restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


What I Have Learned from the Anabaptists (Part 2)

 David Alan Black  

In my previous essay I mentioned the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Some readers may be thinking I am denying the need for leaders (elders/deacons) in a New Testament church. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But before we can consider the role of congregational leadership we must begin with a fundamental reality – the fact that in the New Testament church there are no priests. And there are no priests precisely because Jesus Himself is the one and only mediator between God and men. It was not until the advent of Christendom that people were needed who could serve as mediators. Simple believers could no longer approach this God of sacerdotal Christianity. As in the Old Testament economy, holy persons were now required who would themselves be able to offer holy sacrifices in holy places (now called “sanctuaries”). In the New Testament, the people (laos) themselves were the bearers of the sacred. Jesus had radically abolished the clergy-laity distinction of Judaism.

It seems to me that we must root out from our minds any acceptance of such a sacral view of the church. When I say that Jesus is against sacralism, I am not trying to say that He is against ministries such as preaching and teaching and leading. It was He, in fact, who gifted the church with the equipping ministry of pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11). The trouble is that there is very little in the New Testament that would support the thesis that the church is to have a special class of Christians who rule over the church in the place of the Head.

The best example of this faulty notion is found in Heb. 13:17, where the expression “those who rule over you” is quite possibly a gross mistranslation of the Greek. The linguistic arguments I have come across in support of an “office” of elder (in terms of title and status, not function) are weak. I earnestly believe that the clerical interpretation of such passages as Heb. 13:17, although advocated by honest exegetes, is a falsification. How is it that when the apostle Paul addresses problems in a local church (say Corinth or Colosse) he never calls upon the “clergy” to resolve the issues? If one supposes that the clergy were to handle all serious problems, this fact is inexplicable.

We can go a step further. In 1 Thess. 5:14 Paul specifically requests the “brothers” – not the church leaders – to admonish those believers who were unruly. Why, if the believers were to defer to their leaders in the case of church discipline, did Paul command the church to expel the unrepentant sinner in 1 Cor. 5:4-5? We have no right to go beyond the clear pattern of the New Testament and insist upon a clergy-laity distinction. It is clear that the New Testament elder was not a proud, prestigious, and powerful ruler but rather a humble, gentle, and deeply spiritual brother (see Matt 23:8) who in the spirit of Jesus was called to serve rather than be served.

To the Anabaptists, then, a clerical ministry seemed out of step with both the spirit and the letter of the New Testament. As Heb. 13:7 shows, the authority of leaders was based not on their position or title but rather on their example (anastrophe) and faithfulness (pistis). The relationship of members to leaders was not one of duty but of love and respect.

We have to recognize that theologians themselves have done much to create this confusion. Jesus’ model of church leadership has nothing to do with status or office. This monumental misunderstanding of the New Testament seems to me to be one of the flagrant proofs that the Anabaptists’ return to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was both necessary and inevitable for a group so earnestly seeking the truth of the Word of God. I see this same spirit at work today when I see younger leaders eschewing grand titles such as “Reverend” or “Minister” or “Senior Pastor,” preferring instead to be called “Brother So-and-so” or simply by their first names. This kind of thinking is contrary to every manmade system or philosophy. A Christianity that seeks no power, no prestige, no position but instead prefers humiliation, service, even suffering? Unthinkable – expect, perhaps, to an Anabaptist.

We have already noted on numerous occasions the rapidity with which the practice of the early church about mutual ministry was abandoned in favor of a clericalized, professionalized, and institutionalized Christianity. In the early Anabaptist community individualism gave way to the principles of cooperation, to mutual dependency, and to the common celebration of Christ’s achievements. It was understood that for the Body of Christ to function as its Head intended, its many otherwise diverse parts had to act as a single entity. There had to be a recognition that each part was important, and in fact the apparently weakest parts of the Body were the indispensable ones. The Anabaptists took Jesus seriously when He said that in the kingdom of God the weakest and lowliest members of the community were to be given priority. They believed that Christians should be committed to voluntary forms of organization in which there is no place for hierarchy or coercive structures.

To complete our sketch of what for me is so important an issue, I would suggest that once Christianity became fashionable, the goal became power, or status, or numbers, or wealth, or size, or large gatherings – all tokens of secular politics. I tried to say something of this in Paul, Apostle of Weakness. Are we to think that God cannot work through the weak? That is the only way He works. But the advent of Christendom does not change at all what God has accomplished through history. Jesus Christ, the Son, humbled Himself and in so doing subverted culture: human power structures are now radically broken. We shall have to look at the details of this later.

July 16, 2007

David Alan Black is the editor of

Back to daveblackonline