“We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.” (Articles of Faith 6)
With the loss of the apostleship during the great apostasy, the early Christian Church had to rely on local officers for guidance, notably the bishops, presbyters (elders, though later understood to be priests), and deacons. In time, as more people accepted the message of Christ, bishops in some of the larger cities became the leaders around which the rural bishops rallied and the office of patriarch was instituted for those more important bishops. The term patriarch denotes rule by a “father,” so these bishops were called by fatherly titles, including papa, which became pope in Rome . With the split between the eastern and western branches of the church, the title patriarch continued in the east but was replaced in the west by the term archbishop. Ultimately, the Roman Catholic Church instituted the office of cardinal to denote those leaders who would be authorized to select new popes as their predecessors passed on.
Some of the original church offices disappeared, including those of apostle and seventy. The New Testament Church had been patterned after the organization of Moses’ time, when a group of twelve tribal leaders were assisted by seventy others selected from the tribes of Israel . Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls describe a leadership that consisted of three priests and twelve righteous men, which seem to parallel the First Presidency and Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Some of the offices were remembered even after the apostasy had taken place. For example, in the pseudepigraphic Revelation of Saint John the Theologian , the apostle asks Christ “do all the Christians go into one punishment? Kings, high priests, priests, patriarchs, rich and poor, bond and free?” to which Christ responds by naming the offices of “kings . . . patriarchs, and priests, and Levites.”
The mention of Levites is interesting because these Israelite religious officials were replaced in the early Christian Church (and today in the restored Church) by teachers and deacons who, like the Old Testament Levites, work alongside priests of the order of Aaron. A Syriac text entitled Exposition of the Mysteries of the Church notes that “the deacons represent the former Levites” (folio 187a). The Syriac writer Moses Bar Kepha, in his Explanation of the Mysteries of the Oblation , wrote “The deacons (also) fill the place of the former levites” (folio 151b) and that “the stoles ( orarium ) which are upon their left shoulders declare their subjection, like subordinates who are in subjection; for he who is in authority wears the stole upon his head or upon both of his shoulders” (folio 152a).
Compare this with Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2.4.25, which says, that the “holy bishops . . . are your high priests, as the presbyters are your priests, and your present deacons instead of your Levites . . . but He who is above all these [i.e., Christ] is the High Priest.” Another passage of the Constitutions speaks of the “deacon who is at the high priest’s hand” during the consecration of the eucharist. “After this let the deacon pray for the whole Church, for the whole world, and the several parts of it, and the fruits of it; for the priests and the rulers, for the high priest and the king, and the peace of the universe. After this let the high priest pray for peace upon the people, and bless them, as Moses commanded the priests to bless the people” ( Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2.7.57). These passages, along with others to be cited later, clearly indicate that the earliest Christians acknowledged the office of high priest in the Church.
The general view among Protestants is that there never was an office of high priest in the Christian Church and that Christ alone is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. This is based on declarations in the epistle to the Hebrews, in which Christ is seen as the high priest of a new order, that of Melchizedek, which replaced the priesthood of the Aaronic order (Hebrews 2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15; 5:1, 5, 10; 6:20; 7:1, 26; 8:1-4; 9:11, 24-25; 10:21). The epistle suggests that Christ went beyond the veil into the heavenly holy of holies in the same manner that the Israelite high priest of the Aaronic order went behind the veil once year, the difference being that Christ performed this ritual act only once (Hebrews 9:7-8, 11-12, 24). This, they say, is evidence that only Christ can be our high priest.
This interpretation ignores the clear declaration of Hebrews 10:19-21, which suggests that we, too, can go through the veil and thus can become high priests. Hebrews 10:19-20 admonishes, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh.” Since this high priesthood is named after Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18; Psalm 110:4) and the words cited throughout the epistle to the Hebrews from Psalm 110 were addressed to David, Christ is clearly not the only one to have held it.
Peter wrote to the Church, “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). He drew this idea from Exodus 19:6, where the Lord says to the Israelites, “ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” Because they did not keep the Lord’s commandments, Israel lost the opportunity to receive the Melchizedek priesthood and the only ones who were ordained priests were the descendants of Aaron. Drawing on the Exodus and 1 Peter passages, the second-century AD Christian philosopher Justin Martyr wrote, “we are the true high priestly race of God, as even God Himself bears witness, saying that in every place among the Gentiles sacrifices are presented to Him well-pleasing and pure. Now God receives sacrifices from no one, except through His priests” ( Dialogue with Trypho 116).
