Priesthood in the Era of the New Testament, 7.

Recall the wandering prophets. An early church administration document (handbook), dated from the first century called the Didache (did-ah-kay) talks about this and the problem of prophets. The wandering prophets are liturgical authorities, they can administer the sacrament for example. But apparently some, or many, of the churches are not comfortable with the prophets, and the Didache shows this–the prophets are sometimes not all they claim to be as in, freeloaders. The transfer of sacramental duty to local authority is logical and there is an element of safety there, trust. This is a positive thing for elders/bishops too. It takes them out of just handling funds and property, taking care of the physical, and puts them on the spiritual side of care as well. And it makes possible more regular celebration of the ordinances (and in modern revelation you see a sympathetic emphasis: “it is expedient that the church meet together often to partake of the sacrament”).[1]

But this also plays into the changes of concept, titles, the priesthood and restriction of action. Once elders—bishops—took over the title of priest, that is, they become the “priesthood,” there was already a well-developed spiritual character attached to the name. After the golden calf incident in the Israel story, the tribe of Levi was not like the other tribes, they became exclusive ritualists. And the priests had a growing list of impressive external restrictions associated with the tabernacle and so on. At the time a priest was on duty, he had to separate himself from his family, he couldn’t have sex with his wife, wore special clothing, vestments, and generally removed himself from the worldly aspects of the people, became purified, before entry into the presence of the LORD.[2]

So the “priesthood” drew along with it this kind of conflicting ethos, conflicting with the idea of presbyters/bishops as men of the people. Persons who were one with the common folk. Priests, Christian priests, acquired aspects of both presbyters, and the consecrated on-duty priesthood of temple Judaism.[3] It set them apart and there is a reverent expectation attached to office. We deal with this all the time in Mormonism. There is strength in the notion, but built-in conflict. We expect such men to be ordinary, they come from among us, but we want them to have more than ordinary abilities to solve our problems, give inspired counsel, be almost infallible, and we are sometimes very disappointed if they turn out to be human after all.

When Luther and the other Continental Reformers rolled in, they wanted to be rid of these reverential trappings of priesthood. It wasn’t part of the New Testament, and at least some of them saw the reverential aspect as a recipe for abuse of power (it was an elaboration of Johannine tradition perhaps). Ultimate appointive power should lie in the church itself, not the hands of a separated (permanently celibate!) leadership.

Swiss priest Ulrich Zwingli was the most radical of the reformers.

Swiss priest Huldrych Zwingli was the most radical of the reformers (Luther called him a fanatic–but then he called a lot of people fun names). (By Hans Asper, 1531. Image: Wikipedia.)

Over time, Catholics, Orthodox, High Anglicans, the Swedish Lutheran Church, and others kept the priestly language. It was this that was inherited from the early Christian re-identification with temple Judaism. And the whole question of ordaining women to church office, priesthood, has seen the biggest theological/practical struggle mainly in churches that held on to this identification, however subtle it may have been (there were other important forces at work of course). There’s nothing in the New Testament Pastoral imagery of a church leader that would block women from being presbyters. But there is a lot in the imagery of Israelite priesthood that is utterly foreign to female priests (and Mormonism inherited much of this in 1831).[4] Major struggles over a female priesthood have appeared in those traditions that preserved the priesthood language. By default, though not by the same traditional path (except by mild allusion) the Latter-day Saints, and for that matter most of the Mormon diaspora (Community of Christ a notable exception) have this heavy Old Testament priesthood tradition in authoritative structure and nomenclature, and historically even more so.

The issues of female priests or ministers in Christian traditions are more complex than this and the theological issues are also complex. One might appeal to Jesus: did he decide the issue of female priesthood somehow? Of course not, he was a Jew and his culture was Jewish, and miles from that sort of question. He never faced any questions of that kind. And the post-resurrection New Testament can’t settle this, it’s a post-New Testament issue. And given the major Christian theologies of the last two millennia, it’s really only recently a question that is ripe for the priesthood religious traditions.

Female priesthood in Mormonism is really an issue that must be settled in a revelatory claim. Mormonism only relies on New Testament authority in a rather weak way—it is one authority among others. That said, the term “priest” does appear in the New Testament in naming Christians, but not in the way indicated above in this series. 1 Pet. 2:5, Rev. 5:10 are examples. There it appears as a priesthood of sacrifice of one’s life for the gospel (a usage that sounds very Mormon). In that sense the word applies equally well to women and men. There were prophets who administered in ordinances (Didache) and there were certainly women who were prophets (1 Cor. 11:5, Acts 21:9). It would therefore be an error to claim that women did not perform “sacraments” in New Testament times. There is simply no way to prove that or the contrary from available period texts. Finally, the office of deacon may have been inhabited by women and men in some churches, and it’s possible that Paul writes to a deaconess. Much later, in communications between Emperor Trajan and a governor in the provinces, there are Christian deaconesses mentioned. Though it is not clear that the term is used in the sense of Deutero-Paul, which seems to restrict things to men. But early reports suggest a kind of Relief Society among Christians and deaconess might be a representation of that. The Roman governor (Pliny) tortures these deaconesses to death by the way.


