Why Priests?

Why Priests? March 8, 2013

Over at Stories Untold is an interview with Gary Wills about his book on Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. Wills objections to the idea of a priesthood on three grounds: (1) The theology of Hebrews prohibits it, (2) The negative historical impact of the priesthood in politics and socio-economics, and (3) It is symbolic for monarchial hierarchy. In the interview he states:

The idea of a separate Christian priesthood is as invalid for the Anglicans as for the Catholics because it, too, is based on the Letter to the Hebrews, which is riddled with fallacies. The basic point of my book is this: it comes from Luke 9, when the disciples try to stop someone from casting out devils in the name of Jesus and he says, why do that? They’re doing it in my name. If they’re doing it in my name, they’re not against me. Well, the priesthood has, in all cases, Orthodox or Lutheran or Anglican or Catholic, has been a way of saying, stop, to people who don’t have the priesthood, of dividing the body of Christ. Owning Jesus can be claimed by lots of sorts, but it’s especially claimed by priests who are exclusive in their worship credentials.

Well, as someone who now trains candidates for ordination to the Anglican priesthood and who works with a number of Anglican priests, I do have an opinion on this.

First, I have been lowest of the low church and once regarded the idea of a priesthood with disdain and though of vestments as popish paraphernalia. In fact, the Baptist tradition I once belonged to could be characterized as low church and still digging in quest of going low. Baptist ministers who retained the title “Reverend” were thought of as pompous and impious for claiming any title.  And let me add, I do not now think of the free church/baptist strain as entirely mistaken. There is something to be said for the importance of the local church, a church run by believers and for believers, and I do believe in the priesthood of all believers – a biblical theme if there ever was one (Exod 19:5-6; 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 5:10).

Second, I would object to the idea of priesthood as a form mediatorship, precisely because of the priesthood of all believers, but principally because this devolves the role of mediator from Christ to people. The theme of Hebrews is that the Levitical priesthood is defunct because we have a better sacrifice, a better covenant, a better mediator, a better high priest, and it is Jesus who purifies us and leads us into the presence of God.

Third, however, I do think there are biblical grounds for regarding evangelical ministry as a priestly ministry. And I take my cue from the Apostle Paul: “Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me  to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:15-16). What exactly is the “priestly duty/service/ministry” of proclaiming the gospel is an open question. Is it because it is a sacred vocation, because the Holy Spirit is particularly active in it, or because it communicates the word of Christ? Suffice to say, the idea of setting apart/consecrating/devoting/ordaining a person to gospel ministry means to set apart/consecrate/devote/ordain someone to what the Apostle Paul calls a priestly work. If vocation defines description, then there is nothing illegitimate about calling such persons “priests.”

In fact, in the ordinal of the Church of England, with services for the ordination of priests, we read this:

God calls his people to follow Christ, and forms us into a royal priesthood, a holy nation, to declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.

The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom.

To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries. Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being. They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.

I think that sounds fair enough to be honest.

Any way, I would love to hear from a Baptist, a Catholic, and an Anglican on what they think about “priesthood.”

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  • editor

    ‘Priesthood’ is not used as a noun to refer to ordained ministry anywhere in official C of E documents to my knowledge, and with good reason. It is used (as you cite) to refer to the whole people of God. Ordination is theologically about become a presbyter, or elder, and some part of the Anglican Communion around the world use that term more explicitly.

    The term ‘priest’ was retained by Cranmer to suggest continuity with what had gone before (it was about reformation, not replacement) but his theology of ministry was one of eldership.

    That’s what I think I am training people for.

    Ian Paul

    • Patrick

      I’m raised Baptist, now non denominational. My view is all believers are part of Christ’s royal priesthood. He’s our great high priest. We all have spiritual responsibilities to serve as priests and we have 24/7 access to the throne of God for it.

      This does NOT preclude a church leader of serving as an authoritative priest(we use the term pastor,same difference, IMO)of a local assembly.

      Wills, IMO, has terribly missed what Hebrews is teaching. I think you get it. The old Levitical priesthood had limits, our’s has no limits, we get to do every minute what the ancient high priest did once annually.

      The only difference I have with some who use the term “priest” is I think it is an error to confess to a priest now. I have my own priesthood relating to God, Christ made this possible, so I don’t need mediation by another flawed man after Christ.

    • Jake

      Not that it has any significance, as words signify by convention, as they say, : priesthood is used in ARCIC (etc.) and a variety of motions passed or reports received by General Synod (e.g. in the 1980s “the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood”) and appears in the Resolutions of Lambeth 88.

      • editor

        These reports have no official status in the C of E. (I tried to get the named of them changed; they are in fact discussion documents. The ARCIC reports do not represent agreed Anglican positions eg we DO in principle object to the idea of a pope, contrary to the last ARCIC document.) For official terminology you need to read BCP and its liturgical alternatives, and the Articles of Religion.

        • Jake

          In my view, to use another example, it seems odd to define say “Issues in Human Sexuality” as unoffocial because it’s not in the BCP, Canons or Articles.

          • editor

            You have to look at what has been agreed by Synod. In an eccentric C of E way, Synod ‘takes note’ of reports, but that does not mean it agrees with them. (It does agree with some, and these then become official C of E statements.) One of the beefs that ‘revisionists’ have on same sex unions is precisely that Issues ‘does not [in their view] represent the mind of the Church.’

            Not many people are aware, for example, that the word ‘altar’ appears nowhere in C of E liturgy.

          • Jake

            1. If clergy can be disciplined for breaching its guidelines, which was the position taught in my diocese in the 90s, it looks fairly “official” to me. But we seem to be dancing around defining “official” – so if the claim was simply that “priesthood” doesn’t appear in the BCP and Ordinal, the Canons or Articles – then, sure.

