There arent’ many things I have stronger feelings about than restoring a “priesthood of all believers.” This will be a longer post than normal on account of this, but I think you’ll find it worth the read. If it would be easier to read in print, open the pdf version here. If not, here you go…
I am afraid that we have reversed everything Martin Luther and fellow reformers have fought for. Somewhere during the past five centuries we have gone back to placing our faith in professional Christians. Everyone in the West has a Bible in their language, on their shelf, or at least in a night stand pull out drawer at their next hotel room. However people still think the Good Book is too hot to handle. If they really want to understand what it means, they find a Sunday service or podcast to hear the professionals.
Maybe you do read the Bible and maybe you feel you understand it too, but do you see yourself as a priest for having read it? Priesthood was the point of the reformation. Accessibility of the Biblical text was a tool, not the end. Priests go to God on their own. Priests give God on their own. Reformers believed that if you had a vernacular Bible in your hand, you had then entered the ranks of clergy as pastors to the world.
Do you see yourself as a pastor of a church? If not, the Reformation has failed you. Or, maybe you have failed the reformation? One of the biggest reasons I made a run with house churches was my belief that it would bring the church closer to a priesthood of all believers. We were not reckless with it. I encouraged people to start small. The domain of each person’s leadership was to be in proportion to their maturity and gifting. New believers were encouraged to share whatever little bit they knew with friends, start several one-on-one churches so to speak. If a person had been around the block a few times with Jesus, we told them to cluster a pile of friends together and start a church, or at least take on the leadership of one of our existing churches so someone else could start the next one. Congregations of two, congregations of twenty, congregations of whatever size you could handle.
I found the house church model to be great because it showed just how far gone we are from a priesthood of all believers. Internal complaints were rampant, at least amongst the handful of participants who were more “mature;” the ones who had been into Jesus and the church for many years. Would you believe their greatest complaint was lack of Bible knowledge? After a decade of sitting around every Sunday morning, they still did not act like they knew enough to start teaching others. They were fine with me carrying the title of “pastor” because I had been to Seminary, but no way on earth would they follow someone who had done any less. “What if someone gets it wrong and starts teaching heresy,” they would worry. Apparently no one felt capable enough to pick up a Bible, read it for themselves, and when the day required it say, “I don’t think that is what the Bible is saying here?” I do not know where they got the idea that seminaries handout certificates of orthodoxy, or even better, certificates of infallibility.
The real kicker is that our ranks of maturity had no framework from which they could even conceptualize that I was speaking to them. They kept talking about how they could not follow an untrained pastor when in fact I was asking them to be the untrained pastor! There was just no way of convincing him that they were the priesthood, that God had entrusted his church to them. They had it stuck in their mind that apart from logging a few weekly volunteer hours, their spiritual position this side of heaven was to stay on the receiving end. They never acted like they could walk across a street on their own. They always needed someone to hold their hand. They never showed any cognizance of their ability to hold the hand for somebody else.
Amongst the exemplary few who did understand the pastoral role I was asking of them, still they refused to sign on. It is tough to have the buck stop with you, even if you are capable. It is much easier to dodge the responsibility and let it rest with another, someone who gets paid to bear that kind of burden.
The new believers who got it and for the most part actively made their contribution, but the body of the bride is not that beautiful when some of her parts do not do what they are made to do. We lurched along with a sprained knee, dislocated shoulder, and lazy eye. We got the job done, kind of, but we were capable of so much more. My time in the house church gave vivid illumination that the church has brought the reformation full circle back to placing our faith in the priesthood of professionals.
Established models of church are just as guilty of creating a priesthood of professionals. It was certainly more obvious in a church of twenty where you can look on around at the problems in the room and watch people suffer when you do not play your part. The priesthood of professionals mentality does not hurt the Established Church as badly because their model has factored in this expectation. Small groups and potluck picnics give us a sense of togetherness, but everyone wants to run to the pastor when they really need something. More importantly, everyone wants the other person to run to the pastor when they need something. The fact of the matter is that our churches will continue to run just fine as long as we have a preacher, a worship leader, and money in the offering plate. If everyone else chose to sleep in, the show would still go on, and therefore so would our churches.
I am talking about taking responsibility. Responsibility is about putting another’s spiritual condition upon your shoulders. If a person goes down, you go down with them to bring them up again. We need to listen until they are done crying, advise until they are done listening, and fast until they are done backsliding. No you cannot do it for a few hundred people, but that is just the point – no one can, not even the paid professionals. That is why each one of us needs to pastor a small cluster. Two, twelve, twenty – it does not matter how many, just take on responsibility for as many as you can handle. It has managed to escape me how one person with the responsibility for everyone has surpassed everyone having responsibility for someone.
Whether you are Emergent or Established, our churches need to figure out how to instill pastoral responsibility amongst each person in the congregation. We have no right to call ourselves a church until people take responsibility for each other and the fallen state of the world at large. I think small groups and ministry teams are a step in the right direction for the Established Church. I think house churches and social space evangelism show a lot of potential for the Emergents.
Whatever your approach to restoring the priesthood of believers, might I recommend a failure plan; a system whereby the whole thing naturally falls apart if the mission and values are not upheld. In Ezekiel 11, the glory of YHWH departs from the Temple. When his glory traveled as far as the hillside, just before going out of sight, it pauses. It was as if he stopped to see if anybody even realized he was leaving. If God’s glory left our churches, would we notice? We need a structure that will kill itself if God’s glory and purposes becomes absent. Intervening with professional staff is a lot like putting your church on life support. Dare to structure your church in such a way that it will cease to function when the body parts fail to participate. We are going to lose a lot of churches in the process, but in the long run I believe the bride will make a turn in beauty on the day her people witness in mass that she is ugly and dying, all because they chose not to play their part.