Do Christians Need Priests?
FOR many people the organisation and traditions of religion create
large barriers to its acceptance. Believing that God can be worshipped
acceptably by an individual in a forest or on a mountain-places which
bring readily to mind His awesome creative power - they shy away from
grand robes and imposing buildings. When it is suggested that somehow
God cannot he properly worshipped other than through a human
intermediary and according to set rites, their worst fears are
confirmed. The hierarchy of priests (cardinals, archbishops, bishops,
canons, etc.), is confusing to them and also suggests that there are
two categories of worshipper - priests and lay people. Possibly, even
that those who claim to be ordained by God are more favoured than
Churchmen argue that priests and the church speak on God's
behalf; they interpret God's commandments for men, and plead with God
on man's behalf; only they are allowed to bless the sacraments of
communion: the bread and wine shared by worshippers in remembrance of
Christ's sacrifice. They claim that today's priests are the rightful
successors to the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles; that God speaks
today through the church as He spoke in earlier centuries through
prophets and apostles.
What can we make of these claims? Has God commanded that He
should be worshipped only through the mediation of human priests? Do
men today have the right to speak for God? Are there two categories of
worshippers, the priests and the laity?
A Reliable Authority
To answer these
questions we need to have a reliable source of authority, something
that is totally trustworthy, having stood the test of time. Priests
speak with the authority they believe they receive from their church.
The churches claim their authority direct from God Himself. But we are
not interested in claims alone. We need some reliable evidence.
If God has declared anything about how He should be worshipped,
that would surely be the reliable authority we are looking for. And God
has spoken! The Bible claims to be the written word of God. Nor
is this only a claim. If it was, it would be no different from the
churches' claim to speak on God's behalf. God's word contains various
tests so that His claim can be proved.
God Does not Change
is the evidence of fulfilled prophecy (for more information on this
subject see the booklet in this series: Bible Prophecy). God revealed
to His prophets certain events long before they happened. Their words
also had a further importance:
"If a prophet arises among you . . . and if he
says, 'Let us go after other gods,' which you have not known, 'and let
us serve them,' you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to
that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know
whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart" (Deuteronomy
Look how crucial this passage is. In times past God revealed
His mind to certain men and women. Their words could be tested. What
they spoke about future events had to be fulfilled if they were truly
speaking for God. More than that, if they contradicted previous
messages from God, they were clearly false prophets - for God does not
change This establishes an important principle. God has revealed His
purpose for mankind, and this is verified by the tests He provided.
Anyone who speaks today and contradicts the teachings in His word
cannot claim that His authority lies behind what they say. The Bible
thus becomes an important source of authority on religious matters
today - it is the living Word of God.
This question of authority is crucial to our consideration. True
believers in Christ accept only one authority, the word of God. Christ
was "the word made flesh" (John 1:14). He always upheld and never
contradicted his Father's word. His followers must aim for nothing less
in their own worship. Let us therefore approach God's Word reverently
to see what is revealed about the priesthood, and about the
organisation of believers in Christ. In this way the claims of
churchmen for themselves and for their churches can be tested.
Priesthood in the Old Testament
the beginning of the Bible record God spoke directly with some men and
women by means of His angels. He did not command the establishment of a
priesthood until after the descendants of Jacob were delivered from
slavery in pagan Egypt and led by Moses to the land of Canaan. During
their forty year journey, they were being welded into a nation-and into
a religious congregation. Stephen spoke to the Jewish leaders of his
day about "the church in the wilderness" under the leadership of Moses, through whom God provided laws to govern their national life (Acts 7:38).
"The church" was not a special building for their worship, it is
a term used to describe the whole group of people separated to God. As
it is a word connected in modern use almost exclusively with a
building, it may help to understand its true meaning to learn that the
word in the New Testament's original language (Greek), was ekklesia.
