Wednesday, July 22, 2020
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
owadays, with the increasing accusation against some priests and pastors of shifting their heart from serving Christ in his people to material acquisition of wealth, political power and influence, there is urgent need to revisit our sense of priesthood in the Church. This is to show the difference between ordained "ministerial priesthood" in the Church and the modern day proliferation of Bible school "pastors" in the New Religious Movements.

Often times, in ordinary conversations, people are confused about who actually, are priests in the real sense of the word, and who are not? That is, in reference to all those who parade themselves nowadays as "pastors" in the New Religious Movements, like in the Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Churches! The question is, 'are all those who call themselves pastors in these New Religious Movements, priests in the real sense of the word?

To answer this question our present article intends to examine the difference between "Ordained ministerial (sacramental) Priesthood" as in the Catholic Church vis--vis the modern day proliferation of Bible school "pastors" in the New Religious Movements.

Again, by "ministerial priesthood", we are referring primarily to the ordained (sacramental) priesthood in the Church, as in the Catholic Church or in the Oriental Orthodox Churches that have not broken their Apostolic succession ('Deposit of the Faith' received from the Apostles). These are ordained priests (ministers of the Church), men who have received the grace of their priestly ordination through the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the Church, and whose ordination was approved and presided over by a Bishop in communion with the See of St. Peter. Through the sacramental consecration, received at the ordination through the Bishop, the individual candidate is invested with an indelible sacramental character as priest forever in the new dispensation, according to the order of Melchizedek, as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us (cf. Hebrews 5:5ff).

This is sacramental priesthood, not to be confused with the so-called "pastors" in the New Religious Movements. Often in these New Religious Movements, what qualifies one to be commissioned a 'pastor', is simply to attend "Bible school" for some weeks or months. Thereafter, the candidate is commissioned by the General Overseer and founder (or his assistant) of the Bible school, as a "pastor." The person so commissioned goes out to begin his own 'congregation', whereby he or she is required to be bringing tithes on regular basis to the General Overseer from whom he/she received the training and commissioned to be a "pastor."

Therefore, one should not confuse 'ministerial priesthood' in the mainline churches with the proliferation of Bible school trained lay 'pastors' in the New Religious Movements. While the former is based on the sacrament of holy orders and has apostolic succession (that means could be traced back to the time of the Apostles), the latter is of new phenomenon, found mainly among the New Religious Movements. Again, while 'ordained (sacramental) priesthood' is a 'state of life' in the Church for the priests, the 'pastorship', on the other hand, in the New Religious Movements, is a kind of 'profession or career' of Bible school trained "lay" preachers called pastors, who in turn are free to enter into partisan politics or serve as government workers, civil servants and business tycoons.

At times, unemployed youth join these 'churches' of the New Religious Movements and they are declared pastors after a few months of membership. Often times, prominent politicians and other influential members in the society who frequent these churches are declared pastors after some months of membership in the church. This is why it is difficult, both from biblical and theological point of view, for one to convincingly, claim that their mission as pastors has been given to them by divine authority, and that God is sending them! Because even the New Religious Movements from which they receive their commissioning as 'pastors', are sometimes founded by self-acclaimed "local prophets" who have little or no educational and no sound biblical-theological formation, or Christian background as such.

Moreover, most of the New Religious Movements from which these 'pastors' receive their training and commissioning, lack stability in their formation and organization. They pay little or no attention to sound biblical studies and study of sacred theology or to the composition of sacred hymns and prayers that are biblically and theologically sound. They have no regard for the role of sacraments either in the life of the church and of the believers. Most of what they say and do in terms of prayers and hymns are spontaneous and often emotional, designed to arouse the psychological submission of members to the whims and caprices of the leader of the congregation.

Furthermore, most of these New Religious Movements where these 'pastors' receive their formation and commissioning, are mainly active in "healing." Their "churches", which are a kind of a "prayer house", are often completely overthrown by the "healing house", where the 'healer-pastor' impresses the ordinary people by basing his/her healing or divining activities on the people's superstitious beliefs and on occult magic. In some places, these so-called "pastors" and adventurers have taken over the role of traditional medicine men/women, using tricks to cast away witches and demons.

