Priesthood of All Believers?

How a Vital Truth Goes Awry

The world is like a drunken peasant. If you lift him into the saddle on one side, he will fall off on the other side. One can’t help him, no matter how one tries. —Martin Luther (Luther’s Works, 54:111)

By 1520, Martin Luther was convinced that the Roman church couldn’t be helped. Or, at least, she wouldn’t. For centuries, the medieval church held that God’s grace was mediated chiefly through the sacraments and those invested with the authority to comprehend and administer them. Priests, therefore, inhabited a unique and higher order, and they alone were gifted by God to contemplate divine mysteries and mediate God’s grace. The priesthood was spiritual and holy; all other vocations were both temporal and profane.

Luther saw these teachings for what they were — the mere traditions of men. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, the clergy of Luther’s day ascribed more authority to their tradition than to Scripture itself.

Priesthood of All Believers

Addled by power, however, the Roman curia wouldn’t be sobered by Scripture — no matter how Luther tried. So, in May of 1520, Luther appealed to Germany’s Christians.

It is pure invention that pope, bishop, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the temporal estate. This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12 that we are all one body, yet every member has its own work by which it serves the others. This is because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people. (Works, 44:127)

“Luther understood that, in Christ, all of God’s people have received a holy calling.”

Luther understood that, in Christ, all of God’s people have received a holy calling. As those united to Christ by faith, believers are “being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). The Levitical system of the old covenant was fulfilled in the atoning death and victorious resurrection of Jesus, who is himself the great high priest (Hebrews 4:14). And Jesus’s priestly ministry is extended through his covenant people by the outpouring of his Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4–11).

As a holy priesthood, believers now offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5; see also Romans 12:1). Peter reminds his readers,

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

In the same way, the heavenly anthem declares that Jesus’s redemptive work has made his people “a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10).

Therefore, Luther argued, the division between holy and profane vocations was wholly human and artificial. The true “spiritual estate” belonged to all Christians.

Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, although of course it is not seemly that just anybody should exercise such office. (Works, 44:129)

The Reformation recovery of the priesthood of all believers disintegrated the medieval hierarchical view, and nurtured an evangelical understanding of the church. It emphasized the urgency and necessity of the Great Commission, and ignited a global missions movement with widespread and lasting impact.

While the intent was to remove a hardened and unbiblical distinction, however, the unintended consequence has occasionally been to remove all distinctions whatsoever. Over the ensuing centuries, many denominations permitted an individualistic cultural impulse to eclipse the ecclesial context Luther clearly had in view. Rather than celebrating both the equal standing of all Christians and the intentional distinctions of office and role, radical individualism often dissolved biblical teaching into base egalitarianism. Only barely in the saddle, some fell off the other side of the horse. Perhaps nowhere is this reality more evident than in the early American republic.

Beneath Every Man’s Hat

While the enlightenments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had exalted personal autonomy and eroded confidence in established authority, it was the American experiment that pressed individualism and egalitarianism into the church in surprising ways.

The antiestablishmentarianism of the American founders was frequently reflected by calls to reject Protestant confessional and covenantal frameworks in favor of “primitive Christianity” — a so-called return to New Testament Christianity where any person could be a preacher and any gathering a church. No longer were there biblical distinctions of office or role. The priesthood of all believers was transmogrified into the priesthood of the believer.

In my own tradition, Baptist leaders like Francis Wayland (1796–1865) and even E.Y. Mullins (1860–1928) argued that each individual person was independently competent to determine matters of religious importance. This logic inevitably led to the idea that every believer has the absolute right to private judgment about biblical doctrine and the liberty to interpret Scripture with complete autonomy. The practical effect, as historian Winthrop Hudson famously said, was “to make every man’s hat his own church” (Baptists in Transition, 142).

“The radical individualism of early American culture has become a celebrated feature of American Christianity.”

The radical individualism of early American culture has become a celebrated feature of American Christianity. Skepticism toward an educated pastorate, dismissiveness about the importance of local-church membership, promotion of women to the office of elder (and rejection of the biblical qualifications) — these are all disorders inherited from our American forebears.

As Luther warned, unbounded egalitarianism dissolves the wise distinctions designed by God for the good of his church.

Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, although of course it is not seemly that just anybody should exercise such office. Because we are all priests of equal standing, no one must push himself forward and take it upon himself, without our consent and election, to do that for which we all have equal authority. For no one dare take upon himself what is common to all without the authority and consent of the community. (Works, 44:129)

The biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers establishes the equal standing of all believers in the spiritual estate. But as Paul reminded the Corinthians, “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Corinthians 12:18). Luther, again, writes,

There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate, all are truly priests, bishops, and popes. But they do not all have the same work to do. . . . Further, everyone must benefit and serve every other by means of his own work or office so that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, just as all the members of the body serve one another. (Works, 44:130)

Back in the Saddle

Sobriety in our day would lead evangelicals in North America to jettison radical individualistic and egalitarian cultural impulses, and embrace the biblical distinctions designed by God for the good of his church. Distinctions in role or office are not gradations of value or fundamental to our identity. By God’s wise design, we “do not all have the same work to do.” As countercultural as it may seem in our antiauthoritarian, individualistic era, there is goodness, beauty, and joy in embracing God’s good order.

Rather than every man being his own priest, we must also remember Luther’s insight that every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another (Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 96). There is nothing noble about the lone-ranger Christian nor any hope in the quest for purely individual spiritual fulfillment. As a holy priesthood, we are designed and intended to pursue Christ together, united around a common confession “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:25).