The Ministerial Priesthood
With these words, the Apostle Peter describes all Christians as a "priesthood" -- and indeed, that is exactly what Christians are, as the Catholic Church teaches (for the full official teaching on this see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially paragraphs 1533-1600).
The Common Priesthood of Believers
When one is Baptised in the Catholic Church, one is also "christened" with oil, and so anointed as a Priest, a Prophet, and a King. Why? Because, in Baptism, we become adopted sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:14-17); and, in this, we share in the very same Sonship which Christ Himself enjoys with the Father. Becoming members of His Body, we must act as Christ to the world. We are anointed as a King because we share in His royalty (His Messiahship); we are anointed as a Prophet because we are to speak His words and carry His Gospel to all; and we are anointed a Priest because we are to share in Christ's own High Priesthood. In this, we are to intercede for the world.
And this is exactly the definition of a priest: "Someone who is an intermediary and who offers a sacrifice on behalf of another." And, as priests, all Christians do this for the world. As Christians (redeemed by the Blood of Christ), we offer Christ's Sacrifice for the sake of the world. As Christians, we are able to pray:
"Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world." (see 1 Tim 2:1-6; 1 John 2:1-2).
And, in the Catholic understanding, this prayer is especially appropriate and powerful just after we have received Jesus in Holy Communion (the Eucharist). More on that later.
So, as Christians we are priests; and, as priests, we are intercessors between Christ and the world (Christ being the one Mediator between us and the Father -- 1 Tim 2:5). And this is what the Catholic Church refers to as the "common priesthood of the laity."
However, aside from this common priesthood -- a priesthood which ministers directly to the world, there is also a priesthood which ministers to the Church itself.
Romans 15:15-16 --"But I have written to you rather boldly in some respects to remind you, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the PRIESTLY service of the Gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit."
This is the ministerial priesthood of the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church -- a priesthood which does not minister directly to the world, but which ministers to those within the Church itself, which builds up the Church and aids the "little ones" through a ministry of unity, leadership, teaching authority, and the Sacraments. A ministry which succeeds to that of the Apostles themselves.
Acts 14:23 --"They (Paul and Barnabas) appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in Whom they put their faith."
The Word Presbyter/Priest
Now, the Greek word "presbyter" has an interesting position in the English language. While it's usually translated as "elder," the Greek meaning is actually more adjectival -- being closer in meaning to "senior" -- as in a "senior citizen" or a "father" of the community (i.e. a "patriarch").
However, what's most interesting for the Christian usage in English is that "presbyter" already has an equivalent word -- an English word which draws its root from the Christian usage of "presbyter" in the Greek language; and that English word is "priest."
This becomes most clear when one stops reading Scripture from the English (i.e. culturally-Protestant) perspective, and one realizes that the words "presbuteros" (in Greek) and "presbyterus" (in Latin) were used to designate the role of a Catholic (or Orthodox) priest for the first five to ten hundred years of Christianity. Indeed, if one travels to
The change is only apparent in English because we (as English speakers) are viewing things from an inverted perspective. When we hear of Jewish or pagan "priests," we assume the English word "priest" pre-dates the Christian usage, when in fact the word "priest" comes from the Christian usage of "presbuteros."
Here's how it works:
"Presbuteros" (Greek) --> "Presbyterus" (Latin) --> "Prete" (Italian) --> "Pretre" (French) --> "Proest" (Old / Middle English) --> "Priest" (Modern English).
So, the "presbyters" we see in Scripture are the "priests" of the Catholic Church. That is, they are those who preside as "fathers" at the new Passover Meal (the Eucharist / Holy Communion). For, in the Jewish Tradition, it was always the father who presided over the Passover Feast; and this Tradition has been elevated to the status of a far greater Passover Feast (the Eucharist), where the faithful are able to partake of the ONE Sacrifice of Calvary -- made present in their midst.
The Sacrifice of the Eucharist
Ah! But, in this, some might say that the Eucharist (The Lord's Supper) is not a Sacrifice, but just a "meal of commemoration." Well, anyone with that very non-Traditional perspective should carefully read 1 Corinthians 10:16-22:
"The Cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a PARTICIPATION in the Blood of Christ? The Bread that we break, is it not a PARTICIPATION in Body of Christ? ...Look at
Here Paul is clearly speaking of the Lord's Supper as a Sacrifice, a Sacrifice in which we become participants, just as the pagans participate in their unholy sacrifices.
