The evangelical priesthood
We have identified some symptoms of evangelical decline — the downgrade of preaching and an accompanying overemphasis on music in worship (September & November 2012 ETs). We now consider a further disturbing element.
Put simply, this is a departure from the historic and biblical view of the ‘Christian ministry’. By that phrase, we refer to those appointed by God and recognised by the church as gifted to lead the people of God through teaching the Word of God.
The evangelical church has invented a whole new office to mediate the ‘sacrament’ of music to the people of God. This new priesthood goes by the name of ‘worship leader’.
There are books, resources, and whole conferences devoted to helping ‘worship leaders’ maximise their effectiveness in giving the Sunday congregation a truly ‘awesome’ worship experience.
What has been so surprising is how readily evangelical congregations have accepted this new priesthood, and done so at the expense of biblical ministry.
When Jeroboam broke away from the Davidic kingdom to set up his own empire in the north, he had a concern. The project would be undermined if Israel continued to go down to Jerusalem to worship.
His solution was as idolatrous as it was pragmatic. Under pretence of concern for the people, he offered them an alternative that would save them travelling to the temple. He set up two golden calves and ‘made priests from every class of people, who were not of the sons of Levi’ (1 Kings 12:31).
We read of no protest on the part of Israel, just culpable acquiescence to the king’s innovations. No doubt they believed they were still worshipping Jehovah, and had simply modernised and adapted to the changing situation.
It is clear, however, that the author of 1 Kings did not share this ambivalence. By pointing out that these new priests were ‘not of the sons of Levi’, he is underlining their lack of biblical legitimacy.
It is this very point of biblical legitimacy that causes us such concern in the appointment of ‘worship leaders’. One searches the New Testament in vain to find any description, definition or example of an office in the church called ‘worship leader’.
Instead, we read that Christ ‘gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers’ (Ephesians 4:11). Nowhere does it say that he gave the church ‘worship leaders’.
This silence in Scripture drives some back into the Old Testament, seeking justification from temple worship. But this will not do, for we are now living in the ‘hour’ spoken of by our Lord in John 4 when temple worship has been superseded.
We must establish worship practices from the New Testament. Nowhere do we read of the apostles appointing worship leaders in the churches.
For some, this hardly matters. If they judge the need of the hour is for the church to have people of musical talent lead the worship, then that is what they will have. But others, anxious to follow the biblical pattern Christ gives, are persuaded that the New Testament’s silence on ‘worship leaders’ means the trend is unbiblical. As with Jeroboam’s inventions, it has the potential of a disastrous legacy for generations to come.
But is it fair to compare contemporary worship leaders with the illegitimate priests of Israel? Surely churches choosing to appoint worship leaders are not compromising the gospel? We offer the following arguments as cautions against the practice.
First, Christ, the Head of the church, has already given his church worship leaders. The New Testament calls them ‘elders’, ‘overseers’, or ‘pastors’. New Testament worship was not leaderless, for ‘God is not the author of confusion, but of peace’.
Biblical churches are led by elders, whose responsibility it is to ‘take care of the church of God’ (1 Timothy 3:5). Central to this is the lead they give when the church gathers for worship.
It is tragic to see how contemporary worship leaders are beginning to replace part of the role meant for pastors and elders. We see it in the amount of time devoted to music, the amount of noise they make, the amount of space devoted to their equipment, and the amount of attention lavished on high profile, musical personalities.
The result is that an office of human invention sidelines those whom Christ has appointed to lead worship. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it is inevitable when music usurps the focal point of evangelical worship.
Second, the spoken word is the primary means by which Christ would have his church led. We see this in the leadership gifts he has given his church. These centre on word ministry, not music.
This is clear from the list in Ephesians 4:11. It is also apparent in the priorities of 1 Corinthians 12:28: ‘God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that, miracles…’
We notice two things about this list: the absence of musical gifts and the priority of word gifts. The first three gifts are all word-related and are in a superior category, as indicated by the words ‘after that’ introducing the other gifts.
The appointment of a musical ‘priesthood’ leads to a conflict with and a distraction from the primary role of a teaching ministry, by which the church should be led.
In making this point we are not suggesting that preachers are legitimate ‘priests’, whilst worship leaders are illegitimate — that would be to repeat the mistake of the Roman Catholic Church. The New Testament teaches the priesthood of all believers, subservient to the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. However, it is clear that Christ appoints certain men to lead the church by teaching his Word.
Third, the New Testament church, in choosing its leaders, always placed the emphasis on moral character and spiritual maturity. This is shown by Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus for appointing elders (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).
Even deacons, whose role was practical, were expected to be spiritual men ‘of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom’ (Acts 6:3). However, qualifications for this new ministry, unfamiliar to the New Testament, bear a strong resemblance to characteristics applauded by the celebrity culture.
Musical talent is clearly the necessary and overriding consideration for the role. In addition, it seems highly desirable that a worship leader be young, good-looking, with a contemporary wardrobe and hairstyle reflecting the latest trends. This may seem an unfair caricature, but sadly the evidence points all too often in this direction.
Is it possible that such a carnal spirit could be found in the church of Jesus Christ? It comes as no surprise when we recognise that much of the ethos of ‘contemporary worship’ has been lifted straight out of the world.
There is good reason why the New Testament urges spiritual qualifications for those who lead worship. It is the most serious and responsible job on the planet! The worship of God is not something that can be done casually. It demands great care, deep biblical understanding, profound godliness, and extensive prayerfulness. ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’
The appointment of contemporary worship leaders within evangelical churches is, we fear, symptomatic of a spiritual malaise. It undermines the Christ-ordained pattern of worship led by elders, it distracts from a word-centred ministry and thrusts into the limelight individuals who may be least suited for leadership of the gathered church.
It is a pragmatic and unbiblical practice that caters for a carnal form of Christianity. With Paul, we ‘fear lest somehow … your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 11:3).