This article is from Restoration Studies III
At the present day in the history of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, there are no questions more pressing than the questions which relate to priesthood. What should be the place of priesthood in the church’s servanthood? Do women have any role in priesthood functions and structures? These and similar questions are being discussed and debated in virtually every congregation in North America, and in many other places throughout the world.
This paper will not attempt to answer these questions, but it is my hope that some data and historical perspectives offered will be of some use to the leaders and members of the church as they wrestle with such questions and their implications. I will first briefly touch on some of the philosophical aspects of the nature of priesthood. Is it eternal, existing in its essence in God, apart from its human expression, only intermittently being granted by God to deserving and qualified men? Or is priesthood’s essence only existent in human history, in the particular individuals who carry its functions in the context of culture? Subsequently, I will review superficially the history of priesthood in the Old Testament and New Testament periods, then offer a review of some historical perceptions from the recent past in the Reorganized church.
I must acknowledge my indebtedness to Paul Edwards, Wayne Ham, Peter Judd, and Geoffrey Spencer for their major contributions to this paper in the form of essential research. Without their expertise in reviewing the necessary literature, this paper could not have been prepared. However, at the same moment I laud their valuable assistance, I free them from responsibility for the actual contents of this presentation, lest I find myself in the position of Jonah’s whale in the apocryphal account of the story. You will recall that somewhere near Nineveh, the beached whale “barfed” Jonah out on the sand. The whale was still green around the gills (never mind that mammals don’t have gills), and Jonah himself was somewhat the worse for wear due to the whale’s gastric juices. In an Oliver Hardy style, Jonah says to the whale: “We wouldn’t be in this fine mess if you had only kept your bug mouth shut!” Herewith I grant therefore my valued colleagues complete dissolution of marriage to this text, no matter how closely or distantly it may seem to be related to their excellent research.
As far as the Judeo-Christian tradition is concerned, from the earliest times when humanity has experienced a sense of the Divine moving and acting in our world, Deity has elicited a response of awe and an awareness of mystery. There has always been the feeling that the Deity surprised humans by self-disclosure or by some display of divine power – it was not as if someone consciously set about to create God, or through personal effort invented a means to discover God. Jews and Christians alike testify that it was always the Divine which apprehended the human rather than the human apprehending the Divine.
With that divine self-disclosure came an awareness on the part of the recipients of revelation that they were somehow favored to have this new correspondence with God. Whether it was generally recognized by their tribe or family or village or culture, or whether no one else at all was aware of it, the individual knew that God had intervened in a way that was uncommon. They thus became a chosen person or people, called out from the ordinary stream of their peers. This concept of vocation, of calling, was and is implicit in any apperception of the Divine.
Priesthood is a natural result of human society’s attempts to socialize and institutionalize this apperception. Priesthood developed as a means of dealing with the varieties of religious experiences operating subjectively among a people, and dealing with it in an organized way that authenticated divine experience, and authorized its intermediaries.
Priesthood as a concept is inextricably related with the human experiences of the Divine, and, in the mins of the believers, it partakes of some of the same attributes as the Deity possesses. Thus to perceive a Deity as eternal, absolute, and universal often gives is to a perception of a priesthood which is eternal, absolute, and universal. God’s intermediary is perceived by the common folk to possess some of God’s attributes. This is so because of the way in which Deity breaks into one’s awareness, causing at one and the same time
- an understanding of some sort about the nature of God
- an awareness of one’s unique favor in having been chosen as an intermediary for this experience and for its future consequences.
It makes little difference that an anthropologist may be able to document the scientific influences, both physical and psychological, which may have had a part in creating the experience or illusion of an experience. The supreme fact is that the person experienced as real whatever the person think he or she experienced.
Simply stated, God is perceived as acting in the human world, whereas humans react to the divine initiative. When that action is felt personally, one feels personally favored and called by God. This sense of calling is analogous to a perception of the Divine because of the way in which it arises from experience with God. Some of the qualities of holiness thought to exist in the prophecy also are thought to dwell in the prophet. This leads naturally to the assumption that the qualities of priority and universality which inhere in God or God’s will also inhere in the “favoredness” of priesthood as a key of access to God. Thus priesthood may be thought to be eternal, preexistent, absolute, and universal, because God is so perceived, and priesthood is conceived as our closest tie to God.
