Church and churches; prophets, priests and the Brethren
It is true to say the subject of “Church and churches; prophets, priests and the Brethren” gives rise to a wide range of views among good and learned Christians, and yet is an important one.
I start with this meme to set the scene so to speak. Often when people talk about c(C)hurch they can mean different things depending on context and understanding. The influential (Plymouth) Brethren brother, J.N.Darby, translates “Ecclesia”, whenever the word appears in the original Greek NT manuscript, as “assembly” in his Bible translation, unlike with the KJV where the word is always translated as “church”.
While times are changing, in my PB background, the word Assembly was invariably used to refer to a gathering of the Lord’s people, rather than church, which was understood to be a building or an organisation that professed Christian belief but contained some who weren’t real Christians. My understanding is the original Greek meaning of “assembly” was “gathering” and it was not confined to a group of Christians. When I write or speak, I tend not to use the word assembly, as not understood by most, but distinguish Church (real Christians) from church (organisation / building).
Having defined two of our terms (something needful even though too often it doesn’t happen) we get onto the just as controversial subject of how churches are to be governed, including the role of prophet and priest in the assembly / church. One only has to look at the numerous denominations, and even within denominations (of which there are many variants) to realise there are significant differences in opinions and practices when it comes to assembly / church government as well as other doctrinal beliefs.
This can be problematical, and many have fallen out over these matters, with sincere Christian having to come to a view which of these are important / essential as opposed to unimportant / inconsequential. Having been in assembly / church setups, including different shades of Brethren, for some sixty years, I have had plenty of time to observe and evaluate many variants and come to, so to speak, a view! Like many, if we are honest, I am influenced by my background, and that has been predominantly PB.
Besides theological differences, contentious church related subjects include baptism, communion, styles of worship, community involvement and the role of women, but the one I would like to focus on is the part played by priests and prophets and how the two offices might interact. As far as Anglicans and Catholics go, individual congregations tend to be priest led and with non-Conformists it is minister led, albeit some practicing a plurality of leadership, even as practiced in NT times, e.g. “And when they had ordained them elders in every church” Acts 14:23, noting that the normal practice then was for there to be elders and deacons in every church.
It is sometimes pointed out that those who are members of the true Church (some PBs referred to as the Remnant) “are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” Ephesians 2:20 and Christ “gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” Ephesians 4:11. Most churches recognise the importance of evangelists, pastors and teachers, often as part of the priest / minister function; some recognise there are prophets today or at least the gift of prophecy and a few apostles even.
Unsurprisingly, the PBs had a view, although these days one may find a range of views. One feature that sometimes led to conflict with non PBs was its anti-clericalism approach, in that it rejected the principle that assemblies had to be priest / minister led. Within the Open section of PBism, most assemblies were overseen by a plurality of elders (appointed from within by existing elders) who undertook evangelist, pastor, teacher roles, who along with deacons (should they be appointed) took responsibility for the various practical aspects of assembly life. The Exclusive section of PBism often rejected the notion of elder led oversight, pointing out given that “the church was in ruins” (so they saw it) no-one was qualified to appoint elders although, ironically, certain brothers were looked up to for how the assembly was to function, and sometimes more authoritarian than many priests and ministers.
What the PBs (OBs and XBs) were keen on though was the practical outworking of the teaching of the “priesthood of all believers”, where ministry was shared by the members and, when it comes to the modern outworking of “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues” 1 Corinthians 12:28, with the members, notably male, sharing these roles and were, moreover, encouraged to do so. However, most were non-Charismatic in outlook, rejecting the notion that sign gifts are for today and believing Apostles and Prophets stopped when the NT was complete. Ironically, many Brethren were keen on Bible prophecy and were avid students, especially concerning prophecy that is yet to be fulfilled.
I want to end by reflecting on the role of priests (I use this as an umbrella term to include ministers and elders) and of prophets in the church / assembly today, having set the scene, including explanation of how some of these ideas have come about, although these days I am not beholden to all of the PB teachings taught in my past and realistically recognise that if I were to elevate certain ideas into the essential category (as some of my mentors of old did), I would end up churchless. I also want to declare an interest. My most significant writing to date is “Prophets of the Bible” and I am currently working on “Kings and Priests of the Bible”.
I am intrigued how priests and prophets interacted in OT times, coming to a view Israel prospered most when the two distinct ministries complemented one another. I note, in the NT, there is no place for priests, whose role was defined when giving the Law to Moses and, besides the notion of priesthood of all believers, the Aaronic priesthood has been superseded by that of Christ, a priest after the Order of Melchizedek. As for prophets today, many charismatics see the role of the modern prophet differently to that of the Hebrew prophets and are among the harshest critics of those “political” prophets that prophesy concerning current events.
Without wanting to be judgmental etc., when I consider priests (in the church) today it is often with a degree of despondency. It seems to me the main job of priest is to take care of the sheep (Christ being the chief shepherd) and often they have failed to do so adequately. When Paul gathered some of the priests of his day, we read concerning what he saw ought to be their priorities: “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church … Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” Acts 20:17, 28-29.
While I do not claim to be a prophet, I am a Watchman on the Wall, which is one of the functions of the prophet. Sadly, the people of God have all too often been deceived by cultural wokeism, the Unholy Trinity (government, media and elites) and a false spirituality that ignores what is happening around us. I have been ignored and ridiculed by a number of priests for sharing what I see, as have many aligned to the prophetic movement, doing so because of the grievous wolves who do not spare the flock.
It is not one sided, for many priests become so because it is a vocation, a calling from God even. Often, they are let down by the flock, including true believers not playing their part as a part of the Body of Christ and failing to honour those in position of oversight. The result all too often is priests leaving the ministry, sometimes as a result of mental and physical breakdown. Just as Israel in OT times functioned best when priests and prophets acted in tandem, the same could be said of the Church in NT times. We need priests and prophets (insofar they are anointed and appointed by God), and come what may to remember Christ will build His Church.