Where in the New Testament Can One Find the Orthodox Priesthood?
“Only to His apostles did He give certain rights and duties which He did not give to other believers. The apostles are sent to preach the Gospel, not all believers. Only the apostles are given the power to loose on earth what will be loosed in heaven and to bind on earth what will be bound in heaven, yes, only the apostles, not every believer… Thus, to be an apostle is not the same as being a regular believer in Christ. The Apostle is the shepherd of Christ’s flock, appointed to that position by Christ Himself. Scripture says this very thing.
Furthermore, the Scriptures testify to us that the apostles in prayerful consideration laid hands on their assistants and deputies, priests whom ‘the Holy Spirit has made… bishops and shepherds of the Church of God, which He bought with His own blood (Acts 20:28)’… From this we can clearly see that the sacrament of the priesthood, which is obtained through prayerful ordination, was established by Christ Himself for the Church of Christ for today, until He fulfills His promise to return in the Second Coming. Therefore, sectarian rejection of the sacrament of the priesthood stands in sharp and direct conflict with Scripture and leads to the destruction of the Church as a visible society founded by Christ Himself.”
The text above shows us the foundations upon which Orthodox theologians base their belief. We have already answered some of their claims earlier in this chapter in the analysis of other sacraments. Some more research is still to follow. This section will examine the biblical meaning of “prayerful ordination” performed for church elders by the apostles. Does this act actually institute a church hierarchy of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, exactly the way the Eastern Orthodox Church is organized? Also, we will investigate the doctrine of apostolic inheritance (succession) – the teaching that represents the idea of the sacred ties of today’s Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergy with apostles via an unbreakable chain of direct “prayerful ordinations”.
As repeatedly pointed out earlier, terms such as “hierarchy” and “apostolic succession” were unknown to the Spirit and the letter of the New Testament. It is true, of course, that the Bible says that the apostles appointed elders to the newly founded churches throughout the Roman Empire (mostly in Asia Minor and Greece) by laying hands on them, but this still does not prove that they were some form of special priesthood! Earlier, we strongly demonstrated the fact that the apostles did not “absolve sins” as Orthodox priests do today, neither did they turn the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ, nor did they “baptize with water and the Spirit.” Indeed, such Orthodox practice is based on traditional misinterpretation of the teachings of the Lord. The chapter later in this book on “Orthodox Monasticism” will demonstrate that the Bible shows no evidence whatsoever for the existence of bishops or monks in the first century of Christianity. Furthermore, according to the description in the apostolic epistles, the ministries of the presbyter (elder) and bishop (overseer) were identical because each head was placed as an overseer of his spiritual flock. In contrast, Orthodoxy splits these ministerial functions into different roles. Here is how Paul identifies the roles of elder and overseer in his epistle to Titus:
“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”
The above text shows that presbyters (elders) are the same as bishops (overseers). The Apostle speaks about these roles in other places in Scripture. A similar reference is found in Acts. Here is what Luke records:
“From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them… Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood.”
In verse 17, the original Greek language uses the word “presbuteroi”, which means “elders”. The Serbian language made a small adjustment to this Greek word and created its own word for “presbyters” or from the singular Greek word “presbuteros” comes the Serbian word for “presbyter”, which means “leader”. In verse 28, Paul uses another word to address church leaders: “episkopoi” in the Greek, that is, bishops, which can also be translated in Greek as “overseers”. (The Greek singular would be “episkopos” meaning “bishop” or “overseer”.) So once again, Paul equates the role of the bishop with that of the presbyter. Paul actually says that the leading elders (presbuteroi) had the identical ministry as overseers or bishops (episkopoi). It is interesting in this regard to read the first part of the Epistle to the Philippians:
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the bishops and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
An alternate translation by Bonaventura Duda and Jerko Fućak comes from the Roman Catholic publishing house “Christian Presence”:
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, along with the overseers and ministrants. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.”
From just these verses we can recognize the greeting by Paul and Timothy sent to all the believers (“all the saints”) in Philippi, among whom were bishops and deacons (i.e. overseers and ministrants ). Surprisingly, this greeting does not mention the word “presbyter”! The structure of the modern Orthodox Church dictates that every major church must have a presbyter. Thus, Orthodoxy would expect to see a presbyter also serving at the church in Philippi. However, the omission of the word “presbyter” is obvious because it is interchangeable with the name “bishop” or “overseer”, as is the case in other parts of the New Testament which use these two terms for ministry interchangeably.
