A Tale of Three Offices
Peter Heslam looks at the implications for working life of the Christian’s three-fold call to be prophet, priest and king.
We all have multiple roles in our lives – worker, friend, uncle, bass guitarist – reflecting the different contexts we operate in and the range of people we relate to but as Christians there are three roles that we are called to play in the world, regardless of our status or job title – the roles of prophet, priest and king.
This is modelled, as you might expect, on Christ, who is indeed portrayed as having several roles, including son of God, lord, shepherd, word, friend, master, rabbi. But the three that are most decisive are that of prophet, priest and king. These are the three leadership roles in the Hebrew bible that involved anointing. In the New Testament, they are seen as culminating in Jesus as the Messiah - the ‘anointed one’.
This helps explain why the synoptic gospels begin in different ways. Matthew is concerned for the kingship of Christ, and so traces Jesus’ legal lineage from the royal house of David, stressing the moral and spiritual illegitimacy of Herod. Mark is more interested in Christ as prophet and therefore emphasizes the continuity of Jesus with John the Baptist. Luke draws attention to Christ’s priestly ministry by highlighting his continuity with the priestly family of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
But if the New Testament writers understood Christ as prophet, priest and king, how did they apply this to their understanding of the Christian life? And how can we apply it to our multiple ministries in their various spheres?
The prophetic office
Although the apostles regarded Jesus as a prophet (Jn 1:45; Acts 3:22), with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit they came to see that all believers were equipped to prophesy (Acts 2:17-18). No longer was this ministry reserved for a few special anointed messengers. The gift now belonged to all, and as such it was an expression of the empowering presence of God amongst God’s people.
In the bible we find, in other words, what Calvin called ‘the prophethood of all believers’. All Christians are messengers or preachers of the word and are equipped for this office by an anointing that helps them understand and interpret scripture (1 Jn 2:27).
This prophetic ministry operates wherever we find ourselves, which in terms of hours per week involves the workplace much more than the gathered church. In fact, we are told to share God’s word ‘in season’ – such as when we’ve prepared to give a talk or lead a bible study - but also ‘out of season’, such as when the opportunity unexpectedly arises in the normal course of our working lives (2 Tim 4:2).
Sadly, many of our churches do little to encourage this. Instead of the people of God being equipped by the Spirit to understand God’s word and share it with others, church has too often become the place to which we come on Sundays to be taught and have hymns and prayers led for us by a ‘professional’ minister.
Yet our prophetic ministry in the workplace is more than merely evangelizing our colleagues. It also includes the prophetic denunciation of unrighteousness and injustice. It may not be wise, of course, to go around our workplace sounding like Amos or John the Baptist, though there is clearly a time to challenge a blame culture, or a bullying culture, or a gossip culture. But the prophetic response to evil is as much about action as about words. We may, for instance, need to make a personal practical response to the lack of concern for the environment in our office – by the apparently mundane but significant action of bringing in a cardboard box to store recyclable paper. Or at a corporate level we may need to find ways to uphold the moral, not merely the legal, standing of our company by honouring business deals that have been agreed but are not yet underpinned by contract.
The priestly office
Our prophetic ministry needs to be supplemented by the priestly. This is where we encounter a doctrine that has proved revolutionary, not only in the church but also in society and culture: the priesthood of all believers. Its biblical foundation includes 1Peter 2:9 (which alludes to Ex 19:6): ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God’.
In the hands of the 16th century Reformers, the idea that all Christians are priests had transformative impact. Luther argued that the ordinary milkmaid or tailor, when equipped with the word of God, was able to please God and minister the things of God as effectively as the priest, the prelate, or the pope himself.
Exhortation and encouragement were no longer restricted to the ordained ministry. Instead, such verses as ‘let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds’ (Hebrews 10:24) were taken as an agenda for ministry in the workplace. Later, non-conformist groups such as the Quakers took this verse seriously and held meetings of working people in which they considered how they might obey its injunction and hold each other accountable for doing so.
The impact was enormous, and history is replete with examples of how Quaker schools, banks and business ventures thrived, producing such household names as Cadbury, Rountree, Barclays and Friends Provident.
All this testifies to the fact that when we embrace the significance of priesthood for the workplace, familiar passages of scripture take on new meaning. In the story of creation, for instance, Adam and Eve become models of workplace ministry – naming, nurturing, integrating, releasing potential, envisioning, creating and shaping culture.
This is priestly ministry, and yet it’s the ministry of ordinary Christians as they offer up their work to God as a spiritual sacrifice and live lives that conform to the will of God rather than to the pressures of society (Romans 12:1-2; 1Peter 2:1-3; 11-12). They regard worship, praise and sacrifice as integral to ordinary life, rather than ‘sacred’ activities to be practiced in ‘holy’ places. Their working lives are infused with God’s presence and they offer it all back to God as spiritual worship (Rom 12:1).
The kingly office
Finally, we are called to emulate and embody Christ’s kingship: ‘you are a royal priesthood’, we read in 1 Peter 2:9. In fact, virtually every allusion to the priesthood of believers in scripture is linked to notions of kingship or sovereign rule. Out of all three of the offices, however, this is the one most often neglected. And yet it is critical to the ministry of God’s people in the workplace.
As representatives of Christ the king, Christians operate as regents on earth. This expresses itself in a variety of ways. They rule over their personal lives as they seek to walk in the Spirit and triumph over sin (Rom 7:1-25; Gal 5:16-26). They govern their passions, exercise discipline and self-control, and put their lives in order. They follow Adam and Eve in another respect: in exercising dominion (Gen 1:26,28). This is a distinctly royal role, even though in this partially redeemed world subduing the earth is fraught with difficulty and requires the sweat of our brow.
We often think of the biblical metaphors of salt and light when considering workplace ministry. But there are others, implicit in scripture, that involve the theme of kingship. Take, for example, that of ‘taking possession of the land’. After their visit to Canaan, the twelve spies in Numbers 13 return to report on their findings. They agree about the facts but are sharply divided as to the solution. Ten consider only the size and strength of the Canaanites and recommend the Israelites cancel their advance. Joshua and Caleb disagree: ‘we should go up and take possession of the land…the Lord will give it to us.’ These two men refused to underestimate the kingly power of God.
It is into this land of giants that God has called us in our workplaces. This is not a licence to dominate and exploit, but an invitation to join in his work of faithful stewardship of the created order. This may mean the wise management of physical resources – such as money, facilities and technology – or of human resources, such as the gifts and talents of our employees. Our job is to ensure that our workplace becomes, or remains, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.
The church in the world is a prophetic royal priesthood. As prophets we discern, guide, communicate, expose evil and promote justice. As priests we build bridges, minister grace, evoke faith and blessing. As kings we organize, plan, serve, manage, provide, cultivate, co-ordinate, settle arguments and solve problems. We are called to multiple roles. But the model we follow is Christ, the supreme example of an integrated human being.
Peter S Heslam
, Director of Faith in Business
This article was first published by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.