Last Monday, over on Dave Black’s blog (Dave is a New Testament scholar and teacher, a missionary and a Greek Professor), he posted this.
The New Testament church was a brotherhood of believers who were all priests. By the third century it became a community centered in the bishop. This trend can and must be reversed today.
During this week, I’ve been reading ‘With God in Russia’ by Walter Ciszek, A Jesuit Priest. I found the timing providential, as Ciszek’s experiences reflect almost exactly what happens when a group of people become completely reliant on ‘the church’ to meet their needs. It is still a great book for other reasons, but it highlighted the effect of a bishop centric church model.
There are endless books and blogs on this topic, and I am not qualified to address most of the deep theological questions and issues on either side of the divide, so I will leave it to those better qualified to continue that argument. What I will say from the outset is that I agree with Dave completely, and this book further reinforced my view and experience in this matter!
In regards to this topic, the key thing mentioned in ‘With God in Russia’ was a lot of people were ‘Catholic’, but they had no Priest. For a committed Catholic, this is very bad for them, as there is no one to give communion (The Blessed Sacrament), without which they do not have sure sign of salvation. There is no one to hear confession, or to give absolution (to speak the forgiveness of sins – generally this is done before communion). There is no one to marry couples or Baptise children (both considered Sacraments, therefore essential, especially baptism). In multiple occasions Ciszek ministered as a priest, but was forced by the authorities to ‘move on’, in many cases leaving hundreds of people without a priest.
This was heart breaking for both him and his congregations – he was worried about the flock being left behind without a priest, the flock was left leaderless and unable to perform the basic rites of the Christian faith.
Now my question is – is this right?
There are clear definitions in the New Testament about Elders and Deacons. These are often also called Overseers or Bishops (translation dependent). But these definitions don’t say anywhere that only these people can teach the Word, or can give communion. These limitations were placed later by Church councils and the like. (For example, if you would like a quick read up on why only Priests can handle the Blessed Sacrament you can read here. The context is based around their interpretation that Christ’s real presence is in the elements (bread and wine), and that it relates to a sacrifice like such as in the Old Testament, hence the limitations)
We know in the New Testament we are all called to be priests. We also know that each of us has a gift, if not multiple gifts, that are to be used for good works and in the service of the Body of Christ (the Church). But no where does it limit the functions of the church to a small group of ordained people who are ‘specially trained’ (to use the words from the Catholic site). Instead, we see this -
1 Corinthians 12:4-13 (ESV)
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
(In fact, the whole of 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 covers the gifts of the spirit.)
So back to Ciszek’s book and the divide between Clergy (priests, bishops) and Laity (every one else). What it highlighted was that once we go down the path to this complete divide, the church almost stops functioning in it’s gifts. Lay people still occasionally provide some services, maybe administration, or singing, or some other small task. But most of the body essentially does nothing, and even ceases to function in the absence of Clergy.
This is not what we were called to do!
We are called into God’s service, each and every one of us with at least one gift, many of us with more than one, with the express purpose of using them both within the Body of Christ and for good works, often outside that body but for the good of the Kingdom of God. Without us all acting, in unison, just like a body in Paul’s analogy in first Corinthians, the church is nothing but a head, unable to move, and unable to function completely. Sure, some things get done, but as soon as that one person is taken away, such as the examples in With God in Russia, the whole body stops functioning.
So back again to the start – where Dave commented that we need to get back to the New Testament understanding of church and the Body of Christ. Rather than relying on our Priest, Pastor or Bishop to do all the work, and to be the only one who is ‘called’, we all need to step up, acknowledge that God has called each and every one of us to a task and get on with it.
How can we achieve that today? The first step is to read the Bible and see for ourselves what is written there. Then we need to acknowledge that our current system is indeed a legacy that was built many generations after Jesus lived and died, and seek the answers from there. I know I don’t have them all, but the first step is to at least admit that something is wrong, and seek for the answer.
As a final clarification – let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Don’t storm out of your church today yelling ‘this is un-biblical!’. There is still a place for our congregations, and there is still a place for elder led churches that serve God in the best capacity they can – we need to just start with the confession that ‘we may have a problem here’ and begin to seek real solutions. I may well post more on this in the future….