It is also interesting to note that first century Christianity, several “elders” or “overseers” served in each local Christian community, as we clearly see from the examples of these two churches in the New Testament. The Eastern Church, which calls itself “apostolic”, deviates from the laws of the early Christian church. Eastern Orthodoxy adheres to the teachings of later church councils which strictly commanded that no more than one bishop could lead in one city. Moreover, the overseers appointed by the apostles never gained the worldly prestige that modern Orthodox bishops enjoy. The apostle Peter bears witness in his first epistle to the church:
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve.”
According to the Greek text, the apostle in the first place speaks about elders in the Christian churches whom he wrote. He uses the word “presbuteroi”. Then, in comparing their ministry with his own, he uses the term “sumpresbuteros”, which has the meeting of “fellow elder just like you”. He even uses the expression “poimainein” which means “to shepherd” and “episkopein” which means “to oversee” God’s flock. Thus, the apostle Peter in this specific text does not suggest the existence of other leaders other than the “elders”. He definitely does not suggest himself to hold a superior rank of “archbishop”. Peter nowhere alleges to have Christ’s authority to lay hands on other elders and confer upon them apostolic succession, commit to them the authority of the Holy Spirit to perform the sacraments, or commend the ministry related to them. (According to Orthodox teaching, only the Archbishop can lay hands on, or anoint, an “elder”. The “elders” themselves do not have this right.) In contrast, the New Testament teaches that existing elders (presbuteroi) have the duty of appointing other elders, such as the case of Timothy. What is interesting is that the apostle Paul himself assumes the body of elders (presbyters) had laid hands on this young man. The apostle states:
“Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.”
“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.”
In addition to highlighting the facts just mentioned, the apostle in these verses suggests that Timothy received the gift at the very moment when Paul laid hands on him. Also, Paul encourages him “not to neglect” the gift, but to “fan it into flame”. Based on these verses, the Orthodox Church adheres to the belief that its priests receive the special grace of the Holy Spirit, which Milin dubs “the fullness of apostolic authority.” However, what actually is this “gift”, which Timothy received at the time when they laid hands on him? Does this work reveal itself in external visible manifestation of spiritual gifts? What happened during the repentance and baptism of many people who received the gifts of prophesy and speaking in other tongues? This holy text does not tell us. In order to understand these issues, one must first answer this question: What was the purpose and importance of the laying on of hands in the Church of the first century?
First, we have to recall the fact that the hands of the Apostles, in certain cases, were laid upon “ordinary” believers (such as the case of believers in Ephesus, Acts 19:6). The Holy Spirit came down upon them and granted them the ability of prophesying and speaking in strange tongues. However, for our purposes, we are more interested in cases of laying hands on future church leaders and will focus more on this area. We can see the significance of laying hands with prayer on those who perform certain ministries in the Church in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians:
“As for those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance—those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter, and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews.”
Anyone familiar with the Holy Scriptures knows that during the time of Christ’s earthly ministry and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, the apostle Paul, known as Saul, had belonged to the conservative Jewish religious party called the Pharisees. He had been a main opponent of Christian teaching. Paul had wanted to destroy the newly founded Church as he had considered Christianity as a dangerous heresy to be rooted out. He had persecuted his fellow Jews who became disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul’s conversion was dramatic. The Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him from heaven during Paul’s journey to Damascus. Paul had set out to arrest those Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. He was authorized by the high priest to lead them back to Jerusalem.