The apostle John also noted that Christ “hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him [be] glory and dominion for ever and ever” (Revelation 1:6). In his vision, he saw twenty-four elders seated around the throne of God and declaring that Christ “made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10). Since the Aaronic priesthood was restricted to descendants of Aaron, both Peter and John must have been writing about the Melchizedek priesthood.
Another passage to consider is Hebrews 3:1, in which early Christians were admonished, “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus.” Since Jesus, who is here called both an apostle and high priest, selected twelve other apostles, it is not unreasonable to suggest that he also called high priests. That the office of high priest was recognized in the early Church is evidenced in the declarations of some of the earliest Church Fathers.
Ignatius, an early second-century bishop of Antioch , wrote of “those who indeed talk of the bishop, but do all things without him” and noted that Christ “is the true and first Bishop, and the only High Priest by nature” ( Epistle to the Magnesians 4). A similar declaration is found in Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.5.46: “.the universal Bishop and the High Priest of the Father, Jesus Christ our Lord . . . The great High Priest therefore, who is so by nature, is Christ the only begotten.” If Christ is the “true” bishop and the only “natural” high priest, it follows that there are other bishops and high priests who do not hold those offices by nature, but by ordination.
In another of his epistles, Ignatius instructed the early saints “Let governors be obedient to Caesar; soldiers to those that command them; deacons to the presbyters, as to high-priests; the presbyters, and deacons, and the rest of the clergy, together with all the people, and the soldiers, and the governors, and Caesar [himself], to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as Christ to the Father” ( Epistle to the Philadelphians 4). In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 9, Ignatius admonished his readers to “Honour thou God indeed, as the Author and Lord of all things, but the bishop as the high-priest, who bears the image of God—of God, inasmuch as he is a ruler, and of Christ, in his capacity of a priest.”
The late first-century AD writer Clement of Rome wrote about the early Church that the Lord’s “own peculiar services 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 by the laws that pertain to laymen” ( 1 Clement 40).
The Didache or “Teachings” of the Twelve Apostles, written in the late first century or early second century AD, says that “every true prophet that willeth to abide among you is worthy of his support. So also a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman, of his support. Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, thou shalt take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if ye have not a prophet, give it to the poor” ( Didache 13:1-3).
We noted earlier that the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles sometimes compared the Old Testament offices of high priest, priest, and levite, with offices in the early Christian Church. Other passages describe some of the duties of these high priests. For example one such passage mentions the oil that “is blessed by the high priest for the remission of sins, and the first preparation for baptism” ( Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 7.2.42) Another gives the prayer that is to be pronounced by “the high priest” ( Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.2.10-11). It goes on to say, “Let the high priest, therefore, together with the priests, pray by himself; and let him put on his shining garment, and stand at the altar” ( Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.2.12), then lists the words the high priest is to use during the ceremony.
Among the other early Christian writers who mention the office of high priest in the Church are Hippolytus, an historian of the late second and early third centuries AD, and Peter, a late third-century bishop of Alexandria .
The Bishop as High Priest
The Lord told the prophet that the office of bishop belongs, by right, to “the sons of Aaron,” but that a high priest could serve as bishop when no literal descendants of Aaron could be found (D&C 68:15-21; 107:13-17, 68-76; cf. D&C 84:29). It is not surprising that the early Christian bishops were sometimes called “high priests.”
Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.5.46 has the apostles declaring that “being taught by the Lord the series of things, we distributed the functions of the high-priesthood to the bishops, those of the priesthood to the presbyters, and the ministration under them both to the deacons.” Speaking of the duties of bishops, says, “As to a good shepherd, let the lay person honor him, love him, reverence him as his Lord, as his master, as the high priest of God, as a teacher of piety. For he that heareth him, heareth Christ; and he that rejecteth him, rejecteth Christ” ( Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2.3.20). In a section describing the prayer employed for the ordination of bishops, Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.2.5 says, “Grant by Thy name, O God, who searchest the hearts, that this Thy servant, whom Thou hast chosen to be a bishop, may feed Thy holy flock, and discharge the office of an high priest to Thee . . . grant that this Thy servant whom Thou hast chosen to the holy office of Thy bishop, may discharge the duty of a high priest to Thee, and minister to Thee unblameably night and day; that he may appease Thee unceasingly, and present to Thee the gifts of Thy holy Church, and in the spirit of the high-priesthood have power to remit sins according to Thy commandment.”
