On the Priesthood of All Believers

I’d seen in my blog’s tracking stats, that a three-year-old post, Open Theism and the Essence-Energy Distinction, has been getting a bit of traffic recently, so I re-read it, and while doing so it occurred to me that definitional divine simplicity impacts the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers creating a distortion that rejects the Church’s traditional understanding of that doctrine, and resulting, in some cases, in a radical egalitarianism which distorts the doctrine it seeks to preserve.

The general Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers seeks to correct a clericalism which divides the Body of Christ into subsets of the empowered and disempowered. Anywhere such a clericalism arises it should be most vigorously resisted. It should go without saying that the Church’s traditional understanding of the sacramental priesthood is not this sort of clericalism, but is, in fact, precisely the fulfillment of the priesthood of all believers. But while it should go without saying, unfortunately it cannot, for the reaction to clericalism which is the Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers unfortunately starts from and reinforces the very distortion it seeks to correct.

Let me attempt to explain what I mean.

The Protestant critique starts with an understanding that arises from a distortion (clericalism), from a dialectic of opposition: the two subsets, clerical and lay members, of the Body of Christ, are conceptually opposed to one another, one is either a priest (clerical) or one is not (lay). The two cannot be the same thing. Further, the priest (clerical) has the sacramental power (to bind and to loose), to which the lay person is subject. Other binary oppositional modes can be added: a priest can only be male (and in the West unmarried).

But unfortunately, the Protestant critique does not overcome the distortion. Rather than reject the dialectic of opposition, it continues it by then rejecting all distinctions. The priesthood of all believers then becomes the absolute sameness of all believers. Galatians 3:28 is not far behind. In other words, one of the problems with this Protestant view of the priesthood of all believers is something like definitional divine simplicity: there is only one essence (the priesthood of all believers), with no distinctions (office, sex, and so forth).

Unfortunately, rather than resolving the problem of clericalism, it raises new issues. A creeping reductionism begins to take over, which ultimately resorts in minimally a distortion of, and maximally an eradication of, personhood. Being a priest among other same priests funnels into a focus on functionality: who does what. And that distorts vocation into a reflection of qualities rather than a reflection of personhood. What are we to do, rather than who are we to be?

To speak a little more technically: this distorted resolution of a distortion is a failure to distinguish between essence and person, a failure to make distinctions (or, rather, distinctions become merely nominal). To say it in perhaps more familiar terms: just as we distinguish between the Persons of the Trinity (and they are real distinctions, not just modal names) but assert one and the same essence, just as we distinguish between God’s creating and God’s being Creator, so, too, the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers asserts a common “essence” if you will (priesthood), but also asserts real distinctions (laity, deacons, priests, bishops, monastics, married, male and female, and so forth). This is why, in traditional Christianity, a husband and wife are priests in their own home, but do not serve the Eucharist in the gathered assembly. This is why, in traditional Christianity, the sacramental priesthood offers the Eucharist, but does not do so without the prayers of the laity.

This radical egalitarianism, which a distorted emphasis on the priesthood of all believers brings, also demeans and diminishes the priesthood of all believers by failing to account for the Holy Spirit distributed gifts of the Body: it makes the ministry of Christ’s Body all one thing. But such reductionism is pagan, not Christian.

This is also why, in traditional Christianity, some ministries are limited to some members of the Body: only males may be Eucharistic priests. Though from a distorted perspective, this appears to diminish and demean: and if all were of one essence without distinction it would indeed be so. But because we do have distinctions which matter, this limitation becomes not something that diminishes and demeans but something that actually preserves personhood. The reductionism that is radical egalitarianism always ultimately diminishes the person, because it fails to account for or preserve the important distinctions which God has created and which distinctions themselves have been redeemed. One does not perserve the personhood of woman by denying to her the important distinction of gestation and childbirth. Indeed, the radicalism that diminishes this unique and important creational and specifically redeemed distinction ultimately depersonalizes each woman in particular, and womanhood as an aspect of personhood. That only males may serve as priests is not, ultimately, a diminishing of women, but is, rather an elevation of them as persons, just as it is also an elevation of men as persons. The Virgin Mary could not as a woman offer the Eucharist in any of our Liturgies, but one hardly considers the Mother of God diminished by that distinction: from her womb by the Holy Spirit she gave us Him who is our Eucharist. Indeed, her motherhood elevates us all.

The fundamental concept of divine definitional simplicity is more than just a philosopher’s or theologian’s game. It is a radical distortion of the understanding of God, and therefore of all reality. It not only impacts our Trinitarian understandings, it impacts our Christological understandings, our understandings of ministry, and, ultimately our understandings of what it means to be persons. It is perhaps not too bold to say that traditional Christianity starts from Persons and then moves to essences. It starts from the Person, Jesus of Nazareth, and then moves to wills and natures. It starts from believers in particular, saved as persons, and then moves to the priesthood of them all.

