If I chose to sleep in, or to watch church online, or listen to a podcast of the sermon, or to catch up on lectures in the Bible College course I’m doing, or to catch up on some other jobs, or was away for the weekend, or to look after visitors, or to go shopping, I wouldn’t have been at church yesterday. But as I didn’t do any of these things, I was able to share this message on the topic of “Why go to church?”.
We will see that going to church on Sunday is a good habit that has many benefits. After all, what’s more important than worshipping God or spending time with God’s people?
Aspects of life
We can picture parts of our lives as a series of widening circles. First there is our individual life, then our family life, followed by our life in the local church and then our life in the rest of our world. We can have relationships in each of these spheres of life, such as a personal relationship with God, relationships with people in our family, in our church, and in the rest of the world. This post addresses the local church and why it’s good for us to go to church.
What is a church?
The first instance of the word “church” in the Bible is when Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mt. 16:18NIV). As this happened after Peter said that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah, it means that the church was built on the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. The New Testament uses the Greek word for “church” (ekklesia) 114 times, primarily of the local church, but this passage refers to the whole church rather than the local church.
God is building a global church of believers, which is only visible as local churches. The local/universal and visible/invisible aspects of the church are shown in the schematic diagrams:
– The visible part of a local church is comprised of believers and unbelievers. It’s all who attend the local church. Although the majority should be believers, this includes some unbelievers as well.
– Christendom is a collection of visible local churches.
– The invisible part of the universal church is comprised of all believers in the world, who will be visible when Jesus Christ returns to reign over the earth. The topic of the universal church is outside the scope of this post.
The Bible says that a “local church” is a gathering of people who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and who worship Jesus Christ; who hear the Scriptures together; and who encourage one another in the Christian faith. It’s not the building they meet in. And it’s not a denomination. So the gathered people are the local church. Gathering together is part of what it means to be a Christian.
The Christian life was never meant to be solitary. Many of the biblical metaphors for a church indicate a plurality, such as: a body (comprised of parts and organs), a flock, (comprised of sheep) a house (comprised of living stones), a household (comprised of family members), and a holy nation (comprised of people). The church is a collective group, not an individual person. In the context of church discipline, Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Mt. 18:20). One person can’t be a church! To gather together in the name of Jesus means gathering together to publicly worship Jesus, to serve Jesus, and to help others love Jesus.
The local church is like a spiritual family. The Bible says that God is our Father and other Christians are our brothers and sisters. So the congregation of a local church are spiritual siblings. An extended spiritual family.
Physical children are raised to maturity in a physical family. Likewise, spiritual children of God (believers) should grow to maturity in a spiritual family (the local church). After they are mature they can be mentors in the spiritual family, which is like being a parent.
The beginning and destiny of the church
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He told the apostles, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Ten days later, on a Sunday, the Holy Spirit came on the believers who were “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). We will see that it’s good for believers to be all together in one place on Sunday. Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. And they obeyed.
This was the beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection. After this, the apostles were evangelists that spread the good news about Jesus beginning in Jerusalem and spreading out across the Roman Empire. When there was a group of believers in a town or city, the apostles established a church that met in someone’s house. There were no church buildings in those days. A local church was a gathering of believers.
When they came together, the first church at Jerusalem was devoted to (Acts 2:42-47):
– the apostles teaching, which we now have as doctrine in the New Testament.
– Fellowship, a partnership which included eating together and sharing their possessions. It says, “all the believers were together” (Acts 2:44). Fellowship is being together.
– The Lord’s Supper, which is remembrance of Christ’s death.
– Collective prayer, when they brought their needs to God.
– Praising God, for their salvation.
– Evangelism, as people were being saved and added to the local church.
The church exists on earth from the day of Pentecost (in about AD 33) until the Rapture when all true believers are resurrected, transformed, and transported to heaven. Then the church will be united with Jesus Christ, like a wife and husband at a wedding and the church returns to rule over the earth with Him and share His glory forever (Rev. 19:6-9; 14). That’s why the church has been referred to as the bride of Christ (who is the bridegroom). So the church has a glorious future.
Let’s follow the good examples of the local church in the Bible and make it a priority to be together as a church at least once a week. Remember that church is a collective activity.
Old Testament gatherings
In Old Testament times the Israelites were God’s people. They celebrated three annual festivals when the people gathered (or assembled or met) together (Ex. 23:14-19; 34:23-24; Dt 16:16; 2 Chr. 8:12-13). These were the festival of Unleaven bread (after the Passover), the festival of Weeks (Harvest, Pentecost), and the festival of Tabernacles (Ingathering, Booths). All the men were to attend these occasions. And their families often accompanied them (1 Sam. 1). Distance may have prevented many from attending all three, but most Jews tried to attend at least one festival each year. For example, “Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When He [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom” (Lk. 2:41-42).
Did Jesus go to church?
The Bible says that Jesus is an example for us to follow (Appendix A). And we have seen that He attended Jewish festivals which were national gatherings required by the law of Moses. And Jesus also usually attended the Jewish synagogue on Saturdays (Lk. 4:16). But He didn’t go to church on Sundays because the church didn’t begin until after He ascended back to heaven in about AD 33.
If Jesus didn’t go to church, then what about Paul?
Did Paul go to church?
After Paul became a Christian, he became an evangelist who established new churches. So Paul revealed the truth about the church and he attended and taught at many local churches.
On Paul’s third missionary journey it seems that he stayed at Troas (which is now in Turkey) for seven days in order to attend the local church on Sunday evening (Acts 20:6-7). Apparently, the public meeting of the local church was very important for Paul and the early Christians. Paul taught them until midnight, Eutychus died when he fell from a third story open window, and they celebrated the Lord’s Supper and shared a meal (Acts 20: 7-12). Why did Paul go to church in Troas? It was:
– To celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
– To build up believers by teaching them what a Christian should know and how they should behave.
– To fellowship with and encourage the believers.
Eutychus was a young man who was asleep while God was at work. He was physically present, but spiritually absent. Are we spiritually awake or spiritually asleep? Are we away when God is at work in the local church? Eutychus shows us that it can be dangerous to miss God’s work in the local church.
Reasons for going to church
God said so
The local church belongs to God. It’s “the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:15). Through the Bible, God tells believers not to give up meeting together – “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). Christians should never stop meeting together. Particularly as we approach the rapture of believers to be with the Lord. In this case they were reverting to Judaism, which is apostacy. So there is a biblical basis for corporate assembling together as Christians.
