When you hear “priest,” you’re likely to think of Catholicism. Actually, not only the Catholic Church but all other ancient Christian communions regard their ordained ministers as priests. This includes the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, and the Assyrian Church of the East.
Still, most Christians in the West are not familiar with these traditions: More common are the various Protestant traditions, the majority of which don’t profess to have priests in their ranks.
So only some Christian traditions have priests. What gives?
1. Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons
To understand why some Christians have priests, we have to start with the New Testament. Here we see that Christ commissioned a group of his disciples, the Apostles, to be leaders of the rest. As the Faith spread, other ministers were needed to aid the Christian community. This need gave rise to “bishops” and “deacons” in the New Testament. The former were also known as “presbyters,” coming from the Greek presbyteros, literally meaning elder. This Greek term is actually where we get the English term “priest,” but more on that in a bit.
By the end of the first century and start of the second century, we see three distinct roles of leadership in Christian communities: Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons. There was only one Bishop of a given community, and he acted as the chief pastor of the local church. The Presbyters and Deacons aided him.
This threefold ministry become the established norm in the Catholic Church (as well as Orthodox and other Eastern churches). Now how did we get from the two earlier offices known as bishops (or presbyters) and deacons to the threefold offices of bishop, presbyter, and deacon by the second century? Some people will say that the interchangeability of “bishop” and “presbyter” in the New Testament suggests that there were only two offices in the early Church: these bishops (or presbyters) along with the deacons. While it’s true enough that the terms were fluid, the New Testament still depicts three levels of authority in the Church. Even St. Peter, an Apostle, called himself a “fellow elder,” and the great St. Paul referred to himself as “deacon.” But these chief Apostles were surely more than that.
Most probably, the office that eventually became specifically known as the “presbyters” were originally called bishops as well. “Bishop” just meant overseer. So the presbyters, or elders, of the community were regarded as the bishops, or overseers, of their respective churches. By the second century, the more precise title of “Bishop” was reserved for those leaders who continued the ministry of the Apostles in a unique way. Whereas the Apostles were initially the chief authorities in the Church, those given the technical title of “Bishop” were considered to continue the Apostles’ ministry as the chief shepherds of the Church. In other words, we have this:
The Apostles’ were succeeded by those given the technical title of Bishop, the bishops/presbyters of the New Testament became known specifically as Presbyters, and the deacons remained Deacons.
Terminology aside, we do see hints of this threefold hierarchy in the New Testament. Some Christian leaders held authority over the other Presbyters and therefore acted as the chief bishops. James became the single bishop of Jerusalem, for example, and oversaw the church there. In the pastoral epistles, we see that Timothy and Titus, associates of Paul, had authority to appoint other Christian elders. According to Tradition, Timothy and Titus are considered the first bishops of Ephesus and Crete, respectfully. Only a bishop — and not a presbyter or deacon — could ordain others. These are all examples of what became the norm by the 2nd century: a single bishop in charge of a single location.
So that’s how we get the threefold office of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon in Catholicism. But wait. We talked about Presbyters, not Priests, right? First things first, what Catholics call “Priests” are none other than Presbyters. They are the same office. You’ll hear of the “Presbyterate” or “Presbyteral Councils” in a Catholic context, for example. All referring to Priests.
2. From Presbyter to Priest
The English term “Priest” is none other than a transliteration of the original Greek presbyteros. But the reason why we English-speakers associate “Priest” with other religions that offer sacrifice (e.g., Jewish priests and pagan priests) is because when presbyteros was morphed into the English “Priest,” the former already had a thoroughly sacrificial connotation. This is because Christians had long considered their Presbyters to include the function of offering sacrifice — the Eucharist, which Christ had instituted at the Last Supper.
From the very beginning, Christians regarded the Eucharist as the “sacrifice of the new covenant,” which had been foreshadowed by the Old Testament sacrifices.1 They often referenced a prophecy from Malachi, which speaks of a coming age when Gentiles will offer a “pure” sacrifice to God.2 According to the second-century Christian Justin Martyr, the predicted Gentiles are Christians “who in every place offer sacrifices” through the “bread” and “cup” of the Eucharist.3
Ignatius of Antioch, who is one of the earliest to describe the threefold leadership in the Church, speaks of “one common Eucharist” offered on “one single altar of sacrifice.”4 Like Ignatius, first-century Clement of Rome connects the office of bishop with the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice.5 An earlier document known as the Didache says that Christians are to gather on the Lord’s Day and “offer the Eucharist”—but only after confessing one’s sins, so that one’s sacrifice “may be a pure one.”6 St. Paul implies the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist when contrasts it to the “sacrifices of demons” (1 Cor. 10:14-21).
