As I’m reading through various modern ecclesiologies, I came across a book by Wallace M. Alston, Jr. called The Church of the Living God: A Reformed Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002). I’ve never read an ecclesiology from the “reformed perspective”, so I was looking forward to reading this book. I don’t know if this book is characteristic of all reformed ecclesiologies, so my comments will be directed solely toward this book.
First, while there are many positive aspects about Alston’s book, I was disappointed that he did not discuss Scripture more. Instead, in most of the book, Alston exegeted and expounded on Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others. I learned alot about what these magisterial reformers thought about the church, but I did not learn how Alston believed their views meshed with Scripture.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, I was concerned with the explanation of the priesthood of the believer. Here are a couple of quotes:
In Calvin’s mind, the priesthood of all believers had to do with the access of the individual to God… It was Martin Luther, however, who gave to the universal priesthood its broadest and clearest expression… Luther was of no mind to destroy the priesthood. Luther wanted to expand the priesthood. (45-46)
Luther never really sorted out the precise relationship between the priesthood of the few and the priesthood of all. Later Lutherans spoke of it in terms of representation. The priesthood of the few was representative of the priesthood of all. The church may not be dependent upon the ordained clergy for its existence, but for its well-being it needs the few who are called and set apart by the laying on of hands to the particular vocation of preaching, administering the sacraments, teaching, and pastoral care. But the priesthood of the few must never obscure, threaten, or usurp the priesthood of all. (47)
To be honest, I don’t understand how a priesthood of the few can do anything except “obscure, threaten, or usurp” the priesthood of all. If there are some that are “more priest” than others, then the responsibilities of the others are lessened while the responsibilities of the few are heightened.
I think that my differences with Alston concerning the priesthood of the believer is primarily found in this sentence: “The church may not be dependent upon the ordained clergy for its existence, but for its well-being it needs the few who are called and set apart by the laying on of hands to the particular vocation of preaching, administering the sacraments, teaching, and pastoral care.” As I study Scripture, I cannot find where only a few are given the responsibility of preaching (proclaiming the good news), administering the sacraments (baptizing and breaking bread – the Lord’s Supper), or pastoral care (caring for one another). Instead, I see where all believers are given these responsibilities.
Of course, if we find the need for “ordained clergy” (again, a term or designation that I can’t find in Scripture), then I suppose we must find something for this “ordained clergy” to do. Thus, we end up with a “priesthood of the few”, which – despite Alston’s warning – does tend to “obscure, threaten, or usurp the priesthood of all”. Why? Because by definition now, the responsibilities of the “all” are not as important as the responsibilities of the “few” – the “ordained clergy”.
I am not arguing against leaders. Leaders are very important to the church. But, leaders are not important because they are set apart for special duties, such as preaching, administering the sacraments, or pastoral care. Instead, they are important as an example to all believers as to how they ALL should be preaching, administering the sacraments, and caring for people – as well as other God-given responsibilities.
I do not think it is possible to maintain the priesthood of all while requiring a priesthood of the few at the same time. Since the Reformation, it has been clear that the doctrine of the priesthood of the few has worked to maintain the clergy/laity divide with which the magisterial reformers disagreed. According to Scripture, all believers are priests.