Sacerdotalism in Modern Contemporary Worship

Sacerdotalism in Modern Contemporary Worship
Commentary by Scott Aniol

The medieval church suffered from a kind of sacerdotalism that removed worship from the people and made it the worship of priests on behalf of the people. But as we have seen the last couple of weeks, the New Testament clearly identifies all believers as priests who have access to God through Christ by the Spirit and who can and should draw near for worship. Church leadership is important, but leaders serve to equip the people, not worship on their behalf.

Unfortunately, while contemporary evangelical churches don’t necessarily suffer from the kind of sacerdotalism that developed in the medieval church, a similar problem has emerged. In much contemporary worship today, congregational participation is minimised by the emphasis on performed music on a stage. Like clergy in medieval worship, musicians in contemporary worship have taken on a “priestly” role in the service. Even the title “worship leader” to describe the chief musician developed from the idea that musicians lead the congregation into the presence of God through the music. The quality of worship in many churches has become measured by the excellence of the performed music and the atmosphere it creates. This has resulted in “worship” become mostly what the praise team does on the stage, which is separated from the congregation by bright lights and darkened congregation. The people have become mere spectators of the worship performed by the praise team on their behalf.

And because of that, today most Christians conceive of their communion with God as something very personal and individualistic. This is exactly what sacerdotalism in the middle ages created as well. Since the priests performed the worship and the people didn’t participate, people began to consider their relationship with God as something that happens individualistically as they observed what was going on and hopefully “soaked up” some of the benefits. And the same thing happens today in many churches. People think that the purpose of corporate worship is for them to have a personal experience as they watch and listen to others perform.

But Christians in times past would have never conceived of their relationship with God this way, and as we have seen in several passages, the Bible does not conceive of our relationship with God in this way. Yes, we each have a personal relationship with God through Christ, but that relationship is always presented in Scripture as corporate, as many members being built into a body, or as many parts being built into a temple for God.

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has also authored several books on worship.