Why are there priests?

We were recently asked:

Doesn’t the Bible say all Christians are priests? Then why does Orthodoxy have a separate class of people called priests? And why do only the priests serve the Communion service? It just seems kind of elitist to set up a special class of Christians this way.

It’s a good question, but it’s one that arises in modern English and not in biblical Greek. Here’s why:

The Greek word hiereus is a pagan or Jewish priest: A person who offers sacrifices on behalf of people to God (or gods) and speaks for his God. He’s a prophet and an intercessor, and an intermediary bringing sacrifices of thanksgiving, fellowship, and atonement.

  • In Exodus 19:6 LXX, the Lord says to his people: “You shall be unto me a kingdom of priests (hierateuma), and a holy nation.”
  • In 1 Peter 2:5,9, the apostle writes, “You also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood (hierateuma), to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ…. You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood (hierateuma), a holy nation…”
  • And in the Revelation, St John says, “He has made us to be a kingdom, priests (hiereis) to His God and Father… they shall be priests (hiereis) of God and of Christ” (Rev 1:6;20:6)

Orthodoxy certainly teaches what some call the “universal priesthood of believers.” Every Christian is called to intercede for the world before God, to speak on God’s behalf to others, and to offer sacrifices of praise and of his material goods in thanksgiving.

And then — distinct from this universal call on all Christian people — the Church additionally selects certain people to serve as elders (Greek: presbyters.) French leaves out a syllable (prêtre) and English drops another syllable, so we say “priest.” It’s unfortunate that in Protestant English translations of the Bible this word priest was used both for the temple sacrifice-offerers and for the New Testament order of elders/presbyters.

We know from scripture that presbyters are ordained by the laying on of hands (1 Tim 4:14, 5:22), they preach and teach the people (1 Tim 5:17), and they administer sacraments (James 5:13-15). Together with the apostles who ordained them, the presbyters apply the commands of God for individuals’ salvation (Acts 15:6,23).

Nobody appoints himself a presbyter; that appointment is done by an apostle or those an apostle has appointed. In Acts 14:23, St Luke writes: “Paul and Barnabas ordained presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” And Paul writes to Titus, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and ordain presbyters in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5)

Some presbyters are also overseers (Greek episkopoi; Modern English softens this word into bishops.) “[Paul] sent to Ephesus and called for the presbyters of the church… Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopoi), to pastor the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:17,38).

Regarding these presbyters who are overseers, Paul instructs: “A bishop (episkopos) then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim 3:2-7).

We don’t base our idea of the ministry of presbyters and overseers on scripture — after all, these were already the offices of the Church when scripture was still being written. But scripture definitely expresses what classical Christian practice has always been documented to be.

The question of who offers the Eucharist is related. Here is how Justin Martyr describes Christian worship in 155AD:

But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation.

Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the one presiding among the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water. And he, taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.

And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it].

And when the one presiding has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread, and wine mixed with water, over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion…

And this food is called among us Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology of Justin Martyr, ch 65-67. c.155AD).

That’s not a concrete scriptural “thou shalt always do it this way,” but it is an eyewitness description of early Christian worship.

Earlier about 107 AD, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch wrote seven letters to churches in Asia Minor. To Ignatius, the Church is simply the people gathered round their bishop for the Eucharist:

Keep away from bad pasturage. Jesus Christ does not cultivate it since the Father did not plant it. Not that I found schism among you — rather had you been sifted. As many as are God’s and Jesus Christ’s, they are on the bishop’s side; and as many as repent and enter the unity of the church, they shall be God’s, and thus they shall live in Jesus Christ’s way. Make no mistake, my brothers, if anyone joins a schismatic he will not inherit God’s Kingdom. If anyone walks in the way of heresy, he is out of sympathy with the Passion. Be careful, then, to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar, just as there is one bishop along with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow slaves. In that way whatever you do is in line with God’s will (To the Philadelphians, ch 3).

Come together in common, one and all without exception in charity, in one faith and in one Jesus Christ, who is of the race of David according to the flesh, the son of man, and the Son of God, so that with undivided mind you may obey the bishop and the priests, and break one Bread which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ (To the Ephesians, ch 20).

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