The Bible and the Ministry of Women

Did Women Serve as Priests, Apostles, and Ministers? Part 1

By Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, PhD

Director, Public Campus Ministries , Michigan Conference 
AuthorMust We Be Silent? and Receiving the Word 


Until the publication of the controversial pro-ordination book Women in Ministry , Seventh-day Adventist students of the Bible have always recognized the lack of Biblical precedence for ordaining women. They observed that, despite the significant role of women in ministry, women were not ordained as priests in the Old Testament. Also, though women made major contributions to the ministry of Christ, He did not appoint a single one of them as an apostle; further, when a replacement apostle was sought (Acts 1:15-26), even though women were present and surely met most of the requirements set (vv. 21, 22), it was a male who was chosen. In addition, there is no record of any woman's being ordained as an elder or pastor in the New Testament church. Why was this so? 1

Conflicting answers to these questions fuel the debate over the ordination of women as elders and pastors. Historically, Adventists have explained that women's exclusion from the Old Testament priesthood and from the New Testament roles of apostles and elders/pastors is not based on mere sociological or cultural factors but rather is rooted in God's divine arrangement of gender role distinctions established at Creation.

Proponents of women's ordination, however, offer different explanations for the lack of Biblical precedence for ordaining women. On the one hand, while conceding that, indeed, there is no precedence for the practice in the Bible, liberal feminist proponents of women's ordination explain this absence by asserting that the Bible itself is time-bound, culturally conditioned, male-centered (androcentric), rabbinic in origin, anti-female in nature, and conditioned by patriarchal mentality or prejudice. Consequently, they argue, the culture of the Old and New Testament times would not have allowed the practice. This is the view adopted in The Welcome Table: Setting a Place for Ordained Women (1995) an Adventist pro-ordination book.

Evangelical or Biblical feminists, on the other hand, correctly point out that since the pagan religions in the Old and New Testament times had women priests, contrary to the claims of liberal feminists, the culture of those times would have allowed women priests, apostles, and elders or pastors. Women in Ministry, the pro-ordination book from Andrews University Theological Seminary, apparently recognizes this fact. So how does the volume explain the lack of Biblical precedence for the practice?

According to the book's authors there were, after all, women priests, women apostles, and women elders or pastors in the Bible!

This article takes a look at this questionable claim in Women in Ministry .

Women Priests in the Old Testament?

I was astonished by one suggestion in Women in Ministry that women actually served as priests in the Old Testament. The reason given to support the suggestion amazed me even more! The suggestion is that in the Garden of Eden God ordained Eve as a priest alongside Adam. The author of this idea argues:

Adam and Eve were, indeed, dressed as priests, with one difference, however: instead of the fine linen that characterizes the priestly garment (Exodus 28:39), God chose animal skin. This specification not only implies the killing of an animal, the first sacrifice in history, but by the same token, confirms the identification of Adam and Eve as priests, for the skin of the atonement sacrifice was specifically set apart for the officiating priests (Leviticus 7:8). By bestowing on Adam and Eve the skin of the sin offering, a gift strictly reserved to priests, the Genesis story implicitly recognizes Eve as priest alongside Adam. 2

Thus our scholar reads Genesis through the lenses of pro-women's ordination and discovers Eve as a "female priest"! In the concluding paragraph of his chapter in Women in Ministry , he states: "Thus Biblical identification of woman as priest in Eden and the redeemed community ["priesthood of all believers"] complements Biblical approval of women's anointing as prophet and judge. In this context, and in reflection upon ordination to pastoral ministry, there is no case for women's exclusion." 3

If the clothing of Adam and Eve with animal skin meant that they were dressed as priests, does this mean that God congratulated them for sinning?

It is puzzling that the Ad Hoc Committee that developed Women in Ministry agreed upon this chapter. Perhaps it illustrates where the logic of the "egalitarian" model leads those desperately seeking a Biblical justification to ordain women as elders or pastors. 4 Since other scholars in Prove All Things have competently challenged the Biblical basis for this unbelievable claim, 5I will concentrate more on the author's cultural arguments.

