Thursday, 8 May 2008

Clergy and the priesthood of all believers

This post has been a long time coming... like, years... and it's been so long because I've had to think very hard about what I think on this. Here's the thing that's been rattling round my mind: if we believe in the priesthood of all believers, what exactly are clergy (ministers) for? It's a tough one, because there are so many different views. Some say we need the clergy, but then they don't know we need them for... some say we don't need the clergy, which makes me wonder whether the whole calling to officership that God placed on my life was just some kind of psychotic episode on my part.

I'm putting this out there now because of two things. Firstly, Candidates' Sunday is coming up and I've been thinking even more than normal about what Officership is and how it fits into the crazy community we call The Church. Secondly, my friend Andrew has posted two very thought-provoking posts over at Army Renewal (link and link) and I felt inspired to finish my thoughts off. So here we go :)

I guess I should go through what I understand the "priesthood of all believers" to mean. There are two views of this that I think mesh nicely together:

First is the idea that we are all our own priest. That is, we don't need another person to stand in for us to enable us to speak to God. Yes, we sill have Jesus as the great High Priest, but other than Him, we don't need anyone else. Is that important? Well, yes, because it means that we don't depend on anyone: every believer is capable of literally coming before the throne of God and asking for forgiveness, interceding for another, asking a question, or whatever else you want to do. We are empowered by the fact that there is no longer a priestly caste in society... or rather, there is, but it includes every single believer. Martin Luther made this a fundamental principle of his teaching, saying, "Our baptism consecrates us all without exception and makes us all priests" and "Every shoemaker can be a priest of God, and stick to his own last while he does it".

The second view is that "all believers serve by God's grace as priests to one another" (The Salvation Army Doctrine Council). If this is so (and Galatians 6:2 and James 5:16 would seem to add weight to this) then as well as being our own priest, believers serve as priests to each other. No pressure, eh? As well as being able to step into the presence of God, I bring the grace, mercy, and presence of God to those around me. You can't do the second without experiencing the first, which is why I say these two mesh together so nicely.

But wait, there's a third view (yeh, I know, I said two but bear with me): that all believers, together as a body, act almost like one priest bringing the grace of God to the world. That is to say, the Church behaves as a priest pointing those outside of it to the grace of God and challenging them to rejoin His family. Again, I think this fits with the others, and I'm happy to say that each of these is actually a diferent facet of the one concept: these are all important elements of the Priesthood of All Believers.

Priesthood is to do with our basic nature as people of God, while our position in the Church is to do with what God has called us to do in response to that basic nature.
Well, what now? The Priesthood of All Believers is quite different from the "leadership of all believers", "teaching of all believers", or "whatever you want to put in here of all believers". Why? Because not every believer is called to be a leader, teacher, musician, or anything else. If priesthood meant everyone could do everything we would all have every Spiritual gift. No, priesthood is different from gifting or calling... priesthood is to do with our basic nature as people of God: when we are saved we simply become priests, while our position in the Church is to do with what God has called us to do in response to that basic nature. Priesthood is about the fact that all believers have access to God, and all believers have a responsibility to dispense God's grace to each other and to the world at large.

So, where to the clergy fit in then? Being a "minister", "pastor", "officer", or whatever they're called in your particular church is as much about calling as being a "worship leader", "technical guru", "musician" or "creche worker". I, as an officer, am not called to be the priest; I just am a priest by dint of being part of the Body of Christ. Officership is about something different - it's about fulfilling a certain role God has called me to that's quite separate from my status as a priest. Luther held the view that while every believer is a priest, and every believer has the right before God to preach and administer sacraments, those who do so must be given the consent of the rest of the congregation. So it seems to me that the clergy are just priests like everyone else, but they have been ordained by God and given the consent of the Church to fulfil a certain role. The question is, "What is that role?" That's another question that I'm still thinking through, but I can say this: everyone is a priest, not just the officer. Officers (and other clergy in other denominations) are simply fulfilling a calling that is just as valid, but not more so, than anyone else's calling. The real question is, no matter what role you are fulfilling, whether you're doing whatever it is God wants you do with your your life.


Captain Andrew Clark said...

I think thats a great 'working definition' in you're little box. Its actually dynamite if people get hold of that basic truth.

Thanks for the links...I just hope the discussion will provoke further disturbance and help re-dress the balance even in a small way.

There is still stuff I'm working through with regards to the implications of all this theologising, but they'll come out in time!

headphonaught said...

This is a great post that makes sense to me... where I have a hang up is when Officers are placed in some form of hierarchy of importance... where they are seen to be more important than the laity.

We need to move to Apostolic leadership where the Officer works with the laity... to guide the expression based on our gifting. In my experience this doesn't happen... with the Officer "taking control".

Its up to the laity to step up as much as it is for the clergy to step down... where together we move our expression forward.