Priests for Today – Does Christian Ministry have a Future?

Posted by Rev Peter Thomas – Minister of North Springfield Baptist Church and Treasurer of CBM.

The priests in the Old Testament, the Tribe of Levi, had very special duties and very special privileges. They were the cornerstone of the faith and religion of Israel. The word priest or priesthood occurs a staggering 937 times in the Bible. And the Levites are mentioned another 312 times. That’s an average of more than once every page across the Old Testament! We read about them in many different places in Deuteronomy, and just that one book it speaks about the different responsibilities of the priests.

10:8 At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister and to pronounce blessings in his name, as they still do today.

What a privilege. To carry the ark of the covenant – the box containing the stone tablets with the 10 commandments written on. To be closest to God. And to declare God’s blessings to the people in the name of the LORD. To be God’s representatives and the channels of his blessing. Alongside the ark the priests also guarded the Law of Moses.

31:24 After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, 25 he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord: 26 “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God. There it will remain as a witness against you.

So the priests were guardians of God’s truth, the commandments and the book of the Law of Moses. They taught the faith of Israel to the people.

18:3 This is the share due to the priests from the people who sacrifice a bull or a sheep: the shoulder, the jowls and the inner parts. 4 You are to give them the firstfruits of your grain, new wine and oil, and the first wool from the shearing of your sheep, 5 for the Lord your God has chosen them and their descendants out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the Lord’s name always.

It was the priests’ privilege to offer sacrifices to the Lord, to attend his tabernacle and stand and minister in the Lord’s name. The priests, and only the priests, had access into the very presence of God. They represented the people before God and they also God to the people. So they had a part to play in bringing God’s healing

24:8 In cases of leprous diseases be very careful to do exactly as the priests, who are Levites, instruct you. You must follow carefully what I have commanded them.

And the priests also had another function we may not be so familiar with – a legal function.

17:8 If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge—whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults—take them to the place the Lord your God will choose. 9 Go to the priests, who are Levites, and to the judge who is in office at that time. Enquire of them and they will give you the verdict.

But all these privileges of the Old Testament priests came at a specific and great cost to the whole tribe of Levi. They were set apart from the ordinary people of Israel. They had no land and no inheritance of their own. They lived hand to mouth dependent entirely on the generosity of God’s people.

18 The priests, who are Levites—indeed the whole tribe of Levi—are to have no allotment or inheritance with Israel. They shall live on the offerings made to the Lord by fire, for that is their inheritance. 2 They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.

Day by day the Levites were dependent on God’s provision and the offerings his people brought.

12:11 Then to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name—there you are to bring everything I command you: your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, and all the choice possessions you have vowed to the Lord. 12 And there rejoice before the Lord your God, you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns, who have no allotment or inheritance of their own. ….  19 Be careful not to neglect the Levites as long as you live in your land.

14:27 And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.

So the priests and their families, indeed the whole tribe of Levi, were at the heart of the nation of Israel. They taught and safeguarded the Law, they offered the sacrifices, they pronounced God’s blessings and his healing, and even spoke for God in legal disputes. And in return God provided for their needs from the offerings all of Israel made to Him.

18:2 They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.

This pattern of priests and people was in place for at least 1500 years before Christ. And after a short period of transition in the first century, this has been the pattern for Christianity ever since. Priests and ministers and pastors safeguarding the faith of the church, set apart by ordination and supported by the gifts the ordinary Christians made to the church. This pattern is most obvious in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, but it has been the pattern in most Free Churches as well. I was set apart, trained, ordained and nationally recognised in the Baptist tradition to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament – to teach and preach the Word of God and to minister the sacraments especially of believer’s baptism and of the Lord’s Supper, communion.

And Priests and ministers give up a great deal to follow their vocation in terms of income and property and, in some ways security.

18:2 They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.