However, it is appropriate for us to ask if we are warranted in holding such perceptions. Does such a concept of priesthood square with all else that we know about reality, and about Deity? From another perspective, is priesthood categorically different from all other human experiences and categories, dwelling in an ethereal realm that only occasionally catches up to the human into a mystical relationship with the Divine? Or is priesthood a category of human experience, set apart from all others, perhaps but nonetheless fully integrated into the totality of life? Is priesthood what priesthood does, functionally (nominalism)? Or is priesthood what priesthood is conceived to be (realism)?
Joseph Smith, Jr., left some scriptural indications which may be interpreted to suggest that we are warranted in holding a belief in a priesthood which exists as universal essence, eternal and absolute, and therefore existing independent of human manifestations of priesthood. In the Inspired Version, Hebrews 7:3 reads “… which order [of priesthood] was without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life. And all those who are ordained unto this priesthood … [abide] a priest continually.” A passage in the Doctrine and Covenants (Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1983), Section 83:2G and 3A also reads “which priesthood continueth in the church of God in all generations, and is without beginning of days or end of years … which priesthood also continueth and abideth forever.”
But may it not be that the “order of priesthood” exists without father, mother, and descent, and without beginning or ending, due to the fact that it does not at all exist independent of the particular priests who collectively comprise priesthood? The priests obviously do have father and mother and descent and do have a beginning and an ending. But the sum of them does equal more than an adding of finite persons together with other finite persons, for they may succeed one another, providing priesthood with a quality of transcendence. Priesthood may have patterns of succession that exceed finitude, permitting a continuity of succession so that the priesthood may “continue and abide forever” as long as humans exist to carry the lineage. Furthermore, believing in eternal life for humans also establishes a continuity of priesthood in the priests who partake of eternal life, thus imparting eternal qualities to priesthood itself through the priests who are bearers both of eternal life and priesthood.
Moreover, if it is held that priesthood is “eternal”, then it may also be argued that it is so by virtue of its particularity, not its universality, because its particularity is in the embodiment of priesthood in individual men. Joseph Smith also brought to the church the scripture which says that “the elements are eternal” (Doctrine and Covenants 90:5). Thomas Aquinas said that if universals exist in things as their essence, then things are made individual by their matter. That is, if the universal idea of priesthood exists in individual members of priesthood as their essence, then the priesthood members are made particular manifestations of universal priesthood by virtue of their material nature. However, Joseph Smith, Jr.’s statement that “the elements are eternal” would suggest the contrary, that due to the individual priest participating in human life and therefore partaking of physical and material existence, the elements of matter, being eternal, foresee an eternal quality to the individual’s priesthood. Thus priesthood’s particularity is cause for its universality and eternal qualities.
Inasmuch as priesthood is described by Joseph Smith, Jr., in several scriptures as being “without father or mother”, it may be presumed that he is suggesting that priesthood is universal, and that individuals may share temporarily in the essence of the universal as they are divinely called and ordained. They are born of a father and mother, but priesthood is not, and continues without them. Yet when taken in the context of Joseph Smith’s other scriptural statements, such as “the elements are eternal”, we are exposed to a difference facet of his thinking. If priesthood is “without father or bother, beginning or ending”, does it necessarily follow that it is in itself preexistent, eternal, and universal? It might rather be that priesthood is without beginning or ending due to it always and only existing in humans. If its essence can only be found in the particular then it is as eternal as the particular is. Joseph Smith, Jr., said that not only does the human spirit continue after death, but that the elements comprising the material universe (hence the human embodiment) are also eternal. Thus if humans are eternal, and if priesthood is found only in humans, then it may be that priesthood continues because of its expression in individual humans. Particularity and nominalism are as logical an interpretation for Joseph Smith’s scriptural expressions as may be realism and universalism.
