By Keith Thompson
Did God in the first century reveal to Jesus and the apostles that there was to be a New Testament priesthood for the New Covenant? In order for the Catholic priesthood to be true and to be seen as a revealed doctrine of faith which was once for all delivered to the saints in the first century, there has to be evidence God ordained this office in apostolic times. However, when we examine the biblical and early patristic material, it becomes clear this idea is a late innovation without basis in the earliest Christian writings.
Modern Rome asserts that when the Greek word “presbyter” occurs in the New Testament insofar as the church is concerned, that it allegedly signifies her office of the priesthood. In the Council of Trent’s twenty-third session, Rome claimed Jesus instituted a New Covenant priesthood with the power of allegedly “consecrating, offering and administering His body and blood, as also of forgiving and retaining sins [penance]” (Council of Trent, Session 23, ch. 1, The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder, [TAN Books and Publishers, 1978], p. 160 brackets mine). That the office of “presbyter” in New Testament refers to the Catholic priesthood, is claimed by the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism: “The term ‘presbyter’ was used by Vatican II when it spoke of priests: the council wished to reflect the NT usage; it wished to distinguish the priest from the bishop. . .” (The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard P. McBrien, [HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1995], p. 1046). Confirming this is the Roman position, Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch note that New Testament Christian elders (same office as presbyters) were actually “priests” (Scott Hahn, Curtis Mitch, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, [Ignatius Press, 2010], p. 446).
I am going to build a case for the position the vast majority of scholars hold, which is that presbyter in the New Testament is the same office of bishop and elder, and that presbyter does not mean priest (this will refute the Catholic view that presbyters were under the alleged single bishop and served as priests). That this is the position of the majority of scholars is noted by Laurent A. Cleenewerck who observes: “I am well aware that the distinction between presbyteros and episkopos [bishop] is a delicate one. The consensus among scholars is that it cannot clearly be found in the New Testament or in such early works as 1 Clement. . .” (Laurent A. Cleenewerck, His Broken Body, [Euclid University Press, 2007], p. 72 brackets mine). The proof the New Testament affirms presbyters were not priests but instead the same office as bishop/elder is the following:
First, there is a Greek word for "priest" in the New Testament and it is not presbyter. Presbyteros simply means “older” (William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, [Zondervan, 2006], p. 208). The actual word for priest on the other hand is hiereus. Never in the New Testament is a group presiding over the Eucharist and forgiveness of sins given this title. Instead, all believers are given the title in 1 Peter 2:5, 9. As the eminent historian Jaroslav Pelikan confirmed, “In the New Testament itself the concept of ‘priest’ referred either to the Levites of the Old Testament, now made obsolete, or to Christ or to the entire church–not to the ordained ministry of the church” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 1, [University of Chicago, 1971], p. 25).
Second, as noted, in the New Testament there were two offices in church government, that is, there was a group of 1) presbyters/elders/bishops (all the same office); and 2) subordinate deacons. Only later in church history was there a three-fold structure we see in modern Roman Catholicism, that being 1) bishop, 2) presbyters, and 3) deacons. Then over time the second class, the presbyters, became priests. As Schaff notes, “The terms Presbyter (or Elder) and Bishop (or Overseer, Superintendent) denote in the New Testament one and the same office, with the difference only, that the first is borrowed from the Synagogue, the second from the Greek communities; and that the one signifies the dignity, the other the duty” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 1, [Hendrickson Publishers, 2011], p. 491-492). That in the God ordained model in the New Testament, presbyters were not a priesthood but just the same office as bishop/elder, we see in Titus 1:5-7:
“5This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders [presbuteros] in every town as I directed you—6if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7For an bishop [episkopos], as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain” (Titus 1:5-7).
We see the same thing in 1 Peter 5:1-2 which says,
“1So I exhort the elders [presbuteros] among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight [episkopeō], not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:1-2).
Very clearly in this text the presbyter is said to function as bishop, that is, episkopos. Going further, Schaff offers more biblical evidence in this regard:
“The same officers of the church of Ephesus are alternately called presbyters and bishops [Acts 20:17 (presbyters), 28 (bishops)]. Paul sends greetings to the ‘bishops’ and ‘deacons’ of Philippi, but omits the presbyters because they were included in the first term; as also the plural indicates [Phil. 1:1]. In the Pastoral Epistles, where Paul intends to give the qualifications of all church officers, he again mentions only two, bishops and deacons, but uses the term presbyter afterwards for bishop [1 Tim. 3:1-15; 5:17-19; Tit. 5:1-7” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 1, [Hendrickson Publishers, 2011], p. 493).
Therefore, the New Testament evidence is overwhelming that God ordained two offices in the church: presbyters and deacons. And presbyters were not priests but the same as bishops and elders. We see this mode of church government after the New Testament in many early church writings as well, thus demonstrating this is the model God ordained. We will cover that shortly.
