Old Testament Priests and New Testament Ministers
by Margaret Mowczko
[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. However there are 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). 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 in active ministry (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); or 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 onto 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 participate in Tabernacle or Temple service, many women played a significant role in the national, spiritual life of Israel.
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 descendent 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 completely 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 roles as the ultimate Mediator (1 Tim 2:5; Heb 8:6) and the ultimate High Priest (Heb 6:19-20; 7:23-28; 9:11ff).
Under the Old Covenant, only the High Priest (a specially appointed, male Levite and a direct descendent of Aaron) could enter the Most Holy Place in the Temple, once a year, on the Day of Atonement. 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). [Wow!]
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 2:18 clearly shows that both male and female ministers (servants) 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. Moreover, the New Testament shows that women did function as ministers and leaders in the early church. [See links to articles on this below.]
The Priesthood of the Order of Melchizedek
Several Christian denominations regard their leaders – their clergy – as actual priests. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that their priests are not of the Levitical order of Aaron, but of the royal, priestly order of Melchizedek. To support their view, they teach that Jesus ordained his Twelve Apostles in this order. There is nothing in Scripture, however, which hints at the idea that Jesus ordained his Apostles as priests, let alone as priests in the order of Melchizedek. 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”. (Hebrews 7:24 says that “because Jesus lives forever he has a permanent (Greek: parabatos) priesthood.” The word parabatos can also mean “ non transferable”.)
In contrast with Roman Catholicism, which teaches that only clergy are priests, the New Testament teaches that all believers in Jesus, including women, belong to a kingdom of priests, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 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 well be “yes”.
 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 worshiped 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 (Exodus 19). The priesthood was never intended to include only an elite group of people. (See endnote 7.)
 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 vigor to be his ministers. This symbolically represented the perfection and strength of God.
 In Old Testament times, despite the predominantly Patriarchal society, some women were effective civil and spiritual leaders, for example: Deborah (Judges 4:4), Miriam (Micah 6:4) and the Wise Women of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Samuel 20:14ff esp v20). As well as being leaders, Miriam (Exodus 15:20) and Deborah were also recognised and respected as prophetesses, as was Huldah (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.]
In Old Testament times both men and women could make a vow of separation to God as a Nazirite (Numbers ch 6).
 Among the Levites, only a direct descendent 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. (Ex 27:21-28:43; 30:10; Neh 10:38; 2 Chron 13:10b; cf 1 Chron 24; Heb 9:1ff esp v7).
 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 (Ps 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”.
 Verses which mention Spiritual giftings: Ac 2:17-18; Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:7-11, 27-28; 1 Cor 14:26-33; Eph 4:11-12; Heb 2:4; 1 Pe 4:9-11. These verses do not indicate any gender preference in 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 which apply equally to men and women is masculine.
 Some Christians do have the function and role of congregational leadership, however it is an unscriptural view that divides believers into priestly clergy and non-priestly, non-ministerial lay people. According to the New Testament, all believers regardless of gender, race or social status are priests. Our main roles as priests is to corporately worship God with spiritual offerings, declare his praises and represent God to the world (1 Peter 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.]
 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 (Hebrews 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 Hebrews 5:6). Melchizedek means “King of Righteousness”.
Melchizedek 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.”