There are some compelling reasons why it is difficult for us to accept the idea of priesthood existing absolutely or universally, independent from any particular expression. First, the concept of universals and absolutes seem to have had its origins in Greek thought, not in Judeo-Christian developments. This requires us to look to a culture rather than revealed source for even the concept of the universal / absolute itself.
Second, the evolution of priesthood historically has been related pragmatically to circumstances of culture and exigency. This will be explored in some detail later in this paper, documenting the impact of cultural considerations on the evolution of priesthood from Old Testament and New Testament times, and from the more recent history of the Restoration movement.
Third, we must take into consideration that the authoritarian churches which espouse a polity grounded in theism and operating through a priesthood hierarchy (such as the Catholic, Orthodox, and Mormon churches) are dependent on the universal view for support to much of their theology, for example, doctrines of the fall, sin, salvation, moral law, the church, etc. 1 Although it may not be necessarily so, in practice it appears that most (or perhaps all) such churches wed government by the clergy with a universalistic or realistic view of priesthood. It becomes questionable, therefore, whether a church which identifies itself as a “theocratic democracy”, as does the RLDS church, can accept a universalistic position and remain a balanced theocratic democracy, because it may bring in its brain a polity which is more theistic (that is God and priesthood directed) and less democratic (direction by the people) than the church perceives itself to be.
The weight of the evidence seems to require us to look at priesthood as being particular, rooted in human history, evolving in human culture, serving divine and universal purposes (as best these may be perceived) but within a context of human society. For Latter Day Saints, it is the bringing together of the divine intent into the affairs of the human social order for the redemption of society, which is “the cause of Zion” or the kingdom of God on earth. For our faith to be consistent, this suggests a nominalistic view of priesthood as existing in the particular individuals who are called to be priests.
II. Old Testament
In ancient times, priesthood was not necessary for the performance of sacrificial functions. Although sacrifice was an important form of worship, anyone could offer sacrifices. Not only is this the viewpoint of scholars of Old Testament and Hebrew history, it also appears that Joseph Smith, Jr.’s Inspired Version of the scriptures supports this point of view. In Genesis 4: 4-10, Adam’s first sacrificial offerings appear to have been made early in his life experience prior to the development of priesthood. Further support to this understanding appears in the insight which Joseph Smith brought in Doctrine and Covenants 104: 18-28, which indicates that priesthood was instituted sometime during Adam’s extraordinarily long lifetime, spanning more than nine centuries. However, there appears no suggestion either in Genesis or the Doctrine and Covenants that priesthood was necessary for the offering of sacrifice during the earliest times.
Originally, there was no requirement that Levites or priests or a special family or tribe should provide for this function. These requirements came later. When priesthood appeared as a functioning authority, it came into the context of a society which was already patriarchal. Consequently, priesthood originally was conferred only on males. The earliest forms of priesthood had to do more with caring for and guarding the sanctuary and its appurtenances (after they had been related to the worship of the people), and for consulting the prophetic oracle. The Urim and Thummim, along with the Ephod, were used as a means of consulting the oracle for answers that would establish right from wrong, yes from no, true from false, guilty from not guilty. Thus, criminal cases were appealed to the priest for decision as being “brought before God”, inasmuch as the priest could consult the oracle, the Urim and Thummim.
Priesthood began to be inherited and passed from generation to generation during this same early period when a chief function was to consult the oracle. Perhaps this had to do with the necessity of learning the art of using and interpreting the Urim and Thummim, and thus it naturally involved passing on a skill from father to son. In any event, early established priesthoods are noted historically at the sanctuaries of Shiloh and Dan during the time of the Judges. But apparently they did not serve sacrificial functions. Continuing down through this period (the fourteenth through the twelfth centuries B.C.), it appears that all participants in the covenant had the privilege and responsibility of offering sacrifice.
During the time of the Monarchy (from the eleventh to the seventh century B.C.) , the priests continued to use the Urim and Thummim (Deuteronomy 33:8), served the important function of preserving the faith, traditions, and teachings of the nation (Deuteronomy 33: 9-10), served as criminal and civil judges (Deuteronomy 17: 8-11, 21: 5), and began to serve as officiants in offering sacrifices on behalf of the people.
