Friday, August 19, 2011

Priesthood of Believers

Proponents of congregationalism often cite 1 Peter 2 in support of the idea that every member of a local church is to have authority with regard to the decisions of the church. The texts quoted are:
"4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Pet. 2:4-5)
"9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." (1 Pet. 2:9).
The Evangelical Free denomination (EFCA) states “based on the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6; 5:9), we believe that the will of Christ for his church is best discerned through the collective understanding of the congregation. Therefore, the congregation is the highest governing authority under Christ for the local church.” (Evangelical Convictions, p. 261).
But is this what the phrase actually means in Scripture? I’m not so sure. The Holman Bible Dictionary indicates that the priesthood of the believer primarily refers to two aspects: 1. Believers have direct access to God and can respond to the Spirit’s activity in their lives without the need for a professional priest to mediate their contact with Him. 2. Believers have the right and responsibility to minister directly to one another and the world. A professional priest is not the only one who can be a direct channel of God’s Spirit to others. In the Old Testament, usually only the professionally ordained priests could directly hear God for the people and communicate to the people on God’s behalf. Now, since the death and resurrection of Christ, anyone who is a true Christian has direct access to God. What a wonderful blessing!
But, personally, I believe the EFCA statement above takes the doctrine too far when it suggests that this phrase pertains to local church government. The 1 Peter passages listed above say nothing about church government or decision making in a local body. On the contrary, Peter is very specific about the implications of this priesthood. He states that it is a position where “offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” are to be made (1 Pet. 2:5) and where “the praises of him” are to be “declared” (1 Pet. 2:9). This corresponds to Holman’s explanation above. However, later in the same publication, the EFCA qualifies its interpretation by stating that the Scriptures clearly teach that pastors and elders are given the mandate and authority to lead local churches. Specifically, the denomination states that “an EFC (Evangelical Free Church) entrusts much of the decision-making to godly leaders who are trained, trusted and allowed to lead.”
Where do I land? Well, I believe that the priesthood enables any believing member of a local church the possibility to hear directly from God. I also believe that God has clearly indicated that the Sr. Pastor, other elders (often in the form of a Church Council), and the staff of a local church are entrusted with the authority and leadership of local churches and that such authority is ordained by God and not man. In light of this, I think any Sr. Pastor of a local church would be wise to have a system of prayerful congregational participation for major decisions under the guidance of ordained leaders. Specifically, I think a church should have congregational membership meetings covered in prayer with biblical rules of order where the church membership should inform decisions regarding five areas: 1. Selection of the governing board. 2. Selection of the Sr. Pastor. 3. Alterations in the Constitution/bylaws. 4. Approval of the Annual Church Budget. 5. Approval of major purchases. This, it seems to me, offers a balance between hyper-democratic church government (which so often leads to stagnation and a least common denominator, popularity-based decision process) and an extreme hierarchical church government (which leaves the clergy with little accountability).
No system of church government is perfect this side of Heaven. It also seems to me that the Bible is purposely vague on the particulars of church government at times, leaving each local body and branch of Christ’s Church to turn to His Spirit for guidance in how to function most effectively for its particular community and time in history. Ultimately, it’s all about Him and regardless of what government a church has, if the Pastor and the people are passionate about Christ and submissive to His leadership, God will bless the fellowship. May we all seek this blessed ideal!