Third, when the duties and functions of the presbyter/elder/bishop are explained in the New Testament, we do not see evidence of them functioning as Roman Catholic priests who consecrate, offer and administer the Eucharist, hear confessions and forgive sins. Instead, there is to be multiple elders in every town (Titus 1:5). They are to shepherd those under them and be examples (1 Peter 5:1-3). They are to be hospitable and holy teachers of sound doctrine refuting those who contradict sound teaching (Titus 1:8-9). They are to preach and teach (1 Timothy 5:17). They are to pray over the sick (James 5:14) and were to help the apostles in council (Acts 15:2). Again, there is nothing in the New Testament description of presbyter/elder/bishop which would suggest they are Catholic priests performing their later functions.
The following is evidence that in the early post-New Testament extra-biblical Christian literature this model continued. In a late first century document known as Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, which was a letter written from Rome to Corinth, we see that the Corinthian Church still viewed presbyters as bishops. Presbyters were not priests who were distinct from bishops as we see in modern Roman Catholicism: “For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate [office of bishop] those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now” (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, 44 brackets and italics mine). In Polycarp’s early second century Letter to the Philippians, he shows that their church was still two-tiered, and that presbyters were therefore not priests distinct from bishops. He said one must be “obedient to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ” (Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, 5). The Didache, which is a late first century Christian manual written by students of the apostles, shows that they believed in this two-tiered system as well, making no mention of presbyters being distinct from bishops: “appoint yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord” (Didache, 15). Schaff remarks, “The Didache (ch. 15) knows only bishops and deacons, as local officers, the former being identical with presbyters” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 1, [Hendrickson Publishers, 2011], p. 493 n. 6). It is interesting to note that even later church fathers confirm that the God-ordained New Testament structure had it so bishops and presbyters were the same, not that the latter was a distinct group called “the priesthood”. For example, Jerome (A.D. 347-420) said,
“A presbyter, therefore, is the same as a bishop, and before dissensions were introduced into religion by the instigation of the devil, and it was said among the peoples, ‘I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, and I of Cephas,’ Churches were governed by a common council of presbyters; afterwards, when everyone thought that those whom he had baptised were his own, and not Christ’s, it was decreed in the whole world that one chosen out of the presbyters should be placed over the rest, and to whom all care of the Church should belong, that the seeds of schisms might be plucked up. . . . As therefore the presbyters know that by the custom of the church they are set under him who is put over them, so let bishops know that rather by custom than by the Lord’s arrangement are they greater than presbyters” (Jerome, Commentary on Titus 1:5).
Notice Jerome admits that modern Rome’s structure of presbyters being distinct from bishops as a group of priests is not by Jesus’ arrangement, but instead a later idea of men. Yet, Rome does not care because she is not concerned about conforming her ways to the faith which was once delivered to the saints in the first century (see Jude 1:3). How Rome can deceptively claim her concept of priesthood was revealed by God to Jesus and the apostles and handed on by them is amazing.
The way that a priesthood emerged as presbyters distinct from bishops was due to the fact that certain church writers departed from the biblical two-tiered model of presbyter/bishops and deacons, and instead adopted a three-tiered structure of single bishop, subordinate presbyters and then deacons. Ignatius of Antioch writing at the end of the first century supported this model (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians, 4), though he does not teach presbyters were priests in charge of Eucharist, hearing confessions and forgiving sins as we see in modern Rome. It would take quite a while for these distinct presbyters to be seen as the New Covenant priesthood. As Roman Catholic scholar Frederick J. Cwiekowski notes,
“the bishop came to be called high priest and priest of the Christian Church. With the growth of the Christian population, especially in rural areas, presbyters increasingly came to function as community leaders and presiders at Eucharist and so they, too, were called priests. As Christianity became a legal religion of the Roman Empire and then its official religion, Christian priests were also seen as replacing the priesthood of the Roman cults” (Frederick J. Cwiekowski, “priesthood,” ed. Richard P. McBrien, The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, [HarperCollins Publishers, 1995], p.1049-1050).
It’s interesting to note that not only is mandatory celibacy for the priesthood of the Western rite a Middle Age novelty according to even Catholic scholars (Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: New Edition, [HarperOne, 1994], p. 870; Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, p. 41-42), demonstrating this is not something God revealed, but it is also a practice the Bible describes as demonic: “1Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:1-3).
