On Priesthood And Authority

As someone who has written quite a bit about the role of a priest and how it relates to believers [1], one of the more fascinating aspects of priesthood one has to wrestle with is the question of the priesthood of all believers and what people mean by that.  Today, though, I would like to talk about one of the ironies that exists when it comes to discussions about the issue of the priesthood of all believers, and that is the relationship between priesthood and authority.  When we examine the context of priesthood as it appears is scripture as well as the discussions of Israel and the church as a kingdom of priests, the question of authority is part of that context, and those who would claim to be priests of God as a way of rejecting human authority do so in great ignorance of that context and of what priesthood actually means.  Let us therefore briefly discuss the tangled relationship between priesthood and authority.

Let us first begin by nothing that for many contemporary believers, claims of personal authority have long been made in order to rid oneself of burdensome requirements and calls to respect the authority of others.  If every husband and father is a priest for his own family, for example, then the family can escape some of the requirements of respect and honor that would be due to churches.  For many women the view that all believers are priests tends to lead to the view that there should be no aspect of congregational life that is limited to men.  In general, espousing a belief in the priesthood of all believers has been seen as an egalitarian way to reduce or entirely deny the claims of religious authority.  It is worthwhile to ask, though, if the people doing this have any understanding of the way that priesthood works or the way that priesthood has been defined in the Bible itself.  Let us begin our discussion with the two places in the Bible where a holy nation and a royal priesthood is talked about in scripture.

The first time it occurs is in Exodus 19:5-6, which read:  “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine.  And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”  Let us note that within the very same verses in which Israel is proclaimed to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, this position of honor is dependent upon obedience to God’s commandments and keeping the covenant.  Included in those laws and commandments, of course, are various laws that command a respect for authority, including the authority of parents (in the 5th commandment) and of those in authority in general (in places like Exodus 22:28).  Even more to the point, though, immediately after this promise is made Moses recognizes the authority of elders within the community by calling them and the people at large to commit to following all that God will command, to which they reply that they will do all that the Lord has spoken to them (Exodus 19:7-9), which of course they have not done then or since.  It is also worthy of note that this particular passage comes after a chapter in which Moses, on the wise advice of Jethro, set up an appeals court structure by which higher and higher judges would mediate conflicts among the people so that entire burden would not have to rest on Moses’ shoulders, showing that authority and hierarchy were a fundamental aspect of the holy nation that was being created in the wilderness.

The second time we read of such a promise it is made to the New Testament Church in 1 Peter 2:9-10:  “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.”  Just as was the case before, though, this particular promise was made to a group of people that was being formed into a nation from various isolated outcasts.  The promise of priesthood was not made to scatter people apart, but to bring them into a sense of harmony and unity they had not known before.  And, as was the case in Exodus 19, this promise of priesthood was intimately tied to a call to respect authority in general, for example, a few verses later in 1 Peter 2:13-20:  “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.  Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.  Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.  For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully.  For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.”  From this near context alone it is unmistakable that the sort of escape from burdensome responsibilities to respect authority was the last thing that both Moses and Peter had in mind when inaugurating the priesthood of all believers to ancient Israel as well as the Church of God.  Far from decreasing the honor and respect that was due to authority, this authority was made an integral part of the proclamation of God’s kingdom and the reputation of the Church as being a body of people who treated authorities with honor and respect, things which cannot always be said of us, sadly.

Nor does this exhaust the sort of close relationship that priesthood has always had with authority in the Bible.  To those who point to the patriarchal period as being the ideal of the priesthood of believers, where the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob served as high priests for their own families, Genesis 14:18-20 reminds us that in the divine hierarchy of priesthood that existed at the time of Abraham, Abraham was still below the mysterious Melchizedek, to whom he tithed and whose authority as a higher priest he respected:  “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High.  And he blessed him and said:  “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”  And he gave him a tithe of all.”  Even in the period of time when there was the least formal authority we still have in Genesis 14 a reminder that the priestly offices of the patriarchs were still under other priests ordained by God, and let us not forget that it is the priestly order of Melchizedek that serves as the model for any biblical view of priesthood among the believers of the Church of God today, as is written by the author of Hebrews.

And it is not merely that the royal priesthood and holy nation of both Israel and the Church is combined with a call to respect authority, a bringing together of former outcasts and strangers into a unified nation and congregation that are united by covenant as well as a shared commitment to God’s laws and ways, all of which requires authority to enforce such standards and guarantee such commitments, although that would be enough to demonstrate the illogical nature of the contemporary interpretation of the priesthood of all believers.  In addition to this very inconvenient fact, the operation of priesthood itself required dealing with thorny issues of authority.  A few examples should suffice to demonstrate this to be true, and which indicate that far from allowing believers to escape the burden of respecting authority through claiming to be one’s own priest, the priesthood as it is defined and practiced in scripture has always involved both service to others as well as obedience to God and those authorities God has put in place over us, even if such a thing can be rather irksome to admit and not always easy to deal with.

Let us briefly consider, for example, the solemn requirement that God placed on Israel to have their problems adjudicated by priests, whose authority was to be respected on pain of death, as is recorded in Deuteronomy 17:8-13:  ““If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God chooses.  And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment.  You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you.  According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you.  Now the man who acts presumptuously and will not heed the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall put away the evil from Israel.  And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously.”  Here, rather than a freedom for every man to be his own judge of his own causes, there is a commandment to solve disputes by bringing them before divinely appointed authorities and then to respect that decision, with a rebellion against that priestly authority being punishable by death.  No doubt some contemporary religious leaders wish that this law was still in operation when dealing with rebellious members in contemporary congregations.

