Intercessory Prayer : What ‘Priesthood of all believers’ means.
Baptists have traditionally placed much emphasis on a doctrine known as the ‘priesthood of all believers’, but I suspect that given current trends in worship, you wouldn’t know it.
It is often mistakenly taken to mean that we have no need of priests because now – hallelujah – we’re all our own priests, every single one of us. But such rejoicing is a long way from what Peter had in mind when he described God’s people as a royal priesthood. (1 Pet 2:9).
Each individual is not his or her own autonomous priest, rather it is the community of God’s people that is collectively called to a priestly role.
The function of a priest may be understood as representing God to the people, and the people to God. This is a superb description of the Church’s priestly role: to represent God to the world and the world to God.
If ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19), He is now in the body of Christ, doing precisely the same thing. From this flows the Church’s dual function of proclaiming Christ to the world, and praying to God on the world’s behalf.
Unfortunately, it seems that while Baptists are largely aware of the importance of proclamation, the necessity of intercessory prayer is in danger of relegation.
I have had the privilege of visiting over a dozen Baptist churches in the last year or so, but in only two of them were prayer of intercession part of the worship. It is difficult to determine whether this reflects a wider trend, possibly because intercessory prayer is often misunderstood. For some, all prayer is intercessory prayer – even if we recognise that prayers of adoration, repentance and thanksgiving are not the same as intercession.
Sometimes we might want the church to pray for family or friends of ours, and this may rightly and properly happen in a worship service, But let’s be clear, this is not intercession for the world. Equally we will want to pray for the church to grow, and to see people in our local community coming to Christ. But again, this is not intercession in the fullest sense. We might seek God’s blessing on some project in which the church is engaged, we might ask for God’s help with a problem the church tackles or seek His guidance on some decision the church faces. But none of this is intercessory prayer.
Intercessory prayer is the church’s priestly role of representing the people to God, pleading on the world’s behalf. In our day and age it will remain focussed on the enormous challenges that face the whole world: economic justice, ecological morality and political responsibility.
These concerns are not peripheral to Christian worship, as though worship focussed instead upon spiritual realities. Truly spiritual worship is always political, and Christian worshippers will discern that the most important spiritual battles are being fought in the ‘heavenly realms’ of economics, ecology and politics – heavenly because they seem removed from our immediate experience, even as they quietly shape our identity.
Genuine Christian worship does not dismiss such concerns as ‘irrelevant’. In representing the world to God, the church’s prayers will go far beyond the local community to engage the ‘spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ that slaughter thousands of toddlers in the Sahel region of Africa, that insidiously keep millions of wealthy westerners as unwitting prisoners of materialist greed, that feed cultures of violence whose victims outnumber the stars and grains of sand.
Of course, churches cannot pray for every area of international strife every week. But to address social, political and religious disintegration in prayer is a necessary aspect of worshipping the God who ‘was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ When such intercession is altogether absent from the worshipping life of the church, a gigantic liturgical question mark hangs over the identity of the God that is really being worshipped.
If the church’s priestly role is to represent God to the world and the world to God, then perhaps we could have a little more of the latter without fear of overkill. After all, the more we focus upon proclamation at the expense of intercessory prayer, the less the Christ we proclaim will resemble the Christ of Scripture.
Published in the Baptist Times, 2005