Worship and the Priesthood of All Believers
By Nicholas Zork “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4, 5 NIV)
The Protestant Reformation restored to Christian worship two emphases that Adventists have always claimed as essential to our identity: the centrality of Scripture and the priesthood of all believers. Our emphasis on Scripture in worship has remained firm throughout our history, but our commitment to the priesthood of all believers has—in practice—not fared as well. And although we have no biblically rooted theology to justify it, the functional “priesthood” of only some believers is still evident in many of our congregations and worship practices. For example, there are Adventist congregations that partition the worship space, creating a spiritual hierarchy of sorts in which only certain people (ordained elders, ordained pastors, men, etc.) have access to certain spaces (the platform, the pulpit, etc.). Despite the conviction that the Sanctuary is in Heaven, we maintain pseudo “Holy Places” and “Most Holy Places.” Moreover, the biblical practice of recognizing spiritual gifts often devolves into misconceptions about inherent spiritual authority. These misconceptions are propagated by invoking divine endorsement of what are, in fact, human political practices (tiered levels of ordination, representative government votes, etc.). In Adventist rituals, both political and liturgical, this is played out in the exercise of a supposed spiritual authority by groups and individuals—an authority that, in fact, belongs to Christ alone. Christ’s role as the Head of the Church is unique (an oustanding articulation of this biblical belief can be found here: http://www.andrews.edu/sem/unique_headship_of_christ_final.pdf). Christ has no hierarchy of believers beneath Him but, rather, a priesthood of all who follow and worship the Lamb.
So how can we better reflect this priesthood of all believers in our worship practices?
Here are three suggestions:
- In leading worship, find ways to reflect the truth that Christ is our High Priest in the Heavenly Sanctuary and we, as a result, can encounter the presence of God without human mediation. Consider how we intentionally or inadvertently exclude certain categories of people (children, women, lay people, etc.) from privileged places in the worship space. And challenge the subtle ways we privilege all those who lead from the front. For example, I enjoy leading congregational song from the same level as the pews and not the raised platform. This isn’t always practical. Sometimes it’s necessary to be elevated in order to be properly lighted or seen. But we should do what we can to embody the priesthood of all believers in the way we set up our worship spaces.
- In planning worship, cultivate centralized collaboration without a rigid hierarchy. Resources like planningcenteronline.com allow for both pastoral oversight and transparency in sharing planning responsibilities with a large team.
- Involve lay leaders in worship leading roles traditionally filled by pastors and elders. Although pastors and elders should be integrally involved in leading the worship service, there is no biblical basis for excluding lay leaders from a variety of ministries in which they are rarely included. In fact, there is every reason to include them. Historically, the rise of clerical power has resulted in decreased participation in worship. The reverse has also been true. A worship service that embodies the priesthood of all believers will greatly encourage the participation of all worshippers. In my congregation, we regularly hear sermons from women and men who are members and gifted preachers but not ordained ministers or even always elders. Everyone who preaches works closely with the senior pastor and sermon advisory to aid in their preparations. And, consequently, theological integrity is conveyed not only through the content of what is preached but through the identity of who is preaching. We all know that actions speak louder than words. Involving a wide diversity of voices in leading worship—whether in preaching, praying, reading, song leading or otherwise—affords an opportunity to communicate what we believe through both words and actions. And in doing so, we will cultivate a Body in which we are truly one in Christ.