And to back up the Catholic Church's correct interpretation of this passage, we have St. Clement of Rome (around A.D. 90) -- the same Clement who Paul calls his "co-worker" in Phil 4:3 -- writing to this same church of Corinth only 30 years later, a church which Paul praises for its ability to "hold fast to the traditions he handed on to them" in 1 Corinth 11:2 (compare to 1 Corinth 11:23).
And, on this same subject of the Eucharist as Christ's Sacrifice made present, St. Clement (who, in his letter, repeatedly refers to Paul's two previous epistles to the Corinthians, as if they were very well known by his Corinthian readers) writes:
"Since then these things are manifest to us, and we have looked into the depths of the Divine knowledge, we ought to do in order all things which the Master commanded us to perform at appointed times. He commanded us to celebrate Sacrifices and services (the Eucharist), and that it should not be thoughtlessly or disorderly (i.e., 1
And so, the Sacrifice was clearly understood. At the Lord's Supper, the ONE Sacrifice of Christ on
"Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one Cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons." (Ignatius to the Church in
"Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. They have no regard for charity, none for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, none for the man in prison, the hungry or the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead." (Ignatius to the Church in
He then continues...
"You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery (priests) as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints (a presbyter/priest). Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." (Ignatius to the
All this is exactly what Catholics believe about the Mass today. And, the teaching is the same, according to Paul, Clement, and Ignatius.
Priests as "Father"
So, returning to our discussion of "presbuteros," it is clear that the early Christians understood these individuals as the "fathers of the community" -- those who offered the Sacrifice of the Mass; just as the "fathers of the tribe" offered sacrifices in Old Testament times before the Temple was built (e.g. Genesis 8:20, Genesis 15:10, Judges 13:19-20, etc). And this is the origin of calling a Catholic (or Orthodox) priest "father," a custom we can see reflected in Scripture itself (see 1 Corinthians 4:15, 1 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Timothy 1:2, 1 Timothy 1:18, 2 Tim 1:2, 2 Tim 2:1, Philemon 10, 1 Peter 5:13, 3 John 4).
And this custom is clearly rooted in the ancient Jewish practice of referring to the Old Testament Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc), and their legitimate successors, as "father," something we can see in the New Testament as well (see Luke 1:32, Luke 1:73, Luke 16:24, Acts 7:2, Acts 22:1, Romans 9:10, Romans 15:8, Hebrews 1:1).
Yet, doesn't Jesus forbid us to call anyone "father" apart from God in Matthew 23:9? Apparently not, since -- taken literally -- this would mean that we could not even call our own biological fathers by that name. Rather, Jesus is making a point about ultimate authority coming from God (even if that authority is held by men: cf. Matt 23:1-2, 30).
And this is backed up by Paul's saying in Ephesians 3:14-15 -- "For this reason I kneel before the Father (Pater), from whom all fatherhood (patria) in Heaven and on earth is named."
So, in calling someone our "father," whether that be Abraham (Luke 16:24,30; Rom 4) or Stephen of the patriarchs and fathers present in Acts (7: 2,11,12,15,32,38,39,44,45,51,52) or Pope John Paul II, it is clearly understood that this is only because of the grace given their office(s) by the one and only Father we have in Heaven.
Presbyters/Priests in the Bible
Now, returning to "presbuteros," we see another clear connection between the NT presbyters and OT patriarchs applied to the Apostles themselves in Revelation 4:4 --
"Surrounding the Throne I saw twenty-four other thrones on which twenty-four ELDERS (PRESBYTERS) sat, dressed in white garments and with gold crowns on their heads."
These 24 "presbyters" are the 12 sons of Jacob (the heads of the 12 tribes of
"So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and a witness to the sufferings of Christ..."
So Peter was both an Apostle AND a presbyter. Therefore, we can draw the conclusion that all Apostles were presbyters but not all presbyters were Apostles. Yet, did the presbyters have the same or similar teaching authority as the Apostles? Yes, they did:
Acts 14:23 --"They (Paul and Barnabas) appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in Whom they put their faith."
Acts 15:2 -- "Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them (some presbyters from
Acts 15:6 -- "The Apostles and presbyters met together to see about this matter."
