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Christian Faculty: Members of a Dual Priesthood—Challenges & Opportunities, Part 1

{This will be a two-part post, adapted from a topical Bible Study I led at the UT faculty group.}

Granted, the title is sufficiently provocative that I need to make the argument we do hold a dual priesthood before we can move on to the challenges and opportunities. I’ll start with the simpler one—that all Christians are priests, but first, what is a priest? Webster (who else?) says a priest is “one authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God.” Incidentally, the origin comes from the Latin “presbyter”.

St. Peter said in his first epistle, “but you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Then the Revelator, John, records the new song of the elders in heaven, saying, “you have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth." Other relevant passages include Exodus 19:5-6, I Peter 2:4-8, Revelation 1:4-6, 5:6-10, and many passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews. I realize that different denominations have slightly different theological views on this topic, so I’m not trying to be sectarian here, just illustrate several passages in Scripture that seem to point to a general theme that Christ removed the barriers between humans and God, and made all believers intermediaries between a fallen world and God.

The second priesthood is that of the academic priesthood. I don’t have any Scriptures, just my observations. Throughout history, most scholars in most cultures have been members of some religious (and usually priestly) order. Their studies were viewed as a means of understanding their faith better and passing it on to new generations. Therefore many academic traditions mirror closely monastic/seminary traditions:  stages of progression in knowledge; beautiful and/or reclusive centers of study; and robes/accoutrements. As academic pursuits became divorced from their monastic routes (beginning mainly during the Renaissance and accelerating through the Enlightenment), knowledge became an end unto itself, progressing to a level of devotion equal in passion to that of serving a deity. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to attribute priesthood status to academic faculty. This is made most striking when looking at pretty much any news show, where whenever an issue is discussed, the two basic classes from which ‘experts’ are drawn are the political and academic classes. In short, when our culture is in need of guidance, we look to politics and academics, much as other cultures would consult the politicians and priests. Our culture has made a de facto declaration of priesthood, though its secular nature forbids that phraseology.

If you accept my premises, the question that arises:  are these orders necessarily in conflict? What does Scripture say? Jesus remarked, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13) Daniel (Daniel 1:1-10), Joseph (Genesis 37, 39-47), and even Moses (Exodus 2:10-15) can be ancient analogues of modern academics who struggled between loyalty to God and the secular/pagan authoritarian roles they had. Peter doesn’t make it any easier when he instructs us to submit to earthly authorities. (I Peter 2:13-25) So far, it seems like a bleak picture.

So, how do we handle it when the academic order makes demands inconsistent with our faith? Log in tomorrow, true believers…


The Innocence of Lot

One of the most vexing passages to me in Scripture (and there are quite a few!) has been 2 Peter 2:7. Here is versus 7-9:

“…and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.”

This is a bizarre passage when you think back to the stories of Lot. In Genesis 13:10-12, Abraham and Lot are so wealthy that they need to split up so the land could support their herds. Abraham, the elder, is exceedingly gracious and gives the younger man the first pick of the land. Lot chooses the better land for himself. Instead of deferring to his elder cousin, he is selfish. The Bible notes that Lot’s land is around the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which were wicked. It also goes on to tell how God speaks to Abraham and gives him the remaining land in perpetuity and will bless him with many descendants. Lot’s decision will lead to hardship and trouble.

Then, in Genesis 14, the land of Sodom and Gomorrah (including Lot) are captured by raiding kings, and Abraham raises and army to rescue them. Lot still doesn’t take the hint. Finally, in chapter 19, we see the angels coming to destroy the cities, and Lot ‘rescues’ them from the perverse crowd, offering his daughters to be gang raped to protect his guests, as hospitality was one of the highest virtues in that culture. Finally, when the angels rescue him and his family, the daughters get Lot drunk and sleep with him.