According to Rome penance reconciles man to God after the Catholic falls into sin after their baptism. There are three steps in penance: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Catholic scholar John Hardon explains, “The sinner must be truly sorry for having offended God, tell all his sins to the priest, and make reparation for he committed (John A. Hardon, The Catholic Catechism, [DoubleDay, 1981], pp. 487-488). As regards “satisfaction,” which comes after confession, the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for his sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. . . . It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, [DoubleDay, 1994], par. 1459-1460 p. 407). This detracts from the biblical teaching of Jesus' once-for-all eternal, expiatory and propitiatory sacrifice being viewed as sufficient, complete and perfect for the believer received by faith (e.g. Luke 18:12-14; John 3:16; 5:24; Romans 3:25, 28; 4:1-6; 5:1, 10; 10:3-4; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Colossians 1:21-22; Hebrews 7:23-25, 27; 8:12-13; 9:12, 26; 10:9-14, 17; 13:12; 1 Peter 3:18).
In regards to how the New Testament believers dealt with post-salvation sin, they certainly did not go to a priest for confession and absolution (that did not exist). Instead 1 John 2:1 says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). The believer repents to Jesus our Advocate with the Father. Acts 8:22 affirms to repent to God and be forgiven by Him, not a priest: “Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). Hebrews 7:24-27 explains how based on Christ’s perfect sacrifice, Jesus is in heaven interceding for the sins of believers for all time: “24but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:25-27). Notice, in v. 25 those who draw near to God through Jesus have the benefit of Jesus’ heavenly intercession applied to them, not those who go to a priest and confess their sins to him. We do not need to make expiation, satisfaction and sacrifices for our own sins as Rome teaches. Jesus’ once-for-all perfect work is sufficient for that.
In regards to how the earliest post-apostolic Christians after the New Testament dealt with post-salvation sin, we do not see them going to a priest to confess to him and be forgiven by him. Instead, as the first century work the Didache shows early Christians would engage in public confession of sins to the entire congregation, not private confession to a priest: “In your gatherings, confess your transgressions, and do not come for prayer with a guilty conscience” (Didache, 4:14). Moreover, we see public confession of sins to God in the very early Epistle of Barnabas as well: “For again says the Lord, And wherewith shall I appear before the Lord my God, and be glorified? He says, I will confess to you in the Church in the midst of my brethren; and I will praise you in the midst of the assembly of the saints” (Epistle of Barnabas, 6:2). In regards to the third century onward, patristic scholar J. N. D Kelly notes,
“With the dawn of the third century the rough outlines of a recognized penitential discipline were beginning to take shape. In spite of the ingenious arguments of certain scholars, there are still no signs of a sacrament of private penance (i.e. confession to a priest, followed by absolution and the imposition of a penance) such as Catholic Christendom knows to-day. The system which seems to have existed in the Church at this time, and for centuries afterwards, was wholly public, involving confession, a period of penance and exclusion from communion, and formal absolution and restoration – the whole process being called exomologesis” (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines: Revised Edition, [HarperOne, 1978], p. 216).
Even in the writings of Augustine (A.D. 354 – 430) we see penance was only done in regards to grave sins like adultery and other enormous crimes. Smaller sins were taken care of by prayer to God (Augustine, On the Creed, 15, 16). This is different from modern Rome which says to engage in penance over both venial and mortal sins. In sum, the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church admits the novelty of modern Rome’s practice of penance:
“During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation. To this ‘order of penitents’ (which concerned only certain grave sins), was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime. During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest. This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, [DoubleDay, 1994], par. 1447, p. 403).
The Catechism has no scruples about admitting her specific practice is a modern innovation which did not exist in earliest God-ordained Christianity (Jude 1:3), but instead developed over a long period of time, coming from the minds of uninspired, fallen men.
Answering Rome’s Biblical & Historical Arguments for her Priesthood and Penance
Even though many Catholic scholars admit the sacrament of penance is not to be found in the Holy Scripture and primitive church, it is still important to address the arguments of certain Roman apologists which allege its existence.
John 20:21-23. This text is commonly cited by Roman apologists to substantiate confession to a priest and absolution or forgiveness by men. The text says,
“Jesus said to them again, ‘21Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’” (John 20:21-23).