Jesus himself is just as suggestive of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples to “Do this in memory of me,” which in Greek is “Touto poieite eis tan eman anamnesin.” Touto poieite can be translated as “offer this,” and is so translated over 70 times in the Old Testament. The word anamnesin is always used in the Bible in a sacrificial context and can be translated as “memorial sacrifice.” So Christ’s words could be translated as “Offer this as my memorial sacrifice.”
Moreover, the Last Supper was a Passover meal. Passover commemorates the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian enslavement. The Israelites were told to sacrifice a lamb and consume it. The same was done in commemoration of the event at every ensuing Passover. For Christians, Jesus is the new Passover. He is the true “Lamb of God,” who marks our liberation from sin. And just as the completion of the Passover includes consuming the lamb, so too does Jesus’ sacrifice include our partaking of him in the Eucharist. For the Jews, Passover was more than a memory: it was a mystical commemoration that participated in the original. So, too, in the Eucharist: it is a mystical participation in the one sacrifice of Christ.
3. Priests: Presiders of the Sacraments
As the theology of the Eucharist developed, so too did the theology of the ordained priesthood. Because only bishops and presbyters presided at the Eucharist, the priestly nature of their ministry gradually became more explicit. Even if such an understanding evolved over time, it’s important to note that Christian ministers saw themselves as having a uniquely priestly ministry from the beginning. St. Paul thought of himself as “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (Rom 15:16).
Such is the early Christian understanding that by the mid AD 200s, a prominent Christian leader could describe the Priest in relation to the Eucharist in this way:
“If Christ Jesus, our Lord and God, is himself the high priest of God the Father; and if he offered himself as a sacrifice to the Father; and if he commanded that this be done in commemoration of himself, then certainly the priest, who imitates that which Christ did, truly functions in place of Christ” –Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 63:14
This passage helps express how the ordained priesthood is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. It is interesting to note that the book of Hebrews calls Jesus a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek pre-dated the Jewish priesthood and was both king and priest. When Abraham came to him, he offered a sacrifice of bread and wine (Gen. 14:18). As both King and High Priest, Jesus is the fulfillment of Melchizedek. At the Last Supper, Jesus, too, offered bread and wine. Christian Presbyters who continue to offer the bread and wine of the Eucharist participate in this priesthood. They are called Priests, yes. But they are also rightly considered Priests, in the sacrificial sense, then.
Christian presbyters are also understood as priests in a more general way: They serve the Christian community by being intermediaries between God and the faithful — or, as Paul puts it, acting as “ambassadors for Christ” who are entrusted with the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:20). They do this through their leading and teaching the faithful, acting as pastors and preachers. But most significantly, they are the ministers of the sacraments. We’ve already talked about the Eucharist, but there are others, too. The New Testament says that if anyone is sick, we should “call the elders of the church” to “anoint them with oil” (James 5:14). The elders here — the priests — are identified as being vehicles of God’s healing and grace. James continues: “Therefore confess your sins to each other … so that you may be healed” (5:16). These passages seem to describe an early form of the sacraments of anointing of the sick and confession. Regardless, the Presbyters led the Christian communities in these rites.
4. Extra related stuff…
APPENDIX I: Why do Catholics confess their sins to a Priest?
Probably one of the more common objections against the Catholic notion of the priesthood is not the Eucharist, but Confession. “I don’t need a man between God and me!” or “Christ is the only mediator!” are common protests. To some Christians, Christ’s uniqueness takes away any need for an ordained priesthood, especially when it comes to matters like forgiveness. So why do Catholics confess their sins to priests?
Part of the answer comes from the previous section, in the quote from James. Here we see that the New Testament itself commands that we confess our sins to each other — not just to God in private. What’s more, James puts presbyters—priests—right in the middle of it! This is enough to show that the Catholic (and Orthodox) practice of Confession comes straight from the first century Church.
But more can be said. The New Testament also records why this is possible, in the first place. After his Resurrection, Christ appears to the Apostles and grants them the authority to forgive sins. That this is a specific ministry of the Apostles — and not some general power of all Christians — is clear from the fact that Jesus grants this ability by “breathing” the Holy Spirit on them. Something mystical, empowering, is happening here. Moreover, Jesus grants the authority to not just forgive but to retain sins. This suggests the Apostles have actual authority to decide who and what can — or cannot — be forgiven. That this power to forgive sins passed on to other ministers of the Church is clear from James above but also from the early Church’s practice more generally. At first, bishops were the centers of unity, leading the Christians in public confession and penance. Eventually, however, private confession to priests would become the norm.