Our English word "congregation" is a good translation of it: a group of
people gathered together for a special purpose. Because the
"congregation in the wilderness" consisted of God's people, all their
laws had a spiritual purpose, and were to be taught and maintained by
His representatives. God chose the tribe of Levi out of their twelve
tribes to fulfil this role.
The reason for choosing Levi was important. Moses had been
called up into a mountain to receive the nation's laws. In his absence
from their camp, the people called for a festival. During their revelry
they gave golden jewellery to Moses' brother Aaron, and he made a
golden calf, like the gods worshipped in Egypt. Returning from the
mountain when the orgy was at its height, Moses was distressed by their
behaviour, and immediately took charge. Calling out, "Who is on the
Lord's side?", he determined to purge the camp of all the revellers who
had turned away from worshipping God to worship the golden calf.
Levi's sons responded immediately, and Moses was able to say to
them, "Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord"
(Exodus 32:29). The tribe of Levi thus became responsible for
instructing the nation in the things to do with God and His ways. The
nation had shown itself to be weak and with a tendency easily to turn
away from God. The Levites had shown their faithfulness to Him in a
time of trial and now had to show the same judgement through their
lives for the benefit of others. They were to act as intermediaries
between a faithless people and a "God of mercy, yet of holiness".
Man Separated from God
His close involvement with the nation of Israel when the glory of His
presence occupied part of the portable Tabernacle, and later the more
permanent Temple - centres for the nation's worship. The Most Holy
Place, as this part was called, could not be entered regularly by
anyone. It was a room wholly set aside for God. Though He was among His
people, the perfection of His character and the sinfulness of theirs
did not allow free and open concourse between them. Just once each year
the High Priest was allowed to enter, but only after rigorous and
By the sacrifices and offerings commanded under the law, and by
the priests' involvement with them, the people were constantly to be
reminded of God's holiness, and that He cannot be approached casually
or insincerely. The chief priest wore on his forehead a small gold
plate inscribed with the words, "Holiness to the Lord" (Exodus 28:36).
Together with his clothing, it was meant to represent the attitude of
mind necessary in priest and people if they were to be acceptable to
A close consideration of all the Old Testament teaching concerning the priesthood reveals the following important aspects:
- God is pure and holy - He cannot be approached directly by sinful men and women.
- Angels were employed by God to communicate with mankind.
priesthood was commanded by God only when there was a group specially
prepared to worship Him, and with laws controlling that worship. These
people formed a "church".
- The priest was a man from a family chosen by God and separated from the people.
and women who wanted to repent of their sins and receive forgiveness
had to employ the services of a priest who would assist them to offer a
- The presence of God was located in the inner portion of the
tabernacle and temple. Only the High Priest could enter once a year,
after special preparation.
- The priest had to be washed clean before he could mediate for the people, and he had to offer for his own sins first.
This last aspect is specially important. Though the Levites had
shown great promise in the matter of the golden calf, they were really
as sinful as the rest of the people. When Israel's history unfolds in
the Bible record, the priests become as involved in the nation's
transgression as those they were meant to be teaching, and often can be
found leading the nation in false worship. What was needed was a
representative for man, sharing all his propensities to sin, but
perfectly obedient to the commands of God. A man like that could fulfil
all the requirements for priesthood: chosen by God and separated from
Priesthood in the New Testament
apostle Paul, commenting upon the law given through Moses in his letter
to the Galatians, described it as a "schoolmaster to bring us to
Christ' 13:24). In every aspect, the law declared its inability to
bring salvation to sinful mankind. A sacrifice had to be offered every time
someone sinned. All this did was constantly to remind man that sin
separates him from God. There was no provision in the jaw for finally
removing sin from the earth. Anyone carefully meditating upon the law's
significance would realise the urgent need for a Saviour from sin.
This need was met when Jesus was born. He was given that name,
as an angel declared to Mary's husband Joseph, because "he will save
his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). Jesus fulfilled all the
requirements that the priests under the law were unable to achieve.
