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The Bible and Culture

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(This is an edited version of the lecture I gave twice in Houston this past week, with good response).

           Almost all forms of ancient
religion were all about priests, temples, and sacrifices.  This was as true of Greek religion and Roman
religion, as true of Babylonian religion as Assyrian religion, and it was true
of Biblical religion as well— just read the book of Leviticus for
example.  In Jesus’ day Jewish religion
focused on Torah, Temple,
and territory— the three Ts.   But something
radical happened in the Christ event, and it was a game changer. 

            You
see the main reason you need priests and temples is because you are required to
offer sacrifices to appease the deity, to atone for sin,  to thank God, and so on.  But what happens if God in person offers a
once for all perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world, past, present or
future?   What happens if instead of a
hereditary or even an appointed priesthood, a priest comes along who not only
offers a perfect sacrifice, but he is a forever priest, without successors, without
descendents, without necessity of having another one?  

What if there
comes a day when, as Jesus himself said “neither on Mt. Gerizim
nor on Mt. Zion shall we worship, but
wherever and whenever you find people worshipping in Spirit and in truth…”,
what if the nature of worship itself has changed due to Jesus the game
changer?   What if it is true that on no
spot on earth can you find the inner sanctum of God, the Holy of Holies,
because now it is in heaven, and our high priest is there at this very moment
interceding for us, pleading the blood he sacrificed once for all, once for all
time?   

Well friends, if all this is
true,  and it is,  then it has to change the whole way we look
at ministry and at the people of God, and the writers of the NT understood
this, even though the church in subsequent generations often did all they could
to go back to the OT system of doing things. 
And indeed, that is precisely what you see going on in the Orthodox and
Catholic traditions–its all about priests, temples, sacrifices. And of course,
among other things,  one of the drastic
implications of that hermeneutical approach to Biblical religion is that women
need not apply, for in the OT scheme of things women can’t be priests, though
there were priestesses all over the ancient near east in various non-Biblical
forms of religion.   As you will see my main point is this—when worship changes so does ministry. So lets start with
some definitions,  some first things.

            The
Greek word laos from which we get the term laity
simply means the people of God. It is used this way over and over again in the
NT, sometimes of Israel
sometimes of those who are in Christ, but in neither case is it used to refer
to a particular kind or class of believing persons who are set apart from the
‘clergy’. And about that word clergy,
it is not a Biblical word at all. 
Webster’s tells us it comes to us from the Medieval French word clerc
(13th century), but in fact ultimately the term comes from the Greek
??????kl?ros,
“a lot”, “that which is assigned by lot” (allotment) or
metaphorically, “inheritance”.  So it partially has a Biblical root, but no
persons in the NT are called kleroi to
distinguish a class of ministers.    And
there is a good reason for this.

            First
of all the reason is that Christ and his sacrifice has torn down the wall not
only between God and an alienated and lost humanity, but also the wall between
Jew and Greek, between slave and free, between male and female, and yes between
priests and ordinary folk.  There is no
priesthood as a class of individual ministers  in the NT. 
There are in fact two priesthoods— the unique heavenly high priesthood
of Christ, as described in glorious technicolor in Hebrews, and the priesthood
of all believers as described in 1 Peter and elsewhere.  In other words, no one on earth is or can be
a priest like Jesus, and on the other hand, every believer is part of the
‘kingdom of priests’ foreseen by Moses, and actualized by Jesus.  

             And so it is that the author of 1 Peter is
not saying something novel when he throws down the gauntlet and says to his
Christian audience “but you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy
nation, God’s special possession, so that you may declare the praises of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” ( 1 Pet. 2.9).   This friends is the Magna Carta of Christian
identity and Christian freedom, and among other things it means we are all
laity, and we are all priests.  We will
unpack the implications of this wonderful verse in a moment, but first we need
to answer a question— if what I say is true, what went wrong with Christian
religion, and when did it happen?   Why
do we continue to have a clergy club and laity conferences for non-clergy?   I’m glad you asked.

