The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches see their clergy as priests, especially in relation to their role at the eucharist. The Council of Trent affirmed that the mass was a sacrifice offered to God, and the human priest who offered it represented Christ and his sacrifice of himself. The Second Vatican Council endorsed this view, stating that priests are given power to offer sacrifice.
The word hiereus’ (sacrificing priest) occurs many times in the NT, with reference to pagan priests, Acts 14:13, to the Jewish priesthood, and to Christ, our great High Priest, Heb 10:12. It is also used with reference to Christian believers collectively – the ‘priesthood of all believers’, 1 Pet 2:5,9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6. The sacrifices we are called to offer include our bodies, Rom 12:1; our prayer and praise, Rev 5:8; Heb 13:15; our good deeds, Phil 4:18; Heb 13:16; our whole lives, Phil 2:17; 2 Tim 4:6; and our evangelism, by which we present our converts as an acceptable offering to God, Rom 15:16.
But the NT never calls Christian leaders ‘priests’ and never refers to the eucharist as a sacrifice that they offer. Given the centrality of the Levitical priesthood in Jewish life and worship, this must be deliberate.
‘Every title of honour is lavished upon [Christian ministers]. They are called bishops of souls, pastors, teachers, rulers, governors, the servants or ministers of God; stweards of the divine mysteries; watchmen, heralds, but never priests. As the sacred writers were Jews, to whom nothing was more familiar than the word prist, whose minsters of religion were constantly so denominated, the fact that they never one used the word, or any of its cognates, in reference to the minsters of the gospel…is little less than miraculous. It is one of those cases in which the silence of Scripture speaks volumes.’ (Hodge)
Lutheran and Anglican churches have also called their clergy ‘priests’, but this is matter of etymology. The English word ‘priest’ is derived from the word ‘presbyter’. It was, accordingly, used to translate ‘presbyteros’ (‘elder’), not ‘hiereus’ (‘priest’). Few people realise this, and even fewer are able to perform the mental gymnastics required to say ‘priest’ but think ‘presbyter’. It would be best for theological clarity and biblical faithfulness to drop ‘priest’ from our vocabulary.
True, some protestant leaders have attempted to defend the priestly character of the ministry. Thus, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (WCC, 1982, otherwise know as ‘the Lima text’ asserts that ordained ministers ‘may appropriately be called priests because they fulfil a particular priestly service by strengthening and building up the royal and prophetic priesthood of the faithful through word and sacraments, through their prayers and intercession, and through their pastoral guidance of the community.’ But this is baffling. Why should the strengthening of the community’s priesthood be itself a ‘priestly service’. Then, in 1986 the Church of England’s The Priesthood of the Ordained Ministry conceded that ‘heireus’ is used in the NT of Christ’s priesthood and that of the whole people of God and ‘never…of an appointed Christian minister’. But then, illogically, the document distinguishes between ‘the common priesthood of the community and the special priesthood of the ordained ministry,’ asserting that the latter ‘is an appointed means through which Christ makes his priesthood present and effective to his people.’
In the NT, since the cross, no more sacrifices for sin can be offered. And the remaining Godward privileges of the priesthood have been inherited by the whole people of God. We may all draw near to God, Eph 2:18; Jam 4:8; and ‘have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus’, Heb 10:19. We are all called to offer the ‘spiritual sacrifices’ of our worship, 1 Pet 2:5; Rom 12:1. We are all to pray for one another. None of the ministries belongs, as it did in OT days, to a special caste, to clergy as distinct from laity.
God has indeed blessed his church with ministers. But they are pastors, not priests.
See Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 273-279