            2. The word “car” doesn’t either, but I’ve been led to believe they do exist.

          • editor

            I guess it depends on how interested you are in understanding the nuances of the C of E. Unlike most other Protestant churches, it has no separate confession, but expresses its beliefs quite self-consciously through its liturgy. This is constantly seeking a compromise between its Lutheran/Calvinist foundations, and the variations from this over 350 years including the influence of the Oxford movement. So whilst the liturgy allows some latitude in its use, its wording is quite clearly in the spirit of Cranmer. That is, ministry is of word and sacrament, there is no sacrifice or altar, and the theology of the sacrament is quite clearly ‘receptionist’ (though not really quite Zwinglian). The epiclesis calls the Spirit down on the people, not the elements, and the bread and wine remain just that.

            So officially the C of E believes in a presbyterate, though is happy to call members of this presbyterate ‘priests’ inasmuch as they are a ministerial focus for the priesthood of the whole people of God.

            (Btw, I know of no clergy who have been disciplined because of breaching Issues in the last 20 years!)

          • Jake

            1. Publicly disciplined, that should be. I don’t know of any public cases either but I was also aware that in the 90s all sorts of things could be, and were, dealt with “sotto voce”, so to say. On the other hand, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was the rule in many places – theological colleges, included – so I’m making no great claims for theological integrity.

            2. He, he – nice try but if we couldn’t find a common usage to agree on with respect to the word “official”, we’re unlikely to agree on a summary of the CofE’s eucharistic doctrine in a combox.

          • Hmmm…just because you don’t agree, that doesn’t mean there *isn’t* an official position.

  • Terry
    • editor

      I’m not sure his post makes sense. He says we DO have mediator between us and God, who is Jesus. But if Jesus is part of the godhead, as is the Spirit who is poured into our hearts…

  • Phil James

    Another Anglican perspective in a nutshell :-)- if all believers
    are priests, then the minister is certainly a priest, too.

    My understanding is that biblically one is always a priest
    for another. The priesthood of all believers implies that we need the priestly
    service of each other. This is precisely backwards from what many Evangelicals understand
    ‘the Priesthood of all believers to mean’: I don’t need anyone else. This is
    wrong. As men, women and children made
    in the image of the Triune God, we need the priestly ministry of each other. I
    suspect this is the real issue.

    We tend to name our ministers in terms of what we see their
    most important function: Preacher, Pastor, etc. Historically, the church gathers
    on the Lord’s Day not for ‘worship’, but to have an audience with God that culminated
    in our sitting at his table as his guests: the Mass, Eucharist, Divine Liturgy or Divine
    Service. Traditions that believe this is purpose of meeting on the Lord’s Day (the appointed divine visitation that makes it the Day of the Lord) refer to their pastor/teacher/preacher
    by the most wonderful of his jobs- butler to God.

    In the OT priests were the domestic staff of God’s
    household. They guarded and cleaned the residence, prepared the ‘food’ and showed
    people into the ‘drawing room.’ When people came calling, they told them that
    the master was in, and would (or wouldn’t) receive them. They assisted others into
    God’s presence.

    This is mankind’s calling in the temple, which is God’s
    creation. Priestly function is not so much a remedy for sin as it is the
    fulfillment of our humanity. Christ is that fulfillment, and our twisted
    efforts are caught up in his own priestly work. All of us came to Christ because
    someone else played the role of priest to us.

    The priesthood of all believers was a reality in ancient Israel.
    That didn’t preclude the need for priestly service to the congregation as a
    whole. Through union with Christ, we each have a part in his priestly work, but
    we each exercise that priesthood differently according to our calling- hand,
    foot, etc. A minister simply exercises that same work towards the congregation
    as a whole when she gathers together Eucharistically to enter into God’s

    A bus needs a driver, and specifying who is going to drive beforehand
    is a good thing. It avoids all sorts of problems. When I see the driver- licensed,
    uniformed and welcoming me aboard, I don’t take offense. I’m grateful.

  • CTimeline

    I thought most scholars argue that the the modern conception of the pastor (let alone priest) cant be found in the New Testament? That’s what I remember from a course I took on Church Government a few years ago during my undergraduate degree… Although I am from a Brethren tradition so I do tend to see the idea of a Pastor as a needless, and damaging innovation that sets up a clergy-laity divide. Perhaps that coloured my view.

  • MarkV

    Rom 15:15-16 is selective reading of the NT. Acts 9:17-19 speaks of Paul coming into the Church through baptism. At the end of Acts 11, the Church sends Barnabus to get and guide Paul. In Acts 13:1-3, Paul and Barnabus receive their ministry from the Holy Spirit Through The Church! THAT is where he is given the “priestly duty” of which he speaks. Not of his own authority (which he never claims) and not by picking up scripture and “proclaiming Christ Lord” (as some believe).

    We are all asked to cast out demons — that is the point of avoiding temptation and sin. Those are personal rejections of evil and The Lord of
    Lies. But Luke 9 tells us that we are not islands — we can and should help others to reject satan and avoid sin. Since the passage is not in the context of anything similar to Acts 13, we can only conclude (as I did) that casting out demons is not dependent upon ordination (or laying of hands).

    Your understanding of Hebrews seems correct, but devoid of correlation with John 15:16. Starting with John 13, Christ is ONLY speaking to His disciples. Thus when paired with Hebrews Christ the new High Priest has chosen his successors. Hebrews tells us that such a ministry is not dependent upon the Law for its authority, but on the authority of Christ alone.