Old Testament Priests and New Testament Ministers

[This article is available in Urdu here.]

One common argument that is used to support the position that women cannot be church leaders is the fact that, in the Old Testament, only men were permitted to serve as priests in the Tabernacle – and later in the Temple.  There are, however, several significant shortcomings in this argument.

The Old Testament Levitical Priesthood

The priesthood was not open to women; however it was also not open to most men.  The priesthood was in fact, limited to a very small and exclusive group of men within the Israelite community.

Only men belonging to the tribe of Levi could serve as assistants in the Tabernacle, or Temple, regardless of how pious and godly a person from another tribe may have been (Num 8:5-26; 1 Chron 23:28-32).[1]  Moreover, as a way of symbolically declaring the perfection and holiness of God, only perfectly healthy Levites, in the prime of their life, could be in active ministry  (Num 8:24-25).

A male Levite could be disqualified from being a minister for a variety of reasons.  Some of these reasons were: having a physical disability or deformity; being temporarily “unclean” (this could be due to several circumstances); being outside the ages of 25 to 50 (the prescribed age range of Levites in regular service)[2]; or showing symptoms of certain diseases (which also made the person “unclean”).  These symptoms were usually skin rashes or bodily discharges.

It would have been impractical to admit women onto the regular roster of Temple ministry because women within the required age range of 25 to 50 were frequently “unclean” due to their monthly period or childbirth.  Even though women could not administer any of the ritual services of the Tabernacle or Temple, many women played a significant role in the national, spiritual life of Israel.[3]

To be a priest, however, it was not enough to just be male, and a Levite, and healthy; a priest must also have been a direct descendent of Aaron.  I have never heard anyone say that only healthy, male, Aaronic Levites can be Church leaders, yet this is the logical conclusion for the spurious argument that women cannot be church leaders because there were no female priests in the Old Testament.  Moreover, it is completely unjust to use anachronistic Old Testament rules – especially those of a priesthood that has not existed for almost 2000 years – to influence New Covenant living and leadership today.

New Covenant Ministry

The Old Testament Temple and the New Testament Church are in fact two very different organisations with different aims, methods and structures.  Because of these differences, it is completely unreasonable to say that Christian women cannot be church leaders simply because the Old Testament priesthood was not open to them.

Jesus brought in many changes with the New Covenant – new and better ways (Heb 6:9; 7:19, 22; 8:6ff, ).  Priests were no longer needed as mediators between God and his people, because Jesus took on the roles as the ultimate Mediator (1 Tim 2:5; Heb 8:6) and the ultimate High Priest (Heb 6:19-20; 7:23-28; 9:11ff).

Under the Old Covenant, only the High Priest (a specially appointed, male Levite and a direct descendent of Aaron) could enter the Most Holy Place in the Temple, once a year, on the Day of Atonement.[4]   Under the New Covenant, all believers (regardless of gender, ethnicity, social status, disease or disability, etc), can enter the Most Holy Place, continually, by a “new and living way” through the blood of Jesus (Heb 10:19-22).  Wow!

Furthermore, instead of a select few people, God has given all New Covenant men and women his Holy Spirit.

“And it will be in the last days”, says God,

“that I will pour out my Spirit on all people,

and your sons and your daughters will prophesy.

And your young people will see visions,

and your old people will dream dreams.

And even upon my male ministers (servants)

and upon my female ministers (servants),

in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they will prophesy!”

Acts 2:17-18

Acts 2:18 clearly shows that both male and female ministers (servants)[5] are given God’s Holy Spirit who enables them to minister in prophecy.  Other scriptures show that the Holy Spirit gives other ministry gifts too, including the leadership gifts of teaching and governing, without apparent regard to gender.[6]  Moreover, the New Testament shows that women did function as ministers and leaders in the early church.  [See links to articles on this below.]

