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AN OUTLINE OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHRISTIAN PRIESTHOOD

                 Brother Thomas P. Draney, CFC         

The cancer afflicting our church is clericalism, not priesthood. The cure for it is for
us to have a better understanding of what priesthood really is and how it developed.
Priesthood of the Old Testament

To truly understand the Christian priesthood, we must first look at the priesthood which it supplanted - that of the Hebrews. The biblical accounts relate that from the beginning there was priesthood and sacrifice. Cain and Abel offered sacrifice. Abraham, the father of the nation, offered sacrifice. The descendants of Levi, the third son of Joseph, are described as priests. Moses appointed Aaron, his brother, as the high priest. The priestly line of Zadok started with David around 1000 BC and lasted up until the revolt of the Maccabees around 160 B.C., when a Maccabean King claimed the title of high priest and combined priesthood with the Hasmonean dynasty. This lasted until the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

This biblical history is mostly legend, and even propaganda aimed at exalting a particular tribe or institution. The historical fact is that priesthood in both the Hebrew and Gentile lands was a part of life. Fathers of families, leaders of tribes, Kings of nations, - all these had the right to offer sacrifice for those in their care. Another type of priest was those who claimed a special relationship with a particular shrine or god. These often functioned as seers who could foretell future happenings by casting a type of dice or by examining animal entrails.

What is sure about the Hebrew priesthood is that there was an official priesthood which developed over time for the nation, and was passed down through a family line and eventually was concentrated on the worship held in the Temple. The Christian priesthood which developed slowly over decades was entirely different

In the Jewish world at the time of Christ there were many different sects or "flavors" of Judaism. The Herodeans were focused on political issues; the Scribes and Pharisees on the law or Torah; and Sadducees, who were the aristocrats, on Temple worship. The Essenes, very Orthodox Jews, considered the Hasmonean priesthood corrupt and invalid, and moved to desert communes to await the end times. Jews in the diaspora often had different views entirely from those in Jerusalem. The first disciples of Jesus were just another sect in Jerusalem. They were distinguished by their belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, and the coming of a new kingdom which would fulfill the promise of their scriptures.

Priesthood and the First Disciples

As faithful Hebrews, they continued to worship and offer sacrifice in the Temple. There was no such thing as ordination or an official priesthood, one based on tribal authority or a priestly line in a family. Their concern was not priesthood and sacrifice, but rather the Presence of the Risen One - who was not of the priestly line and had told the Samaritan woman at the well that the time was coming when worship would not be on this mount or in Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth. He had also said that He would destroy the Temple and then raise it up, and that whenever two or three were gathered in His name, He would be there among them.

This was the focus of this new sect among the Jews in Jerusalem ― a gathering where they could as community experience this Presence. What better place was there than a ritual meal, because meals were important in their culture and their religious practice. While most scholars still think that the Lord's Supper was based on the Paschal meal, I agree with the others who say it makes more sense that the gathering was a discipleship meal, a chaburah. The Paschal meal was centered upon the family gathering, but the chaburah centered on a gathering of disciples. The Paschal meal was to be celebrated only once a year. There is some question about the Last Supper being a Paschal meal; John's gospel says it was on the night before the Pasch.

While it is certainly true that the disciples began to see the death of Jesus as a sacrifice, because there was no other way to understand it, their focus at the meal was on being fed the bread of life. The feeding of the multitude is the only gospel incident which is found in all four Gospels. John places it immediately before the Last Supper and then does not detail the consecration in the supper. The priesthood of the first Christian s was based on the presence of Christ in the individual through faith expressed in baptism, and therefore in the community gathered. Someone at the meal had to preside, and since their gathering was based on the Jewish culture and synagogue structure, the presider would probably have been the host or hostess, or an elder recognized by the community.

Christian priesthood was based on the presence of God in the community, not on human lineage or authority. Christ had said that the disciples should break bread in memory of him, to re-member (reconstitute) him, and that his blood was shed and given as a new covenant, one of universal love and priesthood. The community gathered to experience Presence, to be fed by this Presence, and to praise and rejoice over it. The celebration became known as Eucharist, which means to give thanks!