For some of these pastors of the New Religious Movements, what interest them most is for their enthusiastic members to participate in their cults under some form of celebrations accompanied by the so-called "gospel songs", drums and dances that stimulate people, often to fall into ecstasy and to have them act disgracefully. And to experience "vision-seeing," to speak in strange languages, to shake and shiver, and other manifestations of the kind that are all rampant phenomena accompanying their cults and various spiritual exercises.

They also organize musical processions in hierarchical order, dress with splendid dresses, strips, hats, carry staffs and a torn Bible. These are characteristics that are typical for some of the New Religious Movements that have dubious leaders and founders. Here the interest and the foundation of the movement depends on its spectacular and pompous shows.

Sometimes, it is the members' interest in obtaining a leadership role that leads to the increase of the number of false pastors in these New Religious Movements. But at times it can also be out of 'nationalistic' or 'ethnic' interest that some pastors and their disciples become responsible for problems that arise in their "mother-churches." Often, they spilt from their "mother-church" and start their own movement.

Most likely, what is driving some of these "pastors/prophets" of the New Religious Movements, is their thirst for riches, with no spiritual reason whatsoever. Quarrelling over money and power, are among the serious problems that are current in most of the New Religious Movements and they often result into schisms. Furthermore, the moral life of some of them is questionable as there have been cases of promiscuity, incest, and even "preying" on the "flock" by the pastors/prophets (although, this last phenomenon is increasingly found nowadays within the ranks and files of priests of the mainline churches).

The Ordained Priesthood vis--vis "Pastors" of the New Religious Movements

Here again, our attention is on the "ordained ministerial priesthood", taking Catholic Priesthood as an example. Ordained (ministerial) Priesthood is a sacramental consecration of the priest through ordination for the service of the Church and Christ in the three munera: that of prophet, priest and king (cf. Matthew 2:12). Our emphasis, once more, is on the sacramental consecration of the priest through ordination; that is, through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The priest so ordained makes three vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience to Christ and the Church through his ecclesiastical authorities. He becomes therefore dedicated fully to the service of God and the Church. That is, as someone, who through the grace of priestly ordination has been 'configured' to Christ and to the service of the Church for which he is ordained to serve! The sacramental character of the priestly ordination is so indelible that once one is ordained, the person remains a priest forever. The sacramental character of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, just like that of Baptism remains with the individual all his life, even if suspended from carrying out any pastoral ministry. In the Catholic Church, it is only the Pope who can "laicize" a validly ordained priest in the Church. Even as that, the sacramental character received at ordination by the individual permeates.

Furthermore, a priest, in the Catholic Church is not allowed to engage in any private business or to own private property outside the normal things approved for his daily upkeep. He is also, not allowed to join partisan politics. However, as citizens and custodians of religious and moral values, priests have the obligation to preach, teach, and to speak on political issues, and to instruct the people on good governance and other pressing political issues for better ordering of the society. Because to operate as priests in the society, we need an enabling environment in the political sphere as well.

The above preamble is necessary because, contemporary use of the word "priest" is plagued by a certain confusion. For instance, Standard English-language editions of the documents of Vatican II, imply it to translate both presbyter and sacerdos, words that carry quite different connotations. However, in this article we are using both "presbyter" and "priest" with the latter serving as an equivalent for the Latin "sacerdos" and the Greek "hiereus."

The priest is a well-known figure in the broader history of religion as well as in the Bible. The blessing of Moses over the tribe of Levi (Deuteronomy 33:8-11) indicates that the priesthood in Israel was initially responsible for oracular pronouncements and for the teaching and handing on the Torah as well as for sacrifice and prayer. Due in part to the growing importance of the synagogue, the priesthood by the time of Jesus had become largely restricted to temple worship with its elaborate sacrificial ritual. This is the situation reflected in the definition of the Letter to the Hebrews: "Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on their behalf in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Hebrews 5:1; cf. 8:3).

