A Tale of Two Priesthoods

It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God.  Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy.  Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders.  As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says.  There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.

The Biblical Vocabulary

The Bible says many different things about priests.  The Hebrew word kohen (often spelled “Cohen” or “Coen” in modern Jewish names) means “priest,” and first occurs in the Bible to describe Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18, frankly a somewhat surprising passage.  The term is also used of Egyptian and Midianite priests (including the fathers-in-law of Joseph and of Moses), before it was ever used for Israelites.  Curiously, it was first used of Israelites at Mount Sinai, where the Lord chose the descendants of Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).  On the other hand, already at Mount Sinai there seem to have been certain individuals designated “the priests who draw near to the Lord” who are distinguished from “the people” (Exodus 19:22,24).  After the choice of Aaron and his descendants to be those who sacrificed the burnt offerings to the Lord (Exodus 28:1), the word kohen was forcefully limited to them (Numbers 16-17, especially 16:10).  Later, there are a few idolatrous exceptions, such as when Micah of Ephraim makes an idol and consecrates a son as priest, and later hires a Levite (Judges 17-18, especially 17:5).  Curiously, the author of Judges used such idolatry as a demonstration of how the people go astray without a king, but later it was Jeroboam bin Nebat, the first king of the breakaway northern kingdom of Israel, who ordained priests for his two golden calves of Bethel and Dan, and he ordained them “from among all the people who were not of the sons of Levi” (1 Kings 12:31, repeated 1 Kings 13:33).  The job of the Israelite priests was to sacrifice the offerings and to serve as experts of God’s law revealed through Moses, though some of them shirked their tasks.  They could also act as housing inspectors (Leviticus 14) and appraisers (Leviticus 27).

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, kohen was used of pagan priests and Israelite priests, with the exception of a few surprising prophecies.   David wrote in Psalm 110:4: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”  Isaiah wrote, after his prophecy of the one anointed by God’s Spirit, “You will be called the priests of the Lord.  You will be spoken of as ministers of our God” (Isaiah 61:6).  At the very end of his book, Isaiah wrote that God would gather worshipers from the foreign nations, and “I will also take some of them for priests and Levites” (Isaiah 66:21).  Finally, Zechariah saw in a vision the high priest of his day, Yehoshua’ bin Yehozadaq (Joshua, son of Jehozadak) representing the Messianic “Branch” who is both a priest and a ruling king (Zechariah 6:11-13).  It may be worth noting that the Aramaic form of his name is Yeshu’, the Greek Iesous; it is the same name as Jesus.

The Greek translation of kohen is consistently hiereus (ἱερευς), and the Jewish priests mentioned in the gospels are always termed hiereis or arkhiereis (plural, the latter for “chief priests”).  This term is also used of the priest of Zeus in Lystra (Acts 14:13), and bewilderingly of “one Sceva, a Jewish chief priest” in Ephesus (Acts 19:14).  The term is then applied to Jesus repeatedly in the Epistle to the Hebrews (notably in chapter 7 at great length), in fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 110 and Zechariah 6.  Paul uses a related verb as a metaphor for his own ministry in Romans 15:16, but he doesn’t use the noun for himself.   Finally, the term hiereus and related terms are used in 1 Peter and the Book of Revelation to describe Christians collectively, specifically recalling the collective priesthood of Exodus 19:6, and perhaps fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah 61:6 and 66:21:

  • 1 Pet 2:5: “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (NASB)
  • 1 Pet 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (NASB)
  • Rev 1:6: “He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father.” (NASB)
  • Rev 5:10, praising God: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” (NASB)
  • Rev 20:6: “Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.” (NASB)

