Saturday, July 28, 2018
We all know that there was a ministerial priesthood in the Old Testament, that is, a priesthood where special men were needed to mediate between God and man. That was God’s design for the nation of Israel for that time period. But what about the New Testament period? Was this same type of priesthood intended for today? There are certain groups today (with Christian roots) who do indeed claim to have a priesthood, like Catholics, Orthodox, and even certain Protestants (e.g., Anglicans / Episcopalians and some Lutherans). This article applies to all of these groups, but here we intend to focus on Catholicism, since it is the largest and most popular group to have priests.
To answer the question of whether a priesthood should exist today, we will go on a short journey through the New Testament to determine if there is indeed a ministerial priesthood therein.
Ok, what about the gospels? Do we find priests mentioned in these accounts? Well, we find Jewish priests in Matthew (e.g., 8:4; 12:4), Mark (e.g., 1:44; 2:26), Luke (e.g., 1:5; 5:14), and John (e.g., 1:9). But no Christian priests are mentioned.
How about in the book of Acts? Again, we find only Jewish priests (e.g., Acts 6:7), and one pagan priest (Acts 14:13).
Ok, let’s look at the epistles.
Romans 15:16 mentions the apostle Paul’s “ministering the gospel of God” (KJV). The Greek term for this phrase basically means “to minister in the manner of a priest.” But the apostle never takes to himself this title. This verse is simply speaking of his work of sharing the gospel with the gentiles, not being or becoming a priest.
And then there is the book of Hebrews, which only mentions Jewish priests and a Jewish priesthood (e.g., 7:5; 7:12), including Jesus’ High priesthood (2:17; 8:1), and Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:21) who was an Old Testament priest.
That brings us to the book of 1 Peter, which only mentions the universal priesthood of all believers (e.g., 2:5: 2:9).
And finally, in the book of Revelation, we again see only the universal priesthood of believers (e.g., 1:6; 5:10).
Nowhere in Sight
These are the only types of priests mentioned in the whole New Testament. So again, we find a pagan priest, Jewish priests, and the universal priesthood of all believers, but absolutely no Christian ministerial priests. But why would this be if a modern-day priesthood is so important (according to Catholics) and has such a vital role in the church? The silence is very telling.
Ok, so there is no one called a Christian priest in the New Testament. Could it be that there is another term that is used for “priest” today? According to Catholics, yes there is. Protestants will rightly say that the Greek word “hiereus” is the word for priest and that this Greek word nowhere appears to describe a ministerial priest in the New Testament. But Catholics believe that the word for “elder” (Greek “presbuteros”) is now the proper New Testament term for priest (e.g., Acts 14:23; James 5:14).
The Etymology Argument
But what is their reasoning for calling elders priests? They will tell us that the English word priest also comes from the Greek “presbuteros.” In other words, it is derived from presbuteros and has eventually evolved over the years into the word priest. And etymology (the study of word origins and how they evolve and develop) confirms this. So, according to them, since the word “priest” is derived from “presbuteros,” then those elders in the early church were actually priests. But is that good logic? It is certainly not good Bible exegesis (i.e., critical explanation / interpretation of a text without reading something into it).
Sadly, Catholics are more dependent on etymology here than they are on Scripture. But if etymology is that important, then we can also call biblical elders Presbyterians, since this word is also derived from “presbuteros.” But we don’t think we’ll see Catholics rushing to say that. So, this etymology argument doesn’t work.
The Similar Functions Argument
Another argument from Catholics is that they believe that modern ministerial priests are the same as the biblical elders because today’s priests perform the same functions as biblical elders, like receiving tithes, laying hands on the brethren, preaching and teaching, shepherding the flock, administering ordinances like communion and baptism, praying for their people, etc. But we would say that this is exactly what many Protestants do, also. According to that logic, wouldn’t that make the biblical elders “Protestants,” as well, since they perform similar functions? Again, we don’t think that Catholics would be in a hurry to say that, either.
Catholics attribute to themselves a particular title (priests) and mimic some of the basic things that the biblical elders did, and then they try to force that title (i.e., priests) back onto those biblical elders where it doesn’t belong. That’s not how you determine the definition of something, and again, neither is it proper exegesis.
Just because you copied them doesn’t mean that you are one of them, or that they are the same as you. You can’t assign your own claimed title to someone to whom the Bible doesn’t recognize as such! Even if the work one does somehow ties in to the work of a priest, so what? It doesn’t make one a priest. It simply links to a priestly type of work / function.
And furthermore, what spiritual work DOESN’T tie in to a priestly type of work? Apparently, every true spiritual work seems to relate somehow to priests. So, does this make EVERYONE who does any kind of spiritual work a ministerial priest? Of course not. This Catholic argument seems to prove too much, and thus, also falls by the wayside.
Not on the List
But why would we think that ministerial priests exist in the New Testament anyway? The apostle Paul mentions the offices and functions of the church in 1 Timothy chapters 3 and 5, and in Titus chapter 1. He gives specific instructions for ministry, church order, gifts and service in 1 Corinthians chapters 11-14 and in Ephesians chapter 4. But according to Paul, there is no office of “priest.” Wouldn’t you think that this would have been a great opportunity to mention a priesthood if God intended one for the church? If ministerial priests are absolutely critical for the church age, where are they in the new covenant?
