When Wikipedia approaches the topic of the ordination of women, it opens by saying:
“The ordination of women in Protestant churches has often been carried out in light of the theological doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which might include women if the expression is taken in a very literal sense.”
It’s entirely true that protestant churches strictly affirm a doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers”; however, applying such a doctrine to this question – or indeed any other question – requires a proper understanding of just what is meant by the term. Can we rightly read or apply such a statement in “a very literal sense”?
First, we must circumscribe the limits of the doctrine: it can have bearing only in so much as it rightly arises from the Bible. This is the principle of sola scriptura, or ‘scripture only’, by which we affirm the primacy of Scripture (rather than extra-Biblical tradition) as our teaching authority.
Second, we must determine what the doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” means by reviewing those passages that support it. This is essential. We are wrong if we treat any summary statement of doctrine in a linguistic sense as bearing authority in its own words; we must always look behind those words to the Biblical support to find the specific import and authority they carry.
Finally, having come to understand the summary statement of doctrine through Scripture, we might apply it to the question at hand. In this way we are protected from generalising something beyond the remit of Scripture, or indeed from teaching as doctrine the precepts of man (Matthew 15:9).
Taking in hand the statement “the priesthood of all believers”, we first must acknowledge that whatever it means, its meaning is only of authority if we find it in Scripture. Thus, we admit that a reading of the statement itself is inadequate to understand in any useful sense.
Next, we are to review the texts used to support the statement. In this case, the primary text is I Peter 2:9, backed up by text such as Exodus 19:6, Revelation 1:6, 5:10, and 20:6. In specific application to the church, the texts are clear that we are all “a chosen race, a royal priesthood” (I Peter 2:9), “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6, 5:10), “priests of God and of Christ” (Revelation 20:6). This is the fulfilment of what is said in Moses, that “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 9:6).
Thus far it is clear: we are priests; but if we leave it here then we miss something important. Our English Bible is, in itself, but a translation of Scripture. We need to dive a little deeper to figure out exactly what God means by saying we are “a royal priesthood” and “priests of God”. To do that, we need to review the Greek text for the verses. In doing so, we find that the word for ‘priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9) is ἱεράτευμα (hierateuma), and ἱερεῖς (hiereus) in the Revelation passages. Exodus 9:6, in the Septuagint, has ἱεράτευμα (as in 1 Peter 2:9), whereas the Hebrew puts כֹּהֵן (kohen).
What do we learn from the underlying words? The Greek ‘hiereus’, or priest, is the term used to denote a specific type of priest. It refers specifically to Gentile or Jewish priests who offer sacrifices, and includes the High Priest who goes to stand before God on behalf of the people and offer for their sins. The Hebrew word ‘kohen’ refers to the same nature of priest.
Why does this matter? In the English language, the word ‘priest’ does not hold a one-to-one correspondence with the term ‘hiereus’ – but also includes the translation of another term, that of πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros).
Glance at the etymology of the English word ‘priest’:
O.E. preost, shortened from the older Germanic form represented by O.S., O.H.G. prestar, O.Fris. prestere, from V.L. *prester “priest,” from L.L. presbyter “presbyter, elder,” from Gk. presbyteros (see Presbyterian). In O.T. sense, a translation of Heb. kohen, Gk. hiereus, L. sacerdos.
This is the first thing we learn. When we say in English “the priesthood of all believers”, we are to understand by it that all believers are priests (hiereus), but not necessarily priests (presbuteros). The ministers called priest in many protestant churches are not hiereus but presbuteros. This is the basis by which they are ordained priest: and it is actually identical to being ordained presbyter, or interchangeably, pastor.
So; as part of the “priesthood of all believers”, we are right to understand some things, such our priestly service in offering ourselves up as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), and the fact we – being washed with the blood of Christ – are qualified to approach the throne of grace (Hebrew 4:16); etc. However, all believers are not presbyters.
There are most certainly duties which belong to us to minister to one another (particularly in the family), but that does not make us all presbyters or pastors. Taking a look at Ephesians 4:11-12 should help explain this:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…
The Apostle does not call them who do the work of ministry the pastor or the teacher; but he uses those titles to refer to those who God has given to train the ‘saints’ in this work. Our common “priesthood” is not a “presbyterhood”, even though we are called to the work of ministry. Note that the word for ministry here is διακονίας (diakonias); which denotes service of the nature of a servant.
Can we then make an argument by which the “priesthood of all believers” means that women should be ordained priest? No. The doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” does not bear on this question, because it refers to a different and distinct meaning of the English word priest. When someone calls for the ordination of women as priests, he is actually calling for them to be ordained presbyters – and that requires a careful discussion of the qualifications, duties, and requirements relevant to presbyters, not priests (hiereus).