Where they were weak, he was strong. He was subject to the same things
that caused their weakness: he knew the temptations they had to grapple
with. But they often gave in to temptation. Jesus never did. He shared
his physical nature with them: an ageing body, susceptible to
tiredness, injury, disease and, ultimately, death. But, instead of
focusing his mind on himself and his needs, as this weak nature has for
the rest of mankind, Jesus' mind was devoted completely to the things
of his heavenly Father. Where sin has ensnared all the rest of
humankind, Jesus never succumbed. Men have constantly failed; Jesus was
"All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God", is how
Paul described the state of mankind (Romans 3:23). But Jesus "committed
no sin; no guile was found on his lips" (1 Peter 2:22). His victory
over sin and death was complete when God raised him from the dead - to
die no more. He is "a priest for ever" (Hebrews 7:17).
The Perfect Priest
Here is someone ideally fitted to be a priest:
- Jesus came into the world as a human being and lived amongst men and women.
- He learned real obedience to the Father through the suffering he endured.
overcame every temptation, lived an utterly sinless life, and offered
himself completely when he submitted to death on the cross.
- Since Jesus was undeserving of death, God raised him from
the grave and gave him a nature that cannot perish or die; he is now
immortal, and lives and reigns with God.
- Because he shared our humanity, he can sympathise with our trials and problems.
- Having himself overcome similar trials, he can offer a share in his victory to those willing to associate themselves with him.
These factors set Jesus aside from every other person who has ever
lived. As these are the qualities of true priesthood, there can only be
one priest. The Jewish priests of Jesus' day should have seen that he
fulfilled the requirements for priesthood where they had manifestly
failed. With a blinding pride, however, they saw none of this, and were
among the leaders of the group intent on putting him to death. Because
they should have known better, and should have taken the responsibility
of priesthood under the law more seriously, Jesus called them "blind
guides" and "whitewashed tombs" (Matthew 15:14; 23:27).
He scathingly denounced them for their hypocrisy. He warned the
people against them, because they "like to go about in long robes, and
love salutations in the market places and the best seats at synagogues
at id the places of honour at feasts" (Luke 20:46). Jesus' attitude to
their pride is part of the answer to our question about the
justification for two 'levels' of worshipper; humility, not pride, must
be the characteristic of the true follower of Christ: "For every one
who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be
exalted" (Luke 14:11).
The true church, based on Biblical principles, is a
congregation of men and women with no hierarchy, devoted to the worship
of God, and honouring the sacrifice made on their behalf by the Lord
Jesus Christ. Through him only can they acceptably approach God in prayer.
In Jesus the Jewish law was both fulfilled and replaced. His
work had also been anticipated by the provisions in the law, but its
complete objective could not be achieved by any of the Levite priests.
Christ in Contrast to the Law
1. Jesus was chosen by God to be High Priest.
After Aaron had first been appointed High Priest under the Law of
Moses, all subsequent holders of that position were eldest sons, taking
over on the death of their fathers. They were thus chosen "by the will
of man", not by the will of God. They could only approach into God's
presence once each year. Jesus now lives for evermore, and always sits
in the presence of God:
"The former priests were many in number, because
they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds
his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently
he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him,
since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:23-25).
2. Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice, once and for all.
Under the law sacrifices had to be offered again and again. The Jewish
priests had to recognise their own sins by offering first for
themselves before they could officiate on behalf of the people:
"He has no need, like those high priests, to
offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of
the people; he did this once for all when he offered himself" (verse
3. Jesus was able to replace the law by perfectly fulfilling it, and by being totally obedient to his Father's will:
"Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much
more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better,
since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had
been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second . . . In
speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete" (Hebrews
4. Jesus conquered sin, and true believers can receive forgiveness of sins because of his victory:
"Christ has entered, not . . to offer himself
repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly . . . for
then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the
world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age
to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:24-26).