So the Old Testament pattern of the priesthood continues even in the church today. But not, I suspect, for much longer. Because I see a number of factors diminishing the place of ordained ministers in the life of the church. Recruitment to the clergy has been decreasing over the last half century. As the churches numbers and strength have been waning resources to pay for clergy have been severely stretched. But more than that, I see at least five factors in operation which make me think that churches don’t actually want ordained priests and ministers so much any more.

1 Changes in and patterns of learning

I have seen first-hand in Uganda and read of the same in India and across the Global South, how education both for children in school and even for adults is based on rote learning. Forgive the generalisation, but in those countries the consequence is that most people only know what they have been taught. Up until the 20th century, education was the same in the Global North as it still is in the Global South. Except for intellectuals, learned classes, you only knew what you had been taught. But in UK and across the Global North education now is all about learning how to learn, independently “learning for yourself”, and problem solving.

Time was that in church Christians only knew what the priest or minister taught them. Most ordinary Christians couldn’t read (and if they could, as in many parts of the world today, they couldn’t afford their own Bible) – they were entirely dependent on faith handed down to them through the church.

Throughout history, the nation of Israel and then the church have needed an educated elite entrusted with passing on the faith to everybody else. But nowadays all Christians are educated there is not that need. Or at least, many people think there isn’t.

2 Increasing involvement by “lay Christians”

Alongside universal education, churches (and especially Baptists) have also rightly been keen to release the members of the churches to exercise their own spiritual gifts. So whereas there was a time when only those ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament would preach, or lead prayers, or lead worship, or preside at communion, or counsel those in distress, certainly in Baptist circles we would say that any Christian is allowed do any of these things. The minister is not the “one man/woman band” So we have the rise of worship leaders, and homegroups where ordinary Christians are taught by each other, not just by the minister. This is entirely right! Leadership shared between Minister and Deacons. Absolutely! Every Christian reading the Bible for themselves, and thinking for themselves! Quite right!

But now we have education, books, internet – people learn for themselves. Now ordinary church members are doing things which for many years only clergy would do – so what is a minister for?

3 Growing distrust of “experts”

An article in The Telegraph listed “50 things which are being killed by the Internet”. At number 28 was “Respect for doctors and other professionals”. The proliferation of health websites has undermined the status of GPs, whose diagnoses are now challenged by patients armed with printouts. But most people are still happy to go to a doctor or a dentist. Most people go to a solicitor. Many use a financial advisor. We are happy to consult specialists because they have years of study, years of training, years of experience. Why is it that in church people are decreasingly likely to trust the minister?

A doctor undertakes three years of academic study and then at least two years of practical training before they are able to practise medicine. A lawyer takes three years studying law and a further year of specific training before they begin to practise as a solicitor. In the same way a Baptist Minister nowadays will usually take three or four years of academic theology and then three or four years as a “Newly Accredited Minister” still training while serving a church before he or she is recognised as a fully “accredited minister.” Many ministers will have postgraduate degrees in theology, not to mention any qualifications, skills and experience which many bring from their previous careers in industry or social work or education. Not forgetting that ministers were commended for training by their sending church because they were highly respected as gifted and leading lay-members of that original church in the first place.

And then it one of the major tasks of ministry to continue to study, more even than for doctors or lawyers. Before speaking on a particular topic, or before counselling a person with a specific problem, a minister will have spent hours and sometimes days researching that issue. Not only in personal study of relevant books and journals but often also learning from discussion with fellow ministers.

All this being the case, it is hard to understand why, but it is nevertheless the case that priests and ministers have a decreasing influence in churches. At a minister’s meeting, one Baptist minister put it this way.

“We ministers spend our lives working for the church. We may give hours or days or even weeks of thought to what we say. Then people come along to a meeting and after just 5 minutes thought on a particular issue believe they know better than the minister.”

Time was when the minister was the local church’s “parish theologian”. Nowadays Christians are more likely to put their trust in things they heard from big-name speakers on Christian radio or God TV or at Spring Harvest than they are to trust the considered beliefs of their own minister. Some Christians will put more trust in the latest internet site or blog of some American or Australian or African evangelist nobody has ever heard of than they are in the study and experience of their own minister. “It must be true – I read it on the internet. And that site gets lots more hits than our minister’s own website does – so it must be true!”

