Priesthood: Christian Priesthood

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The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches apply the term priesthood both to the ministry of bishops and presbyters and, more fundamentally, to the baptized members of those communions. Despite historical and theological differences among these churches, there are strong commonalities in the meaning and function of priesthood. To understand these commonalities and differences, it is necessary to consider the origins of Christian priesthood in its historical and religious contexts, major divergences, and continuing developments and controversies. Because it is the early centuries that these churches have in common, they require particular attention here.

The idea and practice of Christian priesthood in early Christianity formed around two poles: the nascent communities' understanding of themselves and of Jesus Christ in light of the Jewish traditions of priesthood with which he and they were familiar. Civic and religious priesthoods in the Greco-Roman world were also significant features of the contexts within which the Christian movement grew, hence a further source of influence as Christian priesthood evolved in the early centuries.

New Testament Period

In the first century, the followers of Jesus used the terminology and imagery of the Hebrew Bible to interpret his ministry, death, and resurrection, seeing in him the high priest (archiereus ) who offers sacrifice for the sins of the people. But in Jesus they also saw the perfecting or completion of priesthood and sacrifice, one who intercedes eternally for them at God's right hand (Heb. 5:110; 6:2328; 10:1012). Early Christians understood themselves in terms of the Israelites chosen and covenanted as a priestly people (Ex. 19:5-6), now constituted as a holy priesthood and God's own people (1Pt. 2:5, 9-10; Rv. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). The two concepts are so closely intertwined that it is difficult to assign temporal or logical priority to either one. Over time the focus would come to be fixed on the priesthood of Jesus Christ and his ministers. Starting in the latter part of the twentieth century, largely as the result of growing consensus in biblical studies and ecumenical dialogue, the priesthood of all the Christian people has garnered renewed attention and importance in churches that regard their bishops and presbyters as priests.

Differences over priesthood, temple sacrifice, and communal identity moved from an intra-Jewish question to a site of conflict between Christians (including now Gentile Christians) and Jews by the end of the first century ce. Christian literature of the early second century reflects the growing estrangement between these two groups; the so-called Letter of Barnabas is notable for its appropriation of identity as the spiritual temple and God's new Israel at the same time as it excoriates the priesthood and cult of Judaism (1316).

The New Testament does not apply the term priest to any Christian ministry or function other than the role it ascribes to Jesus Christ as eternal high priest. Paul, however, does use the metaphor of "priestly service" (Rom. 15:16) to describe his preaching of the gospel but does not expound on its meaning. Leadership roles, offices or ministries, and an array of charismatic gifts were exercised by many believers in service of mission and community life. Nowhere in the New Testament is there any indication of who presided at the Lord's Supper (the Eucharist, as it was later called), but in accord with general social practice of the period, it is likely that the head of the household (male or female) in which the community met was the host or presider at the meal.

Over the course of the second and third centuries, Christian practice and writings increasingly associated the terms priest and priesthood with ministerial officeat first that of bishop, later that of presbyter as well. Two developments fostered this association: articulation of more formal structures of ministry within the churches, and interpretation of the Lord's Supper not simply as a memorial meal but as a representation of the death of Jesus understood as a sacrificial offering to God.

Ordered ministerial offices were beginning to evolve by the late first or early second century, as the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Tm.; Ti. ) witness. The qualifications and to some extent the functions of bishops (episkopoi ) and deacons (diakonoi ) were set forth in these letters; the office of elders or presbyters (presbyteroi ) received briefer mention. The distinction between bishops and presbyters-elders was not well defined, but the bishop may have been a senior member or leader among the elders; the deacon served the bishop and was his representative in the church community. Over the course of the second century, these offices became more firmly established and the distinctive functions of bishops and presbyters more clearly defined.

The bishop served as leader of a local church, which was more like a parish in these early centuries than a diocese, and by the end of the second century he was the regular presider at the Eucharist. In large cities where there were multiple churches, and for outlying churches and rural areas, the bishop would delegate the role of presider to presbyters. By the early third century, the threefold structure of ministry was widespread among the churches. The offices were restricted to men, thus narrowing the ministerial roles of women to widows, who engaged in a ministry of prayer, and deaconesses, who exercised a liturgical ministry chiefly in regard to the baptism of woman, and increasingly marginalizing their leadership.