His priesthood is
unique, and no human being can achieve what he did. He said himself,
speaking first of all to his disciples who could have greater claim to
represent him than anyone else: "No man cometh unto the Father, but by
me" (John 14:6}. In unmistakable terms, the apostle Paul confirms this
"There is one God, and there is one mediator
between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom
for all" (1 Timothy 2:5,6).
Furthermore, Paul wrote these words in a section of his letter
to Timothy dealing with the organisation of the believers in Ephesus.
Had he wished there to be a category of believers with special duties
to represent God to man, here was the opportunity to say so. Instead,
he clearly states that Jesus alone fulfils this function.
Many churches today claim that only an ordained priest can
bless and distribute the bread and wine, end that only bishops can
ordain priests. The New Testament certainly records the first occasion
bread and wine were shared by the disciples in Jesus' presence, and
later how the apostles described the believers' duty to meet regularly
for this purpose. But it never suggests that the person presiding over
this memorial service has to be specially ordained - in fact there is
no mention of such a person, only of the command to believers: "As
often as you eat this bread and drink this wine you proclaim the Lord's
death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26).
It must be noted that this command specifically places a
responsibility on individual believers, whether meeting on their own or
in company with others, to take bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus'
sacrifice. The practice of some churches to restrict the sharing of
wine to the priests only, finds no place in the Bible record.
The Organisation of the Early Church
seen that the Jewish priesthood was replaced by the work of Christ, we
must now turn to consider how the early believers organised themselves.
Did the Lord's apostles command the establishment of a human priesthood
modelled on that of Christ's? Did they instruct that special buildings,
intricately decorated, should be erected; that there should be special
robes, or special phraseology to make worship acceptable? Were there to
be special functions for certain believers?
The New Testament account of the early Christian church reveals
an active, lively, and rapidly growing community. Although believers
performed many different functions, there were no distinctions in terms
"For as in one body we have many members, and
all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are
one body in Christ, and individually members one of another" (Romans 12:4,5).
Through all that was written during this exciting period, and
while the gospel message was scorching through the Mediterranean world
assisted by the communication systems provided by the Roman Empire,
there was clearly great concern that no one person, or group of people
should dominate the fellowship of believers. To suggest otherwise would
effectively dethrone their Lord, for:
"Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour" (Ephesians 5:23).
Service is the Keynote
Jesus' own words to his followers should be the guide in these matters. He taught all
of his disciples to be servants, and there was to be no differentiation
in terms of rank. He set the example himself when he washed the feet of
his disciples-in his day the most menial task of the most insignificant
slave: "I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have
done to you" (John 13:15). He also warned his followers about the
dangers of treating some men or women differently from others. They had
seen, as he had, the corruption of the Jewish leaders in their day.
Jesus warned his own followers not to fall into the same trap:
"You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one
teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on
earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called
masters, for you have one master, the Christ" (Matthew 23:8-10).
Elsewhere in his teaching, Jesus upheld the family unit, and
spoke about the need for children to respect their parents. He was
therefore clearly talking on this occasion about their religious
organisation needing to be founded as a brotherhood. His words
here concerning fathers relate to the practice of calling religious
leaders "father", showing how alien it is to Christ's ideal of the
relationship between believers. To do so in the face of Jesus' own
teaching is an affront to the majesty of God Himself.
The Family of Believers
The idea of
a family is a very useful way of understanding how the early believers
organised themselves in accordance with the advice of Jesus and his
apostles. God was their Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ their
Saviour, the head of their community. But like a normal, human family
with older and younger members, where those who are more experienced
take a greater share in the daily responsibilities, so in the early
Christian congregations there were elder and younger members. Certain
responsibilities were given to the elders, but they were not to lord it
over the rest of the congregation. They were to "treat younger men like
brothers . . . younger women like sisters, in all purity" (1 Timothy
Yes, there were different tasks, and different responsibilities
according to circumstance, but the first century congregations knew
nothing of the distinction between priests and laymen, so common in
today's churches. The selection of elders to look after each
congregation was the responsibility of the members in that place. Paul
wrote to Titus, in Crete, and told him to: "appoint elders in every
town" (Titus 1:5). It would presumably have been possible for Paul to
have given a list of appropriate names. But this would not have helped
believers elsewhere, or in a later age. So that the task could
subsequently be done by the members of any congregation, Paul set down
the qualities that fit a man to be an elder:
"Men who are blameless, the husband of one wife,
whose children are believers and not open to the charge of being
profligate or insubordinate" (verse 6).
