Part One: Not Like Religion – the Christian Clergy

According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Orthodox Christianity is not a religion. In his For the Life of the World, he wrote, “Christianity is in a profound sense the end of all religion…Nowhere in the New Testament is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ, who is both God and man, has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion.”

This concept is not new, but is found throughout the New Testament. Christ Himself, though firmly anchored in the Second Temple Judaism of His day and keeping the Jewish Law, pointed to something beyond it—the “new life” to which Fr. Alexander referred, a life given by the Spirit (John 3:5-8, 7:37-39). His followers would no longer need a temple with its priesthood and sacrifices to commune with God, whether that temple were on Gerizim or Jerusalem (John 4:21-23); His own flesh would be the new Temple (John 2:21). In that new life, Sabbath restrictions would no longer be ultimate (Matthew 12:16, John 5:8-11); nor would the food laws restricting certain foods (Mark 7:19). While living as a Jew faithful to the Old Covenant, Christ offered a new wine, a drink too potent to be contained within the old wineskins of that Covenant. The new wineskins of the Kingdom would be required (Mark 2:22).

This fundamental insight is the source of St. Paul’s rejection of Judaism. Judaism, though divine in origin, was now no longer adequate because Judaism was a religion. Like all religions of the world, it was characterized by certain fundamental concepts and dichotomies. It had a priesthood which offered animal sacrifices—and the rule that priests alone could offer these cultic sacrifices. It knew of sacred space—the courts of the Mosaic shrine, and later of the Temple, and places to which only certain persons could go (such as the inner Holy of Holies). It had certain categories such as “holy-clean-unclean”, and said that the unclean could not offer holy sacrifices until they were cleansed. It also used the category of “clean-unclean” for certain foods, outlawing the consumption of certain animals. Using a lunar calendar, it declared certain days were holy—i.e. holy in themselves—days such as the Sabbath, the full moon, the Passover. These things were not unique to Judaism. All religions of the world used the same basic categories. They were not categories of Judaism, but of religion itself. Religions might differ about which days were holy and which foods were allowed and who was allowed to function as a sacrificing priest, but they agreed that such categories were basic and constitutive.

Such categories St. Paul termed stoicheia (Galatians 4:3, Colossians 2:8, 2:20). They were not wrong in themselves, but represented a retreat and renunciation from the new life given freely in Christ apart from them. Thus St. Paul taught that it did not matter whether or not one regarded a particular day as intrinsically holier than another (Romans 14:5), and that no food was unclean in itself (Romans 14:14, 1 Timothy 4:4-5). He regarded the Galatians’ adherence to the Jewish calendar as an alarming development (Galatians 4:10-11), and said that the Colossians’ submission to the decrees about unclean foods was unworthy of those who “had died with Christ to the stoicheia of the world” (Colossians 2:20-23). Religion was for the spiritually immature, for children, those who were no better than slaves (Galatians 4:1-3). But now that Christ had come to redeem us, we were such slaves no longer, no longer under any religion with its fundamental categories. In Christ mankind comes of age, and no longer needs religion. We can have the Holy Spirit instead, who is the pledge and participation in the powers of the age to come.

It is easy to misinterpret Christianity as a religion like any other. For all major religions have books (the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita); they have officiating clergy (Rabbis, priests, imams), they have buildings in which to worship (synagogues, churches, mosques, temples). There is much commonality among their teachings—all say that kindness is preferable to cruelty, and that people should not murder each other or commit adultery. It is too easy therefore for those studying Comparative Religion to imagine that Christianity is comparable to the others. But, as we have seen, it is not so. The things which seem to be the same and comparable to things in other religions really are not. There is a superficial similarity, of course. But the inner and essential reality is different, just as there is a superficial similarity in the bodies of all men, and the real difference between them is found in their souls.

One of the apparent similar things between Christianity and religion is in the fact that both Christianity and the religions have a class of people who officiate when everyone comes together, and who perform certain set liturgical rites. Often the term for them is “priests”. In Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism, their function was especially located in the offering of sacrifices. It is significant, therefore, that the term “priest” (Greek iereus; Hebrew cohen) is never applied to the Christian clergy. They are called “elders/ presbyters” (Greek presbyteros) or “overseers/ bishops” (Greek episkopos) or “shepherds” (Greek poimen)—but never priests. The Jewish priests are referred to by that term (Acts 6:7), but not the Christian clergy. In the Church that title is reserved for Jesus Christ alone—He alone is the first, true, and only priest in the Church. And one can see why—a priest is one who offers a sacrifice, and the only true sacrifice that avails to save and transform is the sacrifice of Christ’s body upon the Cross. All the other sacrifices of the Law were mere prophecies, pledges, prayers for a cleansing that would only come later. The Jewish priesthood—and, taking a wider more global view, all the pagan priesthoods of the world’s religions—found fulfillment in Him. He is the true priest, who offered Himself as the true sacrifice (Hebrews 8:1-5). Those who have liturgical or pastoral responsibility in His Church are not, properly and strictly speaking, priests. They do not offer a sacrifice like the other Jewish and pagan priests offer sacrifices, for the only sacrifice we need has already been offered.

It is true, of course, that the term “priest” has been applied to the celebrants of the Eucharist—first to the bishop (when he was the main celebrant) and then to the presbyters (when they later took over this function). That poetic attribution of title was not incorrect, for it was based upon the insight that the celebrant offers by anamnesis or commemoration the one true sacrifice of Christ. The celebrants were thus priests not in their own right, but by virtue of their role as liturgical heads of the royal priesthood, the Body of Christ our high priest. Referring to them as “priests” meant only that they presided over the Church’s sacrificial anamnesis, not that they slaughtered animals and offered them up with their blood in sacrifice upon stone altars. (That was the point of calling the Eucharist “a bloodless sacrifice”.) Christianity is not a religion, and its officiating clergy are not strictly speaking, priests. Their priesthood consists of their calling to manifest through the Church’s corporate liturgical worship, the true and saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They are priests, not in their own right, but through their ordained participation in the heavenly priesthood of their Master. The coincidence of title between the Christian priests and the priests of the Jewish religion should not mislead us into thinking that Christianity is just another religion. Christianity is not a religion, but the sacramental presence of the incarnate God on the earth.


