I’ve been following the discussion of Philip Percival’s last two posts on ‘worship’ with interest (here and here). And having once more heard some of the points in favour of retaining ‘worship’ language to describe singing and/or church, and also having gone back and read some of the best arguments that are made to justify the practice, I’ve decided to throw in the towel. You guys win. I’ll stop trying to convince you of the complete folly of labelling our church services as ‘worship services’ or our song-leaders as ‘worship leaders’. Your arguments are just too clever.
However, lest you think I’m just getting old and tired, I have a new crusade to embark upon. Your line of reasoning has inspired me to start a campaign to retain the ancient Christian practice of referring to our ministers and pastors as ‘priests’.
Now it’s early days in my research on this, but here is how I think I’m going to run the argument. (Warning: irony alert)
- Now of course we all know the biblical theology. Jesus is the great high priest who fulfills the role played by the old covenant levitical priests. In Jesus we are all priests (1 Pet 2:9), who offer sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to him (Heb 13:15). And thus in the new covenant there is no special mediatorial class of Christians who priests. There is only one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5).
- However, we must also recognize that in the OT, ‘priesthood’ was a richer and more nuanced category than just the temple priests. It did not adhere only to the cultus. In the OT, all Israel were meant to be a “kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6), to serve God and represent him to the nations.
- So it is reductionist to say that ‘priesthood’ was purely a temple category even in the OT. And it is similarly reductionist to suggest that ‘priesthood’ is abolished in the new covenant. It is rather fulfilled and transformed in the life of God’s people.
- Following on from this, if we now all belong to the ‘priesthood’ in this richer new covenant sense, then it is extreme to suggest that we should abandon the long Christian tradition of calling ministers and pastors ‘priests’. If we are all priests, in every aspect of our lives, then surely ministers and pastors are also ‘priests’ (as a subset of the whole). Or are they the only ones who are NOT priests?
- Further, if we are all priests in ‘all of life’ as it were, then our gathering as the church represents the focus and high point of our ‘priesthood’, the point at which Jesus the Great High Priest is present in our midst. In this context, it is surely defensible that those who lead us and set us an example in our ‘corporate priesthood’ should wear the language of priesthood themselves.
- It is also significant that in one important instance Paul describes his apostolic ministry as a ‘priestly service’, thus using ‘priest’ language in close connection with ‘ministry’ language (Rom 16:16).
- Now we must grant that there have been abuses of this language, and circumstances in which ministers have behaved quite inappropriately as ‘priests’ (wearing sacrificial vestments, wafting incense, re-casting the Lord’s Supper as sacrifice in which Jesus is offered on the altar, and so on). This is to be deplored And yet these errors should not prevent us from keeping this very commonly used and convenient tag, which so many people have used over centuries to describe their leaders. The better way forward is to invest the term with a more helpful and nuanced meaning. My own suggestion is that we refer to our leaders as ‘corporate priests’, so as to retain the necessary distinctions.
- Also, speaking as an Anglican, the language of ‘priest’ is part of our heritage that I think we are far too quick to abandon. And I am personally a bit ‘over’ the nitpickers who keep suggesting that it ‘undercuts the gospel’ or is ‘unedifying’ or ‘takes us back to Rome’. It doesn’t have to be, so long as we remember that we are all priests.
OK, so who’s with me?