EDIT: I just wanted to say that thanks to my buddy Clay I realized that I probably shouldn’t have written this post as a direct criticism of Hirsch. I should have probably, instead, just written about the idea of the clergy/lay distinction. I apologize for overstepping here.
I will leave my post as is because I don’t think it would be honest to edit it to make the bad things go away. I own my mistake.
I just arrived back from Seedbed’s New Room Conference in Franklin, TN. New Room is a gathering of Christians from the Wesleyan tradition who are seeking to reconnect with John Wesley’s early vision of the Methodist movement. In the present-day chaos that is the United Methodist Church, Seedbed’s “return to roots” focus is a hopeful and refreshing way to move forward. The organizers did a fantastic job facilitating discussion and bringing clarity to our common goal. I desperately hope to see this vision grow.
I was inspired and challenged by several talks, especially those by Phil Meadows, Philip Tallon, and Kevin Watson. However, I want to address some problems that I found with one talk in particular: the closing address by Alan Hirsch.
Alan Hirsch is a leader in the missional church movement who believes that we should rethink the way that we envision Christian community. If you are familiar with Hirsch’s work, you know that he sharply criticizes the clergy/lay distinction and refers to it as a later “Catholic invention”. As a citation, Hirsch refers to the New Testament teaching that we are all one body in Christ, and though we are many members in Christ we are all one body (I would argue that he misunderstands this text, but that’s not the point here). Hirsch simply says that the clergy/lay distinction is not in the New Testament and it is, therefore, not true. He even had the audacity to suggest that the Wesleyan movement should repent for their participation in the “unbiblical” clergy/lay distinction and the oppressive nature of church hierarchy.
I know that Hirsch is not alone in rejecting the clerical office. People have been arguing against church hierarchy since the Radical Reformers (led, in part by Ulrich Zwingli who died in 1531) sought to set up societies that looked, from their perspective, like the “New Testament Church”. The vision of re-establishing a New Testament Church was the focus of many movements, especially in America (e.g. the Stone-Campbell Movement), throughout the last 300 years. The underlying belief of these movements is that the Catholic Church ruined Christianity, and it is up to us to get back to the real roots. From this foundation, they believe that since Jesus never mentioned the priesthood or ordination in the New Testament, the priesthood must have been a tool of oppression that was invented by the Catholics.
I believe that there are several problems with this reasoning, but I will just focus on one three-part argument.
1) In the first 2/3 of our Scripture we have numerous explanations of the rites, liturgies, and vestments used by Jewish priests. In Jewish tradition, men of the tribe of Levi are set apart for special service in the priesthood. Though the priesthood involved special acts of prayer and service for the community, the primary role of the priest was to stand as a mediator between God and the people. The priest would offer sacrifices for the people and enter the sacred place, the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God dwelled. We know that if someone who was not a priest entered the Holy of Holies (or if the priest entered the Holy of Holies unworthily), they would die. (Leviticus 16) Not only must someone be set apart for the office of the priest, they must take it very seriously.
2) We know that Jesus and a majority of his early followers were Jewish. We know that Jesus went to the Temple and the synagogues. We know that Jesus celebrated Jewish festivals and submitted himself to the instruction of the rabbis. To suggest otherwise is to erroneously remove Jesus from his Jewish context.
Some think that Jesus was completely opposed to office of “priest” because of his addresses to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He called them hypocrites, sons of hell, and lots of other damning things. The problem is that there is zero New Testament evidence that Jesus thought that the office of the priest was corrupt per se. He certainly saw abuses and criticized the way that some leaders were holding the office. That is not debatable. But he never explicitly abolished the priesthood. Why would he? He was a devout Jew.
3) In several first-century letters (including his epistles to the Magnesian, Trallesian, and Smyrnan churches) Ignatius of Antioch referred to bishops and priests as part of a hierarchical structure. He even demands that the congregations obey their deacons, bishops, and presbyters. This means that within 70 years of Christ’s ascension there is evidence that the priest/lay distinction exists and that the lay should, in some ways, submit to these specially appointed leaders.
One should also consider the fact that in the fourth century (one to two hundred years after Ignatius’ letters) it was a college of bishops that closed our canon of Scripture. This means that the hierarchy of the church actually predates the formal collection of Scripture that we have today. Hirsch’s argument that a clergy/lay distinction is unbiblical is easily dismantled by the fact that Scripture was actually assembled by clergy! (Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, of course.)
So, considering (1) that the Old Testament affirms the clergy/lay divide, that (2) Jesus and most of his followers were Jewish and, therefore, at least inherited the priestly tradition, and that (3) there is evidence of the clergy/lay distinction within 70 years of Christ’s ascension, I have a very hard time seeing how we can affirm that the role of clergy was a later “Catholic invention”.
The only way that this could possibly be true is if Jesus secretly (without it being recorded in Scripture) told the disciples that the priesthood should be abolished. Then, within one generation, the disciples would have had to turn their back on his teaching and reestablish the priesthood. This situation is highly unlikely. The burden of proof is certainly on those who refute the priesthood.
I don’t know for sure, but I can’t help but assume that Hirsch is misinterpreting Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” and applying it anachronistically on the New Testament. Even if Luther’s sentiment is correct, he was not remotely suggesting that we abolish the priesthood (we know this because he was, well… a priest). What Luther was saying was that all Christians have a duty to tend to their own piety and to engage the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That call does not erase the office of clergy.
I believe that there are a lot of reasons that the church needs to repent. We need to repent for imperialism, our support of slavery, and our role in genocide. However, among the myriad of things that we have done wrong, I simply cannot affirm that drawing a distinction between the clergy and the laity is one of them.