Next in the series: the Christian calendar



  1. Just an outstanding article. I particularly liked your description of the priest’s role under the New Covenant.

  2. But the term priest in English is just a development from the Greek presbyteros which meant elder not priest. Hence your defense of the term is unnecessary since we aren’t calling them whatever the term for priest would have been anyway.

    1. As I mentioned in the piece, it is applied to the clergy poetically in our liturgical usage by analogy, since the celebrant makes anamnesis of the one true sacrifice of Christ.

      1. Oh! I missed that connection.

        Isn’t ‘priest’ a borrowing into Germanic from Latin ‘presbyter’ as ‘preost(er)’?

        I suppose the logic of application by analogy still works, though, especially when you consider words like ‘sacerdos’ in Latin and ‘heiros’ in Greek all got conflated with ‘presbyter’. It works if it’s by analogy of the one true sacrifice of Christ that they offer.

        1. I know that the English word “priest” comes from the Greek “presbyteros“, but do not know the etymological paper trail. The Orthodox ordination prayer for priests/presbyters uses the term “presbyter”, making a play on words which vanishes from the English when the word “priest” is used: it begins, “O God, who have no beginning and no ending, who are older than every created thing, who crown with the name of presbyter those whom You deem worthy…” The word “older”, I believe, is the word “presbyteros“. I am working, however, from the Hapgood version, and do not have access to the original Greek. Anyway, the point is that the two words refer to two different roles, a iereus being one who sacrifices, and a presbyteros being one who rules.

  3. Fr Lawrence, I’ve recently been having conversations with some Protestant friends about this exact topic. Together, we read a book by mega church pastor, Bruxy Cavey (who wrote “The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus”). In it Cavey agrees that Christianity is no religion, but how he defines it bolsters his nondemoninational understanding of ecclesiology (no priests, no rituals, no rules, no funny hats, etc). Are you familiar with this book or line of thought? If so, how would you provide a concise defence for Orthodox ecclisology, belief and practice?

    Thank you

    1. I have not read (or heard of) Bruxy Cavey, though misunderstandings of the topic like his were the reason for this particular blog series. His is the flip side of the error I am trying to warn against. Some people look at the outward similarities between Christianity and the other religions and say, “These similarities mean that Christianity is a religion like the others”; other people like Cavey look at the similarities and say, “The things in Christianity that are religious need to be jettisoned since Christianity is not religion”. Both groups share a failure to see that in Christianity the things which the Church appears to have in common with the religions are in fact different from them. No Christian can (for example) throw out “priests” (i.e. clergy), since their essential presence is found in the Scriptures. No Christian can throw out “rituals” (i.e. sacraments) since they are commanded by Christ. I suspect that at the end of the day Cavey is simply falling into the venerable and reactionary Protestant trap of rejecting all things that look Catholic, but justifying it in a novel way. Having Scriptures is also something shared with other religions, but he doesn’t want to throw out the Bible—because the Bible is constitutive of his Protestantism. I submit therefore that what we encounter in his book is not the subversive spirituality of Jesus, but the reactionary spirituality of the Reformation.

      1. Father,
        I am glad Chris asked that question. I too have heard the same thing from Protestants, that Christianity is not a religion. When I would ask them what they meant, the response included how they do not believe in “useless rituals”. When asked what they meant by “rituals”, they mentioned ceremonial acts, but it was quite sketchy…they didn’t mention specific things like priesthood, or the sacraments. Rather, they were put off by the appearance of our worship. So I thought, yes, by definition we are a religion…yet I would come across teachings like Fr. Schmemanns and yours, that explain why we are not. Your explanation of this misunderstanding being “the flip side of the error” helps much in clarifying what is going on here. Thank you very much for that.
        One of the people I had this conversation with was raised strict Catholic. During those years from time to time she, by “permission” from the Catholic Church, attended a few services at an Orthodox Church. With that experience she has decided there is no difference between the two. She saw the same “ceremonies” and deemed the two Churches as identical. She is now Protestant, non-denominational, and left the Catholic Church despising it. I knew her when I was in the ND church. She was stunned when I left and entered into Orthodoxy. We tried to continue our relationship, accepting the differences. She would have been perfectly happy continuing the relationship, but it was me who had great difficulty. I tried many times to explain our faith. The stumbling blocks were many. There came a time when I decided to avoid the topic completely, because of much misunderstanding. Yet I continued to hear time after time about “rituals” , Mary, the Saints, praying for the dead, etc. The day I severed the relationship was when she referred to those who practice as such as being in a “false religion”. To this day I wonder if I did the right thing by leaving. There was no yelling or screaming, but I was quite disturbed because there was no willingness to listen. I ask myself, do lack patience? humility? forgiveness? No doubt I do. I took her statements personally, as well as a desire to defend the faith. I believe it is not so much the severing of the relationship that was wrong, but the condition of my heart in doing so. I am sorry, Father, to divert off topic. I can’t help but be reminded of these events in my life when reading these posts. After prolonged discussions, it is very difficult for me to withstand the opposition. We both are fervent in our beliefs. Having said that, I know that when we meet again, there will be respect and love toward each other as believers in Christ. Still I ask, was it best for me to part ways if differences continually lead to distress, even in light of my imperfections? I hope for a time when I can discuss these matters without taking offense.

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