Acts 15:22 -- "The Apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and send them to
Acts 15:23 -- "This is the letter delivered by them: 'The Apostles and presbyters, your brothers, to the brothers of
Acts 21:18-25 -- "The next day, Paul accompanied us on a visit to James, and all the presbyters were present. They praised God when they heard [what God accomplished among the Gentiles] but said to them, 'Brothers, you see how many thousands of believers there are from among the Jews...So, do what we tell you...As for the Gentiles who have come to believe, we sent them our decision that they abstain from the meat of strangled animals" etc. (i.e. the authoritative letter of Acts 15).
1 Thess 5:12 -- "We ask you, brothers, to respect those who are laboring among you and who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you, and show esteem for them with special love on account of their work."
Hebrews 13:17 -- "Obey those who have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you."
Philippians 2:29 -- Speaking of a particular presbyter, Epaphroditus, Paul tells the Philippians to: "Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy and hold such people in esteem, because of the sake of the work of Christ he came close to death, risking his life to make up for those services to me that you could not perform."
This authority and the respect due to it (because of the office) is something very clear in the early Christian understanding:
Acts 23:2-5 -- "Then the High Priest Ananias ordered his attendants to strike his mouth. Then Paul said to him, 'God will strike you, you whitewashed wall. Do you indeed sit in judgment upon me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me struck?' The attendants said, 'Would you revile God's high priest?' Paul answered, 'Brothers, I did not realize he was the high priest. For, it is written: 'You shall not curse a ruler of your people.' "
Yet, while the Apostles and presbyters possessed even greater authority than the High Priest of Israel (and they knew it: Acts 4:18-20 & Acts 5:29-32), they preferred to exercise their authority within the context of Christian charity (which is why modern readers of Scripture sometimes assume this authority did not exist):
Philemon 8 --"Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love to [do so], being as I am Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus."
1 Peter 5:1-4 -- "So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and a witness to the sufferings of Christ...Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit, but eagerly. Do not lord over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory."
The Three-Fold Ministry: Bishop, Priest, Deacon
So, the ministerial priesthood (and its authority) was clearly present in the Church from earliest times. In this, it should be noted that the ministerial priesthood actually encompasses the three-fold ministry of Bishop, Priest (Presbyter), and Deacon; and that this ministry has always been recognized in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church.
We have already seen how this three-fold ministry was clearly understood by the time of St. Ignatius of
"You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery (priests) as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." (St. Ignatius' Epistle to the Smyrnaeans)
A few years before Ignatius, we see this three-fold ministry also mentioned by St. Clement of
"For to the high priest (i.e. the bishop) his proper ministrations are allotted, and to the priests (i.e. the presbyters) the proper place has been appointed, and on the Levites (i.e. the deacons) their proper services have been imposed. The layman is bound by the ordinances for the laity. ....Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate (local church) those who blamelessly and holily have offered its Sacrifices." (1 Clement to the Corinthians)
However, does this three-fold ministry appear in Scripture itself? Yes, it does; yet one must know where to look for it.
The Very Early Church, the First 120
First of all, let's look at the very early Church -- the group of about 120 persons gathered in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 1:15). We are told (in Acts 1:13-14) that this group consisted of the twelve Apostles (counting the newly-elected Matthias), Jesus' Mother Mary, some other "women," and the "brothers" of Jesus (i.e. His tribal relatives). Also, another disciple is named: Joseph Barsabbas (aka Justus), who was Matthias' alternate in the choice for Judas' successor. So, if we do a little math, this is how it looks:
Apostles: 12, Mary: 1, women: 5 (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Johanna, Suzanna), brothers: 4 (Matt 13:55 and Mark 6:3), Justus: 1
That's a conservative total of 23 people, and even if we were to throw in some more women and some more "brothers" of Jesus, we're still a long way from 120 people. So, who else was present?
Well, the answer begins to appear when we turn to Luke 10:1-12 & 17-20 keeping in mind that the author of Luke is also the author of Acts.
Here, in Luke 10, we are told how Jesus sent out 72 disciples with power and authority to preach the Word. Now, this group of 72 obviously includes the 12 Apostles (including Judas at this time). So, if we also subtract Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas (aka Justus) -- who, as we are told in Acts 1:21-22, had accompanied the Apostles from the beginning of Jesus' ministry, and who were therefore clearly among the 72 -- we are left with 58 other men who followed Jesus and who were there in the upper room when the Spirit descended at Pentecost.
