Thursday, November 8, 2012

Response to John Nugent: Part 4 - The Levitical Priesthood

This part is in response to the section in Nugent's third post entitled "Priestly Irresponsibility". In this section Nugent concentrates his more concrete answer to the question he posed at the end of his second post: What is a Christian's role in the world if not to "help Caesar rule it"? Recall that in order to judge something a clear standard is required. Will Nugent provide a clear standard for what it is acceptable for Christians to do and what is not acceptable?

What is the Standard?

Nugent presents the example of the Levitical priesthood as the standard. The Levites were a tribe of ancient Israel that was entrusted with the priesthood. All the other tribes received land in Canaan except for the Levites. Instead they were scattered across the entire nation and tasked with performing the priestly duties necessary for keeping the law which, if one has read the law, consisted primarily of taking the people's various sacrifices and burning them in various ways while keeping part of the sacrifices to feed themselves. The Torah is quite specific in some places, even specifying which parts of a butchered animal are to be burnt for what type of offering and which parts the Levites can keep for their "salary" if you will. Of course none of this is helpful for us today, even though it represents the bulk of what we know of the Levites' priestly duties.

But there are still some interesting tidbits which might be helpful. Nugent mentions the Levites' role as overseers of the "cities of refuge". What were the "cities of refuge"? It's actually a very interesting and arcane corner of the law in Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19 having to do with the way they handled the punishment and prosecution of murderers. Whenever a person was killed by someone else, either accidentally or on purpose, someone else, called the "avenger of blood", was allowed to pursue and kill the suspected murderer. The suspect would then flee to one of the cities of refuge. Catch me if you can! Either at the city of refuge or sometime before, either the "assembly" or a "judge" would determine the innocence or guilt of the suspect. If guilty, the suspect would be killed. If innocent, the suspect was given a sort of prison sentence and required to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the current high priest. If the suspect ever left the city, the avenger of blood was allowed to kill them.

What if we tried to apply these roles to the modern day? The cities of refuge really functioned as a sort of penal system for accidental manslaughter (murderers were put to death as already mentioned), so another modern parallel to the role of the Levites was prison wardens. Today our prison wardens are paid by the government, as are the prisons themselves. So are Christians allowed to work in prisons? I have a friend who does, and I'm sure he's very much concerned whether a teacher of the law believes he is sinning or not. What about police officers? Lawyers? Judges? A consistent application of Nugent's vacuous principle is not forthcoming, but if it was, I wonder how many Christians besides politicians and voters would come down on the wrong side of it?

Nugent describes part of the Levites duties as studying the Torah, so I'm assuming Christians are allowed to participate in the academy. Or not, since most academic research is paid for by government grants through forcible taxation. What about public K-12 schools? These are run directly by state governments, and teachers are paid for through tax revenue. Children are required by law to attend or they can be prosecuted for truancy. Are Christians allowed to be public school teachers? I mean, it seems like quite a few layers of "top-down" authority is inherent in that position.

In the end, Nugent's argument, as near as I can pin it down to anything truly concrete, depends upon this concept of "top-down" authority. What does Nugent mean by "top-down" authority? He never really explains this, but I'm afraid if any Christian living in the real world really feels called to live according Nugent's vision he really needs to explain that, since the idea is not explained in Scripture. Nugent writes:

"Believers may additionally take the godly economic practices they have learned from Scripture and apply them to the extent possible in their jobs, many of which will have public ramifications. It is not top-down influence on the wider economy, but it is a substantial influence that makes a positive contribution to the wider economy."

Well thank you for allowing us to have jobs, sir. Myself and many other Christians are eternally grateful. But are we allowed to have positions of authority at our jobs? Are we allowed to give orders? Must a Christian reject any promotion that puts him in a position where he must exercise "top-down authority"? What about authority within the family or the church? Is "top-down authority" acceptable or not in those contexts? Until Nugent establishes a clear meaning of this term in all the situations in which it could apply, he has failed to establish a clear standard and its application is arbitrary. 

