More on Ministry

My previous item on women as priests brought an e-mail from my friend Simon asking some interesting questions.  Some of what he said applied to local affairs in churches we know, and I’ve responded directly by email with details inappropriate to the more public blog.  But his more general points seemed relevant to the blog, so here goes….

Key question; we’re used to churches like Catholic and Anglican having the ‘threefold’ ministry of ‘deacons, priests and bishops’ – I’ve made the point that biblically ‘priests’ and ‘bishops’ are the same thing, so where do deacons fit in?

First, let’s clear up something a bit confusing in our English usage.  Although the word ‘priest’ derives from Greek ‘presbyter’, if you look up ‘priest’ in Young’s Bible Concordance, which gives you all the occurrences of the word and tells you what the original is, you’ll find that all the uses of the word ‘priest’ in the King James Version are not translations of ‘presbyter’ but of a different word, ‘hiereus’.  Also ‘hiereus’ and the related (and more frequent) ‘archiereus’, ‘chief priest’ refer not to Christian leaders but mostly to the priests of the Jewish Temple, sometimes (especially in the Epistle to the Hebrews) they refer to Jesus, and very occasionally they refer to a pagan priest, as in Acts 14; 3.  ‘Presbyter’ in contrast is translated 62 times as ‘elder’; of five other occasions, three are adjectival ‘elder’ and ‘eldest’(John 8; 9), once is ‘old man’ and the other (which I haven’t yet traced through Young) is actually ‘old woman’.  What’s going on?

The priests of the Old Testament are very different to the leaders of the church.  They are to prepare for the coming of Jesus through rituals which teach lessons about sin and forgiveness but also about thankfulness and worship.  Mostly this involved sacrifices to God, and the priests stood also as ‘mediators’ between God and man.  To carry out these rituals the priests had a special sacred status.  A whole tribe or clan of Israel, the descendants of Jacob’s son Levi, were set apart to carry out this service to God and people, and in turn were at least partly provided for by the offerings of the people, receiving a share of many of the sacrifices.  They had no ‘clan land’ in the nation, but were spread throughout the nation.  Those who were not priests as such were usually Temple servants in other capacities.  They did have a degree of ordinary life as well, but would have to be ‘ritually clean’ in general and especially during their periods of Temple service.   There are plenty of books which will fill out this picture for you.

When Jesus came this changed.  He himself became both priest and sacrifice to fulfil the Old Testament laws.  He was not a Levite, but as Messiah he became the ‘priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’ (as foretold in Ps 110; 4), a priesthood he inherited as king in Jerusalem and which, as Hebrews explains, was an older priesthood superior to that of the Levites.  He also was sacrificed by the Levitical High Priest of the day Caiaphas, though Caiaphas didn’t quite intend that effect!  Resurrected, he is now our great High Priest, and also because he has fulfilled what the sacrifices were about, no further sacrifices of animals for us are necessary.  Indeed, ‘in Christ’ we Christians are ourselves both a living temple/house-of-God and its priesthood – not just some of us, all of us; see I Peter 2, which reflects an Old Testament prophecy, Exodus 19; 6.

‘Be yourselves built up as living stones into a spiritual house, a dedicated priesthood, so as to offer spiritual sacrifices that through Jesus Christ are well-pleasing to God.’

‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a dedicated nation, a people of His acquisition, so that you may broadcast the perfections of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light – you who once were no people but are now the people of God, who once experienced no mercy but are now enjoying mercy.’

Thus the Christian church doesn’t need a special caste of priests like in Israel; rather we have a ‘priesthood of all believers’.  Our sacrifices are not of animals, but we are in a real sense, as the body of Christ, mediators to the non-believers around us.  The leaders of the Church are not a special priesthood to minister ritually to other Christians, but servants who use their God-given gifts to teach and to maturely (as ‘presbyters’) oversee (as ‘bishops’) their fellow-Christians.  Others in the Church have other gifts and all are called on to work harmoniously together to build up the Church in various ways.  That’s why the term ‘priest/hiereus’ is not used of the Christian leadership.

