Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Living the Reality of the Royal Priesthood


This essay seeks to describe the relationship between a fundamental theological truth to its practice in the Christian life. In particular, this essay will examine the nature and practice of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. As this can also be referred to as every member ministry, the terms will be used interchangeably.

The importance of this doctrine cannot be overstated, in that where it is poorly understood, it is poorly practiced, and where it is poorly practiced Christian witness is weak and ineffectual. On the other hand where it is grasped, Christian witness and service increase, the church grows, and healthy communities of faith are formed. God always honours building when it is done to his design.

This essay will examine the causes of a gap between doctrine and practice; as such I will intentionally avoid overwhelmingly theological jargon, and focus on practical application. At heart the gap between practice and belief is the proverbial two-sided coin problem. On the one hand it is a leadership problem, and on the other it is a laity problem. The common ground, the coin itself, is Christian education also called discipleship.

It should be noted at the outset that there are many academics and people from all streams of life who are quick to criticize the church. Those in the church are not exempt; some have built their whole ministries on telling us what is wrong with the church. This is not the intention of this essay. Those who seek to criticize the church often fail to see it as it is, a body of believers, a royal priesthood. Their focus is on the institutions. They cannot see it from Gods perspective, for He always premises His view of the church with love.

While we shy away from anyone who would seek to criticize the church, we do believe there is tremendous value in taking a critical look at it (in the sense of careful consideration). We believe that if as believers we need to pause and take stock of our own lives, how much more so should we as the Church. In such books as the acclaimed “I believe in Church Growth” by Eddie Gibbs[1] the value in looking at the Church with fresh eyes is demonstrated.

We begin by examining the doctrine itself in broad terms, what it is, where it fits. We touch briefly here on the discrepancy between practice and profession. We describe its nature and tragic consequences.

Next we speculate as to some of the factors which may have contributed to the development of a gap. Was this inevitable? What portion of the responsibility should the church take for the present dilemma? We discuss in particular church history, church culture and leadership styles as influences.

Finally we offer some suggestions as to practical ways in which the divide between practice and theory may be overcome.

Let’s first examine what this doctrine encompasses, and where it fits.

The Priesthood of All Believers

The doctrine (a synonym for truth) of the priesthood of all believers is most clearly summarized in the book of first Peter.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a
people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who
called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1Pe2 : 9 0

This sums up God’s plan to have a redeemed people who continue His work in the world, who offer to Him the sacrifice of praise, and who spend themselves in service of those around them for the sake of the gospel. Eugene Peterson makes the point that the church is an organization created for the benefit of its non-members. It all started at Pentecost.

“Then tongues of fire landed on everyone’s head. I have no clue what those
“tongues of fire” looked like, but they represented the coming of the Holy
spirit in full measure to the church. And the tongues sat not on the heads of a
select few but on everybody’s head.

From that moment on instead of a few select priests, filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit to act as go betweens with God, suddenly everyone of Jesus’ followers became a priest.”[3]

People, who understand their standing before God as a royal priesthood, yearn to bring the kingdom of God with them into their everyday lives. They represent Christ where they are as chosen ambassadors for Him. They long to share the joy they have with others, and operate with a sense of divine purpose, even destiny. For such individuals there is no secular profession. They are serving God where they are. Their mission is sacred.

“There is no New Testament basis for the clergy/laity ministry dichotomy that
relegates laypeople to a secondary role in ministry. Just as the Reformation put
the scriptures in the hands of the laity, there is now a realization that we
need to put ministry in the hands of the laity… The biblical doctrine of the
priesthood of all believers teaches us that we are all called to full time
ministry in our spheres of influence. As we cultivate our personal walk with God
and nurture others through discipleship and witness, we engage in the enduring
work of God.”[4]

A poor understanding of Soteriology, that is to say salvation, will give us a warped perspective on our identity as a new creation and also our role as a royal priesthood. It is fair to say that many Christians have a phenomenal understanding of how our salvation was bought. At best we have a very limited understanding of what we have been saved from and what we have been saved for.

“The conservative church became fixated on correct belief as the key to heaven
when you die – that became their gospel. Both sides lost the notion of life
transformation. Those of us who inherited the conservative church’s gospel were
taught that if you just preached correct doctrine that we’ve done our job. Now
decades later, we are seeing that there is more to the gospel than just getting
people ready to die.”[5]

As a priest, by Gods decree, we have access to His throne room. It is our responsibility to partake by faith in that privilege. Our primary function is to be priests to God, offering him our praise and prayers. As priests we are called to sacrifice, in many different ways. There is no priesthood without sacrifice. Two ways we can do so is by offering a sacrifice of praise to God, and through suffering for the good of the gospel and of others. This is not to somehow lessen the completeness of Christ’s sacrifice, as we cannot add or take away from it, but we are told to share in His sufferings.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the
fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his
and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the
dead. Phil 3:10,11

But rejoice that you participate in the
sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
1Pe 4:13

The royal priesthood takes its cue from the ministry of Christ demonstrated in the example of Melchisedek, who was prophet priest and king before God, rather than the Aaronic priesthood, which it supercedes. Many believers know this (at least intellectually) to be true. The main disparity between the practice and the pronouncement is participation by faith. Next we examine how this disparity has been exasperated.

