“If God meant women to lead in religious functions, why were they forbidden the priesthood under the Old Covenant?” This question expresses one of many arguments used to limit the participation of women within the church. It is a reasonable question and deserves a thoughtful answer.
The argument is based on the idea that God does not change (Malachi 3:6). Since God is unchangeable, it seems logical that a knowledge of God’s directives at one period of human history can tell us how God wants us to act at any period of history. Under Sinaitic Law women were forbidden the priesthood. God’s deliberate exclusion of women then seems to establish the eternal principle that some religious functions are properly performed exclusively by males.
This sounds plausible, but is it really?
Christians believe that God’s purpose for speaking and acting within human history has been to teach us about God’s self and bring us into fellowship with God. Teaching, a process of building knowledge on knowledge, moves the student from simple concepts to mastery of more and more complex ones. Though it may seem strange to think of God having limitations, in fact God is “hindered” in the same way all teachers are. The immaturity and finite understanding of God’s students limit what God teaches.
Think of how the great genius Albert Einstein might have taught mathematics to students with differing math backgrounds. Einstein’s use of counting apples to teach first graders and a computer to teach college students would not mean the man himself had changed. It would simply mean his method had changed to suit the understanding of his students and the complexity of the math being taught.
In the same way, God’s personality does not change. However, God’s methods of dealing with people have not remained constant throughout history. For example:
“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son ...” (Hebrews 1:1) Later in the book of Hebrews its author writes, “If that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second” (8:7). Why would God enter into a faulty covenant? Why not skip the old imperfect covenant and present the perfect one first? The answer is simple: Human beings were not prepared to understand it.
God’s first covenant established a foundation of concepts that needed to be understood before God’s final and perfect will under the second covenant could be revealed. The “shadow” (Hebrews 8:5; 10:1) of the old system of mediating priests prepared humankind in many ways for the “reality” of the new system of the priesthood of all believers.
Three closely related lessons learned from the priestly system lay a foundation for understanding the new covenant. Together, the three make one statement about the sovereignty of God.
First, the system of priests demonstrated the need for a mediator between humankind and God. No act of worship at the tabernacle or temple could be performed without the assistance of a priest. This system acted out the distance between imperfect/finite people and perfect/infinite God.
Second, the system of animal sacrifices taught the importance of justice in God’s view of the world. When a person sinned, that individual brought an animal to the priest who ceremonially killed it, offering it on the temple altar as a burnt sacrifice to God. The killed animal served as a substitute for the person who had sinned and, because of that sin, deserved to die. The worshipper understood that all that had been done to the animal should have been done to him. After the sin had been satisfied, the priest and the worshipper ate the meat of the animal together in an act of drawing near and communing with God. Thus the practice of substitutional animal sacrifice taught justice: For every wrong done, payment must be exacted.
The third lesson is a combination of the first two. The system of mediating priests and the substitutional sacrifices for sin taught the absolute purity and holiness of God. Only a very special, very qualified person could offer the sacrifices that would bring a sinful community back into communion with a holy God.
Because of the qualifications for a priest were so selective, only a minuscule number of men were suitable to serve. First, there were qualifications of nationality, tribe and family. The priest had to be of the nation of Israel, the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron.
There were age and sex requirements. Only a male older than 25 or 30 qualified (Numbers 4:1-3; 8:23-26). Fifty was the mandatory age of retirement. No woman could serve.
A priest had to be in perfect physical condition. He could not be blind or have a sight defect, nor could he be a hunchback or a dwarf. An injured foot or hand, or one arm or leg longer than the other, disqualified him. A man with a mutilated face, a skin disease, or crushed testicles was forbidden to serve (Leviticus 21:17-24). Only middle-aged males of the blood line of Aaron who were perfect physical specimens qualified.
A priest had to be married, and the qualifications extended even to his wife. He could only marry a virgin; no divorced, widowed, or raped woman, could be the wife of a priest. A woman who had been a prostitute was, of course, out of the question (Leviticus 21:13-15). Later on, rabbis even taught that if the wife of a priest was raped after their marriage he was obligated to divorce her.