Second and third centuries

The so-called First Letter of Clement (written from the Roman church, c. 96) compares in a general way the ministers of the church to the high priest, priests, and Levites of Israel. Around 200 in Carthage, Tertullian applied the term sacerdos (priest) to bishops, only once using the term high priest (summus sacerdos ) for them. Third-century texts known as church ordersthe Apostolic Tradition (c. 212) ascribed to Hippolytus of Rome and the Didascalia (or Teachings of the Apostles ) from Syria or Palestine (c. 230)are more specific about the analogy. The Apostolic Tradition designates the bishop as presider at the Eucharist. The ordination prayer names him as high priest, propitiating God by his ministry and his offering of the church's gifts to God (I.iii); presbyters are compared to the elders chosen by Moses (I.viii). The Didascalia requires that the bishop, like the levitical priests, be unblemished in body and conduct (IV). He is due the first offerings of the community because he is priest, prophet, king, and mediator for the people, imitating Christ in bearing their sins (VIII). The use of priestly language remains largely metaphorical, however, and Christian priesthood never became a hereditary office restricted to specific families, as it did in ancient Israel.

Supported by these developments, a theology of priesthood, Eucharist, and sacrifice began to take form in the third century, particularly in the West. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (c. 248258), articulated this emerging nexus for the Latin churches. He considers Melchizedek a figure of Jesus Christ and the eucharistic bread and wine a sacrifice (Eph. 63.45) offered by the priest (bishop). By association, presbyters share in the priestly role of the bishop (Ep.61.3; 72.2). Augustine, bishop of Hippo (396430), used the term sacerdos for bishops and presbyters, but was sparing in its application in order to emphasize the unique priesthood of Jesus Christ, which the ministry of bishops and priests serves. His caution was intended to counter Donatist schismatics who held that sacramental efficacy depended on the worthiness of the minister. Augustine regarded Jesus' death and the Eucharist as sacrificial, contrasting Christian spiritual sacrifice with the ineffective material sacrifices of pagan cult (City of God X.5, 6). But he also had a strong conception of the priesthood of the Christian people, the church (City of God XVII.5). In the East, the language of sacrifice was applied to the Eucharist and priesthood but was modulated somewhat by an emphasis on overcoming sin and death rather than a preoccupation with propitiating God (as in Origen, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria).

Constantinian era

With the growing interest of Emperor Constantine (r. 306337) in Christianity after his surprise victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312, the church entered a new era of toleration that allowed for expansion of membership and a rapid rise in its social and political status that culminated in its establishment as the religion of the Roman Empire during the reign of Theodosius I (r. 379395). Prior to the fourth century, the practice and conception of Christian priesthood had evolved largely in relation to the levitical priesthood of the Hebrew Bible. Given the shifts set in motion by Constantine, subsequent developments in Christian priesthood inevitably referred to and drew on Roman civic and religious priesthoods as well as the ceremony of the imperial court.

As imperial largesse transformed the church's major public spaces in Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, the scale and style of Christian liturgy changed to meet the grandeur of these new environments. The use of incense, candles, processions, and vestments reflected imperial ceremony, creating an atmosphere of awe from the subtle overlay of divine and imperial presence. As presider at the eucharistic liturgy in its newly enlarged form, the bishop (and, by extension, his presbyters) began to acquire a sacral aura. John Chrysostom, the "golden-mouthed" preacher and later bishop of Constantinople (r. 398404), gives fullest expression to these developments in his treatise On Priesthood (c. 386), written as an apologia for declining priestly ordination. Chrysostom describes the burdens of pastoral care (II), preaching (IV.12), and teaching (V.13) and highlights the immense honor that attends the priest (bishop) who calls down the Holy Spirit, making present the body and blood of Jesus Christ at the eucharistic sacrifice (III.7). He repeatedly takes issue with those who seek episcopal office as a means of self-promotion (III.7, 9), a concern that reflects the changed status of the church and suggests that Christian priesthood had assumed the political prestige of the old Roman priesthoods.

By recognizing bishops and priests as a legal and social class, Constantine had incorporated them into the political structures of the empire in which those holding public offices constituted distinct ranks or orders (ordines ). The process of assimilation increased when Constantine granted bishops judicial powers to hear civil cases. Use of the political term ordo for priestly office reached back to Tertullian and Cyprian in the West, but its significance increased as the Christian church took its place solidly within the social and political life of the Roman Empire. The distinction between clergy (those in the priestly ordo ) and laity (laici, plebs ) arose clearly in the third century; distance between the two widened considerably in the fourth and continued to increase in subsequent centuries.

Later Developments and Differences

The decline of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century and its gradual retraction in the East served to solidify the ecclesiastical and political status of Christian priesthood. Institutional structures once derived from their Roman historical context acquired a kind of ontological status when incorporated into the platonic thought-world of late antiquity. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (sixth century, Syria) crystallized this process in his treatises, the Celestial Hierarchy and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, which saw church structures as reflecting and participating in the eternal structures of the angelic hierarchies in heaven. Within the hierarchy of the church there were two orders: the clerical hierarchy and the lay hierarchy. The picture of intricately ordered and interlocking hierarchies was influential in later medieval social and political thought.

