Ordination of Priests:
Definition of Terms:
The Sacrament of Holy Orders, also known as Ordination, is the means by which individuals are consecrated and ordained as clergy, including bishops, priests, and deacons. The English term “priest” finds its origin in the Greek word “presbyters,” which is often translated as “presbyter” or “elder.” To this day, the priests within a diocese are collectively referred to as “the presbyterate.” The underlying theology revolves around the idea of continuity in apostolic succession, authority to administer sacraments, and pastoral leadership within the Church.
While the term “Holy Orders” is not explicitly used in the Bible, the theological concepts are present in various passages. The sacrament of holy orders is transmitted through the laying on of hands, as seen in Acts 6:6. Paul’s letter to Timothy mentions Timothy’s ordination, stating, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate” (1 Tim. 4:14). Paul, addressing presbyters in 1 Timothy 5:17-22, urges Timothy, “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone” (v. 22). Acts 1:20-26 describes the apostles choosing Matthias to replace Judas, a process that resembles the selection of ordained ministers. Acts 6:1-7 describes the selection and ordination of the first deacons to serve the early Christian community’s needs.
There exists a parallel between the Israel of the Old Covenant and the Christian Church. St. Peter’s description of the Christian faithful as a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) reflects Exodus 19:6, where God calls Israel “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This emphasizes the continuity between God’s Israel and the Christian Church. St. Paul identifies Christians as “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16. While not implying God’s abandonment of physical Israel, this indicates that covenantal relationship with the Father is now established through union with Christ, rather than solely through an ethnic tie to Abraham. This comparison underscores the rationale for a ministerial priesthood within the New Testament Church.
In the Old Covenant, a distinct ministerial priesthood coexisted with the universal priesthood of all Israelites. For instance, Exodus 19:22 delineates a separate group of priests who minister before the Lord. Later, the Levites assumed the priestly role, signifying the differentiation between universal and ministerial priesthoods. A closer examination reveals a threefold structure in the Old Testament priesthood: a high priest (Aaron), assisting priests (Aaron’s sons), and a universal priesthood (all Israelites). This structure parallels the New Testament, where Jesus serves as the high priest and baptized Christians constitute the universal priesthood. However, the middle level of assisting priests is missing.
Comparing these structures suggests a logical place for a middle level of assisting priests in the New Testament—a role fulfilled by the hierarchical priesthood of the episcopate and the presbyterate. The apostolic hierarchy includes deacons, presbyters (priests), and bishops, as highlighted by Paul in his writings. Priests play a role as mediators between God and humanity, although Christ remains the ultimate mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). Baptized Christians share in Christ’s priesthood as part of His Body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). As priests, believers intercede through prayer and evangelism. Ordained ministers, including bishops and presbyters, are entrusted with a distinct ministerial priesthood. The New Testament term “presbyteroi” is understood as a priestly role, aligned with the essential functions of priestly office.
A primary task of priests is to offer sacrifice, as illustrated in Leviticus 9:7. Although Christ’s sacrifice on the cross fulfilled salvation’s requirements, believers still participate in this eternal sacrifice through the ministerial priesthood. The Last Supper’s command “Do this” (Luke 22:19) entails offering sacrifice, with the Greek word “poieo” implying a sacrificial act. Thus, Jesus instituted His apostles as New Testament ministerial priests, culminating in His command to offer the Eucharist. While the ministerial priesthood’s primary role rests in offering the sacrifice of the Mass, every baptized Christian becomes a priest in their own right when they participate in the Mass through offering themselves “as living sacrifices”, which is “their spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
1 Thes. 5:12-13
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.
1 Tim 5:17
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching;
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
1 Pet. 5:1-2
Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly.
1 Tim 3:1
The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task.
1 Cor. 12:12-27
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it”
1 Peter 2:5-9
“like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”
1 Tim. 2:1-4
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone… This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
2 Cor. 2:10
Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.
2 Cor. 5:18
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation
because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
2 Cor. 5:20
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”
‘For it is written in the book of Psalms, “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it”; and “Let another take his position of overseer.”
Church Father Quotes:
St. Ignatius of Antioch
“Now, therefore, it has been my privilege to see you in the person of your God-inspired bishop, Damas; and in the persons of your worthy presbyters, Bassus and Apollonius; and my fellow-servant, the deacon, Zotion. What a delight is his company! For he is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Magnesians 2 [A.D. 110]).
“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest” (ibid., 6:1).
“Take care, therefore, to be confirmed in the decrees of the Lord and of the apostles, in order that in everything you do, you may prosper in body and in soul, in faith and in love, in Son and in Father and in Spirit, in beginning and in end, together with your most reverend bishop; and with that fittingly woven spiritual crown, the presbytery; and with the deacons, men of God” (ibid., 13:1–2).
“It is necessary, therefore—and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, in whom we shall be found, if we live in him. It is necessary also that the deacons, the dispensers of the mysteries [sacraments] of Jesus Christ, be in every way pleasing to all men” (Letter to the Trallians 2:1–3 [A.D. 110]).
