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.


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