Recovering the Priesthood of Believers
Scripture teaches that Jesus is coming back for a church without spot or wrinkle. He is going to bring his defeat of Satan at Calvary to full manifestation, overcome all evil and establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Wonderfully included in this scenario will be those who comprise the church at his coming who will join Christ to reign with him for a millennium. Does this all sound pretty good to you? Personally I like knowing from the outset that we win! Regardless of how things appear in the natural at present, Scripture lucidly portrays the victorious nature of Christ and his bride, the church. One of my most favorite passages is from Revelation 6:
And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer (Rev 6:2 NKJV).
While not wanting to get into an in-depth interpretation of Revelation’s symbolism, there are some wonderfully obvious and encouraging messages within this passage. I believe it is safe to aver that Christ is the one portrayed here as going forth in a conquering mode. What I also believe is that his church—those who have forsaken their own lives to embrace Christ’s—was also meant to function after the likeness of him in whose image they were created and into whose image they are destined to be conformed. The presence of the bow and crown speak respectively of the spiritual equipping for warfare and the commensurate authority to do so given to Christ’s followers. I am energized and focused by this passage and its implications for the church as we accelerate into these last days anticipating the return of Christ.
As with much of Scripture, the above referenced verse describing a church “without spot or wrinkle” lacks specificity in its meaning. The English rendering of “spot, wrinkle and blemish” from the Greek text indicates a very literal rendering. It therefore becomes necessary to determine if there is an additional metaphorical sense in which to understand the passage. Minimally, I am sure that it has to do with the church’s functionality and makeup being in agreement with God’s design and not man’s. The language in this passage emphasizes a church that is utterly and completely separated unto God and his eternal purpose.
As one who doesn’t want to miss out on all God is up to with the church, I feel it behooves me to know the state of the church today and have a sense of whether or not it is truly fulfilling what it is that God is looking for when he returns for it. For many, this would represent a difficult endeavor since most believers tend to defend the expression of the church they give allegiance to as already possessing the requisite qualities qualifying it as that church without spot or wrinkle. One problem in assessing the church today is that we tend to compare what we are experiencing with other examples of the contemporary church. Doing so would be like attempting to take measurements with an instrument one failed to calibrate. If a less than “true” measuring tool is utilized than the resultant measurement will necessarily also be faulty. Using the calibration metaphor it becomes necessary that the church be examined in light of biblical precedence and historical reality. Does the church as I know it today reflect the purpose, ministry, values, makeup and spirituality depicted in Scripture and demonstrated in the early history of the church?
I can’t help but notice in my readings in the Word, as well as in church history, that what passes for “church” today seems to have a very different character and makeup than what I perceive was true for the first two centuries of the church. I also notice that most believers today seem to accept suspectus that the form, function and purpose of the church in its evolved state today constitutes a higher ecclesial order than its meager beginnings. In light of the historical evidence, this conclusion is incredible at best. The early church—without the benefit of professionally trained clergy, printed Bibles and other materials, dedicated buildings, formal programs, mass communication and transportation services—in essence conquered the Roman Empire! They, in spite of persecution, took the gospel to the known world and by the fourth century became the accepted religion of the Empire.
In contrast, the church in the West today is considered to be insignificant, irrelevant and non-consequential in its entire doings. For all practical purposes the church has little to no redemptive impact within its sphere of influence. The truth is the church reflects a greater acquiescence to the ways of the world than vice versa. The bottom line is society has virtually relegated the church to obscurity.
Understanding that the church has transitioned significantly down through the centuries, it is important to note whether there has been evolutionary or devolutionary change in the process. The common wisdom suggests that the church has positively evolved into its present form and nature. The consensus among most Christians today suggests the form and functionality the church has come to is superior to preceding generations. I would argue in light of the biblical and historical evidence that the changes for the most part have been more degenerate and debilitating leading to the present spiritual malaise of the church.
Perceiving this sharp contrast in our juxtaposing the pristine and contemporary churches, we should be immensely drawn to ascertain differences in nature and activity between the two. I believe, given credible examination, there are many apparent contrasting elements. However, for the purposes of this article I am choosing to focus expressly in one significant area of concern. How did early believers deport themselves in light of their confessed faith and belief in Christ? More precisely, how did they conduct themselves relationally in their context as the body of Christ? In pursuing answers to these questions we will necessarily also address the makeup of the church as well as its understood focus or purpose.
In surveying the gathering and activity of the early church we can identify four general themes or motives for the church’s gathering:
Firstly, the church gathered collectively within a given community to receive training and instruction from a known and accepted teacher in the movement. Paul was such a teacher who traveled from area to area building up the body of Christ. When he entered a particular town, all the believers in that area gathered centrally to receive his offering. It is important to note that the believers within a given locale typically met in homes throughout the community and only met collectively on special occasions as stated above. The development of “church buildings” as such didn’t come into sway as an accepted practice until roughly the fourth century.