Over many years after the New Testament era the concept did gradually change; baptism and Communion, and indeed the act of ordination, came to be seen as quasi-magical, especially in the case of infant baptism, and the elders/priests/episkopoi as having in effect special powers to carry out their function.  This trend could have been reversed once Christianity became tolerated, and scripture more readily available than in a persecuted church, but as the Church became the state religion the trend towards a special caste of leaders became fixed and the Christian leaders became more like both Jewish Temple priests and pagan priests.  The communion meal was reinterpreted from a fellowship meal to a ritual sacrifice of a supposedly literal ‘body and blood of Christ’ in a ‘transubstantiated’ bread and wine, the water of baptism became supposedly holy water requiring priestly consecration, and so on.  As pointed out in the earlier post on women priests, ‘episkopoi’ became a separate superior grade of priest rather than just another word for elders, and started leading worship in cathedrals and living in palaces (as ‘princes of the [imperial state] church’ they  had to be appropriately housed!), while church leaders generally became special in the whole ‘Christendom’ society.  By the time of my namesake the archbishop of Canterbury, clerical celibacy had become the norm, despite the biblical teaching that ‘elders/presbyters/priests’ should be married (I Tim 3; 2 among others).

The word ‘presbyter’, transmuted into ‘priest’ might still be used, but the ‘priests’ of the pre-Reformation Orthodox and Catholic Churches were actually more like the Old Testament and pagan ‘hiereus’.  The Reformation changed things a bit, but left us with the awkward English usage of ‘priest’ for the OT/pagan figure despite the word having originated  from ‘elder’.  Also many Reformed Churches kept the not really biblical distinction of ‘bishops/archbishops’ above other elders.

‘Deacons’ derives from a word meaning ‘service’; the first deacons were appointed, as we read in Acts, initially to look after a particular problem in administering the Church’s charitable efforts, so that the apostles would be free to get on with their special commission to teach in the church and preach to those outside.  By the time Paul wrote the ‘Pastoral Epistles’ it looks as if diaconate duties had become a little wider, though in a persecuted body which didn’t own much in the way of church buildings or other property they wouldn’t perhaps do as much as some modern deacons (the diaconate of the Baptist Church I attend, for example).

I Timothy 3 seems to require deacons to be knowledgeable in the faith – as Stephen clearly was.  Verse 13 can be translated to suggest that deacons could become elders, but I don’t think it portrays the diaconate as it eventually became, simply a lower order of priesthood.  Where deacons became ‘junior priests’ their original charitable/practical duties tended to be taken on by ‘lay’ churchwardens and the like.

As far as I can determine there was a kind of ‘unintended-consequence’ change in non-conformist churches in the 17th Century.  For a brief period James II introduced a limited toleration of dissenters as part of an overall plan to bring back Roman Catholicism.  Under these arrangements dissenting ministers had to be licensed, and they weren’t giving out a lot of licenses so the practical effect was that most dissenters ended up with one official minister and anyone else who ministered in the congregation was at some risk of arrest.  With the eventual Act of Toleration under William III things were not as strict but most dissenters continued to have just a single minister who increasingly became like an Anglican parson.  In the early 19th C the Brethren broke the mould by having elders and no paid settled ministry (though ‘missionaries’ might be supported), but the other denominations continued with what had become habitual, i.e., a single minister sometimes with associate pastors in a large congregation.  In such churches the ‘managers’ as opposed to the ‘ministers’ would often be called ‘deacons’ but in practice would be a mixed elders-cum-deacons with the minister as the ‘teaching elder’.

I would basically say that a local congregation should ideally work by the biblical suggestion of a group of elders appointed to oversee, teach and pastor, assisted by original-style deacons who deal with the ‘business affairs’ of the church.  The NT itself shows various other kinds of ministry for more specialist purposes.  What we would call ‘missionaries’ of course, and also ‘apostles’ could apparently mean kind of messengers between the churches as well as THE Apostles.  (as with ‘episkopos’ the word still had an everyday secular meaning as simply a ‘person sent’)  Obviously each does his job according to his gifts; among elders few will have both perfect scholarly and perfect pastoral gifts, most are likely to be superior in one or other of those areas, which is one reason why we should have elders in the plural, for the wide use and availability of the rich gifts of several people rather than expecting one man to be a ‘superman’ in both teaching and pastoring.  I do in fact believe that we are allowed great freedom in how we set up ministry, but when we appear to go beyond the NT guidelines we should also constantly monitor the position, to be sure that what we have done doesn’t develop, as the medieval Catholic priesthood did, in undesirable directions, and that the leadership remains accountable to the Bible and to the congregation rather than ‘lording it over’ the flock.


But Seriously (10) – Peter on murder, theft and ‘meddling’

I Peter 4 contains a passage which in my schooldays I found a bit confusing.  I had no problem with the first bit, about being prepared to suffer for the name of Christ, but the next bit – well, here is the passage…

Be not surprised, dear friends, at the fiery test that is being applied to you, as if you were experiencing something odd.  Instead be cheerful for sharing to some degree the sufferings of Christ, so that at the revealing of his glory you may be triumphantly cheerful.  If you are defamed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, yes, the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Of course none of you should suffer as a murderer or a thief or a criminal or a meddler in other’s affairs; but if you suffer as a Christian, do not feel ashamed; but honour God with that name.

