Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How to do church III - our leaders: priests.

Popes, Cardinals, Archbishops, Archimandrites, Bishops, Monsignors, Priests, Abbots, Abesses, Overseers, Elders, Presbyters, Canons, Deans, Deacons, Archdeacons, Pastors, Major-Generals, Over-Shepherds, Under-Shepherds, Monks, Friars, Brothers, Fathers, Mother-Superiors, Churchwardens, Vergers, Sacrestans, Reverends, Right-Reverends, Very-Reverends, Apostles, Patriarchs, Catholicoi, Primates, Vicars, Parsons, Padres, Sky-Pilots, Rectors, Suffragans, Chorbishops, Superintendents, Ministers, Teaching Elders, Territorial Commanders, Curates, Metropolitans, Moderators, Clerics, Prebendaries, Protodeacons, Hieromonks and Hierodeacons.

I have been amusing myself by trying to think up as many names for different clergy in the Christian Church. I expect my readers will be able to think of others. Leadership is important. There is only one leader of the Christian church and that is Jesus Christ. He is the Head of the Church, but He has called and appointed sub-leaders who have a local role in serving the church. As far as I can see there are only four terms that are used in the New Testament to describe those in leadership roles.

The first is 'Priest', the translation of the Greek word, hiereus. It refers to exclusively to priests who offer sacrifice, such as the priesthood of the Jewish Temple, or the priests of pagan gods. In Christian terms it refers only to Jesus Christ, as is made clear in the Letter to the Hebrews. It distinguishes between Jesus, a priest in the order of Melchizadek, 'a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry (like the Aaronic priests), but on the basis of the power of an indestructable life' (Heb 7:16), and the Jewish priesthood 'appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices' (Heb 8:3).

The Jewish priesthood had an elaborate system of offerings and sacrifices which are laid out in the first five books of the Bible. They were all from the tribe of Levi which is what is referred to in the Hebrews 7 passage ('not on the basis of ancestry'). But what they did was 'a copy and shadow of what is in heaven' (Heb 8:5), 'but the ministry Jesus has received is superior to theirs' (v6). The first Mosaic covenant (= agreement between God and man) which began with the passover and was extended through centuries of animal sacrifices was replaced. 'If there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault' (v7-8) and established a new covenant. 'By calling this covenant "new" he has made the first one obsolete' (v 13)

The old covenant relied on the regular sacrifice of animals - harking back to the animal sacrifice at the time of the Passover when the blood of a lamb smeared on the lintel was accepted as a 'substitute' for the first-born who was otherwise killed. 'Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices which can never take away sins' (Hen 10:11) but this new type of priest 'offered for all time one sacrifice for sins and sat down at the right hand of God' (v 12) his task completed. 'It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins' (Heb 10:4) but 'Christ is the mediator of a new covenant that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant' (Heb 9:15). 'Just as man is destined to die once and after that to face judgement, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people' (Heb 9:27-28)

Therefore, the responsibility of a priest, to represent the people to God, to act as a mediator with sacrifices necessary to approach his holy presence, is obsolete. We have a great High Priest, even Jesus Christ out Lord, who sits at the right hand of the Most High, ever making intercession for us.

For any earthly priest (and I don't take exception to the name, merely the function) to presume to be that sort of priest is a rejection of the gospel. To talk about the communion service as if it were a re-enactment of the sacrifice of the cross, even for it having a similar efficacy seems to me something close to blasphemy. Sure it is a reminder of what Christ has done for us, and we ought always to be reminded, but the point of the cross is that it was a once and for all sacrifice. No more is required.

It was Martin Luther who rediscovered the priesthood of all believers. From I Timothy 2:5 we have "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men." and from I Peter 2:5: "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ". and verse 9 "You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light".

We are all priests in that we have access to God through Jesus Christ, and we need no secondary mediator be it a dead saint, or Mary or some earthy priest.

Some churches retain the word 'priest', saying it is merely a translation of 'presbyteros'. There may be some etymological justification for this, but the argument is specious. Presbyteros means 'elder' (in medicine we have 'presbyopia' the condition that requires to need reading glasses as we get older). It will write about elders on another occasion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr Terry,
I am recovering from splenectomy for suspected SMZL. I have found your site to be most uplifting - surely I was divinely inspired to find you "out there". I thank you so much for offering your formidable expertise in the subject of hematology, and for blessing us all as you share your faith. I pray for your complete healing and restoration to health.