After he himself believed in Jesus, Saul began to share his testimony about his conversion. Having returned to Jerusalem, Paul tried to join his brothers and sisters in faith – that is, those upon whom he had very recently carried out bloody persecution. Quite understandably, the Christians did not immediately believe that Saul became one of them. Instead, they feared Saul was lying and still intended to destroy the church from the inside. The first man who accepted Paul and announced to the apostles and
other disciples about the veracity of his faith in Christ was Barnabas. Paul the former persecutor of the Church demonstrated his zeal in preaching and consistently bore testimony to his faith in Jesus the Savior. The elders of the church of Jerusalem, the apostles Peter, James and John, recognized Saul (Paul) and Barnabas as reliable Christians and firm preachers of the gospel. They recognized their desire and gifts to
spread the good news of salvation outside the country of Judah to the Gentiles. After their preaching of the gospel to the pagans, it resulted in the establishment of new churches. They carried out over Paul and Barnabas what we could call the “laying on of hands”.
As we observed in the previous text, Paul writes that the three apostles laid hands them as “a right hand of fellowship”, something of which he and Barnabas earned after the apostles had observed the gift of grace which the Lord had already gave them. This gesture of the elders of the church in Jerusalem occurred at a time when the Christians (formerly Jews) had a conflict of opinion as to whether Gentiles who had already been saved by Christ should then undergo ritual circumcision and observe the Old Testament laws. By giving Paul the “right hand of fellowship”, the apostles gave a sign of open support for Paul’s preaching. This apostle, namely, emphasized that salvation is gained only through faith in Christ without the works of circumcision and the laws of Moses. Although the apostles in Jerusalem n the first years of the existence of the Church did not understand this, God revealed this truth to Peter the Apostle. The Lord has established His followers in the spiritual truth of salvation by grace for all people – both Jews and Gentiles.
The act of “laying hands” as a sign of fellowship with Paul and Barnabas represented the clear ratification of their ministries by the first apostles, as well as those who entered apostolic ministry later on. If the apostles, regarded by the first Christian Church as “pillars”, had not extended “the right hand of fellowship” to Paul and Barnabas, the Christians could interpret that refusal as disagreement with the message preached by them. In other words, Christians would have interpreted such refusal as indicating Paul and Barnabas to be false teachers. Therefore, the very fact that this act was performed before many witnesses made all believers aware that these two teachers had the same apostolic authority as those in the existing fellowship of apostles. Thus, the “laying of hands” represents “a sign of fellowship” and identification with the elders who committed this act. So, Paul and Barnabas received the same authority to carry out a set of spiritual tasks as the original apostles.
Now that we have explained the instance of “laying on of hands” on Paul and Barnabas by the other Apostles, let us examine the issue of the gift of grace conveyed to Timothy by Paul. This is the gift about which Paul says it should not be “neglected”, but rather “fanned into flame.” (We saw earlier what Paul said that the apostles – the “pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem – considered the “gift” given to him and Barnabas as a “blessing” for their ministry to the Gentiles.)
First, in 1 Timothy 4:14, we note that the Apostle says that his disciple Timothy has received the “gift” of “prophesying”. The New Testament Scripture strongly emphasizes that the office of prophesying, amongst other things, were of first importance in the first Church. (See Acts 13:1, 21:9-10; 1 Cor. 12:28.) New Testament prophets saw that Timothy, after his conversion, was someone given a special calling by God in the future to become His special servant. From their perspective, this young man was given a “gift” from God in order to be able to serve Him. However, to which “gift” is Paul referring?
If we look at the incomplete list of “gifts of grace” which Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 12, we can see that they consist of: words of wisdom, words of knowledge, faith, healing, performing miracles, prophecy, discerning spirits, different tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. The Apostle in this chapter emphasizes the following:
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
The Scriptures reveal that many of these gifts were received by “ordinary” believers, that is, those who have not been administered the “laying on of hands” to become officers in the church. It is clear that the Holy Spirit gave Timothy a special “gift” at the time of his ordination. The apostle Paul writes:
“And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers… also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration…”
Recall what Paul spoke to the elders (bishops) of Ephesus in Acts 20. He specifically cited the Holy Spirit in verse 28 as Himself having acted through the apostles to appoint the elders and to introduce them to the ministries for which they were responsible. Knowing this, we can quite safely deduce that the “gift” given to Timothy, which fulfilled previous prophecies about him and commenced when Paul and perhaps other elders laid hands on him, simply consisted of the “gift of teaching” (i.e., authority for teaching other believers) and “administration” (managing interpersonal relationships and establishing doctrine in the churches). It is these gifts, among others, that the apostle mentions in 1 Cor. 12:28. The apostle instructs his young colleague to teach and rebuke people who lived in sin (1 Tim. 1:3,18, 2:11-12, 3:6-7, 10; 4:6, 13; 5:1-2, 9, 19-20, 22; 2 Tim. 2:2, 14-15, 4:2, 5). People who fell into sin were to be rebuked before all those who were present in the church, even including presbyters, i.e. elders (1 Tim. 5:20). From this we see clearly that the “gift” and powers given to Timothy were just as important as those even of the apostles.