Some would think this conclusively resolves the question in favor of the Protestant notion of the priesthood of all believers and against the notion of clergy.  But the letters of the New Testament frequently mention clergy; they just do so under a different word.  That word is not the Greek hiereus, corresponding to the Hebrew kohen, the old priests of the temple sacrifices.  That word is presbyteros (πρεσβυτερος), commonly translated “elder”: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15: passim; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Timothy 5:17 and 19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-5; 2 John 1; 3 John 1.  The “elders” could also be referred to as a body, the “presbyterion”: 1 Timothy 4:14.  The term “elder” was also used of some Jewish leaders (e.g. Acts 4:5), of course.  But other terms were also used for Christian clergy, such as episkopos (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:7), a synonym of presbyteros which is sometimes translated “overseer” or “superintendant,” and from which the English term “bishop” is derived through Latin.  Other terms used, with uncertain relationship to these, include “shepherd” (poimen in Ephesians 4:11,; cf. Acts 20:28 for a related verb) the Latin translation of which is pastor, and “teacher” (also Ephesians 4:11 as well as Acts 13:1; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; James 3:1; 2 Timothy 1).  I am neglecting, of course, other terms such as “apostle,” “prophet,” “evangelist,” “preacher,” etc., which are (debatably) not as relevant to the question at hand, as well as “deacons” which are relevant, but have their own history.

What emerges from this is that the earliest Christians had ordained ministers, who were called by a variety of titles, but most commonly presbyteros and episkopos.  The term hiereus is never used in scripture for a Christian leader other than Christ himself, though it is used of all Christians, and Paul once used a related verb metaphorically of his own ministry.  In other words, both the “priesthood of all believers” and the practice of ordaining clergy have biblical warrant.  There is thus no necessary conflict between these beliefs and practices.

The History of Christian Priesthood

So why are Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and some Lutheran) clergy called “priests”?  One theory, and plausible enough, is that the odd English word “priest” (German Priester, French prêtre) is actually derived from the Greek word presbyteros.  On this theory, clergy are called “priests” simply because that is derived from the Greek term they were always called.  (Syriac Christians translated presbyteros, rather than borrowing it as a loanword the way European Christians did.)  Initially, Latin-speaking Christians maintained the distinction between presbyter (they simply took the word from Greek) and sacerdos (which translated hiereus, for the Jewish priests who did the sacrifices).

At some point (I think around the fourth century, although I would welcome corrections), Christian authors began to apply the terms hiereus and sacerdos, previously used only of Jewish and pagan priests, of Christ, and of the priesthood of all believers, to the Christian clergy as well.  I suspect this went hand in hand with regarding the Eucharist as a sacrifice, and if only these clergy were allowed to offer this sacrifice, they came to be regarded as the sacrificing priests.  Even this need not cause a contradiction, however, if it is remembered that the term is used for two different sorts of sacrifices: those things which all Christians sacrifice (namely their living bodies, their faith, some monetary donations, praising God, or “doing good and sharing“), and those which only ordained clergy sacrifice.

It must be confessed, however, that this conceptual dualism was not maintained, and many Church leaders in Western Europe were very skeptical regarding even the possibility of salvation for laity.  According to a lecture I once heard from Benedicta Ward in Oxford, no less a theologian than Anselm of Canterbury counseled an aristocratic laywoman to keep a nun’s veil to hand, so that she could rapidly take monastic vows if she saw death or the Lord’s return approaching.  The monastic route was the via securior (“the more secure path”) to salvation.  As the pagan nations of Western Europe were Christianized wholesale, there was only inconsistent attention to catechesis, and if lay Christians were instructed in the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Seven Virtues and their opposing Vices, they were considered well-taught.  Certainly those who wished to be more deeply involved with Christianity (if they were in a social position which would allow it) were welcomed into monasteries, and monastic devotion was taken as the model for lay piety (as attested, for example, by the broad reception of the Imitation of Christ).  But as it was presumed that laypeople who wished to sacrifice their lives would cease to be laypeople, it was also presumed that those who remained laypeople were basically good for nothing other than receiving and endowing the ministrations of the Church, which was now spoken of in such a way as to exclude non-clergy and non-monastics.  This was, as even many Roman Catholic scholars acknowledge, a bad state of affairs.

