Evangelical Questions: Isn’t Jesus the Only Melchizedek Priesthood Holder?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about part 2 of 3 on priesthood. There is so much to say on this and we’re going to get right to it. But I want to point out one thing…
Sometimes, at least in people I know, Latter-day Saints seem a little unsure of their overall Bible knowledge. And it’s true, there are some ins and outs of the Bible, especially the New Testament, that Evangelicals will tend to know better than our people. But the Book of Hebrews is not one of those places. The Book of Hebrews is the least read in the New Testament among Evangelicals. It’s not that they don’t think it’s scripture. They do. But it’s a dense book, and you have to know some things about the Old Testament, and even then it’s still considered kind of esoteric. But because of the mention of Melchizedek in Hebrews, more Latter-day Saints have spent significant time there. The parts of Hebrews they really do like are chapters 11 and 12. You probably see this too, but it feels more familiar in tone, pace, and voice. It feels like Paul writing. The first 10 chapters of Hebrews just feel different to them. And, to be fair, they are different. If this is Paul writing, these chapters are the only ones where he talks like that.
Okay, so let’s get to our jumping-off point. Hebrews 7:17:
You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
So what do Evangelicals do with this verse?
If we’re talking about percentages – how many Evangelicals engage with this concept – the answer is: its not a very high percentage. It’s just not on their radar. We say, “The Bible doesn’t lay flat,” meaning that some passages form a canon within a canon. Those are the go-to passages that all Evangelicals would know. And the verses in Hebrews about Melchizedek are not on that list. Latter-day Saints certainly have our own “canon within a canon” – the passages we pay more attention to, and those outside of it don’t get much air time.
So the most likely question an Evangelical would have here is simply, “Who is Melchizedek anyway?” Because we don’t have tons of details about the historic priest Melchizedek, the answer to that question is pretty short, so they think there isn’t much here and move on to the other parts of Hebrews that have more content they can do something with. They don’t really have a conceptualization of “priest” so it doesn’t really go anywhere with them. They do like the part in Hebrews that talks about Jesus’ ability to be our Great High Priest because he suffered in the same ways we suffer. And who wouldn’t? There is a lot of comfort in that idea and we are on very firm mutual ground here. Both Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals would feel good about that concept.
Among Evangelicals who are theologically educated, you might get conversation about how Melchizedek is actually “Jesus in disguise,” as one of the few places in the Old Testament where Jesus shows up. That was a really popular theory all throughout the 20th century, less so now.
I think the question that might most come up for them here is, “Why are you making all of this priesthood stuff more complicated than it needs to be?” And if you’ve been listening to this series at all you know that is pretty on-brand for them. The entire Evangelical project has been all about simplifying the Gospel, taking away the parts that make it hard for people to understand or participate – church services are very casual, “priests” are now “pastors,” Difficult to sing hymns are replaced by pop worship choruses. There is a way to take this question without disrespect intended, I think it could be a very sincere question: Why are you making this so complicated? Because in many ways Evangelicals are doing what the early Campebelite churches were doing – trying to get rid of everything that is not the absolute most essential part of the Gospel. The Campbelites considered that the “restoration of all things,” to them it meant just getting to the most important part and let everything else go. And you can hear echoes of that in the Evangelical question: Why are you making this so complicated? And to be honest, it’s a fair question. On the outside looking in, it can seem like a lot when you’re used to the “paring down” philosophy. However, Joseph Smith was not interested in a restoration that gets rid of everything. He wanted to add in everything, always be expanding, worlds without end. So Latter-day Saints look at this and think: Why wouldn’t you want EVERYTHING restored?
And what it comes down to on this one is the question of authority. What is needed in order to do God’s work? The go-to verse for Evangelicals is in 1 Peter, “the priesthood of all believers,” and they interpret this to mean that no special authority is needed to baptize or perform ordinances. They see the Bible as giving anyone who believes in Christ the proper authority. To them, the concept of authority means that someone else is going to stand between you and God and regulate what you must do. While we would see authority slightly differently – the power of the priesthood is God’s power and we all are invited to participate in it in various ways.
We see the priesthood as belonging to God, it is his power, and we humans are invited to participate. While they see the priesthood as belonging to humans who just want to get in the way and make it more difficult to understand God. And sometimes they’re not wrong. There really are, “evil priests who seek to destroy and oppress,” even if those people don’t always carry the title, “priest.”
And I gotta tell you….I sympathize with their opinion in some ways. No one wants evil priests, and it is very easy for someone who thinks they’re acting in the power of God to confuse that with their own desires for power. That goes bad in 100 different ways. But the saying, “misuse should not mean no use,” applies here. Just because evil priests exist, does not mean there is no good priesthood at all. And this is part of what Hebrews is getting at – Jesus is the only priest who never messes it up and misuses his power.
But you can see that what Evangelicals are really worried about here is something like: Who gives you the authority to make all these rules? And the accusation is: You’re just making stuff up to make it seem more complicated than it is. And in a weird way, they see THAT as being an “evil priest.” A person who is blocking access to God – in this case through “complications” – instead of doing what Jesus did which is to make access to God even possible.
They see things like baptism being required as an extra rule. They see all of the ordinances that way. The idea of a priesthood is just another example of this. But this is actually where we find some common ground. In the Evangelical way of thinking authority or leadership is bestowed on someone because they themselves feel a direct call from God to do whatever it is that God is calling them to do. No one chooses you or calls you, you have to do it yourself. And, depending on the corner of the Evangelical world you’re standing in, anyone can claim to be called to anything simply because they feel God wants them to do the thing. In the simplest terms possible, this is the main difference that they would be able to identify – they call themselves and qualify themselves, and we have a process for it that involves requirements and accountability. A young deacon in our church might not have given much thought as to whether he should become ordained or not – I hope he has, but these are young boys and that process probably happens a bit more automatically for some than for others. They get ordained as a deacon simply because they’re the right age to do so – but the further up he goes the more it will require the man himself to desire to take on the requirements and responsibilities of the priesthood. He has to want to do it too. That piece – the man’s desire to serve in this way, and his own understanding of his calling – that is something Evangelicals can relate to. They might never love the structure (though to be honest, for someone like me the structure in our church is a breath of fresh air) but they might also be surprised that a man taking on priesthood responsibilities is also doing it out of his own sense of desire to do so. I mean, have you met the men in our church? My impression is that yes, they can certainly submit to their spiritual leaders when necessary – but it’s not divorced from the man’s own desire to serve. And Evangelicals would recognize and respect that if it were pointed out to them.
Okay, next week we’re in the book of James, so a break from talking about priesthood – and then we do the “priesthood of all believers” which is the continuation of this. See you then.
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Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.