Why Only Priests Can Celebrate the Eucharist
Q: Why can only priests consecrate the Eucharist?
A: The simplest answer is — because that’s their job. Asking why only priests can consecrate the Eucharist is a little like asking why only congressmen can vote on bills or why only brain surgeons are allowed to do brain surgery. It is what their function is.
The real question is why should there be a ministerial priesthood in addition to the universal priesthood all Christians share. To understand this, let’s back up for a second.
Human society requires a division of labor. Within civilization there is no such things a true jack of all trades. Even if people could master all the necessary skills (which they can’t), they don’t have sufficient time to provide the quality of life that civilization allows. Outside of civilization life is — to be frank — nasty, brutish, and short. The mountain men of the 19th century may have been rugged, but they also had amazingly short lifespans, no more than a few years once they left civilization. Man is a social being. As God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Given that human nature requires society and society requires a division of labor, human nature indirectly requires the existence of all sorts of occupations: farmers, rulers, clerks, carpenters, and priests — men who minister in the holy things.
There is a good reason for this. The holy things are the most important things there are, meaning that they of all things require a specialist to minister them. Among the holy things are conducting the proper corporate worship of God, the blessing of the people, the teaching of the people, and the pastoral governance of the people — all of which are attributed to both Old Testament priests and New Testament presbyter-priests.
The chief act of corporate worship for a priest is the offering of sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. For the Old Testament priests this was the slain animal offerings; for the New Testament priests it is the offering of the living Christ to his Father as he presents himself to his Father in his heavenly intercession on our behalf as our high priest. If God required specialists to perform even the dead animal sacrifices, how much more will he require specialists to play a role in the living Christ’s offering of himself to his Father.
This is all the more apparent when one considers the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If any layperson could consecrate the elements, Christ would suffer innumerable offenses in the Eucharist. Only someone who has been specially trained and who is specially trustworthy must be allowed to minister in this sacred event. We can see the disaster that would result if every Christian were able to consecrate the elements if we look at 1 Corinthians 11:20, 27-30:
When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk…. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (RSV).
The Corinthians were offending Christ in the Eucharist in such a way that God was striking them dead! Given that this is how much values the Presence of his Son in the Eucharist, how could he possibly allow every Christian, no matter how backslidden, improperly educated, heretical, or even mentally unbalanced to consecrate the elements? Innumerable disasters would result! There is simply no way God would allow anyone other than a person specially trained in the proper administration of the sacrament to do the consecration.
We can see from the account of the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16) how seriously God took it when universal priests usurped the administration of the holy things in the Old Covenant (seriously enough that he killed them and their followers). Now that the New Covenant is here and there are even greater holy things to administer, he takes it even more seriously when universal priests usurp the ministerial priesthood (see my pieces The Office of New Testament Priest and The Priesthood Debate). As Jude warns us, there are those in the New Testament Church who also “perish in Korah’s rebellion” (Jude 11).