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A Protestant-Specific Argument for Egalitarianism

I believe that it is inconsistent for one to be a strong complementarian and a Protestant at the same time. Complementarians often hold that, though women can be involved in various forms of ministry, they cannot become “ordained ministers.” But consider the following simple argument:

According to one of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism, the priesthood of all believers (hereafter, PAB):

(1) All baptized believers are ordained by God as priests.

From here the rest of the argument quickly follows:

(2) Some women are baptized believers.


(3) Some women are ordained by God as priests.

We might thus simply ask our complementarian friends the following: If God has ordained someone as a priest, who are we to deny her ordination?

I suppose one might reply that PAB is purely a spiritual matter that does not pertain to our ecclesiological affairs. However, that reply seems to miss the original meaning of the doctrine, not to mention the context in which Luther himself re-discovered it. Whether or not Luther understood the egalitarian implications of the doctrine is another matter, but to the extent he didn’t, we could say that even he wasn’t being a consistent Protestant! (I am not in a position to say what his view on this matter was, so I am not claiming that he was, indeed, inconsistent.) It appears that, while Luther did make a distinction between priests and ministers, he saw the latter not as a God-ordained position, but simply as those whom we Christians choose from among us to do certain tasks. Since the latter is not based on divine ordination, I would assume that we choose people for these tasks based on our discernment of their natural abilities and spiritual gifts related to those various tasks. So, unless we are willing to state categorically that women are physically or spiritually incapable of performing certain tasks (a strong claim indeed!), then I cannot see how a Protestant would in principle be able to hold to strong complementarianism. I suppose one could deny PAB, but in so doing, one would cease to be properly Protestant.



  1. Comment #94687 posted October 15, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Anybody with a concordance and dictionary can look up “priest.” They’ll notice right away that in the New Testament hiereus (intercessor and worshiper) is everybody, but presbyter (ordained elder) is not. Don’t have to be Protestant or Catholic to notice that, do we?

  2. Comment #94688 posted October 15, 2011 at 12:19 pm


    Thanks for your comment. In which concordance or Bible dictionary is your definition of “priest” as “presbyter” to be found?

    It seems that your “intercessor and worshiper” is my “priest,” and your “ordained elder” is what I’m calling a “minister.”

  3. Comment #94690 posted October 15, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    I like your argument, but I have a factual quibble: according to Timothy Wengert, who edited the new translation of the Book of Concord (Obviously a bit of an expert on Luther, the Reformation, and all things Lutheran) Luther never actually used the phrase “priesthood of all believers.” He’s not sure where it comes from, actually, although it had to have been fairly early in the history of Protestantism. That said, whether it’s a Martin Luther phrase or not, it is a fundamental part of Protestant theology as you correctly note.

  4. Comment #94692 posted October 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Anna, thanks for the fact checking. If nothing else, it lets Luther off the “inconsistency” hook.

  5. Comment #94693 posted October 15, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    @D C Cramer,

    Any place you see “elder” in the New Testament, it’s translating presbyteros (literally Older Man.) Here’s a good concise entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

    Presbyteroi is what’s written in Ac 14:23 where Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church and where Titus is instructed to ordain elders in Ti 1:5; it was the presbytery that laid hands on Timothy (1 Tim 4:14), who “rule well” in 1 Tim 5:17, and who get called for prayer in James 5:14ff. We say “priest” as a handy short form but “presbyter” is more correct; Orthodox folks here in America use either form interchangeably.

    Where Peter calls all Christians a priesthood in 1 Pt 2:5-9, he’s using ieratevma the word for a Jewish or pagan priesthood, who are intercessors and sacrifice-offerers.

    I won’t dictate to anybody how they should run their churches. But historically it’s worth noting that at no time have Christians ever ordained women as presbyters or bishops. Not even the first-generation Christians who had Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, and the Mother of God among them – and who had women among their apostles (Ro 16:7) and prophets (Ac 21:9).

    For reasons that seemed good to them, none of the early churches ordained women as presbyters or bishops. That doesn’t mean you can’t, but it does call for us to acknowledge that the universal priesthood of believers is not the sacramental, pastoral role that elders/presbyters/priests were ordained to in apostolic Christianity.

