The Priesthood Of Believers
There are several subtexts in the story of the people of God. One of these is the metaphor of the “Kingdom of Priests”.
God’s intent has always been for his people to live distinctive lives.
Two of the earliest mentioned distinguishing features were the mark of his presence and their functioning as a collaborative community of priests under his leadership. But they did not want to stick out from the rest of society in this way. They wanted to be like the surrounding nations. They wanted a dynamo leader to quelch their enemies – with “swagger”. They wanted a genius problem-solver to mediate their relational and tribal tensions – with “death-defying wisdom”.
Shouldering the responsibility of a shared priesthood felt too much like hard work! Functioning together as an interdependent community would require vulnerability and humility and would involve undue social awkwardness. So they negotiated with God for a king and he gave them their request, but, true to form, taught them his ways in the process.
Ironically, under David’s rule, God’s original purpose was brought to be for a short, but glorious, season. In sharp contrast to the protocols of Moses’ day, the entire nation had ease of access to the ark of God’s presence in David’s “makeshift” tent a thousand years before Jesus split the veil of the temple in two and entry into the presence of God became a technical reality for every believer. In this season they functioned as a kingdom of priests, indeed!
But they struggled to keep the plot and their journey continued to be disrupted by many meanderings.
One of the great accomplishments of the redemptive work of the cross was the ordination of every single believer into the priesthood, with each certificate of appointment sealed with the blood of Jesus. So, when the worship gathering is described in the New Testament, it is described as an event where every attendee comes as a priest, with the very real expectation that they be able to contribute.
However, this practice did not last for long. Within a few hundred years the church gathering had moved away from the warmth of a “hospitality” environment into the formality of a cathedral, with one dude performing a ceremony in a language that no one understood. Functioning as a collective priesthood continued to be a struggle.
At the end of the dark ages, the pendulum started swinging back again with the translation of the bible into the vernacular so that every Christian could engage intelligently in ministry and not just a select few. This development was followed shortly by the restoration of the singalong song, in the vernacular, so that every believer could join in the worship. And for several hundred years, the promise of the priesthood of the believers bubbled in the belly of the Reformation.
The Pentecostal movement took this process one step further as the recovery of a fuller spectrum of spiritual gifts opened up even more options for engagement and priestly service.
Sadly, the great irony of the worship movement of the last fifty years is that we have taken somewhat of a step backwards in this regard. The innovation of the role of the worship leader in the sixties, the establishment of the worship genre and the worship music business in the seventies, the consolidation of the seamless worship set as the default liturgy in the eighties, the evolution from worship leader to worship band in the nineties, the cementation of the highly produced worship service in the last decade, not to mention the emergence of the worship celebrity, have seen us moving away from the distinctiveness of the “common” priesthood and operating more and more like the surrounding cultures. We have so produced the corporate worship gathering that the idea of the ordinary believer being able to participate in any other way than being “the audience” is significantly minimized. It can, at times, feel a little like the middle ages, where the priest is the only one who brings something to the table, using liturgical elements that make it hard for the “common man” to engage.
It’s time for the collaborative culture of “the priesthood of believers” to once again be restored as the ecosystem for congregational worship, and, consequently, kingdom life.
The fulfillment of this vision is not limited to one formation process or one predetermined outcome. It simply calls for an environment where as many as possible are given “a chance to play”, whether pre-programmed or spontaneous, whether structured or organic.
Adventuresome, yet not experimental. Inclusive, yet not “karaoke”. Always within people’s God-given skillsets. Always for the benefit and edification of all. Always respectful of the genius of God in forming us into “the body of Christ”, a great big interactive, interdependent community where cross-pollination is intrinsic to life.
The recovery of the priesthood of believers not only has the potential to enrich the worship service, but it also has the potency to reinvigorate local church life and reengineer the interplay of the church-at-large, with more and more creatives given the opportunity to contribute toward the “common” hymnal. The result: a kingdom life that is full of surprise, full of intrigue, brimming with creativity and panorama, uncliched, uncontrived, multicultural, multilingual, transformative, activist and inextricably linked with mission.