The Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, “Know first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.”
Epictetus offers a pearl of wisdom for us who profess the Christian faith, who seek to follow Jesus Christ and live under the kingdom reign of God. We must first understand our identity, what it means to be Christian and therefore be the church, if we are to truly live as followers of Jesus Christ. Then we begin to grasp what it means to participate in the mission of God. We learn to live as a people “communicating to the rest of mankind the universally valid truths concerning God’s liberating and redeeming work with fundamental openness, which in itself is but the continuation of God’s involvement in Christ for the sake of the world.”1
To Be Christian… The Church
That sounds great, very Christian and very missional, as it should. But let’s back up a bit and reflect a little more on what it means to be Christian and therefore be the church.
Writing to Christians in Asia Minor, the apostle Peter said, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession” (1 Pet 2:9).2 It’s a passage most of us are very familiar with. It’s often the go-to passage — book, chapter, and verse — for affirming the priesthood of all believers.
The universal priesthood of all believers is a legacy of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Rather than the priesthood being limited to a special class of ordained clergy, every believer is a priest. That means we stand before God and people go-betweens. So any believer can offer up an intercessory prayer to God on behalf of someone, can proclaim the gospel to others, and can use their gifts of the Spirit to serve in the name of Jesus. Likewise, any believer can hear another person confess their faith in Jesus Christ and baptize that person in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. And any believer can hear a confession of sins and offer the assurance of God’s forgiveness.
What a blessing! The Protestant Reformers got this aspect of the priesthood of all believers right. So I believe it is good that churches have continued this emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.
That said, you may have noticed that I referred to “this aspect” with an indefinite voice, meaning that it’s not the only aspect. There is another aspect that often seems ignored in our day and that’s the communal aspect. That is, it is not just that every believer is a priest but that the church itself is a priest or priesthood.
Again, Peter says, “But you are…” which is plural. “All Y’all,” as they sometimes say in the great state of Arkansas. Peter is addressing the entire church as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” Our western mindset, which is formed by individualism, misses the fact that Peter is talking about the identity of the church as a collective whole.
It makes more sense when we remember the language Peter uses is taken from the story of Israel, particularly their exodus from oppression in Egypt. God promised Israel that by keeping the covenant they would “be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5). As a community, God set Israel apart as his elected nation and priesthood. They didn’t belong to any other nation but instead served as the people who stood before God and the other nations. Israel was to serve as the go-between God and the nations so that every nation would come to know God as the Lord. This was the mission God called Israel to participate in.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah who fulfilled this missional calling. Now the calling is extended to us who follow Jesus, becoming participants in the mission of God. Having been baptized in the name of Jesus and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), we are now the people whom God has set apart as the ones elected to participate in his mission.3
This missional calling was fulfilled by the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. So now the church, that is us who believe in Jesus, are set apart as God’s elected people. That is why Peter appropriates the blessing God declared upon Israel and declares it upon the church of Jesus Christ.
The Challenge Before Us
What then do we make of this? Is every individual Christian a priest? Yes. But we must also reclaim the communal aspect and live within its claim upon our lives as the church.
Since the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity and issued the Edict of Milan (318 A.D.), the church and state began a slow merge. This merge became what is now known as Christendom, in which the church relied upon state power to advance a Christian society. Although America has always embraced the separation of church and state, Christendom remained operative in the sense that laws and public policies broadly reflected a Christian worldview.
The rise of modernity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries served as the death notice of Christendom. Although the demise has been slow, with some Christians still grasping on to her last vestiges, Christendom is pretty much gone. Today we live in a post-Christendom society but one that is also very secular. The rise of secularization has resulted in the compartmentalization of the sacred, where the existence of God makes little difference in the lives of people. A secular mindset, one that is distant, if not separated, now forms the collective imaginations of people with regards to the way the world operates.
Christianity in America is not exempt. Regardless of how often Christians might “go to church,” many identify themselves by their nation of origin rather than their baptism. Too many Christians sound more like an elephant or donkey than the crucified Christ. Stories of abuse and corruption among churches seem never-ending. Church itself has become a big business of marketing and production all to build the brand. And what is troubling is how the Bible has been co-opted, proof-texted, and used so that it fits with whatever story — other than the gospel — which defines reality.
This is the challenge that stands before us as we reclaim the communal aspect of our identity in Christ.
Conclusion: The Baptism We Have Received
The way beyond this morass begins with remembering who we are, that we are the church. The story of America, or for that matter, Canada, Great Britain, or any other nation-state, is not the story of the gospel told throughout scripture and we can’t live into two different stories. So now we must remember that in Christ, along with the baptism we have received, makes a new claim upon us. We are now the ones chosen by God to serve as his priest, living as a holy nation among the nations of this world. When we come to grips with that and allow the Spirit to reform our imaginations around that reality, we’ll rediscover what it means to be the church on mission with God.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Engagement With God, trans. R. John Halliburton, Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1971; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008, 32.
- All scripture quotations are taken from the Common English Bible, copyright 2011. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking The Bible’s Grand Narrative, Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2006, 369, “We cannot speak biblically of the doctrine of election without insisting that it was never an end in itself but a means to the greater end of the ingathering of nations. Election must be seen as missiological, not merely soteriological.” In other words, election is about participating in the mission of God rather than just being saved. This makes sense when we consider that election in the Bible begins with Abraham, whom God elects as the one through whom all nations (not just a limited number) will be blessed (cf. Gen 17:1-8).
K. Rex Butts serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.