  6. Comment #94698 posted October 16, 2011 at 2:05 pm


    Thanks for your reply. Unfortunately, it seems to undermine your original post. Originally, you argued that just looking up “priest” in a biblical dictionary or concordance would solve this matter. But in your more recent explanation, you’ve discussed the term “elder/presbyter” and argued that your church tradition simply substitutes the term “priest” as a “handy short form.” That might be fine for your tradition, but as you’ve noted, “presbyter” comes from an entirely different lexical/semantic/etymological domain than “priesthood/ieratevma,” which would seem to confirm my distinction between the two rather than your suggestion that they both mean “priest,” just in different ways. If anything, then, looking up the term “priest” in a dictionary or concordance would not undermine my case or help yours. In other words, an argument is needed for equating “elder” with “priest”; it cannot just be assumed or read back into the text based on the practices of one’s tradition. In Ephesians 4, for example, we are given a plurality of leadership roles in the church (apostle, pastor, teacher, etc.). Should we assume that each of these also means “priest” as the role of “elder” supposedly does? If so, are all of these roles ultimately the same? bound up in the same ordained office? restricted to women?

    Your comments have been helpful, though, in clarifying my original point. I am not suggesting that women should be ordained as priests per se. Rather, I am suggesting that the role of a select priesthood has been abolished (as Hebrews suggests) or universalized (as Peter suggests)–two sides of the same coin, I would argue. Rather, there is a plurality of roles (pastor, elder, apostle, evangelist, etc.) based on the gifts of the Spirit, not gender. The historical fact that these roles have been largely restricted to men is not a theological rationale for such exclusion. (I don’t tend to find the “argument from the majority” to be theologically persuasive.) But perhaps now one can start to see why, in certain respects, this is indeed a “protestant-specific” argument, one with which I don’t expect traditions who have retained a sacramental priesthood (Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans) to agree.

  7. Don
    Comment #94700 posted October 16, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Furthermore, one needs to understand Greek as it was actually used. Presbuteroi is the plural form, the masculine plural form was used when the group was composed of all men down to being all women but including one man. So in a general situation, one should understand presbuteroi as including both men and women UNLESS there is a reason to exclude women.

    One can study the NT and come to the conclusion that apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers are all specific ministry examples of elders/overseers. Given that Junia was an apostle as shown by Epp and others, Junia was an elder/overseer. So a 1st century church congregation did declare that a woman was an elder.

  8. Comment #94702 posted October 16, 2011 at 9:21 pm


    One clarification: I realize that your link provides an etymological connection between the English word “priest” and the Greek “presbyter.” My point above about the “entirely different lexical/semantic/etymological domain” is, of course, regarding the Greek “presbyter” and “ieratevma,” the latter of which I believe (though I would need to double check) is related to the OT (LXX) term for “priest,” while the former, as you noted, literally means “old man.” My point is thus not merely semantic (i.e., I don’t really mind using “priest” as shorthand for “presbyter” as your tradition does) but is theological (i.e., I believe the priestly role as intermediary between humans and God has been abolished/universalized in the church).

    One correction: I stated once that the elder role is “restricted to women” and later that it is “restricted to men.” The first, of course, should read “restricted to men” (or, perhaps, “restricted from women”?).

  9. Janie harris
    Comment #94709 posted October 17, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    DC Cramer says, “I believe the priestly role as intermediary between humans and God has been abolished/universalized in the church.”

    And THAT is, I believe, what most Protestants mean by priesthood of the believer, whoever originated the term.

    It has nothing to do with gifts and callings within the church structure or ordination, however understood, but has to do with whether any Christian needs another person (other than Christ) to stand between s/he and God (which was the function of an OT priest).

    Therefore, with respect to the poster, I think the premises in the original syllogism are rather befuddled.

  10. Janie harris
    Comment #94710 posted October 17, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Though I do think (and David, the original poster might agree) that if you believe in a form of sacerdotal Christianity, it is more difficult to accept women in ministry than if you are a Protestant because there is only male precedent and because you probably place a higher value on the validity of church tradition.

  11. Comment #94711 posted October 17, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    I am a conservative Episcopalian/Anglican, and one of the priests at my church is a woman. We understand a New Covenant “priest” to be a “presbyter”, (that is, an elder) and that is how the word came into English. It is different from the OT priesthood “cohen” which we no longer have in the New Covenant. Roman Catholics and some Anglicans who equate the church priesthood with the cohen priesthood of the OT tend to be against womens’ ordination. But many conservative Protestant Anglicans do support women being priests and even bishops.

