Royal Priesthood

by Robert Brow   (web site -

(This essay is a conflation of postings on CETA-L, the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association discussion list, December 1995. The essay illustrates the use of model theology in working at one area of Church History.)

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.

 Individuals also appreciate a priest who can listen to their story with deep attention in a totally non-judgmental 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 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.

 How these essential functions of priesthood are performed is the key to any useful study of religion. Unfortunately comparative religion courses in Departments of Religion, and their imitators in our Seminaries, have tended to use the Museum Method. Religions are divided into rooms called Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, etc. In each room you are shown neatly labelled artifacts, but there is no unifying logic or theme. We need the category of Royal Priesthood to do comparative religion from a Christian point of view.

 When I spent a year, 1991-92, as the first Anglican of Paphos our services were in the Greek Orthodox church next to the pillar where according to tradition Paul was tied and lashed (Acts 13:4-13). My wife and I were astonished to discover that within two centuries of Paul's visit the Christian Bishop of Paphos had replaced the very ancient royal priesthood in that place. Royal priesthood is not an invention of the New Testament.

 At the time of Abraham there was a royal priesthood in the Jebusite city that later became Jerusalem. "King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18). The Epistle to the Hebrews refers to the Melchizedek priesthood to illustrate the new Christian royal priesthood under their ascended High Priest and King, Jesus the Son of God (Hebrews 5-8). And Peter, first leader of the Christian churches, says to us "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God's own people" (1 Peter 2:9). It is significant that Peter is quoting verbatim from God's first constitution for the Israelites who had just come out of the Exodus "You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6).

 Royal priesthood is an important idea for understanding both the Old Testament and the New. But among all nations the governing and priestly functions are easily divorced. Among the Aryans that moved into North India about 1500 BC the leader of the tribe was also the one who offered sacrifice. But once they settled in cities a hereditary Brahmin tribe of priests emerged, and they continued as Hindu priests for three thousand years. Kings and leaders were chosen from the warrior Kshatriya caste. A similar separation between royal and priestly functions has occurred in most nations.

 In the sixth century B.C. there was a tidal wave of revolt against the corrupted priestcraft religions of the ancient world. Between 550 and 500 BC seven world religions emerged within fifty years. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Vedanta Monism, Taoism all challenged the traditional priesthood of their country. Socrates (470-399 BC) taught 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 in Greece.

 But the sixth century BC revolt against the ancient priesthoods didn't end priesthood. It merely opened the door for other kinds of priesthood, as in Jainism and Mahayana Buddhism. Confucianism had a priesthood of scholars, Vedanta allowed the Brahmin priests to continue their rituals but important matters were handled by gurus who taught disciples how to attain oneness with the absolute. Taoism rejected both priests and Confucian scholarship, and tried out the very modern idea of each individual free to be his own priest. After the exile Judaism developed the Maccabean royal priesthood, and the Qumran Essene community looked forward to yet another kind of royal priesthood.

 Paul said he was appointed "to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the Gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable sanctified by the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:16). Three verses later he says he claims he has done this all way to present day Croatia, "So that from Jerusalem and as far around as IIlyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ" (Romans 15:19). This does not mean he has spoken about Christ to every single person in that vast area of the Mediterranean. All that was necessary was to establish our Christian Royal Priesthood in every main city.

 In the second century Royal Priesthood was defined as the local congregations in each city and surrounding country under the leadership of their Bishop. By then the presiding elder of each congregation was called a priest.

 There was a brief reaction to this from the Montanists who said the Royal Priesthood was not a hierarchy of priests but a charismatic community. That charismatic model was stamped out and did not reappear for eighteen centuries. There were movements led by people like Francis of Assisi, Peter Waldo, and Wycliffe, who tried to offer other models of what Royal Priesthood was about, but no big model change occurred till the Reformation.

 During the Reformation some Protestants developed a model of royal priesthood in which all believers were viewed as priests under Jesus as High Priest. But in practice Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Lutherans ended up with a one male ministry. Royal priesthood was assumed to be the King of England and royalty on the one hand, and the Church of England and its priests on the other. And Anglicans in England to this day are officially under the royal "Defender of the Faith."

 John Wesley tried to have class meetings and every Methodist exercising his or her priesthood in the community. Regrettably after his death the Anglican Church told the Methodist royal priests to get lost because they did not fit the established church.

