Dividing the Priesthood

   “You signed this paper … now you must obey …”

     According to multiple witnesses in the Bible, all who are in Christ are united into a royal priesthood. Should a local church then divide this priesthood of believers by creating a proprietary membership list with obligations, privileges and rights given only to those who are on the list?

Consider the Apostle Peter’s description of priesthood to those scattered in foreign lands “…  who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood …” (1 Peter 1:1-2).

If all who are in Christ from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” constitute His priesthood, the obvious question is – are they to be numbered as members on a man-made census or a God ordained census?

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Peter declared such ones to be ” … a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession … “(1 Peter 2:9). Again starting with John’s letter to the seven churches: ” … and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:6); “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. ‘You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth‘” (Revelation 5:9-10); “Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:6). But for those who will not sign a church membership covenant, these future kings and priests will be excluded from certain rights, obligations and privileges in their local church.

Both sides have valid points in the argument for and against church membership . Some would rightly point out that it is necessary to keep a record for tax receipts etc. and others would say that numbering the people had brought the wrath of God on David’s people (70,000 were killed). Some would argue “but God told Moses to number the people did He not?” Yes, God told Moses to number the young men for war in Numbers chapter one but He also told Moses NOT to number the priesthood (Numbers 1:47-54). The Wycliffe Bible Commentary explains that there were two reasons for taking a census in those days: (1) to assess a tax on the population; (2) to prepare to conscript an army. In Moses’ day, the God-ordained census accomplished both purposes: the young men were to be counted for the purpose of war (Numbers 1:2-3) and for the collection of a “ransom” for the first born of Israel (Numbers 3:44-51). After the numbering of warriors from which the priesthood was excluded, God later told Moses to number the priesthood in order to set apart the priesthood “… to do the service of the tabernacle” (Numbers 3:8). The Bible is clear that a census of God’s people should be initiated by Him and He decides who is to be included and in what category.

All the earth belongs to God, every first born, all first fruits, all the priesthood belong to God. He says they are “Mine.” “… for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel” (Exodus 19:6). God ordained this covenant. Concerning the new covenant that was ordained later, Paul aptly explained in (Romans 11:1-36 and Galatians 3:29 including corresponding context) that all Gentile believers along with believing Israel are grafted in to the same tree as partakers of the new covenant that was prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31. God ordained this new covenant and sealed it with His Holy Spirit in the hearts of every believer who fears the LORD of hosts (Ephesians 1:13-14). “‘They will be Mine,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘on the day that I prepare My own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him‘” (Malachi 3:16-17).

But in these last days, Satan is working hard through false teachers and misguided leaders to steal what God says is “Mine.” How ironic that the old tactic of “divide and conquer” is already in place for the enemy regarding membership/covenant lists where the royal priesthood of believers has been divided by well-meaning or manipulative leaders who decided that God’s covenant needs a little help. Those who sign that piece of paper have privileges and rights and obligations not given to those who have decided that God’s covenant is good enough and nothing needs to be added to it. “Woe to the rebellious children,” declares the Lord, “Who execute a plan, but not Mine, And make an alliance, but not of My Spirit, In order to add sin to sin …” The context of that excerpt from Isaiah 30:1-5 speaks of God’s children who go to Egypt without consulting Him so they can enjoy the protection of Pharaoh but today the spirit of the message is still valid. Well-meaning leaders might say they are protecting their people with their add-on covenants but who protects their people from abuse when they carry their disciplinary measures too far? A membership/covenant church in Texas recently aired a Youtube video* that went viral where a pastor humbly confessed a list of such disciplinary abuses. He was lauded for his humility but did anyone ask how this abuse was allowed to start? It started with an addition to God’s covenant that they had their people sign so they could later say “you signed this paper so now you have to obey us.” It’s a matter of degrees but how long before these membership/covenant churches degrade into a kind of Calvinist police state where “morality squads” might appear at homes unannounced and where abuses can reach horrendous depths? It is well documented that people who disagreed with Calvin were even tortured and burned at the stake. For those with strong stomachs, read John Calvin’s Geneva by Stephen Hicks, Ph.D as one of many historical essays on this topic.** Present day church leaders do not tend to burn people at the stake but – as stated earlier – it’s a matter of degrees.

