The early Christians and the Ministerial Priesthood
Protestants and “Bible only” Christians reject Ministerial priesthood because New Testament applies the title priest (Greek hiereus) only to Christ and to all believers. However Christianity in New Testament times was still a movement within Judaism (Acts 22:19 and 26:11). The first followers of Jesus both attended Jewish temple (Acts 2:46) and broke bread in their homes (Acts 2:46 and 20:7). Peter and John went to temple to pray (Acts 3:1) and so did Paul and others in Acts 21:26 to give offering and to announce the days of purification after performing ritual. While Catholics believe that Christ instituted Ministerial priesthood in the Last Supper, to Christians in the New Testament times the title priest meant Levitical priest of Judaism. Only after destruction of Jerusalem temple (c. 70 AD) and after Christianity broke away from Judaism, both happened after New Testament times the title priest was applied to bishops and presbyters. The earliest reference to three-level of priesthood (High priest, priests and Levites) among Christians was recorded in the 1 Clement (written c. 96 AD).
Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his peculiar are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound only by the laws that pertain to laymen.
1 Clement Chapter 40
Ignatius (died c. 107 AD), bishop of Antioch wrote that the celebrant of the Eucharist must be a bishop or one he has entrusted and that a bishop ministered as a priest to God.
Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.
Ignatius, Epistle to Smyrnaeans 8
Nor is there any one in the Church greater than the bishop, who ministers as a priest to God for the salvation of the whole world. Nor, again, is there any one among rulers to be compared with the king, who secures peace and good order to those over whom he rules. He who honours the bishop shall be honoured by God, even as he that dishonours him shall be punished by God. For if he that rises up against kings is justly held worthy of punishment, inasmuch as he dissolves public order, of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who presumes to do anything without the bishop, thus both destroying the [Church’s] unity, and throwing its order into confusion? For the priesthood is the very highest point of all good things among men, against which whosoever is mad enough to strive, dishonours not man, but God, and Christ Jesus, the First-born, and the only High Priest, by nature, of the Father. Let all things therefore be done by you with good order in Christ. Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father.
Ignatius, Epistle to Smyrnaeans 9
Irenæus (c. 115 to 202), bishop of Lyon wrote that all apostles of Jesus were priests who served God and the altar continually.
And all the apostles of the Lord are priests, who do inherit here neither lands nor houses, but serve God and the altar continually.
Irenæus, Against Heresies 4.8.3
Tertullian (c. 160 to 230), bishop of Carthage referred bishops as chief priests or in Latin “summus sacerdos“. His successor, Cyprian (died c. 258), wrote that bishop is Christ priest and that presbyters are associated with the bishop in priestly honour. He also wrote that priests (bishops and presbyters) offer the same sacrifice Jesus offered to God the Father.
For concluding our brief subject, it remains to put you in mind also of the due observance of giving and receiving baptism. Of giving it, the chief priest (who is the bishop) has the right: in the next place, the presbyters and deacons, yet not without the bishop’s authority, on account of the honour of the Church, which being preserved, peace is preserved.
Tertullian, On Baptism 17
We understand, dearest brother, and we perceive with the whole light of our heart, the salutary and holy plans of the divine majesty, whence the sudden persecution lately arose there-whence the secular power suddenly broke forth against the Church of Christ and the bishop Cornelius, the blessed martyr, and all of you; so that, for the confusion and beating down of heretics, the Lord might show which was the Church-which is its one bishop chosen by divine appointment-which presbyters are associated with the bishop in priestly honour-which is the united and true people of Christ, linked together in the love of the Lord’s flock-who they were whom the enemy would harass; whom, on the other hand, the devil would spare as being his own.
Cyprian, Epistle 57 to Lucius, bishop of Rome 3
For if Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is Himself the chief priest of God the Father, and has first offered Himself a sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded this to be done in commemoration of Himself, certainly that priest truly discharges the office of Christ, who imitates that which Christ did; and he then offers a true and full sacrifice in the Church to God the Father, when he proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ Himself to have offered.
Cyprian, Epistle 62 On the Sacrament of the Cup of the Lord 14