Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—If indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:1-5)
“Believe the Christian faith is best understood and experienced within the community of God’s people called to be priests to one another, as these Scriptures are read and studied together….”
Belief Statement, Baptist World Alliance Centenary Congress
Birmingham, United Kingdom, July 2005
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way people around the world accomplish ordinary tasks, work, and live as well as changes in the ways that churches have had to do things. However, the challenge with churches has historically been this: churches are often slow to change because “it is not the way we have always done it.” Pandemics are not contexts of convenience. We do not have the luxury of holding on to our preferences and comforts because people are dying and ministry still needs to happen, perhaps now more than ever. So we have to be adaptive and creative in developing and leaning into different and creative ways to “serve this present age” while continuing to meet the spiritual needs of the church.
However, change often requires teaching, and crisis change requires teaching that is efficient yet sufficient to shift people and congregations into new modalities of life and ministry. The coronavirus pandemic (along with the other pandemics that are happening around the world) is an opportunity for Baptist churches to re-examine the ways in which they understand and live out the priesthood of all believers in order to discover how churches can continue to do ministry in these challenging times.
THE PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIEVERS
Baptists hold to the theological tenant, expressed in the second epistle of Peter, of the “priesthood of all believers.” As a result of a believer’s trinitarian baptism by immersion, a person not only becomes a member of the body of Christ (the body of Christ’s believers and followers in the world) but also one who shares in Christ’s priesthood. The fifth article of the Baptist World Alliance Belief Statement reads that the baptized are “God’s people called to be priests to one another.” Part of the challenge that the pandemic presents for the church is moving people from their “identity as Christians” to their “works as Christians.” In other words, prior to the pandemic, in some Christian contexts, believers heavily relied on their pastors and clergypersons to “do the works of faith and the church” for them.
Believers (both clergy and laypeople) came to church with the erroneous understanding that the clergy and the music ministry “do” worship, and they come to church “for” worship (and not necessarily “to” worship). There is a belief that it is the people “up front” who participate in worship when, in fact, it is the entire congregation who is called to participate in worship. When believers want prayer, they often call the church for the pastor to pray for them or to tell the pastor who needs prayer. Pastors and clergy cannot hold the laity completely responsible for these attitudes. Pastors and clergy reinforce these beliefs and behaviors for a myriad of reasons beyond the scope of this reflection to address.
The point is that the pandemic has challenged the church to lean into the works of Christ in and beyond the congregation and to reexamine its theology, practices, and beliefs (perhaps especially around ordination) in light of their understanding of the priesthood of all believers. Although the term “priesthood” is more common parlance among our Christian siblings in episcopal traditions (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian, Orthodox), it is certainly part of Baptist theological vocabulary and parlance as it is found in the Bible. However, we do not teach or emphasize enough what participation in the baptismal priesthood means. Therefore, it is worthy of attention here, albeit brief.
THE BAPTISMAL PRIESTHOOD AND THE ORDAINED PRIESTHOOD
Baptists have traditionally held firm boundaries between what ordained people can “do” and what laity can “do.” There is historical and theological necessity, understanding, and significance to this. One of the earliest New Testament accounts that provides an understanding of responsibilities that come as a result of “ordination” can be found in Acts 6:1-7 with the “setting apart” of Stephen and six other men by “the laying on of hands and prayer.” The challenge that the pandemic has presented the church with is the need to be clearer about the distinctions between what ordained people “do” and what laity can “do.” One of the places this has emerged for Baptists during this pandemic is around the Lord’s Supper. Understandings about who can do what regarding the elements (preparation and distribution) and prayer (who says it) are reflected in the various ways in which congregations have handled the Lord’s Supper during this time.
In some communities, pastors lead the Lord’s Supper liturgy (either at home or in the sanctuary) as congregants follow along via Zoom (or some other virtual platform) and receive elements they have prepared in their homes. In other communities, congregants are encouraged to observe the Lord’s Supper on their own until they can gather again as a community. There should be no judgment regarding either of these practices. Rather, what the differences in practice highlight are differences in the understanding of the dimensions of authority that ordination invests in a person (who has the authority to handle the elements, who has the authority to pray over the elements) and the function of the Words of Institution and the prayer over the elements (why are they recited and who gets to say them). The pandemic has provided an opportune time for deeply and critically re-examining the theological beliefs held around liturgical matters like these.