Other early texts suggest that Christian bishops were considered to be high priests. For example, Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “Honor thou God indeed, as the Author and Lord of all things, but the bishop as the high-priest, who bears the image of God—of God, inasmuch as he is a ruler, and of Christ, in his capacity of a priest” ( Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 9). Tertullian (ca. AD 160-230) wrote on “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 honor of the Church, which being preserved, peace is preserved” ( On Baptism 17).
The pseudepigraphic Divine Liturgy of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark 1.3 includes a communal prayer that reads, “O Sovereign and Almighty God, the Father of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, we pray and beseech Thee to defend in Thy good mercy our most holy and blessed high priest our Father in God, and our most reverend Bishop. Preserve them for us through many years in peace, while they according to Thy holy and blessed will fulfill the sacred priesthood committed to their care.” Similarly, Ambrose, bishop of Milan (died AD 397), describing the “mysteries” (ordinances) said, “You saw there the deacon, you saw the priest, you saw the chief priest” ( On the Mysteries 2.6). That the bishop is the president or head of the priests quorum is noted in D&C 107:87-88.
An early formula for the ordination of bishops reads, “This Thy servant, whom Thou hast chosen to be a bishop, may feed Thy holy flock, and discharge the office of an high priest to Thee . . . Father who knowest the hearts [of all] grant upon this Thy servant whom Thou hast chosen for the episcopate to feed Thy holy flock and serve as Thine high priest that he may minister blamelessly by night and day, and unceasingly [behold and] propitiate Thy countenance and offer to Thee the gifts of Thy holy Church , and in the spirit of the high-priesthood have power to remit sins according to Thy commandment, to give lots according to Thy injunction, to loose every bond according to the power which Thou hast given to the apostles, and be well-pleasing to Thee, in meekness and a pure heart offering a smell of sweet savor through Thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, with whom to Thee be glory, power, and honor, along with the Holy Spirit, now and for ever.
In his “Last Farewell” ( Oration 42.26), delivered “in the presence of the one hundred and fifty bishops” according to heading, Gregory of Nazianzen, bishop of Constantinople (died AD 389) referred to the “farewell assembly of high priests.” In his Ecclesiastical History, Salaminius Hermias Sozemen (died AD 405) described the bishops in attendance at the first council of Nicea (AD 325) as high priests.
The Acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council , held at Nicea in AD 787, provide evidence that bishops assembled at the meeting were considered to be high priests. During the first session, Basil, bishop of Ancyra , referred to “all orthodox high-priests and priests.” Near the end of that session, the assembly heard from “John, the most reverend bishop and legate of the Eastern high priests,” while in the minutes from the fourth session, he is called “John the most reverend monk and presbyter and representative of the Eastern high priests.” The second canon adopted by the council decreed that a candidate for the office of bishop must “be zealously inclined to read diligently, and not merely now and then, the sacred canons, the holy Gospel, and the book of the divine Apostles, and all other divine Scripture . . . For the special treasure of our high priesthood is the oracles which have been divinely delivered to us, that is the true science of the Divine Scriptures.”
Sustaining Priesthood Officers
Joseph Smith wrote, “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof” (Article of Faith 5). But he also taught that ““No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church; But the presiding elders, traveling bishops, high councilors, high priests, and elders, may have the privilege of ordaining, where there is no branch of the church that a vote may be called.”” (D&C 20:65-66). Indeed, the first occasion for such a sustaining was on the day on which the restored Church was organized, 6 April 1830, when the six elders voted to accept Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as the presiding officers of the Church. Like many other practices instituted by Joseph Smith, this was a restoration of an ancient Christian practice.
In the restored Church, the concept of “common consent” requires that each person selected to be ordained to a priesthood or presiding office must be sustained by the local members of the Church (D&C 26:2; 28:13). This was also true in early Christianity. For example, the synodical letter issued in AD 382 by attendees at the Council of Constantinople notes that
“Accordingly over the new made . . . church at Constantinople . . . We have ordained bishop the right reverend and most religious Nectarius, in the presence of the Ecumenical Council, with common consent, before the most religious emperor Theodosius and with the assent of all the clergy and of the whole city. And over the most ancient and truly apostolic church in Syria, where first the noble name of Christians was given them, the bishops of the province and of the eastern diocese have met together and canonically ordained bishop the right reverend and most religious Flavianus, with the consent of all the church, who as though with one voice joined in expressing their respect for him.”