From Supper to Sacrifice

How did it happen that this meal of thanksgiving which occurred in the home would be change to a liturgical service of blood sacrifice with an official priesthood? History shows us that there is often a natural movement from the smallest social group to the larger. The Passover started as a family meal and ritual; the recognition and memory of what this meal meant soon became enshrined in liturgy and temple sacrifice for the larger group. But the larger group did not overwhelm the smaller. The Passover was still celebrated in both the temple and the home. All religions at that time, both Jewish and Greco Roman, had a strong social or civic dimension. Religion was not a private affair or a merely intellectual exercise. Christianity could not be confined to small private groups or resemble a mystery cult cloaked in secrecy. The Good News had to be shared! Jews and non-Jews were used to public liturgies seen as civic events, and these often were focused on or had an element of sacrifice. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. - which ended both the Jewish priesthood and sacrifice - and more and more Gentile converts were added to the community, it was natural for the concept of sacrifice and large public liturgies to be embraced. Also, the logistics of meals for large groups became overwhelming, so the meal was retained only as the communion service; the cup of blessing at the end was telescoped and placed next to the breaking of the bread.

The death of the Messiah as a criminal hung upon a tree, and therefore cursed according to Scripture, had to be explained. His death came to be seen as a sacrifice, the self-offering of His life to the Father in order to redeem humankind from its fallen nature.

Another factor was the need for leadership and teachers to unite the scattered communities in doctrine and discipline. The personhood of Christ had to explained. Was he Divine? Human? How could this be? How were the scriptures fulfilled? How could and should the Gentiles be incorporated into the community of believers? All of these questions had to be answered, and often the explanation had to be couched in the terms of the then prevalent Greek philosophy. It was natural that those who rose from the ranks to fulfill this need were the best educated among the believers. As the communities grew it was also necessary to promote some uniformity in their disciplines in issues such as: baptism of individuals or households; hospitality afforded to wandering prophets and disciples who were in transit; uniformity of rituals, etc. This also fell to the best educated, to the elders, eventually to be known as bishops.

It was natural for the bishop, because he represented the community in these ways, to be the one who would preside at the Eucharist, now conducted not in the humble home but in larger spaces for the much larger community, the palatial home of a wealthy convert, a hall built to enlarge a home, a converted synagogue. Note: He did not have authority over the community because he was a high priest; he functioned as the priest or presider at the Eucharist because he had been given or was recognized as having authority over the community.

The first communities were rather small groups, perhaps a collection of several house churches, and were in urban settings. When the faith spread to more rural areas surrounding the cities, the bishop could no longer physically be present and preside over all the communities. He delegated others to go in his name, and that was the beginning of the priesthood as we know it today.

But authority has a way of taking power unto itself. When under Constantine Christianity was first recognized and finally promoted, priesthood was further elevated. Many priests were made civil magistrates and as such wore a distinctive gown -the beginning of clerical dress and further separation from the laity. Constantine gave the church pagan temples to use and built basilicas for worship services, and these had sharp divisions in the space for clergy and laity. Gradually the many offices or ministries recounted in the New Testament which were the activities of the particularly gifted among the baptized, were all absorbed into the role of the clergy.

The laying on of hands which was a sign of conferring power or authority had become a sign of conferring a spiritual reality. The sacrament of ordination was added to baptism and Eucharist. St. Augustine conjured up the concept of a sacramental seal that was impressed upon the soul, and which could not be removed even by apostasy. This was used then to explain how the ordained was "sealed" in the priesthood. But if one is baptized into the Christ, it is into the whole Christ -prophet king, and priest. It makes no sense to think that the baptized get the child Christ, the confirmed the adolescent Christ, and the ordained the adult Christ. There is only one Christ. There is no logic or reasonableness about a mark on a spiritual entity. If grace is seen as a relationship, baptism is God adopting us in His love and raising us to a higher state than we are capable of by nature. We may kick and scream, but adoption is not up to us. It is God's choice. We may choose to sin, to apostacize, but if God has not changed God's mind, we are still adopted!

Ordination is creating a new relationship in Christ between the community of the baptized and the one chosen to represent them, to preside at the large group Eucharist, and to be a professional religious leader. It is both an important and wonderful position and sign. It is like marriage, a new relationship in Christ. It is not the perfecting of the image of Christ given in baptism.