By the eighth century B.C., although the judicial functions were continuing, there was little mention of the prophetic role being integral with the priestly role. Instead, separate isolated individuals arose as prophets. In time, the use of the Urim and Thummim disappeared altogether Now the greatest emphasis in the function of priesthood was on the ritualistic aspect of their acts, with great attention to purity requirements and to isolation of the sacred from the profane. (See chapter 44 of Ezekiel.) By this time, the role of the priest as officiant in the sacrifices was well established, and the teaching of tradition was equally emphasized. Indeed, it begins to appear that their ritual functions, not their judicial functions, were the focus of many regulations governing the priests. With the development of the “priestly code” and the formation of the priesthood as a holy order (see Numbers 16: 1-5, 18: 7; Leviticus 21: 6-8), ritualism seems to have preoccupied the attention of the ministers. Only the priests could now serve at the altar and guard the sanctity of the sanctuary. Furthermore, trespass of the sanctuary carried the penalty of death. Many prescriptions and proscriptions now governed the daily activities of the Levites and priests.
In Chronicles, the division of the priests into twenty-four classes is described. This was necessary because of the proliferation of their numbers. Apparently there was a popular saying at the time in Jerusalem that there were as many priests and Levites in the Temple as there were stones in its walls. Estimates of their numbers reached as high as 20,000. With growth in numbers and with the evolution of time, political aspects of their condition became apparent. Discrimination occurred on the basis of one’s tribe, particular family, temple-centered or dispersed service, service in high places, et cetera. This was particularly critical at the time of Ezekiel, when he declared that the priesthood was henceforth to be reserved for the descendants of Zadok. In spite of this, however, the descendants of Ithamar exerted enough political influence to maintain their right to officiate as well. (See 1st Chronicles 24: 1-6 and Driver, 2 page 154-155.) From time to time, the priestly environment was highly politicized.
Further evolution of the functions of the priesthood came to include the blowing of the trumpets (to signal the alarm of war or at the time of the new moon), but it also eventually developed into a separate class whose function was to provide music at the temple.
Given all of the foregoing, it is interesting to note the evolution of service functions in the sacramental office. Beginning with the right and responsibility to offer sacrifice resting upon all the faithful, changes gradually were incorporated which not only limited who might have the right and authority to so function, but also where such sacrifices should occur, and with what attention to purity they should offer sacrifice. We also note that the prophetic function, which originally inhered in the priests, eventually evolved into a separate class of minsters, whose designation was more mystical than formal, and whose function often seemed to be to reform the excesses of the priests.
These changes occurred as a result of growing sociological complexity, and were in response to the thrust of the perceived divine will in the context of human history. With greater numbers of priests, it became necessary to find something distinctive for them to do, permitting specialization and prerequisite qualifications to multiply.
III. New Testament and Restoration
With the advent of Christ, new concepts of the roles of leaders were both taught and exemplified. Whereas in the traditional Hebrew pattern, the leaders were priests of a particular lineage who were chosen to serve as intermediaries between God and humanity, now all were called to serve as ministers to one another in Jesus’ stead. This universal call to membership in the body of Christ was in contrast to the patriarchal society which the church appeared, and at variance as well with the usual norms of Roman social organization.
Jesus’ lifestyle was contagious. It was the role of a self-sacrificing servant, and others were not only called to emulate him, they wanted to. There is, therefore, a major distinction between the leadership riles found in the Old Testament, of a priesthood which stood between God and humanity, and the New Testament image of leaders who were from among the people and who stood with them. It has been historically a problem for Christian churches to determine which of these two traditions they would prefer to institutionalize in their own experience, with the Catholic, Orthodox, and Mormon positions appearing primarily to be oriented toward the Old Testament intermediary model for priesthood, and the New Testament servant role being the preferred model for much of Protestantism.
