“If any one saith, that there is not in the New Testament a visible and external priesthood; or that there is not any power of consecrating and offering the true body and blood of the Lord, and of forgiving and retaining sins; but only an office and bare ministry of preaching the Gospel, or, that those who do not preach are not priests at all; let him be anathema.” (The Catholic Church’s Council of Trent, Session 23, Canon 1)
While many of the world’s religions have an ordained priesthood, the concept of a Christian ministerial priesthood is not found in the New Testament, but is something that has evolved over time. There are a number of groups who claim to follow Jesus Christ that maintain a priesthood. For example, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and even some Protestant churches, like Anglican / Episcopalian, and some Lutheran churches. The Mormon Church also has a priesthood. Yet, none of these “priesthoods” are valid (according to the Bible), but we will focus on the most prominent: the Catholic priesthood.
The Catholic Church insists that we must have a distinct, ordained, “hierarchical” priesthood today. But, the truth is, the only types of Christian “priesthood” that we find within the pages of the New Testament are the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:17; 3:1), and the “universal priesthood” of all believers (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6). While we are able to find Jewish and pagan priests mentioned in the New Testament, we don’t see any Christian “ministerial” priests to mediate between God and man (as we find in the Old Testament).
The Apostle Paul mentions the functions and offices of the New Testament church in chapters 3 and 5 of 1 Timothy, and Titus chapter 1. He also gives specific instructions for ministry, church order, gifts and service in 1 Corinthians chapters 11-14, and in Ephesians chapter 4… and yet, the ministerial office of “priest” is strangely absent. There is not a single mention of a “priesthood” in these contexts. If God had intended a Christian ministerial priesthood for today, one would think that such a critical position should be evident in the New Testament. But it isn’t there.
But, let’s look at some of the Catholic arguments for the priesthood:
CATHOLIC CLAIM – IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, THERE WERE THREE TYPES OF PRIESTS: HIGH PRIESTS (LEVITICUS 21:10), MINISTERIAL PRIESTS (EXODUS 29:1), AND A “UNIVERSAL” PRIESTHOOD (EXODUS 19:6). THE BIBLE NEVER SAYS THAT THIS HAS CHANGED, SO THE “THREE-FOLD PRIESTHOOD” IS STILL HERE TODAY.
We agree that there was a “high priesthood” and a “ministerial priesthood” in the Old Testament. But it is wrong to think that Exodus 19:6 proves that there was a “universal priesthood” in Old Testament times. Let’s look at the context:
Exodus 19:5 - Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
Exodus 19:6 - And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
Yes, God promised Israel that they would be a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation.” But, this is a yet UNFULFILLED promise to the Jews. Notice that God’s promise to Israel was CONDITIONAL; that this would happen IF (and ONLY if) they would obey God’s voice and keep His covenant (Exodus 19:5). But they didn’t. Over and over, Israel had broken God’s covenant and disobeyed His commands (e.g., Jeremiah chapter 11, 13, 22, 34, etc.). This continued even until the very end of the Old Testament period, where even the “ministerial” priests had profaned the covenant (Malachi 2:8-10). Even to this day, Israel (as a nation) is disobedient and blinded to the truth (2 Corinthians 3:12-14; Romans 11:25, 31).
Therefore, Israel could not claim that it was a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation,” and thus, has not yet become that “universal priesthood.” This will not happen for the Jews, as a nation, until Jesus Christ returns, as Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 61:6). So, since the “universal priesthood” never happened in the Old Testament, this “three-fold priesthood” concept didn’t exist then, and there is no reason to think that it must be a model for the church today.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – WE KNOW THAT THERE WERE PRIESTS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT BECAUSE THE ENGLISH WORD FOR “PRIEST” IS DERIVED FROM THE GREEK “PRESBUTEROS”, TRANSLATED AS “ELDER” IN MOST ENGLISH BIBLES. SO, “ELDER” ACTUALLY MEANS “PRIEST”.
While it is true that our modern word “priest” is derived from the Greek word “presbuteros”, it does not mean that the two words are the same. Derivatives are not definitions. The modern word “Presbyterian” is ALSO a derivative of “presbuteros”, but I don’t think any Catholic would try to say that the New Testament “elders” were Presbyterians. Anyway, the New Testament ALREADY has a Greek word for priest, “hiereus,” not “presbuteros,” and these two Greek words are never used interchangeably. So, this argument certainly does not prove that biblical “elders” were priests.
CATHOLIC CLAIM - “HIEREUS” REFERS TO THE PRIESTS OF THE OLD COVENANT. SO, A SEPARATE WORD, “PRESBUTEROS”, IS USED TO REFER TO THE PRIESTS OF THE NEW. THERE IS STILL A DISTINCTIVENESS AND UNIQUENESS TO THE NEW COVENANT PRIESTHOOD THAT WARRANTS THE USE OF A DIFFERENT WORD.
“Hiereus” does indeed refer to the priests of the Old Covenant, but not just to the Old Testament priests. It ALSO refers to the New Testament universal priesthood of believers (Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). Furthermore, asserting that “presbuteros” is the “new” term for priest is simply begging the question, i.e., just an assumption without proof. We also believe that the fact that “hiereus” is used to describe priests from both Testaments is further evidence that the priesthood has changed from a “ministerial” form (Old Testament) to a “universal” form (New Testament).
CATHOLIC CLAIM – YOU MAY ASK, WHY DON’T WE SEE THE WORD “PRIEST” IN THE NEW TESTAMENT? THE CHRISTIANS OF THE FIRST CENTURY WOULD AVOID USING “PRIEST” IN NAMING THE MINISTERIAL OFFICES OF THE CHURCH, BECAUSE IT WAS ALSO THE SAME TERM BEING USED BY MANY JEWISH AND PAGAN PRIESTS. SO, TO AVOID CONFUSION, EARLY CHRISTIANS USED LANGUAGE TO DISTINGUISH THEIR PRIESTS FROM THE OTHERS.
