by Robert C. Brow
We now try out one of the ways in which a theological model can come into being and begin to do its work. In this case we wonder how the term Royal Priesthood might help us picture the function of the Christian Church.
The words Royal Priesthood come in a letter by the Apostle Peter to Christians dispersed in five Roman provinces which were located in the area of present day Turkey. The churches are obviously facing persecution, and to encourage them Peter says "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9). To construct our model we first work at the language game for the word priesthood.
In all civilizations of the ancient world say about 3000 or 2000 B.C. there were priests serving the spiritual needs of people. And in some cases a nation had a royal priesthood. The first mention of a royal priesthood in the Bible is at the time of Abraham when "King Melchizedec of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18, see Hebrews 7:1).
Four centuries later at the time of the Exodus the Jewish people who came out of slavery in Egypt were told "you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). The literal translation is "you shall be to me for a kingdom of priests," which could be paraphrased as "you will be my royal priesthood." This was addressed to the whole nation who came out of slavery in Egypt.
Within a few months the tribe of Levi was set aside for the service of the tabernacle or mobile temple for their journey to the promised land. The first priests were then appointed from that tribe in the line of Aaron. By the time of Solomon a magnificent temple was built in Jerusalem, and it was served by priests from the same genealogical line of Aaron till the exile. And Aaronic priests were apparently still serving the temple which was being built in New Testament times.
Jesus complained that the temple was no longer performing its function and it had become a den of thieves (Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, see Isaiah 56:7). He also announced that the temple would be destroyed in that generation and this occured when the Roman legions came in and destroyed the city AD 70. In this traumatic event for the Jewish people their Aaronic priests were all killed or scattered, and there has been no Jewish temple or priesthood since that time.
It is in this context that the Apostle Peter refers back to the royal priesthood of Exodus 19:6 , and he tells New Testament Christians that they are the royal priesthood that God has chosen to serve the new temples of the Holy Spirit in every town and city throughout the world. The Epistle to the Hebrews explains how this change in priesthood was about to occur. (Hebrews 2:17 to 10:14)
Next we try out a language game for the word royal. In many cases the royal or reigning function was distinguished from the priestly function in the nation. In India for example the Brahmin priesthood emerged among the Aryan tribes about the same time as among the children of Israel. For over three thousand years till very recently Hindus took it for granted that rulers and kings came from the warrior caste and Brahmins were the priests. Similarly in ancient Israel the royal line was from the tribe of Judah but the hereditary line of Aaronic priests came from the tribe of Levi.
In the New Testament the eternal Son of God, who was already known as Lord in the Old Testament period, is now viewed as the King of the Kingdom of Heaven. He therefore unites in himself both the functions of High Priest and the functions of King of the Church which is appointed to be his royal priesthood throughout the world.
That basic overarching explanatory model is generally agreed among Christians of all denominations. But the model divides into two branches as Christians try to explain how their royal priesthood is exercised. One answer was to view the priests of the Roman Catholic Church as the successors of the Aaronic priests of the Old Testament. A strong form of this kind of model regarded the Pope of Rome as the Pontifex Maximus or supreme high priest of the Christian Church.
Throughout the Middle Ages there was a constant struggle to define the relationship between the Pope and his Roman Catholic priesthood and the royal power of the kings and emperors of Europe. An extreme position was that Jesus Christ, the ascended Son of God, delegated to the Pope both his high priestly and royal functions. Emperors and kings were therefore required to submit in all important matters to the papal decrees. The royal families of Europe naturally resisted this model tooth and nail.
Another model is that the ascended Jesus is the High Priest and King of the Kingdom of Heaven, and all who are willing to serve as his royal priesthood in the new temples of the Holy Spirit in every place are royal priests. They are royal because they belong to Jesus' royal family, and they are priests because they serve their High Priest in exercising their priestly functions in the world.
In this kind of model if we call some ministers priests it is only in the sense that all Christians are singers but some are appointed to sing solos. Similarly we can say that all Christians are servants, but some are ordained to be deacons which means servants of the local church.
Since the Reformation this model of all Christians being viewed as priests has been called the priesthood of all believers. It is the generally accepted model in Protestant denominations, but they vary greatly in how the model is to apply in practice. A key question is whether ordinary Christians can be allowed to perform priestly functions directly under Jesus their High Priest.
In the ancient world priests had ceremonial functions especially on the occasions of birth, marriage, death, and special celebrations to offer allegiance to their king. As a royal priesthood in every town and city Christians usually expect to share in the ceremonial functions of their nation. But in most denominations specially trained ministers are ordained to preside on such occasions. In Britain the Archbishop of Canterbury is expected to crown a Queen or preside at a royal wedding. Even in a republic like the United States Billy Graham is invited to lead the prayers on special state occasions.
But the priests of the ancient world were also expected to be there for individuals who looked to them for spiritual help. We might list five ways in which ordinary people seem to need the help of priests. We might call these listening, absolution, prayer, teaching, and blessing.
A priest should be able to listen with deep attention and without being shocked by the life story of ordinary people. Having listened, the priest should be able to assure the person that God has forgiven and accepts the sinner. Thirdly a priest should be able to pick up the deep heart concerns of that person and express them in prayer to God. Then it may be possible to give some moral and theological teaching from the Scriptures. And finally the person must be blessed by the assurance that all will be well because God will keep loving and helping as the person goes back to face the tough struggles of life. Those who can function as priests in this way have always been appreciated by ordinary people in every nation.
The problem is that although many denominations pay lip service to the priesthood of all believers there is a huge reluctance to trust, encourage and train every Christian to function as a priest in these ways. Many ministers jealously want to retain priesthood in their own hands.
An essential principle of Model Theology is that alternative models should be recognized, and as far as possible understood "from the inside" without caricaturing. And having understood the different models which are offered we first read the Gospels carefully to see which Jesus might have had in mind, and then see in the Epistles how Paul and John and Peter tried to explain the model of Royal Priesthood in the first Christian churches. It is only then that we decide which model to adopt to teach and apply in our situation.
Finally we might note how model theology can suggest new directions for theological reflection. In all cultures it is recognized that a royal family exists to serve the needs of ordinary people in that country. Royalty are not to assume that they are the kingdom and the people they serve are excluded and unimportant. What happens if we try out these contrasts in our model of Royal Priesthood?
A commonly accepted model is that only Christians belong to heaven and all others are consigned to hell. This has been suggested in the idea that there is no salvation outside the Church. Another alternative is that Christians are the saved and all others are lost. But by using the model of a royal family serving the people we have a very different picture. We can imagine the Christian royal priesthood as the servants of those among whom we live to help them know and experience the loving purposes of God. Evidently that facet of the model would suggest a very different theology of the Church and its service in the world.
In each case the model is never a proof. It's purpose is to enable us to picture one alternative with all its implications in contrast to another model. And having pictured the model we then try it out in the Old and New Testament, and wonder how it might change how we look at the function of the Church in our day.