Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Missing Priesthood

The priesthood of all believers was a central issue at the time of the Reformation, and maybe it needs to be a central issue today, particularly in those churches which emphasise an imaginary gulf between ministers and lay Christians. When all the power is effectively placed in the hands of local pastors, with little or no accountability either above or below, it's a sure recipe for grief.

At the time of the Reformation, the Western Catholic church was characterised by hierarchy. A pyramid of clergy, from the bishop of Rome on down, ruled the roost while the lay members were regarded as inferior and properly passive. This view harked back to "Saint" Thomas Aquinas, and was subjected to rigorous criticism by the Reformers, beginning with Luther, who took 1 Peter 2:9 as their rallying cry.

A priest is simply someone who has a right to intercede directly with God. If all believers are priests, then they all function in a priestly way. They are each directly accountable to God. The role of ministers then had to be thought about carefully, they were there as guides, not a privileged caste. They were there because the community of believers put them there to ensure that things were carried out in an orderly way, but the community - not heaven - was the source of their authority. It became a "bottom-up" model.

And it's a priesthood of all believers, men and women, not a priesthood of half the believers. How does that work? Take the issue of how much you give to your church: you decide, that's your perogative and responsibility. Your pastor may have an opinion, but that's his or her informed (hopefully!) opinion which you have the liberty to take or not.

Hierarchic churches ignore the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Officials of Grace Communion International, for example, will talk about the ministry of all believers, but that's not the same thing. Any church where the pastor (or church administrators) conduct their business without the explicit endorsement and approval of the membership - through structures such as conferences and synods which have elected lay representation - simply don't "get it."

Does this mean a denomination shouldn't have structure; a president, board members, maybe even bishops? That's completely beside the point. In fact, having accountability structures above the level of the local congregation is probably a very good thing. There's nothing uglier than a strutting prima donna pastor with an exalted sense of their own importance. But it does imply that those structures themselves, at national, regional and local levels, must be accountable back to the people in the pews. And it does mean that ministers are not authorised to take a heavy-handed approach with the membership, or assume they can micro-manage the lives of those who choose to attend.

When that does happen it's time for the members to remind their pastors about the biblical limits to their job description.


  1. Unfortunately Gavin the people who need to hear this the most won't because they don't believe what they hear from pastors are "opinions" They are taught that these are salvation requirements. And those "biblical limits" get broadly interpreted.

    People would need to recognize and reject the desire to have their leaders be fathers, mothers or demigods.

    It also requires a tolerance of diversity free of judgement and faith that God can and will sort things out to His satisfaction without our interference.

    A belief in salvation by grace not by works wouldn't hurt either.

  2. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

    James Madison
    4th President of the United States
    Federalist No. 51 (1788-02-06)

  3. R/C, Mormons have great, stable govt ensuring growth, effective damage control when the need arises (like the Reformation LOL)

    But Islam has no real central authority. Worse, it has a serious division Shia/Sunni. So very astable - not nearly the threat paranoid West thinks.