It’s significant that the recipients of this letter were under the threat of persecution. Public church attendance could open them up to abuse. The command indicates that the benefits of attendance outweigh any possible threat.
Furthermore, every letter in the New Testament assumes Christians are members of local churches. And because believers are part of the universal church, if it is possible, they should be part of a local church. After all, in the Bible the same Greek word ekklesia is used for both the universal church and the local church, with the meaning being determined by the context. Believers go to church because they are part of God’s invisible church.
Why don’t we obey this command? Are we too busy, or too tired? Would we rather sleep in?
Do we have guests visiting?
So we go to church because God said so.
To praise and worship God
The Bible says that Spirit-filled believers speak “to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Eph. 5:19). And with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit believers should sing to God with gratitude in their hearts (Col. 3:16). If Paul and Silas sang hymns to God in a prison, they would have sung them in the local church as well (Acts 16:25).
The gathering of the church to praise and worship God is a foretaste of our worship in heaven. In eternity, believers will worship with all of God’s people before the Lord.
So we go to church to praise and worship God.
To remember Jesus in the Lord’s Supper
With regard to the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24-25). Obeying this commandment helps us remember our Savior’s supreme sacrifice for our sins on the cross. It makes us examine ourselves to make sure that we have confessed all of our sins against the Lord and against one another.
The Lord’s Supper also helps us look at the big picture of Gods’ plan of salvation. What God has done in the past and what He will do in the future.
So we go to church to remember Jesus in the Lord’s Supper.
To strengthen our Christian faith
Just as Jesus and Paul taught people what they needed to know and do, teaching from the Bible does the same for us. Church attendance builds us up. Paul said, “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:26). At church, Christians help other Christians who struggle with their faith.
The Bible says that church attendance helps us to stir one another up to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24–25). Love is a motive and deeds are actions.
Church attendance also helps prevent backsliding and apostasy. Without regular participation in corporate worship, one tends to drift spiritually. The fellowship and encouragement experienced at the local church help to vaccinate us against backsliding and apostasy.
Church attendance also reduces exposure to false teaching which is prevalent on the internet. We can trust our teachers in church because the elders keep watch over them. And the local church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” of the gospel (1 Tim. 3:15). But there’s no quality control on the internet!
And church attendance gives us a sense of purpose. It shapes our vision of the future and gives us hope.
So we go to church to strengthen our Christian faith.
To participate and serve
The Bible says, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pt. 4:10). We are to “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” (Eph. 6:7). And to “serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13).
The Bible also teaches that each member of the local church has a different gift, just like a body is comprised of different parts (Rom. 12:4-8). Everyone has a purpose in the local church. In fact, the strengths and weaknesses of the members of the local church are intentional, even complementary. Everyone has something that the others don’t have, and we are stronger together than we are apart – that’s called synergy.
.Just like every part of a body has a function, so every believer has a function in the church (Rom. 12:4-8). If you are not there it’s like missing a part of a body. The body suffers and doesn’t operate as well as it should if you aren’t in attendance. It’s like missing a part of a team.
Church is also like a sports team. Missing church is like missing the weekly game. Sports teams struggle when they don’t know who will be there to play. For example, the English cricket team missed James Anderson (because he was injured) when they played and were beaten by Australia last week.
Christ gave you a gift that the church needs. Are you using it?
So we go to church to participate and serve.
To give and receive encouragement
We have been designed to need other Christians to help us keep going in the faith, and we can be an encouragement to others. Paul told the believers in Rome, “I long to see you so that … you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom. 1:11-12).
One of the purposes of gathering together is to “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:24-25). We all need encouragement and going to church can provide that.
So we go to church to give and receive encouragement.
To give and receive prayer
“On their release [from prison], Peter and John went back to their own people [the local church] and reported all that the [Jewish] chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God” (Acts 4:23-24). They prayed that Peter and John would continue to speak God’s word “with great boldness” (Acts 4:29). This is example of prayer in a local church.
The local church also enables us to pray for others and others to pray for us. It helps us to consider others and not just focus on ourselves. So it broadens the content of our prayers and our prayers are multiplied as more people are praying than just us.
So we go to church to give and receive prayer.
To share in Christian fellowship
In the book of Acts, we’re told that those who came to faith in the early days “devoted themselves … to fellowship” (2:42). But we can’t fellowship by ourselves! Instead, we need a Christian community.
As we spend time with one another, we become aware of each other’s needs. This gives us opportunities to help each other. We are to share with believers who are in need (Rom. 12:13).
For example, those in the early church “shared everything they had” so that people’s needs were met (Acts 4:32-35). They donated money to believers in churches where there was poverty (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:1-15). Paul encouraged such generosity (2 Cor. 9:6-15). Church is the best place to learn about generosity and to practice generosity.
Everyone is looking for acceptance and a place to belong. Church is a community where we can socialize and support each other. You can make friends, feel a sense of belonging, and build a support network that you can rely on. The church community helps us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). And to “Carry each other’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). If you go to church there will be some “who will show genuine concern for your welfare” (Phil. 2:20). Also, we can practice hospitality by inviting people to a meal after church.
If you’re just watching church or preaching on a screen at home, you miss living in close fellowship with real people. You miss the unity and diversity of a church gathering.
So we go to church to share in Christian fellowship.
To become more Christlike
Church attendance helps our sanctification — our progressive growth in being conformed to the image of Jesus (Rom. 8:29). It is for our general “strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:3), but also in beholding Jesus together: “we all . . . are being transformed into His [Christ’s] image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). God loves to change our minds and our hearts. Going to church encourages godly living in an ungodly society.
Church attendance also helps us express the fruit of the Spirit (Gal.5:22-23). It’s easier to show love, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, or gentleness to someone if you see them often.
Church attendance also helps us imitate Christ’s humility (Phil.2:3-8). It’s easier to put the welfare of others above yours if you see them often.
So we go to church to become more Christlike.
To show our love for God and His people
Regular church attendance shows that we love God and love His people (the church). If we say we love the Lord, but neglect fellow Christians (who are called the body of Christ), we are a hypocrite – our actions don’t match our words.
It also shows that we have eternal life. John said, “We know that we [believers] have passed from death to life, because we love each other” (1 Jn. 3:13). It’s a declaration and witness to others that you’re a Christian. When they ask, “What did you do on the weekend?”, you can say “I went to church”. And it’s a great example to your spouse and children (Lk. 6:40).