However, in the New Testament, the language of priesthood, the temple, and sacrifice appears in a radically transformed way. This is particularly the case in Hebrews where Jesus is described as the great high priest who once and for all entered into the heavenly temple bringing not the blood of the animal but his own blood, thus achieving forgiveness and sanctification for all (cf. Hebrews 9:11-14; 10:1-18). To understand the superiority of this priesthood, it is said to be Melchizedek (cf. Hebrews 5:5-10; 7:15-22).

Moreover, what is central to Hebrews can be found in other forms throughout the New Testament. Jesus is the temple, the place where God dwells (John 2:21); his faith and obedience, his self-giving love constitute a sacrifice pleasing to God (Ephesians 5:2; 1 Corinthians 5:7); the words instituting the Eucharist include among their many references some that are clearly sacrificial.

Furthermore, in the New Testament, cultic language is also applied to the believing community. In modern theology, it may be related to what we call the "universal priesthood" of all believers (baptized) in Christ, and in relation to the "ordained priesthood", which in turn, acts in "persona Christi" (in the 'name and in person' of Christ) in ministering to the people of God in the new dispensation. To be a Christian is to be in Christ; it involves living according to his Spirit. Such a life is celebrated as an authentic sacrifice, the kind of worship that God finds acceptable (cf. Romans 12:1; Hebrews 13:15f). Developing a theme long associated with the Covenant (Exodus 19:6; Isaiah 61:6), 1Peter describes all believers as belonging to a "royal priesthood, a holy nation"; they are called to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-10; cf. Revelation 5:10).

Given this widespread "spiritualized" application of the language of priesthood and sacrifice to Jesus and to believers generally, it is striking that the word priest is nowhere used in the New Testament of the community leaders. However, there is reason for this. It is surely more than an attempt to distinguish them from the Levitical priesthood. In other words, it reflects an awareness of how profoundly all priestly and cultic language has been transformed by the coming of Christ. What might seem to be an exception reinforces the point. In Romans 15:16 Paul describes his preaching of the Gospel as a priestly service because it calls people to the kind of life that constitutes authentic sacrifice.

The Word "Priest" and the Greek "Presbyteros"

In common usage, the Greek word "presbyteros" means an old man, an elder. In a more technical sense, it is used to describe a person holding a position of trust and respect, perhaps even an office. This was the case among the Jews. The book of Numbers attributes the institution of a college of elders by Moses to an intervention of God (Numbers 11:16ff). After undergoing a relative eclipse under the monarchy, the elders acquired new significance both during and following the exile. In the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin was made up of priests, scribes and elders. A council of elders was ordinarily responsible for the running of each synagogue. Although possessing a variety of administrative, doctrinal, and juridical functions, Jewish elders were essentially "lay" people, clearly distinct from the priestly caste.

Again, the existence of the "presbyter/elder" within early Christianity is widely attested to in the New Testament. In the absence of any precise information, one has to assume that the Church simply took over the existing terminology. Without any explanation of their origin, elders appear in Acts 11:29f as those to whom Barnabas and Saul brought the donations from the community at Antioch. In the context of the so-called council of Jerusalem, they exercise in conjunction with the apostles some kind of teaching authority (cf. Acts 15:2ff).

There are other instances of places where the presbyter/elder is also found in the New Testament, in the community pastoral life of the early church. However, in 1Peter the presbyteral functions are brought together in the image of the "shepherd" (1 Peter 5:1-4). According to James 5:14f the elders are to be called to anoint and to pray for the sick. It is clear from the Pastoral letters of the New Testament that the existence of presbyters has become normative. Although a list of qualifications is given (Titus 1:15ff; 1Timothy 3:1ff), their responsibilities are not spelled out. Particular recognition, however, is due to "those who rule well especially to those who labour in preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17).

