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Why We Have a Ministerial Priesthood

The Catholic belief in and great emphasis upon the priesthood was one of the “Romish” beliefs I thought to be refuted most easily in Sacred Scripture when I was Protestant. This was an extremely important doctrine, because I surmised that multiple other Catholic doctrines went up in smoke with the demise of the Catholic understanding of the priesthood. Confession, the Mass as sacrifice, “Last Rites,” and more crumbled like a house of cards without the priesthood as a foundation.

The biblical texts seemed so clear to me. For example, Hebrews 7:22–25 says:

“This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (emphasis added).

Doesn’t this text eliminate the possibility of there being priests who are “many in number” as we see in Catholicism? Moreover, this text tells us that Christ is our intercessor before the Father. Coupled with 1 Timothy 2:5, which says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” I could not see how anyone could say there could be priests in the New Covenant. A priest, by definition, is a mediator between God and men. As I interpreted the above texts, Christ would be our one, unique priest and intercessor, excluding the possibility of a ministerial priesthood. (Intercessor and mediatorare synonymous in the New Testament.)

The Catholic Response

First, we need to dispel the notion that there cannot be “many priests” in the New Covenant. First Peter 2:5–9 tells us, “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” The fact that all baptized Christians are referred to as priests in the New Testament necessarily means it is not a contradiction to say that Christ is our unique priest/mediator/intercessor while affirming the biblical truth that Christians can act as priests/mediators/intercessors as well.

The key is to understand properly the nature of the body of Christ. Christians do not usurp or diminish the unique priesthood of Christ when they are referred to as priests; they participate in that unique priesthood. So intimate is the union of the baptized with Christ that Paul describes this mystical union as a body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12–27; Rom. 12:5) with Christ as its head (cf. Eph. 1:22–23). What can be attributed to a hand in the body does not somehow take away from the head. The fact that Christians are priests does not usurp the priesthood of Christ because it is Christ who empowers them to participate in his own priesthood. Indeed, it is Christ (and his priesthood) living in them (cf. Gal. 2:20).

Further, it is obvious that Hebrews 7:22–25 and 1 Timothy 2:5 are not saying that Christians cannot act as mediators or intercessors in any sense. Paul says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1–2). This text urges Christians to act as mediators or intercessors. When we understand that Christians can intercede only because they are in the one true mediator/intercessor and that they act as members of his body, the difficulty goes away. Simple enough.

The Priest-Elder

But even if a Protestant accepts the notion of Christians being priests and accepts the Catholic interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:5 and Hebrew 7:22–25 in this respect, this in no way shows that there is a distinct ordained priesthood apart from the universal priesthood of the faithful. First Peter 2 indicated that all Christians are priests—but not ministerial priests. Here was my biggest problem with the Catholic notion of a ministerial priesthood. The ordained ministers of the New Covenant are called apostles (cf. Eph. 4:11), elders (Jas. 5:14), bishops (1 Tim. 3:1), and deacons (1 Tim. 3:8ff). They are not referred to directly with the typical Greek word for “priest,” which is hiereus.

But the English word priest is derived from the Greek word presbuteros, or “elder.” It does not originate from hiereus. The German word priester also has its origin from the Greek word for “elder.” So there is etymological reason to say that the elder in the Christian Church was considered to be a priest. In fact, the Douay-Rheims Bible translates presbuteros as “priest,” which can be a valid translation (see Jas. 5:14, DRV).

Having said that, I must say that for me, it was not the word elder or priest that helped me to see the truth of the New Covenant priesthood; it was the function of the apostle, bishop, and elder, which is clearly revealed to be of a priestly nature. (A deacon is ordained, but he is not a ministerial priest.)

There were basically four biblical steps I took on the road to discovering the New Covenant priesthood. First, I saw that although the standard noun for priest—hiereus—is not used for New Testament ministers, the verb form of hiereus is. And it is found when Paul refers specifically to his ministry as an apostle. He refers to his ministry as a “priestly service”:

“Because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service [Greek: hierourgounta] of the gospel of God” (Rom. 15:15–16).

Second, I saw that 1 Peter 2:5–9 is a reference to Exodus 19:6: “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This text indicates a universal priesthood in the Old Covenant. Yet in that same chapter, verse 22, we read: “And also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves.” I clearly saw that there was a universal priesthood in existence in the Old Covenant, but this did not exclude the possibility of a distinct ministerial priesthood as well. Could it be the same in the New Covenant? I discovered that it was.

Third, as far as the term priest is concerned, it began to seem plausible to me that the Christians of the first century would avoid using it in naming the ministerial offices of the Church, because it was the same term being used by the more numerous Jewish and even pagan priests (cf. Luke 1:8–9; Acts 14:13). Christians used language to distinguish their priests from the Jewish and pagan priests of their day.

But what was most important for me was the fourth step in the process. I saw in Scripture that New Covenant ministers functioned as priests. As the old saying goes: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck. . . .”

A Common Objection

This fourth step in my biblical journey began with an objection that I had that is quite commonly raised by our Protestant brothers concerning the priesthood: “Why do I have to go to some man to have my sins forgiven when the Bible says I can go straight to God through Christ? Isn’t this the whole reason that Jesus came and died on the cross?”