So we go to church to show our love for God and for His people.
To be involved in spreading the gospel
As the gospel is the foundation and the message of the church, by going to church we can support and be involved in spreading the good news about Jesus.
This can range from a local church ministry to the support of overseas missionaries. And it can be with children, youth or adults. Personal witnessing is also important. If someone is a new or immature Christian it’s good to encourage them to attend a church for their spiritual growth and fellowship.
So we go to church to be involved in spreading the gospel.
Look at all the reasons for going to church: God said so, Praise and worship, Remember Jesus in the Lord’s Supper, Strengthen our faith, Participate and serve, Encouragement, Prayer, Fellowship, Become more Christlike, Show our love for God and His people, and the Gospel. These good reasons are better than the bad ones listed in Appendix B.
When Scott Morrison was asked by the media after his incredible election win in May 2019, ‘what are you going to do tomorrow?’, he answered, ‘I will go to church as usual’. So the Prime Minister of Australia went to church on Sunday after a late Saturday night. And he is a busy man. Can we block out Sunday mornings (or whenever our local church meets) in our calendars to go to church? And don’t let Saturday night keep you away from church.
Excuses for not going to church
It’s clear that the Bible teaches that regular church attendance is a normal part of following Jesus. The Bible also gives examples of some who gave an excuse instead of following Jesus (Lk. 9:57-62).
57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to Him [Jesus], “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man [Jesus] has no place to lay His head.”
59 He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” 62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
The excuses used by these three men were:
– Lack of security (one man didn’t want to adopt an itinerant lifestyle).
– Put it off (one man wanted to wait until after their father’s death and burial). This was a delaying tactic.
– Family commitments (one man wanted to go back and say goodbye to his family, which could also be a delaying tactic, or could cause him to change his mind about following Jesus).
They were like a man plowing a crooked furrow with oxen. As they didn’t have GPS in those days, to dig a straight furrow they needed to keep aiming for a distant target. But if they looked in another direction, the plough would turn and deviate from the straight line.
And Jesus told a parable to some Jewish religious leaders about an invitation to a banquet (Lk. 14:16-20):
16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’
18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
The excuses used by these three men were:
– Possessions (one man wanted to visit a new field).
– Work (one man wanted to try out five new yoke of oxen).
– Family (one man was married recently).
Similar excuses can be given for not going to church.
Christianity is not a choose-your-own path religion. The people we are to associate with have already been chosen for us. We have a ready-made extended spiritual family in the local church.
Is church just something to do on Sunday morning when there is nothing else going on? If church is optional, we set up our family to backslide and fail in the Christian life.
If you haven’t trusted in Jesus yet, then you don’t have God’s help in your individual life, in your family life, or in your relationships with the rest of the world. What excuses are you using for not looking into following Jesus? Don’t put it off any longer, but talk to someone about it today.
When you become a follower of Jesus, you also can have the extended family of the local church to help you in all these aspects of life.
A survey on why Americans go to church found that the top three answers were: so that they will be closer to God; so their children will follow God; and so they will become more like God. In another survey, sermons; programs for children and teenagers; and community outreach and volunteer opportunities were the top reasons for attending church. And it’s been said that the three highlights of a Christian’s life should be:
– Sharing the Lord’s Supper.
– Listening to the message from God in the Bible.
– Exercising their spiritual gifts in service for Christ.
These are done best in the local church.
Disciples are those who are committed to following Jesus in the Christian faith. Marriage is another commitment. But marriages don’t always last.
In Australia about 36% of marriages end in divorce and in the US it’s about 45%. The average marriage in Australia lasts for about 12 years. Going to church can help us remain faithful to the Lord.
Don’t come occasionally to church. Don’t just come when you feel like it. Make weekly church attendance your first priority and let it be a good habit that becomes a part of who you are.
On Sunday mornings you can either make a bad habit of being lazy and doing things that have nothing to do with God. Or you can make a good habit of waking up and participating in a godly church even when you don’t feel like it.
Of course, church is not just a place to go, rather it is a living body where God wants you to become a part–for your good and for His glory. Christ is committed to the church like a husband is committed to his wife. The church is called the bride of Christ. What’s our commitment to the local church? Is it like being married, or are we just dating?
Attending church with God’s people was top priority for the apostle Paul. It should be likewise for us. If we are often absent from church, what’s getting our attention instead? Is it family, or education, or work, or hobbies, or recreation, or something else? These can be idols when they take us away from being at church.
On Sunday, let’s go to church. Going to church on Sunday is a good habit that has many benefits. After all, what’s more important than worshipping God or spending time with God’s people?
Appendix A: The examples of Jesus and Paul
Instead of being selfish, Paul put the welfare of others first because he didn’t want to hinder their spiritual growth. He said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul and Jesus are examples of people who put others first.
Appendix B: Some bad reasons for going to church
Here are some bad reasons for going to church:
Out of duty/obligation
To get my needs met
To feel good; get inspired
To find a boy/girl friend or spouse
For what I can get out of it
To find clients for my business
To be entertained
For my social life
To justify my sin
To get right with the Lord
Because the preacher is popular
So God will bless my finances
So God will bless my health
To maintain family relationships
They have lots of programs
They have a school
The number of people who attend
Because everyone else does
To make God happy
The building and facilities
Written, August 2019
Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, DC following allegations of sexual abuse. This is the latest in a series of sex abuse scandals involving leaders in the Roman Catholic Church. So, what does the Bible say about the behavior of Christian leaders?
The letter of 1 Peter in the Bible shows us how God can help us get through hardship, trials and suffering. In chapter 5, it includes instructions to the elders of churches, which would apply to the leaders of any Christian ministry. This passage is written in the context of suffering. It is preceded by a passage on suffering for being a Christian (4:12-19) and is followed by a reminder to have an eternal viewpoint when they are suffering (5:10).
The passage says “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pt. 5:1-4NIV).
It’s a message to those living between the two advents of Christ. The first was when Christ suffered and the second is when He will come in great glory. We live in this time period.
When churches (and ministries) experience persecution and suffering, it is primarily the responsibility of the leaders to provide help, comfort, strength and guidance. Peter urges them to do this in view of the persecution they were enduring. He supports this by saying that he is also a Christian leader (elder). So he’s speaking from experience. He also saw Christ’s crucifixion at the first advent and he told others about it. And he knew that there will be no more suffering when Christ returns in great power and glory to rule over the earth at the second advent and he told others about it.
