I was recently on the staff for the first time at a church camp. I did a couple of worship services and a talk. As I prepared for the camp before getting there I was thinking about the topic for the week and what sorts of things were important to know about the topic, what sorts of things people might be confused about, etc.
For the first two days of the camp, though, I wasn’t leading anything just attending things. And I started to notice that I was learning things from other people. Believe me, I know that it’s painfully obvious, but I realized that I wasn’t the only person there that the Lord was using to teach people. And it wasn’t just the other ministers there that I was learning from. I was learning from women as well as men, people older than me and people younger than me, people who had probably read the Word more than me and people who had probably read it less. And I realized that the Lord is happy to use anyone and everyone to teach people the truth and lead them to heaven.
The Lord gave the word; great was the company of those who proclaimed it (Psalm 68:11).That was the phrase from scripture that encapsulated this important realization for me. The Lord wants people to know the truth and He’s going to use a great company (or army, more literally) of people to teach it. Just like it says in Divine Providence 172:6,
the Word can only be taught mediately through parents, teachers, preachers, books, and especially through the reading of it. Nevertheless, it is not taught by these, but by the Lord through them.The Lord teaches people the Word not just through preachers/ministers/priests but also through parents and teachers and books and everyone.
This summer I’ve been working on a dissertation about the use and abuse of the dynamic between priests and lay people. One of the things I’ve been trying to understand is what makes priests necessary. The specific question I have now is, if the Lord uses everyone to teach the truth, what makes the teaching that priests do different from the teaching that everyone else does?
Steve Simons’ perspective is that every believer is a priest.
Setting apart “Holy Men” is not Biblical. ... The Christian priesthood, in copying the Aaronic priesthood of the Old Testament, set itself up as a class of mediators set apart to keep their view of the Divine before the eyes of people. But this feature of religion is now outdated. ...I really like the sound of this. I love the way he describes how God calls all of us to help each other on the road of life and, most of all, I love his point that Jesus Christ is the only teacher, priest, mediator, and God. The only thing I’m not sure about is this idea that it’s not good to have people set apart as priests, except inasmuch as a certain person is particularly gifted in studying, teaching, leading, witnessing, etc.
God calls every individual to walk side by side along the road of life with others, to give counsel and encouragement, to study and teach His Word for those less educated in its message, to worship and praise Him together in communities, to witness important life events such as marriage and death and teach the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and to lead others by means of the gifts of vision, perception, and wisdom to discover more of the blessings that God has in store for all people. These gifts are that set apart the pastors, the preachers, the ministers, and the priests – and these are all roles that any believer can take if that is where they are called by God and gifted to serve.
Man or woman, young or old, every believer is a priest following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ who is the only teacher, the only priest, the only mediator, the only God. (See also "You Are a Priest".)
Here are some of teachings that make me wonder about this.
The most extended treatment of the priesthood and its role that I’m aware of is in New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 311 - 325 / Arcana Coelestia 10789 - 10806.
There are two things which ought to be in order with men, namely, the things which are of heaven, and the things which are of the world. The things which are of heaven are called ecclesiastical, and those which are of the world are called civil. (311)If priests are meant to be overseers who are “appointed to administer those things which relate to the Divine law and worship” and who separate people who believe otherwise than the priest, then it sounds like not everyone can be a priest.
Governors over those things with men which relate to heaven, or over ecclesiastical affairs, are called priests, and their office is called the priesthood. (314)
He who believes otherwise than the priest, and makes no disturbance, ought to be left in peace; but he who makes disturbance, ought to be separated; for this also is of order, for the sake of which the priesthood is established. (318)
As priests are appointed to administer those things which relate to the Divine law and worship, so kings and magistrates are appointed to administer those things which relate to civil law and judgment. (319)
Along these lines, consider this passage from Arcana Coelestia.
Good can be instilled into another by anyone in his country, but not truth, except by those who are teaching ministers; if others do this, heresies arise, and the church is disturbed and rent asunder. ... Everyone must first obtain for himself truth from the doctrine of the church, and afterward from the Word of the Lord; this must be the truth of his faith. (6822)Are priests what are meant by “teaching ministers”? Again there’s this emphasis on the importance of avoiding disturbances in the church. In this case disturbances are avoided, not by separating people, but by having only certain people teach.
But is this really what the Lord wants? A church where only certain people are allowed to teach others. A church where a group of overseers determines what can be said and what cannot be said? It sounds awfully authoritarian and not nearly as appealing as the picture of a classless church that Steve painted. And yet, if we are going to use the Writings to form our understanding of what the church should look like, we need to integrate these teachings into our thinking about it.
Here’s my attempt at making sense of it. Think of a priest as a professional doctor. He’s been to med school, by the time he opens his own practice he’s put in hundreds of hours as an intern, he’s under some form of supervision by the medical board, he stays up to date on recent developments in understanding diseases and treatments, and he talks with other doctors about different cases. For all of these reasons you would listen to what he teaches you about your health differently than you would your friend who just read some article online and has an opinion about it.
You still learn about health from your friends, and parents, and P.E. and biology teachers in school, and from your own reading of books and articles, and from just paying attention to how your body reacts to various things but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to have doctors around anymore. You need someone whose job it is to spend more time than you do studying and thinking about health. And you need the medical community to speak out against new health or treatment practices that they don’t consider safe.
Now, the medical community can be wrong. I haven’t researched it at all (apart from glancing at a Wikipedia article about it), but my impression is that, a couple of decades ago, doctors typically looked askance at chiropractic treatment and may have recommended against it to their patients. These days, it seems that most doctors would advise their patients to get chiropractic treatment, at least for the treatment of back pain. So the medical community was wrong to speak against it and people would have benefitted from receiving treatment but that doesn’t mean that, in general, people would be better off without the medical community and professional doctors. Even though they can be wrong, the protection that comes from having them around is useful.
You may find that your particular professional doctor is not very good. He doesn’t stay up-to-date, he over-prescribes, you don’t agree with his medical philosophy, whatever. And you find that your aunt Betty, on the other hand, though she’s not formally trained in medicine, has lots of good, useful advice for you about your health. That doesn’t mean that you’d be better off relying on your aunt Betty and your own research for all your medical decisions: it just means that you need to find a new doctor, in addition to listening to your aunt Betty and doing your own research.
Does the analogy work for you?
There are lots of other issues that I chose not to get into like who gets to decide who gets to be a professional priest and what exactly does separating someone who makes a disturbance look like. But mostly what I wanted to share with you is my realization that everyone has something important to teach other people and that there still is a need for a professional priesthood. As I continue to work on my dissertation about the dynamics between clergy and laity I hope to gain a clearer picture of how laity and clergy can interact together in a healthy and supportive way where everyone can learn from each other and from the Word together.
I want to end with a cool passage from Apocalypse Explained that reminds us that really it is the Lord doing the teaching.
“‘One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors” (John 4:37-38) [means that] it is the Lord who teaches, thus who collects and gathers, and not themselves (for it was the Lord, by means of the angels, that is, by means of Divine truths from the Word, who prepared for reception those whom the disciples converted to the church). (911:16)