No More Sacrifice
For a ministerial priesthood to exist, there has to be a sacrifice for sin. A priest is a special mediator between man and God (1 Timothy 2:5). In God’s economy, the Old Testament used priests for this purpose. One of their main jobs was to offer sacrifice for the people to be saved from their sins. In those days, the debt of sin was not yet paid for mankind. But today, there is NO MORE SACRIFICE to offer for sin (Hebrews 10:18). The one and only, the ONCE FOR ALL (Hebrews 7:27; 10:10) and Ultimate Sacrifice has been offered (John 19:30), terminating the need for any more sacrifices which atone for sin. The types of sacrifices that are to be offered today are spiritual sacrifices, for example, your praise and thanksgiving to God (Hebrews 13:15), your own selves (Romans 12:1), etc.
In a desperate attempt to salvage a priesthood, Catholics use two main passages trying to prove that Jesus established a ministerial priesthood. The first one is the Last Supper discourse where Jesus breaks bread and pours out wine, and says, “This do in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19-20). They will insist that Jesus really meant, “Offer this sacrifice in remembrance of Me.” But we have no biblical reason to believe that the apostles saw this ritual as an actual sacrifice, or would have thought that in the Last Supper that a priesthood was being established. See these links:
The other passage they use is John 20:21-23 where Jesus sends His apostles on the Great Commission, breathes on them and tells them whoever’s sins you remit / retain are remitted / retained. But there is absolutely no mention of a priesthood here, nor any kind of precedent to cause anyone to think that a priesthood was beginning here, either. See this link:
The fact that Scripture denies a New Testament priesthood should, in itself, settle the matter, but even history is against the concept, as we will now show.
The Church Says…
According to the Catholic Church, “…the sacred Scriptures show, and the tradition of the Catholic Church HAS ALWAYS TAUGHT, that this priesthood was instituted by the same Lord our Saviour, and that to the apostles, and their successors in the priesthood, was the power delivered of consecrating, offering, and administering His Body and Blood, as also of forgiving and of retaining sins.” [Emphasis added] Council of Trent, 23rd Session, Doctrine and Canons, Chapter 1
Please note first of all that they are claiming that Scripture teaches that the priesthood was instituted, or established, at the Last Supper. But this cannot be proven by Scripture at all. There is nothing about a priesthood there. It is read into the text. Secondly, notice that they are also claiming that the church has always taught, from the beginning, that this priesthood was believed and accepted by the early church. But this is not true. Ministerial priests can only start to be found in the church in the second or third century A.D.
Even many Catholic apologists admit that calling an elder a “priest” was a development over time. And if it developed, then they are admitting that this concept is not apostolic in nature, since it was not taught by the apostles. Something is not “apostolic” if the apostles didn’t believe it, teach it, or do it.
Here are some sources to demonstrate this fact.
The Witness of History
“A priesthood developed gradually in the early Christian church as first bishops and then elders, or ‘presbyters,’ began to exercise certain priestly functions, mainly in connection with the celebration of the Eucharist. By the end of the 2nd century, the church’s bishops were called priests (Latin: sacerdos)… The development of eucharistic theology resulted in a further emphasis of the priest’s supernatural powers and qualities…” Encyclopaedia Britannica, online (under “Priest – Christianity”)
“Although the term ‘priest’ (Greek hiereus) refers to the entire Christian people, it is given to no church officer in the New Testament. First appearing in the 2nd century, the office is associated with the establishment of the eucharistic sacrifice, over which the priest was called to preside. No doubt the development of the monarchical episcopate also contributed to the emergence of the priesthood…” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, online (under Roman Catholicism, Structure of the Church, The Priesthood)
[Speaking of the Epistle to the Hebrews] “This argument leaves no room for a special priesthood in the Christian Church, and in fact nothing of the kind is found in the oldest organization of the new communities of faith. The idea that presbyters and bishops are priests and the successors of the Old Testament priesthood first appears in full force in the writings of Cyprian… [245-258 A.D.]” The Encyclopaedia Brittanica (Handy Volume Issue), Volume XXII, p. 321, Eleventh Edition, copyright 1911, (under “Priest”)
“Even Hebrews does not associate Christ’s priesthood with the Last Supper or the Eucharist, however. This required a further development: the emergence, at the end of the first century, of the explicit teaching that the Eucharist was a sacrifice, presided over by a Christian priest… From the beginning of the second century, Christian writers increasingly applied cultic, sacerdotal terminology to the church’s ministers.” The Encyclopedia of Religion, Volume XI, p. 528, copyright 1987 (under “Priesthood”)
Historian Philip Schaff writes:
“The idea and institution of a special priesthood, distinct from the body of the people, with the accompanying notion of sacrifice and altar, passed imperceptibly from Jewish and heathen reminiscences and analogies into the Christian church… Whether we regard the change as an apostasy from a higher position attained, or as a reaction of old ideas never fully abandoned, the change is undeniable, and can be traced to the second century… The New Testament knows no spiritual aristocracy or nobility, but calls all believers “saints”… Nor does it recognize a special priesthood in distinction from the people, as mediating between God and the laity… During the third century it became customary to apply the term “priest” directly and exclusively to the Christian ministers, especially the bishops.” History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325, chapter IV: Organization and Discipline of the Church, paragraph 42, Clergy and Laity, pp. 78-80, online.
It is absolutely amazing that a respected and important office such as the ministerial priest, one who is considered to be another Christ (“Alter Christus”), being so critical to the life of the church, would be absent from the God-breathed Scriptures. Strange indeed. And the reason that it is not there is because it is not something that God ordained. Where are all the ministerial priests in the New Testament? There aren’t any. And as we said before, this does not only apply to Catholics, but to the Orthodox and Protestant “priests,” as well.