Friday, September 26, 2014

Priests in the Church (part 1)

Did Jesus Give Priests to the Church?
By Kenneth J. Howell

OBJECTOR: The Catholic Church has priests who are distinct from the laity and even elevated above them. This is unscriptural because the New Testament nowhere sets certain men apart from the rest of God’s people to be priests.
CATHOLIC: Surely you would agree that the New Testament authorizes leaders of the Church to be pastors, deacons, maybe even bishops.
OBJECTOR: Yes, but the word priest is never used in the New Testament for the leaders of the Church. The words pastor, bishop, and elder are used, but never priest.
CATHOLIC: That’s almost correct. The word hiereus (priest) is not used of church leaders in the New Testament, but the cognate verb hierourgeo (to act as a priest) is used in Romans 15:16. There Paul speaks of himself in these words: "to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit."
OBJECTOR: Paul may have used the verb to describe his missionary work. You’ll notice that he speaks of the Gentiles as his offering. He is not offering something on behalf of the Gentiles; he thinks of the new people of God as the offering.
CATHOLIC: Paul’s use of "to act as a priest" (hierourgeo) fits with the Catholic Church’s understanding of a priest as one who intercedes for the people of God as an intermediary. The priest today, like Paul, offers the people back to God in union with the perfect sacrifice of Christ, the great high priest.
OBJECTOR: I have no problem with that understanding as long as we realize that Paul was one of the people of God. As an apostle, he guided the Church and was one of its pastors, but the priesthood was a concept that applied to all God’s people, not some select group of men.
CATHOLIC: We agree in one respect. The non-Catholic doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is not an idea that the Church rejects. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says clearly that all of God’s faithful people share in the priesthood of Christ by virtue of their baptism: "Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church ‘a kingdom, priests for his God and Father’" (CCC 1546, cf. Rev. 1:6, 5:9–10). Further, it says, "The whole Church is a priestly people. Through baptism all the faithful share in the priesthood of Christ. This participation is called the ‘common priesthood of all the faithful.’ Based on this common priesthood and ordered to its service, there exists another participation in the mission of Christ: the ministry conferred by the sacrament of holy orders, where the task is to serve in the name and in the person of Christ the head in the midst of the community" (1591). In other words, the existence of a common priesthood for all God’s people does not exclude a special calling for the pastors of the Church to be priests.
OBJECTOR: But that’s not what the New Testament says. When Peter speaks of priesthood, he applies it to the whole people of God. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9). As you can see, this expression "royal priesthood" refers to all of God’s people, not a special class of men.
CATHOLIC: Peter is, of course, speaking of the "common priesthood of all the faithful" of which the Catechism spoke. But why do you insist that this excludes a special role for those men chosen by God to serve as priests for and to God’s people?
OBJECTOR: Because it’s not part of the New Testament teaching on the government of the Church. The priesthood of Christ is unique and cannot be repeated. Christ appointed shepherds for the Church as Jesus taught Peter in John 21:15–19. As we said, these leaders are called elders (or presbyters) and deacons, but never priests except for the Romans 15:16 text you cited.
CATHOLIC: Perhaps you are unaware that priests in the Catholic Church are also called presbyters, which is usually translated as "elders" in most English Bibles. They are the elders who guide the Church under the authority of the bishops (called episkopoi in the New Testament).
OBJECTOR: Well, I didn’t know that, but I still don’t see how it changes anything. First Peter 2:9 still applies to the whole Church and not to some select group of leaders, be they presbyters or bishops.
CATHOLIC: You will notice that 1 Peter 2:9 is quoting from a number of Old Testament texts. One of them is Exodus 19:6, where the people of Israel are called "a kingdom of priests." Isaiah 61:6 says that in the New Covenant times, the restored people of God will be called "priests of the Lord."
OBJECTOR: Yes, these texts from the Old Testament just confirm my point that all the people of God are considered priests in the Bible and especially in the New Testament. This is what we call the "priesthood of all believers."
CATHOLIC: But surely you must agree that, just because the people as a whole in the Old Covenant played a priestly role, it did not exclude a special calling for the Levites as priests. As I am sure you know, there is abundant evidence in the Old Testament for a special priesthood for the one tribe of Levi. Deuteronomy 18:1–8 is just one among many such passages. This special priesthood could not be held by just anyone. It was restricted to those who were called. The author of Hebrews speaks of this Old Covenant priesthood in these terms in Hebrews 5:1–4. Now, if there were two kinds of priesthood in the Old Covenant—we might call them "the priesthood of the faithful" and "the
ministerial priesthood"—then why can there not be this same distinction in the New Covenant?
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God Bless

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