In addition, the New Testament church saw priesthood develop from the traditional Old Testament model into altogether new images and functions for ministry. 3 This ministry originally was performed without priesthood office by all members of the body, but by the time of the later New Testament writers, already there were traces of the institutionalization of some functions into priesthood office. To acknowledge the truth of the situation, we need only to be aware that the very names used to identify the priesthood were themselves functionally descriptive. Whereas they have been adapted into English in most cases rather than translated, we may simply return to the original Greek to learn that they are less of the nature of offices, and more appropriately functions. For example, the term deacon comes from the Greek word diak’onos which means servant. The term teacher (didas’kalos) has been translated into English, and therefore denotes one who serves the function of teaching.
The English word priest in fact comes from the Greek word presbu’teros, from which we get the word presbytery and which is translated elder in English. As a result, in the Restoration movement there is confusion of the terms priest and elder by virtue of their translation from the same Greek work into the English language. The word used to denote the priest who served in the Jewish temple is the Greek word hiereus’, which literally means an officiant of the temple. The term bishop comes from the Greek word epis’kopos, which means overseer, and thus the New Testament bishops were those who had the oversight of the congregations of the church. The term apostle comes from the word apos’tolos, which means messenger, or “those who are sent”. The term evangelist comes from the word euanggelistes’, which denotes one who shares the gospel. The term prophet comes from the word prophe’tes, which means one who tells forth the word of God. It, therefore, could appropriately be translated in English to mean either one who foretells or one who preaches.
In each case, these words are descriptive of the roles and functions they were to serve, Consequently, due to the increased amplitude of ministry occasioned by the Christian gospel outside of the temple or synagogue, most of these are functions which were not thought of or foreseen in the traditional Jewish religion. We ought not, therefore, to be surprised that there is little office-related resemblance between the Old Testament priesthood and the New Testament ministries. After all, the call of the Christ was to enter into relationships of ministry to others which had not been a part of the experience of Judaism. Much that Jesus represented was disjunctive with their history and tradition and current practices. He frequently said, “Ye have heard it said of old … but I say unto you …” His gospel was a new departure, and the Good News was to be carried by persons of different authority to serve in different functions.
Because the functions were to be served for the sake of people in the midst of life as they lived it, these priesthood innovations were directly related to the culture and lifestyle of the people. In the New Testament, we do not see a concept of priesthood which came out of eternity or even as a legacy from Judaism and which seemed to have little relevance to life as it was lived by the current generation. On the contrary, although it may have had its origin in the eternal love of an eternal God who holds forth the promises of eternal life for humanity, nevertheless the actual functioning of the priesthood, and consequently its structures, were directly related to the salvation process for people in the midst of human life.
It is interesting to note that the equality which was announced in Jesus’ gospel had implications for differences of national origin, race, sex, and slavery. The New Testament clearly identified the Gentile as well as the Jew for calling to priesthood service. The slave as well as the free was to be permitted to serve, though subject to permission by the slave’s master. 4 It is also noteworthy that the New Testament writers used the same Greek word (only modified by the feminine ending) as a label for the functional service of women who served as prophetesses (prophe’tis), and they included female elders (presbu’tera) as a regular part of the body of the saints. 5
However, while the early New Testament church was open, spirit-directed, and led by gifted people who freely used their giftedness without restrictions of polity and hierarchy, the post-apostolic church soon had to deal with the problem of a growing institution. False doctrines and their proponents were requiring some decisive action by administrators. Oppression from opposing cultures and governments created a necessity for solidarity in well-integrated congregations. The need for stability, security, and permanence virtually forced the church to move into more structured models, with authority figures empowered to act for the good of the body.
Quite naturally, the organizational models chosen were Old Testament ones, modified with elements from the Greco-Roman world. Once again, the ability of the common people to have direct access to Deity in forms of worship became subordinate to the intermediary of a clergy. Once again, the officers of the religion began to function as rulers, judges, and mediators of the Word. Eventually, they held virtually all the keys of access to Divinity. Thus the hierarchy of the church could be appropriately compared with the Jewish hierarchy, as Clement of Rome did. By the second century, the ecclesiastical hierarchy was established, and a sharp line of delineation between the laity and the clergy was apparent. Increasingly the ministers were seen as standing in the stead of Christ, and as God’s representative on earth. These symbols and images reinforced the earlier male dominance already present in Judaism, and which was further supported by the militant Roman image of Christianity conquering the world in the sign of the cross.