It seems that our scholar does not accept the Biblical explanation that the headship principle instituted at Creation is the reason why there is no evidence of female priests in the Old Testament. He has manufactured two reasons—namely God's "reaction to pagan syncretism and sexual perversions," and "the incompatibility of the sacrifice [women performing sacrifices in Israel ], normally associated with death and sin, and the physiological nature of the woman traditionally associated in the Bible with life and messianic pregnancy"! In other words, "had it not been for these two factors, ancient Near Eastern cults and more decisively the sacrifices, women might well have been priests in Israel ." 6

It is encouraging that at least one writer, the lead author in Women in Ministry , offers a gentle corrective to the speculative "female priest" theory when he observes that "males functioned as priests in the days of the Biblical patriarchs as well as after God's covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai." 7 Indeed, the Bible teaches that only males served in the headship role of priest in the Old Testament. Prior to Sinai, the head of each household (male) and firstborn sons (males) performed this role. 8 At Sinai, however, this responsibility was assigned "as a gift to Aaron and his sons" (Numbers 8:19; cf. Numbers 3:9-13, 32, 45; 25:10-13). Ellen G. White summarized it this way:

In the earliest times every man [male] was the priest of his own household. In the days of Abraham the priesthood was regarded as the birthright of the eldest son [male]. Now, instead of the firstborn of all Israel , the Lord accepted the tribe of Levi for the work of the sanctuary. . . . The priesthood, however, was restricted to the family of Aaron. Aaron and his sons alone [males] were permitted to minister before the Lord" ( Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 350).

The absence of female priests in the Old Testament was not due to the culture of those times, since the ancient Near Eastern cultures would have allowed female priests, as was the case in the surrounding Canaanite religions. Also, Israelite women were prohibited from serving as priests not because God did not want them to engage in the kind of immorality that the pagan priestesses engaged in (i.e., God's prohibition was not in "reaction to pagan syncretism and sexual perversions"). Such an argument, besides lacking basis in Scripture, implies that women are more prone to idolatry and sexual immorality than men—a sexist argument which is unproven. Finally, the absence of female priests in the Old Testament was not due to "the physiological nature of the woman traditionally associated in the Bible with life and messianic pregnancy," since it takes both men and women to give birth to human life, and since the anticipated "messianic pregnancy" that resulted in the "virgin birth" of Christ greatly limited the physical involvement of both earthly parents.

The reason for the absence of women priests in the Old Testament can best be explained by God's special divine arrangement at the beginning. The headship principle, instituted by God at Creation and reiterated after the Fall, is the only Biblically and theologically consistent explanation for why there were no women priests in ancient Israel. The questionable reinterpretations we have been considering contradict this teaching of Scripture.

The Case of Women Prophets Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah

Before we look at another astonishing claim in Women in Ministry —namely, the assertion that there were women ministers in the New Testament—I will briefly respond to the book's claim that women such as Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed, Miriam, Ruth, Deborah, Hannah, the Shunammite woman, and Huldah occupied headship/leadership positions in the Old Testament. Of these, Miriam the prophetess-musician (Exodus 15:20), Deborah, "a prophetess . . . [who] was judging [NIV "leading"] Israel at that time" (Judges 4:4), and Huldah, the prophetess to whom Josiah the king and Hilkiah the high priest looked for spiritual guidance (2 Kings 22), are often cited as exceptional "women leaders exercising headship over men." 9

On the above assumption, it is claimed that women today should be ordained as elders or pastors. In making this claim, however, Women in Ministry seems to confuse the issue of women exercising the leadership authority of elders or pastors with the legitimacy of women filling the messenger role of prophets. It also overlooks the fact that under the Old Testament theocracy, Israel was a nation governed by God and His law. In the Old Testament system, the leaders who were selected—prophets, priests, judges, and kings—differed in how they were chosen and in the extent of their respective authority.

Two examples can highlight the separation of the duties of prophets and priests . In the Old Testament, Amram and Jochebed had three children—Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. All three were prophets. But while the sons both served as priests, Miriam did not. She was a prophetess but not a priest. Similarly, in the New Testament we read about the prophetess Anna in the Temple (Luke 2:36, 37). But we never read that she or any other prophetess offered sacrifices. The Bible makes it clear that the priesthood is a male role.

The leadership role of prophet (likewise judge ) was not an elected office. God Himself chose and authoritatively commissioned (ordained) prophets (and judges) as His mouthpiece; they were not elected by the people as leaders to exercise administrative or executive authority. Thus, kings (and judges) and priests were all to be subject to the authority of God, whose prophets delivered His messages.