The main message was that they were to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them” (5:2). Here leaders are likened to shepherds and those they lead are likened to sheep. This is a common biblical metaphor. The shepherd is the dominant leadership metaphor in the Old Testament. As sheep need a shepherd, people need leaders. And Jesus was “the Good Shepherd” (Jn. 10:11).
Peter says to take care of and watch over those you lead like shepherds take care of and watch over their sheep. A shepherd’s care is physical, while a Christian leader’s care is spiritual. Leaders are “shepherds of God’s flock” who do this work for the Good Shepherd. Then he gives them three important characteristics of a Christian leader (or church elder). These are given as three negatives (“not because you must”; “not pursuing dishonest gain “; and “not lording it over those entrusted to you”), each of which is followed by a positive (“but because you are willing”; “but eager to serve”; and “but being examples to the flock”). So Christian leaders are to be:
– willing leaders
– eager leaders, and
– examples to follow.
- A willing leader
The Bible says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (5:2). There’s a wrong way and a right way to lead. In this case, not reluctantly or under coercion or compulsion, but voluntarily. This is like Paul’s advice on giving, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Our attitude is important to God. It’s wrong to lead because there seems to be no alternative or because of exerted pressure.
When Paul was in prison, he sent Onesimus back to his master rather than have Onesimus’ help without the approval of his master; “I did not want to do anything without your (Philemon’s) consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary” (Phile. 14). Paul sought the help of volunteers, not those who had no choice in the matter. Likewise, God wants those who lead Christian ministries to do this voluntarily, and not out of a feeling of obligation or a desire of recognition or status. It’s not just a job to do, but a calling from God.
Nehemiah led the project to restore the walls of Jerusalem after they had been ruined for 150 years. His team faced mockery, attacks, distraction and temptation to sin (Neh. 4:3, 8; 6:10-12). Nehemiah understood that God had appointed him to the task and his sense of purpose invigorated the people to follow his leadership despite incredible opposition. God equips Christian leaders to overcome the challenges and obstacles and complete the tasks He’s given them to do.
- An eager leader
The Bible also says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them— … not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve” (5:2). Not greedily looking for reward or recognition or some other benefit, but eager to serve others. They are “not a lover of money” (1 Ti. 3:3). 83% (5/6) of the warnings to the church about greed and the love of money are addressed to leaders (1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Tit. 1:7, 11; Heb. 13:5; 1 Pt. 5:2). They gladly serve without reward or recognition. They are outwardly focused, not self-focused. They desire to give, not get.
In this verse “eager” means ready, prepared, passionate and enthusiastically willing to lead. They anticipate the needs of the people and gladly initiate action to address these. They are eager to lead in a way that Paul was eager to preach the good news about Jesus to the Romans (Rom. 1:15). And in the way that the Christians in Corinth were eager to help needy believers in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 9:2).
- An example to follow
The Bible says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them— … not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (5:3). Not as a dictator, tyrant or bully with a desire for power and control. Not like a boss who commands, dominates, intimidates, manipulates and coerces his people. Not like the leaders of Israel who “ruled them harshly and brutally” (Ezek. 34:4). They were interested in themselves and not in the welfare of the people. And not like Diotrephes who loved prominence and expelled from the church those he disagreed with (3 Jn. 9-10). Christian leaders must not abuse their authority.
Recently Hun Sen was re-elected to lead Cambodia in a sham election. The leaders of Cambodia’s main opposition were jailed or exiled, and their party was dissolved and was banned from competing in the election. And independent media in Cambodia is largely silenced. So Cambodia is governed by a dictatorship, not a democracy. And its neighbors (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar) are also governed by repressive regimes.
Instead Christian leaders were to be a model or pattern to follow. Paul told young believers to “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Ti. 4:12). And he told the Corinthians to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul’s example was not to lord it over others (2 Cor. 1:24). Christian leaders are not to drive God’s people, but to lead them by their examples of mature Christian character. The ancient shepherd walked in front of his sheep and called them to follow him. They showed the sheep which direction to walk.
Jesus told His disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man [Jesus]did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:25-28). Christian leaders are to serve and give, not demand and get. It’s self-giving, not self-serving.
“Those entrusted to you” are the people that God has given the leader to lead. God specially assigns people to leaders. They are the leader’s sphere of service. The leader is to manage these people for Jesus Christ who is the Chief Shepherd (1 Pt. 5:4).
Lessons for us
If we are a Christian leader, let’s be willing and eager to care for people and be an example they can follow. This means not abusing others like Cardinal McCarrick is alleged to have done or any other form of abuse.
If we are under the authority of Christian leaders, let’s accept their leadership, accept their care, and follow their example (1 Pt. 5:5).
Written, July 2018
According to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, institutional child sexual abuse has been occurring for generations. Many spoke of having their innocence stolen, their childhood lost, their education and prospective career taken from them and their personal relationships damaged. For many, sexual abuse is a trauma they can never escape. It can affect every aspect of their lives. The Commission found that society’s values and mechanisms which were available to regulate and control aberrant behavior failed.
Because children are vulnerable to abuse, protecting them and promoting their safety is important. We want to keep children safe and ensure their well-being. As a result of the Commission, those leading children must pass a “Working with Children Check”.
We can lead children in the family, in recreational activities and in educational activities. This is a privilege and a responsibility.
Watch your power
Those leading children have positional power, spiritual power and worldview power. Because leaders are responsible for the child’s safety and welfare, these powers need to be respected and controlled.
Teachers and parents have positional power over children. And because of their size and maturity, adults always have power over children. Such leaders have authority because of their position with respect to children which must be exercised with care because children are vulnerable. Misuse of positional power can cause emotional harm to children.
Those leading children can have spiritual power, Their view of God, prayer and the Bible may be evident to the children. Do we give these priority or are they only considered in times of need? Are our spiritual attitudes legalistic, liberal or reasonable? Misuse of this power can cause spiritual harm to children.
I’m doing a course on worldviews like theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, pantheism, new age, and postmodernism (Sire, 2009). Clearly, everyone has a worldview. Did you know that we can influence the worldview of others, particularly children?
Those leading children influence their worldview. This includes beliefs about God, the universe, humanity, history and morality. Our beliefs and attitudes about these can be contagious. This is important because a child’s mind is receptive and their response to the Bible’s message of salvation can determine their eternal destiny.
But did you know that we can learn lessons from children?
