Why was the Priesthood Exclusively Male?

Why was the Priesthood

Exclusively Male?


Those in the Church of England who argue against the ordination[1] 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 divine pattern[2] 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 physical perfection:

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 21:16-21)


This perfection applied also to their marriage relationships:

“... And 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)


There were occasions when they could not serve as priests:

“Say to 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 water.”                                                                       (Leviticus 22:3-6)

Bodily 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.

No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine-prostitute.                                                                                                 (Deuteronomy 23:17, NIV)

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.

There is no faithfulness or kindness,

and no knowledge of God in the land;

there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing and committing adultery;

they break all bounds and murder follows murder.

...they have left their God to play the harlot.

They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains...

Therefore your daughters play the harlot,

and your brides commit adultery...

... the men themselves go aside with harlots,

and sacrifice with cult prostitutes,

and a 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:

“And the 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 21:9)   


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:

And he 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 38:8)

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 part.

Several applications of the priesthood are made in the New Testament: in Hebrews, in 1 Peter 2 and in Revelation 1.

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)

This 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?                                 (Hebrews 7:11)

Now the 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 8:1)

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens.   

(Hebrews 7:26)


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.

Therefore, 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. ....    

Through 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)

In 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.[3] 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)

But you 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 Peter 2:9-10)


Finally, Revelation teaches the same as regards the present position of believers:

To 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)


The 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 13:16).


[1] Christadelphian objection to women priests should be for the same reason as our objection to male priests. It is not due to the fact that they are women but to the concept of an ordained priesthood where a division is created between clergy and laity. According to the New Testament, all believers (male and female) are priests (1 Peter 2:4-10, Revelation 1:6), and there is only one mediator between us and God, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5).

[2] Whereas the Church of England and Roman Catholic Churches maintain that male priests represent Christ, some Christadelphians maintain that all brothers represent Christ but sisters do not. This is probably based on a misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 11:7, following Augustine (354-430 AD) who argued that women stand in the image of God only through their husbands (De Trinitate 12:7), despite Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 5:1-2. Some brothers and sisters consider that a brother who presides at the Breaking of Bread represents Jesus, and therefore only a brother can preside at the Breaking of Bread. There is no New Testament evidence for this view, and no New Testament evidence for a president at meetings.

[3] 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 Constitutions, 2.25)

The same document describes the bishop in these terms:

The 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 Constitutions, 2.26)

The contrast between this and New Testament teaching is obvious.

See http://www.thenazareneway.com/apostolic_constitutions/book_1-VI.htm


previous page table of contents next page