            What
happened, already beginning in the 2nd or 3rd century
A.D. is the same thing that happened to God’s people as recorded in 1 Samuel—
they wanted to be like other nations, other peoples.  They wanted a king and a
kingdom–and of course you remember that God obliged them and gave them Saul,
not exactly what they were hoping for. 
Be careful what you wish for, as God may let you have it–and then he
will let you have it (in another sense), when you use it to distance people from God.   Well the church, especially after it became
a licit religion in the 4th century A.D. thanks to Constantine, the church longed to be like the
other religions with priests, temples and sacrifices, and more to the point
they longed to be like God’s OT people with priests, temples, and sacrifices,
and they got what they wished for.   The
OT hermeneutic was applied to NT ministry and so it was that ministers became
priests, churches became temples,  the
Lord’s Supper became a sacrifice, Sunday became the Sabbath sacrificial giving became tithing— all in defiance
of what Peter says and means in 1 Pet. 2.9. 
And of course the ultimate irony happened when Peter who wrote 1 Peter
was turned into the first Pope— and he is still surprised about that!!

            But
in the NT Sunday is not the Sabbath, it’s the Lord’s Day celebrating the day
that Christ arose.  And the Lord’s Supper
is not a literal sacrifice of any kind, it is a reminder of Christ’s once for all
sacrifice until he comes again.  And
neither apostles nor prophets nor elders nor deacons nor teachers nor
evangelists nor any other sort of special group of ministers in the NT are
labeled some sort of kleros, God’s priestly portion.  No indeed, in the wake of the once for all
sacrifice, each one of us has become our own priest and so Paul exhorts us
“brothers and sisters I beseech you by the mercies of God to present yourselves
as living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God for this is your spiritual
worship” (Rom. 12.1-2).  We are all
called to offer ourselves up to God in praise and adoration and exaltation and
jubilation–all of us.  And we are not
called to do the Moses thing when God requires this of us.  You remember what happened at the call of
Moses— he used call forwarding.  He
said— “Here I am Lord, take my brother!!”

            It
is the view of the writers of the NT that Jew and Gentile united in Christ is
the people of God, the royal priesthood, the chosen portion of God, and it is
the job of all of us, all of us, to be a light to the nations, to be winsome so
we might win some for Christ, to be priests offering this world and all that is
in it back to God for as the psalmist says— “the earth is the Lord’s and the
fullness thereof.   With the call to come
to Christ comes a call to ministry, and it does not come to just some of us.  It comes with the territory.   But what, practically speaking, does this
mean?  Should we all be quitting our day
jobs and dedicating ourselves to the ministries of Word, order, and
sacrament?   Well no, as it turns out.

            Paul
in 1 Cor. 12 puts it this way— “now you are the body of Christ, and each one
of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles,
second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, gifts of
helping, gifts of guidance or administration, and of different kinds of
tongues” (vs. 27-30). Too often the discussion of spiritual gifting begins and
ends with a discussion of the gifts themselves 
(see vss. 7-11) rather than of the persons given the gifts.  This is a mistake, but it is right to
emphasize as Paul does that “to each is given some gift, some manifestation of
the Spirit for the common good”.    No
Christian is giftless, and none are exempt therefore from ministry in some
form.  And in fact what Paul is telling
us that the roles we play in ministry are or should be determined largely by the Holy
Spirit, for the Spirit decides who gets what gifts in the body of Christ. It’s
not a matter of our going to the Holy Spirit super-store and picking them
out. 

            Let
us concentrate first on the fact that God gave certain persons to the church— apostles, prophets, teachers, and so
on.  And no only so, Paul means that
there is something of a hierarchial order of leadership.  He says first apostles, second prophets, and
so on.  Just because we are all called to
do some sort of ministry doesn’t mean that we are all called to do the same
tasks, or that we have all been equally gifted to do any and all tasks or that
we are all called to be leaders. This is false.   There will always be leaders and followers,
but all of God’s people are gifted and graced to do something. 

