In the current discussion and debate concerning whether Scripture permits women to be ordained to the office of pastor or elder, a concept that is frequently mentioned is the “priesthood of all believers.” That phrase, in fact, is the title of the first chapter of the book Women in Ministry. Raoul Dederen, the author of this chapter, comes to the conclusion that the priesthood of all believers “demands a partnership of men and women in all expressions of the ordained ministry.” And Dederen is not alone. Other contributors to the book also reference the priesthood of all believers as supporting women in pastoral ministry. The importance attached to this priesthood concept by those in favor of women’s ordination suggests that it deserves careful study. The question that needs to be answered is whether the priesthood of all believers lends any support to women taking the position of pastor or elder.
That believers are priests is a concept clearly taught in Scripture. Peter refers to believers collectively as “a holy priesthood” and “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). But while this concept is important, it is probably one that the average church member rarely thinks about. That used to be the case for me as well. While I heard the phrase “priesthood of all believers” from time to time, I never really stopped to consider it.
That changed, however, when I came to Weimar College, where I am currently a student. Within a week of arriving on campus, I heard other students talking excitedly about this priesthood and its significance for relating to others within the body of Christ. The reason for this focus at Weimar is a professor named Leroy Moore. Dr. Moore, now 80 years old, has devoted his ministry to promoting unity in the church through what he calls “priesthood principles.” As a result of his influence, as well as through personal study, I have come to a clearer understanding of the priesthood of all believers. In order to fully understand this concept, we need a Biblical overview of priesthood. We will begin with the Old Testament.
The Priesthood in the Old Testament
From the time that sin entered the world until the Exodus, the patriarchs are described as carrying out priestly functions. After the Flood, “Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Gen. 8:20). Other patriarchs are similarly described as building altars and offering sacrifices and burnt offerings (See Gen. 12:7-8, 13:4, 18; 22:13; 26:25; 31:54; 33:20; 35:1-7; 46:1; Job 1:5; 42:8). These patriarchs also performed the priestly role of instructing their families about God’s ways. God said concerning Abraham, “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19).
In the Abrahamic family, it appears that the son who received the birthright blessing was the one who performed the priestly functions for the family. This blessing included spiritual leadership of the family (Gen. 27:28-29). Ellen White confirms that this was the case: “In the earliest times every man was the priest of his own household. In the days of Abraham the priesthood was regarded as the birthright of the eldest son” (PP 350). In the Exodus, God’s choice of the firstborn was further substantiated. After sparing the firstborn of all who had the blood on their doorposts He commanded, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn” (Exod. 13:2).
Upon the Israelites’ arrival at Sinai, a new dimension of priesthood was defined:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:3-6).
This is a very significant passage for understanding God’s unfolding plans for the world. A couple of observations can be made.
First, the language used here is the same as that used by Peter. He picks up the phrases “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation” from this passage. Additionally, it will be demonstrated later that the function he envisions for the priesthood of all believers is the same as what this passage envisions for Israel. It seems clear that Exodus 19 is the basis for Peter’s understanding. These factors suggest that the priesthood of all believers represents a continuity of God’s plans for his people, not something unique to a certain era.
Second, it appears that the primary function of this priesthood was an evangelistic one. At the heart of any priesthood is the work of mediation, and this priesthood was to do that work specifically by representing God to other nations. That seems to be what is communicated in the statement of Ex. 19:5-6, “You shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests” (emphasis supplied). Dederen agrees: “Their vocation was that of a priestly people, chosen and set apart for devotion to God and for the task of bringing God to all nations.”
This responsibility is essentially the same as that given to Abraham: “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). This link to the Abrahamic covenant is confirmed by language of the priesthood passage itself: “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, . . . you shall be to me a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:5-6, emphasis supplied). This means that the priesthood of all believers existed before Sinai. It goes back at least as far as the call of Abraham.
It should be pointed out that although this priesthood role was God’s desire for Israel throughout the Old Testament, it was carried out only very minimally. The people of Israel largely kept the knowledge of God to themselves rather than spreading it throughout the earth. The prophets often had to remind them of their priesthood calling. Isaiah gave the message, “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen’” (Isa. 43:10).