Similarly, in both the Old and New Testaments, God chose and commissioned (ordained) prophets without regard to gender (e.g., Miriam, Deborah, Huldah). On the other hand, the Bible teaches that elders and pastors are to be chosen and commissioned (ordained) by the church within guidelines stipulated in Scripture. One such criterion for the office of elder or pastor is that the one chosen must be "the husband of one wife" (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6), an expression whose Greek construction emphasizes that the elder or pastor must be the kind of man who loves only one woman as his wife.

Elders and pastors (the Bible makes no distinction in their office) are to be subject to the authority of God's messages coming through His chosen prophets. As leaders of the church, elders and pastors are given administrative and leadership responsibility and authority that prophets are not. Church leaders are responsible to God for their reception of the prophetic message, but they are not under the administrative authority of the prophets.

We may see this difference clearly both in Scripture and in the experience of Ellen G. White. Elijah could give King Ahab God's message, but he did not have executive authority to make the king obey or to countermand Ahab's orders to have Elijah arrested (1 Kings 17:1-3, 18:7-10). Jeremiah proclaimed God's judgments with divine authority, for which he was imprisoned by priest, princes, and king (Jeremiah 20:1, 2; 37:11-38:10). They had authority different from his. Even Deborah's authority as "prophetess [who was] judging Israel " illustrates how God-fearing women are to exercise their unique gifts and leadership in the context of the Biblical teaching of headship. 10

In Seventh-day Adventist history, the closest parallel to the prophetic authority and unique leadership of Deborah is Ellen G. White. Though she never claimed to be a leader of the church, she did exercise her role as a messenger of the Lord. In the early 1870s, Mrs. White had authority to communicate God's plan for Seventh-day Adventist education, but she did not have authority to make the leaders follow it in founding Battle Creek College . Prophetic authority is not the same thing as the administrative responsibility of the chosen leadership. Mrs. White herself refused to be called the leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church , referring to herself as "a messenger with a message": "No one has ever heard me claim the position of leader of the denomination. . . . I am not to appear before the people as holding any other position than that of a messenger with a message" ( Testimonies for the Church , vol. 8, pp. 236, 237).

Our conclusion is that Miriam, Huldah, and Deborah (like Ellen G. White) were prophets. But their authority as prophets should not be confused with exercising headship authority in the home (as husbands) and in the church (as elder or pastors). We can do so only by resorting to questionable reinterpretations of Biblical teaching. Women in Ministry , therefore, misleads readers when it compares the headship authority of the elected leadership office in the church (elders or pastors) with the prophetic authority of the nonelected office of prophets or prophetesses.

"Priesthood of All Believers"

A recurring claim in Women in Ministry is that the doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers" leads to an egalitarian (i.e., "equalitarian") model of the ordained ministry, in which gender plays no role. The author of the lead chapter writes:

Males functioned as priests in the days of the Biblical patriarchs as well as after God's covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai . With the move from Israel to the Christian church, however, a radical transformation occurred. A new priesthood is unfolded in the New Testament, that of all believers. The Christian church is a fellowship of believer priests. Such an ecclesiology, such an understanding of the nature and mission of the church, no longer poses roadblocks to women serving in any ministry. It in fact demands a partnership of men and women in all expressions of the ordained ministry . The recognition of the priesthood of all believers implies a church in which women and men work side by side in various functions and ministries, endowed with gifts distributed by the Holy Spirit according to His sovereign will (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). 11

The claim that women can also function "in all expressions of the ordained ministry" (including the headship roles of elders or pastors) does not follow. The priesthood of all believers is not about particular church functions of men and women. Christians are part of a priesthood because every believer has direct access to God through Christ without any need for other intermediaries (cf. Hebrews 10:19-22). The New Testament doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" (1 Peter 2:5, 9-12) also recognizes that the church is a worshipping community (a priestly people called to offer spiritual sacrifices of praise and prayer) and also a witnessing community (a missionary people called to declare the "praises of Him Who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light"). Every church member—whether man or woman—has been called to the soulwinning ministry of the church.

It does not follow that every church member may perform an identical function in the church. 12 The Bible itself establishes what the qualities of an elder or pastor should be (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Among other things, the elder or pastor must be "the husband of one wife," one who "rules well his own house" (vv. 2, 4, 5; Titus 1:6). A woman cannot legitimately fulfill this gender-based qualification. 13

Moreover, the apostle Peter makes it clear that the doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers" was not a new innovation "unfolded in the New Testament." Rather, it was based on an Old Testament concept (1 Peter 2:5, 9-12; cf. Exodus 19:5, 6). In the Old Testament, there was "the priesthood of all believers." God declared, "Ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Yet, no women served as priests in the Old Testament. Not even all males served as priests, but only those from the tribe of Levi. 14 And whereas all priests were Levites, not all Levites were priests. Only the family of Aaron and his male descendants were assigned this responsibility (Exodus 28:1, 41, 43; Numbers 3:10, 32; 20:28; 25:10-13).

