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Did Jesus Give Priests to the Church?

OBJECTOR: The Catholic Church has priests who are distinct from the laity and even elevated above them. This is unscriptural because the New Testament nowhere sets certain men apart from the rest of God’s people to be priests.

CATHOLIC: Surely you would agree that the New Testament authorizes leaders of the Church to be pastors, deacons, maybe even bishops.

OBJECTOR: Yes, but the word priest is never used in the New Testament for the leaders of the Church. The words pastor, bishop, and elder are used, but never priest.

CATHOLIC: That’s almost correct. The word hiereus (priest) is not used of church leaders in the New Testament, but the cognate verb hierourgeo (to act as a priest) is used in Romans 15:16. There Paul speaks of himself in these words: “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

OBJECTOR: Paul may have used the verb to describe his missionary work. You’ll notice that he speaks of the Gentiles as his offering. He is not offering something on behalf of the Gentiles; he thinks of the new people of God as the offering.

CATHOLIC: Paul’s use of “to act as a priest” (hierourgeo) fits with the Catholic Church’s understanding of a priest as one who intercedes for the people of God as an intermediary. The priest today, like Paul, offers the people back to God in union with the perfect sacrifice of Christ, the great high priest.

OBJECTOR: I have no problem with that understanding as long as we realize that Paul was one of the people of God. As an apostle, he guided the Church and was one of its pastors, but the priesthood was a concept that applied to all God’s people, not some select group of men.

CATHOLIC: We agree in one respect. The non-Catholic doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is not an idea that the Church rejects. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says clearly that all of God’s faithful people share in the priesthood of Christ by virtue of their baptism: “Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church ‘a kingdom, priests for his God and Father’” (CCC 1546, cf. Rev. 1:6, 5:9–10). Further, it says, “The whole Church is a priestly people. Through baptism all the faithful share in the priesthood of Christ. This participation is called the ‘common priesthood of all the faithful.’ Based on this common priesthood and ordered to its service, there exists another participation in the mission of Christ: the ministry conferred by the sacrament of holy orders, where the task is to serve in the name and in the person of Christ the head in the midst of the community” (1591). In other words, the existence of a common priesthood for all God’s people does not exclude a special calling for the pastors of the Church to be priests.

OBJECTOR: But that’s not what the New Testament says. When Peter speaks of priesthood, he applies it to the whole people of God. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). As you can see, this expression “royal priesthood” refers to all of God’s people, not a special class of men.

CATHOLIC: Peter is, of course, speaking of the “common priesthood of all the faithful” of which the Catechism spoke. But why do you insist that this excludes a special role for those men chosen by God to serve as priests for and to God’s people?

OBJECTOR: Because it’s not part of the New Testament teaching on the government of the Church. The priesthood of Christ is unique and cannot be repeated. Christ appointed shepherds for the Church as Jesus taught Peter in John 21:15–19. As we said, these leaders are called elders (or presbyters) and deacons, but never priests except for the Romans 15:16 text you cited.

CATHOLIC: Perhaps you are unaware that priests in the Catholic Church are also called presbyters, which is usually translated as “elders” in most English Bibles. They are the elders who guide the Church under the authority of the bishops (called episkopoi in the New Testament).

OBJECTOR: Well, I didn’t know that, but I still don’t see how it changes anything. First Peter 2:9 still applies to the whole Church and not to some select group of leaders, be they presbyters or bishops.

CATHOLIC: You will notice that 1 Peter 2:9 is quoting from a number of Old Testament texts. One of them is Exodus 19:6, where the people of Israel are called “a kingdom of priests.” Isaiah 61:6 says that in the New Covenant times, the restored people of God will be called “priests of the Lord.”

OBJECTOR: Yes, these texts from the Old Testament just confirm my point that all the people of God are considered priests in the Bible and especially in the New Testament. This is what we call the “priesthood of all believers.”

CATHOLIC: But surely you must agree that, just because the people as a whole in the Old Covenant played a priestly role, it did not exclude a special calling for the Levites as priests. As I am sure you know, there is abundant evidence in the Old Testament for a special priesthood for the one tribe of Levi. Deuteronomy 18:1–8 is just one among many such passages. This special priesthood could not be held by just anyone. It was restricted to those who were called. The author of Hebrews speaks of this Old Covenant priesthood in these terms in Hebrews 5:1–4. Now, if there were two kinds of priesthood in the Old Covenant—we might call them “the priesthood of the faithful” and “the ministerial priesthood”—then why can there not be this same distinction in the New Covenant?

OBJECTOR: We agree about the Old Covenant priesthood, but that is precisely what is changed in the New Covenant about the priesthood. Now only Christ himself has the ministerial priesthood. The priesthood of Aaron ended with the coming of Christ. The book of Hebrews makes that abundantly clear.

CATHOLIC: Okay, we agree on at least two points. First, Christ’s priesthood fulfills and supersedes the Aaronic priesthood. As you say, the letter to the Hebrews makes that clear. And second, we agree that the entire people of God plays a priestly role in interceding for the world before God. But the Catholic Church insists that a ministerial priesthood exists in the New Covenant structure of the Church. This priesthood is based on and flows from Christ’s own priesthood. A properly ordained priest of the Church shares in a heightened and special way in the priesthood of Christ because he offers to God the same sacrifice that Jesus offered to God the Father. Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice to atone for sin (cf. 1 John 4:10; Heb. 9:12, 14, 26), and the priest today offers Jesus Christ back to the Father as the atonement for our sins.

