Adventist History Church Leadership Uncategorized

The Priesthood of All Believers: Women’s Ordination Q&A

October 26, 2014

The last post generated so much discussion that I felt it would be best to respond to the various concerns under a single follow-up. First, while I’m humbled by the many nice comments and emails I’ve received, I don’t take credit for originating these ideas. These are actually concepts that have been around since the 16th century when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church 479 years ago this week (October 31, 1517) and proposed, as part of these theses, the idea that God originally wanted a Nation of Priests instead of having to settle for priests in a nation. We know this concept today as the Priesthood of All Believers.

A great summary of this matter is found in the following quote:

This [The Priesthood of All Believers] is an important biblical idea that has great implications for our personal spirituality and public life in the Church and in the world: the idea that every believer is a priest, regardless of his or her full-time occupation. This notion was one of the top three ideas of the Protestant Reformation. The first two, Sola Scriptura—which asserts the sole authority of Scripture—and Sola Fide—which teaches justification by faith alone—have been widely taught, but the notion of the “priesthood of all believers” has been by far the most neglected. Martin Luther thought that “this word priest should become as common as the word Christian” because all Christians are priests. Yet for whatever reason, the priesthood of all believers has been much less understood, taught, and expounded upon in writing.

When Luther referred to the priesthood of all believers, he was maintaining that the plowboy and the milkmaid could do priestly work. In fact, their plowing and milking was priestly work. So there was no hierarchy where the priesthood was a “vocation” and milking the cow was not. Both were tasks that God called his followers to do, each according to their gifts.

This has enormous implications for how Christians live their daily lives. If the Church teaches that working in business, communications, politics, or any other profession is just as impactful as working directly in the ministry, it allows Christians to connect their beliefs to their everyday actions, giving them purpose in their jobs and equipping to them to serve others and improve society though their daily work. On the other hand, if the Church implies that the ministry is a higher calling than other professions, it will lose the impact that it has on individuals and society through “secular” vocations.

Luther’s proposal caused an immediate and sometimes negative response from many people and led to a barrage of questioning about his ideas.  Because I like to keep things as simple as possible, I’m not going into a deep study of every concern presented, only the major ones. But, here is my brief response to tie up some of the loose ends that the previous post didn’t cover:

1. Does being a Nation of Priests mean that we need to get rid of all pastors, as well as Conference, Union, and General Conference employees?
One of my favorite quotes is this one:

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

What I’ve realized now is that a nuanced version of this quote is also true:

Those who do know history are doomed to see those that don’t know history repeat it.

When Luther presented the concept of the Priesthood of All Believers, he was likewise accused of wanting to do away with church structure (Justo Gonzalez’s The History of Christian Thought, Vol. 2, pgs. 62-63). Luther was obviously against this assertion as he was a member of the clergy, and believed that spiritual leadership could only be exercised in a community of equally committed believers.  He even went as far as calling “those who qualify themselves and preach whenever they please” as “a group of liars and impostors” (Gonzalez, 65).

Being a Nation of Priests does not mean that anyone can preach in the pulpit whatever and whenever they want, nor imply that every believer serves the same function (1 Corinthians 12:17). Neither does it mean that we need to scrap the organization of our church. Clearly the early church had structure, organization, and leaders. Remember that not everyone receives the same gifts of the spirit. Yet, included among these are gifts are administration, as well as apostles, prophets, and teachers; all of which are used to edify the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:28, Titus 1:4-5).

Furthermore, being a Nation of Priests does not undermine structure. It simply means that, through Jesus Christ, every believer possesses the righteousness of God, and therefore immediate access to God without the need for mediation from a hierarchical priesthood (like the Israelites wanted at the Sinai experience). Really, the concept of the Priesthood of All Believers is actually like a sequel to the doctrine of Righteousness by Faith.

