16 April 2008

Thoughts on 'The Priesthood of All Believers'

'The priesthood of all believers' has been a term that has been used a number of times in our little UK Methodist blogosphere.

I'd like to offer a few thoughts on this term. I say 'offer a few thoughts' because I'm not purporting to offer a rigorous academic definition of the term, simply my own personal thoughts.

1) A priest is normally understood as being a human being who has a 'mediating' role between God and humanity. The term 'priesthood of all believers' indicates that it is through 'the Church'[2] that this mediation takes place.

2) 'The Church' is a fraught term over which generations of Christians have disagreed. I take a fairly Protestant view of 'the Church' regarding it as a mystical communion of believers (although I leave it to God to judge who is in and who is out).

3) 'The Priesthood of all believers' therefore indicates that the communion of believers plays some kind of 'mediating' role in the life of the faithful. For me as a Methodist, the concept of 'fellowship' is important to my understanding of that mediating role. For me, there is something important about the Christian community and our mutual encouragement and oversight of each other as well as about our commitment to self-giving love, to forgiveness and to reconciliation.

However, there are also a few things that 'the priesthood of all believers' is not.

a) It is not a theory that implies that every individual member is called to all the functions of the ordained ministry and that each member might as well do all or any of them instead of a minister. Normally speaking, one would assume that any individual called to most of the functions of an ordained minister might have a calling to such a ministry. It might very well be the case that, in any given congregation, there are some individuals with this calling. The Church historically has asked them to step forward, offer themselves and be recognised by the Church if they want to exercise them. This was Wesley's concern about 'order' in the church.

b) It is not 'rule by the loudest members.' It does not mean that when any member of the congregation says 'Jump!' that other members or the minister say 'Yes sir! How high?' In any other group or institution, individuals demanding that all their desires be met would be called anarchy. Of course, the prescription against autocracy goes for the minister as well as for members.

c) It is not unique to Protestantism and it doesn't imply congregational church governance. The Roman Catholic church would also claim to believe in 'the priesthood of all believers'. It does, however, have a very different view of 'church' and of what I would call 'the institutional church', of the meaning of ordination and of the role of an ordained priest.

18 comments:

Mark said...

I agree with much of what you say here. I've personally found it helpful to distinguish between the priesthood of all believers (in which I believe) and the priesthood of each believer (in which I do not believe).

PamBG said...

Hi Mark. Yes, I agree! Although I do also believe in every member ministry.

Bob MacDonald said...

Either I forgot to post my comment or you deleted it. Sorry if it was a bad comment. What do you make of the first verse of Romans 12? ... that you present your bodies a living sacrifice... Each one is to do this - making each one a priest.

PamBG said...

Hi Bob and welcome. No, I didn't delete your comment. I haven't yet deleted anyone's comments in the history of this blog.

I'm not entirely certain what your question is.

It seems to me that Paul is talking about Christian discipleship here - how every believer is called to live in faith. It doesn't seem inconsistent with my view of the priesthood of all believers.

What is your take on it?

Magdalene6127 said...

Pam, this piece is worthy of wider publication, IMHO. I would very much like to quote it in my sermon this Sunday... would that be acceptable?

Really well done.

Peace,

Magdalene

PamBG said...

Madeline - If want to use it, feel free to do so and thanks for asking.

Bob MacDonald said...

Pam - I must have shut my browser down without pressing send. About the individuals - a plural can be a corporate plural or an plural of several taken one at a time. With respect to 'priesthood' I note that the NT never uses hieros for ordained ministry (hieros is the word for priest - the order of the ordained are episcopos, presbyter, and deacon). No where in the NT can we find justification for any of these roles as intermediary. What has happened is that the ordained have been assigned by the body certain sacramental roles - again for due order in public worship, not because these are 'priestly' functions (lots would disagree with me I suppose). (But see Hans Kung, The Church for one Catholic example of reasoning from the NT to arrive at these conclusions)

Now about Romans 12:1 - each individual is called to offer sacrifice - that is a priestly function - so each individual is a priest. Take too the statements - 'you are a royal priesthood' - it is not 'you are a royal priest' - so the plural is several, not corporate. Take too the invitation into the Holy of Holies in Hebrews - this is inviting each and all into the presence of God where no one but the High Priest was to go and that only once a year.

