Why was the Priesthood Exclusively Male?
Why was the Priesthood
Those in the Church of England who argue against the ordination of women put great stress
on the fact that priests in the Old Testament were exclusively male. In our own
community a similar argument has been used that the male priesthood indicates a
applicable in both Old and New Testaments.
When, however, we examine the qualifications for priesthood under
the Law of Moses, it is evident that it is not being male in itself that is the
criterion for a priest; indeed, maleness is never in itself specified, though
it is assumed. The Bible does not state why those chosen in the Old Testament
as priests are selected from males; therefore everyone should be cautious in
suggesting reasons. This was the will of God at that time, and we could leave
it at that. Nevertheless, some suggestions arise from examining the criteria
which are given. Only a select group of males from the Levite tribe/sons of
Aaron could be priests; and amongst this set group the qualification was
And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, None of your descendants throughout
their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God.
For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who
has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an
injured hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a defect in his sight
or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles; no man of the descendants
of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the LORD’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come
near to offer the bread of his God.” (Leviticus
perfection applied also to their marriage relationships:
he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or one divorced, or a woman who
has been defiled, or a harlot, these he shall not marry; but he shall take to
wife a virgin of his own people ...” (Lev. 21:14)
were occasions when they could not serve as priests:
them, ‘If any one of all your descendants throughout your generations approaches
the holy things, which the people of Israel dedicate to the LORD, while he has an uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from
my presence: I am the LORD. None of the line of
Aaron who is a leper or suffers a discharge may eat of the holy things until he
is clean. Whoever touches anything that is unclean through contact with the
dead or a man who has had an emission of semen ... shall be unclean until the
evening and shall not eat of the holy things unless he has bathed his body in
discharges were regarded as a sign of imperfection, and because women
menstruate they were regarded as frequently unclean. In the light of that view,
women could not be considered perfect human beings. Just like the lepers, the
lame, the blind, the handicapped, they were ineligible to be priests.
Pagan Religious Practices
A further reason why only males were chosen as priests may be seen
in the background of Canaan, the land into which the people of Israel were to
enter. Canaanite religion involved ritual prostitution, sexual activity being
seen as worship in a religion which sought to encourage fertility rather than
righteousness and justice.
Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine-prostitute. (Deuteronomy
Hosea criticises those who
deserted the true worship of God and switched to pagan fertility shrines.
... the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
no faithfulness or kindness,
knowledge of God in the land;
there is swearing,
lying, killing, stealing and committing adultery;
all bounds and murder follows murder.
have left their God to play the harlot.
sacrifice on the tops of the mountains...
your daughters play the harlot,
brides commit adultery...
men themselves go aside with harlots,
sacrifice with cult prostitutes,
people without understanding shall come to ruin. (Hosea 4:1-14)
Leviticus 21:9 is also in the
context of the surrounding pagan sacred prostitution:
daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot [i.e.
acts as a priestess of the pagan type], profanes her father; she shall be
burned with fire.” (Leviticus
It was easy, in this environment, to misuse sex and to abuse women
under the guise of religious worship. Eli’s sons “lay with the women who served
at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (1 Samuel 2:22). Their abusive
behaviour may have been just that; or it may be they considered sexual activity
as legitimate religious practice as carried out in pagan worship. It was
important to distinguish clearly between the ethical worship of Yahweh and the
practice of pagan nations.
The Bible does not provide much information about the women who
“served at the entrance to the tent of meeting”.
They are mentioned in Exodus:
made the laver of bronze and its base of bronze, from the mirrors of the
ministering women who ministered at the door of the tent of meeting. (Exodus
The same term is used of the service of the women as of the
Levites in Numbers 4:23. In choosing perfection as the criterion, and assigning
the women to serve at the entrance but not within the sanctuary, we perhaps see
a means of separating the worship of Israel from the sexually orientated
fertility worship of the Canaanites, amongst whom sexual prostitution took
place within the sanctuary itself. One would hope that the moral emphasis in
Old Testament worship would mean that the presence of these women would
discourage immoral practices, even though Eli’s sons used the women’s service
at the entrance as an opportunity for personal gain.