Let me quote Luther directly to further cement this point:

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit carefully avoids giving the same ‘sacerdos’ priest, to any of the apostles or to any other office. Rather he accepts this name to the baptized, or Christians, as their birthright and heredity name…none of us is born an apostle, preacher, teacher, pastor; but there all of us are born solely priests. Then we take some from among these born priest and call and elect them to these offices that they may discharge the duties of the office in the name of all of us. (Ewald M. Plass’ What Luther Says, pg. 1140.)

Luther jamming with his worship team.

Speaking of organization, remember that Jethro (one of the two original priests we discussed last time) told Moses how to organize the camp in Exodus 18, before God gave his plan A to the people in Exodus 19… so no, a Nation of Priests does not equal disorganization.


2. Are you sure plan A was for everyone to be a Nation of Priests? Where do the Headship and Firstborn principles fit into this?

I’m going to make a somewhat provocative statement here:

The headship principle (the principle that says that women are to be subservient under males) and the firstborn principle (the principle that God set apart every firstborn male child for spiritual leadership) were also faulty models based on the human rejection of God’s original plan; they were both byproducts of a rebellion, not his original created intent.

If we go way back to the first human rebellion/rejection of God’s plan in Genesis 3, we find these words to the serpent and the woman in v. 16-17:

And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.”

To the woman He said:

“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;
In pain you shall bring forth children;
Your desire shall be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you.”

Sure, headship-wise, Adam technically became the first human priest to his family (although, before sin, both stood equally before God; the first priest was actually God himself who covered both our first parents with tunics of skin), but only because he and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden where they both enjoyed face-to-face communion with God to begin with. Sure, the firstborns were dedicated to God, but only because God had to settle for having only one person in every family dedicated to his service instead of having the entire world to begin with.  Besides, the firstborn principle completely drops off the map in a practical sense in the New Testament except when referencing aspects of Christ’s ministry, so it could not have been God’s plan A.

The purpose of my previous blog was to bring up the distinction between God’s original intent and actual practice. By original intent, I mean the intent God had in His original design in this world in general, and specifically humankind. God has plans, but we as humans sometimes change God’s plans. So God has to work with man in order to reach His goals. As Adventists, we see this as part of what the Great Controversy is all about: moving humanity little by little back into God’s original or created intent.

That is why Paul rightly compares the relationship between husbands and wives as mutually submissive to each other while both being submissive under Christ. The Bible tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church, willing to die for her, and tells wives to submit to their husbands. It really is a match on who is more humble, not on who’s calling the shots. Created intent.

3. Then why the need for an all-male priesthood?

In the past I often found myself asking, “Well, in contrast to other ancient near-Eastern religious culture groups that had priestesses, Israel broke the norm and established an all-male priesthood. Why?”

I’ve found that the reason for an all-male priesthood, in part, pertains to the purpose and function of the Sanctuary and also to God’s solution of the Sin problem. The Sanctuary service was meant to show the people of Israel, in a symbolic sense, what would happen when the fulfillment of all the Old Testament hopes and dreams came together in the person of Jesus Christ. Just like when you want to teach children, the best way to convey a concept is through some sort of object lesson; so was every part of the earthly sanctuary. I believe that the reason for an all-male priesthood was specifically because of whom the male priestly office was representing! Those males were serving as object lessons to the promise of Genesis 3:16:

He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.”

Males were chosen as priests not because the male sex is or was holier than the female sex, since both males and females are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). The priests were serving a type (as in types/anti-types) of the fulfillment of this promise. Most commentaries will allude to the idea that Eve’s statement in Genesis 4:1 of a male child reflected her hope that this child would be the Promised Seed whom God had foretold one chapter earlier.  (Imagine her heart break when, instead of being the Promised Deliverer, he ended up being the first murderer.)

Likewise, firstborn males were not somehow intrinsically better or holier because of the birth order itself (since the birthright sometimes transferred to non-firstborns: Isaac, Jacob, Judah).  They were significant because of their rank in the family (although you could say that in ancient near-Eastern culture, firstborns were certainly luckier because they had access to the majority of whatever the family inheritance was). Firstborns were set apart because the Lord knew that looking forward, the firstborn of all creation in rank (Colossians 1:15), not order, would someday come down from Heaven, live life as a man, and redeem His fallen world being both a peasant like Jethro and a King like Melchizedek.