The Incarnation puts the exclamation point on the assertion that Christianity is an embodied Faith. Any model of ministry which cannot handle the distinctions inherent in an embodied Faith cannot be, it seems to me, a Christian understanding of the priesthood of all believers.

Why Social Justice is Not a Category of Ecclesial Thought

It’s an intentionally provocative title, so let me clarify what is and isn’t meant. But first let me say that this post will not explore in any great detail the relationship between the Church and the state, though such talk will nonetheless be inescapable. I will not here entertain acceptance of or defend against various charges of various church groups (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) such things as caesaropapism, erastianism, or theocracy. I am vary narrowly focused on one particular thought, a thought that animates much of mainline U.S. Protestant Christianity (and, because they apparently don’t want to be left out, is animating more and more of evangelical U.S. Protestant Christianity) as well as quite a swath of U. S. Roman Catholic activists. And because I am so very narrowly focused, it is crucial that I state what I mean by “social justice.”

By what is meant I’m referring to that sort of thinking which seeks, as its immediate end, the alteration of political (and also social, usually the social by way of the political) structures and processes toward some proximate end (alleviation of poverty, race/gender/sexual orientation equity and political rights or advantages, etc.) by primarily social and political means (demonstrations, “community development” [euphemistically so called, but really mass political organizing], voter campaigns, editorials and other media utilization, etc.). By what is not meant are such activities as homeless shelters, free health clinics, manning soup kitchens, food pantries, clothing drives, sewing shrouds for deceased babies, etc. Now there can be overlap between the two, especially when some of these outreach locations are used for political organizing, or when backers of the latter efforts form PACs or lobby government to achieve former ends. But generally the distinctions are quite clear: on the one hand is the use of political means for political ends (ostensibly for the alleviation of human ills); while on the other hand are the use of social (here more often personal) means for the alleviation of human ills.

And it is precisely on this divide of endpoints that social justice is not a category of ecclesial thought.

Continue reading “Why Social Justice is Not a Category of Ecclesial Thought”


As a Protestant, one of the key mental operators one has is the opposition to Rome. Depending upon the Protestant group, though I have in mind here and throughout this reflection evangelical Protestants, one more or less defines oneself over against Rome. This, of course, results in a distortion of Roman doctrine and practice (again depending on how much more or less one defines oneself over against Rome), a distortion which can reach Jack Chick proportions. So one thing a Protestant converting to Orthodoxy must be careful of is distorting Orthodoxy into an anti-Roman image.

Thankfully, not a few Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have come to Orthodoxy by way of investigations into Rome. The Protestant turn to Rome is completely normal and natural: many Protestants know very little, sometimes even nothing, about Orthodoxy. Once the inherent contradictions of Protestantism weigh in on the Protestant soul, the convert begins a reconsideration of his stance vis a vis Rome. And not a few conclude that they should find their anchorage in that church.

But Orthodoxy is not as much of a well-kept secret anymore. More and more literature is being published in English–one might dare to call it an explosion in the last ten years or so. Orthodoxy is finding its way into the so-called “new media” especially in the online world. So Protestants looking for resolution of the contradictions of Protestantism are now aware that there is more to investigate than the Tiber crossing. And herein lies the potential danger of turning Orthodoxy into a new Protestantism.

Some Protestant converts, in a normal and laudable effort to make sense of their journey find the differences between Orthodoxy and Rome comforting. We have no Pope. We don’t have the problem of indulgences. We’ve never had Limbo. And so on.

The problem is these differences are superficial in many respects and simply reinstantiate the opposition to Rome, which does not get anywhere close to the heart of Orthodoxy. A Protestant convert to Orthodoxy will find, sooner or later, that he has much more in common with Roman Catholics after his conversion than he does with Protestants. His Bible is the same (with a few extras). He has a sacramental foundation to his Christian life. He has bishops and priests. His babies are baptized. He has the Church as the cornerstone of biblical and doctrinal belief and interpretations. And so on.

Only when a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy can come to grips with the deep similarities he has with Rome can he effectively also come to grips with the deeper differences, differences which do not map out on his former dichotomies.

The Pope. Both Orthodoxy and Rome give primacy to the Bishop of Rome. The difference is of what the primacy consists. Orthodoxy teaches that the primacy is synodal, not jurisdictional.

Mary. Both Orthodoxy and Rome claim for Mary the role of the Mother of God, that Mary was assumed into heaven (there are some differences as to when that took place and whether or not she died prior to her assumption), and that she is the Queen of Heaven. The difference, however, relates to whether or not Mary is an exception to original or ancestral sin or not.