It must also be pointed out that even among the priests of Aaron, who were of course those in authority among the Levites as a whole over the religious life of Israel as a whole, there was an order and a structure that was required to prevent chaos and disorder among them.  And so it is written in 1 Chronicles 24:1-19 the divisions of the priests that defined when those priests would serve in the temple of God at Jerusalem:  “Now these are the divisions of the sons of Aaron. The sons of Aaron were Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.  And Nadab and Abihu died before their father, and had no children; therefore Eleazar and Ithamar ministered as priests.  Then David with Zadok of the sons of Eleazar, and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar, divided them according to the schedule of their service.  There were more leaders found of the sons of Eleazar than of the sons of Ithamar, and thus they were divided. Among the sons of Eleazar were sixteen heads of their fathers’ houses, and eight heads of their fathers’ houses among the sons of Ithamar.  Thus they were divided by lot, one group as another, for there were officials of the sanctuary and officials of the house of God, from the sons of Eleazar and from the sons of Ithamar.  And the scribe, Shemaiah the son of Nethanel, one of the Levites, wrote them down before the king, the leaders, Zadok the priest, Ahimelech the son of Abiathar, and the heads of the fathers’ houses of the priests and Levites, one father’s house taken for Eleazar and one for Ithamar.  Now the first lot fell to Jehoiarib, the second to Jedaiah, the third to Harim, the fourth to Seorim, the fifth to Malchijah, the sixth to Mijamin, the seventh to Hakkoz, the eighth to Abijah, the ninth to Jeshua, the tenth to Shecaniah, the eleventh to Eliashib, the twelfth to Jakim, the thirteenth to Huppah, the fourteenth to Jeshebeab, the fifteenth to Bilgah, the sixteenth to Immer, the seventeenth to Hezir, the eighteenth to Happizzez, the nineteenth to Pethahiah, the twentieth to Jehezekel, the twenty-first to Jachin, the twenty-second to Gamul, the twenty-third to Delaiah, the twenty-fourth to Maaziah.  This was the schedule of their service for coming into the house of the Lord according to their ordinance by the hand of Aaron their father, as the Lord God of Israel had commanded him.””  Far from allowing someone to escape authority, being a priest meant being a part of a very organized religious community that respected authority and that was itself subject to various layers of religious authority, extending from the high priest to the heads of the various father’s houses among the priests, and so on and so forth.  Seeking to become a priest in order to get away from the need to respect and honor authority is like joining the military in contemporary society because one finds the rules of one’s own parents to be too burdensome and restrictive, and like jumping out of a frying pan so that one may be burned directly by the fire.

Nor indeed is being a priest any way of reducing one’s level of judgment before God.  On the contrary, Malachi 2:1-9 gives a solemn warning that those who serve as priests in an unworthy fashion will be judged severely by God:  ““And now, O priests, this commandment is for you.  If you will not hear, and if you will not take it to heart, to give glory to My name,” says the Lord of hosts, “I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings.  Yes, I have cursed them already, because you do not take it to heart.  “Behold, I will rebuke your descendants and spread refuse on your faces, the refuse of your solemn feasts; and one will take you away with it.  Then you shall know that I have sent this commandment to you, that My covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord of hosts.  “My covenant was with him, one of life and peace, and I gave them to him that he might fear Me; so he feared Me and was reverent before My name.  The law of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips.  He walked with Me in peace and equity, and turned many away from iniquity.  “For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.  But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law.  You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says the Lord of hosts.  “Therefore I also have made you contemptible and base before all the people, because you have not kept My ways but have shown partiality in the law.”  The responsibility to model God’s laws and ways and teach them to God’s people was a solemn one, and where one has been given authority by God one will be judged most harshly by God for failing to live up to the responsibilities of those divinely appointed offices.  And if God is that harsh to those who were appointed by covenant to their offices, will He be any less harsh to those who appoint themselves to offices and who seek to reject the authority of God over them?  

We may therefore see that in the Bible, the priesthood has never been a place for those who rejected authority.  On the contrary, involvement in any kind of priesthood on any level has involved a respect for authority, a commitment to following God’s ways, and the establishment of order and the teaching of respect and honor for authority to others.  However great our own rejection of authority may be in our contemporary era, we will find no justification for such views by looking to the Bible.  If we wish to claim offices as part of a royal priesthood and holy nation as is promised to both Israel and the Church, we must do so in the way in which those offices are presented as an aspect of serving God as well as one’s brethren, of being united together in obedience to God’s laws and in keeping God’s covenants which bind us to God as well as our brethren who have also made the same commitment to keeping that covenant that we have, and of honoring and respecting those whom God has placed in authority over us.  Those who are being trained to be authorities in the world to come must learn the habit of respect for authority before they are to be given authority for themselves.  To expect anything else is lunacy.

[1] See, for example:










About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to On Priesthood And Authority

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Yes, we are to teach by example, just as Christ did. He obeyed the Father in all things and we are commanded to do likewise; obey Him. Respect for authority is a way to exhibit humility, the opposite of rebellion–the result of pride. There will be no place for that in the Kingdom.

    It is so easy to retain a false idea about the priesthood and being a priest. Qualifying for the position of passing judgment requires that one must “do justly”. The scriptures define the just as “walking by faith” which, occurs when one trusts in God. So, it all comes back to that close relationship with our Maker–one of love. And scripture states, “this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” –Christ’s example of respect for Authority, and His command for us to do the same. Scripture is a fabric whose threads are so tightly woven together, it is considered the most precious of linen.

    • Exactly. It has always puzzled me that people have sought to have authority recognized by God that does not involve their respect for authority. In God’s eyes, we demonstrate our respect for His authority by showing respect for authority in general, because one cannot seek legitimacy for oneself as an authority without having a respect for those under whose authority one comes. And yet people fail to recognize how these things are connected to each other.

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