A theology primer: the priesthood of all believers…
If the priesthood of all believers was a “cardinal principle of the Reformation” in the 16th century, where has it gone?
The short answer is that it was a “cardinal principle” in principle only. The priesthood of all believers was never widely established in the practice of the early Protestant churches. The reason is owing to Martin Luther’s ecclesiology, his doctrine of the church.
On one hand, Luther wrote, in “The Freedom of a Christian,” that all who believe on Christ are “priests in Christ.” He based this argument for “Christian dignity” on 1 Peter 2:9 — “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
Here you will ask, “If all who are in the Church are priests, by what character are those whom we now call priests to be distinguished from the laity?” I reply, By the use of these words, “priest,” “clergy,” “spiritual person,” “ecclesiastic,” an injustice has been done, since they have been transferred from the remaining body of Christians to those few who are now, by hurtful custom, called ecclesiastics.
But on the other hand, Luther restricted the definition of the church to where “the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.” This formulation left the division between that laity and clergy largely in place, with the clergy still being given special status. Historically, this has been the norm even though some groups have been more successful in maintaining equality of vocation as described in Luther’s doctrine of calling.
Agreeing with other commentators, the Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness sums up the consequences this way:
If the emphasis had then been placed not so exclusively on preaching and the sacraments but on witness and service in and to the world as marks of the true Church, the laity could have found their place of priesthood. The emphasis was not thus placed, however, and the stratification continued. …
In general one may say that the priesthood of all believers was stillborn.
It should be noted that later reformers were in substantial agreement with Martin Luther’s definition of the church. John Calvin made only a slight modification to the Augsburg Confession:
Wherever we see the word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists. [italics added]
But the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has been misconstrued even where it has persisted. In an article entitled “Priesthood of Believers,” pastor Peter Leithart explains how this doctrine has been corrupted as it has been recast in the language of modern individualism.
While no denomination sanctions this fusion, strains in popular Protestantism, especially American Protestantism, have taken “priesthood of believers” to mean that every believer has an absolute right of private judgment about morals and doctrine, the liberty to interpret the Bible with complete autonomy.
“Priesthood of believers” means that believers can do very well without attachment to any church, thank you very much. Each believer is a church unto himself. Renouncing Rome’s one Pope, Protestantism has created thousands.
This was not Luther’s view. Priestly ministry was ministry within and to the church. To be a priest means to be a priest for someone. “The fact that we are all priests and kings means that each of us Christians may go before God and intercede for the other,” he wrote in a preface to the Psalter. “If I notice that you have no faith or a weak faith, I can ask God to give you a strong faith.” Timothy George captures Luther’s viewpoint in one sentence: “Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another” (emphasis added).
But for Luther, the priesthood of believers was not an excuse to abandon the church, but rather described the shape of life in communion with the body of Christ and the family of faith. It was not a call to individualism, but summoned individuals to serve God, others, and the common good of the church. It did not free the believer from obedience to authority or leave him free to do as he thought best.
Biblical teaching about priesthood fills out the picture, because in the Bible priests are always embedded in liturgical communities and attached to a liturgical center. What they did in Israel for the whole of the people of God, Christians are all—being priests to one another—to do now, embedded like them in our liturgical communities and attached to a liturgical center.
In the Introduction to God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, Dr. Gene Veith provides this useful summary of the priesthood of all believers.
The Reformation came about out of a conviction that the church had drifted away from the truths of God’s Word, focusing on salvation through humanly-invented works, as opposed to the gospel of forgiveness through the work of Christ. In scrutinizing the existing ecclesiastical system in light of the Gospel and the scriptures, the Reformers insisted that priests and nuns and monastics did not have a special claim on God’s favor, but that laypeople too could live the Christian life to its fullest.
The Reformation notion of “the priesthood of all believers” by no means denigrated the pastoral office, as is often assumed, or taught that pastors or church workers were unnecessary, or taught that everybody could come up with their own theology for themselves. Rather, it taught that the pastoral ofﬁce is a vocation, a calling from God with its own responsibilities, authority, and blessings. But it also taught that laypeople as well had vocations, callings of their own that entailed holy responsibilities, authorities, and blessings of their own. Not all believers were pastors or church workers. They didn’t have to be in order to be perfect before God, a status attained through the blood of Christ; but all believers were priests. All believers, like the priests of the Old Testament, can come into the presence of God through the blood of the Lamb. All believers can handle holy things (such as the Bible, earlier denied to the laity). All can proclaim the Gospel to those who need its saving message. “The priesthood of all believers” means that all Christians enjoy the same access to Christ and are spiritually equal before Him.
“The priesthood of all believers” did not make everyone into church workers; rather, it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling. A major issue at the time was the prohibition of marriage for people in the religious orders. The Reformers looked at Scripture and insisted that marriage is ordained by God and that the family, far from being something less spiritual than the life of a hermit or anchorite, is the arena for some of the most important spiritual work. A father and a mother are “priests” to their children, not only taking care of their physical needs, but nourishing them in the faith. Every kind of work, including what had heretofore been looked down upon—the work of peasants and craftsmen—was an occasion for priesthood, for exercising a holy service to God and to one’s neighbor.