Priests and Temples

Thus Aaron will be your spokesman to the people, in effect; for you, he will be a mouth; and for him, you will be like God.

Exodus 4:16

Most will know the story: Moses saw a problem in his stuttering and wanted to evade the role and responsibility that God had in store for him. We don’t know if it was an excuse–he had the best education in the world–or a real problem.

We know that God put Aaron at his side–with far-reaching consequences: He will be your mouth and you will be God for him, as Luther translates.

The people of Israel also decided on Mount Sinai that they did not want to meet God themselves, but that Moses should go on their behalf.

Other nations and tribes already had such vicarious models in the form of priests, and Israel wanted the same model in their relationship with God.

We see something similar regarding kingship: Israel was ruled by judges, when necessary, for a couple of centuries and otherwise had no official government. And then they wanted a king, and God gave in.

Samuel refused at first, but God convinced him that the people’s wishes were not directed against Samuel, but against him, that is God himself.

God responds to the wishes of his people.

But what did this refusal by Moses and Israel lead to? Let’s go back to Abraham for a better picture.

According to extra-biblical sources, Abram was the son of a priest to a pagan God-King. God revolutionized the way he spoke to people by speaking to Abram personally. No proxy was necessary, even Melchizedek did not become God’s proxy for Abraham, but an instrument of his blessings.

We see the same thing with Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. They all spoke directly to God, and not only them, but Sarah and Hagar too.

The representation of God by priests also meant that God had to be hidden from the general public in a tent and later a building because the general public did not want any direct contact with God.

So the priesthood and the temple were not God’s desire, but the desire of human beings. God took them seriously. We see this in the dialogue between God and David and in prophetic statements: how could God have a place in a man-made temple? It was David’s wish in the first place that a temple would come into being.

How does the New Testament underline this interpretation of history? Doesn’t John tell us that we don’t need a person to instruct us because the Spirit lives in us?

But you have received the Holy Spirit from God and he lives in you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you. Because the Spirit teaches you everything, and what it teaches is true–it is not a lie. So stick to what he taught you and keep living with Christ!

1 John 2:27

And wasn’t the curtain in the temple torn, even the temple destroyed?

It was only when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire that a system of priests and temples was reintroduced, which is still in place today. One sees this especially in Catholicism with the Pope as Christ’s representative.

We call these alternates priest, pastor, minister, fivefold ministry. Of course, the fivefold ministry is a biblical thing, and so is the pastor, which seems to make the thing so right.

It’s not the names that are the problem, but the characteristics of the structure that we build with them.

I’ve had a few visions lately that also reminded me of a few old visions I had years ago. It was all about community structures.

A first model is the wedding cake: the lowest layer is the congregation, which carries the body of elders as the second layer, and on top the pastoral couple. A hierarchical system of representation in which the authority rests with one person.

I call the second model the bodybuilder wedding cake: the lowest layer remains to visualize the church, but on top of it stands the pastoral couple who lifts the layer of the body of elders. Here we have an oligarchic hierarchy, a rule of the few.

Next is the paraglider model: the church is a cloth, and there is a member of the five-fold ministry on every corner. The pastor who cares for the members stands opposite the evangelist who cares for the people out there. The prophet faces the teacher, with the tension of the now word over scripture. A rope goes out from each corner and is held by the apostle. He thus pulls the congregation stretched out by the other ministries and it flies.

This often gives rise to the mailbag model: the apostle requires the other leaders to use the same language that he uses. Only his knowledge and doctrine can be preached. The various ministries come to the apostle’s side, the corners of the cloth visualizing the church are grouped together, and the church is pulled along like a mailbag by all the leaders including the apostle. The tension of the ropes, that is, the diversity of the services with their talents, is lost, and there is no more flying.

All of these models have something in common: they always speak of two types of Christians. Either there are cake layers and figurines, or cloth and people. We also speak of shepherds and sheep in normal parlance. This is how we qualitatively differentiate between the leaders appointed by God and the normal members.

Plato did this. He wanted to restore the rule of the aristocracy after Solon had established the first rudimentary form of democracy in Athens in the sixth century BC.

Plato explained that the state was the perfect principle of pure logic and that aristocrats were the only people by birth who understood this principle. Everyone else would have to do what the aristocrats told them to do.

In the fourth century AD, Christianity was the mockery of the Greek philosophers. But the leaders of the churches replied that Plato had drawn the wrong conclusion out of ignorance. The perfect principle is heaven, not the state, and the priests are the aristocrats of this realm, the only ones who understand the principles of heaven. Everyone else would have to do as they were told.

So it only took a few centuries before the people wanted a priesthood and temple again, a system of representation, just like in ancient times.

The pagan priestly system after the flood was followed by the direct speaking of God, which the Israelites rejected and thus made a priesthood and a temple necessary.

The slavery of Egypt was followed by liberation by God so that the people could live directly dependent on him. But they didn’t want judges more freedom, they wanted a king.

Following the slavery of the law, Jesus set us free and gave the Spirit to everyone, but we wanted a substitute and created a new priesthood.

We still do that today, albeit in a more subtle way. Of course we grant everyone the right to come directly to God in prayer. Of course, there are churches that allow lay people to preach and distribute so-called sacraments. Of course every pastor wants the individual to participate in the tasks of the congregation. And yet the pastor or apostle determines the tasks, direction, teaching and program of the church.

What is confusing is that the Bible itself speaks of fivefold ministry and elders. The only problem here is that we interpret these offices with our glasses, our worldview, as we are used to.

We only know hierarchical structures, because for hundreds and thousands of years we have not lived otherwise. That was probably why the Israelites wanted priesthood and kingship. The short times in which it was different have shaped us far too little.

Our imprint does not even allow us to interpret these times accordingly. It is claimed that the time of the judges was a transition period until God would find a worthy king in David. Saul was just a premature realization of God’s plan. This in turn leads to the fear of wanting things too early and thus not getting anywhere. But that’s another topic for another time.

The fivefold ministry describes companions, mentors, advisers with a precisely defined and diverse talent set who support other believers, not hierarchical functions. This can be seen, among other things, in the fact that they never stayed in a community permanently.

A model for the accompanying function is the zebra herd: the strongest animals stand at the edge of the herd and protect the weaker ones in the middle, while the herd as a whole appears to the lion as a huge single zebra. The identification of individual zebras by scientists, let us say, with an ear clip, has enabled a lion to identify a single zebra and thus hunt it down. It is precisely the division into classes that makes us vulnerable.

My vision of an orchestra is about an alternative model: unity in diversity and mutual service under the direct guidance of God.

It is time to return to God’s desire for how church is built. He let us have our will and met us out of grace in all these man-made models. But I long for more.