One so-called feminist idea that we might think came out of the Enlightenment actually came right out of the Reformation: The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This teaching opened new ways for men and women to think of women not as intrinsically inferior to men, but as partners called to lead the world to Christ.
In Peter’s first epistle we read, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood (italics added), a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9). Peter was writing to the whole church, not to men only, when he described all his readers as priests. His phrasing harkens back to God’s desire for Israel that they would “be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exo. 19:6). God was speaking to men and women there, too.
Meanwhile, in the apostle Paul’s first private correspondence with his protégé, Timothy, he wrote this: “For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human.” Some translations say “one intermediary between God and man…” but the word translated “man” here is “anthropon,” a form of the word from which we get “anthropology”—the study of humans. And in this context Paul had in mind humans, not males only. Humans have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. No human other than the man Christ serves as an intermediary. We can be priests, leading people to God. But we do not stand between the people and God. And that includes husbands standing between God and their wives.
So how might that look in the home? Let’s say, for example, a godly husband thinks that he and his wife should abstain from intimate relations for a time so they can devote themselves to prayer. If he were her priest, he might initiate the conversation and guide her, listening to her input, but then informing her of his benevolent final decision. But if we look at how Paul counseled the Corinthians, we read that such a picture is less than ideal. Because the wife has authority (1 Cor 7:7, root: exousia) over her husband’s body just as much as he has authority over hers—a radical idea in those days, and a serious challenge to Roman views of masculinity (and perhaps of contemporary ones, too). Paul writes, “Do not deprive each other, except by mutual agreement…” (italics added). So in our example, which happens to match the one example we have in the New Testament of a couple making a decision related to spiritual things, we see the husband and wife are partners. Equals. Sharing authority in spiritual decision-making. And like friends deciding where to eat dinner, neither needs 51 percent of the vote. Paul assumes a spiritually mature couple can decide mutually what is best. No one takes on the role of priest in the sense of mediating. If the two come to an impasse, the husband does not say, “I am charged with guiding you spiritually, so here is my decision.”
Yet sometimes people read that the husband is head of the wife, his body, and they see in such language a picture of an intermediary. Some even describe the husband as the priest in the home. I once interviewed Eugene Peterson, best known for The Message, and he confided, “At a pastor’s conference I told those in attendance that at noon on Mondays, our Sabbath/hiking day, [my wife] prayed for lunch. In fact I think I said, ‘I pray all day Sunday. I’m tired of it. She can do it on Monday.’ There was one woman there who was really irate. She said I should be praying and Jan should not be praying because I’m the priest in the family and she’s not the priest. That’s silliness. You are brother, sister, man, wife, friends in Christ. You work out the kind of relationship before the Lord that is intimate. And no, I don’t think there’s any kind of picture you have to fit into, that you have to produce. That’s oppressive isn’t it? After all, this is freedom in the Lord.”
For some of us, it’s time to “woman up” and take responsibility for our own spiritual lives. Sometimes a wife will shirk responsibility for her walk with Christ and blame it on her husband’s failure to initiate as a spiritual leader. But every woman who is “in Christ” is a priest who will stand before God and give account for herself. And that idea is not coming out of feminism. It’s right out of the holy Word of God.