When God started the Christian Church, He did something different from what He had done since Adam and Eve left Eden: He gave every single believer a job to do in the Church and He spiritually equipped each one with the ability to do that job. This was a monumental break from the way He set up worship in the Old Testament.
Worship Before the Law
The origins of how people began to properly worship God after Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden are not specifically known. Nevertheless, there are pieces of the puzzle that we can fit together by carefully reading and properly translating the Bible. For example, we can piece together that God started blood sacrifice and substitution for sin when He made garments of animal skin for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21). We can also see from the worship offered by Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, and others before the Law, that God had rules concerning the proper way, and times, to worship Him.
Before the Law, the head of the family acted as the priest for the family and the patriarch of the family clan acted as the priest for the family clan. Thus, Job purified his children, and made sacrifices for them (Job 1:5), and Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen. 12:7, 8; 13:18), Isaac (Gen. 26:25), and Jacob (Gen. 31:54; 35:1-4), led their families in sacrifice to God. That the patriarch sacrificed animals for himself and his family is often not as clear in English as it is in the Hebrew text. For example, while most English versions say that Abraham “built an altar” to Yahweh (Gen. 13:18), we usually get a mental picture of a simple pile of stones upon which Abraham then worshipped. Why we have this nice looking mental picture is understandable, since many Churches have “altars” and they are usually very nice looking structures. However, the Hebrew word translated “altar” is mizbeach, and it means “place of slaughter.” In his brilliant translation of Genesis through Deuteronomy, Everett Fox never uses “altar,” but instead uses the phrase “slaughter site.” The “altars” of biblical times were smelly, blood-covered, fly-infested places that no one wanted close to his tent, and which graphically reminded any worshipper of the messy and deadly-serious consequences of sin.
While worship in sparsely populated areas was led by the patriarch of the family clan, worship in the cities was taking a different turn, one that more closely resembled what God would later establish under the Mosaic Law—a temple building and priests to lead the worship. The “priest and temple” system of worship resulted in the people having less and less to do in a worship service, and even that they were cut off from direct access to God (or the gods). Thus, for example, by the time Jacob and his family got to Egypt, which was long before God gave Moses the revelation for the Tent of Meeting (called the “Tabernacle” in the KJV), there was a very specialized and exclusive class of priests who ministered to the various Egyptian gods. The “regular Egyptian” was relegated to being little more than a spectator who brought donations, or who participated in a limited way in carefully regulated services.
Worship Under the Mosaic Law
After the Exodus (about 1,450 B.C.), God gave Moses the revelation about the Tent of Meeting, which included regulations about priests leading the worship services. God commanded that only Aaron and his descendents were to be priests and serve Him directly. Presiding over the priests, both in the Mosaic Law and in most pagan religions, was a High Priest, who could act as priest to the other priests and to the nation as a whole. The Law also made provisions for the men from the tribe of Levi (the “Levites”) to help the priests by doing lesser acts of service in the Tent of Meeting.
Thus, under the Law, the heads of families were no longer allowed to act as priests to God. In fact, the Old Testament was crystal clear about what would happen if a “regular” person, a non-priest or Levite, even went close to the Tent of Meeting—he would be put to death.
Numbers 1:50, 51 and 53 (Abridged)
(50a)…appoint the Levites to be in charge of the tabernacle of the Testimony—over all its furnishings and everything belonging to it…they are to take care of it and encamp around it.
(51b) Anyone else who goes near it shall be put to death.
(53b) The Levites are to be responsible for the care of the tabernacle of the Testimony.”
Even the Levites, however, could not do the specific jobs that God gave to the priests, such as offer the sacrifices. Even for Levites, the penalty for trying to do the work of a priest was death.
Appoint Aaron and his sons to serve as priests; anyone else who approaches the sanctuary must be put to death.
God made it very clear in the Law of Moses that there were only certain people who were qualified to serve him as priests and workers. The “regular Israelite” could bring an offering and watch certain parts of the worship service (be a spectator), but they could not directly participate in the work of the Tent of Meeting or Temple. Thus in both pagan religions, and in God’s revelation about how to properly worship Him, the separation between the priests and the worshippers was clearly defined.
Over time the two general categories of “priests” and “people” became so deeply entrenched in people’s minds that it seems very few people even questioned it. Of course the different religions varied somewhat as to who the priests were and what they did, and also in how the priests were chosen from among the people. The Mosaic Law, for example, dictated that a priest had to be a descendant of Aaron, the first High Priest (Exod. 29:44; 30:30; Num. 3:10).
The Christian Church—A Royal Priesthood
On the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, God started a brand new program for His worshippers. On Pentecost He created “the Body of Christ” as a spiritual entity and started the Christian Church, something that had never existed before. God made many significant changes in the way He related to people and in the way they related to Him. For one thing, He did away with the physical Temple, and the collective body of believers became the new Temple.
