‘Priestly’ and ‘Prophetic’ Forms of Ministry

I want to join April and Graham in welcoming Jem to the discussion! I’ve followed Jem’s blog for a couple of years and, although I come from quite a different perspective in these debates, I have found him to be an incredibly stimulating and worthwhile person to listen to. I look forward to hearing from him as the conversation develops here.

Hannah mentions the way the distinction between church and parachurch featured within the discussion following Jen Michel’s post. I believe this distinction is a crucial one to reflect upon, especially as it relates to evangelicalism’s identity. Evangelicalism has, I would suggest, always tended to find its centre of gravity in the parachurch, in the wider world of revivals, missions, movements, and faithful sodalities, and the way that individual faith draws from these sources.

It is easy to forget, for instance, that the Methodist movement was originally intended to exist alongside the ministry of the established Anglican church. It exercised a more expansive, footloose, and informal ministry that supplemented the more rooted and priestly sacramental ministry of the local Church of England parish.

I have compared the distinction here to the distinction between ‘priestly’ and ‘prophetic’ ministries within Israel. The former ministry was a ministry of ritually ordained persons, which exercised a highly representative and ‘official’ role and focused upon highly ritualized worship and authoritative community oversight. By contrast, the latter was a gift-driven ministry that included and addressed God’s word more generally both to Israel and to nations beyond it. While priestly ministry was highly ‘institutional’ and official ministry, prophetic ministry was in many respects more analogous to what we would class as parachurch ministry.

Evangelicalism’s history is, I believe, characterized by a forgetfulness of the priestly character of pastoral ministry and a tendency to universalize the logic of prophetic ministry. That which was once intended to supplement the liturgical worship of an assembled congregation under priestly oversight started to supplant it. Within this logic, the pastor is seen primarily as a preacher, a prophet-like figure, much less as a ‘priestly’ guardian of the holiness of the community, the symbol and enforcer of the authority of Christ within a specific congregation, and the officiator within the divine service of the corporate liturgy in the sanctuary.

There has been a forgetfulness of the contrasting logic of two forms of Christian ‘space’—the space of the priestly ministry and the space of the prophetic ministry. This is reflected in shallow ecclesiologies and in a failure to distinguish sharply between the more particular realm of the church and the more general realm of the parachurch.

The lack of a clear distinction here also characterizes evangelicalism’s attitude to the gender debates. Without a strong sense of the priest/pastor as a figure whose significance is chiefly defined by the symbolic and governmental position that he occupies within a defined congregation, the priest/pastor starts to be defined solely by gifts (e.g. teaching ability) and generalized duties (e.g. preaching). One result of this is that, for complementarians, any gendered restriction will tend to bleed into all sorts of other areas. Recalling this distinction will, I suspect, allow complementarians a much more accommodating theology for women’s ministry, especially in the area of the parachurch and, consequently, much greater latitude for cooperation with those who take an egalitarian approach to pastoral ministry.

Now to Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are?

What the accommodation of diverse practice looks like will vary from context to context. I think that there is lots of room for diverse practice in a parachurch context, somewhat less in a single denomination, and considerably less in a specific congregation. In the parachurch and denomination contexts in particular, I can tolerate considerable differences, while engaging in respectful dialogue aimed at breaking differences down in size, facilitating principled cooperation, and seeking to persuade those who differ.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

I have been both a member of a denomination and a member of a congregation with female clergy. Being a church leader in such contexts would present different challenges, though.

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?

It really depends. I think that it is important to bear in mind that the level of an obstacle that a belief or practice presents to Christian fellowship or cooperation isn’t always proportional to its significance in the larger scheme of Christian doctrine and faithful practice. Also, our problems often tend to lie more at the level of irreconcilable practices than contrasting beliefs (Steve Holmes has some helpful thoughts here).