This background suggests further reason why at that time women
were not called upon to be priests. Other practices were also restricted in that
environment. In Leviticus 21:5, for example, the priests were not to shave
their hair, or shave off the edges of their beards, or cut their bodies. These
were practices of the pagans (cf. 1 Kings 18:28).
Important for us, however, is what the New Testament teaches about
priests, for all we who believe in Christ are involved in priesthood.
New Testament Applications
According to the Law of Moses
people were excluded from being priests unless they were physically perfect
human beings in a select group from one particular tribe; they could not serve
unless ritually clean. According to the New Testament none of this applies.
Jesus dismissed rules about ritual, physical cleanliness as of no spiritual
value (Matthew 15:17-20), and the early ecclesias followed his understanding.
No one is excluded from membership or service in the ecclesia or participation
in the Breaking of Bread because of physical infirmity, illness, tribe,
nationality or genealogy. The Ethiopian eunuch was baptised despite his being a
eunuch (Acts 8:34-39). Why then should it be considered that only one of the
aspects of priesthood (being male) remains applicable? The argument that
because priests were always male in the Old Testament, only males may speak in
the ecclesia, is contradicted by the evidence of the New Testament itself (1
Corinthians 11:4-5, 1 Corinthians 14:26) where women take an active, spoken
Several applications of the
priesthood are made in the New Testament: in Hebrews, in 1 Peter 2 and in
The letter to the Hebrews shows Jesus as the perfect High Priest.
For we have not a high priest who
is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has
been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
suitability of Jesus to be our High Priest is because he knows what it is to be
weak like we are, yet he was morally perfect (“without sin”).
Now if perfection had been
attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received
the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise
after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?
point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is
seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven.... (Hebrews
For it was fitting that we should
have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners,
exalted above the heavens.
We should note that
the emphasis is on Christ’s perfection, not on his being male; on moral
character, not on gender. Perfection was the aim of the prescriptions for the
priesthood, but it was unachievable except in Christ.
The application to us is
likewise moral and spiritual. With Jesus as our High Priest, we can all, male
and female, do what the priests alone could do in the Old Testament – enter the
sanctuary, and offer sacrifices to God.
brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by
the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain,
that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let
us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our
hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies
washed with pure water. ....
Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the
fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share
with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
(Hebrews 10:19-22, and 13:15-16, NIV)
Exodus 19:6 the people were described as “a kingdom of priests and a holy
nation”. And a system of priests was arranged distinct from the ordinary
people. But the New Testament applications show Jesus as the High Priest, and
all his followers as priests. 1 Peter continues the
applications made in Hebrews. We are all “a holy priesthood”, we all offer
spiritual sacrifices to God.
Come to him, to that living
stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living
stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to
offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)
are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that
you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into
his marvellous light. Once you were no people but now you are God's people;
once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. (1
teaches the same as regards the present position of believers:
him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a
kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever
and ever. Amen. (Revelation 1:6-7)
manner, therefore, in which the Old Testament priesthood is understood under
the New Covenant, concerns perfection of character, something to be achieved in
Christ Jesus. It is not to do with being male nor with holding positions of
authority in the ecclesia. Likewise, the sacrifices we offer are a Christ-like
life, speaking praise to God, doing good, and sharing with others (Hebrews
The concept that the
offices of overseers/bishops, elders, and deacons is patterned on the Old
Testament priesthood is not New Testament teaching. It was developed in the
second and third centuries when a distinct division between the ordinary people
and the clergy was being promoted, along with worldly authority structures.
[Bishops] are your high priests, as the presbyters
are your priests, and your present deacons instead of your levites (Apostolic
The same document
describes the bishop in these terms:
bishop is … the keeper of knowledge, the mediator between God and you in the
several parts of your divine worship. … he is your king and potentate; he is,
next after God, your earthly god, who has a right to be honoured by you. (Apostolic
The contrast between
this and New Testament teaching is obvious.