1 Corinthians 3:16 (New Living Testament)
Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?
Not only was the collective Body of believers the Temple, God also made each believer a priest.
1 Peter 2:9
But you [plural: all of you] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare [the verb is plural] the praises of him who called you [plural: all of you] out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Whereas 1 Peter 2:9 refers to us as a “royal priesthood,” 1 Peter 2:5 calls believers a “holy priesthood.” In the Christian Church, each believer is a priest, and Jesus Christ is our High Priest (Heb. 2:17; 3:1; 4:14, 15). We are all to pray for each other (Col. 4:3, 4; 1 Thess. 5:25; Heb. 13:18). We are to allow others to confess their sins to us (James 5:16). We are all to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, and continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God along with other “spiritual sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1; Heb. 13:15; 1 Pet. 2:5). Furthermore, each believer is to do the work of the ministry, which is clearly stated in a proper translation of Ephesians 4:12 (we will deal with the translation question later in the article) Ephesians 4:11 and 12
(11) It was he [Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,
(12) to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up
It is clear in verse 12 above that “God’s people” are to do the works of service that God requires. The New Testament Epistles make it clear that Jesus Christ is the High Priest and the only mediator between God and mankind, and that each believer has direct and personal access to God and can serve Him directly. This doctrine is known as “the priesthood of the believer,” and was taught in the 1300’s by the Lollards, who were followers of John Wycliffe (c. 1320s to 1384). Wycliffe disagreed with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and was the first person to translate the Bible into English. The concept of “the priesthood of the believer” became an important part of the Protestant Reformation. It clearly separated the Protestants from the Roman Catholics, whose priests are separate from the people and are supposedly specially empowered by God to perform sacraments such as changing wine to the blood of Christ in the communion service.
The First Century Church and the Priesthood of the Believer
We do not have many records from the first century Church, so it is not clear how smoothly the Church transitioned from the “Priests and People” model of worship that had existed for many centuries, to the new “Every Believer is a Priest” model of worship. We can tell from Acts and the New Testament Epistles that apostles such as Paul and Peter were aggressively promoting that each believer was to serve God directly. The epistle of 1 Corinthians not only points out that each member of the Church has an important function, but that members who seem less important are actually very important (1 Cor. 12:18-26).
Many early Christians quickly adopted the new teaching and started to meet in small groups in houses instead of in the Temple (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 12:12; 18:7; 20:20; 28:30; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15). In fact, meeting in homes was one of the earmarks of the early Church. Although it is true that many of them met in homes because they could not build large churches, the “house church” model of the early Church produced strong, involved Christians, and effectively moved people away from the “spectator” model of worship.
In the small groups that met in houses, everyone could get involved and strengthen themselves by publically praying, manifesting holy spirit, and ministering to others. Sometimes everyone was so anxious to get involved that it produced a sort of confused pandemonium in the meeting, so Paul counseled the Corinthians to keep the meeting orderly.
1 Corinthians 14:26
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.
While confusion in the meeting is not good, it is understandable. These early Christians knew too well what it meant to not be allowed to participate in the worship and be forced by Law to be a spectator. When God opened the door for them to participate in the meeting, they were a little over-excited about it. But it seems certain that God would rather have that than what He has in many fellowships today—believers who seem only too happy to relegate their priesthood back to the few leaders and remain silent even though there is time for everyone to pray, manifest the gift of holy spirit, or share something. Jesus Christ gave ministries, ways of serving, to each Christian. No one was left out. Each holy, royal, Christian “priest” can, and is supposed to, serve God and fellow believers by way of the individual gift he or she has been given.
1 Peter 4:10
Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.
Each believer is to actively participate in the worship of God, and to help them to grow in the faith are men and women whom Christ gifted with equipping ministries.” The term “equipping ministries” comes from Ephesians 4:11 and 12, which says that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are to “equip” the believers (ESV; NAB; NET; NRSV; RSV. cp. NASB).
Old Habits Die Hard—Old Testament Ideas in the New Testament Church
There is a saying that “Old habits die hard,” and that certainly was the case when it came to how Christianity was practiced by the fourth century. Sadly, the pattern of the strict separation between the priests and the people once again became the norm in the Christian Church. Apparently after the original apostles died, the people who were called by the Lord as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers stopped “equipping” the believers for works of service and took over the works of service themselves, leaving the people to once again be spectators of the service.
Over the decades the separation between the new “priests” and the people became more and more complete. Eventually it was taught that the “equipping” ministries did not last beyond the early church, and in another astounding move back to the pattern of Old Testament worship, women were no longer accepted as leaders in the Church (a sad state that still exists in many modern denominations, supported by tradition and mistranslation of the Scriptures).
