Many Christians who are following Christ in faith struggle greatly with their role in the church. They wonder, Do I have what it takes to live this new life? Do I have anything to offer other believers? Am I at all gifted for ministry and service or should I just leave that sort of thing to the church staff and pastors? Who does the real work of ministry? At the very center of the Christian life is the issue of our new identity and how we can and should function in the church and the world.
A central tenant of SBCC has been what we have referred to as the priesthood of the believer or every member ministry. These two terms, which we use synonymously, reflect a crucial teaching of the Bible that cuts to the core of our belief, practice and spiritual self-image. To understand the problem, we need to review some church history.
The early church began as a band of brothers and sisters set free to function as the ministers of this new community. The ministries of evangelism, service to the poor, spiritual encouragement, confession, discipleship, prayer, mission, teaching, etc., were performeded by average believers who knew they were empowered and gifted by the Holy Spirit for these areas of service. Unfortunately, through a long and rather complex series of events and a certain mindset, what began, as a beautiful new community where every member of the church understood himself or herself to be a minister, morphed into an unbiblical hierarchal structure that robbed God’s people of their priestly identity. By the 16th century, this drift toward a divisive distinction between the clergy and laity, the priest and common believer, the spiritual professional and the lowly amateur Christian, had created such a gulf that the Biblical teaching that all Christians are ministers was largely lost. It was the 16th century Protestant Reformation that began to salvage the authority of the Bible and the identity of God’s people.
It was the iconoclastic Augustinian monk Martin Luther who began to upset the religious status quo. Luther’s rediscovery of biblical teaching on the priesthood of every believer was explosive. Luther plainly stated, Everyone who has been baptized may claim that he already has been consecrated a priest, bishop or pope. (Luther was not a friend of the Pope or of church hierarchy!) He went on to assert, Let everyone, therefore, who knows himself to be a Christian be assured of this, and apply it himself—that we are all priests, and there is no difference between us.
The application of the every member ministry was twofold. First, all believers have direct access to God. It is in the Protestant air we breathe that Christians do not need a human mediator to plead our case before God. Jesus is our high priest and has opened the way to God by presenting himself as a sacrifice for our sin. As Greg Ogden puts it, We are all drawn into the priesthood in that we represent ourselves before God through one intermediary, Jesus Christ. (Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God, p. 18) Second, the priesthood of all believers means that we are also priests and ministers to each other in the church and in the world. In other words, it is the average believer such as, the homemaker, the business person, those in sales, in construction, school teachers, and mechanics who have gifts and a calling from God to function as ministers.
One of the key New Testament passages that point to an every member ministry is Ephesians 4:11-12. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service (ministry), so that the body of Christ may be built up. The apostle Paul is saying that works of ministry or service are to be done by all of God’s people who are the church. (The Greek word translated service is derived from diakonia, which is also translated ministry) The apostle Peter refers to all Christians as a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5) and a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) who have both the right and the responsibility todeclare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). Paul’s first letter to the believers at Corinth affirms to this immature church that they are in fact all saints who are gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit to minister in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12).
The New Testament teaching that all Christians are ministers is both comforting and demanding. It is comforting in that the believer can be confident of his or her new identity, calling, and giftedness to actually function in the church in a life-changing way. Once the believer understands that he doesn’t have to go to seminary, or have a title, to serve Jesus there is a true liberation. On the other hand this teaching can be demanding, even troublesome. Many of us would prefer to just go to church and leave the work of ministry to others, or even to the paid pastoral staff. Going to church happens when we reduce the Christian life toan hour and a half of Christianity on Sunday morning or afternoon. We can sing a few songs, hear a palatable sermon, pray a little, take the Lord’s Supper, chat on the patio with a cup of coffee and then go home and on to real life. Repeat this religious ritual next Sunday. Here is the wonderful and uncomfortable truth. The health of SBCC is contingent on its members understanding and functioning as ministers. To the extent that our church understands and lives out this delightful reality, SBCC will be a healthy growing body of believers. The day we forget who we are and give up on this life-changing truth, we will fade into religious institutionalism.
Practically speaking, what does the priesthood of every believer, every member ministry mean? Quite simply it means that each one of us are Holy Spirit-gifted and empowered to evangelize our next door neighbor, teach the Bible to your co-worker, work with a Young Life club or Alpha group, visit our fellow believer in the hospital bringing comfort and prayer, hear the confessions of a fellow sinner, lead a Homegroup (or any other small group), disciple a fellow believer, direct the church in worship, start a prayer group, begin a ministry outreach to your neighborhood, mentor someone at the Rescue Mission, and a hundred and one other ministry ideas that I don’t have space to list. Why can you do all this? Because you are a minister!
It is important to mention what every member ministry does not mean. It does not mean that all believers are gifted in the same way. It does not mean that everyone is called to the same ministries. There are a variety of callings and giftedness.
Every member ministry does not mean that all Christians are pastors. It was Elton Trueblood, a champion of every member ministry, who pointed out this fallacy:
There is always the temptation to suppose that the early Christian emphasis required then or requires now a denial of difference of function. Why not say that all Christians are supposed to be ministers and leave it at that? Why not deny the need of pastors at all? The earliest Christians were far too realistic to fall into this trap, because they saw that, if the ideal of universal ministry is to be approximated at all, there must be some people who are working at the job of bringing this highly desirable result to pass. The office of pastor is for those, who possess the peculiar gift of being able to help other men and women to practice the ministry to which they are called. (The Incendiary Fellowship, p. 40)
There is a crucial question every believer must ask. Who am I? How do you see yourself actually functioning in the church and in the world? Do you see yourself as a second-class citizen in the church, waiting for others to take care of the business of the kingdom of God? Or do you see yourself as a vital member of church living out your new calling as a minister? The extent to which the priesthood of the believer has teeth at SBCC will be dependent on how you answer these questions.
This wonderful and liberating New Testament teaching is dependent on each believer understanding his or her spiritual identity. Greg Ogden suggests that when Christians get a firm grasp on their priestly calling as ministers it will result in a new Reformation. The New Reformation seeks nothing less than the radical transformation of the self-perception of all believers so that we see ourselves as vital channels through whom God mediates his life to other members of the body of Christ and to the world. (Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God, p. 18) So I ask each member of SBCC: Do you know who you are?