            Now
Paul is not talking about natural abilities though certainly God can use our
talents as well.  He is talking about
Spirit endowed and induced gifts and graces. One of the great problems we do
have in the Church is a failure to help all Christians spiritually discern what
God is calling and gifting them to do. 
Indeed, the old laity/clergy distinction has impeded such a
process.  The assumption is that if you
have paid clergy then the laity are off the hook, basically except for the giving
of tithes and offerings of course.   This
is quite false and to some degree this problem has been furthered by the
well-intentioned commitment to professionalism when it comes to ministry.

            Don’t
get me wrong.  I am all for us being not
only called, and gifted and trained and education to do the best possible job
we can for the Lord.  I believe in all of
those things,  and I don’t believe we are
helped by a sort of anti-intellectual spirit that is suspicious of Christian
education or thinks that if one has the Bible and the Spirit one is fully
equipped to do ministry in our complex world. 
This is almost without exception false. 
But that anti-intellectual spirit plagues Protestants, even in the
setting of a seminary.  I once had a
student who came up to me and said “I don’t know why I need to learn all this
stuff,  I can just get up in the pulpit
and Spirit will give me utterance.”  My
reply was succinct— “Yes, Charlie, you can do that, but you shouldn’t. You
need to give the Spirit more to work with, more mental furniture to use and
move around.”

            What
about the distinction between part-time and full-time ministry with the laity
doing the former and the clergy the latter?  
There is certainly nothing in the Bible that supports such a notion, and
part of the problem is the way one envisions ministry.  Raising children in a godly way is a
ministry.  Helping people with their
finances is a ministry.  Building homes,
making clothes, selling groceries is a ministry.   Any
good deed, anything that can be done to the glory of God and for the
edification of God’s people and the world is a ministry.
 Our problem is that we have defined ministry
too narrowly, and then jealousy fought over who gets to do what.   

            Frankly
I have run into too many ordained clergy who think: 1) it is their job to do
most all the ministry (though they complain bitterly they are over-taxed and
under-appreciated); and 2) instead of “equipping the saints for ministry”  they have in fact disabled, discontinued,
even destroyed the ministry of those who are not, like them, ordained
clergy.  What is all too often put in the
place of every member a minister is the pastor-American idol syndrome, the
pastor super-star model, which feeds on America’s love of the cult of
personality. 

This is not a
good, much less a godly approach to ministry and it leads to Humpty-Dumpty
syndrome— ministers who put themselves up on a pedestal and are bound to have
a great fall.  Remember Ted Haggard?   Remember Jim Bakker?   For everyone one of them, there are hundreds
of not well known clergy who fall into the same trap.  And of course a lot of this has to do with
people in ministry with: 1) serious ego deficiencies and problems with feelings
of low self-worth;  2) people in ministry
who are tremendously talented and enormously spiritually and emotionally
immature;  3) people in ministry whose
family life is not stable and whose most intimate relationships are not what
they ought to be. And then of course there are men in ministry who feel threatened by women in ministry, as if women are encroaching on their private domain. But the problem in the church is not strong, gifted, called, ministering women. The problem is weak men who can’t handle strong women.

What about the
issue of ordained ministers?   This is
indeed Biblical as can be seen from Acts and the Pastoral Epistles and various
other portions of the NT.  Paul did
indeed ordain and commission Timothy and Titus and others to be apostolic
co-workers, evangelists, teachers etc.  
Why do we need an ordination process before doing ministry?  Well of course it is not absolutely necessary
in every case, but the reason it is a good and healthy thing if you are set
apart for the ministry of Word and sacrament and ordering of the church’s life is
because the church needs to help you go through the process of discernment about
your calling and gifts and graces, and the church needs to recognize and
pronouncement the benediction, the Amen on what you are called and gifted to
do.   Why? Because we are all part of the
Body of Christ, and the gifts are given “for the common good” not for our own
personal fulfillment or aggrandizement. 
And then too, individuals can be enthusiastic and dead wrong about being
called and gifted to do this or that task of ministry, or alternatively they
can be resistant and truculent like Moses, and in fact they have been called to do
significant ministry work.  Ministry is
the work which builds up the body of Christ, not puffs up the individual as
Paul so aptly tells us in 1 Corinthians. 
And frankly, ministry is just hard work.

