Why Bishops, Priests, Deacons?

The Hebrew Priesthood

The first mention of a priestly figure in the Old Testament was that of Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Jerusalem), a Canaanite and a priest of the God Most High. He met Abraham with bread and wine and a blessing to celebrate the rescue of Lot (Genesis 14:18-20). Abraham acknowledged this by giving him a tenth (tithe) of the booty.

There was no formal priesthood during the patriarchal era. Noah was the first to offer up sacrifice (Genesis 08:20-22). Later the head of the clan performed sacrifices at various holy places (Genesis 22:1-14; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 31:54).  After the Israelites developed a more structured society and dedicated certain permanent sites as sanctuaries, a sacerdotal class became necessary. The priesthood was limited to the Levites by Mosaic law and later they served in the temple performing ritual functions and offering up sacrifice at the altar (Deuteronomy 10:08-09; Exodus 28-29).

During the Mosaic era the ark, the sign of God’s presence, was given to the care of the family of Aaron and eventually was housed at the sanctuary at Shiloh where Samuel was a priest (1 Samuel 04:04ff). David brought the ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 06:01ff) and Solomon placed it in the Holy of Holies in the temple as the sign of the real presence of Yahweh (1 Kings 08:06).  In the period after the Maccabean Wars and up to the temple’s destruction (70 CE) the priesthood dominated the nation. The high priest was the de facto head of the Judean government. Priests lived throughout the country and came to Jerusalem for their term of service. It is possible that Zachariah, the father of John the baptizer, lived at an outlying point from Jerusalem (Luke 01:08, Luke 23).

Priesthood in the New Testament

Christianity took its form in the womb of Judaism. The birth pangs are recorded in the book of Acts. Sometime after 85 CE the two were totally separated when the Jesus movement was condemned by official Judaism.  One of the key teachings in the apostolic preaching was the role of Christ who was seen as both God and man. He became both the priest and mediator between God and humankind. In fact, he was the high priest by God’s appointment (Hebrews 05:01-06) and replaced the Old Testament sacrifice with his own sacrifice (Hebrews 07:27-28; Hebrews 09:23-26), thus nullifying the need for the

Old Testament priesthood.

The word priest to describe an ecclesial office does not appear in the New Testament other than above. There it presents Christ’s work as the replacement for the cultic order and the sacrifices of the old covenant. “He entered not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood and achieved redemption” (Hebrews 09-12).

The term “holy and royal priesthood” (1 Peter 02:05, 1 Peter 02:09; Revelations 01:06; Revelations 05:10; Revelations 20:06) referring to the people of God is not used in an ecclesial sense but we, like Jesus, are to offer up our lives in faith and love to God as a sacrifice (Romans 12:01; Ephesians 05:02; Philippians 04:18).

The Early Church

The call and ministry of the “Twelve” is an important theme of the four gospels. They are special witnesses “of his baptism to the day he was taken up” (Acts 01:22; John 15:27). “He gave them authority to expel demons and cure sickness” (Matthew 10:01). Jesus said: “He who welcomes you, welcome me” (Matthew 10:41). “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then they were given authority to expel dissenters (Matthew 18:15-18).

There is no doubt that Peter is singled out for leadership of the “Twelve” despite his human failings. He is easily first and there is no second among them. “You are the rock and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). “You in turn must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Jesus is the shepherd in John’s Gospel (John 10:1ff). That role was clearly transferred to Peter (John 21:15-19). He is presented as the leading figure in the emerging Church (Acts 01-10) (cf. What Is the Papacy?). When Paul, a convert, went up to Jerusalem the first time, to present “his credentials,” he writes that he visited Cephas (Peter) for fifteen days. He mentions James the brother of the Lord in passing (Galatians 01:18). After Peter leaves Jerusalem and goes to Rome, later historians name James as the first bishop of Jerusalem.

The Emergence of a Hierarchy

The Jerusalem church had a poor fund. Paul, when in his mission journeys, always took up a collection to bring back to add to that fund (1 Corinthians 16:01-04).  Apparently the widows and orphans of the Greek speaking believers (Hellenistic) were being neglected. Hellenistic as helpers of the apostles were appointed to correct this problem (Acts 06:05). This later evolves into the diaconate. Out of necessity there is a hierarchical structure evolving.

In the earliest New Testament writing Paul warns the Christians “to respect those who are over you in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 05:12). It is clear that there was no egalitarian arrangement in which everybody had the same roles. By AD 65 Peter, James, and John had died as martyrs. In the last third of the first century with no records of who the leaders were, the authority assumed was seen as apostolic sanctioned.

For example, Colossians, Ephesians, and the pastoral letters were written after Paul’s death. Yet the writer who was pseudonymous continued to speak in the name of Paul. The Gospels were pseudonymously written under apostolic names.

The pastoral letters represent a point where official authority is permanently transmitted to individuals. A rite of ordination appears that implies a cultic and sacramental “gift” (1 Timothy 04:14; 2 Timothy 01:06). There are three clearly defined offices: bishops (1 Timothy 3:11-17), deacons (1 Timothy 03:08-10; Acts 06:01-06) and presbyters (1 Timothy 05:17-22; Titus 01:05-09).

Ignatius (AD 110) warns to “submit to the bishop, be subject also to the presbytery,” and reminds that deacons are the “servants of God.” Tertullian notes that the heretics make frivolous appointments to these three offices (AD 200). Hyppolytus of Rome describes the ordination rites of deacons and presbyters and their relationship to bishops who are seen as successors to the apostles (AD 215). In AD 251 the Roman Church had one bishop, 46 presbyters, and seven deacons.

Why Are Presbyters Called Priests?

Clement, Peter’s third successor as bishop of Rome, compares the high priest, priest, and Levites to Christ, the bishop and deacon. The theology of Jesus as the high priest and the Eucharist as a sacrifice reflects on the role of the celebrant. He is doing what Jesus the high priest did at the last supper. The Eucharist is also seen as the substitute for the sacrifices of Israel because Jesus is now the Lamb of God (John 01:29; 1 Peter 01:19). The presbyter is called priest for these reasons.

The Eucharist has become the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi: “For from the rising of the sun even to its setting...they bring sacrifice to my name and a pure offering” (Malachi 01:11).

Vatican II on the Priesthood

The document on the Church states that the “fullness of orders” is found in the episcopacy (bishops). The bishops are the successors of the apostles. Following the precedent of Peter, the Bishop of Rome is the bishop of bishops.

“Bishops given the particular churches entrusted to them as the vicars and ambassadors of Christ. This they do by their counsel, exhortations, and example, as well, indeed, by their authority and sacred power...they are not to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiff for they exercise an authority which is proper to them, and are quite properly called ‘prelates,’ heads of the people whom they govern” (III:27).

“Priests participate in the office of the apostles. God gives them the grace to be ministers of Christ Jesus among the people. They shoulder the sacred task of the Gospel so that the offering of the people can be made acceptable through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit… Through their ministry the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ, the sole mediator. Through the hands of priests and in the name of the whole church, the Lord’s sacrifice is offered in the Eucharist in an un-bloody and sacramental manner until he himself returns” (I:2).

The diaconate which had become a step to the priesthood was restored as the permanent diaconate (non-celibate). “At the lower level of the hierarchy are the deacons upon whom hands are imposed not on to the priesthood but onto a ministry of service. For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests, they serve the people of God in the ministry of the liturgy, and of the word, and of charity.  It is the duty of the deacon to administer baptism, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist and bless marriages, to bring viaticum to the dying, to read the Scripture to the faithful...and to officiate at funerals and burial services” (III:29).

"Why Bishops, Priests, Deacons?" is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414.
Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

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