Have Free Church Worship Leaders Become Protestant Priests?


The priesthood of the believer is one of the foundational doctrinal tenets of congregations in the Free Church culture.  Our belief is that in the new covenant Jesus became our mediator and serves as the intercessor for the people of God.  An earthly priest is no longer required; the sacrifice was complete; Jesus’ blood was offered; the veil was torn in half; and the way was now open for all to worship him.  We adhere to this precept but do we really practice it?  Have congregants abdicated their responsibility and have worship leadership designees guarded that territory as a place reserved only for those called and trained? 

The attitude that worship will occur when leaders create worship flow has consigned the accountability of the individual worshiper to the leadership of an earthly high priest reminiscent of the old covenant.  The new covenant outlined in Hebrews 9 and 10 offers Jesus as “a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man” (Heb 8:2).  In this place of ministry, Jesus has become our Liturgist and serves as our mediator in worship preparation and implementation.  As the tabernacle and its elements are described, the author points out that the old covenant limits access to God.  Only the high priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies one time a year with a blood offering (Heb 9:3, 6-7).  The place where God’s presence was most realized was not available except through the high priest and only at certain times of the year.  The new covenant through the blood sacrifice of Christ gave and continues to give believers access to the presence of the living God.  The earthly high priest was no longer needed for access to God since “Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come” (Heb 9:11).

Additional justification for passivity of the untrained worshiper is often found in the feeling of unworthiness, which contributes to the relinquishment of responsibility to others more qualified to perform the functions of worship.  Have worship leaders unwittingly or perhaps intentionally perpetuated that understanding?  Is there anyone who should feel more unworthy than the one God has trusted with the responsibility to lead?  The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we can enter the presence of God with boldness not available in the restrictions of the old covenant.  He writes, “Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb 10:19).  Who reads, speaks, prays, testifies, leads, sings, exhorts, offers communion, baptizes, encourages confession, blesses, offers thanksgiving, and mediates in your services of worship?  Can we expect participative worship when the only participation available is observation?  Can some of these elements traditionally presented by leaders be presented by the people?  The new covenant has provided access to all who follow Christ.  Genuine participation is limited when worship is done for us by a select few.


6 Responses to “Have Free Church Worship Leaders Become Protestant Priests?”

  • Bob Hartmann Says:

    David, thanks for including me. I can’t remember the last time I spoke or have heard directly about the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer or its implications concerning corporate worship. This may be a bit of a different angle, but this is what I see. The recognition and experience of the priesthood of the believer in God’s people is primarily encouraged by God empowered leadership in the life of the church. At the risk of being over-simplistic, it is thru leadership on a corporate level tat we communicate the truths of this doctrine for all to experience. Worship leadership (which is both singing and the proclamation of God’s Word) is more than the mechanics of going thru a piece of music or points in a message. We share as leaders our personal communion with the Lord by virtue of being a NT priest in the manner thru which we lead and communicate. It is in the tone of our voice. It is in words that are used to direct people to draw near to God to know His holy character. It is also in the passion that is expressed thru what we do. Because we have already personally and privately communed with (worshipped) our Lord, then what happens corporately is a spillover. It is in this dynamic that we are indirectly teaching the priesthood of the believer to our congregations because we are actively worshipping as we are leading (George – I believe you said this much better than I have). One result will be the growth of God;s people in terms of already having personally worshipped (exercising their priesthood) before ever stepping foot in the corporate setting. Each of us understands how this would greatly change the dynamic of the worship services we seek to lead.
    Thanks for allowing me to share my two cents worth.

  • Grant Says:

    You asked “Have worship leaders unwittingly or perhaps intentionally perpetuated that understanding?”

    While I think worship is larger than just the 60 to 75 minute experience (we also worship when we serve the Rescue Mission, the tribe, the school, in our small groups, etc…) — your question deserves a straight answer from those of us who plan and craft these weekly (sometimes weakly) experiences.

    And our answer is shown in HOW we plan our services. How many people sit around the table to plan the experience? If it’s only paid staff — then yes, we are perpetuating that. If it’s just a couple of people – then yes, we are. If there are more ‘no’s’ than ‘let’s try it’, we’re probably feeding the beast that worship is to be observed by those who aren’t good enough to do it right.

    What has higher value around our tables — a smooth service that informs and educates or a messy encounter with God that leaves us (at least some of us) undone? A safe, stable service that gets the nod of approval or an experience that rattles us in ways we’re uncomfortable with? Do we only do elements in our service that we know exactly how it will play out or do we stretch to include elements that are awkward, convicting, and risky?

    I believe that the ‘gathering’ experience should be one of the riskiest things a church does every week. It should be stretching, multiple voices, experiences, multi-sensory and transformative. We should be scared to death every week on some level. And I don’t think those kinds of experiences can happen with just one or two people calling the shots.

    End of rant…crawling back in hole. 🙂 ha ha

  • Georges Boujakly Says:

    I agree that worship has now become a specialty. It was so in the Old Testament when the priest stood between the worshiper to voice prayers to God and the prophet stood between God to voice the demands of God to the people. I also agree that the New Testament gives us a new vision of worship that is not encumbered by the means or functions of the offices of the leaders of worship. Worship is now free, Spirited, and Truthful. But it always is, first, corporate.

