Old Testament Priests 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 active in service (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]; 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 on 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 some 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 descendant 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 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 role of the ultimate Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6) and of the ultimate High Priest (Heb. 6:19-20; 7:23-28; 9:11ff).

[Visual Unit have two graphics that compare the Old (Levitical) Covenant and the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus here.]

Under the Old Covenant, only the High Priest (a specially appointed, male Levite and a direct descendant 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). Followers of Jesus need no priest but Jesus.

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.

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 priesthood is not of the Levitical order of Aaron but is derived from the royal, priestly order of Melchizedek which has its fulfilment in the priesthood of Christ. To support their view, they teach that, at the Last Supper, Jesus ordained the twelve apostles (including presumably Judas) to be sharers in his priesthood (CCC 1544).[8]

There is nothing in Scripture, however, that hints at the idea that Jesus ordained the Twelve as priests, that is, that Jesus ordained the Twelve to be mediators between fellow Christians and God.[9] 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.”[10]

In contrast with Roman Catholicism, which teaches that clergy are priests in a way that other believers are not, the New Testament teaches that all believers in Jesus, including women, belong to a kingdom of priests, a royal priesthood without distinctions or different categories or classes (1 Pet. 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 be “yes.”


[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 worshipped 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 (Exod. 19). The priesthood was never intended to comprise an elite group of people. (See endnote 8.)

[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 vigour 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, such as Deborah (Judg. 4:4), Miriam (Mic. 6:4) and the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Sam. 20:14ff esp v20), were effective civil and spiritual leaders. Moreover, as well as being leaders, Miriam (Exod. 15:20) and Deborah were recognised and respected as prophetesses. And Huldah advised the king through her capacity as a prophetess (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.]
But some women were involved in the Tabernacle service. And 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 descendant 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. (Exod. 27:21-28:43; 30:10; Neh. 10:38; 2 Chron. 13:10b; cf. 1 Chron. 24; Heb 9:1ff esp v. 7).

[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 (Psa. 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 that mention spiritual giftings: Acts 2:17-18; Romans 12:6-8 CSB; 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 27-28; 14:26-33 CSB; Ephesians 4:11-12; Hebrews 2:4; 1 Peter 4:9-11. These verses do not indicate any gender preference with 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 that 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 common laypeople. 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 Pet. 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] Brante Pitre states that at the Last Supper, Jesus “commands the twelve to offer a sacrifice of his body and blood and thereby constitutes them priests, not after the order of Levi, but according to the order of Melchizedek, because Jesus is the new Melchizedek, he’s the new (and the true) King of Righteousness, the king of Jerusalem.” (Source)
And after explaining that the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants (supposedly) relate back to the “Melchizedek” priesthood, Andrew Safford states, “Jesus is the one priest; the apostles receive the gift of participating in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ …” (Source) Participating in this “one priesthood” seems to be a contradiction of the common and ministerial priesthoods taught by the RCC.
I appreciate, however, that these men may not speak for all Roman Catholics.

[9] 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 (Heb. 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. Heb. 5:6). Melchizedek means “King of Righteousness” and 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.”

[10] Hebrews 7:24, a verse brought up in the discussion on succession, says that “because Jesus lives forever he has a permanent (Greek: parabatos) priesthood.” The word parabatos can also mean “non-transferable.” Jesus is the only high priest, and we, his followers, are a kingdom of priests.

© 5th of March 2010, Margaret Mowczko

Postscript: August 20, 2020

Here is some additional information about what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about priesthoods.

Regarding “Baptism gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers.”
CCC 1268: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/1268.htm

Regarding Christ as high priest and unique mediator, and the church as “a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.”
CCC 1546: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/1546.htm

In this paragraph, a distinction is made between a “common” priesthood and a “ministerial” priesthood, a distinction that the New Testament does not make.
CCC 1547: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/1547.htm

I also recommend,
CCC 1544, which mentions Melchizedek: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/1544.htm
CCC 1548, which contains a statement from Ignatius that is concerning: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/1548.htm

More here: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p2s2c3a6.htm#1544

Image Credit

“Priests of the Tabernacle” from Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster (1897) (Wikimedia)

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