If a man and his wife met all of these qualifications, the man could serve as a priestly mediator between the people and God, but only during those times when he was not ceremonially unclean. Leprosy, a running sore, touching anything designated as unclean, and — because it involved a bodily emission—every act of sexual intercourse, rendered a priest “unclean” and temporarily disqualified from service. When a priest had become unclean he was required to wait a specified period of time and bathe his body in water before he could again participate in ritual worship (Leviticus 22:3-7).
The animals brought for sacrifice had to meet almost identical categories of qualifications as the priests. They could not be gotten from a foreigner and had to be more than seven days old. They were to be male animals without blemish, not blind, broken, maimed, having a discharge, or itch, or scab, without a limb too long or too short, and without crushed or broken testicles (Leviticus 22:19-27).
This stringent system of qualifications for priests officiating at sacrifices, as well as for animals offered as sacrifice—along with the strong emphasis on uncleanness as a disqualifier for service—taught an idolatrous people about the purity and holiness of the one true God. The use of mediators between the people and God was part of this lesson. The system of substitutional sacrifices for sin showed God’s expectation of purity from the people and God’s demand for justice. All of these ideas were building blocks on which the perfect will of God within Jesus Christ could later be understood.
In addition to the lessons about God, the system of priests taught us something just as valuable about ourselves. The select group of highly qualified males chosen for the sacred job of being mediators between God and humanity failed miserably as spiritual leaders! Throughout Scripture, men served as qualified priests who were, at heart, very wicked and ungodly men. During the days of the judges, the priests Hophni and Phinehas were slain by God because of their wickedness (I Samuel 2:22-25; 4:11). During the days of the prophets, priests were continually singled out as examples of wickedness. Jeremiah relates that the priests did not seek after the Lord (2:8, 26-27), ruled on their own authority instead of God’s (5:30-31), and dealt falsely with the people (6:13). Finally, the priests did not recognize God in Jesus, and participated in seeking his crucifixion.
The Old Covenant priestly qualifications were tied to what human beings valued in each other. They were related to accident of birth, or station in life, or visible physical characteristics that had nothing at all to do with the heart or the character of a person. However, God, the Great Teacher, used human ideas of specialness to teach us about God’s own specialness.
But what a mistake to assume that the qualifications for the priestly office narrowly defined what God valued in a leader! What a mistake to think that God, for all time, was teaching us how to determine the purity and holiness — or the acceptability for service — of other human beings!
Over a period of several hundred years, the priestly system demonstrated the futility of human methods of judging fellow human beings. It was not a pattern for us to emulate, but to avoid. Today it would be unconscionable to use the rules of the Sinaitic Covenant to qualify spiritual leaders.
Even more unreasonable is the practice of picking only one of the qualifications — maleness, for example — and applying that as a restrictive qualification of Christian leaders. To be consistent, handicapped men would also have to be excluded, as well as male dwarfs, young men and older men, men with skin diseases, single men, men married to a widow or men with a wife who had been raped. All Gentiles and most Jews would be disqualified! Even those who qualified would be considered much of the time to be physically unclean, and therefore unfit for communion with God.
How far this is from the spirit of God in Jesus! Under the New Covenant, God qualifies us as priests because of our heart’s response of love to Christ’s substitutional sacrifice for our guilt (I Peter 2:9). In Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28). As the Apostle Peter learned:
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts (the ones) from every nation who fear him and do what is right. This is the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” (Acts 10:34-36)
Though God, as a loving teacher, is willing to take his children by the hand where they are and lead them to a better understanding, God is unchanging in his criteria of good and evil. Even under the Sinaitic Covenant, God judged people by their hearts. When Samuel wanted to anoint the wrong man as king, God told him:
“Do not look at his appearance or the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).
Today under the Equal Employment Opportunity laws of the United States, job discrimination on the basis of race, creed, national origin, or gender is prohibited. Other laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of age or physical handicap. Although people have always used specific subjective criteria to judge the worth of other human beings, lawmakers increasingly recognize this as injustice and move to stop it. Where is the church of Jesus Christ?
Whatever other arguments some may seek to use to disqualify women from roles of religious leadership, the exclusive maleness of the Old Testament priesthood cannot be one of them.