There were plenty pagan priests in the time of the Old Testament. But it seems that neither the Lord nor the Jews had any problem calling their own ministers “priests” at that time. They didn’t seem to be concerned about any confusion that might arise between the names of the two groups. Furthermore, the term “elder” was kept over from the Old Testament. The New Testament word used for the Jewish elder (“presbuteros”) is exactly the same word used for the Christian elder. If confusing terms were an issue, why didn’t the early Christians avoid the term “elder” altogether? So, this Catholic argument is just too weak to be credible.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – THE VERY REASON THAT ENGLISH SPEAKERS REFER TO THE ORDAINED MINISTRY WITH A WORD (PRIEST) THAT IS DERIVED FROM “PRESBUTEROS” IS BECAUSE THESE MINISTERS SERVE THE SAME FUNCTION AS BIBLICAL ELDERS DID.
But one could argue that many of today’s Protestant pastors / ministers ALSO serve the same function as the New Testament “elders” did, because they also preach the gospel and administer communion, baptism, etc. So this claim proves nothing.
Another thing… if Catholic priests (especially those of the Latin rite) are supposed to be the same as New Testament “elders,” then why are they not allowed (required?) to be the “husband of [but] one wife” (Titus 1:6)? We know that there are exceptions in the Catholic Church, but Paul is speaking of the NORM for elders, here. And the norm is to be married. (We are not debating the virtues of celibacy, but our point is simply that, according to Titus, the great majority of Roman Catholic priests cannot be biblical elders). So, it can’t be said that priests and elders are one and the same.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – IN ROMANS 15:15-16, PAUL CALLS HIMSELF A PRIEST WHEN HE REFERS TO HIS MINISTRY AS A “PRIESTLY SERVICE” (GREEK, “HIEROURGOUNTA”).
First of all, Paul never uses the word “priest” to describe his own office, but considers himself an “apostle.”
Secondly, in NONE of his epistles does he call any leader in the church a “priest,” when he had ample opportunity to do so.
Thirdly, this “priestly service” is simply describing the work of spreading the gospel, which ALL Christians are commissioned to do.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – BUT IF WE DON’T HAVE ANY PRIESTS TODAY, HOW CAN WE OBTAIN THE SACRAMENTS, OR PRESENT SACRIFICES TO THE LORD, LIKE THE SACRIFICE OF THE MASS?
Ok, first, just because there are no ministerial priests, this doesn’t mean that there are no church leaders to minister to the people.
Furthermore, without getting into the concept of “sacraments,” and any role they might play, the point still remains that ministerial priests are NOT found in the New Testament, regardless of whether someone believes they should be there.
And finally, the only sacrifices that need to be offered today are spiritual sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5), our praise (Hebrews 13:15), our bodies (Romans 12:1), our finances (Philippians 4:18), etc. Concerning the Sacrifice of the Mass, see our two-part article on the Eucharist, elsewhere on this blog.
Note that the author of the book of Hebrews takes great pains to distinguish the difference between the Old Covenant (types and shadows) and the New (and better) Covenant. The main function of a ministerial priest of the Old Testament was to offer sacrifices (repeatedly) to God in order to atone for sin. But Hebrews 10:10-12, 18 tells us that the price has now been paid, and there is “NO MORE offering [sacrifice] for sin.” Therefore, no more atoning sacrifices are needed. Jesus Christ has paid the full penalty on the cross of Calvary. We now have a perfect atonement to embrace, once for all (Hebrews 9:12, 28; 10:10). No ministerial priests are needed now to offer sacrifice to God. Their “job” is cancelled out. This was demonstrated by God’s tearing of the veil in the temple (Matthew 27:51). It means all believers now have direct access to God without “ministerial” priests. Jesus Christ is the FULFILLMENT of the Old Testament type of priesthood and its sacrifices.
We are not saying that there are no leaders in the church today, just that there are no “ordained / ministerial” priests. As important as the priesthood is to Catholics, it is hard to ignore the fact that this priesthood is never mentioned in Paul’s writings. To emphasize the point once more, it is not as though it is absent from only a tiny letter in the Bible, like Philemon or 3 John, but it is absent from the WHOLE New Testament. This is too much of a glaring omission to ignore.
The life, the very core, of a priestly system is the sacrifice. The sacrifice is the whole focus of the priesthood. If you remove the core of any such system, you take away the life and purpose of that system. If there is no more sacrifice, there is no more system. Its purpose has been served. This is the Achilles’ heel of the Catholic priesthood. Not only is the priesthood NOT in the New Testament, but it also contradicts the New Testament, since Hebrews tells us that there is NO MORE SACRIFICE for sin (Hebrews 10:18).
According to its Catechism, the Catholic Church makes some very special claims about its priests. For example, they are supposedly able to absolve (forgive) a man’s sins (CCC #1495); they have “a ‘sacred power’ which is none other than that of Christ” (CCC #1551); they “possess the authority to act in the power and place of the Person of Christ, Himself” (CCC #1548); and the priest “divinizes” and he “is divinized” (CCC #1589), i.e., he makes divine and is made divine…
Once again, we see the Catholic Church making some extraordinary claims about itself, and then it asserts that these claims have (at least some) biblical support. But upon examination, these claims are found to be just that… mere claims, and not truth; they are deceptive claims that actually deny biblical truth.
So, this creates some serious implications for the Catholic faithful, and should be disturbing to those Catholics who would take an honest look at the evidence presented. We have to ask ourselves: Are we going to believe the Catholic hierarchy, or are we going to believe God’s infallible Scripture?