The Priesthood of the Order of Melchizedek

Several Christian denominations regard their leaders – their clergy – as actual priests.[7]  The Roman Catholic Church teaches that their priests are not of the Levitical order of Aaron, but of the royal, priestly order of Melchizedek.  To support their view, they teach that Jesus ordained his Twelve Apostles in this order.  There is nothing in Scripture, however, which hints at the idea that Jesus ordained his Apostles as priests, let alone as priests in the order of Melchizedek.[8]  There is also nothing in the Scriptures that hints that this priestly office was passed onto subsequent bishops, and thus also to the clergy, through what the Roman Catholics call “Apostolic Succession”.  (Hebrews 7:24 says that “because Jesus lives forever he has a permanent (Greek: parabatos) priesthood.”  The word parabatos can also mean “ non transferable”.)

In contrast with Roman Catholicism which teaches that only clergy are priests, the New Testament teaches that all believers in Jesus, including women, belong to a kingdom of priests, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:9b-10).  Does this mean that all Christian believers are priests in the order of Melchizedek?   The answer could well be “yes”.


Endnotes

[1] Of the 12 tribes of Israel, God set apart the Levites to minister in his Presence.  He chose the Levites because of their faithfulness to him when the other Israelites fell into idolatry and worshiped the Golden Calf.  (See Exodus 32:26-29 and Numbers chapter 8.)  God’s original plan, however, was that all of Israel would be a nation of priests (Exodus 19).  The priesthood was never intended to include only an elite group of people.  (See endnote 7.)

[2] See Numbers 8:24-25.  It seems that God did not want immature men under the age of 25 as ministers. Nor did he want older men past their prime.  He wanted mature men full of health and vigor to be his ministers.  This symbolically represented the perfection and strength of God.

[3] In Old Testament times, despite the predominantly Patriarchal society, some women were effective civil and spiritual leaders, for example: Deborah (Judges 4:4), Miriam (Micah 6:4) and the Wise Women of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Samuel 20:14ff esp v20).  As well as being leaders, Miriam (Exodus 15:20) and Deborah were also recognised and respected as prophetesses, as was Huldah (2 Kings 22:11-20; 2 Chron 34:22), etc.  Other faith-filled women heroically assisted Israel: Rahab (Josh ch 2, 6:22-25) Esther, etc.  [My Article on Biblical Women with Spiritual Authority here.]

In Old Testament times both men and women could make a vow of separation to God as a Nazirite. (See Numbers chapter 6).

[4] Among the Levites, only a direct descendent of Aaron was permitted by God to become the High Priest and enter the Most Holy Place, also known as the Holy of Holies, once a year. (Ex 27:21-28:43; 30:10; Neh 10:38; 2 Chron 13:10b; cf 1 Chron 24; Heb 9:1ff esp v7).

[5] The Greek words used here are douloi “male slaves” and doulai “female slaves”.  In the Old Testament, people such as Moses (Num 12:7-8), Joshua (Josh 24:29), David (Ps 89:20) and other prophets, were referred to in Hebrew as “slaves of the Lord”.  It was a title that highlighted their authority and appointment as ministers and spokesmen of God.  Most English translations, however, use the word “servants” rather than “slaves”.

[6] Verses which mention Spiritual giftings: Ac 2:17-18; Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:7-11, 27-28; 1 Cor 14:26-33; Eph 4:11-12; Heb 2:4; 1 Pe 4:9-11.  These verses do not indicate any gender preference in regard to receiving or employing spiritual gifts.

While Romans 12:6-8 does contain masculine participles, so do many verses which speak about salvation and are generally taken as applying to both men and women (e.g. John 3:16).  The grammatical masculine gender does not necessarily imply that it refers to only males.  The “default” grammatical gender of many passages which apply equally to men and women is masculine.

[7] Some Christians do have the function and role of congregational leadership, however it is an unscriptural view that divides believers into priestly clergy and non-priestly lay people.  According to the New Testament, all believers regardless of gender, race or social status are priests.  Our main roles as priests are to corporately worship God with spiritual offerings, declare his praises, and represent God to the world (1 Peter 2:5,9; cf John 4:24; Rom 12:1; Heb 13:15).   As already stated, Christian believers do not need another person to act as a mediator between themselves and God.  We do not need any priest other than Jesus Christ, our High Priest. [More on this here.]