Yet, Peter calls him righteous. Wow. There are just some passages in Scripture that make you want to question its inspired origin. Given that it is inspired, what then could Peter mean? I finally ‘got it’ one day, and I can’t begin to tell you what a relief it was to me—a shower of grace washing over me. Peter actually does explain himself. Lot was righteous in his soul and tormented by the sin around him. He was in a land of compromise, of bad choices, and yes, one in which he continued to choose to live, but nonetheless, he was righteous because of faith. There are two amazing points here: 1) God rescued him before he could be truly corrupted, and 2) innocence/righteousness is not something binary—on or off, you have it or you don’t—it is a state of being that can be worn away, dissolved like tooth enamel, and by grace, restored.

God knows His people and the limits of their endurance (not what they think they can endure, but what they actually can—I Corinthians 10:13), and will NOT allow them to be swept away by forces greater than themselves.

He also recognizes the stress we endure in this fallen world. While our actions, words, and thoughts matter (Romans 6!), His declaration of our righteousness is stronger than not only our environment, but also our choices. It is His declaration of righteousness that stands, for He is the judge, not our feelings or assessment of our own lives, and definitely not the opinions of any other. He will NOT allow us to be corrupted by either the world or our fallen nature, for we are redeemed.

As academics, we are in a world of pressure to conform to the academy’s image of success and morality. We have a God greater than our pressures and who WILL see His purposes accomplished in our lives. This frees us from worrying about right or wrong so that we can love and serve Him, and He will see us through the choices we face, even when we choose poorly.

That is a precious gift indeed.


Turning an Object Lesson Into a Ministry Opportunity

As I’ve expressed previously, I try to give my upper division students object lessons in the real world. My second semester lab ends with a required short oral presentation. I set up an online sign-up sheet and give them a week to sign up, then close it so I can prepare the seminar and publicize it. This semester, there were a large number that had not signed up, so I sent out a reminder the night before it closed.

Sure enough, the morning after it closed, I got a panicked email from a student I’ll call Joe. I’ve reproduced our conversation here.

On 11/23/2010 9:45 AM, Joe wrote:
Dear Dr. Wilson,
     I just noticed that I missed the deadline to sign up for the oral presentations.  This was entirely my fault, I had ample time and notification from you to sign up but I have been extremely busy and it completely slipped my mind.  I know that the presentation is required so please let me know what
 I should do to pick an experiment.
 Thanks in advance,

On 11/23/2010 10:05 AM, RJW wrote:
I'm sorry. I gave you the same week I gave everyone else, and they are all nearly as busy as you. The deadline is past.

On 11/23/2010 12:08 PM, Joe wrote:
         Is there any way I could meet with you, either today or tomorrow, before the thanksgiving break?
 Thanks in advance,

On 11/23/2010 12:42 PM, RJW wrote:
I'll be available between 3 and 5 today.

On 11/23/2010 12:50 PM, Joe wrote:
 Dr. Wilson,
     That sounds great, I will drop by your office around 3.

On 11/23/2010 1:05 PM, RJW wrote:
Just something to think about before we meet--you couldn't spare 30 seconds in a whole week to go online and sign up for a talk, yet, you want to meet with me today or tomorrow to plead your case. That is so important to you that you send your messages with a return receipt request, so you KNOW the instant I read it. All of this takes a lot longer than just going online like I instructed a week ago AND reminded you the day before the deadline. How am I to interpret this? Why am I expected to jump at your beck and call when you fail to do a quick task for your grade over the course of a week?

These are the things going through my mind. You have a couple of hours to come up with something good.
RJW (emphases in original)

Before you think I’m being too harsh, I have found that most of us (myself included!) are so focused on our situations we don’t realize how we come across to others and how our faults impact them. It is very similar to how Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t resonate with me until we realize that my sin put Him there—a pardon is meaningless unless we truly realize our guilt.

Joe showed up at my office at 2:47, not between 3 and 5. I told him to wait in the hall. I looked up an essay he had written for me in the first lab that revealed he was pre-med, and finished up the stuff on which I was working, and called him in.

