By Chris Jones
In discussions of the roles of the elders and the ministry staff of churches, many turn to models of shepherding, equipping, and building up of the body as viable paradigms for church leadership. It is pointed out from passages such as Ephesians 4:11-12, 1 Corinthians 12:27-31, and Romans 12:3-8 that God has gifted the church with differing abilities and functions that serve to equip the local church and build up the body of Christ. These paradigms and models are biblical, relevant, and beneficial ways in which to see ministry, but there is one model that is oft-neglected or not even mentioned at all. Through all the literature and interaction with the text of Scripture on issues of church polity rarely does one see the concept of the ministerial priesthood as a viable model of gospel ministry. One exception could be found in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglican apologetic material. The reason I find this omission as odd is because Paul alludes to his ‘priestly duty’ in proclaiming the gospel in Romans 15:16. My question is the following: “is this metaphor of priesthood for gospel proclamation of ministry neglected out of pure oversight or is it from an overreaction to the sacramental priesthood and clerical system of Roman Catholicism?” In this article, I will try to accomplish the following: examine Paul’s use of the metaphor of priesthood in Romans 15:16, discuss possible objections to the use of the priesthood metaphor, and provide possible contributions this model could make to ministry in the churches of Christ.
When one turns to Paul’s discussion of his evangelistic mission in Romans 15:16, it is very noticeable that Paul uses two terms that are directly connected to the concept of priestly Temple duties. In Romans 15:15–16 Paul states, “But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister (leitourgos) of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service (hierougeō) of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (ESV).” Interestingly, Paul combines the terms leitourgos and hierougeōin the same passage. Both terms are connected to the concept of priestly Temple ministry. I agree with Michael Bird in his assertion that Isaiah 61 is in Paul’s mind as he writes this section. The reason this is an important insight by Bird is that Isaiah 61 tells us that the Servant is anointed to proclaim the good news and Isaiah tells us in verse 6, “but you shall be called the priests (hierais) of the Lord; they shall speak of you as ministers (leitourgoi) of God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory, you shall boast (ESV).” It is possible that Paul understands his mission as being a fulfillment of what Isaiah envisions. Isaiah is connecting the proclamation of the gospel among the Gentiles as a priestly type of venture.
Also, Paul uses cultic language to describe his preaching mission, and he views the Gentile Christians as “an offering acceptable to God sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” What is telling about this passage in Romans is that Paul pulls together two terms that were commonly used in the LXX to refer specifically to the Old Testament cultic services of the Temple and Tabernacle. When one combines the real possibility that Isaiah 61 is a possible echo that Paul is pulling into his thought-world as well as his overt Temple, cultic, priestly language in this passage, one starts to see the importance of priestly categories for understanding Paul’s view of ministry. Paul’s priestly image fits nicely with his very robust view of the church in Temple language that he has already displayed in places such as Ephesians 2:19-22. In summing up what we find in Romans 15:16, we can conclude the following:
- The grace that Paul has received is that he is a leitourgos (priestly service language) for Jesus, the Messiah to the Gentiles.
- Paul specifically describes his ministry as a “priestly service” using a word (hierourgeō), which means the services a priest performed in the Temple cult of Israel.
- Paul is more than likely pulling from Isaiah 61, which is a passage that likens the gospel proclamation to the Gentiles as a priestly duty.
- Paul views the Gentiles as an offering to the Lord in which they become an “offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
Some may bristle at the idea of explaining ministry in terms of the priesthood due to an automatic aversion to Roman Catholic clericalism that many may attach to the notion of the ministerial priesthood. I understand that reaction, and that is not what is being proposed here. Paul is not advocating for the minister of the gospel as being a mediator of graces and sacraments, but he is advocating for some form of priestly ministry.
Another possible objection is that Paul is simply using a metaphor to describe ministry in this passage, and metaphors should not be stretched too far. That is true, but one could also say that Scripture uses the metaphor of shepherding to describe the office of an elder, and that metaphor could be stretched too far. We understand that an elder is not going out in the pasture to tend sheep. We also understand that the metaphor is still informative and is didactic in how we see pastoral leadership from our elders. Just as we have no problem with applying shepherding concepts to the pastoring of elders, we should have no problem with seeing ministry through the lens of priestly categories.
One of the more powerful objections stems from the very important doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. We are reminded in 1 Peter 2:4–5, “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Peter makes it clear that all Christians are priests of God and that we all offer spiritual sacrifices. I wholeheartedly agree with Peter’s assertion but that still does not negate what Paul says in Romans 15:16. Just as God calls some to be shepherds in a special sense, that does not mean that every Christian does not have the responsibility of feeding one another spiritually and acting in ‘shepherding types of ways.’ In the same way we are all priests of God but according to Paul, those that preach the gospel are acting in a special priestly type of way that is in line with redemptive history and the Hebrew Bible.
You may wonder, why waste all this space for this topic? I believe a priestly understanding of ministry can add layers of understanding and meaning to the life of a gospel minister in the churches of Christ. The other more obvious answer is that the Apostle Paul believes it is important enough to view his ministry in sacrificial and priestly categories. The ancient preacher John Chrysostom said it best in one of his sermons on Romans 15:16 when he said, “For me, the priesthood means to preach and to proclaim; this is the sacrifice I offer.” In Romans 15:16, I find something sacred and moving. It transforms how I see my gospel work and proclamation. When I look at the congregation God has called me to minister to I now see a group of people that are precious in the sight of God and my calling is to consecrate them to the Lord through the gospel. This work of consecration of the gospel preacher is part of God’s redemptive plan that traces all the way back to the Levitical priesthood but finds its telos in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is humbling to realize that this is all the work of Jesus Christ from first to last and I get to participate in that work. As ministers of the gospel, our priestly task is to encourage, instruct, and model to our congregants so that they will prove to be blameless on the Day of the Lord as a fragrant and acceptable offering to the Lord. Yes, I will say with confidence that ministers of the gospel are priests in the fullest and biblical sense.
 Michael Bird, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Romans, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 505.
 The Septuagint (LXX) is the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in common use in the time of Paul and it is quoted many times by Paul when he makes references to the OT.
 J. Patout Burns Jr. Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) 372.