[8] The word “Melchizedek” is mentioned ten times in the Scriptures.  In the letter to the Hebrews the priesthood of Melchizedek is mentioned eight times; several of these references are clearly referring to Jesus Christ’s eternal priesthood (Hebrews 5:6,10; 6:20).  Hebrews chapter 7 is devoted to exploring the connection between Jesus and Melchizedek, the enigmatic King of Salem, who is mentioned in Genesis 14:18.  Many believe that the King of Salem was a Christophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. “Melchizedek” is also mentioned in Psalm 110:4 (cf Hebrews 5:6).  Melchizedek means “King of Righteousness”.  Melchizedek may be a title rather than a name.  Genesis 14:18 tells us that this person was the king of Salem and a priest of God Most High.  While Salem is a place (later called Jerusalem), the word salem is very similar to the word shalom which mean “complete, whole, perfect.”

© 5th of March, 2010; revised 25th of April, 2011; Margaret Mowczko

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Posted May 1st, 2011 . Categories/Tags: Church History, Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Ministry, , , , , , , , , , ,

20 comments on “Old Testament Priests and New Testament Ministers

  1. [...] One thing that Christian men and women have in common is that God has made us to be a royal priesthood. (cf 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:9b-10.)  Both Christian men and women are included in the promise that one day we will reign on earth. [...]

  2. [...] Jesus is the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek.  (The name Melchizedek means “My King of Righteousness”.)  Christian believers are part of the Royal Priesthood in the order of Melchizedek.  Our sacrifices and services are in the service of our Messianic King and High Priest, Jesus Christ.  Moreover, in a sense we share with Christ in his kingship, as well as in his priesthood. [...]

  3. [...] Old Testament Priests and New Testament Ministers [...]

  4. Lisa says:

    Thank you for the information and the accompanying Scriptures. It was what I needed and more.

    God Bless.

  5. Marg says:

    Hi Lisa, I’m glad the article was useful to you.

    God Bless.

  6. Rich says:

    While the NT does teach that we are all, in Christ, considered a holy priesthood, that does not mean that all can serve in the same capacity.
    In fact the Word is quite specific. Read Ephesians 4.11,12: And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.
    The use of the word “some” specifies that not all can serve as pastors. So the argument that anyone can serve as pastor is quite flimsy.
    Please turn to 1 Timothy 3.1-13 and you’ll note that if a man desires the position of overseer (identified as pastor) he desires a good work. The qualifications are gender specific here for this position: a husband of one wife. No matter how you “cut it”, proper exegesis can only render males qualified to be pastors, and in this test, for the “office” of deacon as well. Bottom line is the each in the body of Christ is a “minister” but not all qualifiy for two offices. This is not to place women lower in the standing in the church, but rather, raise them up as a “fragile vessle” worthy of protection. (1 Peter 3.7).
    Please consider the whole counsel of the Word on the issue of leadership and realize that the Lord may not desire women to serve as pastors, not because they are not any less intellegent than men, but because God wants men to “man up” and become the leaders and protectors of women and young people they need to be.

  7. Marg says:

    Hi Rich,

    I agree that not every Christian man and woman is gifted to serve as an apostle, prophet, evangelist or pastor-teacher. However this verse, which I have read many times, does not say that only men are gifted to function as such. (Also, there is no word for “some” in the Greek.) http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/new-testament-women-church-leaders/

    I have also read 1 Timothy 3:1-13 many times, and there is no word for “man” in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:1, despite English translations that include the word. I believe that a proper exegesis of the original language, that takes into account the idioms employed in this passage, does not exclude women. The qualifications in this passage are in fact not gender specific. Some complementatian Bible scholars have also come to the conclusion that “a-one-woman-man” cannot legitimately be used to exclude women.
    http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/pauls-qualifications-for-church-leaders/

    I very much take in account the whole counsel of Scripture, particularly the New Testament as we are New Covenant people (Acts 2:18).

    While most women are physically weaker than most men, women can still protect others, including men, women and children (e.g. Rom 16:3-4). (I assume you mean that men can protect other men too, and not just women and children.) Women may not be as strong as men but they can be courageous. Sometimes more than men.
    http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/the-women-who-protected-moses/

    Paul had no problem with godly women pastoring house churches in the early church so I wonder why you think that God does not desire women to serve as pastors?