Ecclesiastical Paradigms

The lack of participation in ministering to the world stems in no small part from history. The general illiteracy of bygone days is something frequently overlooked in our day and age. Schooling of any sort was a luxury few could afford. The newfound wealth created by organized agriculture led to feudalism. The wealth of the feudal lords also allowed for full time clergy who were able to study the scriptures.

It was this ability to read the scriptures and interpret them which led to the emergence of a priestly class during the middle ages. Through extensive land ownership the church became a political as much as spiritual force, frequently leading to Christ’s teaching being marginalized. It was discontent with this status quo which led some to seek a more radical holiness in monastic orders and isolated religious communities. In both instances the result was the same, a growing divide between laity and clergy.

“This history together with tremendous changes in developed Western society have
placed those who are ordained in a quite different position in relation to those
among whom they live and work.”[6]

Books like the Da Vinci code tend to highlight this view of the church, that it is manipulative, secretive and controlling, and anti-women. This is not the picture painted in the scriptures either of the church or God himself.

Traditional Views

Another key factor in understanding this divide is to examine how much of the church views itself. What it believes its identity to be. The traditional view of man as being a dirty rotten sinner barely saved by grace has so pervaded the thinking of the church that it has struggled to reconcile the glowing terms with which believers are addressed in the New Testament. It has failed to fundamentally deal with what the scriptures mean when they say that the church is the salt of the earth or the light of the world or scriptures which say;

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the
new has come! 2Co 5:17

“For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But
have the mind of Christ. 1Co 2:16

These may be mysteries which are deep and difficult to grasp, but like all Biblical mysteries, they are hidden in the open. They have been revealed, and worthy of being explored.

All too frequently Christians become bound up in legalism, not understanding that they live holy lives in praise filled response to Gods declaration of them as holy despite their action.

“Even though we have a new nature that is created in true righteousness and holiness, we still get confused. Some of the things we do don’t fall in line with our new nature. Some of the old habit patterns left behind by our sinful nature come to the foreground. When this happens, we instinctively think that this is who we are, and that we are failing to live up to the Christian standard. Our wrongdoing makes us question our identity.- “Are we truly Christian?””[7]

Holiness and service are therefore conveniently seen as the preserve of a professional clergy.

This is perhaps most aptly illustrated by the maxim; the clergy are paid to be good, the rest of us are good for nothing. For many in the church the clergy came to represent something akin to Douglas Adams’ electric monk;

“The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video
recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother
of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you,
thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed
things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task,
that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.”[8]

Wayne Cordeiro puts it this way:

“But somewhere along the line we have forgotten who God created us to be.
Instead of fulfilling our own calling, we hire others to do it for us. We
interview a potential pastor, and if he can preach and do the business of the
church, we hire him. Then after a few years, if he has done an adequate job of
preaching, visiting the sick and performing weddings and funerals, we vote to
“renew his call”. He is the one who is to do the ministry, so we just step out
of his way.”[9]

This very broad brush paints a picture of what is occurring by and large in traditional churches in the western world, although there are encouraging signs that this is changing. [10]

All organizations exhibit an internal culture of some description. Frequently they are inherited and passed on from one generation to the next. Changing a church culture is a very deliberate and painful procedure, and one which many in church governance seek to avoid. Jopie van Rooyen in his conference paper on communicating in a changing organizational culture states;

“The concept of organizational culture is not merely a buzz word, but has
generally been accepted as a concrete reality which needs to be managed,
particularly in times of change.”[11]

Church culture is not inherently negative. On the positive side, Pentecostal churches have been proactive in teasing out and embracing what it means to be a new creation. As a result they have often been on the front foot as regards embracing every member ministry. That is not to say that there are some structural deficiencies within Pentecostalism which encourage the theoretical and practical divide.

Pentecostal churches by and large tend to be under the leadership of a single individual or family. This can be seen by careful examination of church history[12]. It is also evidenced by the strong association between the names of individuals and the churches or para-church organizations they lead.[13] The author has even heard within church leadership meetings autocracy justified as the only way in which to govern an assembly effectively.[14] That being said I have also heard from Pentecostal ministers further afield how they never make a church decision without the unanimous support of the eldership.

The net result of this penchant toward autocratic leadership can lead to one individual carrying an enormous workload, frequently taking responsibility for things which can be, and should be done by others. As the leader spends their personal energy and resources for the cause of the gospel, without good boundaries in place burnout can ensue.The net result is that the autocratic nature of Pentecostal churches, by and large tends to steer these churches and communities of faith away from the idea of every member ministry, despite a theological emphasis on the priesthood of all believers within evangelical Pentecostal circles.

The Academy

Perhaps one of the clearest barriers perceived by Christians today is that they do not feel that they are educated enough to minister. Most have not, and most will never attend a Bible college. In the west a degree in theology is the minimum requirement for pastoring a church, particularly among traditional churches. What of those who are called of God but are not academically inclined? Those who buck this trend often take the church into new and exciting territory.[15]

Clearly the disciples were ordinary people who ministered in great power.