Secondly, believers gathered regularly, probably weekly, in their respective home groups around the community to exercise personal ministry one to another as mandated by Scripture. I will elaborate more on this aspect later.
Thirdly, the believers would periodically gather in a public area to openly proclaim the gospel. This type of meeting was demonstrated when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost resulting in Peter’s preaching to the gathered crowd. This particular meeting led to approximately 3000 souls coming to the Lord.
Fourthly, the church periodically gathered to discuss issues and render decisions for the sake of the entire church. We see an example of this type of meeting recorded in Acts 15 where the church dealt with the whole issue of gentile circumcision.
Looking over these modes of the church’s gathering, we need to be circumspect in what we would perceive to be paradigmatic in nature. Which mode of meeting would most nearly reflect the normal ongoing functioning of the church? To answer this question we need to first clarify what constitutes the true composition of the church. Upon examining most contemporary churches one would be left with the belief that the church is a synthesis of persons running the gamut from avowed Satanists to dead-to-self, obedient followers of Christ. I say this because most churches operate in an attractional mode of evangelism wherein they attempt to draw unbelievers to their building where professional clergy can convert them to the faith. Throwing wide open the doors to all comers summarily denies the purity and separateness to which God’s people have always been called. It serves to contaminate and dilute the true faith within the church and consequently nullifies its witness. Additionally, the open door policy shuts down the effective proclamation of the “meat” of the Word.
From the genesis of the church, it was meant to function in a “sent” mode of operation, not attractional. The witness of believers is to play out in the context of the world among the unbelieving not within the gathering of true believers. By biblical definition—built out of an overview of Bible passages and early church history—the church is comprised of persons who are no longer at enmity with God in any aspect of their lives. They have embraced the truth of Jesus’ sacrificial death and surrendered their lives in obedience to him. The reality of the cross is not only an historical fact for them but also a daily principle manifested in their practice of denying self, taking up their cross and following Christ. Although not yet perfected, they are utterly committed to being conformed to the image of Christ through Holy Spirit led and empowered transformation.
The early church was not quick to embrace new “believers” simply based on their confession of faith in Christ. Contrariwise they first looked to ascertain that there was a change in belief, change in behavior and change in belonging evidenced in the lives of those confessing Christ. The result of this perception of the church meant that it was a body demonstrating order, discipline, training, nurturing, spiritual worship and relational fellowship centered in Christ. The lives of believers in a church of this nature reflected transparency, accountability and spiritual integrity. This was a body that could be wonderfully inhabited by the manifest presence of God.
Understanding what the true makeup of the church was from the beginning helps us grasp more accurately the work of the church when it was gathered. The most informing passage in this regard is from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth:
How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification (1 Cor 14:26 NKJV).
Paul is not attempting here to provide an all-inclusive list of ministries but rather to encourage the church in its proper functioning through the giving of some examples. His point is, when the church gathers it should be about the business of mutual ministry one to another for the express purpose of building one another up in Christ. Paul was literally exercising what he spoke to the church of Ephesus concerning leaders—that they should equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Coming to completion in Christ is the true end of salvation. It is what gives content, meaning and purpose to one’s salvation experience. God’s desire has always been full stature, conformed to the image of Christ, sons and daughters. To accept God’s grace and Christ’s death for nothing more than avoiding hell and gaining heaven makes a mockery out of God’s eternal plan as well as cheapening His grace through the sacrificial death of Christ.
God’s design for our eternal maturation in Christ was always meant to be worked out through the relational activity of the church. This is in fact the core ministry of the church, to bring Christ to one another thereby fostering the transformational life in Christ. Multiple times in the gospel of John and in the New Testament epistles believers are enjoined to love one another. In addition to Jesus’ commandment, Paul, Peter and John all repeatedly issue the same counsel. The greatest manifestation of our love in the body is in how we encourage and nurture one another unto the full stature life in Christ. We do this through bringing of spiritual gifts and ministries to the body and also by emulating Jesus’ sacrificial death by taking up our cross daily and dying to self.
When Jesus commanded that his followers must love one another, he further defined the essence of that love by saying—“greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Although the reality of this was manifested in Jesus’ literal death at Calvary, the spiritual implication for his followers was that they should choose to give up the self-centered, self-serving and self-aggrandizing life through the principle of the cross. In so doing, believers would be opening their lives to an ever increasing measure of the incarnational reality of Christ. Jesus said that he came not to be served but to serve. It therefore follows that the more believers experience Christ incarnate, the more they will serve one another.
