The division between the sacred and secular has affected how Christians think about their work. This article shows that the coming of Christ, the goodness of creation, and the priesthood of all believers destroy this division.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2005. 3 pages.

We Are All Priests All true Christians are in full-time ministry, whatever we do

I remember a public meeting at univer­sity when I first came across the idea that “full-time” ministry was the most appropriate calling for the faith­ful Christian. I still recall the speaker’s impassioned plea to think of the millions of people in the world who were destined for a Christless eternity unless many of us heeded his call to become evangelists and missionaries. And I also distinctly remember that he challenged us to give up our small ambitions in this world so as to embrace God’s plan for world evangelisa­tion.

It was a moving appeal, and while it didn’t directly affect my decision to train for the Christian ministry, it did create a tension in my mind. Could a Christian in good conscience pursue any of a thousand different careers while there were still so many people who hadn’t heard of Christ? Who would warn them of the coming judgment and point them to Jesus as the Saviour?

Come to think of it, was it even legiti­mate to be spending time pursuing cul­tural, artistic and sporting activities? Eric Liddell’s sister, Jenny, in the film Chariots of Fire, echoed many of the lecturer’s sen­timents when she accused her gold medal-winning brother of selfish indulgence by running in the Olympics. The issue is: is the only way to evaluate our lives to ask the question whether our occupations have provided us with umpteen opportu­nities for witness and evangelism? Many moderns Christians seem to think so.

In my experience as a pastor I often come across young people in particular who experience enormous spiritual tor­ment over these issues. Well-meaning friends, who recognise their considerable talents, suggest that they are wasting their lives if they do not devote themselves exclusively to gospel ministry. Often, these friends exert considerable psycho­logical pressure to persuade them to pur­sue theological studies or to begin Gospel ministry training.

Usually, the two assumptions that are implicit in their advice are, first, that the Christian life consists essentially of “wit­ness” and evangelism and that those who do not devote themselves seriously to this task are a lesser breed of believer.

The second assumption is related to the first in that it sees life as divided into spir­itual and worldly components. The spiri­tual realm consists of religious activities such as prayer, Bible-reading, evangelism and church attendance. The worldly realm, by contrast, is found in the more mundane activities of life –– holding a job, doing the shopping, paying the bills and changing a nappy. These activities are considered of a lower order, and therefore less important.

My aim in this article is to exam­ine the second of these assump­tions and to see whether it is well-grounded in Scripture. Then I want to look at Martin Luther’s contribution to the doctrines of priesthood and vocation to see how the 16th century reformer used biblical insights and historical theology to bring balance to this perplexing subject.

First, then, let’s look at the assumption that the spiritual realm stops at the church door and does not extend into the public square. In the Genesis creation account, we read that God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. The pin­nacle of God’s creative activity, of course, was man –– male and female (Genesis 1:26, 27). Note the repeated reference to God’s reaction after each of His creative acts. One refrain is repeated over and over: “God saw that it was good.”

One can only draw the conclusion that God is at pains to affirm the essential goodness of the material realm. Christians are meant to believe that the created order is fundamentally good and that activities that explore, develop and protect that order are meaningful, worthwhile and pleasing to God. Unfortunately, not every generation of Christians has seen the world in this way.

During the early history of the church a movement developed that regarded the material realm as basically evil. The move­ment was known as Gnosticism, and although it was condemned by the church, it has never really been silenced. Gnostic tendencies have appeared in the church in every generation. They are eas­ily identified by the way in which they compartmentalise existence into spiritual and material realms with the implication that activities related to the material order are of a lesser kind. This means, for instance, that a doctor who looks after our bodies is engaged in a less important form of work than a minister who is principally concerned for people’s souls.

This assumption runs into a brick wall when we think about the Incarnation. The Incarnation represents God’s love for the world. God, who is Spirit, became man. That is, the Divine was somehow united to the material world.

The implications of the Incarnation are revolutionary and Christians in various ages have struggled to come to terms with them. For example, the Docetists in the second century couldn’t conceive how the spiritual could be linked to this world. On the other hand, in the fourth century, the Arians had difficulty coming to terms with the idea that a man could be God. They couldn’t bring themselves to believe Jesus really was divine.

Each of these heresies, whether Gnosticism, Docetism or Arianism, compartmentalises the spiritual and mate­rial realms, and each is reluctant to affirm the fundamental goodness of creation and the human activities that support it. And this is why we should be especially wary of moderns tendencies within the church that manifest these characteristics, especially when they appear in the guise of well-intentioned advice that effectively down­grades every occupation that is not directly involved in the ministry of the Gospel.