“In like manner let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and college of the apostles. Without these, it cannot be called a church” (ibid., 3:1–2).
“He that is within the sanctuary is pure; but he that is outside the sanctuary is not pure. In other words, anyone who acts without the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons does not have a clear conscience” (ibid., 7:2).
“I cried out while I was in your midst, I spoke with a loud voice, the voice of God: ‘Give heed to the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons.’ Some suspect me of saying this because I had previous knowledge of the division certain persons had caused; but he for whom I am in chains is my witness that I had no knowledge of this from any man. It was the Spirit who kept preaching these words, ‘Do nothing without the bishop, keep your body as the temple of God, love unity, flee from divisions, be imitators of Jesus Christ, as he was imitator of the Father’” (Letter to the Philadelphians 7:1–2 [A.D. 110]).
St. Clement of Alexandria
“A multitude of other pieces of advice to particular persons is written in the holy books: some for presbyters, some for bishops and deacons; and others for widows, of whom we shall have opportunity to speak elsewhere” (The Instructor of Children 3:12:97:2 [A.D. 191]).
“Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles and who have lived in complete righteousness according to the gospel” (Miscellanies 6:13:107:2 [A.D. 208]).
St. Hippolytus of Rome
“When a deacon is to be ordained, he is chosen after the fashion of those things said above, the bishop alone in like manner imposing his hands upon him as we have prescribed. In the ordaining of a deacon, this is the reason why the bishop alone is to impose his hands upon him: he is not ordained to the priesthood, but to serve the bishop and to fulfill the bishop’s command. He has no part in the council of the clergy, but is to attend to his own duties and is to acquaint the bishop with such matters as are needful. . . .
“On a presbyter, however, let the presbyters impose their hands because of the common and like Spirit of the clergy. Even so, the presbyter has only the power to receive [the Spirit], and not the power to give [the Spirit]. That is why a presbyter does not ordain the clergy; for at the ordaining of a presbyter, he but seals while the bishop ordains” (The Apostolic Tradition 9 [A.D. 215]).
Origen of Alexandria
“Not fornication only, but even marriages make us unfit for ecclesiastical honors; for neither a bishop, nor a presbyter, nor a deacon, nor a widow is able to be twice married” (Homilies on Luke17 [A.D. 234]).
The Council of Elvira
“Bishops, presbyters, and deacons may not leave their own places for the sake of commerce, nor are they to be traveling about the provinces, frequenting the markets for their own profit. Certainly for the procuring of their own necessities they can send a boy or a freedman or a hireling or a friend or whomever, but, if they wish to engage in business, let them do so within the province” (Canon 18 [A.D. 300]).
The First Council of Nicaea
“It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters [i.e., priests], whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer [the Eucharistic sacrifice] should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer [it]. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them” (Canon 18 [A.D. 325]).
St. John Chrysostom
“[In Philippians 1:1 Paul says,] ‘To the co-bishops and deacons.’ What does this mean? Were there plural bishops of some city? Certainly not! It is the presbyters that [Paul] calls by this title; for these titles were then interchangeable, and the bishop is even called a deacon. That is why, when writing to Timothy, he says, ‘Fulfill your diaconate’ [2 Tim. 4:5], although Timothy was then a bishop. That he was in fact a bishop is clear when Paul says to him, ‘Lay hands on no man lightly’ [1 Tim. 5:22], and again, ‘Which was given you with the laying on of hands of the presbytery’ [1 Tim. 4:14], and presbyters would not have ordained a bishop” (Homilies on Philippians 1:1 [A.D. 402]).
St. Patrick of Ireland
“I, Patrick, the sinner, am the most rustic and the least of all the faithful . . . had for my father Calpornius, a deacon, a son of Potitus, a priest, who belonged to the village of Bannavem Taberniae. . . . At that time I was barely sixteen years of age . . . and I was led into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of persons, in accordance with our deserts, for we turned away from God, and kept not his commandments, and were not obedient to our priests, who were wont to admonish us for our salvation” (Confession of St. Patrick 1 [A.D. 452]).
“I, Patrick, the sinner, unlearned as everybody knows, avow that I have been established a bishop in Ireland. Most assuredly I believe that I have received from God what I am. And so I dwell in the midst of barbarous heaths, a stranger and an exile for the love of God” (Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus 1 [A.D. 452]).
Thomas Cranmer (1489 – 1556):
“And when the day appointed by the Bishop is come, there shall be a Sermon or Exhortation, declaring the Duty and Office of such as come to be admitted Priests; how necessary that Order is in the Church of Christ, and also, how the people ought to esteem them in their Office.” -Book of Common Prayer, The Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546):
“But we ordain not from our own power and authority, but by the command of Christ. We also lay no weight on the pomp of vestments and ceremonies. In these matters, I also differ from the Pope, for I still permit bishops and priests to wear beautiful and honourable robes at ordination; but these are only external and indifferent matters.” -Luther’s Works, Vol. 40, Church and Ministry II
John Calvin (1509 – 1564):
“In the ancient church, presbyters who were appointed to be bishops, presided over the people either by right of election, or by consent of their colleagues.” -Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 3, Section 16