Elders, Bishops and Deacons
elders, sometimes called "bishops" (meaning shepherds or overseers had,
as we have seen, responsibilities towards their fellow believers. The
bishop's role was that of a shepherd. He was not in Jesus' place in the
community, but had to display the same concern for the "flock" - of
which he was also a part.
Other tasks, also of service, were entrusted to men and women
qualified to fulfil them. Whereas elders' responsibilities were
directed more to the spiritual needs of believers, "deacons" were
involved with their physical needs. In the New Testament only the Lord
Jesus Christ is recognised as a priest. Nor do any of the descriptions
of the work of elders, bishops or deacons suggest that these had any
priestly function. None of the other church "offices" are Bible terms
either: they have all been invented by men.
Nowhere do the Apostles mention the sort of building believers
should meet in. On one occasion the apostle Paul joined a group of
worshippers who met by the riverside. Everything he had to say about
this group, and others like them, commends their practices. Nor are
special clothes mentioned. The only time there are references to what
worshippers should wear, there are strong indications that clothes in
flamboyant colours or costly materials should be carefully avoided (1
Peter 3:3,4, for example).
Another distinction between clergy and laymen in many churches
today is that the clergy receive payment for their work. In the first
century, those involved in the spiritual welfare of the community were
entitled in principle to material or financial support. The apostle
Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this. He said: "Do we not have the
right to our food and drink? The Lord commanded that those who proclaim
the gospel should get their living by the gospel" (1 Corinthians
9:4-14). Nevertheless, Paul recognised the possibility of corruption
entering into the community through this provision, and declared about
himself: "I have made no use of any of these rights in my preaching I
make the gospel free of charge . . . I do it all for the sake of the
gospel, that I may share in its blessings" (verses 15-23).
The history of churches where payment has been made to its
clergy unfortunately bears out the apostle's concerns. In the Middle
Ages the churches were extremely corrupt, and many priests became
infinitely more wealthy and powerful than the members of their
congregations. The problem still exists today. Scandals involving
church finances occur only too regularly. A return to the New Testament
principle of "the right to food and drink" for those "who proclaim the
gospel" would help to prevent many of these crimes.
The Work of the Apostles
important to recognise that these arrangements for each congregation to
elect ministers (i.e., servants) from within its own membership were
being made when the apostles of Jesus were still active among the
infant church. In the absence of a reliable written account of the work
and teachings of Christ (for the gospels were not widely available in
their present form until towards the end of the first century A.D.),
the apostles were inspired witnesses of Jesus' life, death and
resurrection. On them rested the power of God, His Holy Spirit. It gave
them ready recall of all that Jesus did and said; and by it they were
able to work miracles to reinforce the truth of their teachings, as
Once the New Testament account was complete, man had in his
possession, together with the books of the Old Testament, a book that
contains all that is necessary to teach him about God's offer of
the holy scriptures . . . "are able to instruct you to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15).
Each believer becomes individually responsible to God for the
answer he makes to the call of the gospel. As the Psalmist wrote: "None
can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him"
(49:7) Through the word of God man learns of His offer of salvation.
Others may assist him to grow in his understanding. But once he comes
to an appreciation of the saving work of Christ and the faithful
response he should make, he stands on his own before God. His only
mediator is the Lord Jesus Christ.