This was the environment in which Luther rediscovered the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and in his characteristic way he expressed it as forcefully (some would say violently) as in him lay.  But, also characteristically, he was an academic and an ecclesiological conservative, so after repudiating the notion of the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrament of ordination, he retained the ranks of clergy shared with the Roman Catholic Church.  As was customary with almost all of Luther’s pronouncements, other Christians took them further and argued that Luther himself was insufficiently biblical, and so Western Europe sprouted a range of different views of what would constitute a biblical model of the clergy, or indeed whether the Bible was against all clergy.  The Roman Catholic Church responded, at the Council of Trent, by condemning those who deny the sacrament of holy orders or reject that there is a visible priesthood of the Church.  It did not reject the notion of a universal priesthood, although it also cannot be said to have supported it very strongly.  (The old Catholic Encyclopaedia asserts that the Roman Catholic Church has always taught a universal priesthood.  After much looking I finally found a paragraph in the old Roman Catechism which describes the “internal Priesthood” – Latin text here on p. 269.  The old Catholic Encyclopaedia also cites Thomas Aquinas, who grudgingly conceded the existence of a common priesthood in a reply to the second objection of the first article of the 82nd question of the third part of his Summa Theologica; it can hardly be said that he substantially supported the notion.)  Indeed, the Council of Trent seems to reject those who say “that all Christians without distinction are priests of the New Testament,” without explicitly uttering an anathema against them.

One result of the proliferation of notions of priesthood was much greater congregational involvement, even among Roman Catholics, where laypeople in Protestant-majority countries came to expect a larger role in the Church (see Charles Parker’s Faith on the Margins for the Netherlands).  For centuries, however, Roman Catholic authors seem to have spent far more energy denying that any other clergy or any laypeople could celebrate the Eucharist than drawing any positive lessons from the biblical support for the notion of a universal priesthood.  That eventually changed, however, and forcefully at the Second Vatican Council, which initiated a large number of liturgical changes bewailed by traditionalists to allow greater congregational participation.  Today, it must be said, the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges the priesthood of all believers, most clearly in Lumen Gentium 2:10, and also teaches the necessity of a sacramental clergy.

The Issues Today

So if we need not argue about whether an ordained clergy conflicts with the “priesthood of all believers” (or as Roman Catholics now prefer to term it, the “common priesthood” or “universal priesthood”), then what differences remain?  The notion of sacramental orders is probably the biggest divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  On the official Roman Catholic line, holy orders can only be received by apostolic succession of sacramental ordination.  While most Protestants do not trouble themselves about questions of apostolic succession, some Anglicans do; nevertheless, the Roman Catholic position is that no Protestant (including Anglican) ordinations are valid.  And because valid sacramental ordination is, on the Roman Catholic view, required for the celebration of the Eucharist, Protestants haven’t tasted a real Eucharist in the almost five centuries of their history (although I know a few Protestants who have taken Roman Catholic Eucharist; I myself demurred, most recently when invited to by my Catholic grandmother, largely out of respect for the RC canons which I know better than she).  Thus there can be no real possibility of intercommunion, where one side “has it” and the other simply doesn’t.  The Roman Catholic Church recognizes the validity of Eastern Orthodox sacraments, but because they are in schism, intercommunion is not permitted (though possible should they acknowledge papal jurisdiction, according to the Roman Catholics).  So the debate over the nature of the clergy is fundamental, and the ability to worship together with communion will only be possible upon either (a) non-Roman Catholics becoming Roman Catholic, or (b) the Roman Catholic Church changing its teaching regarding the necessity of a sacramental priesthood for the practice of other sacraments.  Neither is likely, but at least if we clear out the linguistic confusion we can discuss the real issues, instead of simply talking past each other.

