The Church

A Presbyter is not a Priest

In church traditions that have a clerical, distinct priesthood, it is common to find the claim that a priest is a presbyter. That is, that when we read in the New Testament about the qualifications for presbyters—elders—we are really reading about priests. Paul tells Titus to appoint πρεσβυτέρους (elders) in every town. What follows are the qualifications for the man, a list that is very much like what we read in 1 Timothy 3, where the qualifications for overseer, or bishop, are given.

A key point to note is that in Titus 1, the two are brought together. Paul says to appoint presbyters, and then goes on to say “For an overseer, (bishop, ἐπισκόπος). as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” Now, unless one believes Paul has suddenly switched gears and is no longer speaking of presbyters, the conclusion must be that a presbyter (elder) is a bishop. The two words refer to the same office. We see this in Acts 20 as well, when Paul calls the Ephesian elders to him, to give them his his parting counsel.

“Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders (πρεσβυτέρους) of the church to come to him.” Further on in the chapter, Paul tells them “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (bishops, ἐπισκόπους). Here, just as in Titus, the two words are used for the same group. An elder (presbyter) is a bishop.

Without question, later history introduced a three-fold office of bishop, priest, and deacon into the church, but this is an innovation, indeed, an aberration from the pattern one sees in the New Testament.

Apologist for this three-fold office will frequently point out an etymological link between the English word priest and presbyter, as proof that the lineage is true. But the link is in name only. While there may be an etymological link there is no functional link. Those churches that have a clerical priesthood assign to them duties and functions that are much more in harmony with the Levitical priesthood of the Old Covenant than they are with the New. One sees this in what the priest (alone) can do. He alone can validly confect the Eucharist. He alone can administer the sacrament of reconciliation (penance.) The clerical vestments a priest wears further sets him apart from “the laity.” None of these are present in the New Covenant order.

One of the more interesting books in my library is The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church by the French Catholic historian Alexandre Faivre. Professor Faivre titled his book to demonstrate that in the early church all were considered priests, and the innovation was to introduce a separate, less privileged class, called simply “the people” (laos.)

In the New Testament, the only priests we find are Christ himself as our high priest, now at God’s right hand, making intercession for believers, and the priesthood that belongs to every single Christian. Those who trust in Jesus are “priests to his God and Father.” (Rev 1:6) Hebrews 13 also provides some of our priestly work. “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (Heb 13:15) While there are qualifications for the office of elder—not everyone can hold the office—this is not true for the priesthood that is the birthright of every believer. While we can say that any presbyter (elder) is a priest, they are not the only priests. Greek has a word for priest (ἱερεύς, hiereus), but this is never used interchangeably with presbyter.

When we come to the practice of the Lord’s Supper, the only description we have is in 1 Corinthians, and among the things absent is any single Christian presiding or directing. Paul does not even address the elders of the church in Corinth, nor does he suggest it would not be a valid eucharist if the bishop is not presiding. All of these are later additions from history.

Returning to Acts 20, we find Paul telling the elders to shepherd, pastor (ποιμαίνειν) the flock. In other words, their duties consisted of protecting the sheep from false teaching, reminding them of their calling to live as followers of Christ, and for the elders themselves to model this. It is this, rather than anything sacramental, that pertains to presbyters. When someone claims that “priest is just presbyter,” recall these New Testament facts. Christian, do not give up the priesthood that is yours by new birth for a poor imitation that denies the truths unique to the New Covenant.

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