 Late in the nineteenth century the Plymouth Brethren tried to counter the one person ministry with a model of royal priesthood where a variety of gifts such as elders, teachers, and evangelists functioned. But of course they still had to be as male as in the Roman and Reformed models. Their model also included the idea that the other gifts such as apostles, prophets, healing, and tongues died out in the New Testament.

 It was not till 1905 that Pentecostals read Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 and decided that speaking in tongues inaugurated the new Royal Priesthood of the Day of Pentecost. It was the charismatic movement that recovered the model of a royal priesthood (one of the movement's most beautiful songs is titled just that) in which all the charismatic gifts are freed to express themselves. And in this model the priesthood of both women and men at least in theory allowed women to exercise all the charisma.

 Meanwhile Americans assumed that a republic does not need priests, but as many have pointed out the United States is riddled with therapeutic religion. See for example Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart (Harper & Row, 1985, "the therapeutic attitude," p.98, "therapeutic culture and relationships," p.119). The idea is that everybody needs a personal priest (carefully renamed therapist, analyst, shrink, counsellor, etc.) and people should pay for it at $100 an hour. The problem of course was that however much you pay them such priests cannot give God's absolution, or pray to God, or bless in his name.

 Canada of course copied American religion in its homegrown variety of Canadian priesthood. The only difference was that, instead of the individual having to pay $100 US an hour for priestly service, our religion was that we should all be taxed so the government can provide priestly services at $100 CAN an hour to all who could possibly need them. To avoid going bankrupt Alberta and Ontario and most of Canada are right now downsizing these priests by the thousand.

 The situation in our churches is hardly better. Roman Catholic priests are so few that they cannot possibly be there to listen attentively, pray for the expressed needs of individuals, or impart God's wisdom for the desperate situations of the people under their care. Absolution and blessing in God's name is mostly a formality. More and more sisters are doing genuine priestly work, but even if you multiplied their number by ten they could never make contact with the massive needs of Canadians. Protestant ministers are equally unable to fill the spiritual vacuum.

 Meanwhile in the USSR the attempt was made to eradicate any form of religious priesthood. The commissars became the priests but without any absolution to offer. And soon nobody dared to open their heart to anyone. In 1989 by the end of seventy spiritually starved years people toppled the commissars and demanded the return of their Orthodox priests. But it is doubtful if they can do any better than ours.

 How then does my Anglican priesthood here in Kingston, Ontario fit into all this mess? I can't speak for others, but I believe in the priesthood of all believers, which means that every Christian of every denomination in Kingston is a priest. We men and women are Jesus' royal priesthood for this city.

 We are called royal because we are members of the royal family of our Royal High Priest. And a royal family that serves by being there, and to listen in every sad and joyful situation, will always be loved and appreciated. All Christians need is the encouragement to recognize their royal priesthood, and be there for their friends and neighbours to do what priests have always been expected to do.

 But then why should the Anglican church think I am so special and call me a priest? Well, it's a bit like hockey players. There are thousands of boys in this city who play hockey. But if you asked a woman what her son was doing for a living, and she said "he is a hockey player," you would know he played for the NHL. This means that among the class of all the hockey players in Kingston there are some who are trained and paid as professionals. Similarly all Christians are priests, but a few of them like me are trained and paid to do it. All Christians are singers, only a few are singers who sing solos.

 But of course there is a huge difference between hockey players and priests. Everybody knows that NHL hockey players are all males and they are certainly better at the game than Midgets and PeeWees. But in Jesus' royal priesthood there are women as well as men, young and old, rich and poor, and the plain fact is that many who are not paid are much better priests for ordinary people than the professionals. Our best Anglican priests encourage, free, and coach others to do the work they cannot possibly do alone.

 The Epistle to the Hebrews makes clear that there can only be one High Priest but he needs millions of priests to listen to people's stories and touch people in every place. Without that, how do people get someone to listen to their personal stories, receive personal absolution, have prayers offered for their personal needs, get the Word of God explained in relation to their own situation, and know that God loves them personally and intends to bless them?

 One of our prayers after communion is, "Almighty God, you have made us a royal priesthood in the kingdom of your Son our Saviour Christ. Make known his victory through us, we pray, that all the world may see his light." I like that prayer.

model theology home | essays and articles | books | sermons | letters to surfers | comments