Saturday, March 26, 2011

priesthood of all believers?

There is a widespread, popular assumption that the Bible teaches the concept of the "priesthood of all believers."  This is usually taken to mean that each of us individually has access to God without needing a mediator (other than Christ).  Since all of us are priests, we are free to interpret Scripture on our own, and (in its most extreme form) the line between clergy and laypeople should be erased altogether.

In my research on 1 Peter 2:9-10 for my thesis, I was exposed to a book by John Elliott entitled, The Elect and the Holy, where he sets out to explore the biblical foundations of the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” Such doctrine is usually traced to 1 Peter 2:9, where Peter calls believers a “royal priesthood” (or “kingdom, body of priests” depending on how you translate it). Elliott traces the Old Testament development of that theme as it arises from Exodus 19:5-6, and demonstrates that when Moses called Israel a “kingdom of priests” (the source of Peter’s phrase in 1 Peter 2:9), this does not preclude the establishment of a Levitical priesthood just a few chapters later. In other words, “kingdom of priests” was NOT an attempt to abolish a distinction between clergy and laity. Jews were not being encouraged to strike out on their own. Exodus 19:5-6 was expressing that Israel as a whole was elected and set apart for God’s service.

Similarly, the New Testament church is elect and set apart for service. First Peter 2:9 describes the purpose of this election: “that you may declare the praiseworthiness of the one who has called you from darkness into his marvelous light” (my translation). Peter does not intend to do away with clergy and laity. He goes on to give special instructions to the elders in chapter five. Clearly he sees a role for church leaders.

Those entrusted with leadership roles in the church are responsible to explain the scriptures to those who do not or cannot understand. I am all for English Bible translations and personal Bible study (see my preceding post). But all of us wear glasses when we come to the Bible, and we need one another in order to see what we’ve missed because of our own faulty perspective or expectations. We need our leaders to guide our understanding of the big picture of biblical theology so that we are not swept away by wrong interpretations. The Bible is, as the Reformers insisted, perspicuous (that is, understandable), but we are not all equally skilled at understanding it. That is why God gave teachers to the church (Eph 4:11). There is no shame in not being a teacher. “Each one should use whatever gift they have received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Pet 4:10)  All of us are elect, and we all serve the Lord, but we still need teachers and leaders in the church to help us understand and choose the best path. Rugged individualism simply can't be found in God's design for the church.

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