The late first-century Clement of Rome, in his epistle to the Corinthians, wrote: “Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry . . . with the consent of the whole Church.” (1 Clement 44)
Pope Leo the Great (reigned AD 440-461), in his letter 14.6 to Anastasius, bishop of Thessalonica, wrote: “When therefore the choice of the chief priest is taken in hand, let him be preferred before all whom the unanimous consent of clergy and people demands, but if the votes chance to be divided between two persons, the judgment of the metropolitan should prefer him who is supported by the preponderance of votes and merits: only let no one be ordained against the express wishes of the place: lest a city should either despise or hate a bishop whom they did not choose, and lamentably fall away from religion because they have not been allowed to have when they wished.”
A text attributed to the twelve apostles describes the process by which the early Christians sustained bishops: “I Peter say, that a bishop ordained is to be, as we have already, all of us, appointed, unblameable in all things, a select person, chosen by the whole people, who, when he is named and approved, let the people assemble, with the presbytery and bishops that are present, an the Lord’s day, and let them give their consent. And let the principal of the bishops ask the presbytery and people whether this be the person whom they desire for their ruler. And if they give their consent, let him ask further whether he has a good testimony from all men as to his worthiness for so great and glorious an authority; whether all things relating to his piety towards God be right; whether justice towards men has been observed by him; whether the affairs of his family have been well ordered by him; whether he has been unblameable in the course of his life. And if all the assembly together do according to truth, and not according to prejudice, witness that he is such a one, let them the third time, as before God the Judge, and Christ, the Holy Ghost being also present, as well as all the holy and ministering spirits, ask again whether he be truly worthy of this ministry, that so “in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if they agree the third time that he is worthy, let them all be demanded their vote; and when they all give it willingly, let them be heard.
Cyprian of Carthage (3 rd century AD) acknowledged that Christians of his time had to approve ordinations. In his Epistle 51.8,he wrote, “Cornelius was made bishop by the judgment of God and of His Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the suffrage of the people who were then present, and by the assembly of ancient priests and good men.” In Epistle 54.5, he wrote that “no one would stir up anything against the college of priests; no one, after the divine judgment, after the suffrage of the people, after the consent of the co-bishops, would make himself a judge, not now of the bishop, but of God.” In Epistle 67.5, he instructed, “you must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine tradition and apostolic observance, which is also maintained among us, and almost throughout all the provinces; that for the proper celebration of ordinations all the neighboring bishops of the same province should assemble with that people for which a prelate is ordained. And the bishop should be chosen in the presence of the people, who have most fully known the life of each one, and have looked into the doings of each one as respects his habitual conduct.”
Cyprian appealed to the Old and New Testaments as evidence for having the local congregation approve its leaders. In Epistle 67.4, he wrote, “Which very thing, too, we observe to come from divine authority, that the priest should be chosen in the presence of the people under the eyes of all, and should be approved worthy and suitable by public judgment and testimony; as in the book of Numbers the Lord commanded Moses, saying, ‘Take Aaron thy brother, and Eleazar his son, and place them in the mount, in the presence of all the assembly, and strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and let Aaron die there, and be added to his people.’ [Numbers 20:25-26] God commands a priest to be appointed in the presence of all the assembly; that is, He instructs and shows that the ordination of priests ought not to be solemnized except with the knowledge of the people standing near, that in the presence of the people either the crimes of the wicked may be disclosed, or the merits of the good may be declared, and the ordination, which shall have been examined by the suffrage and judgment of all, may be just and legitimate. And this is subsequently observed, according to divine instruction, in the Acts of the Apostles, when Peter speaks to the people of ordaining an apostle in the place of Judas.’“Peter,’ it says, ‘stood up in the midst of the disciples, and the multitude were in one place.’ [Acts 1:15] Neither do we observe that this was regarded by the apostles only in the ordinations of bishops and priests, but also in those of deacons, of which matter itself also it is written in their Acts: ‘And they twelve called together,’ it says, ‘the whole congregation of the disciples, and said to them;’ [Acts 6:2] which was done so diligently and carefully, with the calling together of the whole of the people, surely for this reason, that no unworthy person might creep into the ministry of the altar, or to the office of a priest.”
The restoration of priesthood keys through the prophet Joseph Smith was the most important aspect of the re-establishment of Christ’s Church on the earth in the last days. From these keys, the prophet was authorized to call various officers and to return to the organization that prevailed in the days of Christ’s apostles. That organization had been changed during the course of the apostasy that occurred during the first and second centuries AD, but, as we have seen in this chapter, some later texts recalled enough elements of the priesthood offices to enable us to see the restored Church as a reflection of the Church of the meridian of time.