Why We Have a Ministerial Priesthood
The Apostles, Elders, and Bishops in Scripture Functioned as a Ministerial Priesthood.
The biblical texts seemed so clear…
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“.
Doesn’t this text eliminate the possibility of there being priests who are “many in number” as we see in Catholicism??? This text tells us that Christ is our intercessor before the Father. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” A priest, by definition, is a mediator between God and men. Wouldn’t this exclude the possibility of a ministerial priesthood?
In a word…no.
1 Peter 2:5–9 “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.”
All baptized Christians are referred to as priests in the New Testament. That means there is no contradiction when say that Christ is our unique priest/mediator/intercessor while affirming the biblical truth that Christians can act as priests/mediators/intercessors as well.
Try to understand “the body of Christ”. We don’t usurp or diminish the unique priesthood of Christ when we referred to ourselves as priests; we participate in that unique priesthood. The union of the baptized with Christ is so intimate that Paul describes this mystical union as a body with Christ as its head. 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. It is Christ (and his priesthood) living in them (cf. Gal. 2:20).
Obviously, 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.
But a Protestant will say that this in no way shows that there is a distinct ordained priesthood apart from the universal priesthood of the faithful. 1 Peter 2 indicated that all Christians are priests—but not ministerial priests. This is possibly because 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.
But it is 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.) 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). 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.” 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? It was.
“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. Protestants are correct in one respect. We can and should go directly to God through Jesus Christ in repentance, prayer, and offering our spiritual sacrifices in union with him. But it’s not an either/or proposition. The Catholic Church and the Bible say we go both to Him and to his representatives on earth. 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.”
Paul encourages all of us to exercise their royal priesthood before God and offer spiritual sacrifices directly to him. Catholics agree that all Christians can and should do just that. But we also see a special group of men called by Christ to a ministerial priesthood in the New Testament. In fact, apostles, elders, and bishops all function as priests in the New Testament.
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”.
Paul probably heard confessions in Corinth, carrying out the priestly commission of the apostle. He goes on to say that apostles had 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).
Paul’s use of 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 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”.
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). Bishops 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.
There were two texts of Scripture that 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, 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 just not there.
The text is really straight forward. It tells us that sins are forgiven when the apostles forgive them. They are not accomplishing this by their own power. Jesus “breathed on them” and gave them the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins. But the apostles are the instruments of God’s forgiveness, and there can be no plainer example of a priestly function than this.
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.”
Catholics are well acquainted with this text and its implications for papal infallibility. 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, a priestly function; 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.
“If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck!”