Bluntly speaking, to suggest that God still expects for ministry or spiritual leadership to be carried out by a select group of exclusive individuals (be it all-males, all-firstborns, all-Jews, all-vegetarians, whatever) undermines what we as Seventh-day Adventists believe regarding the uniqueness of Christ’s headship, priesthood, and work in the Heavenly Sanctuary, and also undermines one of the central pillars of the Protestant Reformation: the Priesthood of all Believers.

4. Does the New Testament back this up?

First century Christianity had no priests. The New Testament nowhere uses the word to describe a leader in Christian service (see Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism, pg. 50). Clearly there is a distinction between what we as Adventists practice today as pastoral ministry and what was practiced in the Old Testament. So what’s the deal? We, in theory, believe that every believer has equal right to and access to God without the need of a buffer person like Moses and the Levite priests.

However, in practice we view the spiritual leadership of our organization like another church that to this day uses the Old Testament as their model and does require an all-male clergy: the Roman Catholic Church.

The reason for an all-male Catholic clergy is both historical and theological. The theological reason was covered in the previous question (Catholicism still sees their priests serving in the priestly capacity of Christ when they officiate the Eucharist).

Historically, it is important to remember a person by the name of Cyprian. Cyprian of Carthage, a leader in the early church in the 3rd Century, treated “all the passages in the Old Testament which refer to the privileges, the sanctions, the duties, and the responsibilities of the Aaronic priesthood, as applying to the officers of the Christian Church” (see J. B. Lightfoot’s, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, pg. 258).

Over the centuries, this idea would lead to a distinction between believers and their spiritual leaders and set up the hierarchical church structure that Martin Luther had to protest against. Granted, while as Adventist pastors we do not take confessions nor believe that communion is the sacrifice of Jesus in literal miniature form (i.e. the Eucharist), there are times when we do give the impression (whether intentional or not) that there is a difference in importance between the role of a pastor vs. that of the layperson. I can think of at least 5 ways off the top of my head that I didn’t mention in the last blog (I’m not saying that I’m against the concept of ordination; I’m just pointing out how Adventism, in practice, is closer a hierarchical model than we’d like to admit):

  • Adventist pastoral ordination is worldwide and, in many cases, for life… unlike elders and deacons (elite vs. “normal” importance).
  • Only ordained pastors can ordain other pastors… unlike elders and deacons (clergy vs. laity distinction).
  • Most churches prefer that a pastor visit sick members or pray to “bless” the meal, for example at potluck… unlike elders and deacons (as if their visits or prayers were less effective).
  • While it isn’t required, in most fields it is preferred that a pastor officiate communion and perform baptisms instead of the local elders of the church…or deacons.
  • The time and attention given to pastoral ordinations are usually more elaborate than what we give to… you guessed it… elders and deacons.

Cyprian’s concept of a spiritual hierarchy in the church undermines the concepts presented throughout the Bible (Ex. 19:6; Hos. 14:2; Ps. 50:23; Ps. 51:17-19; Ps. 141:2; 1 Pet. 2:5-9; Heb. 13:10-16) and practiced in the early church.

So, even though the current Pope is considered “progressive” by Catholic standards, it will be difficult to allow any woman in their priesthood because of the fact that that their model is still based on the Old Testament structure (complete with a most Holy Place in every church, daily sacrifices, and priestly attire).

Now if Ordination is meant to formally sanction an individual for the purpose of fulfilling the Church’s global mission (Matthew 24:14; 28:19–20), why this distinction?

