Were there priests in the early church? Garry Wills says no. He’s wrong, and here’s why

In reading Garry Wills’ new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, I passed through several stages: irritation, amusement, befuddlement, frustration, disbelief. Attesting to his immense talent, I occasionally felt all these things at once.

Wills’ argument is that priests are nowhere found in the New Testament, more or less, and that priestly power is advanced by a bogus understanding of the Eucharist and the inclusion of the Letter to the Hebrews in the Bible. And let’s just pause to remember that Wills is a professed Catholic.

This would be a big deal if his argument held any water, but the case fails so badly it’s hard to know where to begin mopping. For the sake of brevity, I’ll restrict myself here to the claim about priests and hierarchal authority.

Church authority

Wills says that the churches Paul addressed in his letters were “radically egalitarian and charismatic, not authoritarian or hierarchical.” But Paul’s letters speak of some people as leaders, and he sometimes singles them out for special instruction. What else are we to make of his missives to Timothy and Titus?

“Authoritarian” is a loaded word, which is why Wills employs it. But early church leaders unarguably exercised binding authority in their communities. Consider the ruling of the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15), the excommunication of the immoral man in Corinth (1 Cor 5), and Jesus’ own statements in Matthew 16 and 18 about binding and loosing and adjudicating between believers, even excommunicating them if need be.

This authority was challenged from the start — as humans are prone to challenge — but it was nonetheless assumed legitimate and asserted when necessary.

The Corinthians were, for one example, a famously rowdy and disobedient bunch. Paul failed to straighten them out. A few decades later, Clement, the bishop of Rome, wrote to correct the wayward flock. Importantly, Clement knew the Apostles Peter and Paul. He hardly wrote as an outsider.

So should we consider this authority hierarchical, a word that comes from the Greek word for priest, hiereus?

Priests and their office

Wills says the word barely appears in the New Testament. But, of course, the word presbyter does — plenty — and that’s the etymological source for our English word priest. In the Greek Orthodox Church priests are still called presbyters, because that’s the appropriate word in Greek for their office.

Ah, but Wills says positions like presbyters and bishops were “community functions,” definitely “not offices.” This might evoke dismay or laughter. Both are appropriate.

When the apostles appointed Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1.15-23), it was clearly to an office, one vested with special responsibility and authority. And as the bishops were considered successors to the apostles, they were filling an office with unique powers and responsibilities.

Ignatius’ letters, written likely in the first decade of second century, testify to this. Over and again he advises the churches in Smyrna, Rome, Tralles, etc., about ecclesial authority. He tells the Christians in Ephesus, for instance, to “obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind” (Ephesians 20) and directs the believers in Smyrna to “follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God” (Smyrnaeans 8).

Oddly, Wills makes only passing reference to Ignatius and then mainly to echo the weary canard about his efforts to impose such an ecclesial system on the primitive church. Rather than seeing Ignatius as evidence of a wider pattern of priestly and episcopal authority, Wills regards him as a radical innovator and outlier.

But this is farfetched.

Imposition? I don’t think so

When Polycarp, the bishop at Smyrna, exhorted the church at Philippi regarding martyrdom he counted Ignatius’ example with that of Paul and the other apostles. He commended Ignatius’ letters as dealing “with faith and endurance and all the edification which belongs to our Lord.” These letters were not pushed upon the Philippians. They requested copies. Accordingly, Polycarp sent them along saying, “You will be able to benefit greatly from them” (9.1, 13).

Worth noting: Polycarp — soon to be martyred himself — was hardly one for novelty. His extant writing is primarily a pastiche of quotes from Christ and the apostles. In one short letter he makes more than fifty such quotes and allusions.

In other words, these were leaders whose ministries were consonant with the men who laid the very foundation of the church. They understood themselves as following their example. Others did as well.

The imposition charge seems especially absurd when you realize that churches separated by both doctrine and geography (the ancient Latin, Coptic, Celtic, Palestinian, North African, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian, and Indian churches) all possessed the same basic structure and understanding of church authority. It was and remains universal.

On these and other points, one is left with the impression that Wills’ argument has less to do with history, theology, or hermeneutics and more to do with some sort of personal grudge.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • Pofarmer

    FWIW, pretty sure that both Timothy and Titus are considered forgeries,.

    • Joel J. Miller

      By some perhaps. The church recognizes them as authentic and sacred.