Are there any
ministry tasks that those we today call lay persons should not do, at least
from time to time?   My answer to this
question is no.  We need more preachers,
more teachers, more evangelists, more Stephen’s ministers, more soup kitchen
workers, more doctors, not less.  But
again because of the nature of the ministries of Word, order and
sacrament,  because they are the very
lifeblood which keeps the congregation going and on task more training, more
education,  more full-time commitment is
required for these tasks.  As the Bible
suggests, to those to whom more is given, more is required, and if you have been
given the gift of regular performance of the ministries of Word, order, and
sacrament, you need to study to find yourself approved, just as a medical
doctor has to commit himself to life long learning to be a good doctor. Sometimes preachers say to me “I’m no expert in the Bible, but I preach each Sunday’. My response to this is— if you are not the expert in the Bible for your people, who is? I mean would you go to a dentist who said “I’m no expert in drilling, but hey, let’s start with you!”  In an increasingly Biblically  illiterate culture we need more, not less experts preaching and teaching God’s Word.

As I bring this lecture to a close, I want to go back to the glorious vision of Peter
and how he conceives us all.  Let us dig
into this passage in 1 Peter 2 in a little more depth.   John Muir once said we look at life from the
backside of the tapestry and what we see normally and on a daily basis is loose
threads, tangled knots, a large canvas. 
But occasionally the light penetrates the tapestry and we get a glimpse
of the larger design of God as he weaves all things together for good for those
who love him and are called according to purpose (noting that Rom. 8.28 does
not in fact say in the Greek, according to HIS purpose, though that may be
implied and is true anyway).

In 1 Peter 2.9-10 Christians are seen as a chosen race, a holy people
for God’s possession– Exhibit A, revealing the mighty acts of God.  Indeed they are chosen for the specific
purpose of proclaiming God’s mighty
acts. What has happened to believers has happened so that these acts might be
proclaimed, and thus God be glorified. 
Redemption is for believer’s succor, but it is also for God’s
glory.  God is the one who called persons
from the darkness of sin and spiritual blindness into his marvelous and
everlasting light.  There is nothing here
about an old Israel
that is being replaced by a new one. To the contrary, Peter’s view is that the
one people of God has kept going all along, only now the true expression of
them is found in Jew and Gentile united in Christ.  This is more of an eschatological
completionist schema than a replacement schema. 
But Exod. 19.6 is being appropriated and applied to the community of Christ
here.

One phrase
calls for close scrutiny in vs. 9.  Is Basileion hierateuma an adjective and a
noun or two nouns?   Does it mean: 1)
royal priesthood; or 2) house of the King, body of priests; or 3) a priesthood
in service of the king; 4) a kingdom of priests; 5) a group of kings, a body of
priests?  In favor of 4) is the OT background–Ex.
19.6 as translated in the LXX. The Hebrew reads “a kingdom of priests” but the
LXX translates it as two substantives, two nouns in apposition to one
another–kings and priests   It may seem
odd to stick two nouns side by side, but if the LXX could do it, so could
Peter.  Now, if  view 4) is the right rendering, it does not
imply believers are kings, only priests in service of the king. Against view 5)
 we may argue that there is no precedent
for the word Basileion meaning  a “group of kings”.  Against views 1) and 3) we must argue: a) if Basileion was an adjective, it would
normally follow its noun as eklektos follows
genos and hagios follows ethnos;
b) In the only other use of  Basileion in the NT  (Lk. 7.25), it means palace or King’s house, and
is not an adjective, and in parallel Hellenistic literature it is normally a
noun (cf. 2 Macc. 2.17; Philo, de Sobr. 66l and de Abra. 56);   c) What precedes this in vs. 5,  a reference to a spiritual house, may suggest
a parallel here– king’s house.  Thus,
perhaps we should see this as two nouns in apposition, and if so, view 2)  “house of the king, body of priests” will be
the best translation.  If the LXX and
Hebrew background is in view, as the other terms in the list may suggest,
perhaps we should translate a kingdom of priests or even a royal priesthood,
because the other four honorific phrases here involve a noun and a modifier.  If the latter it is simply affirming that all
believers are priests, if the former it stresses believers are both collectively
God’s house, and his priests.  Whichever
translation we go for  Howard Marshall is
clearly right in stressing “There is no justification here or elsewhere in the
New Testament for labeling certain people in the church ‘priests’.  If some Christians are set apart to perform
the functions of ministers in the church, they are not to be regarded as
priests different in kind from that of all Christians….The term ‘priest’ should
be dropped as a way of designating ministers of the Gospel.”[1]