It should also be noted that Catholics do not confess their sins to a priest as opposed to God. Catholics confess their sins to God all the time, and in multiple ways. Every Lord’s Prayer includes asking God to “forgive us our trespasses.” At the beginning of Mass, we admit our faults publicly and in a more general way. Many Catholics pray an examination of conscience before bed. Especially after any committing any grave sin, Catholics are always encouraged to pray for forgiveness.
The key difference is this: the sacrament of Confession is a concrete and certain manifestation of God’s mercy. Whereas confession to God in prayer can leave us with feelings of peace, we aren’t always the best judge of ourselves. But Confession is a sacrament, a visible sign that accomplishes a spiritual reality. The priest’s absolution in Confession acts as a visible indication that an individual is truly forgiven. This is why Confession is so freeing for so many Catholics. In that sacrament, the priest’s words are jam-packed with the promise of Christ’s forgiveness. Again: Whosoever’s sins you forgive are forgiven –Jesus in John 20:23.
APPENDIX II: What’s the deal with celibate priests?
That Catholic priests aren’t married is well known. But what is probably not as evident is the fact that priestly celibacy is a discipline that can change. Celibacy isn’t inherent to being a priest. In fact, in Eastern Catholic traditions, married men are permitted to be priests. And this is the norm in other traditions that have priests, like the Eastern Orthodox.
Vowed celibacy goes back to Jesus himself, who was celibate, and the Apostles, who recommended it. Some people point out that some of the Apostles were married. Well, sure. Again, there is nothing inherent to priestly ministry that requires celibacy. But for early Christians, the special contribution of celibacy was evident. Widows were encouraged to stay unmarried, and an order of “Virgins” developed early on. The monastic movement soon became dominant, and would often be a source of inspiration for the clergy at large. In fact, even in many Eastern churches that have married priests, their bishops are often selected from monastic communities, and so are celibate.
Should priestly celibacy be optional in the Roman tradition (which is dominant in the Catholic Church), as it is in Eastern traditions? Maybe. Some argue that there would be more priests if they could be married. Regardless, there are benefits to unmarried priests as well, including being icons of Christ’s own relationship to the Church and a reminder of the state all Christians will embrace in the New Creation. There are practical advantages, too, including a total dedication to the Church, which might be obstructed by familial obligations.
APPENDIX III: What about the Pope?
We’ve talked about the origins of Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons. We also talked about why Catholics call their Presbyters “Priests.” But where does the Pope fit in? The Pope is not another level of ordination. He’s still a bishop: the Bishop of Rome. Instead, his distinction comes from his level of authority. While his role has developed over the centuries in reference to different circumstances and needs, the office has always been regarded as the chief bishop of the Church. That there should be a single leader for the universal church throughout the world, just as there is for each local church, is sensible enough: If local churches needed centers of unity, we could expect the global church to have this need, too!
The exact nature of this primacy of Rome is subject to debate and remains the critical difference between the two largest ancient Christian communions today: the Catholic Church and the (Eastern) Orthodox Church. What can generally be stated as the common belief of both churches is that the Bishop of Rome held a central role in the early Church, holding primacy as the “first” in the lineup of bishops.
This established primacy goes back to Jesus himself, when he singled out one of his followers to have a unique role of leadership among the rest. He named him “Peter,” meaning “Rock,” and told him he would be the rock upon which the Church would be built. Jesus further expresses this authority through the image of the “Keys of the Kingdom,” which he bestowed on Peter. To a Jewish audience, this would be clear a indication of the ability to act in the King’s place. If Christ is the King, then Peter is his steward. And according to the early Christian witness, Peter ended his days as the Church’s steward in Rome, where he, along with Paul, were martyred.
Because of Peter’s Roman residence, early Christians identified the Bishop of Rome as continuing the unique office of Peter. It is actually quite remarkable that out of the very few post-New Testament first century documents we have, one of them already depicts the central role of Rome in the early Church. Perhaps as early as the AD 70s (and only a few years after Peter’s death), the Church of Rome intervened in the Church of Corinth, much like a father correcting a stubborn child, when the Christians there had ejected its rightful leaders. It seems Corinth may have even appealed to Rome. Regardless, Christians in both churches understood Rome to have an authority worth listening to, as the problem was soon corrected. The leadership of Rome would become clearer as time went on, but by the second century Christians would claim that “all churches” must look to Rome because of its “superior origin.”
 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 4:17:5.
 Malachi 1
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 41.
 Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians 4.
 Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians 44:4–5.
 Didache 14.