Under the influence of tradition and the way people viewed Church organization, verses that should have helped Christians see the truth of the priesthood of every believer were mistranslated, adding support to “spectator Christianity.” One of those verses is Ephesians 4:12. For example, the King James Version, after saying that Christ gave the five equipping ministries, says what they do in the Church:
Ephesians 4:12 (KJV)
For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
The way the King James Version translates and punctuates this verse, it is the equipping ministries that do all the work in the Church. They “perfect” (or “equip”) the believers, they do the work of the ministry, and they edify (or build up) the Body of Christ.
What is left for the “regular” believer to do? Not much, and that is how the average Christian has been treated through much of the history of the Christian Church. In fact, if we listen to how Christians speak about each other, it is apparent that Christianity has become a “spectator’s sport.” In many denominations a person is said to be a “good” Christian if he or she “attends church regularly.”
Almost gone from Christian conciousness is the truth that a “good” Christian is one who is “equipped” to do the work of the ministry, and does it. As priests to God serving under the High Priest, Jesus Christ, “good” Christians pray boldly both privately and publically, share their faith with others, help unbelievers come to the faith, read their Bibles faithfully and believe it, obey the commands of Scripture, are aware of the spiritual war raging around them and fight against evil, and so on.
Structure Defines Function: How Church Buildings Defined Worship
Occasionally, “victory” results in defeat, and that certainly seems to be the case with church buildings. For the first three hundred years of the Church, Christians were often persecuted, and as a result, they usually met in small groups in homes or places such as the catacombs in Rome. The blessing of a small meeting is that everyone has an opportunity to participate, and the result of constant participation was that Christians became strong in the faith.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian in 312 A.D., the persecution of Christians stopped, and within twenty years of Constantine’s conversion, church buildings were being erected for Christian worship. The buildings were usually large, and the size and shape of the buildings had a lot of influence on the worship service that was held inside. One immediate consequence of a large meeting was that it limited the participation of the people. If there were 500 worshippers, there was simply not enough time for everyone to pray, share what the Lord was doing in their lives, or manifest the gift of holy spirit. A large church building made it easy for a Christian to have a spectator mindset, and contributed to the spectator mentality in Christianity.
It was only about twenty-five years after Jesus was crucified that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth and said, “your meetings do more harm than good” (1 Cor. 11:17). In the specific case of the Corinthians, their meetings were harmful because of the division that was being fostered by the attitudes the believers had toward one another. However, it certainly seems that if Paul had gone to many church meetings in the centuries after 312 A.D., he would have written the same thing.
Modern “Spectator Christianity” Produces Weak Christians
There is ample evidence that modern “spectator Christianity” produces weak Christians. Even Christians who go to church regularly are rarely equipped to walk out on what the Bible says Christians are to do. For example, it is not uncommon to have someone who has gone to church for years to be afraid to pray out loud in a group because he or she has never done it before. Furthermore, very few of them really know their Bible, and because they never get to open their Bible and share from it, they cannot help others with “it is written,” like so many great men and women of the Bible historically did. In fact, it is safe to say that most Christians cannot even recite the names of the books of the Bible if they were asked to do so. Also, very few church-goers are comfortable sharing their faith with unbelievers, even though they confess that being saved means the difference between eternal life and eternal death. “Spectator Christianity” also limits the personal contact that men and women with equipping ministries have with the people who come to church for worship. The equipping ministers have no real time to genuinely deal with the people as individuals, discover their needs, and help equip them to serve.
Thankfully, the house church movement is growing in Christianity, and even some very large churches are encouraging small groups, sometimes referred to as “cell groups,” to meet during the week. These smaller groups allow for much more personal growth than is afforded in the large church meetings. As Christians, we need to take what God has done for us seriously and make the priesthood we have been given a part of our daily lives. We also need to demand that those believers who Christ has set in his Body to equip us, do their jobs and genuinely equip us for ministry. We need to allow our apostles to help organize the church and raise up local leaders; we need to listen to our prophets and give them the freedom they need to speak up for God; we need to ask our evangelists to help us reach the unsaved world with the Gospel ; we need to go to our pastors to get the encouragement and counsel that we need to stand day after day in the spiritual battle; and we need to demand that our teachers not just preach a social gospel, but tell us what the Bible means, so we ourselves can read, understand, and act on it.
Thank God for His amazing grace in allowing each of us direct access to Him and to serve Him as holy and royal priests! Let us not “despise our birthright” as Esau did and be willing to sell (or simply give away) our positions as priests (Gen. 25:29-34; Heb. 12:16). Rather, let us each live as powerful priests, doing the work of the ministry, “faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10).