Many churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and Eastern Orthodox Churches ordain priests. These priests are seen as holy men (and sometimes women) who are given the right to act as intermediaries between God and man, especially in worship (source). I have no doubt, these priests are sincere and well-meaning. I also have no doubt that those who worship at their feet are just as sincere and well-meaning, but I believe if we compare this practice to the New Testament, we will quickly see this practice is highly unbiblical.
Again, I am not calling into question people’s sincerity and devotion. I am simply asking that we examine Scripture and see what the Bible says about priests.
1. There’s a Difference Between “Presbyter” and “Priest”
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the word “priest” has its etymology in the word, “presbyteros.” It may be possible that there are etymological connections between these two words, but the argument that “priest” and “presbyter” are essentially the same word and refer to the same office in the church is simply untrue and misleading.
In the New Testament, we find the word “presbyteros” or “presbyter” over 60 times (see Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17). This word simply means “elder” or an older man. The “elders” or “presbyters” of the first-century church were older and mature Christians who were appointed to oversee and shepherd the congregation (see Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3). There were a plurality of them in every congregation and they never acted as intermediaries between God and the church.
The Greek New Testament word for priest is, “hiereus” and it appears over 30 times in the New Testament (see Matt. 8:4; Acts 4:1; Heb. 7:1). This is the Greek word for a man who acts as an intermediary between God and man. But an elder (presbyter) in the church was never called a priest (hiereus).
In other words, these two words are neither related nor used synonymously in the New Testament.
2. Who are Called “Priests” in the New Testament?
As stated earlier, in the pages of the New Testament you can find the word “priest” over 30 times. Here are the people to whom this word is applied:
- Levitical Priests – Levites descended from Aaron (the brother of Moses) who were appointed to serve in the temple under the Old Testament Law (see Matthew 12:4-5; Luke 5:14; Acts 4:1).
- Pagan Priests – Idol worshippers who acted as intermediaries between Gentile people and their mythological pagan deities (see Acts 14:13).
- Melchizedek – A priest in the Old Testament who was a foreshadow of Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 5-7).
- Jesus – Jesus is called our “High Priest” (see Hebrews 2:17; 3:1; 4:14; 5:1-10; 5:20). He is the one who serves as our sole intermediary.
- All Christians – Peter wrote that all Christians make up a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) and the apostle John wrote that all Christians have been freed from sin and made to “priests” (Revelation 1:6-7). Not in the sense that Christians are intermediaries between God and others, but that Christians have access to God through Jesus Christ.
As you can see, in the New Testament, there is never a time when the word “priest” is applied to a person holding a distinct office in the church.
3. Why is This a Big Deal?
This issue is huge. And while some might be offended that I have dared tread this traditional ground, people need to know and understand the truth. The idea of ordaining select people as priests comes from the Old Testament and paganism, but not from Christianity.
When any man (or woman) stands as a priest between God and man, he puts himself in Christ’s seat and that is the height of hubris. Jesus Christ is the only one who comes between God and man. He is our only mediator.
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
And for a select group to claim the exclusive rights of “priesthood” is to deny the New Testament’s clear instructions that all Christians make up the Christian priesthood.
“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:5a-6).
Everyone who has obeyed the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a priest, and as priests, we are expected to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise” and service to God through Christ (Hebrews 13:15-16).
So let’s stop giving reverence to those who are essentially usurping Christ’s position as mediator. Let’s stop calling them “father” as a title of reverence, for that title belongs to God alone (see Matthew 23:9). And let us simply respect the High Priesthood of Christ and obey His Gospel, so we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) as a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9).
I love you and God loves you,