I have been amazed lately how thin our understanding of “The Priesthood of All Believers” has become. At the Consultation on Ministerial Leadership several years ago the phrase barely surfaced in the discussions. Instead, in its place, people most often spoke of the Church of the Brethren as “Egalitarian.” Such a vocabulary takes the robust Reformation conviction, which speaks of the ability of each believer to intercede and guide one another on the journey of faith, and completely flattens the concept to a thinly veiled form of democracy.
Some have said it more clearly: The priesthood of all and the leadership of none.
If it is not clear by now, I think this democratic and flattened egalitarianism is nearly heretical. At the very least, it is not scriptural. In fact, Paul is very clear that as a community the Church is comprised of multiple gifts and roles. Through the metaphor of a body, he helps reveal how the gifts of one person serve the whole.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (I Corinthians 13:7-12, NRSV)
For leaders, there are few things as frustrating as a misunderstanding of this scripture and the beautiful confession the Priesthood of All. If God had flattened the Church to the point of egalitarian democracy there would be no need for Spiritual Gifts. To say that the community (congregation or organization) is flat with no uniqueness is to dismiss the created plurality of the human race. It simply is a means to erase difference, erase responsibility, and erase purpose. We’re all just the same and have everything and yet nothing to offer one another. That cannot be the right view of the Priesthood of All.
As leaders, it is necessary to counter the flattening urge of our current culture within the Church of the Brethren. Here are a couple of ways to think about the multiplicity of gifts within a confession of the Priesthood of All.
First, we must reclaim the gift language of Paul. Here we have to spend time looking inward to ourselves and claim our own gifts. The flip side of such introspection is to assess the gifts of those around us. For, as Paul says, all are gifted for the common good. By naming, valuing, and celebrating the gifts each member brings to the congregation we recognize the pallet with which God paints the Church.
Second, the Church must reclaim the language of roles and ministries. That is to say, that from the gifted community emerge those who are set apart for the various needs of the congregation. Here again we turn to Paul:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13, NRSV)
Today we may add several vocations to the list, but the idea is clear. For the Church gifts are spread so that various functions are covered by members of the priesthood. It should be said that there is no hierarchy here, rather the jobs of the Church are defined by tasks “for the building up of the body of Christ.” Some are sent out, some gather in, some care for the members, some exhort, and some inform. To draw this out even further is to say that the pastor nurtures the apostle and the prophet, while the teacher forms the evangelist and the preacher. In more negative terms, if the pastor were to try on prophecy as a vocation within the community, the Church would be very comforted but never make strides towards the kingdom of God.
We cannot assume that everyone can easily fill the role outside their giftedness. For the common good we must recognize both that all are gifted and that each one ministers uniquely. To follow Paul’s image of the body, a flattened view of the Priesthood of All would leave us a body of all ears which never moves, or of all feet which never sees.
The fear among us is that such a diverse approach means that lines must be drawn, differences must be noticed, and expertise must be sought. The challenge is that such a flattened view of community is central to American culture. The hope is that such difference can be celebrated and nurtured without resulting in clericalism. However we approach the dangers and opportunities, it is necessary for the vitality and vibrancy of our Church that we reject the “egalitarian” perspective and live into the New Testament image of the diversely gifted and vocationally unique body.