But, it has
been argued, the apostles were leaders of the Church; they acted in
Christ's place. To the extent that they witnessed to him, and preached
the same gospel message, this is true. But the apostles, even though
they had the power of the Holy Spirit, did not act as mediators on
behalf of other men and women, as priests today claim for themselves.
We have seen that the purpose of the Holy Spirit in the apostles' lives
was to guarantee the truth of their witness. As this was no longer
necessary once the scriptures were complete, there was also no need to
provide for a succession of men to take on the role of apostles.
Nowhere in the Bible record can we find apostleship being passed on to
a new generation.
It is sometimes claimed that the practice of "laying on hands"
provided divinely appointed successors to the apostles. But the term
has a variety of meanings, many of them unrelated to the idea of
succession, such as identification with an offering, or the award of a
When Moses was specifically commanded to appoint Joshua to
succeed him, God said: "Lay your hand upon him . . you shall invest him
with some of your authority" (Numbers 27:18,19). The history of the
nation soon shows that the people were to look upon Joshua as they had
once viewed Moses. If the laying on of hands in the New Testament has
only this special meaning, we should expect to find apostles being
replaced as they died, if not before. But they were not. The apostle
James died quite soon after the ascension of Jesus (Acts 12:2), and
there is no mention of a replacement for him. We have already seen that
the election and appointment of elders was made specifically with the
consent and approval of each individual congregation, and not directly
by the apostles.
After the Apostles
early church history indicates that it was not until the middle of the
second century A.D. that the practice developed of separating bishops
from elders. Bishops were elevated to a position where their role was
that of master or lord rather than servant. At about the same time
there were signs of the emergence of a separate priesthood which began
to assume certain features of the Jewish priesthood. Elaborate rituals
developed connected with religious services and in the ordination of
church officials. Soon there were the special buildings, clothing and
language that so mark out much of religious activity today Though
contrary to Bible teaching, this was not a wholly unexpected
development. Even during the period when the apostles were active there
was a constant struggle to prevent the intrusion of both Jewish and
pagan practices into the infant Christian community.
Jesus and his apostles warned about the emergence of "false
teachers", "false prophets", and even of "false Christs", who would
deceive many and turn away disciples after them (Matthew 24:4,5,11,24).
Paul showed that false teachers would arise from within the church
itself: "From among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse
things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:28-30). Towards
the end of the first century, the apostle John wrote: "As you have
heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come" (1
John 2:18). The term "antichrist" refers not only to those who openly
oppose Christ's teaching, but also to those who claim to represent him,
yet who, by their teachings and practices, actually oppose him.
These warnings are just as important today. Any survey of the
history of Christianity shows how the simple faith and practices of the
apostles and their fellow believers have been corrupted. The only way
to ensure compliance with them is to examine modern beliefs and
behaviour in the light of Bible teaching.
present believers do not act as priests, interceding or offering on
behalf of others, we can recognise only the Lord Jesus Christ as priest
for his church. However, there are aspects that formerly were part of
the priesthood that believers now have to fulfil on their own behalf.
As the Levites were "taken out" of Israel to serve God under the law of
Moses, so the believers in Christ are "taken out" of the world to be a
selected company to offer praise unto God:
"Through him (Christ) then let us continually
offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that
acknowledge his name" (Hebrews 13:15).
"Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1).
These passages teach that so far as the believer is concerned,
there is to be no separation into that which is "holy" and that which
is "profane", for the whole of a true Christian's life is dedicated to
being "holy". What is specially significant is that the believers
themselves are instructed to do the "presenting". No priest can do this
for them. Prior to their conversion, whether they were pagans or Jews,
this act of offering a sacrifice would have been the privilege and
responsibility of a priest. But Christ's disciples are to make
sacrifices now in acts of self-denial to demonstrate their allegiance
to Jesus and his future rule over God's kingdom on earth. They forsake
the things of the present world because of their commitment to the
world to come. Jesus' sacrifice, offered once for the benefit of all
who will avail themselves of it, is the guarantee that a life of
service now will be rewarded when he comes back to the earth.