Do we need Priests ?

By Robert Brow   1999

Priesthood is the most ancient, and the most neglected institution in human history. All the cultures from which we have written documents in the ancient world had priests. And that includes the great civilizations of Sumer, Babylonia, Egypt, Crete, Persia, India, and even China. Some of these priesthoods were self-serving and oppressive, but their very existence suggests that at their best they served an important function.

It is easy to see what ordinary people expect from their priests. Ceremonial is needed on the family occasions of birth, marriage, sickness, and death. When his mother dies, even an atheist does not say "put the body in a bag and take it to the dump." There are also community ceremonials for coronation, disaster situations, and celebrations of various kinds. Even a republic calls the Reverend Billy Graham to pray at state occasions.

In addition to these ceremonial occasions, many ordinary people appreciate a priest for five kinds of personal need which I will call listening, absolution, prayer, teaching, and blessing. People long for a person who can listen to their story with deep attention in a totally non-judgemental way. Having heard the worst, the priest must be able to offer the assurance of absolution from God. A good priest will then be able to pick up the heart concerns expressed by the individual, and put them into words as a prayer to God. Usually some wise teaching is needed from the Bible as to how to proceed. And finally the priest must be able to bless by assuring the person that all is well because God knows and cares.

In the Bible the original religion of Genesis man (the first hominid in the image of God) was monotheism approached through animal sacrifice ( Religion: Origins and Ideas, London: Tyndale Press, 1966, 1972). That picture of the original religion of man is denied by the common assumption that there was a slow upward evolution of religion from apish chatter through animatism and polytheism to monotheism. There is much more evidence for a tendency for religion to descend into polytheism, animism, and witchcraft. The so called primitive tribes of the world all remember a benign fatherly God, but they are busy appeasing the evil spirits around them. There is also evidence that from time to time prophets called people back to the true worship of God, and these reformations are followed again by a process of decline into polytheism and animistic practices.

"In the sixth century B.C. there was a tidal wave of revolt against the priestcraft of the ancient world. This wave shattered the power of the old religions, though their cults continued to exist as backwaters for centuries. Seven world religions appeared within fifty years of each other and all continue to this day : Zoroastrianaism, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Vedanta Monism, Taoism." (Religion, p.26) This huge model shift in religion took place very suddenly about 550 to 500 BC. Among the Greeks "Socrates (470-399 BC) came at least a hundred years after Zoroaster, but he was preceded by the Sophists, who probably indicate the first arrival of the tidal wave of religious revolt against the ancient priesthoods of Greece." (Religion, p.27).

After the exile Judaism developed rabbis, Mahayana Buddhism and Jainism had monks. Confucianism had a priesthood of scholars. Hindu Vedanta allowed the priests to have their rituals but all important matters were handled by gurus, Taoism rejected both priests and Confucian scholarship, and tried to have each individual free to be his own priest.

An important model for the Christian Church is expressed by the term Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). In many parts of the ancient world a king also functioned as the head of his nation's priests. In that sense royal priesthood was found among the Sumerians, Babylonia, Egypt, Crete, Persia, India, and even China (Religion, p.25). When Mollie and I were in Cyprus we discovered that Paphos had a very ancient Royal Priesthood, and it was interesting to see how a couple of centuries after Paul's visit (Acts 13:6-13) the Bishop of Paphos was exercising the new Christian Royal Priesthood in that place.

In the Bible at the time of Abraham there was the royal priesthood of Melchizedec in the city of Salem, which later became Jerusalem (Genesis 14:18-20, Hebrews 6:20-7:17). Four hundred years later immediately after the Exodus God said to Moses "If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all people. Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6). That suggests that the Jewish people were to function as a royal priesthood for our world. Perhaps this was to fulfill the third strand of the covenant made with Abraham. "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3, 18:18, 26:4).

For this royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9 quoting Exodus 19:5-6) there was to be no human king on earth. Their Lord was the reigning Messiah (anointed) King. And the priests should have been there for the people to listen, give absolution (assure people of forgiveness), teach, pray, and bless in His Name (as above). The temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations (Matthew 21:12-13).

When this priesthood failed to perform its function, Jesus announced that He would build his church (Matthew 16:18-19). But the Sadducee high priest and his assistant priests not only denied the resurrection, but had their Royal Priest Messiah crucified. After his death, resurrection, and ascension it became clear that we have "such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day" (Hebrews 7:26-27, see 9:11). Instead of the temple in Jerusalem, which the Messiah announced he would destroy (Matthew 24), there were now to be temples of living stones in every nation (Ephesians 2:21, see 1Corinthians 3:16, 2 Corinthians 6:16).

Every Christian is therefore called to be a priest (saint) serving directly under our Royal Priest Messiah. The problem was that as time went on the Roman Catholic church reserved priesthood for priests appointed by Bishops in the apostolic succession. They even called the Pope pontifex maximus (The high priest). This is why the Protestant reformers insisted on the priesthood of all believers.

But Protestants soon developed their own one male ministry, which again prevented ordinary Christians from functioning in their proper priesthood. Presbyterians had a Minister who did the preaching, and he had elders to support him. Anglican parishes wanted a Parish Priest, Baptist congregations hired a Pastor, Methodists did more or less the same, as did the Pentecostal groupings that separated from the main line denominations.

In this century the Charismatic movement developed a model of a royal priesthood (one of the movement's most beautiful songs is titled just that) in which all the gifts mentioned in Romans 12:4-7, Ephesians 4:11-12, and 1 Corinthians 12 are freed to express themselves. And happily this model allowed women to exercise all of the gifts. But Charismatic congregations also tended to break away under some authority figure who made sure their members only did what they were told.

It is time we got back to serving under our High Priest, the ascended Son of God, as explained in the Epistle to the Hebrews. He needs hundreds of priests in every community who are willing to get alongside their neighbors. Many who never darken the doors of a church need someone to listen to their hurts and failures, receive personal absolution, and know that God loves and accepts them personally. They may also appreciate prayer for their family needs, and be willing to receive teaching for their particular situation. It is not just paid professionals who can do this and bless in the name of the Lord ?

When congregations call a paid minister, pastor, preacher, priest his or her task is to train and encourage each member to exercise priestly gifts of the Spirit. As Paul said, "to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good . . . you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Corinthians 12:7). And Peter puts it this way, "like living stones, let yourself be build into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus the Messiah" (1 Peter 2:5).

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