Imitate their trust and humility
Jesus said, “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mk. 10:15; Lk. 18:17NIV). Little children have unwavering trust in their carers. That’s the kind of faith God wants us to have in Him and the message He has given us in the Bible, Let’s cultivate a constant trust in the God of the Bible who created the universe and all that is in it and who provided Jesus to be the source of our eternal life.
Little children are also humble (Mt. 18:1-4). They are totally dependent on others, particularly their parents. And they imitate their parents. Although little children can be selfish, they don’t have much to be proud about. Jesus said, “anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt. 18:4NLT). And humility is one of the steps of repentance (Jas. 4:6-10). Acknowledging our sinfulness and relying on the God’s spiritual power through Jesus rather than always being self-reliant is an act of humility.
Lessons for us
Let’s respect the privilege and responsibility of leading children by serving them like Jesus served His generation. This includes respecting our positional authority, spiritual power and worldview influence. And imitating their continual faith and humility.
Sire J W (2009) “The universe next door – A basic Worldview Catalogue”, Intervarsity Press.
Written, March 2018
The first aid method in Australia is described as DRSABCD which stands for Danger, Response, Send (for help). Airway, Breathing, Compression (CPR) and Defibrillator. It describes the sequence of assistance given to a person suffering a sudden illness or injury. The first thing to do is to ensure that the area is safe for yourself, others and the patient. Make sure you don’t put yourself in danger when going to the assistance of another person. We need to protect ourself from danger, so we can help the patient. This principle also applies to Christian (or church) leadership. Leaders need to cultivate and protect their spiritual lives, so they can lead others.
In the context of false teachers, Paul told the elders of the church at Ephesus, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28NIV). They were to be mindful of their own spiritual condition. Unless they were living in fellowship with the Lord, they could not expect to be spiritual guides in the church. For example, their minds must be fixed firmly on Jesus Christ (Heb. 12:1-3).
And Paul told Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (from false teachings) (1 Tim. 4:16). Timothy had to have his own spiritual life in order before he could help others who were being influenced by false teaches. He was to be a godly example to others as he preached and taught from the Bible (1 Tim. 4:7, 12-13). An example of such godly behavior is Paul’s self-control (1 Cor. 10:24-27).
Leaders go ahead of their followers. When I am leading people on a hike in a National Park, I have walked the route before and I walk first to ensure our safety. This may mean clearing obstacles from the path or choosing the best route or warning of hazards. It would be risky to lead from the rear, because it would mean that others would face any dangers before the leader! Clearly, leaders should lead and others should follow.
Prayer and Bible reading
A biblical example of godly leadership is the twelve apostles who led the early church in Jerusalem by overseeing the spiritual teaching and the care of the needy (Acts 6:1-6). When the care of the needy became more onerous, they delegated it to seven men, so the leaders could concentrate on “prayer and the ministry of the word (Bible)” (Acts 6:4). Their core activities were to be prayer and teaching God’s Word. They were to be men of prayer and God’s Word, just like Jesus was a man of prayer and God’s Word. And they were to put God’s Word into practice in their daily lives.
The scout’s motto is to “Be prepared”. This means being ready to deal with the events of life. Similarly, godly leaders can be prepared for spiritual growth by regular prayer and Bible reading.
And there is a minimum daily requirement of vitamins to ensure good health. Similarly, the minimum requirement for godly leadership is a daily prayer calendar (list), a daily Bible reading (like Our Daily Bread), and a weekly Bible study (like exegesis or explanation of a Bible passage).
This is an example for Christian (or church) leaders to follow today as well. The leaders (or elders) set the spiritual tone of a church or group. They need to have their lives in order by being people of prayer and God’s Word. These are core aspects of our spiritual life. That’s where they receive power and guidance. They must faithfully participate in daily prayer and Bible reading. These are the basic resources for shepherding people by feeding, correcting, encouraging and counselling them. And the Bible is the final authority for decision making.
Lessons for us
There are many types of leaders today. Some are good, and some have deficiencies. Let’s use the key resources which God has given us (prayer and His message in the Bible) to be godly leaders. Godly leaders pray regularly. And godly leaders read the Bible regularly.
A godly leader is worth following.
These core characteristics are necessary, but not sufficient for godly leadership. The other desirable characteristics for godly leadership are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. These relate to a person’s temperament, interpersonal relationships, reputation, spiritual life, family life, and personal habits.
Written, February 2018
They say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee! Does this mean that groups make poor decisions because they incorporate too many conflicting opinions?
Christian churches and ministries are often led by leadership teams. But how should such teams make decisions, particularly when not all members agree? In this blogpost, we will use the example of a group of elders leading a church, but the principles also apply to other groups of Christians. We will see that the best approach to collective decision-making is to seek consensus rather than unanimity or a simple majority.
The Bible teaches that a Christian church should be governed by a group of elders. This is plural leadership by a team that makes decisions for the congregation. In this article we look at some of the biblical principles for making decisions at elders’ meetings. These are collective, corporate decisions; not those made by an individual. It is when the elders seek the best collective decision as to what is Christ’s will for the congregation.
It is important to make every effort to maintain peace and unity among Christians (Rom. 14:19; Eph. 4:3). After all, Jesus died to bring together all of God’s scattered people and make them one (Jn. 11:51-52). Unity among believers was so important to Jesus that it was the subject of His prayer for them during the final hours of His life on earth: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn. 17:20-23NIV).
The Greek word for “one” (hen, Strongs #1520) appears four times in these verses, the last occasion being translated as “complete unity.” Here “one” is a metaphor for union, concord, and unity and the example to follow is the unity that exists between God the Father and God the Son. The same word was used when Christ said “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30).
The reason for this unity is repeated in the above verses: so the people of this world will know that Christ was sent by God. Another reason is so they may know something of God’s great love for humanity. This means that Christ tied His reputation and the credibility of His message to how well His followers display unity and oneness.
Paul also gave reasons for harmony and unity amongst Christians, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:1-4).
Evidently there was a lack of unity amongst the elders at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17). There were factions within this church. Paul said that there shouldn’t be such divisions or quarrels within a leadership team.
But unity doesn’t mean uniformity; that every elder will have the same opinion. If this was the case, there would be no need for the plurality of elders. Also, plural leadership harnesses the collective experience and wisdom of a group, which is not present in a single person.