5. What if you’re wrong?

As mentioned in the last post, because none of us has all the answers, there is a very good chance that I may be wrong on something in the grand scheme of things. However, isn’t it great that what determines my worth and salvation isn’t based on which nuanced version of ordination I take? The Gospel is bigger than any of us. I count it a privilege to work with wonderful men and women who love the Lord. While my heart’s desire is that the world church would allow divisions to ordain women (because it is based on Scripture and the tenants of the Protestant Reformation that we all technically believe in), I will respect whatever decision is made at next year’s General Conference session.

In Conclusion

As one Protestant pastor has observed:

As Protestants, we believe that the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ fulfilled the purpose of and annulled the Aaronic priesthood, as we read in Hebrews. There is no need to continue offering up literal expiatory sacrifices. As the perfect Son of God and High Priest, Jesus established a new covenant (Heb. 9:15-22) with better promises (Heb. 8:6) when he offered himself (Heb. 7:27) as the perfect victim once for all (Heb. 7:27) as our substitute (Heb. 7:27) and ransom (Heb. 9:15). By his death he took away our sins (Heb. 9:28), made us perfect (Heb. 10:14), obtained for us eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12), opened a new and living way in and through him to God’s throne of grace, and sat down at the right hand of God (Heb. 10:12). He now invites every believer with a clean conscience (Heb. 9:14) to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus (Heb. 10:19) to offer continually spiritual sacrifices (Heb. 13:15, 16) as priests in Christ.

In theory, the concept of the priesthood of all believers should undermine the idea that one sex is supposed to rule above another in church. In theory, the concept of the priesthood of all believers should make a church leader not see it as step back if asked to leave the Conference, Union, Division, or General Conference role and return to the church or district level as a pastor. In theory, the concept of the priesthood of all believers should make us humble and approachable in our speech and actions. Yet, as we have seen, theory and practice unfortunately can be very different when played out.

In an age where an accepted church growth principle says that 20% of church members will do 80% of the work while the other 80% sit on the sidelines, I would personally like more help on the frontlines of mission!

When I attended Southern Adventist University, many students wanted the school to join an NCAA type of system where they play against other schools. At one town hall meeting, a student asked our president, Dr. Gordon Bietz, if he would reconsider having us join other Adventist institutions that had similar programs. His answer left the entire auditorium full of students speechless for a few seconds and then, all of a sudden, burst into applause. He said:

At the end of the day, this is what it’s all about.

I would rather have a sports program where I can walk into a gym and see 10 people watching 100 people play instead of watching 100 people watch 10 people play.

He understood the principle that the more people engaged in an activity, the better. I believe this is the principle that God had in mind when he wanted a Nation of Priests and not priest in a nation. I look forward to the day when we will embrace God’s call to go back to plan A as told in Joel 2:28 where the Spirit (along with both the gifts and fruits thereof) will be poured out among all of God’s Nation of Priests, both men and women, in preparation for the Second Coming.

Revelation 1:6 “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and has made us a kingdom, priest to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” Amen.

If you want more thought on the matter of Ordination, feel free to check out what David Asscherick had to say about this on the Lightbearers website.

  • Theodore Coit

    I have not been opposed to WO. This issue has been a topic of consideration for more than 50 years that I can remember and maybe even before I was born. However, talking to people, reading different social media comments and comments from different pastors and the church itself I have mixed feelings. I don’t feel spiritual decisions should be culture based but the result of fasting and praying. I always thought that we should be separate and unique from the world instead of trying to emulate the world. I recently saw a TV show where there was a panel discussion and there was current with the show a public opinion poll being taken and the results during the course of the show. I found this to be equally odious. I strongly believe if God was consulted He would give us an answer to this question. Then that is the course that we should follow no matter what the extent of the fallout. As for Regional conferences I think it is shameful that a church calling itself Gods’ true church should even have this type of separation in churches and schools. Although realizing that it is probably because of a condition being endemic to we humans. You can’t help but wonder on a real level, if we can’t be together down here how could be possibly think we are all of a sudden going to be together in heaven.

    • True, there’s a lot to consider. Thanks for your thoughts!

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