The Middle Ages - Power and Priesthood

In the Middle Ages the priesthood was further complicated with the addition of multiple initiations or orders, or degrees of belonging,- something very popular in the pagan religions of antiquity. The ministries originally done by the laity-acolyte, porter, exorcist and lector, became minor steps of the priesthood. Subdeacon and deacon were major steps to the final level of priesthood. Scholastics wrestled with the problem of how a single sacrament could be divided into seven parts. Their solution was that only the final step was really important, all the others being preparations

The concept that priesthood was connected to the community was eroded over time. The very ancient Apostolic Tradition "said Let him be ordained as bishop who has been chosen by the people." Pope Celestine in the fifth century said, "Let a bishop not be imposed upon a people whom they do not want." Pope St. Leo added, He who has to preside over all must be elected by all. The fourth century Council of Chalcedon made a canon that no one was to be ordained unless he was attached to a community, because such an ordination would not be valid (A free-lance priest was a contradiction!)

In spite of these statements and clear understanding, the separation between community and priestly power grew. The Third Lateran Council and succeeding popes changed, transformed, redefined this community power into personal power. Ordination was now said to impart a spiritual power to the individual, independent of the community. This in fact made a priest into a magician of sorts. The result of this view was the multiplication of side altars in cathedrals and the saying of private Masses that needed no congregation present, but had the power to reduce time in purgatory.

The priestly role in the sacraments which grew from two to seven did much to elevate the priesthood and priestly power. Not a bad thing in itself, but it led to the clericalization of the church in its structures

The church has always reflected the structure of society in general in its structure. In the beginning it was communal like the synagogue with rule by elders. Later it adopted the trappings of empire under Constantine. Later yet, it became structured like the feudal system which came after the barbaric invasions. Then came absolute monarchy with Divine Right and crowning of popes; next came nation states which were mirrored in the Papal States and Vatican City.

In the early part of the 20th century Pope Pius X crystallized hierarchical thinking about governance when he said that The Church is essentially an unequal society - a society formed by pastors and flock. As far as the multitude is concerned, they have no other duty than to let themselves be led. Such a clericalization of the church is no longer acceptable.

Vatican II Return to Basics

We are now in the age of democracy, and the people are struggling to bring about a more democratic church, a church of the people of God, which means returning priesthood to its original focus. Vatican II emphasized the People of God as the metaphor for the church, setting aside the Mystical Body of Christ of Pius X. The priesthood of the faithful gained in baptism, was also emphasized, and the new Rite for Ordination no longer speaks of priestly power, but only of office and dignity. An outstanding theologian, Cardinal Avery Dulles, wrote in a article for a Fordham University Journal that ordination is a recognition of the gift of leadership, and at the same time a sacramental commissioning that empowers them (priests) to govern the community in the name of Christ. This statement was both a development and a return to the original concept or understanding of priesthood!

Development has not stopped. Those who cry out against continuing development are those who are satisfied with their present situation , whose love of tradition goes back only as far as convenient for them. I would like to suggest that the best way to further development and renewal is to return to the primitive churchs practice of celebrating Eucharist as a meal, not to do away with the Mass, but to proclaim in action that the priesthood of the baptized is the basis for all priesthood. Also, in our too busy world, a meal with family and friends, a meal centered on the presence of the Risen One among us, is a marvelous means of mutual support, - food for the journey, as we struggle to renew the church. The Eucharistic meal is a non-violent sign to the world, a sign that requires no ones permission, that the Lord, Jesus Christ, does dwell where two or three are gathered in His name.

This return to the meal does not mean a splintering off such as produced both Orthodox and Roman Catholicism , or resulted in the Old Catholic Church that started as a protest to the definition of papal infallibility. It can be the strengthening of a healthy parish. But when the parish is not healthy for instance when a pastor rules like a monarch as if it is HIS parish, the small house church could be a place of refuge until balance is restored.


¹ The fact that the Last Supper was not a Paschal meal is shocking and up-setting to most Christians, because it has been drilled in by catechisms. The issue is discussed at length in other articles. Note now that John's gospel states that the Last Supper was on the day before the Pasch, and if it had been a Paschal meal all the activity following it on Good Friday would have been contrary to Jewish Law and not permitted to the Pharisees or Sadducees who brought Jesus to trial. Also, if it were a Paschal meal, the Lord's Supper would have been celebrated only once a year.