Despairing of ever getting any explanation of this, as I have tried before from different people, let me offer my own point of view. Servant leadership is an important concept for anyone in a leadership position, but it is an attitude and a way of going about things, not something which is automatically lost by taking a leadership position in an organization, such as a business, church or government. Like Nebuchadnezzar, a Christian is not restricted from having these positions. He is called to use the power he has been given to serve those he leads the best he can, giving credit to God. Sometimes this involves giving orders and making decisions for the entire group, and sometimes that is the best way to serve them. If an organization is to reach it's collective goals it must act as a cohesive whole, which cannot be done without someone making decisions that are supported by the group. I see no particular reason why Christians are allowed to participate in these institutions as long as they don't exercise "top-down" authority. It seems to me a pointless distinction. A leader is exercising a necessary function within the group just like everyone else. 

There is never any indication from Scripture that Christians must never hold positions of authority, even in passages like 1 Peter 2:13-17, which simply preaches submission to all the human institutions to which one belongs. It does not preach against taking leadership within those institutions. There were, of course, no Roman emperors or Senators in Peter's audience, and democracy had briefly made its mark on the world in the city-state of Athens and wouldn't return for another 1700 years. There was no opportunity for Christians to enter the political institution of the day. It simply wasn't a live issue. There are however other institutions where Christians clearly had leadership positions: marriage and the church. 1 Peter 3 starts out with the word "likewise" or "in the same way" after describing how we are to submit to earthly authorities, except this time it is directed at wives in reference to their husbands. Clearly Peter did not believe it was wrong for Christians to hold positions of authority "in the same way" as those who held authority in earthly institutions. He does describe how those in positions of authority are to act, and he echoes this teaching with respect to husbands in the family and elders in the church. Christians in positions of authority are to act in a certain way. They are not required to never have authority. The standard laid out by the Bible is about how Christians are to use their earthly authority and power, not to avoid it entirely. 

What does the Bible say about Christians and the Levitical Priesthood?

Christians are compared with priests in the New Testament, but is it correct to assume this comparison referred to the Levitical priesthood? Nugent only mentions 1 Peter chapter 2, where Christians are described as offering spiritual sacrifices, like the Levitical priests just without the burning of all that smelly offal, and proclaiming the gospel. There is also Romans 15:15-16 where Paul also says we are to perform the priestly duty of proclaiming the faith. But this is as far as it goes. These would be the expected functions of any priest in any religion. There is never an explicit comparison with the Levitical priesthood. If one wishes to compare Christians to priests, by far the most important book is Hebrews. I have a half written post from months ago on this topic, so it's not something I just stumbled upon in response to Nugent. I recognized the difficulty in his argument immediately. I suggest the reader read through the book of Hebrews for himself, but I can summarize the relevant argument here. Suffice to say, Nugent's thesis comparing Christians to the Levitical priesthood runs into great difficulty in this book. The author of Hebrews explicitly rejects the Levitical priesthood as a model for Jesus Christ, preferring instead to use the example of Melchizedek. 

Way back in Genesis 14, just before Abram receives the promise in Gen 15 and 17, Abram's nephew Lot is carried off by four kings. Abram pursues them, defeats them, and rescues his nephew. When he returns, we meet an intriguing figure named Melchizedek for the first and last time in all of Scripture. In fact his name is used in all of Scripture only ten times, and eight of them are in Hebrews. Why is this figure so important in the book of Hebrews? Several chapters are devoted to the argument that Jesus Christ draws upon Melchizedek for his authority as a high priest rather than Aaron and the Levites. This is all that ever happens:

"Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And blessed be God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
" (Gen 14:18-20)

The author of Hebrews rejects the Levitical priesthood, with all of its laws, duties and significance in the Jewish religion in favor of this one man who appears in only three verses:

"This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever. 

Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, their brothers—even though their brothers are descended from Abraham. This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater. In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come—one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law. He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. For it is declared:

“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”

The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
(Heb 7:1-19)

Finally, Nugent's cute little house of cards falls to pieces, dashed against the Rock. I can find no reason to model my life as a Christian, meaning, as a follower of Christ, after the Levitical priesthood when the Bible so clearly rejects the comparison, useless as it seems to be anyway. Jesus Christ was no Levite. He was from the tribe of Judah, a son of David, one of Israel's greatest kings. Christ is a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek  and Melchizedek was the king of Salem even before it was the capital of Israel. He was a priest-king! The Bible recognizes no conflict between the two roles, even in the same man, and neither should we.