With regard to laying hands on other church elders, specifically that it pertains to experienced and proven servants of God, this has the identical meaning as that in the case of Paul and Barnabas which we have just studied. Church elders were officially ordained into ministry when the apostles recognized that such men were established in their devotion to God and had spiritual possession of the necessary gifts and skills for its performance. Additionally, it was obligatory for elders to demonstrate a proper belief and practice of Christian doctrine. It was critical for such an important ministry in the church not to rashly appoint someone who does not possess the spiritual and moral qualifications, particularly one who is a new believer (i.e., a man who had just become a Christian). Of course, this is because the ministry of the overseer requires having significant Christian experience and good knowledge of the Bible. Such qualities are certainly not attainable right away for a person who has just begun to attend church service and through water baptism just became a member of a local fellowship.
However, at this point, I must mention the fact that in the history of the Orthodox Church there are many examples of violations of the Lord’s ordinance. There are several examples of people who received the rank of Bishop and even Patriarch only a few days after becoming Christians through baptism (according to Orthodox theology). In a second example, someone ran away from his elevation to the office of Bishop. From a biblical perspective, he subjected this profound ministry to mockery by considering the role as a water carrier in a monastery to have greater spiritual value than as an overseer in the church. A third example is, again, one who pretended to be insane and hid in the woods, thus confirming the words that the holy apostolic ministry of overseer really is not for everyone.
The greatest miracle of all is of course the fact that all these people are included among the canonized saints, whose lives should be taught to us as an example for our faith. Here are some examples from the Prologue from the Orchid by Bishop Nikolai:
“1. Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Mediolanum (Milan)
This great holy father of the Orthodox Church was of eminent birth. His father was the imperial deputy of Gaul and Spain and was a pagan by faith, but his mother was a Christian. While he was still in the cradle, a swarm of bees settled on him, poured honey onto his lips, and flew away. And while still a child, he extended his hand and spoke prophetically: “Kiss it, for I will be a bishop.” After his father’s death, the emperor appointed him as his representative in the province of Liguria, of which Milan was the chief city. When the bishop of Milan died, a great dispute arose between the Orthodox Christians and the Arian heretics concerning the election of a new bishop. Ambrose entered the church to maintain order, this being his duty. At that moment, a child at its mother’s bosom exclaimed: “Ambrose for bishop!” All the people took this as the voice of God, and unanimously elected Ambrose as their bishop, contrary to his will. Ambrose was baptized, passed through all the necessary ranks and was consecrated to the episcopacy, all within a week… Ambrose died peacefully on the morning of Pascha in the year 397.” [December 7]
“4. Saint Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople
Photius was a great beacon of the Church. He was the emperor’s relative and a grandson of the glorious Patriarch Tarasius. He was a vigorous protector of the Church from the authority-loving pope and other Roman distortions of the Faith. In six days he went through all the ranks from a layman to patriarch. He was consecrated patriarch on Christmas day, 857 A.D. and died in the Lord in the year 891 A.D.” [February 6]
“2. The Venerable Barsanuphius
Barsanuphius was born a pagan in Palestine and was baptized in his eighteenth year and immediately was tonsured a monk taking the name of John. When he became known for of his virtuous life, Barsanuphius was elected archbishop of Damascus. He did not remain long at this position. Yearning for the reclusive, ascetically spiritual life, he secretly left Damascus and went to the wilderness of Nitria. Here, he presented himself as the monk Barsanuphius and immediately, was assigned, as an obedience, to be a water-carrier for the monastery. The former archbishop accepts this obedience with joy…” [February 29]
“1. Venerable Ephrem the Syrian
Ephrem was born in Syria of poor parents during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great… Numerous are his books and beautiful are his prayers… When they wanted to appoint him a bishop by force, he pretended to be insane and began to race through the city of Edessa dragging his garment behind him. Seeing this, the people left him in peace.” [January 28]
“2. Venerable Isaac the Syrian