The concept that “ye are all one in Christ Jesus – there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3: 28) had now given way to the practice that “you are in fact divided into the clergy and the laity, the leaders and the followers, the powerful and the powerless” – no matter how necessary nor how culturally determined the division was. Once again, we see the people of God, soon after the freshness of their immediate revelatory experience with the Christ, adapting the institutional church and its structures to the exigencies of life in the real world confronting them, and entering into the give-and-take of dialogue with God, with one another, and with the world.
To see priesthood in this light of Old and New Testament history frees us to examine the question of who may hold priesthood in the light of cultural considerations. This had been the historical experience of the church. Joseph Smith III, in bringing spiritual guidance to the church on the question of the ordination of black men, did not hesitate to place it in the context of the American Civil War and its aftermath. The attitudes of people and the laws of the land had a direct bearing on the content of the message and thus on the availability of priesthood to some categories of man and the effective scope of their ministry. The document said: “Be not hasty in ordaining men of the Negro race to offices in my church, for verily I say unto you, All are not acceptable unto me as servants … and there are some who are chosen instruments to be ministers to their own race. [italics mine]. Be ye content, I the Lord have spoken it” (Doctrine and Covenants 116: 4). The view of priesthood shown here is not of some universal essence which may be universally applied, but rather an opportunity and privilege which is extended to some who are favored with divine call, to serve the purposes of God in the current historical situation, and in light of the many cross-currents within the social order.
Some blacks were to be called, not to partake of the essence of priesthood in offering ministry to all persons because they were possessors of an authoritative, divine, universal priesthood, but rather to share a functional, ministerial role within a limited population drawn from their own racial type. Were blacks to have access to the priesthood? Yes, but… And with that “but”, all of the possibilities of interpretation and application and accommodation came into play. Priesthood does not exist in an idealistic vacuum. It is interrelated with society in culture. Priesthood is not to be applied universally; it is contingent on many factors, not the least of which is the experience of the earthly, human church with the divine revelation. For, as Joseph Smith III also said in revelatory instruction to the church, “All are called according to the gifts of god [italics mine] unto them” (Doctrine and Covenants 119: 8). Factors of giftedness, divine call, cultural approbation, personal choice, the general support of the people who are to be recipients of the ministry – all of these and many other factors have a direct bearing on priesthood and its particularity.
In résumé, we observe these things about the history of God’s action toward humans through priesthood:
- God takes the initiative in revelation
- Humans react to God’s initiative
- A part of that reaction is to feel favored, to experience a call
- Resulting from God’s initiative in such a call, elaborations of priestly function began to develop early in Hebrew history
- The earliest functions were to consult the oracle, thus a prophetic function, as an addition to the primary function of maintaining the faith and traditions.
- The function as officiants in sacrificial offerings became identified with priesthood after having originally been a non-priesthood responsibility. A particular segment of the population was identified for priesthood call.
- Ritual became more important after the priesthood became primarily responsible for sacrificial offering. Ritual purity was rigorously required.
- Priesthood practices evolved culturally in differentiation and proliferation of function on an arithmetic progression with increasing priesthood population and complexity of the social order.
- The cultural context is clearly intertwined with withpriesthood roles, functions, and offices in the history of Old Testament Judaism.
- The New Testament offers a continuation of the principle of cultural effect on priesthood. Christianity emerged within a Jewish culture, under Roman domination, in a patriarchal society.
- The impact of the new revelation in Jesus Christ and the relatedness of his ministry (and thus the church’s) with culture resulted in a new differentiation and proliferation of ministerial roles.
- In a corollary way, the traditional Jewish church hierarchy was de-emphasized and virtually ignored by the New Testament church.
- The roles in the New Testament church structures were named and functionally described by their name in the stream of culture.
- As had been observed in early Hebrew tradition, access to priesthood was no longer limited to a chosen family, tribe, or nation.