Furthermore, unity doesn’t mean that one person makes the decisions and the others all agree. This is more like a dictatorship where one person insists on getting their own way (3 Jn. 9-10). Being unified on an issue means that after debate, discussion and prayer, all the elders can support a certain choice as the best collective decision for the church.
Unity in a leadership team mainly depends on the character of the team members. For example, the Bible gives the godly qualifications required for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-6; Tit. 1:6-9). In decision-making it’s important that elders be sensible, just, trustworthy, and self-controlled and not quarrelsome or quick tempered or overbearing.
Did you know that not making a decision is a decision? In this case, the situation remains the same as it is at present. So, we are choosing to remain the same instead of changing in some way. Such a bias in favour of the status quo can be harmful for a church which is facing ever-changing challenges.
According to the dictionary, consensus means general or widespread agreement. The two main components of decision-making are the process used to form a proposal and the method used to decide whether to implement it or not. The word “consensus” has been used in both of these contexts.
A consensus-oriented process is one in which people work together to reach as much agreement as possible. It is a collaborative and inclusive process in which all the elders should have the opportunity to contribute to drafting the proposal. As extra time can lead to a better proposal, be willing to defer finalizing the proposal to the next elders’ meeting.
A person can give their consent to a proposal that isn’t their first choice. Possible decision-making options include:
– Unanimous agreement (this is the most difficult to achieve)
– Unanimous consent (where the proposal isn’t necessarily their first choice)
– Unanimous agreement minus one or two votes
– Unanimous consent minus one or two votes
– Super majority such as 90%, 80%, 75%, or two-thirds.
– Simple majority. At least 51%.
Three decision-making methods
Some examples of decision-making in the early church are given in the Appendix. The three main methods for making decisions in elders’ meetings are unanimity, majority, and consensus.
In this case, decisions are based on unanimous agreement by all persons. This is the ideal that elders should be working towards. However, this method allows one person to shut down the decision-making process. Not taking an action is a decision. In this case, the decision would be made by one person, and not a plural group. This gives one person too much power. The choice to require unanimous agreement on all decisions allows any individual elder to stop the decision-making process in the elders’ group. So this approach can lead to government by the minority.
In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by a majority of elders. It is government by the majority, not the minority. Although there is biblical precedence for this approach (2 Cor. 5:6), it can also lack unity. For example, if a decision is based on a slim majority, then there is a lack of unity amongst the elders. How can the elders expect the congregation to follow such a decision? A proposal that cannot gain the agreement of all or nearly all the elders is not worthy of the elders’ support. So a super majority is better than a slim majority.
In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by all (unanimity) or most of the elders. Consequently, it avoids the short-comings of the other two methods for making decisions. It is a decision which all or nearly all the elders can support (say at least two-thirds). So it is similar to a super majority where each person agrees to support the decision, even though it may not be their first choice. Note that disagreement by a minority does not have to mean disunity.
Today the complete Word of God gives us a general outline of God’s will. When we need specific guidance in matters not covered in the Word, we can pray and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The elements of decision making at an elders’ meeting include:
– Pray for corporate wisdom. If there is only a simple majority or if someone has serious objections, then there is a need for more prayer.
– Gather and assess information. Good leaders listen to the concerns of all the people involved. Don’t make a decision before you have all the facts (Prov. 18:13, 17). After an allegation was made the Israelites were advised; “you must investigate it thoroughly” (Dt. 13:14). As there are usually at least two sides to every story, it is important to talk to all the parties involved (Josh. 22:13-14; 31-34; Mt. 18:15-17).
– Apply appropriate Biblical principles.
– Discuss options. “After much discussion”, the early church at Jerusalem made a decision on the law of Moses (Acts 15:7, 25).
– Agree on a time frame for the decision. If we put it off indefinitely, then we accept the status quo. But if there is only a simple majority or if someone has serious objections, if possible, the decision could be delayed to the next elders meeting. Similarly for the case where a decision is a greater risk of going against Christ’s will for the congregation than the risk of delay. So patience is required for good decision-making.
– Seek consensus where team members either fully agree or have no serious objections. But if this is not achieved, to do nothing may be making a decision anyhow (status quo). And it seems better to favor the majority and not the minority, provided this doesn’t threaten unity amongst the elders.
Don’t let fear cripple your decision making. Fear of conflict, fear of what others may think and fear of failure must be overcome if we are to make good decisions.
Consensus is preferred because majority rule is better than minority rule and super majority rule is better than simple majority rule. Whereas a requirement for a unanimous agreement gives every member a veto, which is individual decision-making and not collective decision-making.
Let’s use the principles discussed above to make good decisions in our Christian leadership teams. The best approach is to seek consensus rather than unanimity or a simple majority. For example, in elders’ meetings it is best to seek consensus when making decisions. In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by all or most of the elders. It is a decision which all or nearly all the elders can support. This avoids the shortcomings of using the unanimous or majority approaches to decision making.
Appendix – Decision-making in the early church
Some examples of decisions made in the early church are given below.
Matthias chosen to replace Judas
After the resurrection of Jesus and the death of Judas Iscariot, it was necessary to appoint another apostle to be a witness Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:15-26). The job description for this person would require that they knew what Christ taught so they could teach others. And they must be able to work together with the other apostles to lead the church in Jerusalem. Apparently several men met this requirement, so a decision had to be made as to which one would become the 12th apostle. Then the Bible says; “So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:23-26NIV).
They followed a three step process:
– The apostles nominated two men
– The apostles prayed for the Lord’s will to be revealed
– They cast lots
As this is the Bible’s last mention of casting lots, it’s not prescriptive for the church. It was a method used under the Mosaic covenant, but not under the new covenant.
The casting of lots for decision-making was a custom widely practiced in the ancient Near East. For example, lots were used in Persia in the 5th century BC (Est. 3:7). It seems as though marked pebbles or sticks were drawn from a receptacle into which they had been cast. This use of stones or sticks of wood to make decisions occurred often in Old Testament times (Ex. 28:30; Num. 26:55-56; 27:21; 33:54; 1 Sam. 10:20-21; 1 Chron. 26:13-16; Neh. 11:1; Ps. 22:18; Prov. 16:33; 18:18; Ezek. 21:21; Jon. 1:7). For example, the Urim and the Thummim were used to determine the will of God. Lots were used to reveal God’s selection of someone or something out of several possibilities in cases where a clear choice was not otherwise evident (Prov. 16:33). They provided a just and peaceful settlement of matters between people who might otherwise resort to force.