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were
unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men
had been with Jesus”. Ac 4:13

But it would also be noted that Jesus taught them, coached them and instructed them for three years in a very deliberate way in order that they would be able to continue his work. The acquisition of wisdom and understanding is implicit in ones growth along the Christian walk.

Whatever its implications, the perceived divide between the academy and the laity compounds the every member ministry debacle.

There are some who would say that if we are all priests what need do we have for having clergy or ordained ministers? Here we make a fundamental error in our thinking. We break the rule of the undivided middle. God ordains church leadership. If Ephesians is to be believed the people he assigns to various tasks are His gift to the church. For the body of Christ to function effectively we need pastors who pastor, elders who serve, deacons who “deak” and leaders who lead. We may differ on the model, but the need is clearly there until Christ returns. Those who minister need to have a clear call from God to do so, recognised by the local assembly and/or group of related churches. Without such a call no minister can remain in effective gospel ministry.

Vital, active church leadership is essential for the priesthood of all believers to function effectively. The five fold ministry makes sure the church has what it needs to fulfil its purpose. The troops need to be trained, guided, mentored, and coached. Without effective leadership there is no effective ministry in the body. These gifts are given for the equipping of the saints (the church) for the work of ministry. (Ephesians 4)

“God is at work in the church, manifesting himself through gifts of the Spirit.
The purpose of spiritual gifts is the common good of the church (1Cor. 12:7).
The gifts have nothing to do with personal ambition or career orientation. They
are not given to build individual reputations, to warrant superior positions in
the local church, or to demonstrate spiritual advancement. They are not
trophies, but tools. These tools are for touching and blessing others.”[16]

Christian education and Alternative solutions

In conclusion we touch briefly on some of the solutions to narrow the gap between principle and practice of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The conclusion we have come to is that a primary concern is Christian education, also called discipleship.
By radicalization we are referring to the returning to the roots of the Christian faith. No clear understanding of the church can be gained without examining Christ, from whom our faith and priesthood springs.

By Reformation we infer that our approach to the scriptures be one of humble reverence, that we are continually applying ourselves to its understanding, without reaching the point where we feel that we have arrived or have a particular doctrine “nailed down”.

The need for a rediscovery of what discipleship means is paramount. Here I would refer you to the writings of Dallas Willard and Juan Carlos Ortis as they have spent significant time and thought teasing this issue out.
We need as denominations to generate alternatives to the Academy model. The apprentice model of discipleship works well in a local church context, and is certainly modeled in scripture. In ministry training we somehow overlook this as unworkable.

Ironically one of the most academic of all institutions in Australian theology circles was founded as an alternative to the Academy model. Broughton Knox sought to establish Moore College as a Bible college which would also function effectively as a community of faith. Some practical adjustments had to be made to accommodate this approach. The result has been a college which has seen some of the highest academic achievement.

The development of new technology has made distance education more workable, this is also true in a Bible college context. This has the advantage that leadership is not removed from the local church, placed into an artificial, academic environment for three or four years and then expected to lead and pastor a church well. As it is a relatively cheaper option than a residential college, more people have access to Christian education[17] and leadership training. Technology is reconnecting leadership to the local church context.

These few steps may go a long way in narrowing the divide between practice and doctrinal belief when it comes to the priesthood of all believers.

[1] Gibbs, Eddie, I Believe in Church Growth. 1981. Hodder and Stoughton. London (series editor Michael Green)
[2] All scriptures included are taken from the New International Version. Pradis CD-ROM: Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, © 1973, 1978, 1984. Unless otherwise stated.
[3] Hybels, Bill. The Volunteer Revolution. Zondervan. 2004. Grand Rapids
[4] Boa, Kenneth. Conformed to His Image. Zondervan. 2001. Grand Rapids
[5] Dallas Willard quoted in Leadership Magazine, Summer 2005. Pg 21,22.
[6] Grundy, Michael. Understanding Congregations. Mowbray. 1998. London
[7] Mulheran, Brian. Jesus: Author and Finisher. Synergy. 2002. Florida
[8] Adams, Douglas: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. William Heinermann. 1987. New York
[9] Cordiero, Wayne. Doing church as a team. Regal. 2001. Ventura
[10] and and
[11] Van Rooyen. J. Communicating in a changing organizational culture. Organizational Communication; a top priority. Human sciences research council. Pretoria. 1992.
[12] A prime example would be the transition within the CRC movement following the passing of Leo Harris.
[13] Numerous examples exist; Joyce Meyer ministries, the Pringle family, the Houston’s, Benny Hinn
[14] This is clearly refuted in scripture in that four distinct models of church government are noted, including single elder rule. For more on church government see Who runs the Church: four views of church government. 2004. Zondervan
[15] A prime example would be the movement began by John Wimber.
[16] Wimber, John. The Dynamics of Spiritual Power. Hodder & Stoughton. 1990. London
[17] Christian education is defined by Nevin Harner as “a reverend attempt to discover the divinely ordained process by which individuals grow in Christlikeness, and to work with that process”.

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