Institutionalization of Ordained Priesthood in the Early Church

From the foregoing discussion, one thing is clear: The institutionalization process in the early church was clearly a complex one that developed slowly and in different ways in the various communities, making reference always, and in each case, to fidelity to the one faith in Christ, received from the Apostles (Apostolic faith) by the believing community. Another thing is that in the early church there is all probability that the presbyters fulfilled the same tasks as those who elsewhere are called "episcopoi" or bishops. The emphasis everywhere is on oversight or pastoral leadership.

It is only with Ignatius of Antioch (c. 115 AD) that the traditional threefold division of church office into the episcopate, the presbyterate, and the diaconate is really clear. Each of the churches of the Asia Minor reflected in his letters seems to have been led by a single bishop who was supported by a council of presbyters (priests) and of deacons. In the course of the second century this situation became standard everywhere.

Furthermore, as the communities initially were small and as they all had their own bishop, the liturgical functions of the presbyters were minimal. Time and expansion soon brought a change. Various aspects of the episcopal role were taken over by the presbyters. For a long time, however, solemn baptism with its attendant chrismation (Sacrament of Confirmation) as well as the reconciliation (sacrament of Reconciliation (Penitential Confessions) of sinners were reserved to the bishop.

It is interesting to note that when the language of priesthood began to be used of the Christian ministry at the end of the second century, it was applied to the bishop. By the middle of the third century Cyprian employed the terms episcopus and sacerdos almost interchangeably. It was only later that the word priest became a common way of referring to the presbyter.

Gradually, through the medieval era, the function of the celebration of the mass, preaching and parish pastoral ministry became fundamental for the understanding of the ordained ministry. The Council of Trent, for example, reiterated both the apostolic origins and traditional doctrinal position on the ordained ministry, in this regard. The fundamental category to which it had recourse was that of priesthood. In continuity with the old law, there is in the church by the institution by Christ "a new, visible and external priesthood, into which the old has been translated" (Denzinger (DS) 1764). The emphasis is on the "power of consecrating and offering the true body and blood of the Lord and of forgiving and retaining sins" (DS 1717).

In all these, the New Testament basis for the institution of the Sacraments of Ordained Priesthood and the Holy Eucharist is always emphasized (cf. Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20; John 6:51-58; 1Corinthians 11:23-34; 10:16; Exodus 24:8; 20:24-26; Isaiah 53:12; 18:7).

In the light of the above, Vatican II went a long way in Presbyterorum ordinis, the decree on the ministry and life of presbyters, to interpret the tradition with a new orientation. Presbyters (priests), like bishops, although at a subordinate level (n.2), participate in the threefold office of Christ - priest, prophet, and king or shepherd. Their task is primarily pastoral.

According to Vatican II "Presbyterorum ordinis", priests are to exercise a ministry of leadership within the community. Particular emphasis is placed on preaching in all its forms. The sacramental ministry has its highpoint in the Eucharist. The focus of concern in regard to both word and sacrament is to help the whole community to deepen the quality of its life and its worship.

The Vatican II document goes further to emphasize the need for collaborative action on the part of presbyters both with their bishop and with the people whom they are meant to serve. Parish and diocesan councils are intended to facilitate cooperation. Senates or councils of presbyters have been created to give form to the renewed sense of the presbyterium.

All this implies that ordination to the presbyterate in the Church (e.g., Catholic Church) is a sacrament. It is the sacrament of the Holy Order, which is ontologically, linked to the Eucharist. In addition to officially and publicly designating individuals to their office, it communicates the gifts and graces without which they could not fulfill their responsibilities. As Daniel Donovan explains, ordination (sacrament of holy orders) through which one becomes priest, relates the individual in a special way to the risen Christ, so that along with his profound identity with the community, the priest is able in certain aspects of the sacramental sphere to act in the name and in the person of Christ. (Cf. Daniel Donovan, "Priest", in: The New Dictionary of Theology, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin 1990, 8019.

Consequences for a common Pastoral Witness Today

The foregoing analysis of differences between ordained ministerial priesthood and the new phenomenon of "pastorship" in the New Religious Movements has far-reaching consequences that work against common witness of Christians in the world today. In the first place, "pastorship" of the New Religious Movements should not be confused with the age-long apostolic origins, practices and foundation of the ordained ministerial priesthood in the Church. Both in basic issues of history and characteristics, the two traditions are not exactly the same.