Deacons chosen at Jerusalem
When a practical need arose in the church at Jerusalem, the apostles said, “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4). So the congregation choose seven men who were endorsed by the apostles. But no details are given on the method used for this decision.
Barnabas and Saul chosen for missionary work
Paul’s first missionary journey began from Antioch in Syria (Acts 13:1-3). This decision was made when the elders of the church (and maybe the congregation) were engaged in a time of prayer and fasting. They may have been praying about the evangelization of the world. As they prayed the Holy Spirit told them set apart Barnabas and Saul for this missionary work. We are not told how this message came, but it may have been revealed to one of the men who were prophets (Simeon, Lucius, or Manaen). The elders (and congregation) must have agreed as “they placed their hands on them and sent them off”. Likewise, no details are given on the decision-making process used.
Do Gentile believers need to be circumcised?
At the church in Jerusalem, the leadership team (apostles and elders) met in about AD 48 to consider whether to impose circumcision on Gentile believers (Acts 15:1-35). There was “much discussion” on this topic. Peter, Barnabas and Paul spoke. James then made a recommendation that was accepted by the apostles, elders and the whole church. They “all agreed” to send Judas and Silas to Antioch with a letter about their decision (Acts 15:22, 25). The ESV, HCSB and NET call it “unanimous” (the Greek means, having come to one mind”). It seemed to be a consensus agreement (a general agreement) which everyone was willing to accept. This doesn’t mean that everyone fully agreed (unanimity) as evidenced by the ongoing Judaizers objections. This is a good outcome of decision making, but it isn’t always possible. For example:
– When Paul and Barnabas disagreed with regard to John Mark, they went separate ways (Acts 16:36-41). This shows that agreement will not always be reached. But in this case a peaceful outcome was achieved.
– Paul said that it was wrong for a church to be divided over leaders like in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17). Instead there should be unity.
Dealing with an offender at Corinth
Paul wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians to address problems at the church in Corinth. One of the problems was that the church continued to accept a member who was in an incestuous relationship (1 Cor. 5:1-13). Paul rebuked them for not doing anything about it, and urged them to take action. He told them to expel the man from the church so that he would repent of this ongoing behaviour.
When Paul wrote a follow-up letter, it was evident that the church had obeyed Paul’s instruction to expel the offender (2 Cor. 2:5-8; 7:12). (Note that this passage may refer to someone else who had caused trouble in the church; we can’t be certain. Another possibility is that the offence in 2 Corinthians was a personal attack by the unrepentant incestuous man against Paul and his authority to exercise discipline in the church. And after Paul rebuked them again, the church finally disciplined the offender). Now as the offender had shown genuine sorrow and repentance for his sin, the punishment should be discontinued and he should be restored to fellowship in the local church. In this context, Paul writes,
“The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient” (v. 6NIV).
“For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough” (ESV)
“The punishment inflicted by the majority is sufficient for that person” (HCSB)
“This punishment on such an individual by the majority is enough for him” (NET).
The Greek word pleionon (Strongs #4119) means greater in quantity or quality (Thayer Greek Lexion). The short definition is “more” or “greater”. In 2 Cor. 2:6 it is translated as “majority”, because it means greater in quantity. Paul also uses this Greek word in the same sense in 4:15 (where it means “more and more”) and 9:2 (where is means “most”). This Greek word also occurs in 1 Cor. 9:19 (many); 10:5 (most); 15:6 (most).
The decision by the church to punish the offender had not been unanimous, as it was carried out by the “majority” of the church, not “all” the church. Some may have declined to take part in it because they refused to acknowledge Paul’s authority. But Paul felt that the agreement of the majority had been sufficient to attain the desired objective. Those who had shown disrespect for the apostle must have been the minority.
This suggests that in instances where unanimity isn’t achieved, then it should be majority rule and not minority rule. You may say that in the case of the Israelite spies of Canaan, the majority (10 out of 12) made a bad decision. However, this was because only two of the 12 spies were faithful to the Lord (See the importance of the godly character of team members mentioned above under “Unity”).
Reference Swartley RH (2005) “Eldership in action. Through biblical governance of the church”. Emmaus College Press.
Written, April 2017
Also see: New Testament shepherds
I have collection of vinyl musical records, but no record player because they are obsolete today. Likewise, audio cassette tapes are obsolete. And CDs are heading that way as well! Smart phones have replaced alarms, diaries, low quality cameras, calculators, MP3 players, and GPS devices. These are also obsolete! New technology replaces the old.
Let’s look at the roles of priests in public worship in Old Testament times and whether there are any implications for the New Testament church. We will see that because Christ’s sacrifice atoned for our sin, we no longer need priests. They are obsolete because there is no need for a human mediator between us and God. But all Christians have a joint responsibility to worship and serve the Lord and to bring the good news about Jesus to all the nations of the world.
The Hebrew noun translated “priest” (kohen, Strongs #3548) occurs 750 times in the Old Testament. It is used frequently for men who represented the people before God by offering sacrifices, carrying out rituals and speaking prayers.
Before the Israelite priesthood was instituted, the heads of families functioned as priests by offering sacrifices to God. For example, Noah, Abram, Isaac, Jacob and Job did this (Gen. 8:20; 15:9-10; 26:25; 31:54; Job 1:5).
God’s covenant with Israel provided for two types of priests, individual and national.
The high priest was the head of priestly affairs and the spiritual head of Israel. He had special duties, like entering the Most Holy Place of the temple annually on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). The high priest wore special clothing that symbolized the nature and importance of his office. There was only one high priest at any given time. He was chosen by God (Heb. 5:1, 4). And he represented all the Israelites as he made “atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17NIV).
Priests were male descendants of Aaron, the first high priest (Ex. 28:1 – 29:46). The priests served in the tabernacle and then the temple. Their main function was to offer continual sacrifices to God in order to atone for sin. They were also teachers and judges and wore special clothing. However, this priesthood was never intended to be permanent (Heb. 7:11). In the New Testament we see that Christ completed and superseded the Aaronic priesthood.
Levites were male members of the tribe of Levi. They assisted the priests, sang psalms, kept the temple courts clean, and assisted with sacrifices and teaching. As the priests and Levites worked full-time in the tabernacle and temple, they were supported by the people’s tithes (10% of their income) and by eating some of the sacrifices. So by profession they were priests and Levites; that was their occupation.
Jewish public worship was carried out by priests, who were all male. There were no female priests. Does this have any implications for public worship in church today?