The Sacraments. Both Rome and Orthodoxy teach a sacramental soteriology. The difference, however, is in the view of grace which underlies the sacramental theology. For Orthodoxy, the Sacraments are a real participation in God and not a participation in a creature of God.

The Trinity. Both Rome and Orthodoxy teach the Trinity, of course, but the difference lies in the understanding of God’s Tri-Personality and his essence. The Orthodox teach the distinction between God’s essence and energies and do not accept the teaching of absolute or definitional divine simplicity.

Development of Doctrine. Both Rome and Orthodoxy accept the authority of the Church Councils and the Fathers, as well as the defined dogmas of the Church (though with some obvious differences). And both teach that the doctrine of the Church has developed over time. The difference is in the nature of that development. The Orthodox teach a development that preserves apophasis, the utlimate unknowability of God, whereas Rome teaches a development of understanding, that the Church has come to know these theological matters more deeply.

This is only a partial list, and with thumbnail descriptions at that. But it is meant to emphasize that evangelical Protestants who convert to Orthodoxy must not settle for the easy dichotomies between themselves and Rome that were once the mainstay of their intellectual parameters. The truth is more complex. And only when Protestants can be converted from such former dichotomies can they come to a truer understanding and appreciation of their new Faith and the Church.

Reinventing the Wheel, of Sorts

From my friend Tripp, comes this link to an article by The Alban Institute: “Church for the 21st Century”. Tripp cites the paragraphs from the article indicating (though giving no statistics) a similar sort of growth among progressive churches as among the more conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches and megachurches. I continue to be amused at the self-congratulatory nature of these sorts of things (“See! See! We’re just as good as the fundegelicals!”), as well as the implicit appeal to numerical increase and/or size to justify one’s doctrines and beliefs as approved by and channeling the spirit. (The lower case “s” is intentional. Note the link above.)

I also continue to fail to find myself or anyone else I know in these stereotypes with which the “progressive” churches paint their counterparts. We “conserva-tradition-evan-funda-gelicals” are apparently low-browed, knuckle-draggin’, and nostril-breathin’ folks, who are missing the movement of the spirit (sic) en masse. Which explains why my wife jabs me with her elbow in the middle of the night to get me to roll over, and why I don’t get the “reinvent the wheel every two decades” mentality that seems to drive “progressives.”

But I digress.

Here’s what I noticed from the article:

The Portland scholar and book author [Marcus Borg] went on to describe a “tale of two Christianities,” examining the conflict between contemporary change and resistance to change—both theological and political. Borg sketched the two sides, one embracing the “belief-centered paradigm” and the other the emerging “transformation-centered paradigm” embracing a human understanding of Jesus’s life and work as “grounding” for ongoing personal and social change.

“The transformation-centered paradigm is not an accommodation or reduction of the Christian tradition to modern thought,” said Borg. “Rather it is neo-traditional…a recovery, a retrieval of what was most central [to the faith] before the collision with modernity.”

The transformation-centered paradigm has profound implications for how progressive leaders are “doing church” today. These leaders are rearranging the sanctuary furniture and installing video screens as they find new ways to empower members of their congregations. They are introducing new welcoming rituals, more tables of discussion, and even alternative ways of structuring session meetings.

What’s so funny is that these “progressives” are still stuck in that three-centuries old modernist paradigm of binary opposites: “belief-centered” versus “transformation-centered.” Haven’t any of them heard of this new thing called “Post-mo-der-nism”? It’s pretty slick. It attempts to deconstruct such binarism. So, I mean, how progressive can one be if one is still stuck in a centuries-old paradigm?

Oh, but wait. The Borg clarifies: it’s neotraditional. It attempts to recover the pre-modern “transformation-centered” paradigm. And how does it do it? By moving the furniture and installing new media equipment: “rearranging the sanctuary furniture and installing video screens.”

Isn’t it convenient how these self-congratulatory types don’t make one mention of, oh, I don’t know, such things as: repentence, confession of sin, fasting, and such? How can anyone have “personal transformation” by sitting at a different spot in a room, or by watching videos, unless they are also confronted with their deep and broken sinfulness, their deep bondage to the passions, the sinful inclinations which we embrace and which turn our face from God and our fellow man?

If the Borg wants “transformational” then he needs to experience as much as God will permit in love for his salvation the deep wretched sinfulness with which we are all infected and which breaks us. If these progressives truly want social change, if they can get out of their bondage to the modernist epistemology and paradigm and stop viewing this as “us vs. them”, then they will own the deep and sickening sin which permeates our persons and realize there, in our wretchedness God infuses his mercy and unites us in solidarity to one another.

It won’t happen just because we sit in a circle and watch a Sara McLachlin video.