Medieval period

The economic and political structures of feudalism that developed in the West from 500 to 800 were likewise hierarchical and congenial to the kind of church order envisioned by Pseudo-Dionysius. Theological developments in this period furthered a conception of priesthood as hierarchical and sacral, rooted in the priesthood of Christ (e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III.q.22), and removed from the masses of laity. Scholastic theologians articulated a sacramental theology that defined clerical ordination as the sacrament of orders. For bishops and priests, the sacrament of orders was understood to confer an indelible character on the recipient, conveying to him the spiritual capacity for ministry, especially for administering the sacraments (e.g., ST III. q. 63, on sacramental character and participation in Christ's priesthood; III. q. 83, a. 4, on the priest's consecratory role in the Eucharist). Episcopal ordination also conferred the authority of jurisdiction (e.g., ST, Suppl., q. I, aa. 5,7). Focus on the Eucharist as the central cultic work of the priest, who acted in the person of Christ (in persona Christi ), further sacralized the understanding and practice of priesthood. Concentration on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and formulation of a philosophical-theological explanation of the nature and causality of that presence (transubstantiation, as defined at the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215) reinforced the sense of cultic awe attaching to priesthood and sacrament. Devotions to the Blessed Sacrament, adored but not received, increased the distance and deference granted to priesthood.

Serious efforts to require and enforce celibacy of the clergy in the West date to the wide-ranging reform program of Pope Gregory VII (r. 10731085). The local Spanish synod of Elvira (c. 306) had directed bishops, priests, and deacons to observe marital continence, and the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea (306) had forbidden marriage after ordination to the diaconate, but neither had lasting effect. In both the Greek and Latin churches, the promotion of clerical celibacy owed much to the influence of the ascetic-monastic movement that predated Constantine and spread rapidly during the fourth century as the church became increasingly acculturated. The metaphor of eucharistic sacrifice was taken more literally as arguments for clerical celibacy appealed to levitical laws of ritual purity.

Marriage and concubinage of the clergy were common in the West through the Middle Ages, even after the Gregorian reforms and the imposition of celibacy as a requirement for ordination at the First Lateran Council in 1123. In the East the practice of requiring celibacy of bishops but not of priests had become the norm, with the result that most bishops were drawn from the ranks of monks. Weekly eucharistic services (rather than the Western practice of daily masses) made it possible for priests to observe ritual purity without having to be celibate. Differences over clerical celibacy were one factor in the increasing estrangement of the Latin and Greek churches in this period. Both the requirement of celibacy and the failures in its observance added fuel to the growing calls for reform of the Western church's life and teaching from the thirteenth century onward.

Reformation period

Integral to Martin Luther's critique of the Catholic sacramental system and its abuses was a rejection of the theology of transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice, as well as of the notion of priesthood that accompanied it (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520). Luther held that the only Christian priest was Jesus Christ. The minister does not represent Christ in a way different from other believers; every Christian is to be an alter Christus (another Christ) to his or her neighbor. The central task of Christian ministry is the preaching of the Word. Although Luther's conception of church, sacraments, and ministry was formulated as a critique of medieval Catholicism, he nevertheless maintained the importance of an ordained (ordered) ministry and the evangelical practice of the two sacraments of Christian faith, baptism and Eucharist. Equally important, however, was his rediscovery of the New Testament understanding of the priesthood of the whole Christian body, taken now as the priesthood of all believers. All baptized Christians, not simply the ordained, participate in the priesthood and kingship of Christ (On the Freedom of a Christian, 1520).

John Calvin, too, held that the preaching of the gospel was the heart of ordained ministry and that priesthood belonged to Christ alone (Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.19). He further developed an understanding of the threefold offices of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, and the participation of all believers in his priesthood (Institutes II.15). Calvin rejected as well the theology of eucharistic sacrifice and any sort of material presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but held a strong doctrine of real spiritual presence (Institutes IV.17-18). Ulrich Zwingli agreed with Luther and Calvin in recognizing that Jesus Christ was the only Christian priest. He also rejected a sacramental or sacrificial interpretation of the Eucharist, but in sharp contrast with Luther or Calvin he rejected any notion of eucharistic presence of Christ and taught that the Eucharist was simply a memorial observance (On the Lord's Supper ).

