The Priesthood of All Believers

At the heart of the Protestant Reformation was a commitment to five key beliefs. We took several weeks last year to look at these doctrines, which are summarized by five Latin phrases:

Sola fide – by faith alone!
Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone!
Solus Christus – Christ alone!
Sola Gratia – through grace alone!
Soli Deo Gloria – for the glory of God alone!

The issues surrounding the Reformation were not just about the beliefs of the church – though that was the foundation. They were also about the practices of the church. These were also held up to the scrutiny of Scripture and found wanting.

As it became clear that Rome would not be changed, the Lutheran and later the Reformed movements began to wrestle with questions relating to the Church. The Roman Church service was organized around the Mass. The Protestant churches sought to root their understanding of “doing church” in the example of the New Testament. Church services began to be teaching times, and in addition Luther emphasized the inclusion congregational singing, believing that, as one writer says, “the vigorous singing of simple hymns could open the hearts and minds of God’s people to embrace the Word of God.”[1]

It would now be good for us to read two passages. The first is in 1 Peter 2:4-10. The second is just a few pages away, in Revelation 5:1-10.

Central to the changes that took place in what the church did when it gathered was a recapturing of biblical ideas about what the church was. It was out of the reformers’ understanding of passages such as the two we have just read that a concept known as the priesthood of all believers was taught. And this – like the five “sola” statements we looked at last year, was a radical departure from what Rome had been teaching.

The Priesthood in the Roman Church & The Protestant Response

The Roman church taught that there was a difference in status between those who were part of the church hierarchy and the common person. The priest stood between the people and God, acting as a mediator. He performed the Mass. He acted as confessor. He could proclaim pardon for sin. But Luther protested on the basis of Scripture:

“It has been devised, that the Pope, bishops, priests and monks are called the Spiritual Estate; princes, lords, artificers and peasants, are the Temporal Estate; which is a very fine, hypocritical device. But let no one be made afraid of it; and that for this reason: That all Christians are truly of the Spiritual Estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone. As St. Paul says (1 Cor. Xii), we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others.” [2]

Luther went on to say that all Christians are consecrated as priests, and this on the basis of what Peter and John had written in the passages we read earlier.

You can’t imagine how radical this was! And it still remains radical to the mind of the traditional Roman Catholic.[3]

The Implication of the Doctrine of the Priesthood of all Believers

Part 1 – What the Reformers Intended

I need to clarify a few things. Luther’s protest against the division between church hierarchy and the layperson was not intended to introduce a spirit of individualism. In an article on the Priesthood of All Believers, Dr. Timothy George quotes Lutheran Scholar Paul Althaus:

“Luther never understands the priesthood of all believers merely in the sense of the Christian's freedom to stand in a direct relationship to God without a human mediator. Rather he constantly emphasizes the Christian's evangelical authority to come before God on behalf of the brethren and also of the world. The universal priesthood expresses not religious individualism but its exact opposite, the reality of the congregation as a community.”

He then comments as follows:

Of course, Luther did believe that all Christians had direct access to God without recourse to "the tin gods and buffoons of this world, the pope with his priests." But for Luther the Priesthood of all believers did not mean, "I am my own Priest." It meant rather: in the community of saints, God has so tempered the body that we are all priests to each other. We stand before God and intercede for one another, we proclaim God's Word to one another and celebrate His presence among us in worship, praise and fellowship. Moreover, our priestly ministry does not terminate upon ourselves. It propels us into the world in service and witness. It constrains us to "show forth the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light" (I Pet. 2:9).[4]

Luther saw from Scripture that the church was a community, and that while there are those who have specific responsibilities for teaching and oversight of the church, everyone who is truly a believer has a share in the work of the church. I like the way John Piper talks about this:

“The main thing here is that we as a church are meant by Christ to be a corporate dwelling of God in the Spirit. It's true that each of us is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). But there is more of God to be known and enjoyed than any one can know in isolation. We are being fitted together, Paul says, for a temple and for a dwelling of God by his Spirit. There is a presence and power and manifestation of the Spirit of God meant to be known in this gathering of worship that we do not know at any other time in isolation.

“We are not just isolated living stones. We are, verse 5 says, being built (by Christ—"I will build my church") as a spiritual house. The stones are meant to so fit together in this house called Bethlehem that something whole, something more than a collection of individuals comes into being—a temple, a dwelling of God by his Spirit.

“And O how jealous I am to see that happen more than it ever has.”[5]

I echo that feeling. How much good we could do, how much stronger we would be, how much more God would be glorified if all of us recognized our God-given responsibility to function as priests offering sacrifices to God.

(To be continued)

[1] Quotation is taken from page 2.
[2] Found quoted in numerous places on the Internet, from the opening paragraphs of Luther’s To the Christian Nobility.
[3] This article or sermon identifies Luther’s ideas as heresy.
[4] Source for the quotation from Paul Althaus is found there as well.


Jody said...

We are going to be studying this idea of priesthood in church on Sunday. I was trying to think of practical ways to embody this message, as my pastor is always looking for ways to challenge the group spiritually and practically. Any ideas as to how a small church could exercise the idea of the priesthood in an innovative but challenging way?

Peter Bogert said...

Thanks for your comment, Jody. I posted the rest of the sermon on this subject today. I see a practical outworking of the priesthood of all believers being done in the normal context of exercising our gifts.

When I finish Romans 12:1-8 in two or three weeks, I plan to do a reverse offering (in addition to the regular one!) in which our ushers pass out pieces of a puzzle. I did this once before to remind people that they are a part of the whole, and challenged them to carry it with them or tape it someplace prominent to remember what the Bible says about the necessity and responsibility of their own participation in the life and ministry of the church to one another.