How did we ever get into the tradition that we are in - where the people have abdicated their priesthood to the clergy and we have a separation of the whole into two parts such that the cleros are barely considered part of the laos?

PamBG said...

Bob - I've deleted my last post and I'm going to start again. I'm worried we might already be talking past each other. And please note that I said I wasn't putting forward an academic treatise!

I agree with your first paragraph. I get the feeling you think I don't, though? I'm not sure what I said that would imply that I think the clergy are 'priests'?

Now about Romans 12:1 - each individual is called to offer sacrifice - that is a priestly function - so each individual is a priest.

Agree, but it's a metaphor. This is where I don't understand what point you're trying to make?

Take too the statements - 'you are a royal priesthood' - it is not 'you are a royal priest' - so the plural is several, not corporate.

Grammatically, yes. Again, I think it's largely metaphorical in context. My tradition is not one that would be comfortable deriving a theology from the parsing of words.

And then, I'd also want to step back and wonder if God is that worried about our precision in ordering the church? For me personally, the important thing is that corporate worship and corporate life are done on the basis that all are equal.

Take too the invitation into the Holy of Holies in Hebrews - this is inviting each and all into the presence of God where no one but the High Priest was to go and that only once a year.

I don't see how 'each and all is invited in the presence of God' negates a corporate view of priesthood.

And then I think one has to struggle with the theology of Hebrews which says that Christ is our literal and final High Priest. Not metaphorical at all, but the one who has - literally - made the final and perfect sacrifice.

How did we ever get into the tradition that we are in - where the people have abdicated their priesthood to the clergy and we have a separation of the whole into two parts such that the cleros are barely considered part of the laos?

What would the church look like if this hadn't happened, do you reckon?

Bob MacDonald said...

Pam - I am not being academic. My devotion is to Christ and my academic credentials are all self-taught.

Your question is a good one - I think the assembly would look more like the Corinthians than the ones we have today. There is always a tension between the charismatic and due order. And as an Anglican musician - I really like the things offered to be of a high quality - but in a few words - off the cuff

- we would see more interaction from the pews
- people would still prepare - there is no particular virtue in spontaneity
- we would still require speaking standards and comprehensible content
- but we would allow lay presidency, contributions to the ministry of the word from the non-ordained, lay pronouncement of the absolution or blessing etc.

Regardless of the shape of the assembly and community, the word priest would not be used of those we hire and license except to the extent it applies to all.

Re Hebrews - Christ is the High Priest. We share in that priesthood. We are invited in through the veil, his flesh. I do not know how to respond in a comment - maybe some day 4 years from now when I get back to Hebrews having spent the 6 years on the Psalms, I will be better able to say something useful.

A related point is Paul's aside in Romans 15:16 about his own priestly function - and here he does use hieros as a verb concerning himself. Here he is exercising the priesthood of all himself - yet he is not a Levite but of Benjamin.

Bob MacDonald said...

I just posted the last comment when I got your expanded question - two brief things: grammar is important else do I just make up the church as I see fit with no relation to the canon? Metaphor is critical - God incarnates metaphor. The invitation to sacrifice is not a metaphor in Romans 12:1 it is the reality of our faith.

Mark said...

The verb in Romans 12:1 which is rendered 'present' in the NRSV is παριστημι which we could translate present, yield, offer, dedicate but if it were an offering in the sacrificial sense I would expect it to be πρoσφερω also meaning offer or present but which is more normally used if the offering in question is sacrificial (in the traditional priest offering sacrifice sense) - that's what we get in the sacrificial bit of Hebrews, for example. I'd be reluctant therefore to read Romans 12 as definitely describing an offering in the sense of a priest offering a sacrifice.

Doorman-Priest said...

"It is not rule by the loudest members."

You are modern Pam.

Bob MacDonald said...