Also, there was a clear separation between the priests and the people in Jewish public worship. Does this have any implications for public worship in church today?
According to the Mosaic covenant, animal sacrifices to God can only be offered to God on altars at the tabernacle or the temple in Jerusalem. As the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 and it hasn’t been rebuilt since then, no Jewish priests have offered sacrifices for the past 1,945 years. This is why there are no individual Jewish priests today.
When Moses was on Mount Sinai God gave him this message for the Israelites, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). Here the nation of Israel is referred to as “priests”, those who serve in the presence of God. This conditional covenant means they could all be priests and all be holy (set apart from other nations).
The Israelites were to constitute God’s kingdom (the people who acknowledged Him as their king) and, like priests, were to be devoted to His service. They were to be “holy” (set apart) to do God’s will (Dt. 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19). In their priestly role, the Israelites were to be channels of God’s grace to the nations, leading to their salvation (Gen. 12:2-3; Is. 49:6; 61:6). In a coming day, the Gentile nations will follow the God of the Jews and there will be peace and security (Zech. 2:11; 3:1-10; 8:20-23). This didn’t happen in Old Testament times because the Jews disobeyed the covenant. However, they will fulfil this role in a coming day when they recognize Christ as the Messiah under the new covenant.
New Testament priests
The Greek noun translated “priest” (hiereus, Strongs #2409) has a similar meaning to kohen in the Old Testament. It’s used in the book of Hebrews for Melchizedek, Jewish priests, and Jesus Christ. But it’s never used in Scripture to describe a sub-group of people within the church. One of the reasons for this is that because of Christ’s sacrificial death there was no longer a need to offer sacrifices for the sins of the congregation. Because “sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary” (Heb. 10:18), the priests that made these sacrifices are also no longer necessary. This is why there were no priests in the New Testament church.
In the book of Hebrews, Jesus is described as a priest who offered a perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity. He is also a high priest in God’s presence on our behalf. He is a superior high priest to those under the old covenant. The priesthood of Christ completed and superseded the Aaronic priesthood (Co. 2:17; Heb. 5-10).
The fact that the curtain of the temple was torn in two when Christ died symbolized that His death opened new access to God (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). No longer did their access to God depend on a human priest and animal sacrifices. Today all Christians can approach God through Christ (Jn. 14:6; Rom. 5:1-2; Eph. 2:18; Heb. 6:19-20). They can confess their sins directly to God (Mt. 6:12; Lk. 18:13; Acts 2:37-38; 17:30). So, they don’t need a priest as a mediator.
There are no individual priests mentioned in the New Testament church to carry out priestly functions for other Christians. Instead Peter writes, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pt. 2:5)”; and “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Pt.2:9).
This letter was written to Christians who were scattered throughout Asia Minor (modern Turkey) (1 Pt. 1:1). And these verses are in a section that describes a Christian’s privileges and duties (1 Pt. 1:1 – 2:10).
In these verses, Christians are said to be priests that are both holy and royal. They are “holy” because they serve a holy God (1 Pt. 2:5). The “spiritual sacrifices” they offer are Christian worship and service to God and His purposes. They can offer their bodies (Rom. 12:1), offer money or material goods (Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:16), offer good works (Heb. 13:16), offer praise (Heb. 13:15), and serve the Lord (Rom. 15:6). For example, Paul called his proclamation of the gospel a “priestly duty” (Rom. 15:15-16).
Christians are also said to be “royal” because they are privileged (1 Pt. 2:9). This term is associated with being “a chosen people”, “a holy nation” and “God’s special possession”, which reminds us of the Jews and Exodus 19:5-6. Through Christ, they had direct access to God. This also implies that Christians should be priests to all nations. Of course this must involve bringing them to Jesus Christ as the high priest. So as Jews were God’s special people in Old Testament times, Christians are God’s special people today. Peter says that our response should be to praise God (1 Pt.2:9).
John also says that Christians have been made a kingdom and priests to serve God the Father (Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). As priests they have free access to God, and offer up the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and of grateful service.
So what happened to the Jewish priests? There are no individual Jewish priests today because there is no Jewish temple.
It’s significant that there were no Christian priests in New Testament times to mediate between God and people, as we find in the Old Testament. Because of Christ’s sacrificial death, there is no longer a need to offer sacrifices for sin. As the role of priests in the Old Testament wasn’t carried over into the church, the fact that they were male has no implications for the gender roles in Christian public worship. Likewise in Christian worship, there is no need for a clear separation between a sub-group (like the priests) and the rest of the people.
What about other roles that were carried out by Jewish priests and Levites?
• They were spiritual leaders. The model for the overall leadership in the New Testament church is a group of male elders (1 Ti. 3:1-7; Ti. 5-9).
• They inherited their role. This was not the case for elders in the New Testament church.
• Their needed to behave appropriately. Likewise for elders in the New Testament church.
• They spoke public prayers. There are no models indicating who did this in the New Testament church.
• They carried out rituals. There are no models indicating who led the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament church. Some baptisms were done by missionaries, such as Philip and Paul.
• They were prominent in public worship and rest of the people were spectators. There are no models for this in the New Testament church.
• They taught. Those with the gift of teaching taught in the New Testament church.
• They judged. Paul says that Christians should resolve civil disputes rather than taking them to court (1 Cor. 6:1-6). Also, a spiritual Christian can help one who has fallen into sin (Gal. 6:1-2). Jesus also gave a process for dealing with a sin (Mt. 18:15-20).
• They wore special clothing. There is no instance of this mentioned in the New Testament church.
• They sang psalms. There is no mention of song leading in the New Testament church.
• They kept the temple courts clean. The New Testament church usually met in people’s homes.
• They were professional. In the New Testament church there was provision for financial support as required for apostles (1 Cor. 9:4-14), elders (1 Ti. 5:17-18), teachers (Gal. 6:6) and missionaries (Phil. 4:4-19). But each of these could also be tent-makers like Paul.
So the only types of Christian “priesthood” in the New Testament are the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:17; 3:1), and the priesthood of all believers (1 Pt. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6).
We have seen that the roles of priests in public worship in Old Testament times have no implications for gender roles in church meetings today. Because Christ’s sacrifice atoned for our sin, we no longer need priests. They are obsolete because there is no need for a human mediator between us and God. However, because they are God’s special people, all Christians have a joint responsibility to worship and serve the Lord and to bring the good news about Jesus to all the nations of the world.
Written, December 2015