A fluid theology on the priesthood of all believers and ordained ministerial priesthood, as in other Protestant Churches, has produced in the New Religious Movements a very poor understanding of the Church, and therefore a weak ecclesiology, different from that of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. The fruit of this tendency is the splintering in Christianity into separate, competing churches.

Just as it happened in the mainstream Protestantism, the strong emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, to accentuate the individual's role in offering himself/herself to God, has made these New Religious Movements to deny the mediatory efficacy of the ordained priesthood of the church in this action. Instead, the church's officers as in other streams of Protestantism, were primarily seen as ministers whose office was to proclaim the word of God. At least from a pastoral perspective, this led also to an effective denial, or at least neglect, of the notion that the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28:19 referred to a grant of power to a holder of a universal ecclesiastical office.

Again, the accent placed on the Bible (Sola Scriptura) in the New Religious Movements, a milestone of the Protestant Reformation and a genuine achievement, however, if taken to its logical extreme, can be so rigorously applied that the scriptural principle sometimes works against itself. If the only things one can rely on are those that are taught unambiguously, features of the Church's life that unfold over time, such as the sacraments, no matter how helpful they are in Christian life, can be discarded. Ironically, this entire dynamic can end up with placing God, the things of God, and the Bible on one side and humankind on the other. Luther would say, "God and the Bible are two different things."

Furthermore, their overemphasis on "Scripture alone" (Sola Scriptura), which the New Religious Movements had inherited from the ecumenical and evangelical Protestant Churches, made the role of the sacraments to be drastically reduced and subordinated to preaching in these churches and New Religious Movements. As in many other Protestant Churches, in the New Religious Movements, the liturgical centre has been rearranged, and the altar (table of communion) has been replaced by the ambo, which enjoys the place of honour on the podium.

Again, the overemphasis on the "subjective dimension of salvation", has given this New Religious Movements as it did to the mainstream Protestant Churches, a very weak ecclesiology. An overemphasis on the "subjective dimension of salvation" at the detriment of the mediatory-intercessory role of the believing community (church), runs the risk of estranging individuals from the group and of destroying awareness of the fact that human being is fashioned in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God and that we are, by definition, communal beings. Christian theology is one.

In concrete terms, you cannot say you love to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church, for example, while ab initio, you reject the Catholic theology on the Church. The fact is that the theology of the Holy Communion is inseparable from Church's understanding of itself (ecclesiology). To receive Holy Communion in the Church there are basic theological differences among the Churches that must first of all, be resolved.


As we have seen from the above discussion, there are basic differences in the two traditions compared, which have helped us to distinguished ordained ministerial priesthood in the Catholic Church from the new phenomenon of the proliferation of the so-called "pastors/prophets" in the New Religious Movements.

The "pastorship" of the New Religious Movements has nothing to do with the Sacrament of Holy Orders from which one becomes priest in the Church. It has also nothing to do with the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which is ontologically, the centre and summit of the ordained ministerial priesthood and liturgical life, especially, in the Catholic Church.

Preaching is and has been an essential aspect of the ordained priesthood in the Church. But the preaching of the minister of God must be rooted, always on the Bible and in the faith of the believing and worshipping community. That is, in the Apostolic faith and tradition, as received from the Apostles, taught and preserved in the teaching authority of the Church from time immemorial.

All this shows that ordained priesthood in the Church should not be confused with the emergent "pastorship" in the New Religious Movements. In the New Religious Movements, the "pastors" are more or less answerable to themselves or at best to the "charismatic" founder of the movement from where they had received their training in Bible school and commissioning.

However, the ordained ministerial priesthood in the Catholic Church, for example, is a life-long vocation through sacramental ordination of the priest, his consecrated vows of poverty celibacy, and obedience to the church through one's bishop for the service of God, the Church and society.