Christian Priesthood

Origin of the Priesthood in Christianity

(1 Timothy 5:17) Presbyters who preside well deserve double honor, especially those who toil in preaching and teaching.

presbyter n.

  1. a member of the governing body of an early Christian church
  2. a member of the order of priests in churches having episcopal hierarchies

There are two types of priesthoods designated in the New Testament. One is the “common priesthood” also known as the “baptismal priesthood” that all Christians become a part of when they are baptized. The other is the ministerial priesthood that is the Holy Order of Priests. The ministerial priests serve the baptismal priesthood through teaching and are granted the power to offer the Sacrifice of the Eucharist and to dispense the sacraments. As the Pope is the steward of Christ, the clergy are the ambassadors of Christ.

(2 Corinthians 5:20) So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.

Origin of the priesthood in scripture began with Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20). Aaron and the House of Levi were successors of the Order of Melchizedek. They were designated by God to be the ordained ministerial priests of the Old Covenant made with Moses. As described in the Book of Hebrews Chapter 7, Christ fulfilled the prophecies by becoming the “eternal high priest of the order of Melchizedek.” In the same way that God chose the lineage of Aaron to be the ministers of the Old Covenant, Christ ordained the apostles and their successors to be the ministerial priests of the New Covenant.

Jesus ordains the Apostles and sends them out to the people:

(John 20:21) (Jesus) said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

(Matthew 28:18-20) Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, 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. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

(John 21:15-17) “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep”

Apostolic Succession
A few have tried to argue that the authority granted by Jesus didn’t succeed the apostles, but this is not the pattern of the priesthood that has been shown throughout the Bible. In the Bible, we see the hierarchy of the clergy. In the Bible, the hierarchy is apostles, bishops, presbyters (priests) and deacons. Over the centuries, as the Church grew and became worldwide, the hierarchy evolved to include primates, which later became known as archbishops, archdeacons, cardinals, and lay ministers. Churches became members of dioceses, which were members of provinces, all of which are members of the Holy See who is administered by Rome. Many places in the Bible we see the Apostles setting up this hierarchy and spreading the Church.

The first time we see the first apostles ordain, a new one is Matthias in Acts 1:20-26. The next time we see an ordination is in Acts 6. Seven new apostles are ordained by the first twelve.

(Acts 6:5-6) The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.

In Acts 13, we see the ordination of the apostles Paul and Barnabas and in Acts 14, we can see them travel to several cities performing miracles, spreading the word, founding churches and ordaining new priests at each one.

(Acts 13:2-3) While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, completing their fasting and prayer, they laid hands on them and sent them off.

(Acts 14:23) They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.

The apostle Timothy is sent to Ephesus to build churches there. Likewise, the apostle Titus is sent to Crete to build churches. Paul writes to both of them reminding them of the gifts they received in their ordinations and gives them guidelines for ordaining clergy in both churches.

(2 Timothy 1:6) For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.

(1 Timothy 4:14) Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate.

(1 Timothy 3:1-13) This saying is trustworthy: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Therefore, a bishop must be blameless, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money. He must manage his household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity; for if a man does not know how to manage his household, how can he take care of the church of God? He should not be a recent convert so that he may not become conceited and thus incur the devil’s punishment. He must also have a good reputation among outsiders so that he may not fall into disgrace, the devil’s trap.

Similarly, deacons must be dignified, not deceitful, not addicted to drink, not greedy for sordid gain, holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. Moreover, they should be tested first; then, if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. Women, similarly, should be dignified, not slanderers, but temperate and faithful in everything. Deacons may be married only once and must manage their children and their households well. Thus those who serve well as deacons gain good standing and much confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus.

(Titus 1:5-9) For this reason I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man is blameless, married only once, with believing children who are not accused of licentiousness or rebellious. For a bishop as God’s steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, temperate, just, holy, and self-controlled, holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents.

Paul reminds Timothy to be selective and unbiased when ordaining new priests:

(1 Timothy 5:21,22) I charge you before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels to keep these rules without prejudice, doing nothing out of favoritism. Do not lay hands too readily on anyone

The Ordained Priesthood was founded by Christ, spread by the Apostles, and has continued with the Church ever since.

(Hebrews 5:4) No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

Celibacy in the Priesthood

(Matthew 19:12) Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it."

The Catholic Church doesn’t forbid anyone to marry. Taking a vow of celibacy is entirely voluntary. Following Matthew 19:12, those volunteers “renounce marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” The Church, however, only selects candidates for the priesthood from among those who voluntarily renounce marriage.

In the first period of the Church’s legislation, the first three centuries, clergy members were allowed to marry. However, it was decided upon, after numerous councils beginning in the 4th century, that it was best for the clergy of the Church to follow the recommendations of St. Paul the Apostle.

(1 Corinthians 7:32-35) I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.

Voluntary Poverty
Priests in the Catholic Church take a vow of poverty. They receive an allowance, not a salary. Most of their possessions they do not own. If a priest wants to purchase something like a car, for example. He must get approval from the Bishop, who will then tell the priest how much he is allowed to spend.