    I am intrigued that you think protecting women somehow “raises” them. How does it raise them? Does protecting children raise children too?

    I am also intrigued that you think men have to “man up” to be leaders. Paul didn’t feel he needed to “man up” to be a leader. He understood that leadership can take different forms and expressions (1 Thess 2:7).
    http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/masculine-and-feminine-leadership/

  8. [...] Rich’s comments, and my replies, can be found here and [...]

  9. [...] Old Testament Priests and New Testament Ministers [...]

  10. Marg says:

    I have temporarily disabled the ability to post comments here due to an excessive number of spam comments on this particular post.

  11. [...] Old Testament Priests and New Testament Ministers [...]

  12. [...] Qualifications for ministry in the Old Testament priesthood were physical; qualifications for ministry in the New Covenant church are spiritual and moral.   [...]

  13. Don Johnson says:

    Overall, I like this article. A few points to chew on.

    1) A priest was responsible for sacrificing animals, including some that are large. I can see the limitation to men from Aaron of age 25-50 as being one of practicality. In any case, the Bible does not explain the reason WHY these limitations were done, they were just to be followed without explanation.

    2) It seems that Samuel was adopted and therefore became a priest, altho I do not think this is explicit, it seems able to be inferred.

    3) Many of the refs in Hebrews to what is often translated as “old covenant” actually could be translated to just “old” or a similar word, this means the translators thought that the word covenant was implied, so they added the word. Anytime a word gets added by translators, a Berean should examine this to see if there are other possibilities that fit better. The relationship of God’s covenants to each other is a large subject, so I will simply leave some thought questions: (A) It is clear that the new covenant is better than the Sinai covenant, but exactly how is it better? (Hint: I think Jer 31 explains how.) (B) In Acts 21, Paul went out of his way to show that he participated in both the new covenant and the Sinai covenant, why would he do that?

  14. […] Old Testament Priests and New Testament Ministers […]

  15. […] One common argument that is used to support the position that women cannot be church leaders, is the fact that in the Old Testament only men were permitted to serve as priests in the Tabernacle – a…  […]

  16. Abigail Devary says:

    Wow. Very compelling. I have found that getting cozy with the text in its original language reveals how much is lost, in this case, additionally implied in translation. Knowing the Lord and His word, one begins to see that GOD always says exactly what He means to say. We can learn as much from what He did not say, as we can from His word. He is GOD. The word of the Lord stands whether or not we “get it” or not. I find, it is always best to ask Him to bring our understanding into alignment when we are confronted with the sharp two edged sword that can cut between bone and marrow. Wonderful article! Thanks for digging in! GOD…the more you seek Him, the more you find Him, the more He blows your mind! I love it!

  17. mark woodson says:

    There is a major flaw in tbis argument, well several, but the first is that many men were excluded from service for many reasons…None of which were due to their gender. Women were excluded for no other readon BUT their gender. So that presents a poor comparison.

  18. Marg says:

    Hi Abigail, God and his message and his plans continue to blow my mind too. :)

    Hi Mark, the reasons that most men were excluded from the Old Testament priesthood all come down to physicality. That is, they were excluded for physical reasons, not for spiritual or moral reasons, or even for reasons of incompetence. Similarly, women were excluded for reasons of physicality – they were women. I do not dispute this at all. Still, some women ministered as doorkeepers and musicians, etc, in the Tabernacle and Temple (Exo. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22-23; Psalm 68:24-26).

    In the New Testament the requirements for ministry are primarily spiritual and moral – not physical, and competence and authorisation from ministry comes from the Holy Spirit.

    My article compares the differences in ministry in the Old Testament community of God’s people with ministry in the New Testament community of God’s people. This is my main comparison. And I think it’s a valid one.

  19. […] We see in the Scriptures that, while the qualifications for the Old Testament Levitical priesthood were all physical, the qualifications for ministry in the church are moral and spiritual. […]

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