Fighting for equality is hard. In the scope of history, there's a trail of blood, broken bones, and tears from those who've fought to be treated as equal. There is no doubt that demanding equality has a cost. What's often less explored is how hard it is to keep things equal. The struggle to maintain equality is the basic premise behind George Orwell’s classic critique of communism “Animal Farm.” The story revolves around a farm where animals rule and humans are out of the picture. A new order is established with one rule rising to the top: “All animals are equal.”
At first things seem ideal, but over time, the pigs assume more and more control. Rebellion is in the air, and two of the pigs—Napoleon and Squealer—tighten their grip over the other animals. One day, they see the primary rule is different. This time it says, “All animals are equal. Some are more equal than others.” By the end of the book, the pigs have changed so much that they are indistinguishable from the hated human rulers they'd rebelled against.
The Great Equalizer
One of the things that's abundantly clear at the close of Jesus' earthly ministry is that the status quo has been changed. His resurrection has changed things; God’s people are about to go far beyond the walls of Israel. In His final address—often referred to as the Great Commission—He calls all of His followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20)
Jesus is laying the roots for what His disciple Peter would later call the priesthood of all believers. Instead of one tribe serving as priests, Jesus wants everyone to serve as priests. There is no spiritual hierarchy that calls one group to be greater than another. Jesus wanted equality. But religious leaders have often claimed to have a spiritual authority unavailable to other believers. Over the past two thousand years, the Christian church has struggled to avoid the same fate as the Animal Farm.
Rethinking Total Member Involvement
Adventism has not been immune to the Animal Farm struggle. Hierarchy and authority are not bad. It’s just that certain kinds of authority weren’t meant to be restricted to a select group. When Jesus left His final earthly message, He intended for all believers to take part in disciple-making and baptism. There’s no distinction in His words or His audience. This responsibility is for everyone.
How, then, did we end up with only a select group of ordained (or commissioned) individuals with this responsibility and authority? Don’t get me wrong. I think there is value in having some sort of indicator that those leading a congregation have certain amounts of training, experience, and trustworthiness, but why do we only acknowledge them as having religious authority that was meant for the priesthood of all believers? What might the church look like if we truly believed in this kind of radical equality in the body of Christ?
What if every member felt empowered to disciple and baptize? What would our decade-long debate over ordination look like if all members could perform “priestly” functions? Might it turn into an issue of credentials rather than what it should be, an issue of power and authority?
In sum, do we really believe the Great Commission is for everyone? Or do we think some priests are more equal than others?