Thursday, January 27, 2005

A New Covenant Institutional Priesthood? 

I posted this on the Wrightsaid list early today, but I thought I would repost it on my blog, as I probably won’t be posting that much else in the next few days. It is a bit rambling and repetitive in places, but that’s just the way that my mind has been functioning today. The Church is a priestly body and the ruling assembly of the new polis and not merely a gathering of pious individuals. As a Protestant I hold to the priesthood of all believers, although this doctrine is far better understood as the priesthood of all the baptized. It is Baptism that makes a person a priest. Becoming a priest is the result of initiation into a corporate body, not the result of a private act of personal faith. I believe that great harm has been done by taking the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers in an egalitarian sense. Although every baptized person is granted privileged access into God’s presence, and does not need another to go in for him, there are differing ministries within the body. What we need to appreciate is that the Church is not an undifferentiated priesthood (as many understand the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers to teach). Every baptized person has priestly functions (as they have been incorporated into Christ’s priesthood), but there are some priestly functions that cannot be exercised by the laity in general and some which cannot be exercised by women in particular. The fact that we become members of the royal priesthood through the external rite of Baptism performed by the Church reminds us that our priesthood cannot be abstracted from the ordered body that we have become part of through Baptism. Baptism incorporates us into the body’s priestly ministry and grants us priestly privileges; it does not make us priests unto ourselves, unaccountable to anyone else. The priestly body of the Church has different orders. The privileges that are given to the Church as the Bride and royal priesthood do not entail an undifferentiated body. Rather, the one Spirit that has been given to the Church is re-presented to the Church in the form of variegated ministries. Elders or pastors do not somehow have a greater access to God than the laity do. Their authority is not some grace that is given to them as detached individuals that exceeds that which other individuals receive. The difference lies in their peculiar role in relation to the rest of the body. The authority of the elder or pastor is a relational one, something which is proper to someone who takes up a particular position within the body — that of representing the Husband and Father to the Bride. In this respect, the hierarchy of the Church is similar to that of the Trinity. The hierarchy of the Trinity is a relational hierarchy and not a hierarchy born out of power (as John Zizioulas observes). The Christian priesthood, as it begins in Baptism, cannot be detached from the Church, for the Church is the temple and habitation of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22). The priesthood that we enjoy as baptized persons is not a priesthood that we possess that can be abstracted from the body. Rather, our priesthood is a participation in the priesthood that has been given to the body as a whole, which is itself an incorporation into the priesthood of Christ. Although we all have the privilege of access, we do not all have the right to exercise every priestly function. The Spirit anointed the Church for its priestly role at Pentecost, but the priesthood that has been given to the whole body is re-presented to the body by particular roles that God has established. These roles are not proper to every individual. We see much the same thing in the OT. The NT language concerning the Church being a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) is taken straight out of the OT (Exodus 19:6). The priestly status is given to the nation as a whole and not in an egalitarian manner to detached individuals. The Levites were particularly separated in order to serve to fulfill Israel’s role as the priestly nation. The rest of the Israelites were not part of the institutional priesthood, but the institutional priesthood belonged to them as they were members of the priestly nation whose vocation the institutional priesthood had been set up to fulfill. This process whereby the gift (of the Spirit’s anointing) that has been given to the whole body devolves onto particular individuals who are called to exercise this ministry for the sake of the whole body is seen in the process whereby the status of firstborn son, which is properly ascribed to Israel as a whole (Exodus 4:22), becomes focused first upon the firstborn sons of the Israelites and is then passed onto the Levites. The firstborn son status is, of course, intimately bound up with the priestly status of Israel. The firstborn son status belonged to the whole nation, but within the body of the people certain were set apart to this status in a manner that the rest of the nation was not. In the NT there is a ‘priesthood’ that is set up within the royal priesthood of the Church. This priesthood re-presents the priesthood that belongs to the Church in common and exercises this role on behalf of the body as a whole. This priesthood is not their private property, but the possession of the body. Apart from the body there is no priesthood. The differentiated character of the body of the Church ensures that no one can think of himself as self-sufficient. Am I denying any change from the OT to the NT? No. In Baptism every member of the NT priesthood is individually granted a degree of access that was not enjoyed by most of the OT priesthood. Nevertheless, while recognizing these differences, we do need to recognize a far greater degree of continuity between the OT and NT forms of priesthood than most evangelicals do. NT worship is frequently described as sacrificial worship (e.g. Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 13:10, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:5) and this sacrificial worship is led by men who exercise an especial priestly vocation that differs from that which is exercised by the rest of the congregation. If the Church is to be a royal priesthood such a special priesthood is necessary. None of us are self-sufficient priests. The priesthood of all the baptized does not somehow make the Church unnecessary. Indeed, the priesthood of all the baptized is meaningless apart from the Church, for the Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Baptism, by bringing us into the visible Church, brings us into the Temple of God. The common conception that the doctrine of the priesthood of all the baptized can somehow be turned against the Church to support individualistic Christianity must be rejected.

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