Well, it’s not the whole reason. But this objection is based in partial truth and partial misunderstanding. The Protestant is correct in one respect. We can and ought to go directly to God through Jesus Christ in repentance, prayer, and offering our spiritual sacrifices in union with him. But I discovered that this is not an either/or proposition. We do not go either to God or to his representatives on this earth when we have needs. The Catholic Church and the Bible say we do both. For example, Romans 12:1–2 says, “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

Here we see Paul encouraging all Christians to exercise their universal, “royal priesthood” before God and offer spiritual sacrifices directly to him. We Catholics agree that all Christians can and should do just that. But, analogous to what we saw in the Old Testament, we also see a special group of men called by Christ to a ministerial priesthood in the New Testament. In fact, each of the three ministers I mentioned before—apostles, elders, and bishops—function as priests in the New Testament.

Apostles, Elders, and Bishops

In Scripture, we see our Lord definitively choosing and sending apostles to act as mediators between God and men. This, again, is the very definition of a priest. For example, after the Resurrection, Jesus appears to the apostles in the upper room and says to them:

“‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:21–23).

Jesus gave the power to forgive and retain sins to the apostles. This is a priestly ministry (cf. Lev. 19:21–22). In 2 Corinthians 2:10, Paul says, “If I have pardoned anything for your sakes I have done it in the person of Christ” (DRV).

Paul evidently heard confessions in Corinth, carrying out this priestly commission of the apostle. He goes on to say that the apostle has been given the ministry of reconciliation: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).

That Paul uses the word we in describing this priestly ministry may indicate that he is including the elders and bishops he was traveling with and/or ministering with as priests as well, but the point remains the same: Paul describes his ministry as a priestly one.

Jesus not only gave the authority to forgive sins to the apostles, but he gave them divine, infallible authority to proclaim the gospel as well. “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). This too is a priestly function. The apostles act in the place of God as mediators between God and men. In 2 Corinthians 2:17, Paul describes this priestly work as such: “For we are not as many, adulterating the word of God; but with sincerity, as from God, before God, in Christ we speak” (DRV).

Bishops (episkopoi) are successors of the apostles according to Scripture. When the apostles were choosing a successor for Judas, the text describes the office of apostle as a bishopric: “and [Judas’] bishopric (episkope) let another man take” (Acts 1:20, DRV). Bishops, it can be inferred, are called to carry on the apostolic ministry and the apostles’ priestly function. The apostolic office in succession is called a bishopric.

Presbyters are seen as priests as well. James 5:14–15 puts it quite plainly:

“Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders (presbyteroi) of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”

Notice that Scripture does not say we should go to anyone because we are all priests as Christians. It singles out the presbyters and clearly depicts them as having the power and authority to act as mediators in the forgiveness of sins and healing.

Two Definitive Texts

In the end, there were two texts of Scripture that I could not escape. I believe that attempting to find Protestant explanations for these texts only served to solidify the Catholic understanding of confession and the priesthood in my mind. Those two texts are John 20:21–23 and Matthew 16:18–19.

When it came to John 20:21–23, cited above, some of the Protestant scholars I read attempted to evade the obvious by claiming that the perfect tense verbs “are forgiven” and “are retained” indicate that when Jesus said, “Whosoever sins you forgive are forgiven,” he actually meant whoever’s sins you forgive have already been forgiven, not through the ministry of the apostle but by God apart from the apostle. This is an example of reading into a text something that is simply not there.

The text is really quite plain. It tells us when the sins are forgiven: They are forgiven when the apostles forgive them. The Catholic Church is not saying that the apostles accomplish this by some magical powers or by their own power. Jesus “breathed on them” and gave them the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins. But the fact is that the apostles are the instruments of God’s forgiveness, and there can be no plainer example of a priestly function than this—except perhaps for the final text we will examine: Matthew 16:18–19.

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

All Catholics are well acquainted with this text and its implications for papal infallibility. Here Jesus promises Peter the power to proclaim the gospel on earth with the infallible authority of heaven to back him up. But less well known is that this text also refers to the forgiveness of sins (cf. CCC 553). In both cases, as stated above, we are talking about priestly functions; that is, Peter and his successors are promised the power to be mediators of both the message of God’s truth and the healing communicated through God’s forgiveness.

The text itself is most clear because it uses a very rare Greek construction that profoundly brings out the sacerdotal nature of the Petrine office.

The very mention of a ministerial priesthood elicits a deluge of thoughts in the minds and hearts of many of our Protestant friends. Take it from one who went from abhorring the very thought of confessing my sins to a priest to one who could not wait to experience the opening of the windows of heaven through the ministry of an ordained Catholic priest! I think I had every negative thought in the book toward the priesthood.

In your next conversation with someone who is now where I was then, remember the old adage: “If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck!” If you can help your Protestant friend to see the function of the apostle, bishop, and elder as priestly, it may not be long before he will be looking forward to experiencing the forgiveness of Christ in confession as well.

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