Priesthood in the Old and New Testaments
A priest in the Old Testament is simply a mediator between God and the people of God. Likewise, the people of Israel, collectively, can be called “priests” since they are called by God to mediate salvation to the nations. We see this in Exodus 19:5-6, where God tells Moses to address the people saying…
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ fulfills the priestly vocation of Israel and becomes the one true mediator between God and Man. This is one of the primary motifs found in the book of Hebrews. Importantly, all Christians are members of the body of Christ and now share in His ministries, including his priestly ministry. Like our Savior, we Christians are prophets, priests, and kings.
For example, the author of 1 Peter echoes Exodus 19 when he addresses his Christian readers as a “royal priesthood” (2:9), suggesting that the church exercises a priestly role of mediating salvation to the nations by proclaiming the glory of God.
And here is the point. We call our pastors “priests” in Anglicanism, not only because it is traditional, but also because an Anglican “priest” represents the common priesthood shared by all Christians. Just as it did in the Old Testament, the specific office of a priest and the common priesthood of all believers go together. A priest serves as a special mediator within a congregation but also serves to continually equip the whole body to fulfill its priestly ministry – proclaiming the gospel and mediating the salvation of Christ to the whole world.
Some Clarifications: Bishops, Priests, Deacons
In Acts chapter 19, the apostle Paul writes specifically in vs. 17 to the presbuteros (translated as elders or priests) in Ephesus who exercise diakonia (service). Later in that same chapter he refers to these same elders as episcopoi (overseers or bishops): “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.” This is only one of several instances in the New Testament where these roles (presbuteros and episcopos) are used synonymously. I mention all of this, since it suggests that there are no clear dividing lines, in the New Testament, for distinguish the roles played by church leaders. Paul certainly fulfills all of these roles; he is an elder/priest, a servant, and an overseer. Likewise, all who lead in the church today will be responsible, to a certain degree, for each of these areas of ministry.
Yet, beginning already in the first century, the church found it helpful to ordain persons to specific roles within a Christian community, thus ensuring that particular people would be responsible for performing essential dimensions of ministry. Some were ordained to the office of deacon (diakonia) and were especially responsible for ministries of humble service, what we might call ministries of compassion today. Others were ordained to the office of elder/priest (presbuteros) and were responsible for presiding over Christian assemblies, preaching, teaching, and administering the sacraments. Finally, some were consecrated to the office of overseer/bishop (episkopos) and were responsible for ordaining and overseeing priests and deacons, guarding the good deposit of apostolic truth, ensuring unity within Christ’s body, and more.
Although the development of specific offices after the age of the apostles may have been somewhat pragmatic, the historic distinction of roles still found among Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches have often, though not always, served these traditions well through the ages and are a legitimate development of apostolic teaching and practice. Perhaps the greatest value of these historic offices is that they enable the church to maintain continuity over time. Bishops, in particular, are responsible for preserving and passing along the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Bishops, when they exercise their office faithfully, ensure that the faith we preach and teach is the “one true faith” of Jesus Christ given to the apostles.
Many evangelical Christian churches today have increasingly embraced a free-church form of ecclesiology and find themselves dangerously disconnected from the Christian past. Moreover, these churches are often unbalanced in terms of ministry, since the responsibilities of pastors are too often determined by the consumer demands of congregants. The teaching office and the proper administration of word and sacrament can be too little emphasized among contemporary Christians. We see this in the growing popularity of the prosperity gospel and an increasingly entertainment-centric approach to worship and church programming.
Still, it is difficult to justify a purist mindset when it comes to polity (church governance), as the various forms of church leadership will one day disappear as the church is united to Christ in eternity. Although some forms of church government are more consistent with the apostolic tradition than others, all polities are temporary or proximate, and we would do well to remember this. No matter the form of church governance that we embrace, we must struggle to remain faithful and balanced as we seek to minister to God, the church, and the world. Therefore, we should embrace the polity of our own tradition, and strive to serve faithfully within it, remembering that Jesus Christ is the one true servant, priest, and overseer of the church. Jesus Christ has come to fulfill God’s promise to redeem the world, and we are privileged to serve in our various roles under his ultimate authority.