as an ethical framework is that it admits the problems of selfishness and subjectivity, and fights fire with fire. It demands we admit our selfish desires rather than suppress them, but then refuse to do anything that we wouldn’t want to be done to us. It uses our self-serving desire to constrain destructive selfishness. The result is access to a built-in internal ethical compass: Just pay attention to what you want for yourself, and then do that for others.

We can thank the author of Leviticus (19:18) for the Golden Rule’s place in history. But we should thank Jesus for passing it on as an authoritative ethical command for Christians, especially for those with power, especially for men.

Let’s start here:

You don’t naturally want to be a servant tasked with washing people’s feet; you have to train yourself in this, if at all. Deep down you want to be healthy, happy, empowered, respected, admired, free, comfortable, and so forth. We all do. We also don’t want to be prohibited from experiencing any of those things.

The Golden Rule doesn’t demand we treat others as our ideological system claims they should function, but as we want to be treated. Following Jesus then, means admitting these desires and treating others as if they shared them too. It means sacrificing privilege and relinquishing power in service of the needs and desires of others.

To choose to hold onto one’s power instead is to directly disobey the teaching and example of Jesus.

It is unchristian. The Lord became a servant, so God forbid we servants take it upon ourselves to act as lords “lording over” others (Mk. 10:41-45 et al). To exclude non-Jews and ethnic outsiders from full participation in the community was to break the rule. And to refuse women full inclusion and equal standing, even if their empowerment requires your sacrifice, is to break the rule.

For Philemon to reinforce Onesimus’ status of slave rather than brother would’ve proven him ineffective in his faith (Philem. 6). When Peter acquiesced to racist Christians in ostracizing Gentiles, he stood condemned (Gal. 2:11).

So then, can men be pastors?

Why would men be offended at the question? For one, it threatens to undermine the male privilege and power that men have held throughout history. It’s offensive because men, like women, naturally intuit that a prohibition from power is functionally equivalent to an assertion of inferior status, no matter how much some espouse otherwise. And it implies that similar questions about what women can do are equally absurd.

If women can’t be pastors, only men can. But in contradiction to a foundational argument of complementarian ideology, status and power are inherently connected. Unequal opportunity means unequal status.

Beyond offensiveness, the question may provoke feelings of discomfort, fear, and entitlement. Christians are responsible to acknowledge these feelings because they testify to one’s desires and perceived needs, and therefore to one’s ethical responsibilities under the Golden Rule.

If Christian men feel a longing or defensiveness toward a perceived right to such leadership, this should constrain them to treat others as worthy of fulfilling similar desires. Indeed, it obligates them to realize the very authority they feel attached to is precisely what they are called to lay down in love. The first will be last, the greatest among you must be a servant, and so on. Therefore, we must grant our neighbor the same power we wish for ourselves. Basically, male offense to such a question reveals that male privilege and the preservation of patriarchal power, rather than Christian discipleship, are guiding one’s relationship to leadership.

Can men be pastors?

I also raise the question in order to inform both men and women of the foolishness of separating opportunity and power from identity and equality. They’ve always been co-dependent notions and always will be. Offense at the question proves this to be true.

This unnatural compartmentalization between intuited truths and forced ideological suppositions drives people crazy, literally, as their emotional selves fragment from their cognitive framework. Wrestling with doubt and faith is one thing, but convincing yourself you believe things that your heart and body tell you are untrue leads to psychological disintegration. This disintegration kills people, and it leads to the kind of nonsensical moral dissonance we often see in American Evangelicalism.

Can men be pastors?

Additionally, I pose the question to challenge male church leaders who espouse this idea that women are equal but made for roles with less authority. This hurts women and corrupts basic Christian ethics. For women who’ve been convinced this is the only Biblical way, some level of psychological disintegration often occurs.

For the many other women who admit their doubts and acknowledge the dissonance, however quietly, another kind of hurt occurs. This is the hurt that continues to send people fleeing from the church and the faith, in order to escape antiquated, toxic ideology. All too often, complementarian teaching begets not “good submissive Christian women” but abuse victims and spiritual survivors.

Pastors are stewards of significant religious and spiritual power. Complementarian male pastors are, intrinsically, holding onto power that they refuse to share with women, preserving it instead for themselves and their gender. This breaks the Golden Rule.

Therefore, I ask again, can men be pastors, according to basic Christian ethics, while excluding women from doing likewise? Or could it be that one’s willingness to share power with others is a pre-requisite for Christian leadership?

Tim Ritter

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4 Comments

  • All too often, complementarian teaching begets not “good submissive Christian women” but abuse victims and spiritual survivors.

    So much this, I am a survivor of emotional abuse and a lot of it I believe would have been avoided had I not believed the lie that only women are to submit to authority in marriage and in the church. I appreciate very much articles like this one shining a light of hope to us who have been hurt.

  • It’s not offensive because it threatens to undermine male privilege and patriarchal power. It’s only offensive because it calls into question the interpretation of Scripture. Also, you have some logic fallacies in this piece and you may want to re-examine it.

    • “the interpretation of scripture”

      Perhaps part of the problem is seeing interpretation as objective when it is by definition subjective.

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