Increasingly, I am encountering a definition of the priesthood of the believer to mean a rejection of structured leadership in our local assemblies. Because we are priests with direct access to God, we minister to each other and do not need special offices (pastor/elder) that separate clergy from the rest of Christians, aka lay people. I know that many have been hurt by the local church and especially her leaders. I get that some fear any kind of hierarchical structure for for whatever reason. That may contribute to this form of polity.
For clarification, the term was coined by the Reformers to distinguish the direct access believers have to Christ vs. their access to through clergy. This of course was in repudiation to the papists who claimed that they alone provided access contrary to Hebrews 4:14. Through this direct access, we serve as ministers of the gospel (2 Corinthians 5:18) and minister to one another (Colossians 3:15-16). In this regard, we don’t need structured leadership to minister to one another.
But I will argue that we do need structured leadership for local church. Now, I’m not framing the discussion in terms of congregationalism because I think this is something different (good article on 9Marks here). Also, I confess that I hold to a presbyterian polity that is somewhat shaping my thesis. But even so, I’m want to be fair to alternate forms of church structure and acknowledge where there is consistency with Scripture. I question if this egalitarian type of structure is faithful.
If we think just gathering by itself is sufficient and reject the idea of structured leadership, consider Ephesians 4:4-16. There is one body who is to walk according to its purpose, growing up together in Christ through specific means – “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers (vs 11)”
Now there is a diversity of interpretation of the five classifications mentioned.
1) They are offices representing the means through which God has chosen to work through
2) They are gifts representing the means through which God has chosen to work through
3) They refer to specific people that God has chosen to work through
For the sake of brevity, I’ll just provide what I think makes the most sense, which is definition #1 though I can see some validity for #2. I also think its important to consider prophets and apostles in light of what Paul said earlier in Ephesians 2:20. The very foundation of what Christ built is grounded in the prophetic and apostolic witness, which is transmitted through Scripture.
But what is important is why God gives some according to these specific offices or gifts: to prepare God’s people for the work of service and so they can grow up in him and not buy into whatever good ideas might sound Christian but in reality are not. These selected categories have a function for the sake of the body.
Also consider Paul’s instruction to Timothy and Titus. Specifically, in 1 Timothy 3:1 he says “Here is a trustworthy saying: if anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task”. He then goes on to describe the qualifications for overseers (pastors/elders) and deacons (vv. 2-13). This is for the purpose of how God’s household should be conducted (vs 15) by describing what kinds of people should be leading her.
When we reject structured leadership, we’re really rejecting the means through which God wants his people to grow up in him. I love what Calvin had to say about this;
By these words he shows that the ministry of men, which God employs in governing the church, is a principal bond by which believers are kept together in one body. He also intimates, that the church cannot be kept safe, unless supported by those guards to which, the Lord has been pleased to commit its safety. Christ ‘ascended up far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ (Eph 4:10). The mode of filling is this: By the ministers to whom he has committed this office, and given grace to discharge it, he dispenses and distributes his gifts to the church, and thus exhibits himself as in a manner actually present by exerting the energy of his Spirit in this his institution, so as to prevent it from being vain or fruitless. In this way, the renewal of the saints is accomplished, and the body of Christ is edified; in this way we grow up in all things unto him who is the Head, and unite with one another; in this way we are all brought into the unity of Christ, provided that prophecy flourishes among us, provided that we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine which is administered to us. Whoever, therefore, studies to abolish this order and kind of government of which we speak, or disparages it as of minor importance, plots the devastation, or rather ruin and destruction, of the church. (I.C.R. 4.3.2)
Now reading that probably conjures up images of corruption, which unfortunately have peppered the church throughout her history. But notice also the qualifications: provided that prophecy flourishes among us, provided that we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine administered to us. Whenever I hear of a repudiation of leadership, I wonder how much of it is in response to the lack of these qualifications or abuses that have caused harm to the body. Harm comes to the church by those who suppose themselves to be prophets and apostles but inject their own opinions into the congregation under the guise of ‘prophecy’. But Calvin refers to the apostolic and prophetic witnesses through which we get Scripture that testifies to Christ. Whatever side of the gifts debate you fall under, the foundation of the apostolic and prophetic message is in the preaching and receiving of this Word that prophecy flourishes and encourages us to sing songs and hymns to one another. Harm comes when the message of the apostles is distorted by not connecting it to the complete message of Scripture. Harm comes when the ministers disregard the word they proclaim through behavior that contradicts it and self-focused kingdoms.
And if there is no structured leadership, who serves as guardians of the local assembly? Paul’s instruction to Timothy and Titus read as a charge of protection for the sheep. Peter exhorts the elders to shepherd the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3) drawing on language Jesus used regarding people he has drawn to himself (John 10:1-17).
Surely our priesthood is for the purpose of ministering to each other and build up the body of love. But does that mean we can abandon structured leadership? I think not. Calvin’s words should sober us that disconnecting this ministry from the means by which God has ordained for the growth of the body is counterproductive to the health of the church. If we ignore it, disparage or reject it, I think it would be to our detriment.
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