(Matthew 10:8-9) Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give. Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts.

(Didache 11:6) And when an Apostle goes forth, let him accept nothing but bread till he reaches his night’s lodging; but if he asks for money, he is a false prophet.

(2 Cor 2:17) For we are not like the many who trade on the word of God

(Acts 20:33-34) I have never wanted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You know well that these very hands have served my needs and my companions. In every way I have shown you that by hard work of that sort we must help the weak, and keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus who himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

(John 10:12-13) A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.

Calling a priest "father"
Christ clearly said in scripture to call no man father, so why do Catholics call priests “father”? To answer this, we have to understand the context of what Christ was talking about in Matthew 23. He’s speaking of the hypocrisy and exaggerated status to which the Pharisees had elevated themselves.

(Matthew 23:4-7) They tie up heavy burdens (hard to carry) and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’

Christ goes on to tell his listeners not to exalt them with titles such as father, master, or teacher because they are hypocrites in their superiority. He says, “we are all brothers,” and no one is above another.

However, Paul, Peter, and John all refer to themselves as spiritual fathers and spiritual teachers and relates to the members of the church as their children. It’s not used as a title of exaggerated status or honor. It’s a metaphor about the parental guidance the clergy offers to the members of the church.

(1 Corinthians 4:14,15) I am writing you this not to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

(Philemon 10) I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment

St. John the Apostle calls the priests “father” in his letters.

(1 John 2:13) I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.

Why no women priests?
There is a belief, particularly in Europe and North America, that the Catholic Church’s insistence on priests being male is a tradition that continues only because the popes have refused to advance with society. Activists for women priests held their breath when Pope Benedict XVI took the stewardship. They were disappointed when he reaffirmed what Blessed Pope John Paul II has said before, that the Catholic Church could not ordain women priests.

Only a baptized man (vir) receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord Himself. For this reason, the ordination of women is not possible. (CCC 1577)

The clergy hierarchy follows the model set by Christ. Christ had no problem interacting with women outside of the norm. For instance, John 4:27 (At that moment, his disciples returned, and were amazed that he was talking with a woman). However, still, the First Twelve leaders of the Church were all men. All bishops and presbyters were men. Scripture clearly states that women are not to be presbyters.

(1 Corinthians 14:34-35,40) women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. But if they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church … but everything must be done properly and in order.

(1 Timothy 2:12) I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. Further, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed.

Now, when Paul says women may not speak, it isn’t meant literally. He’s speaking of preaching and prophesying during the assemblies, which were the roles of the ministerial priesthood.

However, women have always had an active role in the Church. Back when priests were allowed to marry, their wives traveled with them and endured the same dangers and martyrdoms the apostles did. There was once an order of deaconesses that managed the Order of Widows. They also assisted the priests on particular tasks that called for women. About the 5th century, after the legalization of Christianity, the Order of Widows evolved into the nunnery we have today, and the office of deaconess evolved into abbess, who is the head of the orders of nuns.

But both genders have their roles within the Church suited to their natural abilities. It’s not about gender equality. A man cannot become a nun, and a woman cannot become a priest. But that doesn’t make either less important than the other. See what Paul says:

(1 Corinthians 12:12-30) As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it does not, for this reason, belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it does not, for this reason, belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. Now you are Christ’s body and individually parts of it. Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles;* second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work mighty deeds? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?

Sacred Vestments
There is a reason for the different robes and dress of the clergy.

(Exodus 28:1-3) “From among the Israelites have your brother, Aaron, together with his sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, brought to you, that they may be my priests. For the glorious adornment of your brother Aaron, you shall have sacred vestments made. Therefore, to the various expert workmen whom I have endowed with skill, you shall give instructions to make such vestments for Aaron as will set him apart for his sacred service as my priest.”

(Exodus 39:1) With violet, purple and scarlet yarn were woven the service cloths for use in the sanctuary, as well as the sacred vestments for Aaron, as the LORD had commanded Moses.

(Leviticus 6:2,3) “Give Aaron and his sons the following command: This is the ritual for holocausts. The holocaust is to remain on the hearth of the altar all night until the next morning, and the fire is to be kept burning on the altar. The priest, clothed in his linen robe and wearing linen drawers on his body, shall take away the ashes to which the fire has reduced the holocaust on the altar, and lay them at the side of the altar.”

(Leviticus 8:6,7) Bringing forward Aaron and his sons, he first washed them with water. Then he put the tunic on Aaron, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, placed the ephod on him, and girded him with the embroidered belt of the ephod, fastening it around him.

(Ezekiel 42:14) When the priests have once entered, they shall not leave the holy place for the outer court until they have left here the clothing in which they ministered, for it is holy. They shall put on other garments, and then approach the place destined for the people."

(Ezekiel 44:19) When they are to go out to the people in the outer court, they shall take off the garments in which they ministered and leave them in the chambers of the sanctuary, putting on other garments; thus they will not transmit holiness to the people with their garments.