Women Priests – An Ecclesiastical Debate

Recently, the Anglican church has divided itself into two obvious and opposing factions over whether women should be ordained as priests within the church. After years of highly charged debate between tradition-alists who hold that only men can operate within an ordained priesthood, and radicals who proposed the ordination of women, the matter was finally decided by voting members of the Anglican Synod in favour of radical change. The introduction of women into the ranks of ordained Anglican priests has been greeted with euphoria by supporters inside and outside the Anglican community, who see it as the beginning of an exciting new era in the history of the established church. On the other hand, those in opposi-tion to the idea have been so thoroughly incensed by this departure from traditional practice that they have taken steps to distance themselves within their own local situation from something they find abhorrent. Others have expressed their disenchantment by defecting to other sects, particularly to the Church of Rome. For centuries the Church of Rome and the Anglican community have been practising
(i) that only men can become priests.
(ii) that only those men that are ordained within the church can officiate as priests in the act of holy-communion, so called. Therefore, it is seen that women cannot function as priests and are never allowed to do so.

Obviously, the reversal of this policy in the Anglican church has been the result of enormous pressure exerted by feminist and other groups, stridently advancing claims for equal rights and opportunities for women within the established church. Little or no reference has been made to the teaching of God’s word, and statements made by Paul the apostle have been dismissed as examples of his prejudice against women. However, the climax to all this contention was reached on Saturday, 13th March 1994, in Bristol Cathedral when thirty-two women were ordained as priests, with powers to preside over sacramental services within the Church of England.

To the student of scripture who is prepared to accept without question the clear instructions of the inspired word of God, the whole matter is sad beyond belief! The priesthood of ALL believers is a truth that is clearly taught, and for nearly two thousand years both men and women have freely exercised their rights and privileges in situations where godly, scrip-tural order prevails. Let us briefly review what scripture has to say on the matter of priesthood, and which persons God has ordained to participate in this highest of privileges.

Priesthood in the Old Testament
(i) From the time of Adam to Noah each man offered to God for himself.
(ii) From the days of Noah until Abraham a man would offer to God for his family.
(iii) God called a nation (Israel) to be a kingdom of priests, making His intention clear – alas, through disobedience they forfeited this national privilege!
(iv) Out of the ranks of His errant people God called a family of priests, and the Aaronic priesthood (male), was instituted to act for themselves and for all others of Israel. The Aaronic priesthood continued until Caiaphas rent his clothes, Matt. 26. 65, Exod. 28. 32, and the veil of the temple was rent from the top to the bottom, dramatically indicating that the old order was swept away, and that a new order must prevail thereafter, Matt. 27. 51, Mark 15. 38, Luke 23. 45.

Priesthood in the New Testament
After completing His work of redemption upon the cross, and subsequent to His glorious resurrection and ascension, our Lord assumed the office of our Great High Priest in heaven above. We are informed that a new order of priesthood now prevails superseding that of Aaron with all its limitations, and completely transcending all that had gone before. Now, in this day of grace, all believers in Christ Jesus, both male and female, are encouraged to approach God for themselves. ‘Having therefore boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us through the veil, that is to say his flesh: and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water’, Heb. 10. 19-22. What provision and what privilege! Every believer able to enter ‘the holiest’, and therefore a priest by right. What need then of any appointed earthly intermediary to act on our behalf before God, and what presumption on the part of those who would seek to impose such an arrangement upon God’s people in terms of ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. Their division into two separate classes must be ‘anathema’ to our God, as also the acknowledgement of special titles and distinguishing vestments for those who are appointed to officiate in the church. The establishment of earthly altars, the necessary regalia, the ritual, pomp and ceremony, all have links with a past order, and an old economy that God has superseded.

It is blessedly true that all New Testament believers can approach God as priests, at any time and anywhere. Let us enjoy to the full this tremendous privilege, bearing in mind that of old, Aaron only, the high priest and his successors were allowed entry within the veil, and that but once a year and not without blood, Heb. 9. 7. What an inspiration this has been to companies of believers gathered to the name of the Lord – a thought that exceeds every other thought, and that takes no count of circumstances, however humble they might be. On the other hand, it should be noted that while all believers are priests by divine right, it is possible for a believer not to function as a priest and thus deny God a service He seeks, and deserves. Let us remember, too, that those who would act as priests to God should live their lives before men in such a fashion as to commend their priesthood.

In quiet contrast to all the recent upheavals in sectarian groups, where even political arguments have been used to substantiate change, the local assembly of believers that bases its order and discipline upon the clear teachings of God’s word is allowed to function harmoniously and effectively.

A Holy Priesthood
Acknowledgement of the great truth that all believers are priests unto God is seen as one of the distinguishing features of a true Christian assembly, and it is there that we can see priesthood practised. We are described as ‘a holy priesthood’; those who worship by offering up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ, 1 Pet. 2. 5. In practical terms this comes down to expressing to God our worshipful, heartfelt thanksgiv-ing in appreciation of His beloved Son, our Lord and Saviour. This we render as an ‘offering’, presenting Christ to God for His acceptance -Christ, the ascendant theme of our worship, the subject of our praise and thanksgiving. Only Spirit-led worship can rise to such heights, and the spiritual worshipper acknowledges no liturgical set order of worship as he enters God’s presence as a priest. This is why the breaking-of-bread meeting is like no other, and it provides an example of how, without obvious organisation, true worship can proceed in an orderly and directed way, such direction coming from God Himself.