Changes in patterns of learning, increased lay-participation and lay-leadership, distrust of “experts in every area of society. The fourth issue which I think is diminishing the influence of priests and ministers in the church today is one simple question.

4 Who pays the bills?

In the Old Testament the people gave their offerings to God and the priests were paid (or at least fed) from the gifts which were given to God

In contrast, in Baptist churches today, people give money to the church and some focus on the fact that the minister is paid by the church from the gifts given by members, a fact emphasised by presenting the annual accounts to the church meeting who can see that by far the greatest area of expenditure is “ministry”. This is not so much a problem for Roman Catholics and Anglicans where gifts are given to “the church” as a national/worldwide entity, and “the church” pays the priest or vicar from a central payroll. But this an issue in free churches, and especially congregationally-governed churches where each independent congregation has to pay its own minister.

This affects priests and ministers in at least two ways.

(a) “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. Many Christians think they are entitled to a say in what their minister says and does, how he or she spends his time and even the things he or she preaches about, or should not preach about.

(b) With growing “professionalism” ministry is being seen as a profession, not a vocation. Changes in Employment law mean that in some church ministers are treated as employees, not as leaders. The whole point of the Levites being supported by the gifts of the people is that they were accountable to God and not to the people. That is the principle underlying the provision of a manse for a Minister and the payment of a stipend, not a salary. The purpose of Ministers being “Office Holders” and not employees is so they can be completely free to do and what they believe God is leading them to do and say, without any pressure from individuals in the church. Ministers are servants – but servants of GOD, not employees of the church. For all kinds of reasons that fundamental principle is being eroded.

Of course Priests and Ministers are accountable – but accountable to a much higher authority than the church they serve or even their denominational authorities. Any minister recognises that they are accountable to God for the way they exercise their ministry. The day that any Christian thinks that “their” minister should do what they say because they are paying his stipend is the day that individual ceases to benefit from that ministry.

5 The rise of bivocational ministry

The final factor which may end up being the nail in the coffin for full-time ministry is the widespread rise of what is called “bi-vocational ministry.” It is true that there have always been some ministers following two vocations at the same time by serving a local church and at the same time serving as a hospital chaplain, or prison chaplain, or teaching in theological college, or serving the local Baptist Association or the Baptist Union at the Central Resource in Didcot. At the same time there have always been some so called “lay-pastors” or “locally recognised ministers” working in full time secular employment who have been called to lead usually very small churches. But what we have been seeing in the last 10 years or so is the rise of trained accredited ministers who are bivocational in the sense that they work only part-time for the church and earn the rest of their living in a secular job. One obvious reason for this is that fewer and fewer churches can afford to pay the going rate for a full-time minister. Many ministers are having to supplement their income with other paid work. The ministry of these bivocational ministers is immensely important and valuable.

But we must be careful of making a virtue out of a necessity. In particular the argument that ministers will be better ministers if they have to hold down a day job as well is fatally flawed. We need to think through very carefully any proposals that ministerial training should become angled towards the expectation that all ministry will become bivocational, that is, part-time.

Being a Minister in the church today is never going to be the same as being a priest in Old Testament Israel. But I do believe there is still a future for full time ordained ministry in the churches of the 21st Century. It seems to me that a number of verses of the New testament bear this out!

1 Thessalonians 5:12 Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.

Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

I believe there is still a place for paid full time Ministers of Word and Sacrament, set apart to devote their lives to teaching and prayer, and supported by the church to do so.

2 Timothy 5:17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”

Ga 6:6 Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.

I believe there is still a vital place for priests and ministers in the church. 18:2 They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.

That’s the way it always has been and that’s the way I believe it always should be. But I do fear for the future of the ministry. I do wonder whether by the middle of the 21st century any Baptist churches will be served full-time by Ministers of Word and Sacrament any more.


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