    On another note, declaring the word of God, as Kelly says, is different. But I don’t think it’s different in kind. Declaration too is an act of worship. It has not happened all the time to me while I preach. But it has happened often enough that I now believe that the act of preaching can be an act of worship. It’s a wonderful thing, something beyond description, when while delivering the message of God to the people of God, you are worshiping through that offering.

    Some people perceiving worship to have become consumerist have rejected corporate worship in favor of small group worship or individual worship.

    A few words from Eugene Peterson seem also appropriate to this discussion. I quote from his book: Practice Resurrection, the fifth and last in his series on spiritual theology (the way we live our Christian life with God in imitation of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit).

    On page 36 he says “Common worship, that is, corporate worship (worship ‘in common’), gives the basic form and provides the essential content for this aspect of ‘growing up’ to the ‘full stature of Christ.’ Private worship while alone in semi-paralysis before a TV screen is not mature worship. Certainly we can worship in solitary. Some of our richest moments of worship will come while strolling on a beach or wandering in a garden or perched on a mountain peak. What we must not do is deliberately exclude others from our worship or worship selectively with like-minded friends. These are not options on offer (in Ephesians). Maturity develops in worship as we develop in friendship with the friends of God, not just our preferred friends. Worship shapes us not only individually but as a community, a church. If we are going to grow up in Christ we have to do it in the company of everyone who is responding to the call of God. Whether we happen to like them or not has nothing to do with it.”

    He continues on page 37: “One of the common dismissals of worship is that it is , well, so common. It is boring, nothing happens–“I don’t get anything out of it.” And so well-meaning people [some misinformed worship leaders] decide to put adrenaline in it.
    …Worship, isn’t meant to make anything happen. Worship brings us into a presence in which God makes something happen”.

  • Steve Eddy Says:

    Excellent topic and one that I believe is (and has been) an issue in several ways.

    One way can be driven by a congregation that is difficult to engage. I’ve seen worship leaders deal with this, and have dealt with this a lot with youth. I believe it ties directly back to “personal relationship with Jesus” immaturity and must be addressed from a ground up standpoint where we teach people to worship when they are alone with God (and just spending this time daily). As this personal worship matures, their involvement in congregational worship will mature. I believe that one way evidence of this immaturity manifests itself is where people put more focus on the type of music and contemporary-ness or traditional-ness of a service instead of the awesome privilege we have to come together in complete un-persecuted freedom to worship in community!

    The second way is when personal pride collides with leadership or a chance to tout talents and gifts in front of everyone else. I personally don’t like instrumental or vocal solos/duets unless they are used wisely to promote transition, focus, or involvement in a congregational worship environment, and are approached with severe humility. I’ve heard people say that singing solos in front of the church is their way of worshiping. My take on this type of statement is that singing the solo to God with no one else around is a much more precious form of worship and that you will be more focused on God than your public performance. Anyone who wants to have any form of leadership in worship should first ask the hardest question of all – “Do I want to do any part of this for me?”. We are human so absolute humility is impossible, at least for me. But we must strive to put ourselves there as worship leaders every time.

    OK, so that’s my 2 or 3 cents…Also, to expound on one of the previous comments, I completely separate worship from preaching/teaching/proclamation in my mind. Worship is part of preparing our focus and opening our hearts to allow God to talk to us. Same with private, personal worship, it is our focusing on God to allow him to communicate back to us. Quieting our life to hear Him.

  • Andy Addis Says:

    Great thoughts Dave. I think this is more than an appropriate concern within the constructs of the Sunday morning culture. There need to be some ‘trainable’ moments that produce disciples who worship, and aren’t just lead in worship as you have communicated. Even beyond that, we must communicate that worship is not limited to the singing/preaching/praying room.

    We just started a 3 week series on intensive spiritual disciplines for the growing believer called STRETCHED. The first discipline we tackled was worship and we defined worship as the focus of our attention and affection in a singular direction.

    The challenge then is to correct our focus on the improper and strengthen our focus on the proper. In this way, believers can be worshippers with a lifestyle of praise.

    There’s a link to this week’s teaching (Stretched – the Discipline of Worship) on the crosseyedlife.com site and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks Dave for the thought provoking discussion.

  • Kelly Randolph Says:

    I generally agree with the point you make in this article. I do think that there has been a move toward worship services becoming more like concerts in which worshipers become observers. I think it is important to emphasize participatory elements in a worship service. For example, more congregational singing is preferable to more solo or small group elements.

    That said, I think that there are some who have taken this principle to unhealthy and, in my opinion, unbiblical extremes. This is especially true in relation to preaching. This can be seen in so-called “dialogical preaching” in which preaching becomes more of a conversation than a declaration. There are some elements of the worship service which call for a different kind of participation. Many can sing at the same time. Only one can preach at the same time. So the participation demanded by preaching is of a different sort than what is required by singing. It requires reflection and mental engagement rather than verbal participation (with the exception of the occasional “amen”).

    Certainly there are other elements of the service which can invovle the verbal participation of the congregation. Reading Scripture together is one example. Having other individuals lead in elements of the service is certainly appropriate at times. But even in things such as baptism, serving communion, or offering a benediction there is normally one person (or a few persons) leading others in participation which will be different than the participation of the leaders.

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