I Am My Own Church: Not What Priesthood of the Believer Means

princess bride-that wordI think there is some confusion running loose with respect to the concept of the priesthood of the believer. The term was coined by the Reformers to distinguish the direct access believers have to Christ vs. their access to through clergy. This of course was in repudiation to the papists who claimed that they alone provided access contrary to Hebrews 4:14. Through this direct access, we serve as ministers of the gospel (2 Corinthians 5:18) and minister to one another (Colossians 3:15-16).

Increasingly, I am encountering a definition of the concept to mean a rejection of structured leadership in the church. Because we are priests with direct access to God, we minister to each other and do not need special offices that separate clergy from the rest of Christians, aka lay people. In some cases, it has come to mean that I am my own priest and therefore don’t need leadership at all.

I’m going to suggest that this idea finds no support in scripture. First, the idea that we are disconnected from the body life of the local church is foreign to our position in Christ and his command that we operate as his body. I know that many have been hurt by the local church and finding one that is honest to Scripture can take time.

Second, if we think just gathering by itself is sufficient and reject the idea of structured leadership, consider Ephesians 4:4-16. There is one body who is to walk according to its purpose, growing up together in Christ through specific means – “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers (vs 11)”

Now there is a diversity of interpretation of the five classifications mentioned.

1) They are offices representing the means through which God has chosen to work through

2) They are gifts representing the means through which God has chosen to work through

3) They refer to specific people that God has chosen to work through

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just provide what I think makes the most sense, which is  definition #1 though I can see some validity for #2. I also think its important to consider prophets and apostles in light of what Paul said earlier in Ephesians 2:20. The very foundation of what Christ built is grounded in the prophetic and apostolic witness, which is transmitted through Scripture.

But what is important is why God gives some according to these specific offices or gifts: to prepare God’s people for the work of service and so they can grow up in him and not buy into whatever fancy, self-help and uplifting messages might sound Christian but in reality are not. These selected categories have a function for the sake of the body.

Also consider Paul’s instruction to Timothy and Titus. Specifically, in 1 Timothy 3:1 he says “Here is a trustworthy saying: if anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task”. He then goes on to describe the qualifications for overseers (pastors/elders) and deacons (vv. 2-13). This is for the purpose of how God’s household should be conducted (vs 15) by describing what kinds of people should be leading her.

When we reject structured leadership, we’re really rejecting the means through which God wants his people to grow up in him. I love what Calvin had to say about this;

By these words he shows that the ministry of men, which God employs in governing the church, is a principal bond by which believers are kept together in one body. He also intimates, that the church cannot be kept safe, unless supported by those guards to which, the Lord has been pleased to commit its safety. Christ ‘ascended up far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ (Eph 4:10). The mode of filling is this: By the ministers to whom he has committed this office, and given grace to discharge it, he dispenses and distributes his gifts to the church, and thus exhibits himself as in a manner actually present by exerting the energy of his Spirit in this his institution, so as to prevent it from being vain or fruitless. In this way, the renewal of the saints is accomplished, and the body of Christ is edified; in this way we grow up in all things unto him who is the Head, and unite with one another; in this way we are all brought into the unity of Christ, provided that prophecy flourishes among us, provided that we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine which is administered to us. Whoever, therefore, studies to abolish this order and kind of government of which we speak, or disparages it as of minor importance, plots the devastation, or rather ruin and destruction, of the church. (I.C.R. 4.3.2)

Now reading that probably conjures up images of corruption, which unfortunately have peppered the church throughout its history. But notice also the qualifications: provided that prophecy flourishes among us, provided that we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine administered to us. Harm comes to the church by those who suppose themselves to be prophets and apostles and inject their own opinions into the congregation under the guise of ‘prophecy’. But Calvin refers to the apostolic and prophetic witnesses through which we get Scripture that testifies to Christ. It is in the preaching and receiving of this word that prophecy flourishes and encourages us to sing songs and hymns to one another. Harm comes when the message of the apostles is distorted by not connecting it to the complete message of Scripture. Harm comes when the ministers disregard the word they proclaim through behavior that contradicts it and self-focused kingdoms.

Your priesthood is not your own. Our priesthood is for the purpose of ministering to each other and build up the body of love. But Calvin’s words should sober us that disconnecting this ministry from the means by which God has ordained for the growth of the body is counterproductive to the health of the church.  If we ignore it, disparage or reject it, it is to our detriment.