OBJECTOR: I just don’t see any texts in the New Testament that teach what the Catholic Church is saying. I agree with all you say about Christ’s priesthood, but God designed the Church to have pastors who care for the flock. These men were not supposed to be priests. The idea of a special priesthood is just not in the New Testament.

CATHOLIC: I can offer you at least four lines of evidence. But first, do you agree that Christ called some men to be his special representatives, such as in Matthew 4:19, Luke 6:13, and John 15:16? Do you agree that these men are called apostles and they are the human foundation of the Church (cf. Eph. 2:20)?

OBJECTOR: I agree, but where is the idea of a ministerial priesthood in those texts?

CATHOLIC: Consider first Matthew 28:18–20, where Jesus commissioned the apostles to go “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This twofold ministry of baptizing and teaching can be summarized in the phrase “the ministry of word and sacrament.” In other words, the apostles and those after them were to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments.

OBJECTOR: Many forms of Protestant theology—for instance, Lutheran and Calvinist—would agree with this ministry of word and sacrament, but they don’t agree that this constitutes a priestly function.

CATHOLIC: Then let’s look at the second and third lines of evidence. The easier of the two is expressed in John 20:19–23, where Jesus empowers the apostles with the authority to confer forgiveness on the penitent. For the sake of brevity, I quote only verse 23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This power to forgive sins, to convey God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of confession, is clearly a part of the priestly function of Christ. In this text, Jesus is conveying this authority to his apostles.

OBJECTOR: I am sure you know that many Christians don’t agree with this interpretation. We believe that Jesus is giving his apostles the authority to proclaim his forgiveness to all, not to forgive them in the way you say, since he himself is the only one who can do that.

CATHOLIC: Yes, I know this interpretation, but if you study the text carefully, I think you’ll agree that the common interpretation among non-Catholics simply does not fit the text. That is, it doesn’t take the text seriously. Jesus speaks of “the sins you forgive” and “the sins you retain.” We Catholics take this text seriously and believe that the forgiveness that comes only from Jesus can be conferred on those who repent because Jesus himself gave that authority to the apostles and their successors.

OBJECTOR: Well, perhaps we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. What is this third piece of evidence you mentioned?

CATHOLIC: The third line of evidence has to do with the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus told the apostles with him “Do this in memory of me.” When Jesus gave them this command, he was making them priests of the New Covenant.

OBJECTOR: That’s a strange idea. What makes you think that the phrase “Do this in memory of me” has anything to do with being a priest? Those words are addressed to every Christian and apply to our celebrations of communion in church. I just don’t see any connection between those words and the priesthood.

CATHOLIC: You’re not alone. But consider first to whom these words were addressed. Jesus did not say they apply to every Christian. If that is true, it could be so only by an extension of the original situation. A more historically responsible interpretation sees the fact that it was just the apostles at that Last Supper.

OBJECTOR: Even if I agree with you on that score, that doesn’t mean that Jesus is making the apostles priests. All these words mean is that we should remember Jesus when we have communion.

CATHOLIC: If that’s what the words really meant, your conclusion would be true that “Do this in memory of me” has nothing to do with being a priest. But they mean a lot more. As I noted, they were first spoken to the apostles. I don’t have time to go into detail here, but let me at least say this: “Do this in memory of me” was a command from Jesus for the apostles to do exactly what he did that night. They were to repeat this action in perpetuity. It is also clear that his actions were priestly because he was offering the bread and wine just like Melchizedek did (cf. Gen. 14:17–20). As you know, Hebrews makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek. In a higher sense, Jesus was acting as a priest at the Last Supper by giving the apostles his body and blood. Therefore, his command to his apostles involves them performing priestly actions. They could perform such actions only if he were making them priests to stand in his place and to give the people of God his body and blood.

OBJECTOR: Well, I must say, I have never heard this interpretation before, but it seems like a stretch to me to see all that in the account of the Last Supper. It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the New Testament.

CATHOLIC: Remember that we all read the Bible through the eyes of our communities of faith. I can understand why such an interpretation will seem strange to you if you have little or no experience with a priestly ministry in your church. Perhaps my last line of evidence will help you to get thinking in that direction. But first, let me sum up the first three. What we see in the Old Testament is a three-fold priesthood. There is the common or universal priesthood of all Israelites at the bottom (cf. Ex. 19:6), a ministerial priesthood above them (cf. Ex. 19:22, 24; Lev. 1:5), and a high priest at the top (cf. Num. 35: 25). We thus should expect to find a similar three-fold priesthood under the New Covenant, and we do. There is the common or universal priesthood of all Christians (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5, 9), a ministerial priesthood above them (cf. Rom. 15:16), and a high priest at the top (cf. Heb. 3:1). Rather than varying from the biblical model of priesthood, the Catholic understanding copies it exactly. It is the two-fold model that departs from what we see in the Bible.

OBJECTOR: You said you have a fourth line of evidence. What could that possibly be?

CATHOLIC: You believe, I am sure, that the whole purpose of the eternal Word (Logos) becoming flesh was to reconcile us to God. Now, in order to have a ministry of reconciliation, Christ had to be a priest as well as a prophet and king. In fact, his act of reconciling death highlighted his priestly office more than anything else. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:18–23 that the same God “who through Christ reconciled us to himself” is also the one who “gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). “The message of reconciliation” in verse 19 is that God does not hold men’s transgressions against them. That is the ministry of the priests in the Catholic Church: They are to be agents of reconciliation by carrying Christ the Reconciler to others. That ultimately is why God chooses some men from among his people to be his priests. Priests reconcile people to God.

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