  12. Comment #94713 posted October 17, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    If nothing else this topic causes one to want to review the Biblical narratives related to the ‘priesthood of all believers.’

    It is interesting to note that the very first reference to such a priesthood occurs as far back as Exodus 19:6, which precedes the giving of the Law and the establishment of the Levitical system of sacrifice. It appears obvious too that this instance concerns Israel exclusively and reveals God’s desire, or intention, for a separated people who would be a people of his own. That is, a people specifically identifiable, in Israel’s case, from the surrounding nations.

    The next reference takes us to Isaiah 61:6, a chapter which begins the familiar, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” which is also the scroll from which Jesus reads at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). There he (Jesus) states at the conclusion, “This scripture has come true today before your very eyes!” NLT. It’s of interest to me that following such an integral connection to Jesus’ life and ministry there should be a reference to every believer priesthood.

    In my NLT bible Isaiah chapter 61 is headed, ‘Good News for the Oppressed,’ which is indeed what those familiar opening verses are in both Isaiah and Luke. But then in verse 3, those who mourn in Israel (or Zion) are addressed and it is to them that the promise is given, “You will be called priests of the Lord, ministers of our God.” It seems to me that those who long for God’s purposes to be fulfilled, whether they be OT or NT believers, qualify to be God’s holy priesthood. This regardless of gender, as Anna the prophet proves to be in heralding the Messiah as mentioned in Luke 2:36-38. (see verse 38b)

    Moving on to the references in 1 Peter 2:5,9 and Revelation 1:6. It appears to me that there has to be a prophetic connection of these verses to the OT references and that this pictures God’s original intention and heart. It’s hard to place the Levitical priesthood alongside such statements as Exodus 1:6 and Isaiah 61:6 where God’s futuristic intention is expressed as, “You (meaning the newly established nation of Israel) will be to me a kingdom of priests, my holy nation.”

    Perhaps, in some respect, the institution of the church and tradition, like the Levitical priesthood, gets in the way of viewing clearly God’s original declared intention; that is to have a set apart people of his own. A people who would be, as Revelation 1:6 declares, “He has made us (completed action) his Kingdom and his priests who serve before God his Father. Give to him everlasting glory! He rules forever and ever! Amen!” (NLT) The only qualifier here is people who are freed from their sins by the shedding of Jesus’ blood (verse 5b).

    We can argue about what that ‘service’ may mean, or how it is expressed in the life of the institutionalised church, but as David has correctly stated in his original post, the ‘priesthood of all believers’ (when rediscovered by Luther) was/is a defining mark of protestantism and in our understanding is not therefore gender restricted. It need not be such a big step to imagine that God would gift both men and women, who are equally blood bought and Spirit filled children, for service in any capacity within the church to which he has gifted them.

    Indeed, all are called upon, as Paul states in Romans 12:1, to be fully surrendered to God, “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he can accept.” (NLT) If both men and women choose to be this devoted to and set apart for God there can be no limit to how, or where God may choose to use them in their ‘priestly/kingdom’ service to him. To suggest otherwise is to infer that the service of men is somehow superior to, or more important to God than that of women. I cannot, in the light of what I’ve alluded to in the above references, conceive that such a gender bias would be in the mind and heart of God.

  13. Shirley Barron
    Comment #94719 posted October 18, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    I’m glad that someone pointed out that “presbyteroi” can mean both men & women elders (as a group). It’s interesting that quite a few English translations are now translating “adelphoi” as “brothers & sisters”, but to my knowledge no one has translated any of the passages containing “presbyteroi” as “men & women elders” (or equivalent). Since the masculine plural can be gender inclusive, we can’t rule out that women are included. Thanks for pointing this out.

  14. Isaac
    Comment #94737 posted October 20, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    We seem to be having simultaneous linguistic and theological discussions. I’ll attempt to separate the two in my comment.