If there was such a "radical transformation" of the Old Testament concept of "priesthood of all believers" as to demand "a partnership of men and women in all expressions of the ordained ministry," how is it that we cannot find a single unequivocal example of women serving as elders or overseers in the New Testament?

To claim, as many writers in Women in Ministry do, that the priesthood of all believers eliminates gender role distinctions requires a substantial leap of logic. It is not validated in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Pro-ordinationists can only sustain their reinterpretation of the concept by imposing on the Bible the feminist concept of "full equality," understood to mean the total obliteration of male-female role differentiation.



1. Observe also that, despite the active involvement of women in ministry in the apostolic church, Paul's Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus (letters specifically written to pastors and laity) contain instruction that only men may aspire to the office of elder or pastor. "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men" (1 Timothy 2:12, RSV); "a bishop [or elder] must be . . . the husband of one wife" (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). These passages all use the same Greek word for "man" and "husband." It is not the generic term anthropos, from which the English word "anthropology" derives and which refers to human beings, male or female, without regard to gender. Rather, Paul employed the specific word aner, a term that means a male person in distinction from a woman (cf. Acts 8:12; 1 Timothy 2:12), one capable of being a husband (see Matthew 1:16; John 4:16; Romans 7:2; Titus 1:6). Why did Paul prohibit women from exercising the headship/leadership role of elder or pastor?

2. Jacques B. Doukhan, "Women Priests in Israel : A Case for Their Absence," in Nancy Vyhmeister, ed., Women in Ministry (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1998), pp. 36, 37. The book is cited hereafter as WIM .

3. Ibid., p. 39.

4. Apparently, members of the Ad Hoc Committee do not challenge this questionable interpretation of Genesis that is included in Women in Ministry , as long as there is "agreement on the big picture" of ordination (borrowing the words of the editor; see Vyhmeister, "Prologue," WIM , p. 4).

5. P. Gerard Damsteegt has offered a more thorough response to Doukhan's "female priest" concept in Prove All Things: A Response to Women in Ministry ( Berrien Springs , Mich. : Adventists Affirm , 2000), pp. 123-128). See also Samuele Bacchiocchi's comments in Prove All Things, pp. 65-110.

6. Doukhan, "Women Priests in Israel : A Case for their Absence," WIM , p. 38; cf. pp. 33, 34.

7. Raoul Dederen, "The Priesthood of All Believers," WIM , p. 23. Though Dederen does not believe in "female priests" in the Old Testament, yet as we have shown in an earlier section he goes on to argue mistakenly that a "radical transformation occurred" so that a new "priesthood of all believers" is unfolded in the New Testament that allows women to function "in all expressions of the ordained ministry." Cf. Denis Fortin, "Ordination in the Writings of Ellen G. White," WIM , p. 116; Vyhmeister, "Epilogue," WIM , p. 433.

8. Thus, prior to Sinai, Noah (Genesis 8:20), Abraham (Genesis 22:13), Jacob (Genesis 35:3), and Job (Job 1:5) performed the headship role of priest of the family. At the time of the Exodus, God claimed all firstborn males as His Own (Exodus 13:1, 2, 13). Later, because of their faithfulness during the time of the golden calf apostasy, males from the tribe of Levi took the place of the firstborn males or heads of each family (Numbers 3:5-13; 8:14-19).

9. See, for example, Richard M. Davidson, "Headship, Submission, and Equality in Scripture," WIM , pp. 272, 273; cf. Vyhmeister, "Epilogue," WIM , p. 434, and Jo Ann Davidson, "Women in Scripture," WIM , pp. 161-172.

