Why Priests?

Why Priests? March 8, 2013

Over at Stories Untold is an interview with Gary Wills about his book on Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. Wills objections to the idea of a priesthood on three grounds: (1) The theology of Hebrews prohibits it, (2) The negative historical impact of the priesthood in politics and socio-economics, and (3) It is symbolic for monarchial hierarchy. In the interview he states:

The idea of a separate Christian priesthood is as invalid for the Anglicans as for the Catholics because it, too, is based on the Letter to the Hebrews, which is riddled with fallacies. The basic point of my book is this: it comes from Luke 9, when the disciples try to stop someone from casting out devils in the name of Jesus and he says, why do that? They’re doing it in my name. If they’re doing it in my name, they’re not against me. Well, the priesthood has, in all cases, Orthodox or Lutheran or Anglican or Catholic, has been a way of saying, stop, to people who don’t have the priesthood, of dividing the body of Christ. Owning Jesus can be claimed by lots of sorts, but it’s especially claimed by priests who are exclusive in their worship credentials.

Well, as someone who now trains candidates for ordination to the Anglican priesthood and who works with a number of Anglican priests, I do have an opinion on this.

First, I have been lowest of the low church and once regarded the idea of a priesthood with disdain and though of vestments as popish paraphernalia. In fact, the Baptist tradition I once belonged to could be characterized as low church and still digging in quest of going low. Baptist ministers who retained the title “Reverend” were thought of as pompous and impious for claiming any title.  And let me add, I do not now think of the free church/baptist strain as entirely mistaken. There is something to be said for the importance of the local church, a church run by believers and for believers, and I do believe in the priesthood of all believers – a biblical theme if there ever was one (Exod 19:5-6; 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 5:10).

Second, I would object to the idea of priesthood as a form mediatorship, precisely because of the priesthood of all believers, but principally because this devolves the role of mediator from Christ to people. The theme of Hebrews is that the Levitical priesthood is defunct because we have a better sacrifice, a better covenant, a better mediator, a better high priest, and it is Jesus who purifies us and leads us into the presence of God.

Third, however, I do think there are biblical grounds for regarding evangelical ministry as a priestly ministry. And I take my cue from the Apostle Paul: “Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me  to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:15-16). What exactly is the “priestly duty/service/ministry” of proclaiming the gospel is an open question. Is it because it is a sacred vocation, because the Holy Spirit is particularly active in it, or because it communicates the word of Christ? Suffice to say, the idea of setting apart/consecrating/devoting/ordaining a person to gospel ministry means to set apart/consecrate/devote/ordain someone to what the Apostle Paul calls a priestly work. If vocation defines description, then there is nothing illegitimate about calling such persons “priests.”

In fact, in the ordinal of the Church of England, with services for the ordination of priests, we read this:

God calls his people to follow Christ, and forms us into a royal priesthood, a holy nation, to declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.

The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom.

To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries. Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being. They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.

I think that sounds fair enough to be honest.

Any way, I would love to hear from a Baptist, a Catholic, and an Anglican on what they think about “priesthood.”

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