So, who were these other men? Well clearly, these comprised (at least in part) the body "presbyters" referred to in Acts 15 and Acts 21.
So, when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, the leadership of the Church consisted of the 12 Apostles plus about 58 other "presbyters" -- a total of about 70 men (who, with their wives and children, comprise the 120 people referred to in Acts 1:15).
In this, many of the 58 presbyters, who were relatives of Jesus, seems to have been classified by the title "brothers of the Lord." And this can be seen in 1 Corinthians 9:5, where these "brothers of the Lord" are distinguished from the Apostles:
"Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the other Apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Kephas (Peter)? Or is it only myself and Barnabas who do not have the right not to work?"
So, in the very early Church, the leadership actually consisted of the 12 Apostles and 58 of Jesus' other disciples (presbyters) -- some of whom were called "brothers of the Lord" because of their blood ties to Jesus. And, among these, was James (Gal 1:19), who was to serve as Bishop of Jerusalem (Acts 15 & Acts 21). More on the role of bishop in a moment.
Now, to this number of presbyters, we must add Barnabas who, becoming a believer in Acts 4:36-37, was clearly serving as a presbyter by Acts 11:22, when he is sent by the Apostles to
Also, we must consider that, in Acts 2:41, 3000 people were Baptized; and in Acts 4:4, 5000 more were added to the Church. Surely, there were presbyters appointed from among these especially among the Jewish pilgrims who were converted at Pentecost (Acts 2:9-11). These would need presbyters to preside over their communities when they returned home to their own countries to spread the Gospel there. (Here it should be noted that none of the regions mentioned in Acts 2:9-11 are ever established as churches by Paul, but already have established churches when he arrives there.)
Also, we find other presbyters named throughout the course of Acts. Examples of these are Ananias of Damascus, who Baptizes Paul (Acts 9:10-19); Agabus the Prophet (11:27); Symeon
We return to our saying above: "All Apostles were presbyters, but not all presbyters were Apostles." And indeed, this saying can be modified to reflect the situation in Luke 10, which it mirrors: "All Apostles were disciples (the 72), but not all disciples were Apostles."
And this very same thing can be said about the structure of the Church (as we will soon see): "All bishops are presbyters (priests), but not all priests are bishops." But as I said, we will deal with the subject of bishops in a moment.
Firstly, let's tackle the issue of deacons (the third office of the ministerial priesthood). Clearly, this was an office created by the Apostles themselves in Acts 6. Yet, notice how the office was created:
"So the Twelve (the Apostles) called together the COMMUNITY OF DISCIPLES (aka, the PRESBYTERS: the 58 disciples of Luke 10 PLUS Barnabas and any others added to their number) and said, 'It is not right for US (the Apostles AND the disciples / presbyters) to neglect the Word of God to serve at table..."
And the next line must be understood in context:
"...Brothers, select from among you (i.e. from among your followers) seven reputable MEN (the Greek implies YOUNG MEN -- the young disciples of these presbyters, e.g. Timothy's relationship to Paul), filled with the Spirit and with wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, while WE (the Apostles and the presbyters) shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word."
So, these seven men (Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch) were ordained as the first deacons -- a ministry of service to support the fatherly, preaching ministries of the Apostles and the presbyters.
Apostles, Bishops, and Presbyters
Yet, what of the Apostles and presbyters? What was their relationship? Was it one of equality? Clearly not, since in Acts 6:6 itself we see that final authority always resided with the Apostles, who held the role of bishops in the early Church.
Now, what is a "bishop"? Well, the Greek word for "bishop" is "episkopos" (i.e. "overseer") -- a term that describes a shepherd (John 21:15-17). And, indeed, the Apostles were shepherds of the early Church, even above the other
And indeed, if one knows what to look for, one can see this "episcopal" role of the Apostles referred to from the very beginning of the Church. For example, when Peter stands up in Acts 1 and quotes the Psalms in order to call for a successor of Judas, one of the Psalms he quotes is usually translated like this:
"And: 'May another take his office'" (Acts 1:20).
However, in the original New Testament Greek, this is not the word for "office" at all. Rather, the Greek uses a term which fits the original Hebrew. And, the word which the Greek text uses is: "episkope." So Acts 1:20 should read:
"And 'May another take his << episkope >>.' " -- that is, his "bishopric," his role as a "shepherd" or "overseer," a role that was distinct from the other 58 or so "presbyters" who were present.