Papal apologist Tim Staples erroneously claims, “this is what Christ is sending the apostles to do in his name. . . . to sanctify the Church through . . . confession. . . . This is confession. The only way the apostles can either forgive or retain sins is by first hearing those sins confessed, and then making a judgement as to whether or not the penitent should be absolved” (Tim Staples, Nuts and Bolts, [Basilica Press, 2007], p. 70). However, the focus here is not on church discipline or priests forgiving believers who sin after salvation. There is no mention of confession going on. The context is evangelism as v. 21 shows when Jesus says “I am sending you.” As Marsh relays, “There is no doubt from the context that the reference is to forgiving sins, or withholding forgiveness . . . it is simply the result of the preaching of the gospel, which either brings men to repent as they hear of the ready and costly forgiveness of God, or leaves them unresponsive to the offer of forgiveness which is the gospel, and so they are left in their sins” (John Marsh, The Gospel of St. John, [Penguin, 1968], pp. 641-642). By saying the disciples in their evangelism would either forgive or retain forgiveness was another way to say they would pronounce someone was either forgiven or not depending on if the gospel message was received by the unbeliever. A. W. Pink’s insights here are very noteworthy: “The language of the Old Testament shows conclusively that the Prophets were said to do certain things when they declared them. Thus Jeremiah’s commission runs in these words, ‘I have this day set thee over the nation and over the kingdom, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant (1:10). This can only mean to declare the rooting out and pulling down, etc. So also Ezekiel says, ‘I came to destroy the city’ (43:3)” (A. W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, [Zondervan, 1975], p. 1102). We see the apostles carry out the pronouncing of forgiveness of sins Jesus talked about in the context of evangelism in the following texts. In a synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia, the apostle Paul said, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38). Also, Peter said to Cornelius in Acts 10:43: “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). Again, John 20:21-23 has to do with pronouncing someone is forgiven of their sins once they receive the gospel message and become Christians. There is not one instance of a believer confessing sins to an apostle or “priest,” being forgiven by him, and then suggestion of a satisfaction, such as saying three Hail Mary’s as we see in the Roman sacrament of penance. This is odd if Staples is correct in his interpretation of John 20:23. It is admitted by many Catholic scholars, however, that John 20:23 is not referring to Rome’s doctrine of penance. For example, Catholic scholar Kenan Osborne concedes, “Major biblical scholars today, however, do not find either in the text or in the context of these passages [Matt. 16:16; 18:18; Jn 20:23] an account of an institution of a reconciliation ritual” (Kenan Osborne, “reconciliation,” ed. Richard P. McBrien, The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, [HarperCollins Publishers, 1995], p. 1083 brackets mine).
James 5:14-16. This is another text certain Catholic apologists misuse to try to prove the early Christians practiced penance:
“14Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:14-16).
Commenting on this text Catholic writers Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch claim, “the elders (i.e., priests) presumably hear the confession of the sick person before his sins are remitted through the sacrament (5:14-15)” (Scott Hahn, Curtis Mitch, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, [Ignatius Press, 2010], p. 446). However, this text does not even say to confess your sins to the elders, but to other believers. Also, elders were not priests as we have shown, but the same as bishops. The logic of James’ words is that since sickness can result from sins, which are often taken care of by the person being prayed over by elders and anointed with oil (vv. 14-15), sick believers should therefore, in general practice, confess their sins to other believers asking them to pray for them (v. 16) so as to avoid sickness and receive forgiveness. As world renowned exegete Douglas J. Moo confirms,
“The therefore [in v. 16] shows that the exhortation to mutual confession and prayer in this verse is the conclusion that the readers are to draw from the discussion about prayer in vv. 13-15. . . . We should note an important shift in emphasis in the passage: in v. 14 the elders are encouraged to pray for healing; now, however, the whole church body is to pray. As Davids says, James ‘consciously generalizes, making the specific case of 5:14-15 into a general principle of preventative medicine. . . .’” (Douglas Moo, The Letter of James, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, [Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000], pp. 245, 246 brackets mine).
Robert Gundry likewise notes,
“‘Therefore be confessing [your] sins to one another’ means that Christians who are sick as a punishment of their sins should confess their sins to other Christians so that in their praying the others can take account of the sins that need forgiveness and thereby pray effectively for a healing of the sick. Only the elders need visit the sick for the purpose of anointing and praying, but all the church members are to join in the praying” (Robert Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament, [Hendrickson Publishers, 2010], p. 934).
Hence, this has nothing to do with confessing sins to elders (which were not even priests) and being absolved by them. Penance is without basis in the first century Christian materials. It is not part of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians. In trying to show the early post-New Testament primitive believers affirmed penance, Roman apologist Patrick Madrid quotes (Patrick Madrid, Why is That in Tradition?, [Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2002], p. 113) the late first century document Letter to the Corinthians, 57 written by Clement. However, once it is examined in context there is no trace of Rome’s sacrament. Clement wrote, “You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue” (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, 57). The problem is Clement is not saying to confess sins to the presbyters who will then absolve them. The reason he tells the Corinthians to bend their knee to the presbyters was because this church had recently, and wrongly, deposed their presbyters (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, 44) and Clement wished to see them reinstated (i.e., to have the congregation bow their knees to them again, so to speak). It has nothing to do with the sacrament of penance. Clement already stated in the same letter that confession should be made to God, not presbyters: “The Lord, brethren, stands in need of nothing; and He desires nothing of any one except that confession be made to Him” (Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, 52). Hence, Madrid is in error for citing this letter as evidence for modern Rome’s sacrament of penance, which, as even the 1994 Catechism admits, is not to be found in earliest Christianity.