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About Lisa Robinson

Servant of Christ, DTS Grad, member of Town North Presbyterian Church (PCA), non-profit professional, anti-poverty advocate, writer, thinker, explorer of ethnic food, lover of good coffee and a good laugh.
This entry was posted in ecclesiology (church), exegesis, ministry. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to I Am My Own Church: Not What Priesthood of the Believer Means

  1. Lisa,

    As usual, your post is clear concise and well presented. But, I’d have to take issues with the following:

    What is a “structured leadership in the church?” If we’re talking about a non-tiered non-hierchacal flat structure then fine. If we’re talking about any other structure which creates a clergy/laity divide or place one in authority over others, then I don’t see a biblical warrant for that. Especially in the light of Jesus’ words to the contrary in Matthew 20:25

    1) They are offices representing the means through which God has chosen to work through

    2) They are gifts representing the means through which God has chosen to work through

    2) They refer to specific people that God has chosen to work through

    I think they are gifts or characteristics of functionality given to people which God has purposed to work through for the unity and equipping of the church. With that, I think people are primarily called to fulfill functions in the church, not offices. The word “office” is a terrible translation that breaks up the body of Christ.

    It is natural enough for one who fulfills a function to become regarded as filling an office. Yet it cannot be demonstrated in the NT that there was an official “office” of prophet or evangelist in the church. Neither, I believe, can it be demonstrated that there is an office of apostle, pastor, or teacher.

    I think we do a disservice to the church when we equate the function of those gifted with the pastoral in Ephesians 4 with Elders and Deacons.

    The Ephesians 4 giftings are perpetual “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” The “we” is the church as a whole. The only way to negate any of the gifts is to say that “we,” the church have already attained the “whole measure” and “unity.” If we have, when did that happen? If it did happen, then we don’t need pastors, evangelists, or teachers either.

    In your Calvin quote, I think he fails to make the distinction between the Apostles (Big A) and those gifted with the apostolic (small a). We know of plenty of apostles outside of the 12 and have many examples in scripture.

    Regardless, the priesthood of believers was never meant to give us permission to be a church unto ourselves. Ekklesia, by it’s very nature, is a plural gathering called out from one community into another to establish community.

    • ljrobinson says:

      Miguel, thanks for your thoughtful response. I was actually meaning to drop a note asking for your input. In this statement here

      I think we do a disservice to the church when we equate the function of those gifted with the pastoral in Ephesians 4 with Elders and Deacons

      Of course, I’m not just relying on Ephesians 4 but cross referencing with Paul’s letter’s elsewhere. I don’t know how one can read the pastoral epistles and conclude that there are not to be pastors/elders/deacons? So when he mentions pastors and teachers, this seems like a logical conclusion.

  2. Lisa,

    It’s a good point about the warrant for the existence of pastors/elders/deacons. I’m not debating the validity of those roles within the body of Christ. My question is why we equate the pastor/teacher to an elder. Can’t someone exercise the Ephesians 4 gifting of a pastor or teacher without being an elder?

    Help me to see the logical progression of why every member of the church (every believer) does not function in one or more role of Ephesians 4:11,12 and 13

  3. Lisa:

    Totally agree with you – that the priesthood of all believers has to do with each and every person in Christ having direct access to pray and fellowship with God (contra the high priest in the Mosaic system and the veils that separated people from the Holy of Holies).

    I also don’t see any support in Scripture that this removes the idea that each person should be a member of a community of believers where they serve with their gifts and our served by others. Nor is there any support for the idea that there is no office/role of leadership within a community of believers.

    Peter makes these points pretty clear. In the same letter he writes both that we are a “royal priesthood” that has been called out to proclaim the excellencies of Christ (1 Pet 2:9) and that there are elders in the church who must shepherd the flock and who have authority (1Pet 5:1-5).

    Keep up the hard work on your thesis.

    MikeB

  4. ljrobinson says:

    Miguel, sorry for the slow response. You asked

    “My question is why we equate the pastor/teacher to an elder. Can’t someone exercise the Ephesians 4 gifting of a pastor or teacher without being an elder?”

    Yes, I would say so. All elders are pastors/teachers but not all pastors/teachers are elders. And it does depend on church polity. BUT a church should have elders/overseers.

    Regarding that, I’ll say this as kind of a response to other comments that I saw you make after I posted this regarding church leadership. I’ll say it here cuz I don’t want to get chewed up by the crowd 🙂 I think we have to be careful in opposing the biblical concept of leadership with the abuse of others. I get that there are church leaders who have not been responsible to their tasks in terms of building up the body for the work of service. I get that there are narcissists who insists on obedience to their authority. But I get concerned when I see reaction against any kind of authority. If I understand 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus correctly (and Acts 6), it does provide a prescription for orderly congregating that includes authorized leadership at the helm. That leadership has certain responsibilities. We are submitted to their authority, i.e leadership as unto the Lord since he is the one who has prescribed a leadership structure. What I fear is that we create false dichotomies by insisting that submission to leadership is the same as being controlled or managed or that it circumvents mission. If leadership is doing their job, the saints are doing theirs’. I have to agree with Calvin, that diminishing this structure does a disservice.

    Anyways, like I said I’m not necessarily responding to the post here but addressing other stuff as well. Please correct me if I’ve imposed on anything you’ve said.

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