Indeed, if we recall that there was a total of about 71 disciples of Christ (i.e. "presbyters") present in the upper room at this time (including the Apostles), it is clear -- given the fact that Peter is calling for the election of an "overseer" to replace Judas from among their number -- that the office of an Apostle was one which "oversaw" even the other presbyters.
And this practice continued when Apostles (such as Paul and Barnabas) established new churches throughout the
"They (Paul and Barnabas) appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in Whom they put their faith."
However, just before Paul and Barnabas start out on their second missionary journey, Acts 15:36 says:
"After some time, Paul said to Barnabas, 'Come, let us make a return visit to see how the brothers are getting on in all the cities where we proclaimed the Word of the Lord.' "
Now, what is not readily apparent here is that the Greek word implies more than "visit." Indeed, it is not the word for "visit" at all. Rather, the word is: "episkepsometha" (to oversee / inspect). Look familiar? Clearly, Paul and Barnabas were the "overseers" (i.e. "bishops") of the churches they established throughout
And we see this term in many other places throughout Scripture: Phil 1:2, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 5:2, and even in 1 Peter 2:25, where Christ Himself is called the Episkopos (Bishop) of our souls.
For our purposes, however, it should be mentioned (and admitted) that a problem arises with episkopos (bishop) and presbyter (priest), since -- within Scripture itself -- the terms are frequently interchangeable. For example, we already presented 1 Peter 5:1-4:
"So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and a witness to the sufferings of Christ ...Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing (episkope) not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit, but eagerly. Do not lord over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherdis revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory."
So, while Peter uses the term "presbyter" here, it is fairly clear given the context that he is actually speaking to the bishops of the various regions to which he writes (1 Peter 1:1).
Also, Acts 20:17-28 speaks about the "presbyters" of the
"Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you overseers (i.e. bishops), in which you tend the
Similarly, the Apostle John, who we know served as the Bishop of Ephesus in the late 1st century, refers to himself as "the Presbyter" in 2 John 1 and 3 John 1. This was clearly his episcopal title.
However, the fact that each city-church possessed a single bishop (i.e. a "chief presbyter") among its body of presbyters is also evident in Scripture.
For example, in Acts 15 and Acts 21:18, it is clear that James headed the body of presbyters at Jerusalem, serving as the bishop (overseer) of that city ever since Peter fled Jerusalem in Acts 12:17, leaving James in authority there. (Note: Peter was merely visiting
The singular role of the bishop can also be seen in 1 Timothy, which depicts Timothy as the bishop of
And this is made even clearer in 1 Tim 5:17-22, where (in verse 19) Timothy is presented as a singular judge who should not "accept an accusation against a presbyter unless it is supported by two or three witnesses." He is also told (in verse 20) to "Reprimand publicly those who do sin," and (in verse 21) Timothy is charged by Paul not to show favoritism among the presbyters. Most strikingly (in verse 22), Timothy is told not to "lay hands too readily on anyone," thus showing that Timothy (the Bishop of Ephesus) had the singular authority to ordain presbyters (Acts 14:23). And despite Timothy's youth (1 Tim 4:12), it is clear that he held singular authority over the Ephesian church. In other words, he was its bishop.
Turning to Paul's Epistle to Titus, we find that Titus (a companion of Paul since his early days in
"For this reason I left you in
In the next verse (verse 6), we see Paul interchanging the term "presbyter" with "bishop" (episkopos: overseer), yet it is clear that Titus is the actual Cretean bishop, possessing both the authority to appoint presbyters (and city bishops), and the authority to give these men instruction (Titus 2 & 3).
And so, the three-fold ministry outlined by Clement and Ignatius is found in Scripture as well. In all the city-churches established by the Apostles, it is clear that there was a principal overseer (a bishop), presiding over a body of presbyters (priests), and supported by deacons in service to the flock.
Were all these Christians "priests" (1 Peter 2:9) ? Yes, they were. However, not all were "a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the PRIESTLY service of the Gospel of God." (Romans 15:15-16). This was the role of the ministerial priesthood, of which Scripture commands us to:
"Respect those who are laboring among you and who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you, and show esteem for them with special love on account of their work." (1 Thess 5:12)
"Obey those who have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you." (Hebrews 13:17)