[1] For what may have been the earliest Christian worship pattern see note 7 of this.

[2] You can see some of this in early Mormonism, trying to draw some of temple Judaism into Mormon practice. For example, Brigham Young saying things about abstaining from sex for a time before entering in to temples/endowment houses. An obvious thing here is the very cool Mormon bishop mythos that develops around 1835. For the Mormon version of evolving bishop status, see here.

[3] And with that, came an identification of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the temple sacrifice. An identification not completely out of order in Mormon thought (observe too, that the priest in Mormonism is the one who administers at the table/altar). One of the important texts that fits into this discussion is the Letter to the Hebrews (probably not a letter at all, but a sermon). Traditionally it was assigned as Paul’s work, but it doesn’t claim that, and it’s pretty clearly not. But that doesn’t change it’s value. It was one of Joseph Smith’s favorite preaching texts, and there are good reasons for that. Hebrews probably represents post-temple literature and its intention seems to be to comfort the fellowship in Rome. With the horror of the destruction of the temple (70 CE) there was certainly a great deal of fear and theological questioning. Jews and Christians—as Jewish sect and as Gentile adoptees—must have wondered about backlash—their worry was justified. The Jewish War was a real problem and an embarrassment for the empire. But how did the end of the temple play into Christianity? Hebrews seems directed as encouragement and consolation and it works out a priesthood Christology that helps rationalize the Jewish origins of Jesus and Christian practice. Christ as High Priest, the discussion of Melchizedek, the spirits of the Just Men, all this works to see Christians as natural inheritors of the temple priestly authority in a spiritualized way. It’s a brilliant rethinking of how Jesus fits into the background of Moses, angels, the Tabernacle/Temple, and in what sense he overturns all that (and in that sense it is one with John’s Gospel). The Christology anticipates a number of later discussions (and perhaps even speaks to some of them) in that it’s very balanced. It’s a high Christology: Jesus is God, but it also says he was human in every way but sin, and he had to learn obedience. John’s Gospel in that sense exhibits an even higher Christology. Hebrews has a very focused understanding of Jesus—he had to be someone like us to be effective in standing before God, yet he is the great Son of God. Hebrews never attributes the title of “priest” to Christian authorities, but it does seem to open pathways for that while using Christ as an assurance that mediation to the Divine was still available despite the awful wreckage in Palestine. And Hebrews suggests a kind of priesthood of believers that apparently Joseph Smith found to be encouraging in the latter day temple praxis in say, washing, anointing. But the Melchizedek high priesthood still draws a very clear and purposeful separation between Jesus and the temple. Hebrews is elegant and powerful preaching. If you want an accessible and scholarly treatment of Hebrews, you might start with Alan C. Mitchell, Hebrews (Glazier, 2007), the Introduction is a nice summary of issues. Also try out the article in Anchor Bible Dictionary on Hebrews. Joseph Smith’s use of Hebrews is really fundamental to the explication of many of his beliefs, and the Mormon evolution of priesthood touches the early Christian one in fascinating, and sometimes startling ways. Again, you might want to check out my article on priesthood in Dialogue. You can find it here. You’ll see a version of the Christian evolution in priesthood as a (sometimes highly compressed) microcosm in Mormonism.

[4] There is some language in Deutero-Paul that suggests women should be silent in church (1 Tim. 2), etc. But this seems to reference local cultural things, and it’s inconsistent. For example, Eph. 5:24 says wives must be subject to their husbands, but 5:21 says be subject to one another. 1 Cor. 11:7 has man the image of God, woman the glory of man, but Gen. 1:27 says male and female are the image of God. 1 Cor. 14:34 is a silence passage but 1 Cor. 11:5 recognizes that women pray (it means out loud) and prophesy (though they are supposed to wear a veil in church). Prophecy is only second to apostleship in Eph. 2:20, the church is *built* on apostles and prophets (Ephesians was probably written about 80-90AD or so). Finally, it’s not just priestly Christianity that wrangles over female ministry. Conservative Christian apologia is full of it.

One Response to Priesthood in the Era of the New Testament, 7.

  1. Pingback: Presiding Bishopric, I. |'s Blog

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