My reaction to this was “How could that be?  How would Christians be suffering for being murderers, or thieves, or criminals?”  After all, to Christians those things would be sinful.  The bit about ‘meddlers’ was confusing in a slightly different way – it just wasn’t clear what was meant, what would be the limits of ‘meddling’, the difference between that and other legitimate concerns?  Like many other things that puzzled me as a teenager, things got clearer as the explosion of violence in Ulster led me to look into ‘Church and State’ issues.

Because there in Ulster people were effectively committing murder and theft and other criminality in the name of Jesus, as paramilitaries threw bombs, shot people, and stole and extorted (including intimidation of their own ‘side’) to finance supposedly Christian campaigns for either a Catholic or a Protestant cause.  That is, they didn’t see the murder, theft and criminality as just ordinary crimes of personal greed or whatever; they thought they had the justification of fighting for God’s people in God’s name.   Peter, I realised, in a letter to a church facing imminent persecution, was almost certainly referring to that kind of thing, and saying “That’s not the Christian way!”  In Peter’s day, he probably had in mind the ‘Zealots’ and ‘Sicarii (daggermen)’ of the Jewish resistance against Rome.  About ten years later movements like that would lead to the Jewish Revolt, so there would be a live possibility of that kind of Christian reaction to persecution unless Peter made things clear.

Once I’d made that link I could see many episodes in Christian history where Christians who would not have committed ‘private’ crimes did commit rebellion and other crimes for supposedly Christian causes; the English Civil war is just one of the bigger examples, starting in lesser resistance to the authorities and ending in full warfare.  This in turn was a consequence of the ‘establishment’ of the Church in the Roman Empire and the development of the idea of the ‘Christian country’.  Having or trying to achieve a ‘Christian state’ appeared to justify such conduct.  This general issue I’ve explored elsewhere in the blog and will probably keep coming back to.

‘Meddling’ – well now I’d revised my interpretation of the background ideas, could I find a better and clearer meaning for the ‘meddling’ as well?  Going back to the Greek was an obvious starting point, and the Greek is ‘allotriepiskopoi’.  ‘Allos’ is ‘other’, ‘Allotria’ is ‘other people’s affairs’ and ‘episkopos’ is the same word as ‘bishop’ though in those days it hadn’t acquired a distinctively church meaning and just meant a ‘manager’ or ‘overseer’ (‘epi’ is ‘over/above’ as in epidermis, ‘skopos’ is ‘seeing’ as in the far-seeing ‘telescope’).  Peter doesn’t just mean ‘meddling’ in general; this is being a ‘manager of other people’s business’ and I don’t think it would be wrong to suggest an implication of ‘self-appointed manager’.  We might also informally use the phrase ‘bossy-boots’.

One risk in thinking you’re ‘on God’s side’ is the risk of becoming a Zealot, or a member of the UVF or similar bodies, thinking that killing and coercion in God’s name is justified, even mandated and praiseworthy; another risk is to become a busy-body, an interferer, pushing your views and standards on others in God’s name.  But Peter is saying that being such a ‘meddler’ is also inappropriate conduct, conduct which will get you into trouble with the non-Christians around you and bring disrepute on the faith; even get Christians persecuted.  As Peter sees it, Christians aren’t entitled to that management role; we are humble resident aliens, people who must be prepared to follow Jesus’ example of suffering unjustly.  In our dealings with our fellow-men we show self-sacrificing love and care, not self-righteous domineering.  This is arguably Peter’s version of Jesus’ words about how the princes of the gentiles ‘lord it over’ others – ‘but it shall not be so with you’.  Not only Christians won’t lord it over each other – they also won’t treat non-Christians that way!  Of course we care about other people’s affairs; but we are also careful to respect them and to offer humble help that doesn’t demean our neighbour or act self-righteous and haughty.

