It is not uncommon to hear Protestants (and even some Catholics) make the claim that “the presbyters of the early Church are nothing like the priests of today’s Church.” For example, Wes McAdams writes at the Radically Christian web site in an article called “Why I Strongly Believe Ordaining Priests is Unbiblical”:
In the New Testament, we find the word “presbyteros” or “presbyter” over 60 times (see Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17). This word simply means “elder” or an older man. The “elders” or “presbyters” of the first-century church were older and mature Christians who were appointed to oversee and shepherd the congregation (see Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3). There were a plurality of them in every congregation and they never acted as intermediaries between God and the church.
The Greek New Testament word for priest is, “hiereus” and it appears over 30 times in the New Testament (see Matt. 8:4; Acts 4:1; Heb. 7:1). This is the Greek word for a man who acts as an intermediary between God and man. But an elder (presbyter) in the church was never called a priest (hiereus).
In other words, these two words are neither related nor used synonymously in the New Testament.
McAdams acknowledges that the English word “priest” derives from “presbyteros,” but dismisses this commonality as inconclusive. It’s a fair point: We should not take this linguistic relationship as absolute proof that Catholic priests are what New Testament presbyters were, but it should make us ask: Is there a connection between the two?
To answer this question, we must first answer: what is the essence of priesthood? If, as is claimed, presbyters are not priests, then what is a priest? McAdams defines it as “an intermediary between God and man,” but the word always meant something deeper than that. Strong’s Concordance defines “hiereus” as “a priest, one who offers sacrifice to a god.” Priesthood is essentially bound up with sacrifice.
To determine whether “presbyters” were priests, then, we must answer the question: Did presbyters offer sacrifice to God? The answer is unequivocally yes.
The earliest of the Church Fathers were unanimous that the Mass is a sacrifice, a re-presentation of Christ’s self-offering on the cross. The Didache invites us to “break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one.” St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote of the Eucharist: “for there is but one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his Blood, and one single altar of sacrifice.” St. Justin Martyr wrote that Christians “in every place offer sacrifices to [God], that is, the bread of the Eucharist and also the cup of the Eucharist.” The Catholic Church has always understood the Mass to be a sacrifice, as did all Christians before Luther.
Likewise, the Fathers were clear that it is only priests and bishops who offer the Mass, as when St. Ignatius writes: “Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it” (that is, to a presbyter who has been ordained for that purpose). St. Cyprian of Carthage said, “If Christ Jesus, our Lord and God, is himself the high priest of God the Father; and if he offered himself as a sacrifice to the Father; and if he commanded that this be done in commemoration of himself, then certainly the priest, who imitates that which Christ did, truly functions in place of Christ.” So, the early Church understood that to be a presbyter or bishop is to offer sacrifice, to exercise priesthood.
And this is the same essential understanding that the Church holds today. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the Second Vatican Council, states:
“It is in the Eucharistic cult or in the Eucharistic assembly of the faithful (synaxis) that they exercise in a supreme degree their sacred office; there, acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming his mystery, they unite the votive offerings of the faithful to the sacrifice of Christ their head, and in the sacrifice of the Mass they make present again and apply, until the coming of the Lord, the unique sacrifice of the New Testament, that namely of Christ offering himself once for all a spotless victim to the Father.” From this unique sacrifice their whole priestly ministry draws its strength. (1566)
This debate illuminates a key idea for discussion among Christians: Your theology of clergy is inextricably bound up with your theology of liturgy. If the Mass is not a sacrifice, then those belonging to the Order of Presbyters (and the Order of Bishops, who possess the fullness of orders) are not priests. But if the Mass is a sacrifice, then those offering it clearly are priests. And if the Church from its earliest days has understood the Mass to be sacrificial, then likewise it has understood presbyters and bishops to be exercising priesthood.
Far from it being problematic for the Church to ordain priests, we can now see that this is precisely what they have always done, because of the nature of Christian liturgy—the Mass is a sacrifice, thus we need priests to offer it. An attack on the priestly nature of the clergy is an attack on the Mass. Keeping this is mind will help us best to be able to defend both.