  • John Habib

    LOVE your post. So happy to read it. I would like to point out that Acts Chapter 8 is one of the most compelling stories about special authority of the priesthood, realizing that Philip (the deacon) could not lay hands on the Samaritans but rather Peter and John had to travel from Jerusalem to Samaria just to do that, and of all the things for a new convert named Simon, a former sorcerer, could have been jealous of (particularly Philip’s amazing miracles he performed), he sought after the POWER of laying on of hands by the priesthood, which was a “gift” that they had. If there were no special gift that had to be conferred, then Simon would have already had this power, having accepted Christianity and receiving baptism.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    GREAT post Joel. Very much needed. Will not make you any friends among Evangelical readers, who will agree 100% with Wills book. But a very much needed message. Also, to Pofarmer. FWIW, there are those who consider the gospels as forgeries, who say Jesus never did any of the miracles, and that he was married to Mary Magdelene. The reason why we believe Timothy and Titus are legimatimate, is the EXACT same reason why we believe the gospels are legitmate; because they survived the very intense scrutiny of the entire assembled body of the early church at the ecumencal councils. You have to decide who you trust more; Men who were martyred for their faith, who passed the faith to us, or liberal theologians at Arizona state University (my alma mater, and the center of the ‘historical Jesus movement)

  • candeux

    I haven’t read this particular book by Gary Wills, so this may be off topic…

    I get that the NT seems to invest authority in church leaders (whatever you call them), but where in the NT do we get that the leader was the only one allowed to preach, administer sacraments, etc.? I Corinthians seems to describe a situation where all believers were active participants in worship and teaching.

  • Susan Gerard

    I agree with all of the above, however I’m sure if I grab my Bible, I’ll come up with women’s names as leaders, too, Phoebe comes to mind. Are you intentionally leaving out women as priests? (oh, wait, are you Catholic?)

    • Joel J. Miller

      Susan, I’m Eastern Orthodox, which on this point holds roughly the same position as the Catholic church.

      There have been women deacons — Phoebe is a great example — but not priests. Women deacons were essential to the early church for the sacrament of baptism. The role of women deacons seemed to have waned as infant baptism became the norm.

      Priests — those administering the Eucharist — are males in part because they are icons of Christ in that service. And I should add that one’s masculinity is only part of the picture. Paul’s rules for appointing bishops hold; most men would have trouble being ordained. As a divorced man, for instance, I couldn’t be ordained in any normal circumstances.

      That said, there is a tremendous appreciation of women in the Orthodox tradition. The roll of women saints and those formally honored in the church is extensive. Some of those saints, like Mary Magdalene and Photina (the woman at the well) have the title “Equal to the Apostles.”

      If it would be helpful, I’ve written a bit on that here.

      • Susan Gerard

        ah, thanks, Joel. I did go back to your post about women in the church. I grew up Catholic, even went to a Jesuit university, so the idea of priests (and nuns, brothers, etc.) is ingrained in me. But I didn’t, with full knowledge of it’s significance, accept Christ as my savior until I was 29, in a community of evangelicals.

        I feel pretty silly now having posted my question.

        • Joel J. Miller

          I think it’s a fine question. I’m encouraged by your journey.

  • John Osborn

    I don’t think anyone at all familiar with early church history would deny that the proto Orthodox were advancing a hierarchical ecclesiology by the 2nd century. I think the question for people like Gary Wills may be whether the Christianity that survived and triumphed was the closest to the mid first century Christianity of Paul and the first Apostles. Citing Timothy, Titus, and Acts, won’t settle the question for them, because at least Timothy and Titus are generally dated in the early 2nd cent and some date Acts that late as well. You can offer that church tradition holds them as a sacred, but if the question is how much authority the church should have, then this seems to beg the question. The fact that all surviving churches in places where the Gospel was first preached and who could potentially trace their lineage back to the time of the Apostles, call themselves Catholic or Orthodox, and believe in the authority of Bishops in Apostolic succession, does seem like a pretty strong argument for that ecclesiology going back to the very beginning. However, we’re mostly left with inference based on what the church looked after the first century as there’s not huge amount of writing about the church’s organization, which can be dated to the first century.

    That is, it can’t be dated as a matter of history, I respect that as a matter of faith one might believe a tradition was inspired and thus defer to it, even if it’s not established by the rules of the discipline of history. I would think that as a self-claimed Catholic Wills would have faith in that tradition. Thus, while I don’t necessarily think he’s wrong historically, I’m puzzled to see someone write an apologetic for the reformation as a Catholic. Does he show any awareness that he’s basically arguing for Protestant theology, or does he pass himself off as an innovative Catholic, advancing ideas no-one thought about before.


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