The All-Male Priesthood

I wanted to make some comments about the requirement made by some Christian denominations (notably the Catholic and Orthodox) that their priests (ministers, pastors) be exclusively male.

I suppose that we begin with the historical fact that Jesus, his disciples called “The Twelve”, the other named New Testament writers, bishops and the “church Fathers” were all male.

The question then is whether this fact is the result of selective reporting, cultural bias, or something significant from God. There is certainly ample support for the cultural bias theory, and it would seem to be the most likely candidate. However, can we find any scriptural support for the idea that “maleness” is related to the characteristics needed by a Priest?

The first argument that I would like to discuss goes like this…

“The Priest is an icon for Jesus Christ. Jesus was male. Therefore a Priest must also be male.”

I find this argument unconvincing because it (seemingly arbitrarily) picks one particular detail about Jesus from among many and makes this a criterion for a “good icon”. Jesus was born of a Virgin– should all priests have this characteristic also? He spoke Aramaic, he was born in Palestine, he walked on water, he loved children… Why is his maleness selected as a requirement and not the others?

A deeper objection is simply that Jesus is not male (any more). The person of the Trinity that we know historically as Jesus was only “male” for a tiny stretch of time. I know of no Church (except perhaps the LDS) that claim that the Jesus who sits at the right hand of the Father is in any sense male. [Since writing that statement, I heard a sermon preached by Dr. Bob Jones, chancellor of Bob Jones University, arguing that God is male.]

It would seem that a male priest is more an icon for the paternalistic tradition of the church and its priesthood, than for the eternal LOGOS of God.

As an aside, the LOGOS language in John chapter 1 is obviously derivative of the description of WISDOM which appears in Proverbs. And, as we know, WISDOM in the book of Proverbs is depicted as Female.

3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being. [John 1:3]

The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens. [Proverbs 3:19]

Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and call insight your intimate friend. [Proverbs 7:4].

Another Female image of Jesus is found in Matthew’s gospel:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! [Matthew 23:37]

Perhaps the most telling objection to the all-male priesthood is simply the fact that the New Testament calls all Christians to be priests (clearly making no distinction between men and women as Christians).

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:28]

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation–if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good [note the maternal image of Jesus here]. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected, by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. [1 Peter 2:1-5]

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. [Rev. 1:4-6].

The second argument that I wish to discuss is:

“The Twelve disciples were male, so priests must be male.”

To this I would reply that the Twelve that Jesus selected do not correspond with contemporary Priests–The Twelve was a special office. It is clear from Scripture and Christian history that many of the early disciples of Jesus were women, and women it seems, provided much of the financial and material support in the Christian movement. A woman was the first witness to the resurrection. One woman, Junia, was called an apostle.

Greet Andronicus and Junia[s] [Julia in some manuscripts], my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. [Rom 16:7]

We have already seen above that all Christians are called as Priests.

Another argument from a Catholic web site goes roughly:

The Blessed Virgin Mary, Co-redemptrix and Queen of Heaven, conceived without sin, surely should be a priest if any woman could be. She was not, hence women priests must have been forbidden by God.

I have a number of objections to that argument:

  1. If the Virgin Mary were Co-redemptrix, Queen of Heaven and conceived without sin, then why does the New Testament not say so? And if Mary occupies such an essential role in Christendom then surely she would be at least mentioned in one of the Apostolic letters (Peter, James, Paul, John, Jude…). She isn’t, so she doesn’t.
  2. There is no evidence that Mary was not a priest. But there is no evidence that anyone was a priest (in the Catholic sense) in New Testament times. An early Christian document, The Didache, describes the sacrament as being administered by the “president of the congregation.”
  3. The argument suggest that the priesthood is an honor rather than a calling and a reward for virtue rather than an act of grace.
  4. (Pardon my sarcasm here) Jesus said that his disciples were to be servants, and we could hardly expect the Queen of Heaven to take on such a menial task.

Another third argument to consider is this:

What is the necessity of having women priests?

This approach begs the question, presuming that there is a tacit reason for men to be priests, but requiring justification for women. The same question might be asked: What is the necessity of having women doctors, or senators, or airline pilots. The list of traditional male roles goes on and on to the extent that it should be clear that the “necessity” of women priests is the necessity of women being equal participants in society. And this would be even so even without the fact that there is a serious shortage of priests in the Catholic Church.

A final point that I wish to make is that women are called by God to the ministry, the Pastorate, and the Priesthood; and that God has blessed the ministry of these women.

I do not think it either safe or wise to put our traditions before the word of God.

[All scripture passages from the NRSV used by permission]

This entry was posted in Social Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.