The existence of this all-inclusive priesthood, implicit in the call of Abraham and made fully known at Sinai, did not mean that there was not also an exclusive priesthood. Patriarchs still served as priests after God called Abraham. And the same chapter that identifies Israel as a kingdom of priests speaks of “the priests who come near to the LORD” (Ex. 19:22) as a group separate from “the people” (verse 21; cf. verse 24). The identification of these priests is problematic, as this is before the establishment of the Aaronic priesthood. It seems best, however, to identify them as the firstborn or as representatives from the firstborn. They are likely the same as the “young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD” (Ex. 24:5).
If another priesthood could exist alongside the priesthood of all believers, there is no reason to assume that the Aaronic priesthood, introduced in Exodus 28, replaced the kingdom of priests. If anything, the Aaronic priesthood took on the function that the priesthood of the firstborn had fulfilled. God’s original plan, however, may have been for the firstborn to assist Aaron and his sons. That is the role the Levites later fulfilled, and they are explicitly stated to have taken the place of the firstborn (Num. 3:12-13), presumably because of their faithfulness in the golden calf episode (cf. Ex. 32:25-29; PP 324).
The most compelling reason to believe that the kingdom of priests and the Aaronic priesthood were to exist side by side is that the two fulfilled very different purposes. While the kingdom of priests was to perform a general evangelistic role, the Aaronic priesthood exercised a specific leadership role with several distinct functions. These included:
- Typological—the ministry of the priests ultimately pointed forward to that of Christ (Heb. 8:1-5).
- Ritual—the priests led out in the cultic ceremonies of Israel (Lev. 1:5-9).
- Educational—the priests, as spiritual leaders, gave religious instruction (Deut. 33:10; 2 Chron. 15:3; Mal. 2:7).
Throughout the Old Testament, there was both a priesthood of all believers and a more limited priesthood. The limited priesthood consisted first of patriarchs, then of the firstborn, and finally of the family of Aaron. At the same time, every person in the covenant family who was faithful to the calling to “be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2) was a priest in an evangelistic sense. Unfortunately, though, Israel as a whole was largely unfaithful to this role.
The Priesthood in the New Testament
In the New Testament, a dramatic change takes place—the Aaronic priesthood loses its significance with the appearance of the antitypical High Priest. After His “once for all” sacrifice (Heb. 10:10), there has no longer been any need for the earthly priests to perform the symbolic sanctuary services (Hebrews 7; 8). Christ, as the antitype, performs the functions foreshadowed by the typological aspect of the priesthood. The ritual and educational aspects of the priesthood—which denoted spiritual leadership—were then taken over by leaders of Christian communities (see 1 Cor. 9:13-14, where Paul compares those who proclaim the gospel with priests). Church leaders were apparently the ones specifically designated to instruct their congregations in spiritual matters, and to lead out in Christian rituals, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
In contrast to this change in priesthood, the New Testament shows a remarkable continuity with the Old in regard to the priesthood of all believers. This is clearly demonstrated in Peter’s exposition of the concept, in which he draws heavily from a plethora of Old Testament passages (he quotes or alludes to Isa. 28:16; Ps. 118:22; Isa. 8:14; Exod. 19:5-6; Isa. 43:21; Hos. 1:9-10; 2:23).
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:4-10).
This passage serves to clarify the identity and mission of believers based on their relation to Christ. The passages that Peter references speak either of Christ or of God’s purposes for Israel. What Peter seems to be saying is that believers in Christ are the ones who are part of the true Israel. As discussed previously, the Israelites performed the priesthood role only when they were faithful to the covenant. As a result, unbelieving Jews are not part of the priesthood. It is believers—both Jews and Gentiles—who comprise the priesthood representing the true Israel.
The roles of this priesthood are clearly defined. Believers are “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5) and “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (verse 9). The content of the spiritual sacrifices that believers are to offer is not defined here. Hebrews 13:15, though, is less ambiguous: “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” This sacrifice of praise seems to be one of proclamation in that it involves acknowledging God’s name. It could be that offering these spiritual sacrifices is actually the same function as “[proclaiming] the excellencies of him who called you.”