Mark - I am not aware if others have considered this verse as defining a specifically priestly function (there are plenty of links on the web between Romans 12:1 and the subject and of all stripes) - I did read about it as signifying a priestly role in one of the many books I have on Romans but I don't remember which one or whether the author (Barth, Barrett, Dunn, Esler, Gaston, Hooker, Nanos or some other...) would carry much weight on this subject. But to present your body as a living sacrifice wholly acceptable - in English - sounds like the act of someone making an offering as a priest might. We are I think to be making the offering in Christ and to God - that makes us priests. He is the one mediator. The metaphors merge of us in him, and his body once offered, and his body the Church. So there is a role for Tradition - but have we chosen well in our understanding of it?

I hope I am not being too loud. I am offering a different reading of the text because I think the corporate view of priesthood is not the only possible one - given the evidence of Scripture and weighing it against what have become assumed norm(s) in tradition.

I did find this blog post which seemed to balance the discussion a bit - but I am myself searching for the meaning of 'Church' and I am likely out of my depth - I don't imagine I am sufficient to myself alone.

Curiously enough I attend synagogue occasionally and I see the Lord in the praises of his people - then the next day I am at this high Anglican service and I see the Levitical replacement in full regalia. Occasionally I see the cracks in the logic through which the Church recreated the Cult (pace Hebrews). But in no way can I disregard the continuity of the Great Assembly of the Psalms with Synagogue and Church. (That they might all be one)

PamBG said...

Bob, for better or for worse, I don't have a highly detailed mind. I grew up with detail-oriented people and I know that I tend to anger detail people, but, for the life of me I can't really see where we are disagreeing awfully much. I sincerely apologise, but I don't understand what it is that you are opposing in my view.

If it helps to understand, the background to the original post is the idea that 'priesthood of all believers' means that ministers respond affirmatively and without much question to the preferences of individual members. I don't think that this is what 'priesthood of all believers' is about. And I don't think it's possible for an organisation to try to please all of the people all of the time; that just results in anarchy.

Otherwise, I agree with all of your points about what a church with 'the priesthood of all believers' would look like, including being in agreement with you on lay presidency. The Methodist Church authorises lay people to preside at the Lord's Supper in circumstances of pastoral need and I and many Methodists think there should be lots more authorisations.

On your other points:
- we would see more interaction from the pews

Not sure what you mean by 'interaction' but I try desperately to get people to come forward and share their gifts. The problem I find is that people have a self-image of having 'nothing to offer'. However, most of my churches are not in middle-class neighbourhoods.

- people would still prepare - there is no particular virtue in spontaneity

I agree with you, but I know a number of people who seem to equate spontaneity with genuine manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

- we would still require speaking standards and comprehensible content

This is an interesting issue in a congregation where some people can't read very well. I tend to think that the effort is often more important than the 'execution'. When I need a good 'execution', I specify that I need a confident reader.

- but we would allow lay presidency,

Agreed. And The Methodist Church does allow this. But not enough.

contributions to the ministry of the word from the non-ordained,

75% of our services are conducted by people who are not ordained. The Anglican Church uses non-ordained Readers and has to do so more and more. There is no limitation on this that I know of and most Methodist and Anglican Churches that I know of would love more lay people to step forward for training.

lay pronouncement of the absolution or blessing etc.

Absolutely not an issue at all in Methodism. However, I tend to almost always use the 'we' form of absolution or blessing. Most Methodists wouldn't know that there is a difference. This is an 'Anglican thing'.

PamBG said...

Just to clarify. I understand the point of disagreement re Romans 12:1.

I don't see that it has any practical consequences in ordering a church based on 'the priesthood of all believers'.

stf (lorna) said...

just found this via google Pam :) writing an assignment on this very topic. lol

Bob MacDonald said...

You might find this interesting also

http://avowofconversation.wordpress.com/2008/12/19/zizioulas-on-the-structure-of-the-eucharistic-community/

PamBG said...

I suspect that was for Lorna, but thanks for the link. It looks like an interesting blog.