How pastors and congregants understand the priesthood of believers and the distinctions between the ministry of the baptismal priesthood and the (specific) works of the ordained priesthood inform how communities are handling this ordinance. The pandemic has invited the church to consider what constitutes the ministry of the whole people of God (the baptized priesthood of all believers) and not what categories of people can do what. For when we understand the baptismal priesthood as the people who perform Christ’s ministry in the Church and the world rather than people who hold a specific office and/or title that grants them the opportunity to do the “special things” as the laity watch like spectators, it is then that the people of God – the whole people of God – understand the broadness of their divine authority as “priests of God through Jesus Christ.”
WHAT WAS CHRIST’S MINISTRY?
In His inaugural sermon in Luke 4:18, Jesus quotes Isaiah in stating the purpose of His ministry.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
In His earthly ministry, Jesus did all of these things. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, challenged the false and oppressive rules of the Roman empire, and called religious leaders to truth and accountability for their misinterpretation and misapplication of the law and the abuses of their offices and authority. This was Jesus’s ministry. As baptized believers, we are called to participate in these same works of ministry as part of the baptismal priesthood. Laity does not need an ordained person to always make and execute a plan. It is in the purview of the ministry of the baptismal priesthood to fight for equality and justice for all humanity and to advocate for those who are marginalized and lack agency and access to those things which are human rights (e.g., food, clean water, safe shelter). Too often we make false distinctions between our work in the Church and our work outside the Church because we do not robustly understand our responsibility for participation in the baptismal priesthood of believers.
BELIEVERS AS INTERCESSORS AND ADVOCATES
Sacred Scripture shows Jesus Christ to be believers’ intercessor and advocate. The implication of Christ’s work in the life of the believer is this: believers have the responsibility of interceding and advocating on behalf of others. Now we cannot save anyone, but we are exhorted to intercede and advocate on behalf of others in alignment with Jesus’s ministry to the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the sick, the hungry, the widows, and orphans, and the children. The pandemic has exponentially increased the oppression and need of humanity worldwide.
Additionally, the pandemic has exponentially exposed the greed and evil that are the root cause of the oppression and need that many are experiencing globally. COVID-19 is not the only pandemic that this past year has magnified. Unemployment and hunger have reached record levels as a result of the pandemic. The deep roots of white supremacy have been brought to the fore again, in the brutal, unjustified police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmed Arbury, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain, and scores of other black women and men. Healthcare disparities between blacks and whites in the United States were brought to the fore, again, with the death of Dr. Susan Moore. Dr. Moore’s death brought attention to the intersectional nature of oppression that black women experience in American society.5
Recently, there has been a rise again in attacks against elderly Asian Americans, another horrific demonstration of xenophobia and racism against other human beings who are created in the imago dei. The climate crisis is advancing in ways that threaten human flourishing and survival unless it is given greater attention soon. Believers are not only exhorted to pray for these groups of people and about these global circumstances. Believers are also called to respond to them, doing works of ministry to alleviate suffering, meet needs, and restore creation. Believers are called to participate in Jesus’s ministry in the church and the world.
Ministry during multiple pandemics has not been easy. As difficult as life has been as a result of the multiple, converging pandemics, we see that God has also equipped the church to continue works of ministry. By virtue of their baptism, believers participate in the ministry of Jesus to the church and the world. We understand that the ministry of the baptismal priesthood belongs to the entire body of Christ and that there are specific tasks of ministry that are the purview of the ordained clergy. So when we understand and lean into ministry as part of the priesthood of believers, we understand that the ministry of worship and prayer and Bible study as well as the work of meeting the needs of the poor, hungry, unhoused, and in all other ways marginalized is all of ours to do – not just the pastors and leaders of our churches.
For Reflection and Discussion
- During this pandemic, how has your church re-examined the ways in which you understand and live out the priesthood of all believers?
- In what ways has your understanding of the roles for clergy and laity changed during the pandemic?
- What are some examples of how you have interceded and advocated for others during the pandemic?