… When Isaac became known because of the sanctity of his life and of his many miracles, he was elected bishop of Nineveh and was forced to accept that rank. But, after only five months, he left the bishopric and secretly withdrew into the wilderness to the Monastery of Rabban Shabur… Isaac died in extreme old age toward the end of the seventh century.” [January 28]
“3. Saint Gregory Dialogues, the Pope of Rome
… After the death of Pope Pelagius II, Gregory was chosen Pope. He fled from this honor and authority hiding himself in the mountains and ravines, but the Lord revealed him to those who were seeking him in the following manner: a fiery column appeared from the ground to heaven over the place where Gregory hid himself… His Arch-deacon Peter saw a dove flying above Gregory’s head as he was seated and writing. He presented himself before the Lord in the year 604 A.D.” [March 12]
Despite the strong impression left by the aforementioned examples of the lives of the saints, in which the Orthodox take great pride and promote as positive examples, they display completely spiritually immature behavior. Some of them had the function of church oversight imposed upon them (and considered themselves to be unworthy of the role). It is important to emphasize that even the First Council of Nicea protested loudly against the appointment of new believers into positions of church authority. Here is one canon that the Council stated:
“As many incidents, due to need or driven by people’s efforts, violated church rules, so that some people who just entered into faith from a godless life, and who only for a short time have become familiar with the basics of the Christian faith, such people almost just exited from the baptistery, yet they already are appointed as bishops or priests, [a rule] has become necessary that it requires time for training (progress) in the faith, and also after baptism, [the church] needs to verify that these people are worthy of consideration for those ranks of the clergy. The apostolic saying on this issue is very clear: ‘He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.’ (1 Tim. 3:6).”
The bishops present at the Council enacted the 80th rule of the so-called, “Rules of the Holy Apostles”, which reads as follows:
“It is inappropriate for someone who just came out of the godless life and received baptism, or from a life unworthy of the calling of the faith, to be given the right of appointment as a bishop. Because, it is not appropriate that someone who is untested could become a teacher of others, lest it occurred by God grace.”
Since this church council was held in the first half of the fourth century, we should expect that the issue arose in earlier times – despite the clear apostolic teaching that new coverts and newly baptized believers could not become overseers. However, the examples of two bishops (bishops and patriarchs Ambrose and Photius) just mentioned confirm that this ruling by the Council was not obeyed. Such ordinations continued into the 9th century (Patriarch Photius died in 891 A.D.) and probably beyond. But although the two previously mentioned laws represent many things from a biblical point of view, the end of the last quote gives permission in special situations for one to be appointed as a bishop even though “he has been untested in the faith.” In general, the rule says such appointments are only possible in the case of “God’s grace”, presumably with the idea of putting limits on such instances.
However, the question is why the apostles in the New Testament never wrote anything about this exception and deviation from the commandments which already existed? Already we have previously pointed out the fact that the appointment of any church elder happens by grace, not only in special cases. On the other hand, it is certain that the need for excellent elders was much greater at the beginning of the Christian era than later when Christianity received the freedom of worship, and later became the only religion officially recognized by the state. However, if God by “His grace” in the first century during the time of the Apostles had already established the correct procedure for appointing church leaders, there exists no precedent for appointing someone to church leadership only a week after their baptism.
Based on the above examples, anyone who knows the teachings of Christ and the Apostles will realize that the qualifications for ordination of church leaders in later centuries differed greatly from those of the early church era. It is simply inconceivable that the apostles would have chased down anyone who is running away from ministry in the Church. They never would have forced him to undergo ordination, and especially not to chase him into mountainous cliffs. They never would have put a person in a ministry where he did not belong. The words that God inspired Paul to write exhort Timothy to be the true servant of God, the supreme authority. Let us repeat Paul’s words and listen to them:
“I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality… Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.”
Now that we have determined the differences between Orthodox and Biblical teachings in these areas, let us address the origin of the idea of “apostolic succession”.