A Royal Priesthood
Peter makes further mention of the priesthood of believers. ‘But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood … that … shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’, 1 Pet. 2. 9. These are stirring words, having obvious reference to the believer’s life of service, and testimony – all of which is seen as priestly work. The order in which Peter informs us of these two aspects of priesthood – priesthood in action – is significant, and surely to be followed. As a holy priesthood we worship first, giving God His portion. Then as a royal priesthood we take our message to others who have need of it: thus worship comes before service!

In the light of all this may we be encouraged to full participation in worship, praise, thanksgiving and prayer when gathered together in assem-bly fellowship. It is always a matter of seeking detachment from those things that have occupied us beforehand, and for the time that we are together concentrating upon things that are spiritual and eternal. It is appropriate that our hearts and minds are filled in such a way as we seek to draw near to God. For those who are led to take public part in assembly gatherings it is not a matter of spiritual gift, but of heartfelt response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Contributions need not be long, but they must be sincere. What is said in such circumstances is directed towards God, and not intended to impress fellow believers. Nevertheless, they should be delighted and uplifted by what they hear, for the same blest Spirit that loosens the tongue of one believer generates response in others who are present, creating a delightful atmosphere of fellowship in priesthood.

So far we have affirmed on the authority of scripture that,
(i) all believers are priests.
(ii) this being so, that women are priests as well as men.

The Role of the Sexes in Priesthood
However, in the light of the current debate, and considering the way in which equality of the sexes is pressed in most situations today, does this warrant acceptance that men and women priests operate in identical fashion in a local assembly? We affirm again that the answer to this problem can only be found in God’s word. What does scripture have to say on the roles of the sexes in terms of priesthood?

Some will turn immediately to Galatians 3. 28, ‘for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’, and insist that no possible differentiation can be made be-tween how men and women take public part in assembly meetings. They see this statement as a licence for women to share equal responsibility with men for leading the worship of God’s people, and to preach, teach and pray in a public way. In answer to this assertion, we believe that in using the phrase ‘in Christ Jesus’ the apostle Paul is making reference to our position in Christ as believers, and not defining a common role for men and women in the local church. In any case, there are other clear directives in scripture to establish divine order for men and women. Their public roles are seen as profoundly different, and they follow a consistent pattern of teaching throughout scripture.

Provisions that apply to men as they serve as priests in the local church
(i) When they pray publicly they should be able to ‘lift up holy hands without wrath or doubting’, 1 Tim. 2. 8. This concerns the ‘state’ of the individual priest, and is a moral requirement.
(ii) When they speak they should do so ‘as the oracles of God’, 1 Pet. 4. 11. This concerns, we might say, the obedience of the individual priest, suggesting that at no point in his operations as a priest should he depart from the clear instructions of God’s word, for he speaks for God.
(iii) When an individual priest leads publicly in prayers, praise, thanksgiving or worship it should be in such a manner that the rest can add their personal ‘Amens’, 1 Cor. 14. 16. This introduces the thought of corporate responsibility, and the man who presumes to participate publicly must bear in mind that he speaks for others, too.

Provisions that apply to women as they serve as priests in the local church
(i) They should keep silent, they are not permitted to speak, 1 Cor. 14. 34. The symbol of their willing submission in these circumstances is seen in the wearing of a head-covering, 1 Cor. 11. 10.
(ii) They are not to pray publicly, ‘I will that the men (males) pray’, 1 Tim. 2. 8.
(iii) Women are not to teach publicly in the assembly, ‘I suffer not a woman to teach,’ 1 Tim. 2. 11-12.

In comparing these two sets of instructions it might appear that those applicable to women are entirely negative, and therefore restricting to believers who would desire to play an active public part in priestly service. Some might go as far as to ask, ‘Are women not allowed to do anything in an assembly of God’s people?’ The answer is, of course, that women can and do fulfil their duties as priests in a silent way, that this is acceptable to God who is as aware of their spiritual contributions as He is of those who take public part. Their devotion will enhance the worship of the whole, and lift the spiritual tone of the meeting.

Assemblies are the richer for godly sisters who are willing to submit to the word of God: who in a quiet spirit of meekness in the presence of God fulfil their duties as priests with faithful devotion. Although their contributions will be in silence, they will have power with God!

We will search the scriptures in vain to find anything about the ordination of women as priests, or for that matter the ordination of men. What we do have in scripture is a concept that far exceeds the stifling arrangements of organised religious bodies that would withhold privilege from men, and deny pleasure to God. We have the truth that all believers are priests and encouragement to take up this holy service for God at all times.

‘Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen,’ Rev. 1. 5-6.


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