Some of you may be aware that for the last two and a half years I, along with three other women bloggers, have been involved in a joint project-blog called Ishshah’s Story. Ishshah’s Story has recently been retired due to our various commitments elsewhere, but I want to share the last article I posted there because the subject of spiritual abuse and gender injustice towards women and girls within institutional Christianity is one I am passionate about.
Recently one of the world’s foremost Christian leaders reiterated his organisation’s official stance excluding women from the priesthood. Elsewhere in the Christian world woman’s entitlement to ordination on an equal basis with her male counterparts is still being hotly debated and is far from settled. Women who believe they are being called by God to serve His church pastorally or in other leadership capacities are anguishing about how to both obey God and fall in line with their denomination’s opposing stance on the matter.
The arguments from both sides of this debate obviously can’t be covered in one article and there are many resources available for those who wish to study more widely¹. In this particular post I want to focus on three core elements and consider each of these from a Biblical perspective: calling, priesthood and ordination.
Whatever pathway we choose in service to God, most Christians would agree His Word is our first guidepost, accompanied by the conviction of the Holy Spirit that God is desiring us to follow a specific direction in which our God-given gifts can be best utilised for His people and His glory. This sense of deep, consistent conviction is what most of us would recognise as a ‘calling’ from God in a specific area of service to Him (1 Tim. 1:9; Eph. 4:1-7).
There are certain areas of calling that are universal for all Christ followers, including the call to take up our cross and follow Christ, the call to love one another and our neighbour, and the call to share the good news of the gospel. Individual Christians, regardless of gender, can also experience a personal calling to a specific area of ministry, such as a deep desire to serve God in a particular location or within a certain people group.
Throughout Christian history women have sensed God’s calling to serve Him in the same way in which men have felt called to serve God. The Holy Spirit has not been poured out on females in a lesser measure or in a more limited way than on males (Acts 2:17). A man sensing God’s calling on his life may struggle with issues such as finance, education or social and cultural barriers, but a man is never restricted from serving God on the basis of gender. On the other hand a woman sensing God’s calling is frequently told she may not serve God in certain capacities simply because she is not a man.
Great swathes of Christianity still place severe limitations on the expression of a woman’s spiritual calling, regardless of how gifted she may be, based on a narrow, biased interpretation of some New Testament passages which are held above the fuller counsel of the whole of scripture.
Certain trailblazing women throughout history have challenged these restrictions and had fruitful ministries, usually at great personal cost. For the most part though, untold numbers of Christian women have historically been locked out from officially pursuing their calling to ministry by a church firmly dominated by male leadership and a culture of gender discrimination that does not reflect the words or the teachings of Jesus Christ. As the link in the first paragraph of this article demonstrates, in some powerful Christian circles things have not changed: calling and gifting take second place to gender.
So, despite this male dominated atmosphere, does the Bible shed any light on whether or not a woman who feels called to serve God in ministry can be a priest?
Under the Old Covenant, the whole nation of Israel, i.e. men, women and children, were appointed by God as a holy nation of priests among the nations (Ex. 19:6). Within that national calling to priesthood a specific priesthood from the tribe of Levi was also set apart from the general Hebrew community. Their role was to minister to God, observe the ritualistic Law, and serve as the people’s mediators before Him (Ex. 28:41; 29:44).
In the New Covenant, however, Christ alone is the one mediator between God and His people. Only He is designated specifically as our Priest and Great High Priest (Heb. 3:1; 4:14,15; 6:20). Christ has replaced the Levitical priesthood and became the eternally risen mediator between God and humanity (Heb. 8:4-11; 1 Tim. 2:5).
Under this New Covenant of grace all God’s people are called equally to priesthood, regardless of ethnicity, age, class or gender (1 Peter 2:5,9). Neither is there any hierarchy in this universal priesthood of believers, for all are set apart and placed ‘into’ Christ, in Whom there are no divisions (Gal. 3:26,28). The book of Revelation confirms this new priesthood of all believers (Rev. 1:5,6) and declares that this priesthood will reign with Christ during the Millennium (Rev. 20:6). Again, there is no indication in these scriptures that this universal priesthood is exclusively male. It is a priesthood of believers, not based on gender or any other factor, but solely on faith in Christ.