Among Protestants, there is plenty of room for discussion regarding what the precise roles of the ordained clergy should be, as opposed to the priestly role of all believers.  Many Protestants could also benefit from reflecting on the devotional implications of the priesthood of all believers, rather than simply using it as a stick with which to beat Roman Catholics.  The structural differences between episcopalian, presbyterian, elder-board congregational, pastor-led congregational, and pentecostal denominations also lead to challenges of mutual recognition and cooperation: after all, which part of a Lutheran church structure should the missions director at a non-denominational evangelical church approach regarding possible cooperation in outreach?

It would be presumptuous of me to tell Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox what issues related to the priesthood remain for them to discuss among themselves.  As an external observer, and I hope not a hostile one, I note the wide diversity of Roman Catholic perspectives on the liturgical reforms following Vatican II, ranging from those who feel that the new liturgy is “sacrilege” to those who regard it as “a step in the right direction”; some of the latter people also impatiently demand greater changes.  So it seems to me that Roman Catholics still need to have serious discussions to clarify what they think the universal priesthood consists of and enables.  They have partly engaged with this issue, but as I noted above, the theologians’ main interest on the subject has been elsewhere, emphasizing what the universal priesthood is not.

I have not managed to overhear any Eastern Orthodox discussions of the passages in which all Christians are termed hiereis, so I cannot even say whether they hold to any notion in which all Christians are priests.  As I believe all scripture is edifying, I imagine they like all Christians would benefit from reflecting on these passages.

Substantive disagreements remain among Christians, including disagreements about the nature of Christian priesthood.  But the goals of seeking the truth of the matter and of understanding other Christians’ viewpoints are not helped when we are distracted by translation issues and merely apparent contradictions.  Removing the disputes over words, we can pray that the Lord would enlighten his people with respect to the real issues.  For church unity is, in the final analysis, his concern.


  1. A Very good post, just one point, the Orthodox do not have to convert to partake the Eucharist with Roman Catholics in accordance to canon 844, though the Orthodox are not allowed to partake according to their own canon, however there are cases where special dispensation has been allowed and this ain’t generally known.

    1. Thanks for clarifying. Does this mean the Roman Catholic Church allows Eastern Orthodox to take communion even if they continue to believe the Pope is a heretic and schismatic? Further evidence that I don’t know everything. 🙂

      1. From the Roman Priests that I have dealt with, yes this is how the canon is interpreted. I have been taught that the Pope is indeed a Patriarch although the Orthodox Church is not in communion with the Roman Catholics. There are some Orthodox Bishops that have given dispensation to some to partake of the Roman Mass, yet these are very rare and mainstream and hardline Orthodox do not accept this and believe anyone who does should be excommunicated in accordance to Orthodox canon.

    2. While I have you commenting here, are you aware of any Orthodox discussion of a sense in which all (Orthodox) Christians are priests (hiereis)? It’s outside of my familiarity, but I would welcome the additional perspective on the issue.

      1. I have never come across it as you presented it in your post. The Orthodox hierarchy is similar to the RC, laity, reader, subdeacon, deacon, priest, bishop, patriarch. The priests are chosen from the diaconate and there is an apostolic succession to the priesthood Only the priests can perform most of the sacraments of the church, though there are some notable exceptions, i.e a deacon can baptise in an emergency.

        1. Oh, complaining about what? I try to be fair to all parties, although the fact that this post has so far been liked by two conservative Roman Catholics and one Eastern Orthodox may be indicative…

          1. She gets touchy about any mention that anyone thinks Anglican orders are invalid. I don’t get any sense you support that view – you simply report it.

          2. You are correct; I do not support the view. I think the Roman Catholic rejection of Anglican orders says more about the Roman Catholic Church than about the Anglican Church, in fact. But what other people believe, even if I think it erroneous, can have a material impact on the subject under discussion, and so I must report it where relevant. I try not to cause (unnecessary) offence!

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