Long story short, I asked for his story, and he begged to be allowed to give his talk. We looked at his grades, and they were sitting right at an 80 with several outstanding. As this was worth a letter grade, he was nervous that the others would not compensate for the zero. He said it was an accident, and admitted he didn’t fully read the emails I sent. I asked him what the med schools would do with his application if it was late, and if he did a DUI and killed someone if it made a difference if he was sorry/it was an accident. I held his feet to the fire for a few minutes. {He did make one veiled threat that he didn’t have any interest in escalating the incident. I ignored him.} I made it abundantly clear that actions had consequences, and that forgiveness was a rare commodity in the real world.

Finally, I said that there was one situation where the offended party had made a blanket statement that even though our screw ups were entirely our fault, there would be complete forgiveness if we asked for it. I asked him if he knew what I was talking about. He said no. I told him that because, and only because I had benefited from this blanket forgiveness, I would allow him to sign up for the presentation with a 40% penalty. I then encouraged him to go figure out the source of the blanket forgiveness, as it had bought him a second chance with me.

It will be interesting to see if he comes up with anything and what it might be. I was careful to make my allowance of him presenting without condition. So if he does no research, it will not impact his grade. After the presentation, I will ask him privately if he found anything out.

Pray for Joe, that like Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, the grace I am showing him will result in a life transformed by Christ’s grace.


Wrapping Up

I don’t know about you, but when I was a student, I hated the last few weeks of the semester. As a procrastinator, it meant time was up and it all had to be done, NOW. I realize many, if not most, students are like that, and try to design my class accordingly, making different stages wind up at different points. There is still a rush at the end for many, but they no longer are able to be faced with a whole semester’s worth of work to do in two weeks. It also makes my TA’s lives easier because they aren’t faced with as big of an avalanche of grading bad reports thrown together at the end.

The funny thing is, I still have trepidation about the end of the semester, though, thankfully, I can meet it with more joy than anxiety. There are certain tasks I just cannot do ahead of time, so they all come together at the end. That wouldn’t be too bad, except I also have to deal with the panicked students who are realizing they aren’t passing a one hour class required for their degree.

Thankfully, in general, each semester I’m more organized and have less that I’ve forgotten to set up. This frees me up to meet with students with grace and willingness, and less frustration.

In the comments section, please share your end of semester tips, traditions, favorite/horror stories, and even fears.


The More Things Change

Tonight, as I walked out of my grandparents’ rural farmhouse about 20 miles west of San Antonio to put stuff in the car, I turned on my new high-powered LED flashlight to look for deer in the field below the house. As I panned it around, over by the far end of the house I saw two varmints—they were large and gray, with long pointy, but hairy tails. I was stumped as to what they could be. I went in and asked my folks and grandma about it. They were almost as stumped as I, but someone tentatively ventured ‘porcupine.’ I went back out and got close enough to verify that in fact, it was a porcupine. But not too close.

Turns out these critters are relatively new to this part of Texas, and were migrating in. This was my first chance to see a real live one, up close and personal. Interesting creatures. But what is even more interesting to me is how there is always something new. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes that there is “nothing new under the sun,” and, of course, he is right. Porcupines have been around for a LONG time under the sun.

Yet, at the Vibrant Dance Symposium, we talked about how there are all of these fundamental constants in the universe and how fine tuned they are, but one of the key fundamental constants was never mentioned in the cosmological talks—change. There is always something new to experience in God’s creation. Weather patterns vary, habitat zones shrink and enlarge, never before catalogued species are ‘discovered.’ The life cycle of a lifeform or society is a constant process of change over time. We construct ‘rules’ to explain phenomena, but over time have to keep revising them as either our understanding improves or things actually change.

There is one more thing that is constantly new, yet never changing. Thomas Obadiah Chisholm wrote of it in the classic hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness:”

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me

In verse one, God is unchanging. In verse 2, His mercies are new every morning. Who else but God can make the oxymoron “unchanging variety” a sensible and wonderful reality?