Whatever the case may be, these roles of proclamation given to believers are essentially evangelistic. In harmony with Peter’s extensive use of Old Testament passages, the role he envisions for believers as priests is the same as that given to the kingdom of priests in the Old Testament—to represent God to those outside the covenant community, to those still in darkness.
Peter is not the only New Testament writer to speak of the priesthood of all believers. The book of Revelation also affirms it, and seems to point to both a present and eschatological scope of the priesthood. Revelation 1:5-6 speaks of a present experience: “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 forever and ever.” Later on in Revelation, believers are described as serving as priests during the Millennium: “They will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:6). The nature of this eschatological role is not entirely clear.
What is clear in these passages—both in 1 Peter and in Revelation—is that the priesthood of all believers is based on connection with Christ. He is the “cornerstone chosen and precious,” upon which believers are “being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5-6). And it is because He “has freed us from our sins by his blood” that we are “priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1:5-6). These passages associate incorporation into the priesthood with the work of Christ. The priesthood of all believers means that each individual is to have a direct connection with Christ.
Because of this connection, all believers are priests and should be involved in ministry. This does not mean, however, that all are called to the same ministry. 1 Corinthians 12, a chapter dealing with spiritual gifts, explains this concept by the metaphor of the body working together. Members individually receive the gifts from the Spirit that together produce a harmoniously functioning body. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (verse 7).
It is not up to the individual to decide independently what ministry he or she will take part in. The Holy Spirit is the One “who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (verse 11). In other words, not all forms of ministry are open to just anyone. All are called to be priests, but not all are called to the same forms of ministry. Dederen recognizes this principle: “Yet as priests of God and because they are priests, the Spirit calls some to specific ministries, including positions of leadership and oversight among God’s people.”
Anyone who thinks that the priesthood of all believers gives all believers a license to participate in any form of ministry should consider the example of Korah. He and his companions questioned the authority of Moses and Aaron with the claim, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (Num. 16:3). Korah seems to be alluding to the kingdom-of-priests concept in his statement, “For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them.” His argument was that because all the people were priests, the exclusive priesthood of Aaron and his family was uncalled for. By the end of the next chapter, however, God reaffirmed his choice of the family of Aaron to be priests in the midst of a kingdom of priests.
The Priesthood Today
So what significance does the priesthood of all believers have for our present discussion about the ordination of women? The priesthood concept doesn’t automatically mean that women can fulfill the role of pastor or elder, for two clear reasons. First, the example of the Old Testament. Contrary to Dederen, who sees “a radical transformation” taking place “with the move from Israel to the Christian church,” this article demonstrates that there is an essential continuity between the priesthood of all believers in the Old and New Testaments. And in the Old Testament, that priesthood existed harmoniously alongside another priesthood that was reserved for a particular group. Second, the principles of the New Testament. In the priesthood of all believers, all are called to ministry based on their connection with Christ, but not all are called to the same ministry. All are to be priests, but not all are to exercise positions of leadership within the body of Christ.
It is entirely possible that even within the priesthood of all believers there could be a certain ministry that is limited to a particular group. There is nothing inherent in the priesthood concept preventing this, but of course it isn’t required by it either. The priesthood of all believers by itself, then, neither supports nor opposes women as pastors or elders. It simply doesn’t answer our question. Further study of other principles of Scripture is needed in order to arrive at a conclusion on this topic.
As we seek a conclusion, there is one lesson from the priesthood of all believers we need to keep in mind. It is the priesthood of all believers. As Dederen points out, “The priesthood about which the New Testament speaks is a corporate priesthood, a priesthood of the whole Christian church.” What this means is that we need to resolve this issue corporately. Individuals must come together in humility to study the issue together. And various entities within the church, rather than pushing their own agenda and working independently, must cooperate with the decisions of the body as a whole.
Jeffrey Dale is an undergraduate theology student at Weimar College, and passionate about understanding the truths of God's Word and its relevance for the world and church.