It takes an honest leader to ask these questions: “what is the true purpose for a church membership list and was it truly initiated by God?” One can only speculate on King David’s motivation for taking his census but the Bible is clear that God had not told him but rather God in His anger allowed Satan to incite David and David gave in to that temptation (1 Chronicles 21:1; 2 Samuel 24:1). David’s self-will is evident in that “… the king’s word prevailed against Joab and against the commanders of the army” (2 Samuel 24:4). God did not tell him. It was self-will; it was the arm of flesh. David was seemingly abandoning his time tested practice of asking the Lord first before making important decisions. Imagine what the answer could have been if David had inquired of the Lord first about Bathsheba. Naturally, David knew his lust for Bathsheba was wrong so he didn’t ask first. This is a lesson for all those who are blessed with success: David was flushed with recent victories and no doubt emboldened by the prowess of his mighty men. He gave in to the natural tendency of trusting the arm of flesh. How much more tragic is the situation when the arm of flesh is manipulated by the enemy of our souls? So God told Moses to record a census but God did NOT tell David to record a census. In fact David never asked. It is said that God often punishes people BY their sins. If David’s sin was making critical choices without consulting God, then the punishment fits. Without benefit of God’s counsel, the now repentant David was faced with the lonely task of making a critical choice between three devastating sets of punishments (2 Samuel 24:12-14). It would have been better for David and it is better for present day church leaders to ask God first and face the truth regarding motivations. If the motivations include seeking some sort of control over the people of God and to increase the numbers, it would be wise to remember what happened to the numbers in David’s time (70,000 removed from the list).

Again, it takes leaders with godly integrity to ask the question “what are the true motivations for making up a church membership list?” Do the motivations include a form of control over the people where some have voting privileges and others have no say? Do the rules and regulations for church membership result in trusting the arm of flesh rather than trusting in God? Motivations vary from church to church but I would argue that any mechanism of church membership that divides the royal priesthood of believers is a mechanism which could take on a life of its own apart from the will of God where leaders with controlling personalities will exploit certain rules and regulations to lord it over God’s people. When such leaders have elbowed in on the headship of Christ, they are the ones creating divisions and they should only be followed to the extent that they themselves are following Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1 KJV).

And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them,“ Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). In answer to anyone who feels this writer is overplaying the seriousness of dividing the priesthood, note that “kingdom” in the above verse is translated from the original Greek as “of royal power and dignity conferred on Christians in the Messiah’s kingdom.”

Thayer’s Definition for kingdom (basiliah)
“1. royal power, kingship, dominion, rule
a. not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom
b. of the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah
c. of the royal power and dignity conferred on Christians in the Messiah’s kingdom
2. a kingdom, the territory subject to the rule of a king
3. used in the N.T. to refer to the reign of the Messiah.”

Within the context, Jesus said “any kingdom.” The royal priesthood would have to be included as “any kingdom” if indeed it includes all who are in Christ. If the possibility exists of dividing God’s kingdom, the enemy will no doubt do what he can to exploit that possibility and the divisions already put in place by church membership covenants will make his divide-and-conquer maneuver that much easier.

What is the alternative to church membership covenants for the disciplinary process? I read an excellent blog by a Pastor (if I could find it again, I would link it here) and what he said in response to such a question made such good sense, it should be safe to paraphrase it here. The Pastor wrote “we talk to our people. Someone might get drunk over and over again but if he says ‘I repent,’ we forgive and move on.” He also stated that his people are free to move on – not bound to stay in that church by a paper they had signed. Sounds like a biblical model doesn’t it?

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

My wife and I felt a physical sense of freedom when we decided never to sign a church membership covenant again. You are free as well to sign or not to sign, but please count the cost.


Related links:

Church Covenants are Primarily Legal Protection for the Church.


* Video: humble admission of spiritual abuse.

**John Calvin’s Geneva posted by Stephen Hicks, Ph.D: