Tag Archives: nonconformism

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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Saints: A nonconformist point of view

Following on from my recent “thinking out loud” about how I, as a nonconformist, view church structures, I wanted to expand on a few other things that I think about slightly differently from some mainstream denominations, and to give my reasons for doing so. Some of this should explain some of the stylistic oddities you may have noticed if you have read much of this blog. In this case, I wanted to explain my thinking behind why, when referring to various figures (particularly the apostles) I use the like of Paul or Peter, rather than St. Paul or St. Peter, which entails looking at the idea of who is (and who isn’t) a saint.

The traditionalist viewpoint

The more traditional churches seem to have a special regard for some individuals who are regarded as “saints.” I know the catholic church has a process now in place where someone is regarded as “blessed” and where a miracle has to be verified after a believer has prayed to this dead individual. That miracle is then attributed to the dead person and a long drawn out process is made eventually culminating in the person being “beatified” and declared to be a saint by the pope.

In christianity, many of the catholic saints were “adopted” though the memory of the reformation, particularly in England, does lead to less worship of saints than may be found elsewhere, even if this is defended under the guise of “veneration” or some other linguistic trickery to avoid the suspicion of idolatry.

While I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we remember individual men & women who have contributed to helping others both inside and outside church communities, helping to spread the gospel, it just strikes me as odd that some individuals are picked out as being special more than the countless millions throughout history who have done so either anonymously or who passed into obscurity.

What does the bible say?

The New Testament is littered with references to saints, but in these the referent is clearly the group of all believers in a given location. Individuals are sometimes singled out, but these are then followed up with phrases like “greet all the saints.”

To be specific, take Romans 1:7 for example. “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In Acts 9:32, the term is used interchangeably with believers: “Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydia.”

There are plenty of other references of this kind. To take just a sample, have a look at 1 Corinthians 16:15; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 4:22; Hebrews 6:10 and Jude 3.

One other set of passages that will be of particular relevance will be those found in Revelation. In chapter 8, the prayers of the saints are pictured as incense rising. For biblical literalists, this is the foundation of the use of incense as swung around in extremely “high” churches. Here, the meaning of saints is less clear, so I would propose that our best understanding of its usage comes from the context of the other New Testament writers as indicated above.

Rev 11:18 may at first glance seem distinguish saints from other people, as there are also listed prophets and ‘ones fearing your name’ though when you read around the verse in context it is fairly clear that this is a rhetorical device for saying “everyone” – something not unknown in today’s modern English parlance. This similar usage may be found also in 16:6, 17:6 and 18:24.

Chapter 14 gives a description of who John thought the saints were: “those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of [or ‘in’] Jesus.”

Of course, I have not given you an exhaustive list of references to saints, but having looked through them, I do not think that any omissions add to or change the main argument. But do look them up, it makes for fascinating reading.

The argument

What makes this of particular concern, rather than any lame attempt to drive a wedge between denominations, is the difference in the theological statements between those who subscribe, as I do to the “all believers are saints” hypothesis and those who go along the lines of “some are saints to be revered above others.”

The term “saint” is often contrasted with that of “sinner” and is just as frequently seen as representing a contrast between two opposites. This is so prevalent, that it has slipped outside of church terminology and is used within our much wider secular society. The trouble this has, as with any terminology that has been adopted outside of its precise theological context, is that connotations arise which distort a word’s meaning. In this instance, “saint” has come to mean someone who is especially well-behaved, a do-gooder, if you will. On the other hand, “sinner” has become a pejorative term, sometimes implying criminal behaviour.

I would contend that the two are not opposites at all. Rather, saints are simply a subset of sinners. In my usage of the term, sinners would just be another byword for “people” (in line with Romans 3:21-23) though I very rarely use it because of the judgemental overtones that could be interpreted, even when they are not meant.

One of the alternative translations of “saint” that you will find in some translations is “holy ones” or something similar. Where we get to the nub of the argument is this: who declares us to be ‘holy’ or otherwise?

My point of view, based on my present understanding of scripture, is that God alone is the one who can declare us to be holy. We are made so by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is for God to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ – and this is skirting a whole other argument I don’t wish to have right now. But the point is that I can’t see how it can be right for some individuals to be declared saints by the church authorities (who are to be servants, not commanders, remember). Whatever criteria is used, it is inherently made-made, which must therefore be inherently inferior to the perfect judgement of God.

Conclusion

In light of the evidence and the argument supported by it, it seems bizarre to me that anyone would cling to the traditionalist use of these words, as it clearly has no relation to the kind of faith that the early church had.

In terms of remembering individuals, it’s not bad that we might be encouraged to remember. But it is decidedly odd that you should allocate particular individuals to specific days. What it implies is that on the 17th of July we ought to remember one person, but that they can be forgotten for the rest of the year and that on that day all others are considered to not be as important. Nor do I find it particularly helpful that someone may be considered the patron saint of whatever. I see no biblical imperative for it, nor is it helpful in any way except to perpetuate traditionalism which I don’t regard as being inherently valuable anyway.

For my part, I will choose to remember those saints who I have known throughout my lifetime, who have encouraged me, helped me grow and have challenged me to question my thinking.