The Priesthood of All Believers

by Catrin Harland

Last week, Roger Walton suggested that the very Methodist idea of social holiness, while perhaps originally concerned with the internal life of Methodist community, typically also finds meaningful expression within the sphere of social justice.

Another phrase with strong resonance for Methodists is ‘the Priesthood of all believers’. Being a ‘priesthood’ is rightly seen as emphasising a sense of community, but without losing that dimension, I want to suggest that this idea has often been too inward-focused, concerned to too great a degree with internal relationships, including between lay and ordained. Understood in the context of its biblical roots, I would suggest, it is a concept which has more missional potential, and should turn us outwards.

Luther, in speaking of the church as a priesthood[1], drew on 1 Peter 2:5 and 9. These, in turn, seem to derive in part from Exodus 19:6, where Israel’s relationship with her God is powerfully proclaimed. The writer of 1 Peter adopts this language to give an identity as God’s people to those living as ‘exiles’ and ‘strangers’ – a ‘diaspora’. They are a people, not because they are gathered in one place, but because they share one identity in Christ.

And they are a priesthood. This is inextricably linked with holiness. Holiness in Scripture comes by being chosen by God, close to God, dedicated to God’s purposes. The Temple and its priesthood are holy. The land and people of Israel are holy. The people who belong to Christ are holy. This is a result not of their actions, but of God’s choice. This is the grace of God, a message close to the warmed heart of Methodism.

So what are we to make of the idea that the people of Christ are a holy priesthood?

Firstly, I would suggest that it is linked to the idea of exile identity. It is striking that, in first century Judaism, not much appears to have been made of this Exodus verse. The one exception to this is Philo, a diaspora Jew from Alexandria. He quotes the Greek translation of Exodus – not the ‘Kingdom of Priests’ of the Hebrew, but a ‘royal Priesthood (hierateuma)’. This word is unusual, and found mainly in Alexandrian Jewish literature. So maybe the idea of priestly identity had some particular currency among the diaspora community there? For a Jew in Jerusalem, holiness would be embodied in particular by the priests. But in the diaspora, with very few priests around, the Jewish community would have felt particularly holy – even, perhaps, priestly – relative to their ‘unholy’ host city. If so, it may be that the Christian communities to whom 1 Peter is written, are being offered this relative holiness. They are the few who know themselves chosen and made holy by the grace of God.

Secondly, priests entered the holiest parts of the Temple not on their own behalf, but on behalf of the people. So perhaps the ‘priestly’ diaspora was holy not merely relative to, but on behalf of, Alexandria? As a Christian community, we are a holy priesthood, knowing ourselves close to God, not so we can feel superior to those around us, but so we can offer prayer for a world that often feels lacking in holiness and desperately in need of it. And that holiness that comes through grace makes us very aware of how far we and the whole world fall short of the holy way of life to which we are called, and can both lament and offer confession for the world.

Which leads us to the third implication of our priestliness. Paradoxically, holiness is a gift of grace, but also a way of life. We do not make ourselves holy, but we are called to ‘be holy, as the Lord is holy’[2]. 1 Peter makes it clear that the followers of Christ are to live and behave in a particular way, not just for the sake of their own souls, but also so others ‘may see your honourable deeds and glorify God’[3]. As priests, we proclaim and imitate Christ’s self-giving love, telling and living a story which is transformative and holy.

The priesthood of all believers is a chosen community, with a special place in God’s heart, but it is also a community looking outward. It is a missional community, a community committed wholeheartedly to the messy world in which we live. It is an open community; entry into it is not earned, but offered freely. And it is a holy community. Holiness is a gift of God, and a way of life. The priesthood of all believers is a community blessed with, and called to, that holiness.

[1] An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, Luther, W.A., 6.407; It is this text which is often seen as the origin of the doctrine we now call ‘The Priesthood of All Believers’.

[2] 1 Peter 1: 15-16; cf. Leviticus 11: 44-45; 19:2

[3] 1 Peter 2:12

Social Holiness and Social Justice

by Roger Walton

The tendency to equate social holiness with social justice is widespread.  Some people use the terms interchangeably, others as closely related concepts central to a Methodist understanding of church and mission.  Andrew Thompson has, however, challenged this sloppy and inaccurate Methodist vocabulary.[1]  According to Thompson the original context of John Wesley’s only use of the term ‘social holiness’ is not in any way connected with social justice.  Rather, appearing in the Preface to one of the Wesleys’ early hymnbooks, it refers to the environmental contexts ‘in which holiness of heart and life is manifest in the Christian life’, such as congregational hymn singing, and expresses Wesley’s dismissal of any notions of holiness as achieved by solitary activity such as retreating to the desert!

Social justice as a notion was developed by the 19th century Jesuit, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, whose vision for European social life was ‘grounded in a model of the constitution of society as intended by God’ in which various communities – a complex web of smaller societies – interact freely enabled by the twin principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.  Social justice is achieved by this interaction held within and driven by a strong understanding of the common good.  Thompson suggests that later Wesleyan emphasis on social justice as expressing the ethical orientation of Methodism is, in fact, derived not from Wesley but (imperfectly) from Taparelli.

So one term referred to corporate contexts in which Christians find the means of grace; the other to a social and economic philosophy for a more just society.  What are we to make of this?  Should we keep these two notions distinct and discrete or, if they are to be related, how do we make the connection?

Thompson helps us understand the origins of these words, and this can enrich our thinking, but in effect he only demonstrates what we know to be true of everyday language, that origins are not the final word on meaning and use.  Language is a fluid, evolving and dynamic process, as is theology, and new connections are often as important as ancestry.

We need to ask why Methodists find the notion of social justice so attractive and apposite.  One reason is surely John Wesley’s practice of engagement with social justice issues in his own context.  Wesley went to preach in the open air to reach those outside the congregational gatherings of the church.  He visited prisoners condemned to death, he went out among and listened to the poor, he got involved in campaigns against the distillers (not primarily because they fermented alcohol but because they exploited the poor), he opposed slavery and set up work opportunities for those who would otherwise be destitute or in prostitution.  In all those places he (and others) encountered the grace of God.  In other words, his actions tell us that missional spaces and encounters are also environments in which holiness can grow.

Moreover, it is clear from the work of David Field[2] that Wesley considered the outward expression and the sure sign of holiness to be ‘justice, mercy and truth’ and that ‘works of mercy’ were a means of grace.  Summing up his careful analysis of Wesley’s writing on the relationship between justice and holiness, he states:

‘Works of mercy are a means through which God encounters and transforms people’s characters; they manifest a transformed character and through this manifestation they lead to further transformation. They are an expression of holiness and a means to become more holy.’[3]

In other words, participating in the missio dei, including the struggle for a just society, takes us to many and various sites of social holiness where grace is readily available.  It is in our participation, whether gathering for praise or campaigning against injustice, that we are formed by grace.

Social justice may thus be seen as belonging with social holiness in the theological register of Methodism.  Mission as a location and means of grace has a proper Wesleyan (as well as New Testament) pedigree.  For Methodists, and many others, the pursuit of holiness must not be separated from mission but found in and through it.  Social holiness and social justice are inextricably bound together.

 


[1] Thompson, A. C. (2011). “From Societies to Society: The Shift from Holiness to Justice in the Wesleyan Tradition.” Methodist Review 3: 141–172.

[2] Field, D. N. (2015). “Holiness, social justice and the mission of the Church: John Wesley’s inisghts in contemporary context.” Holiness 1(2): 177-198.

[3] Field p185