Priests: a nonconformist point of view

Carrying on from my recent posts on “a nonconformist point of view” I conclude with this look at the priesthood. The understanding I have, based on the different denominations I have been a part of over the years, is quite specific. Yet I have noticed that there is a rising trend to refer to members of the clergy as priests, which goes quite against my understanding. So here, once again, I am thinking out loud and giving the evidence and reasoning behind my thinking. You are welcome to disagree either in comments or, if you write a response and let me know, I’ll be happy to include a link.

The traditionalist viewpoint

The idea of a christian priest stems back to christian origins, where this new belief was regarded by outside observers as a sect within Judaism which eventually grew into its own separate identity. In the Judaic system, the priests were the link between ordinary people and God. Effectively, they were a go-between. There were very stringent rules about who could and who could not be a priest. It’s worth noting that the concept of a priest most probably predated Judaism as they are introduced in the Old Testament as figures already known, with no single text detailing the precise role they had, though there is plenty of detail you may find in Exodus, Leviticus & Numbers.

Today, it is often used another synonym for minister, pastor or vicar. In catholicism, the common picture that is summoned up is that of the confessional box where a member of the church steps into a small, ornately carved, wooden cubicle and tells the priest all the things they’ve done wrong. The priest then tells them to serve some penance (e.g. say 3 ‘Hail Mary’s) and then declares, en loco deus, that that person is forgiven.

What does the bible say?

There are a few key passages in the New Testament which radically reform who can and who cannot be a priest. Interestingly, I don’t see a real sea-change in the role of a priest, as I think that it pretty much the same as it was in the Old Testament. However, if you glance at a concordance (I use Strong’s Strongest as my reference) you will note a dramatic fall off in the number of uses. The OT is replete with references (over 750) whereas the NT has only just over 150. Most of these references are in the gospels and Acts as references to the Jewish authorities.

Where the theology of christian priesthood is found, we have references almost exclusively one book: Hebrews. There are 3 references in Revelation and 2 in 1 Peter which probably ought to be dealt with first. The Revelation references may be found in 1:6, 5:10 and 20:6.

What these reveal is that John thoughts that priests were synonymous with saints. It was a category that included all believers. Assuming an orthodox belief that Jesus died for all, then 5:10 states that the saints (i.e. all believers) were “to be a kingdom and priests serving our God”. Of course, if one is of the presupposition that “kingdom” means institutional church then this could be misconstrued. But this particular nonconformist believes that the notion of kingdom is that of being all the people of God, subject to the one God as our king.

The 1 Peter references may be found in 2:5-9

“Like living stones yourselves, you are being built up into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices that will be well pleasing to god through Jesus the Messiah. That’s why it stands in scripture: ‘Look! I’m setting up in Zion a chosen, precious cornerstone; believe in him! You’ll not be ashamed.’ He is indeed precious for you believers. But when people don’t believe, ‘the stone which the builders rejected has become the head cornerstone’, and ‘a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence’. But you are a ‘chosen race, a royal priesthood’; a holy nation; a people for God’s possession. Your purpose is to announce the virtuous deeds of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light.”

Here, Peter harks back to Exodus 19:3-6 but reinterprets it. Instead of a priestly kingdom to mean a nation which contains and is governed by priests (I think pertinently of the welcome signs to County Durham ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’) we are now under the kingdom of heaven, where God is our king and we all are priests. Peter has no hint that some are to be priests and some are not.

In Paul’s writing, we find a complete absence of priesthood. Instead we find apostles, prophets, teachers and leaders (1 Cor 12:28).

Given the large number of references in Hebrews, it’s hard to do the subject justice without an exegesis. So I shall attempt to just pick out the key passages, whilst encouraging you to read the whole book.

They key introduction may be found in 4:14-16:

“Since, then, we have a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Who is the “us” that the writer to the Hebrews is referring to? Are the apostles some kind of new priestly order, whereby they are the ones who can approach this metaphorical throne? It seems highly unlikely to me. What the author is driving at is that the actions of Jesus have opened up a whole new wealth freedoms, unbounded by the rigidity of the Torah. To approach God is no longer something we do through an intermediary. The revelation of Jesus as God has lifted the restriction on who can and who cannot be a priest.

The Argument

Given the above, my line of thinking on the matter is as follows:

During Jesus’ lifetime, there was no great intention to reform the priesthood. This is, admittedly, an argument from the absence of evidence, but while his message was subversive it wasn’t so in this way. Instead, Jesus’ concern was more about the symbolism embodied in the Temple.

One of the contentious roles of the priesthood is whether they have an ability to forgive sins. That is, more than on an individual level (“I forgive you for stepping on my foot”) but rather than they act en loco deus to confer on people the forgiveness of God. On this point, I disagree with N.T. Wright who says (in Jesus and the Victory of God) “In first-century jewish reality, the way YHWH forgave sins…was ultimately through the officially established and authorized channels of Temple and priesthood.” He says this in relation to the incident in Mark 2 where Jesus forgives a cripple before healing him. My opinion is that the “legal experts” in verses 6 & 7 were correct in declaring that only God can forgive sins. So Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness was a direct claim to be God, though Wright apparently denies this.

When the curtain in the Temple was torn at the moment of Jesus’ death, the symbolism of the separation of God and mankind that the curtain represented was removed. For more on that, see this recent piece. The high priest had been the only person able to pass through that curtain, but now Jesus was taking the role of high priest. There was to be no more earthly go-between between God and mankind.

Now, we have access to God, since anyone who has “seen” Jesus has seen the Father (John 14:9). What this instigated is a ‘priesthood of all believers.’ Instead of a few individuals who can trace their family history back to the tribe of Levi, all of us are priests. We can all boldly approach God who, through the new covenant instigated by Jesus’ death, has restored us to fellowship with him.

Conclusion

The notion of a priest is an important one in both Judaism and christianity. How the latter differed from the former was one piece in understanding the importance of the work of Jesus, accomplished on the cross and interpreted by the first generation of evangelists.

While it might be comforting, from a psychological point of view, to have aural confirmation that you are forgiven, the act of a member of a clergy making such a declaration in no way enacts the forgiveness of God. To turn this around, imagine that you did not have access to the priest. To whom would you make your confession? Would you go unforgiven? I don’t think so.

In accordance with 1 John 1:9, my opinion is that we are free to confess our sins to God. There is no more need for an intermediary since Jesus became the one high priest.

I think the theology in most churches kind of runs along these lines, but the terminology still exists in some churches, even if the authority to forgive sins and act as a go-between is no longer used. These are the reasons why I don’t refer to clergy as priests. I may not be ordained, but I am no less a priest – neither are you. This may seem like nit-picking, but I think the terminology we use (and the connotations that come with it) make important statements about what we believe and practice. So by reserving the term ‘priest’ for certain individuals, we deny this rich vein of christian teaching that was evidently considered important for the early church and which is still relevant today.

What’s your take on this?

  • Do you agree with this analysis, or would you make significant revisions to it?

I hope it has provided you food for thought.

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