Another side to this; of course when there is a ‘Christian country’ it will appear to Christians that there are, in a way, no ‘other people’s affairs’ to improperly manage.  Everyone’s a Christian by being born in that country and baptised as an infant, so their affairs are also the church’s affairs and interfering with them can’t be meddling ….  This is a great idea if you’re an inquisitor, or just a ruler looking to Christianity to unify his realm.  The problem is, of course, that the New Testament doesn’t teach the Christian state in the first place, and actually rejects the idea that spiritual rebirth as a Christian can be achieved by human will/legislation etc.  Nice as it sounds to the would-be busy-body, this situation is simply not supposed to happen.  And if ever there was a case of ‘allotriepiskopy writ large’, it’s the bishops, the ‘episkopoi’ of a state church; their very existence in that role, defies NT teaching.  Think it through….

Finally, Peter wrote this to a church which wasn’t running anybody’s country, to advise them against this inappropriate bossy-boots stuff; I can’t believe that he intended the church to actually end up as an institutionalised bossy-boots by becoming ‘established’!

Northern Ireland; the cost of ‘abnormal policing’.

An item on teletext tells me that the policing of protests and riots in Northern Ireland is costing £3m per month; just one ongoing incident – which appears to be protests about that banned march in the Ardoyne area of Belfast – is costing £300,000 per week (£1,200,000 a month on its own!!), and has done so since ‘the Twelfth’.  That six-figure sum – weekly – because a band and their supporters want to stage a provocative and offensive march.  There’s a further difficulty shown by comparing arrest rates in the province to previous years; policing all these protests has massively cut the number of arrests for ‘normal’ crimes and presumably the province must be suffering considerably from this failure to deal with the regular crimes.

The problem for me is that the people responsible for this disorder, for the expense and the obstruction to ordinary policing, claim to be my fellow-Christians and to be defending a strongly Bible-believing form of the faith at that.  But I also take the Bible seriously, and in the New Testament I can find text after text after text that says Christians shouldn’t be behaving like that, and/or presents emphatically a different course of behaviour.  And these are not obscure texts, they’re very plain and straightforward; simple stuff like ‘in no case paying back evil for evil’ or ‘love your enemy’ or ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ whether those weapons be swords, guns, tanks – or thrown bottles and stones. 

In contrast, texts justifying these marches, riots and protests are to say the least thin on the ground.   And those which are sometimes produced do not seem to be plain and straightforward either.  Indeed I often find that the texts don’t say anything that supports such conduct at all, it’s just that those quoting the texts aren’t happy with what the text actually says and have produced a rationalisation that says, without biblical grounds, “surely there must be an exception….”

Much of the justification for the marches, riots and protests seems to depend on first believing that Northern Ireland is or should be a ‘Christian country’ (whether ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’) which these actions are defending.  Again, I’m still waiting for someone to produce actual texts supporting that proposition, either for Northern Ireland or any other country; and those texts would need to be very clear and emphatic to counter or be a legitimate exception to the large number of rather explicit texts rejecting the Christian state and commanding a somewhat different course of action – I’ve quoted lots of these texts in the blog already and more to come, so I’m not going to repeat them all here….

To justify harming your country (and mine, while NI is part of the UK!) on a scale of £millions a month, Christians don’t just need a ‘good excuse’ – they need an extremely good reason.  Excuses about ‘defending our culture’ really won’t do, especially for a ‘culture’ which is rather obviously not about God’s values of ‘loving your enemies’ etc.; you have to be able to say you are positively obeying God, yet clearly you aren’t.  On the contrary there is clear disobedience. 

Even accepting that ‘being subject to the authorities’ doesn’t mean unqualified obedience to them, there is no biblical authority to disobey the state when all they have said is you mustn’t stage a provocative and intimidating march offensive to your neighbours of other beliefs.  It’s not like they are forbidding you to preach the gospel, and even then a violent response would be biblically inappropriate!!  To set yourself against the authorities in the attempt, by repeated demonstrations, to force your march through after all… that fits almost exactly the literal meaning of Paul’s words in Romans 13 – “Do not ‘set yourselves in array against’ the authorities”; and Paul warns that if you disobey that word you are setting yourself against God’s purposes, against God himself, and that God will respond in judgement against you.  Indeed, from where I’m standing, it looks very much as if God actually has responded in judgement, as Northern Ireland is ‘given over’ (to use a Pauline concept) to suffer the natural consequences that follow such disobedience.   Among those judgemental consequences, though far from the worst as we have seen over the years, is the hurt when the acts of misguided Christians cost the nation and its people a needless loss of millions of pounds that could be much better spent!! 

PS; since I originally posted this I’ve seen a further news item suggesting that the ‘flag protests’ have cost Belfast’s shops about £50million in trade. Again I can’t see any justification for Christians to be involved in such damaging activity at the expense of their community; yet these protests seem only to make sense on a supposedly ‘Christian’ basis. This has to be wrong!