Although Moses wasn’t designated a “priest” per se, he functioned as such in his God called and ordained roll before Israel. Generally speaking, a priest is called to represent God to the people and the people to God. Constantly Moses functioned in this regard with Israel. Not only did he continually bring God’s directions and commandments to the Israelites, but he also pleaded their case and circumstances before the Lord. When most Christians think about the biblical priesthood, their understanding is rooted in the Old Testament Aaronic or Levitical system that God established during Israel’s wilderness journeying.
What most fail to realize and what tends to receive scant focus is God’s original intention prior to the inauguration of this formal priesthood. In Exodus 19 we read of a phenomenal offering of God’s desire for all his people. The Lord reminds Israel of their miraculous deliverance from Egypt, of how he bore them on eagles’ wings and brought them to himself. God asked of the people that they heed his voice and keep his commandments thus releasing his promise that they would be a special people unto him above all the nations of the earth. Then God declared that the people of Israel would become a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Can we grasp the significance of what God intended and offered to Israel? God called every Israelite to the high office of carrying out the sacerdotal work of the kingdom. The story takes a tragic turn, however, when Israel, called to the base of the Mount Sinai to receive its first marching orders, rejects God’s overtures and sets Moses forth in their place thus forfeiting their priestly calling.
Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Ex 20:18, 19 NKJV).
This tragic picture in antiquity should be taking on a familiar contemporary look to all who participate in institutionalized, traditional churches. Resisting the temptation to over focus on the particulars, what is the common denominator in both cases? Is it not that God’s design to interact sacerdotally with his people was rejected, forfeited? Both then and now God’s people conceded an integral aspect of their ordained relationship with God. Sometime between the church’s birth and the present, believers relinquished the priestly aspect of their calling and entrusted it to formally, trained professionals generally categorized as clergy.
This unholy dichotomy of believers into the special classes of laity and clergy gave rise to another subtle shift in ministry which furthered the disenfranchisement of believers from their biblical ordination. Ministries that in the beginning were considered Holy Spirit inspired motivations and service slowly morphed into titles and positions resulting in the restructuring of church hegemony from an apostolic to a hierarchical paradigm. From the inauguration of the church, words like pastor, elder, bishop, etc. simply described ministry motivations out of which persons served. Today these same words describe positions and titles used to distinguish one believer from another and foster the lording it over one another that Jesus expressly warned against.
It is just a strong part of man’s fallen nature that he desires preferential treatment among others. Men have always sought positions and titles as a means of elevating themselves above and distinguishing themselves from others. In our fallenness we desire recognition, honor and privilege. Although there are some areas of life where hierarchical structure is necessary for the good order of society—such as the military, business world, Boy Scouts, police units, etc.—it was never meant to be so within Christianity. It is to the shame of the church and the corruption of its ministry that it has forsaken the biblical paradigm of ministry while adopting the self-promoting ways of the world.
Jesus addressed this issue in an interchange with his disciples giving us the ultimate model for leadership befitting the Kingdom of God. When James and John besought Jesus for special places of honor next to him in his kingdom, Jesus used the occasion to teach his disciples that seeking positions of honor was emulating the world and contrary to his kingdom.
So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else” (Mk 10:42, 43 NLT).
In the Kingdom of God leadership is defined by serving, not by position and title. The serving that Jesus referenced was what arose from an inner motivation sponsored by the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit gives gifts to the church, it is never to distinguish one individual from another but always to equip persons for spiritual ministry to the body.
When God told the children of Israel that they were to be become a kingdom of priests, he was qualifying every one of them as bona fide ministers fully able to represent God to the people and the people to God. This was their divine eligibility to handle the things of God. When we fast forward to the beginnings of the church, Peter captures the same reality making direct reference to wilderness Israel’s relationship with God.
You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pe 2:5, 9 NKJV).
Peter’s use of terms such as “holy nation,” “chosen generation” and “royal priesthood” was a direct reference to the language of God with Israel in the wilderness. The message is exactly the same—every member of the body of Christ is set apart as God’s priest qualified to minister under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. This is precisely what is missing in the church today. Instead of each and every member of the body assuming their God ordained roles as priests and ministering to one another, we have professional clergy conducting prescribed rituals and routine ceremonies. How do we get this so wrong? God tells Israel to build him a house that he might dwell among them. Peter directly relates the church to being that house, built of spiritual stones and tying this emphatically to their functioning as a royal priesthood. To deny the priesthood of believers is also to deny God his rightful place in the body. We have chosen to supplant God with our own titular system of positional ministry—like James and John we have opted for the places of honor.
This tragic state of affairs will never be corrected until the church comprehends God’s purpose of bringing every believer into the full stature life in Christ and doing so through the every member a minister body of Christ. As long as the church tolerates the clergy/laity dichotomy and settles for a hierarchical hegemony it will continue to forfeit its full inheritance in Christ and deny God his eternal purpose in Christ.