So in a real sense, the fundamental goodness of the created order is the issue at point in whether “full-time” Christian ministry is the most worthy occupation for a Christian. In my judgment, this notion is founded on a defective under­standing of the goodness of God’s cre­ation and the reality of the Incarnation.

Sadly, down through the centuries the idea that matter is somehow inferior, and that its possession (usually in the form of gold) is evil, has been the bane of the church. For instance, in the Middle Ages it found expression in the radical call to poverty by St Francis of Assisi, and today the same note is struck by Marxist libera­tion theologians who assume that wealth is fundamentally evil and that rich people must be compelled to give it up (usually at the point of a gun). Both these movements are founded on a basic misunder­standing of the goodness of creation, and the idea that church-related ministry is a superior calling for the Christian is equally defective. It is founded on a simi­lar (but often unconscious) misunder­standing.

Now for Luther’s part in all this. Luther was born into a world where it was assumed that Christendom was com­prised of two different orders of people — the religious (monks, nuns and priests) and the laity. The first order was consid­ered a superior class. The distinction between the two had developed in the early centuries of the church.

The idea is first found in the book Demonstration of the Gospel, by Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (AD 265­-339). He argued that Christ in the Sermon on the Mount authorised two ways of life for believers. One way is referred to as the “perfect life”; the other is the “permitted life”. The perfect life is spiritual, dedicated to religious exercises and reserved for the clergy and religious orders; the permitted life involves every day activities such as politics, soldiering, farming, and raising a family. It is the lot of ordinary believers.

This division controlled the social order from the early Middle Ages until the Reformation. For example, while both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas praised the work of farmers, craftsmen, and mer­chants, they always regarded the religious life as qualitatively superior to the secular life.

Luther reacted violently to this teach­ing. His understanding of the doctrines of justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers and Christian “calling” cast doubt over this division of life into spiri­tual versus secular orders. He denied there was a special religious vocation because he claimed the call of God came to each man at his common tasks. One of Luther’s contemporaries said, “This is the work which emptied the cloisters”.

In Luther’s mind, the real “spiritual estate” was made up not of clergy but of the whole body of believers through Jesus Christ, clerical and lay alike. Further, he believed that the Bible taught that every Christian was a priest (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:5). A soldier belonged to the spiritual estate as much as a bishop.

He said: “We are all consecrated priests through bap­tism, as St. Peter says in 1 Peter 2:9 ‘you are a royal priesthood’ ... all Christians are truly of the spiritual state and there is no difference among them except that of office.” Elsewhere he says: “Scripture makes all of us equally priests; and the churchly priest­hood which we now      separate from the laity is really called ‘ministry’. In fact nowhere is it called priesthood.”

A number of consequences flow from Luther’s view of the priesthood of all believers. First, perhaps the most obvious is that “lay people” can live the Christian life to the full. The distinction between clergy and laity as an order of existence is abolished. This puts paid to the idea that “full-time” church work is somehow bet­ter than other callings.

Second, although some believed that the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers undermined the pastoral office, this was not so. Luther was at pains to remind people that the pastoral office was a vocation too, a calling from God with its own authority and responsibilities. The office of the preacher and the work of evangelists and missionaries are absolutely essential to the advance of the Kingdom.

Third, the “priesthood of all believers”, while it did not mean that everyone auto­matically became involved in full-time church work, did turn every kind of work into a sacred calling. Up until this time, people in the church had looked upon marriage as a second-class form of exis­tence. However, Luther insisted that mar­riage was a legitimate calling and that a mother and father could be priests to their own children and could render a valuable religious service unto God.

The second doctrine which trans­formed Luther’s thinking about a Christian’s role in the world was the doc­trine of “calling”. Since the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers had abolished the distinction between the spiritual and secular realms, Luther saw that the biblical teaching of calling was particularly signif­icant in explaining a Christian’s work and relationships.

Further, once Luther realised that all of life was spiritual, he suddenly saw how ordinary work could be done for the glory of God. If all worthy occupations were divine callings, then no labour was beneath a man’s dignity. “A dairy-maid can milk cows to the glory of God,” he said. Further, Luther saw that common work was good because God Himself performs these tasks. For instance, God is a tailor who makes a coat for the deer that will last a thousand years. He is also a butler who sets forth a feast for the sparrows and spends on them each year more than any king.

All of this solves the problem that so many Christians face today: is the only true calling a call to full-time service? No. And if I can’t be a full-time Christian worker, does my work have any signifi­cance apart from being the means to pay the church’s bills? Yes. If you doubt it, remember the goodness of creation, the reality of the Incarnation and the contri­bution of Martin Luther to the doctrines of the priesthood of all believers and divine calling.

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