Written by: Ted Vial
Reformed churches reject the idea that there is a special class of religious people called "priests." In the ancient Israelite religion, for example, priests came from a special family, and were the only ones allowed into the innermost chamber of the temple where the altar was. People brought their sacrifices to the priests, who took them to the altar and offered them to God on the people's behalf.
The central belief of the early major reformers, led by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, was that humans can do nothing to merit salvation. God needs no offerings. Salvation is a one-way street, a free gift from God to humans that comes in the form of forgiveness for sin. The implications of this for the way that Reformed Christians think about their clergy are huge. People have no need of a human intermediary. Each person stands directly before God, and they are saved not because a priest performed certain actions on their behalf, but simply because God chooses to save them. Luther, and Zwingli and Calvin following him, expressed this belief with the phrase "the priesthood of all believers."
For Reformed churches there are two major implications. The first is that leadership of the Church as an institution is designed to be shared by laity and clergy alike. Reformed churches do not, therefore, have priests, but ministers. Elders are elected (or, in some places in Europe they were appointed by the civil authority) to administer the church in cooperation with the ministers.
There was an important difference here between the churches in Zurich founded by Zwingli, and those in Geneva run by Calvin. Zwingli did not believe that there should be a sharp separation between civil and Church authorities. He based this belief on his reading of scripture. The Hebrew scriptures depict patriarchs and judges who are military, civil, and religious leaders all at once. Similarly, the New Testament depicts early Church leaders as being also community leaders. Zwingli concluded from this that part of the task of a Christian civil authority was to run the Church as well (thus, he was happy to place the pace of reform in Zurich in the hands of the city council). Calvin disagreed. His low opinion of human nature led him to want to keep too much power from being concentrated in any one person or group of people. While he worked closely with the City Council in Geneva, he struggled his whole time there to maintain the independence of the Church from government control. Calvin's views have generally gained the upper hand.
While the Reformed churches share leadership between clergy and laity, they do recognize that different people have different strengths and weaknesses. Calvin was one of the most influential thinkers on the notion of "vocation" or calling. In the Middle Ages a vocation meant a calling into the priesthood. Like Luther, Calvin extended the notion of calling to all stations in life. Each job and social role was equally necessary for the people of God and equally dignified. Calvin went beyond Luther (who felt you were called to whatever station you were born into) in thinking that signs of your calling were your interests, talents, and success. If you were good at something and successful at it, that was a sign of God's plan for you. The order and organization of Church requires that some take on the role of preaching and administering the sacraments. Those that had special talents (for preaching, pastoral care, etc.) were the ones called to these roles. Ministers do enjoy a distinction of office within the Church, but not a distinction of privilege in God's eyes.
1. Why do Reformed Churches reject the idea of the priesthood?
2. Why is the role of the laity as important as the role of the clergy within Presbyterian and Reformed churches?
3. Why did Calvin consider sin when examining the role of leadership within the church?
4. What is a vocation? How is enacted?