It is vitally important for anyone sensing a specific call of God on their life to understand this truth. All believers belong to God’s spiritual priesthood, set apart for God’s purposes and for His glory. In the Kingdom of God women are joint heirs with Christ and as such have been appointed as serving priests on the same basis as men (Rom. 8:17). The right to serve in any capacity to which God calls her is a woman’s inherent entitlement under the New Covenant.
The problem area is around the word ‘ordination’. Generally speaking, ordination is acknowledgement that an individual can officially serve in leadership within a Christian denomination. It is recognition that they have undertaken the required educational process and have the desired spiritual attributes to function within that denomination in an official capacity. The dictionary defines it as the act of receiving ‘holy orders’.
Ordination, however, is not known in the New Testament. It is a practice that, like many other church practices, gradually crept in to church life as Christianity grew and increasingly merged with the religious cultures of the world. There is no New Testament evidence that the earliest Christian leaders distinguished themselves from fellow believers either by wearing certain items of clothing or taking such titles as reverend, bishop, priest, pastor, etc. Some were called apostles, some elders, others deacons, but these were descriptions of recognised function, not titles.
Neither Peter or Paul in their letters introduced themselves as Apostle Paul or Apostle Peter, but as ‘an apostle’, in the same way as they described themselves as servants, or bondslaves (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; Gal 1:1 ; Titus 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1)
As Christianity began to embrace the practices of the surrounding world and formalised itself into rankings and heirarchy, a special title and specific clothing became necessary to set apart an individual from other believers and indicate his position in church leadership.
As an example of how Bible translators have sometimes interpreted scripture to support this creation of a priestly class let’s consider the following passage from 1 Timothy 3:1 in the KJV: “This is a true saying, if a man desires the office of a bishop he desireth a good work”.
In the original NT language, the word translated ‘man’ is not gender specific – it is a Greek pronoun meaning ‘whoever’. ‘Bishop’ is the Greek word ‘episcope’ which means someone who takes general oversight (not a title but a function). And the word ‘office’ is not present in the original Greek at all.
The nearest thing to ordination we find in the New Testament is the ‘laying on of hands’ which is mentioned in relation to the filling of the Holy Spirit and impartation of spiritual gifts (Acts 8:18; Acts 9:17; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6; Heb. 6:2).
In Acts 8 we read about a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a city of Samaria during which ‘both men and women were baptised’ in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12). When Peter and John arrived to witness what was happening, they laid hands on these new believers and they were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17). There is no indication at all that the laying on of hands was something reserved only for men in the early church.
Whether denominational ordination is God’s pathway for her is something each woman sensing a calling to ministry must work out prayerfully for herself. However, I firmly believe no Christian woman should ever believe herself disqualified from God’s holy spiritual priesthood on the word of any Christian leader or institution. If God is calling you, you have received your ‘holy orders’ – follow that call, even if it leads outside the walls of your denomination. God has not disqualified you, men have.
- Every Christian woman or girl is a member of God’s appointed priesthood by virtue of being ‘in Christ’, regardless of the rulings of human leaders and their institutions.
- Any Christian woman or girl may experience a calling from God and this calling is not Biblically restricted on the basis of her gender. It is restricted only by individual denominational doctrines.
- Some Christian women feel their calling to serve God lies within their denomination and therefore seek ordination within their chosen organisation. This decision should be respected, but denominational ordination should not be confused with God’s calling or appointment. God has already appointed women to His priesthood.
The full, equal and unrestricted priesthood of women and girls in Christ cannot be Biblically disputed. What continues to be sadly lacking is the ability and willingness of some Christian institutions to recognise and act on this foundational Biblical truth.
¹Women For The Nations is a good place to start studying if you’re new to this debate.
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2017 and beyond. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.