“The Priesthood of All BelieversThe Priesthood of All BelieversThe doctrine of the priesthood of all believers emerged in reaction to the sacramentalism that dominated church life and work. Sacramentalism is the belief that in the observance of the sacraments of the church special grace is conveyed to the participants—even saving grace. The priest, according to sacramentalism, has precedence over the laity in exercising the office of the church and particularly in consecrating and distributing the elements in the Lord’s Supper (called the Eucharist in some churches).Luther advocated the priesthood of all believers, which forms a central doctrine of all Protestantism. Priesthood, to him, meant that we stand before God, pray for others, intercede with God, sacrifice ourselves to Him, and proclaim the Word to one another. Universal priesthood never meant “privatism” or religious individualism. Luther believed this right was given to the community of the saints, who are a priestly generation, a royal priesthood. The priesthood of all believers means that believers have the right and duty to share the gospel and teach God’s Word. He recognized no community that did not preach the Word and no community that did not witness the gospel.In his book Concerning Ministry Luther spelled out seven rights of this universal priesthood:• to preach the Word of God• to baptize• to celebrate the sacrament (the Lord’s Supper)• to minister the office of the keys (announce divine forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name)• to pray for others• to judge doctrine• to discern spirits.8Luther even went beyond these functions to urge Christians to engage in the mutual encouragement of the Word to each other in the church.In Luther’s day Thomas Münzer of Zwickau, Germany, denounced the immorality and abuse of priests. To Münzer, restoration would come from common people, whom he called “custodians of truth they cannot theologically articulate.” These people of God, he felt, should be able to elect their pastors. He also believed that the words that consecrate the elements in the Lord’s Supper should be said by the whole congregation as a royal, priestly people.The Reformation principle of sola fide (“faith alone”) also led to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Rank-and-file believers throughout Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries found in this doctrine new freedoms to express their faith. The Anabaptists, Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, and many others began to address ministerial (magisterial) reform. Some felt that Martin Luther had not gone far enough in his reforms.Among Radical Reformers the question arose over the legitimacy of any ordination. The nature of the apostolate—apostolic succession—was crumbling. In their yearning to avoid cheap grace and an unholy ministry, the Anabaptists sought to transform the church. They were the true evangelicals calling on a shared ministry in the Spirit of all the people of God.Their views also extended to interpreting and handling the Word of God. They appealed to the right of the whole congregation, the laity along with the divines (clergy), to judge difficult passages of the Bible together. Baptists later developed this insight into what is known as “soul liberty,” the right of individual believers to interpret the truth of the Scriptures under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. These Radical Reformers pushed the Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers in the direction of a lay apostolate.9The floodgates of the Reformation were thus opened, allowing the common people to engage in full exercise of their spiritual gifts in the church.Before we leave this doctrine, it may help to look at the importance of the biblical truth on the subject. After all, a central tenet of the Reformation was the centrality of biblical authority.As stated earlier, the New Testament does not make a distinction between clergy and laity. Both refer to the same people. The word clergy comes from the Greek word klētos, meaning “the called,” and we get our word for laity from the word laos, meaning “people.” Both words occur in some form in 1 Peter 2:9–10. Believers in general are the called of God (Rom. 8:28, 30; 1 Cor. 1:2; 24; 1 Pet. 3:9; 5:10). The terms elect, saints, disciples, and brothers all refer to the people of God who have been called by Him.The church exists in the world as a group of people who have received God’s mercy by divine grace. Believers are ordained to carry out good works, both in a personal way and in a collective way. John Wesley understood this to mean there is no such thing as private Christianity. Believers belong to a fellowship of the called.”
8 Luther’s seven rights of the universal priesthood of all believers are summarized in Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 313–18.9 For a fuller investigation of the views of the Anabaptists, see George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962); William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1996); and C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchen, Ont.: Pandora, 1995) Swindoll, C. R., & Zuck, R. B. (2003). Understanding Christian theology (pp. 1119–1121). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
“The Priesthood of Believers. This (royal) high priesthood of Jesus Christ connects to the “royal priesthood” of believers: “you are … a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9a). The obvious reference to Exodus 19:6 suggests that the church functions in this present age as God’s New Testament kingdom of priests much like the nation of Israel did in the Old Testament. As such we are responsible to carry out the ministry of proclaiming to the world “the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9b).
A closely related idea (but without the “royal” connections) is Peter’s earlier description of the church as a group of believers who are being (niv), or should allow themselves to be (nrsv), “built into a spiritual house [Jesus himself being the living and choice cornerstone, 1 Peter 2:4, 6–8] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Thus, as fellow priests with Jesus we offer up to God our sacrifices of praise (Heb. 13:15), our doing good and sharing (Heb. 13:16), and ultimately our present physical bodies in the interest of conforming to his standards (Rom. 12:1–2). It is important to observe that here the corporate priesthood of the church shades into the priesthood of the individual believer. Moreover, our ministry in the gospel can be described as an offering of our very life in priestly service to the church (Phil. 2:17), by which we can produce a harvest of sanctified people whom we present to God as an acceptable offering.
Finally, corporate Israel in the Old Testament functioned as a kingdom of priests in both its mediation between God and the other nations and in its service of worship to the Lord in the sanctuary (Exod. 19:5–6). Similarly, the priesthood of the church has mediatorial features as well as aspects that correspond to the sanctuary worship of the Old Testament, sometimes expressed separately and sometimes jointly in the various New Testament passages related to the priesthood of believers.”
niv New International Version
nrsv New Revised Standard Version
Averbeck, R. E. (1996). Priest, Priesthood. In Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology (electronic ed., p. 637). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
“Priesthood of Believers. A Protestant principle whereby each believer has immediate access to God through the one mediator, Jesus Christ. One of the great principles of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, as expounded by Martin Luther, was the priesthood of all believers. Joined with justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture alone, it cut through the tangles of medieval Catholicism that tended to place barriers between the individual Christian and God. The implications of the principle were that no priest was necessary, no saints, no Blessed Virgin Mary, to intercede for the ordinary believer. The whole medieval system of salvation, so dependent on a strong distinction between laity and clergy and the power of the latter to administer or withhold the sacraments, was thus for Protestants abolished.
The general effects of this Protestant principle were at least threefold. First, it meant that lay-people prayed directly to God through Jesus Christ, thus increasing lay involvement in private and public worship. Second, it meant that God communicated directly to the individual Christian through his Word, the Bible, thus encouraging the production of vernacular versions of Scripture and the pursuit of lay Bible study. Third, it meant anew sense of Christian liberty for the ordinary Christian, who felt no longer bound by the authority of extrabiblical traditions or by ecclesiastical hierarchies.
Transported to the American environment, without bishoprics and generally established churches, the priesthood of all believers provided a basis for greater lay influence than had characterized European Christianity. In many instances churches could form only where ministers had sufficient powers of persuasion to gather a lay following. In Puritan settings it was not uncommon for regular “private meetings” of laypeople to have as much influence as the church services and to comprise a church within the church. In some groups, such as the Quakers and later the Plymouth Brethren, the priesthood of believers came to mean that there was no recognized clergy at all.
On the negative side, the American expression of the priesthood of believers could manifest itself in a lack of reverence and in a lack of respect for the institutional church. It has contributed also to the spawning of numerous parachurch organizations, many of which have special effectiveness but frequently lack accountability.”
Bibliography. W. S. Hudson, Religion in America (1965); L. Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (1906); C. E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England (1982).
Reid, D. G., Linder, R. D., Shelley, B. L., & Stout, H. S. (1990). In Dictionary of Christianity in America. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.