10. The unique leadership of Deborah as prophet and judge in Israel is probably the best model of how women can exercise their leadership gifts in the absence of capable men (Judges 4:4-24). However, whereas other judges led Israel into victory in battles, God told Deborah that Barak was to do this (vv. 6, 7). Apparently she was the only judge in the book of Judges who had no military function. Also, Deborah does not assert leadership for herself, but she gives priority to a man—even though the man was reluctant to go to battle without her (v. 8). Deborah rebuked Barak's failure to exercise his God-appointed leadership; he is told that the glory that day would go to a woman—not Deborah, but Jael (vv. 9, 17-25.). Thomas R. Schreiner therefore concludes that Deborah's "attitude and demeanor were such that she was not asserting her leadership. Instead, she handed over the leadership, contrary to the pattern of all the judges, to a man" (see Schreiner, "The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership: A Survey of Old and New Testament Examples and Teaching," in John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood , p. 216).

11. Raoul Dederen, "The Priesthood of All Believers," WIM , p. 23, emphasis mine; cf. J.H. Denis Fortin, "Ordination in the Writings of Ellen G. White," WIM , pp. 116-118, 128, 129; and Jerry Moon, "Ellen G. White on Women in Ministry," WIM , p. 203.

12. "This new order, the priesthood of all believers," according to Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . , p. 143, "means that each church member has a responsibility to minister to others in the name of God, and can communicate directly with Him without any human intermediary. It emphasizes the interdependence of church members, as well as their independence. This priesthood makes no qualitative distinction between clergy and laity, although it leaves room for a difference in function between these roles" (emphasis mine).

13. The phrase "husband of one wife" is a call to monogamous fidelity —that is to say, an elder must be "faithful to his one wife." The word aner (translated "man" or "husband" in the English translations) means a male of the human race. Therefore, the Greek phrase, mias [of one] gynaikos [woman] andra [man] (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6), literally translates as a "man of one woman," or "one-woman man," meaning "a male of one woman." When used of the marriage relation it may be translated "husband of one wife" (KJV) or "husband of but one wife" (NIV). Because in this passage the words for "man" and "woman" do not have the definite article, the construction in the Greek emphasizes character or nature. Thus, "one can translate, ‘one-wife sort of a husband,' or ‘a one-woman sort of a man.' . . . Since character is emphasized by the Greek construction, the bishop should be a man who loves only one woman as his wife." (See Kenneth S. Wuest, The Pastoral Epistles in the Greek New Testament for the English Reader [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952], p. 53.) Also, because the word "one" ( mias ) is positioned at the beginning of the phrase in the Greek, it appears to emphasize this monogamous relationship. Thus, the phrase "husband of one wife" is calling for monogamous fidelity —that is to say, an elder must be "faithful to his one wife" (NEB). For an excellent summary of the various interpretations of this text, see Ronald A.G. du Preez, Polygamy in the Bible with Implications for Seventh-day Adventist Missiology (DMin project dissertation, Andrews University, 1993), pp. 266-277.

14. Dederen has pointed out that there were a few non-Levites who, on occasion, performed priestly functions: Gideon (Judges 6:24-26); Manoah of Dan (Judges 13:19); Samuel (1 Samuel 7:9); David (2 Samuel 6:13-17); Elijah (1 Kings 18:23, 37, 38) (see Dederen, "The Priesthood of All Believers," WIM , p. 11). A careful study of these specific instances may offer some Biblically consistent explanations. For example, since Samuel was Elkanah's son, he too was a Levite (1 Chronicles 6:27, 28, 33, 34; cf. Patriarchs and Prophets , p. 569). On David's apparent offer of sacrifices, it appears from 1 Chronicles 15-16 and Patriarchs and Prophets , pp. 706-707 that David did not offer the sacrifices himself but simply paid for and directed them. It is in this sense that he is credited with offering the sacrifices. Regarding Elijah, we have no evidence from Scripture about whether or not he was a Levite. Without other information, we may have to assume that he was a Levite living in Gilead (1 Kings 17:1). With respect to Gideon, Ellen White makes it clear that though God in this one instance specifically directed him to offer the sacrifice, it was wrong for Gideon to have "concluded he had been appointed to officiate as a priest" ( Patriarchs and Prophets , p. 547; cf. p. 555); the same may apply to Manoah of Dan (Judges 13:19). In any event, even if it can be shown that the above Old Testament characters were all non-Levites and that they actually performed priestly functions, these exceptions only prove the validity of an established rule that only Levites could serve as priests. The phenomenon of "exceptions" to the normal order must always be recognized. But when humans instead of God initiated those exceptions, there were disastrous consequences. See, for example, Korah (Numbers 16:3-7); Saul (1 Samuel 13:8-14); Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:31-13:5; 13:33, 34); Uzzah (2 Chronicles 26:16-21).

"The Bible and the Ministry of Women" Part 2