The so-called middle way (via media ) taken by the English reformation and brought to a settlement by Elizabeth I (1558-1603) charted a broad course between continental Protestantism as represented particularly by Calvin on the one hand, and Roman Catholicism on the other. Successive editions of the Book of Common Prayer reflected these and other influences as it became the norm for the "one use" throughout the English church ("Of Ceremonies," 1559 BCP). The sixteenth-century English reformers largely rejected the idea of eucharistic sacrifice and a clerical priesthood that served the altar. They affirmed the common priesthood of all Christians. Unlike their continental counterparts, they retained the offices of bishop, priest (presbyter), and deacon, but did not define these offices with any specificity. The ordination services were included in Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's 1552 prayer book and retained in later editions; more radically Puritan or presbyterian understandings were excluded in the 1662 book published after the restoration of the monarchy and the episcopacy. Elizabeth's religious policy of "comprehension" (to include within the English church a broad middle range of perspectives) had set a course that allowed for considerable diversity of interpretation and practice in the Anglican communion during subsequent centuries. In regard to priesthood and related matters, the resulting spectrum of positions encompassed the language of both priesthood and ministry, sacrifice and memorial, transubstantiation and spiritual presence, as well as a wide variety of liturgical sensibilities and styles.

In response to the Protestant reformers and by way of its own internal process of reform, the Council of Trent (15451563) pursued a dual agenda of doctrinal decrees and pastoral reforms. Doctrinally the council did nothing new, reasserting traditional Catholic positions regarding priesthood, Eucharist, and sacrifice (Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass; Decree on the Sacrament of Order; Decree on the Eucharist ). In particular it affirmed transubstantiation, the Eucharist as sacrifice, the priest acting in persona Christi, and the indelible sacramental character of ordination that distinguished the ordained from the laity. In the area of pastoral reforms, the council required that bishops be resident in their dioceses and priests in their parishes, reaffirmed the necessity of clerical celibacy, and returned preaching to the center of the bishop's pastoral responsibilities.

Contemporary Issues

Matters related to the theology and practice of priesthood in the early twenty-first century can be noted briefly in three categories: ecumenical and liturgical developments; matters of gender and sexuality; and the growing importance of lay ministry.

The liturgical movement of the twentieth century drew attention back to sources from the early church, finding in these texts common principles for liturgical renewal in the Western churches, especially the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran. The entrance of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical arena after the Second Vatican Council (19631965) and the rapid growth of bilateral ecumenical dialogues furthered common study of divisive issues surrounding ministry and sacraments. Agreed statements from these dialogues and the World Council of Churches' 1982 document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, are pointing the way toward mutual recognition of ministry, members, and sacraments. At the same time, contemporary biblical scholarship has contributed to a growing consensus on the origins of church and ministry.

Issues related to gender and sexuality in connection with ordained ministry and priesthood have become a critical topic within the churches as well as in ecumenical relations between and among churches. The 1974 ordination of eleven women to the priesthood in Philadelphia sparked a crisis within the Episcopal Church in the United States and, more broadly, in the Anglican Communion. The ordinations were regularized in 1977, though recognition of women priests was not imposed on dioceses or provinces that could not in conscience accept them. Since then Anglican churches in many parts of the world have ordained women priests; the first woman bishop of the Episcopal Church was consecrated in Boston in 1989. More recently, in 2004 the first openly gay bishop was consecrated for the Diocese of New Hampshire, with worldwide repercussions among Anglicans; it remains to be seen what effects this will have on the unity of Anglicanism.

The ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopacy and the consecration of a gay bishop have raised strong questions and objections from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, both of which restrict priestly ordination to men and consider women's ordination a serious impediment to ecumenical progress. The Roman Catholic Church explicitly condemns homosexuality as intrinsically disordered, while the Orthodox churches have objected vigorously to the new Episcopal bishop's election and consecration. The chief arguments advanced against ordaining women to the priesthood are that tradition does not permit it and that the essence of priesthood makes it impossible: Jesus was male and chose only males to be his apostles (understood as the first ordained priests or bishops); the priest acts in persona Christi (Roman Catholics) and is an icon of Christ (Orthodox), but women cannot represent Christ in their bodies.

Within the Roman Catholic Church, a movement for women's ordination to the priesthood has been growing since the late 1970s, particularly in the United States and Europe. Several Vatican documents since 1977 have reiterated the prohibition of women's ordination, including a 1995 statement that declared the question closed. Nevertheless, the discussion continues. Within the Orthodox churches, too, there is a movement to permit ordination to the diaconate for women, with proponents pointing to the history of deaconesses in these churches. Addressing these questions of gender and sexuality increases pressure in the Roman Catholic Church to reexamine the requirement of clerical celibacy, a matter explicitly debated since Vatican II and made more urgent by the shortage of priests in western Europe and North America.

Finally, in each of these churches there is ongoing growth of involvement in many kinds of lay ministry, both professional and volunteer, formal and informal. This movement is related to a renewed appreciation of the common ministry of all Christians that is rooted in the priesthood of Christ and the sacrament of baptism. As it continues to grow and mature, lay ministry will gradually reshape the theology and practice of ordained ministry and priesthood.


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