    The English word “priest” has come to refer to two distinctly different offices.
    1. Etymologically the word “priest” was borrowed directly from Greek “presbyteros” by way of Latin “presbyter” and Middle English “prester.” In this, the original English sense of the word, it refers to the New Testament “elder” — a person ordained to a position of leadership in the Christian church.
    2. By analogy, the word came to be used to describe religious officials who preside over sacrifices and other public rituals. A pagan “priest” is called a priest by way of analogy, because they perform a function that is in some ways similar to that of a Christian elder. A further extension of meaning #2 is the application of the word “priest” to the officials who presided over sacrifices in ancient Israel (Hebrew “kohen”).

    1. The “royal priesthood” of 1 Peter 2.9, as has been noted, refers back to the “kingdom of priests” in Exodus 19.6. Linguistically, both phrases refer to the Hebrew “kohen” and Greek “hierous” — in other words sense #2 of the English word “priest.” In the context of Exodus 19, God has just brought Israel to Mount Sinai and is about to give them the Torah. The description of the mission of Israel as a people to be a “kingdom of priests” seems to be emphasising our special mission to represent God to the world. It is not inconsistent with the fact that God is about to set apart specific individuals (male descendants of Aaron) to be the only persons to offer legitimate sacrifices and lead the people in public ritual. The “priesthood of all Israelites” here seems to be a broader, perhaps more abstract idea, and it does not say that all Israelites have an equal right or responsibility to lead in public worship or ritual (see Numbers 16).
    Peter, in making the point that Christians are God’s chosen Israel, is not saying that all Christians should have equal roles in the leadership of local congregations. He is saying that we collectively continue the mission that God gave us in Exodus 19, acting as God’s representatives to the world.
    2. The book of Hebrews, arguing that Jesus is our “high priest” (“archierous”) in the order of Melchizedek, functions both as the sacrifice who makes all other sacrifices unnecessary, and the sacrificer who makes other professional sacrificers unecessary.
    3. Based on points #1 and #2, the Protestant doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” argued that a) all Christians have the same mission as God’s intermediaries to the world (“priests” in the sense of Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2) and that b) only Jesus acts as an intermediary between God and us, that he (and not Christian elders) offers himself as a sacrifice to God on our behalf.
    This second part is the controversial point that contains an implicit critique of the Roman Catholic idea that Christian elders (Latin “presbyter,” English “priest”) participate in Jesus’ ministry of offering Jesus as a sacrifice — in a way that ordinary Christians do not.
    4. Does this Protestant doctrine require that all Christians be ordained as priests/elders? No. Does it require that Christian priests/elders include all demographic sectors of the Christian church and therefore include both sexes? This has been argued, but it doesn’t strike me as a compelling argument.
    It does seem to go against the idea that women cannot participate in Jesus’ unique vocation of offering himself as a sacrifice. Some (not all) Catholic Christians have argued that women, by not sharing biological gender with Jesus, are thus disqualified from participating in this unique ministry. The Protestant idea of “priesthood of all believers” would eliminate this particular argument, since the Protestant doctrine holds that (depending on how you define the terms) all Christians or no Christians (apart from Jesus himself) participate in his sacrificial offering of himself to God. That’s about the only way I can see your argument working, however. It doesn’t show that women should be Christian priests, it simply eliminates one of the arguments that has been historically used to disqualify women from serving as Christian priests.

  15. Don
    Comment #94745 posted October 21, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    The leadership of ancient Israel was in people called priests, prophets and judges/kings. Women were prophets and Deborah was also a judge. Only male descendants of Aaron of the tribe of Levi without blemishes could be priests and only those from David of the tribe of Judah could be king, once David was king. It is not stated IN the Torah why only males could be priests in the Mosaic covenant(s). In any case, in the new covenant, all believers are priests, including women.

    Every believer is to have a ministry based on their gifting(s) from the Holy Spirit. The gifts are distributed so believers will be interdependent on each other. SOME believers can be recognized by a congregation as deacons and of those some can be recognized as elders, the main difference is that an elder should be able to teach, while a deacon might teach. The leadership in the NT is always shown to be a plurality of elders. Various elder leadership ministries are given as apostle (often called missionary today), prophet (often called preacher today), evangelist and pastor-teacher.

    Since Junia was an apostle, she was also an elder. Being an elder depends on gifting with one of the leadership ministries by the Holy Spirit and recognition by a congregation of this gifting.

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