Notice the contrast in vs. 10 “you who were once not a people
are now a people”. Here E.J. Selwyn urges: 
“Peter’s words conveyed to people so placed was that they now once again
belonged to a community which claimed their loyalty; and it was something which
could give all their instincts of patriotism full satisfaction. In short, the
term connotes in Greek, community.  In
the mixed society of the Roman Empire, where
freedom of association was suspect and subject to restrictive laws, as in
modern despotic states, this sense of community must have worn very thin, and
produced a widespread feeling of homelessness.”[2]  These words from Hosea originally referred to
Jews, and there is not reason why they can’t refer primarily to Jewish
Christians here either.

Notice as
well the ‘now’ in this text.  Peter
emphasizes both what God has now done and what he will yet do.  To be a people, a community, means believers
have experienced the mercy of God.  Many
commentators think that vs. 10 could
not have been spoken of Jews. Peter can only be talking about Gentiles here who
are now included in God’s new chosen race. 
This is forgetting that Peter’s view is that when Jews have rejected
Christ they at least temporarily cease to be part of the people of God (cf.
Rom. 11).   Peter is here quoting Hos.1.6-7 and probably
Hos. 2.25b as well and these texts were certainly being applied to Jews there,
as they likely are here as well.  What we
have seen in this section of the discourse is the very sort of tour de force
use of the OT as a basis for argumentation, loaded with allusions and partial
quotes tailored to fit the context here, and as such it rivals what we find in
Rom. 9-11 and the use of the Scripture there. For Peter it was essential to
ground his argument in such a way that he could say, as he does in vs. 6 “for
it is contained in Scripture that….”. This argument is brought to a close by a
reminder to the audience that they have a high calling, they are a temple, and
indeed they are a royal priesthood, and as such they are God’s option in their
own pagan environment, and so they must live in a fashion that makes them good
witnesses, good neighbors, good people.

AND SO?

You are all
called to be God’s option in an increasingly pagan culture.   That is who we all are, and the clarion call
for all God’s people, who are all both ‘laity’ and a royal priesthood,  has gone out that we must fulfill our high
calling to spread abroad the Good News of Jesus Christ, each according to what
we have been called, gifted, graced, blessed, educated, trained to be and
do. 

In my view,
every single Christian needs Christian training, and all the more so now as our
culture and even our churches become more and more Biblically illiterate.  But hear me clearly— we are not called to
dumb down the Gospel, we are called to boil up the people.  We are not called to put the Gospel cookies
on the bottom shelf, we are called to tease people’s minds into active thought
so that their reach will extend further than their current grasp. 

We need a total mobilization of the Body of
Christ, God’s salvation army for never in our life times has the need been
greater, the call been clearer, and the commission more obvious— Go, said
Jesus, and make disciples of all the nations. 
But if we are to claim the world as our parish, then we will indeed need
all hands on deck, every member of Christ, a minister of Christ.    Claim your birth rite as part of the royal
priesthood of God and do not exchange it for anything— not for anything. AMEN

 

             


[1] Marshall, 1 Peter, p. 75.

[2] Selwyn, First Peter, p. 101 col.
2.

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