- Priesthood was not confined to those who were qualified by a rigorous process of ritual purification.
- The opportunity to serve was not limited by race, sex, age, slavery, etc.
- Inasmuch as priesthood roles were originally only identified by function and not clearly delineated as offices in the New Testament church, we are left with a linguistic puzzle to know if the female prophets and elders were also functionally employed (and ordained) in a ministerial context as were the ordained male counterparts.
- The post-apostolic church evolved with institutional development similar to that which evolved in Judaism, from a general, open call and responsibility placed on all, to a restricted, self-regulated, authoritarian clergy.
- In Christianity as in Judaism, institutional religion found itself in dialogue with God and with culture.
- In the Restoration movement, scriptures which at first may be thought to suggest a universalistic view of priesthood on closer scrutiny seem to support nominalism and particularity
- This is true on a philosophical basis in light of the views of Joseph Smith, Jr., on the continuity of life and the conversation of matter and life beyond the grave.
- It is also observed in Joseph Smith III’s application of nominalistic views in regard to the calling of blacks to priesthood responsibility.
- He reaffirmed in modern times that “all are called”, and that their God-given gifts are to be respected in the scope of their ministry.
What may we project from such a review of history? Does it suggest a nominalistic approach in considering the call of women to priesthood in our day? What significance does it have when we view the many cultural differences present in the various world missions of the modern Restoration church? Is priesthood so particular that some may be called to function according to giftedness which may be appropriate only to their own cultural context? If so, what are the implications for priesthood authority within a world church? If priesthood is particular, what are the implications for an individual who becomes inactive in all priestly roles and functions? Does the injunction that “all are called according to the gifts of God unto them” suggest a calling for all who are willing to respond to God’s call? does it also suggest an accountability for either their use or disuse of the gifts of God to them? If so, how are they to be held accountable?
Or, to rephrase all these questions in one: Is the Restoration church of today shackled to an interpretation of priesthood that is found only in the past histories of God’s relations with humanity? Or does the dialogue between God, the church, and the world continue?
Only the church of today, blessed with revelatory insight from God, can continue the struggle to resolve these and similar questions.
1. All are universally condemned under the one man’s fall; all are sinners; all are saved through Christ’s atonement; all are subject to a universal moral law; Christ established one universal church; etc.
2. S.R. Driver, An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (New York: Meriam Books. 1960), 154-155.
3. Although the writer of the letter to the Hebrews seems to develop bridges between the Old Testament priesthood and New Testament ministerial roles and functions, it is clearly in the context of a major departure from the established Jewish forms and functions of priesthood.
4. Ephesians 6: 5-9; Colossians 3: 22-23; Titus 2: 9-10; 1st Peter 2: 18-21.
5. Luke 2: 36; 1st Timothy 5: 1-2. There is a linguistic problem with regard to presbu’teros / presbu’tera, in that the same word is used both in its masculine ad feminine forms. It could always be translated to mean elderly man and elderly woman, or male elders and female elders, or according to context occasionally one way and then the other. However, the last alternative is ours only if it was so currently used in the cultural context of the new church. If one were to suppose that the male term elders usually or always meant a priesthood office, then we are left with a dilemma of knowing how to interpret the female form of the noun.
The deaconesses were also known in the New Testament church, with corroborating historical reference in the letter of Pliny to Trajan, A.D. 109. From this early tradition, deaconesses have continued in the Greek Orthodox church down to the present day. Although the term deaconess is used in Canon 19 of the Nicene Council (A.D. 325), and by the Archbishop of York (732-766), and by the Bishop of Exeter (1050-1072), the consecrated office of deaconess did not survive in the Roman church, and hence was generally lost to early Protestantism.
We have another puzzle left to us by the New Testament writers and translators: Phoebe is referred to as servant in Romans 16: 1. However, the masculine form of the word is used: diak’onos. Since the same word is also translated deacon and minister in other places in the New Testament, we would be just as warranted in translating this passage to read deaconess as some translators have done. It is the masculine form of the word which is most puzzling, for whether “servant”, “minister”, or “deacon”, the feminine form would have been more appropriate.