True Christianity is priestly by nature; even more so, it has always had a defined and visible priesthood. To deny priesthood is to deny an elemental component of Christianity.
“Wait,” the reply comes from certain groups, “we are all priests unto God, have you not read in the Scriptures, ‘You yourselves are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ Jesus … You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession’ (1 Pet. 2: 5, 9)? There is no longer,” they might say, “any official priesthood. It is now the priesthood of all believers.”
Let’s look at this claim. St. Peter is clearly referencing the Old Testament where the Lord God tells the Hebrews, “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5). In the Old Testament, the Lord called the whole Hebrew nation priestly, and yet at the same time He established and set apart a specific priestly order according to the line of Aaron. Although the whole nation shared in a general priestly anointing, only those selected and set apart by the Lord were empowered to serve in the fullness of priestly function at the altar of the tabernacle (and subsequently Temple).
“But, that is the Old Testament!” Our friends might object. “Christ Jesus did away with the Old Testament priesthood!” Okay, let’s examine this.
In the epistle of St. Jude, he warns Christians of three evils – heresies – “These people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! For they walk in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion” (10-11). St. Jude makes reference to three Old Testament events, which depict spirits of error that attempted to assert themselves in the early Church (and continue to this day). One may easily reference the Old Testament for a description of these errors. For the topic at hand, the last error, Korah’s rebellion, is pertinent.
The error of Korah is covered in Numbers chapter 16. “Now Korah … and Dathan and Abiram … rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel … they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said, ‘You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord’” (1-3)? Notice that they are partially correct. The Lord had said in Exodus that the whole nation is priestly and holy. Their error is that they fail to acknowledge the special office of the priesthood as instituted by the Lord, in fact, they aggressively and willingly debase it. They apply to themselves something that does not belong to them: the ritual office of the priesthood. Their argument is the same as many Protestant groups today. Let’s keep digging.
Moses, by command of the Lord, instructs Korah and company to come before the Tabernacle with incense, together with Aaron and the God-ordained priests (cf. vv. 4-19). “The Lord will show who is His” (vs. 5). When all were assembled, Moses said to the congregation of Israel, “’Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins.’ So they got away from the dwelling of Korah … as soon as he had finished speaking these words, the ground split apart. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up … all who belonged to Korah … and went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly … to be a reminder to the people of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the descendant of Aaron should draw near to burn incense before the Lord, lest he become like Korah and his company” (vv. 25, 31-33, 40).
In short, the rebellion of Korah is the rejection of an official, sacramental, God-ordained priesthood. We are warned of it in both the Old and New Testaments. The fruit of Korah’s rebellion is frightening, he and all those with him perish. The description of St. Jude regarding those who embrace the spirit of Korah’s rebellion is equally frightening, “Hidden reefs … waterless clouds, swept along by winds, fruitless trees … twice dead, uprooted … for whom the gloom of darkness has been reserved forever” (12-13).
In the New Testament Christ is the new High Priest. In His person the perfection of the priesthood took place. The Aaronic priesthood was but a foreshadowing of the true and ultimate priesthood of Christ Jesus. The Scriptures testify that Christ the Lord is a priest forever (cf. Heb. 7:17, 21). He, “holds His priesthood permanently, because He continues forever” (Heb. 7:24). He is clearly depicted fulfilling priestly functions in the heavens, He is a “liturgist in the holy places” (Heb. 8:2). The Christian Church has always understood Christ the Lord to be the fount, the foundation, and the source of the New Testament priesthood. St. John of Kronstadt sums the teaching up, “Christ is the only Chief Priest, the First and the Last … He Himself performs the duties of a priest in us and through us [priests] … My priesthood and that of all others is Christ’s priesthood: the true, most high priest is Christ alone; He Himself ministers through us, He is the eternal priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” The priest participates by grace in the very Priesthood of Christ Himself. The person of the priest is an icon of Christ. He participates in the heavenly ministry of Christ the Lord, making it present in a tangible manner on earth through the One Body, the Church of Living God.
In the epistles to Timothy and Titus, the word Presbyteros is used. In Titus 1:5, St. Paul tells Titus (a Bishop) that he was left in Crete to “ordain presbyters/priests.” In most English translation presbyteros is translated as “elder,” which is only a small portion of the meaning. Christianity has from the earliest times used the word to generally delineate priests. In Acts, it commonly says “the apostles and the priests (presbyters)” (cf. Act. 15:23; 16:4). The Apostles were endued with the authority to ordain priests. It is no longer according to bloodline but apostolic authority from Christ the Lord. The Church, faithful to the ways of Right-Worship and teaching, selects certain men to minister as priests. She has been given that grace by God. St. Paul makes reference to Christian altars when he says, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb. 13:10). An altar is always connected to priestly service.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, historically proven to be a faithful disciple of St. John the Apostle, says, “Let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as they should respect the bishop, who is the model of the Father, and the presbyters as God’s council and the band of the apostles. Without these, no group can be called a church.” The saint is clear, there can be no true Church without priesthood. The Christian Orthodox witness from St. Ignatius on clearly confirms a Christian sacramental priesthood. Only after the Protestant Reformation was it systematically and almost totally denied.
St. Paul in Romans makes an incredible priestly statement, which most of the time in English is not translated properly, “Grace was given to me by God, in order for me to be a liturgist (minister) of Jesus Christ to the nations, ministering as a priest (in Greek, hierourgeo) in sacred sacrifice the Gospel of God, that the offering (prosphora) of the nations might be acceptable, sanctified in the Holy Spirit” (15:16). The Greek word hierourgeo comes from hiero – pertaining strictly to the ritual function of the priest, serving the altar, offering sacrifice, and so forth – and ergon – work, action, etc. The word is undeniably priestly. St. Paul is making a clear reference to his actual ministry as a priest, traveling the nations and offering the Christian Liturgy. Anyone continuing in True Christian worship of Liturgy understands the deep references made by St. Paul. St. John Chrysostom confirms that St. Paul is speaking specifically of his priestly ministry, “He is not speaking simply of service, as in the beginning [of Romans], but of liturgy and celebrating the sacrifice [holy communion].”
In both Old and New Testaments there have existed the general priestly function of the people of God and the very distinct ordained priesthood which serves the altar of the Living God. A specific and sacramental priesthood does not negate the general priestly nature of being part of the Israel of God, nor vice versa. When priests fail in their vocation before God they are rebuked severely and bear a greater punishment than the people of God. Because of weakness, men who are priest do not always live in a manner worthy of their office but this never negates the reality of God-ordained priesthood. The essential point is that true worship of the Living God always employs priesthood. This is undeniable.
There is no priest-less Christianity – Church – as St. Ignatius makes clear. There are those who deny priesthood, together with Korah, but the Scriptures have spoken clearly on the fruit of such a denial.