The Priesthood of All Believers
Ministry to Match the Message of the Gospel
by Chase R. Kuhn
When thinking of the sixteenth-century, most will think of the great theological truths that emerged. Rightly so! But we can easily overlook the circumstances that demanded reform: corrupt ministry. Corrections to the ministry were not just implications of the retrieval of good doctrine, but corrupt ministry was the driving force behind the Reformation. Martin Luther was deeply concerned that the people of the Church were being held captive—one of his great written works was entitled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church—by bad doctrine that amounted to abominable ministry practices and ultimately deprivation of the gospel.
What was it exactly that was so bad about the Roman Catholic Church? There were several presenting issues, especially the selling of indulgences (think “salvation for sale”), that had their root in a profane view of the priesthood. To be more specific, the Roman Church claimed that there were two estates within the Church—a “spiritual estate” for the clergy (priests) and a “temporal estate” for the laity. This sort of thinking had been around for centuries, creeping into the church as far back as the third-century with Cyprian, but had come to be exploited by the sixteenth-century. Luther was adamant that the Bible taught that there was only one spiritual estate shared by all who were baptized and had faith in Christ. Indeed, there was a singular priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:9). Luther wrote one of his more trenchant addresses against Emser, whom he affectionately called the “goat” of Leipzig (!), in order to address such a corrupt view. He explained frankly, “[T]he priesthood of which Emser has dreamed and the church which the papists have devised agree with the Scriptures just as life and death agree with each other.” The point was not simply to point out a sharp contrast, but also to use an image that conveyed a disturbing truth—the Roman priesthood meant death because the manner of their ministry undermined the message of the gospel.
For Luther, the entirety of the Christian people is a spiritual people, all having being been made priests at their baptism. “Therefore,” he wrote, “we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. But the priests, as we call them, are ministers chosen from among us, who do all that they do in our name.” There is a distinction in office, but not estate. In other words, Christians have different ministries, but not different spiritual statuses. The estate of the Christian was only ever one—in Christ, by the Spirit.
There are a few important points to consider regarding the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. First, although Luther identified a single estate for Christians, he maintained a distinction of roles and offices. He wrote, “There is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, ‘spirituals’ and ‘temporals,’ as they call them, except that of office and work, but not of ‘estate’; for they are all of the same estate—true priests, bishops, and popes—though they are not all engaged in the same work …” He believed, as Paul taught (1 Cor. 12:14-31), that each person was to use their office and gifts for mutual service. The clergy should proclaim the Word. The laity were to use “many kinds of work … for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community.”
Second, Luther cautioned against Christians using their priestly status in order to exercise any ministry as they willed. He was clear that ordination for ministry continued to be significant for the guarding of the gospel. He wrote, “Because we are all in like manner priests, no one must put himself forward and undertake, without our consent and election, to do what is in the power of all of us. For what is common to all, no one dare take upon himself without the will and the command of the community…” For Luther, the ministry of the Word and sacrament was to be kept for those the church ordained to that ministry. That is not to say that others had no role to play in teaching the Word of God, but rather that the office ought to be upheld. It would be like everyone in town wanting to be sheriff—if all have the authority there is no authority. It is best to have designated (elected/ordained) officials to uphold the law. So too, the gospel is best kept when specific offices are upheld.
But, thirdly, it is important that officers do not lose sight of their primary work. Luther was firm that ordination was for choosing preachers. He believed the Roman Church’s priests had idolatrously embraced the perverse sacrificial Mass in dismissal of Word ministry. Following Luther’s lead, Philip Melanchthon—a close friend of Luther—berated the Roman notion of Mass being offered for the forgiveness of the sins of the people, and instead articulated the appropriate confidence in the work of Christ. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon declared, “We teach that the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross was sufficient for the sins of the entire world and that there is no need for additional sacrifices, as though Christ’s sacrifice was not sufficient for our sins.”
The Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers recognizes the priestly office of Christ that is so wonderfully detailed in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Christ, the great high priest, offered himself as a sacrifice for sin once and for all (Heb. 7:27; 10:12). Under the old covenant, sacrifices were necessarily repeated to make atonement and to serve as a perpetual reminder of sin to the people. Now, because of Christ’s sacrifice, God says he remembers sin no more. “Where there is forgiveness of these [lawless deeds], there is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb. 10:18). In view of Christ’s priestly work, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession declared,
Therefore, human beings are justified not on account of any other sacrifice except the one sacrifice of Christ when they believe that they have been redeemed by that sacrifice. Thus priests are not called to offer sacrifices for the people as in the Old Testament law so that through them they might merit the forgiveness of sins for the people; instead they are called to preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments to the people.
The Roman Church undermines the work of Christ when they seek to offer Christ again and again. True ministry proclaims the finished work of Christ. Thus, Luther and the Lutherans called the clergy back to the priority of preaching.
Continuing to Reform
A little more than a century after Luther’s ministry, Philip Jacob Spener—a German Pietist, famous for his book Pia Desideria—sought to continue the work that Luther began at the Reformation. Likening the Reformation to the Jews returning from Babylonian exile (note the strong influence of Luther!), he believed there was work that remained lest they face the threat of exile again. Spener wrote, “[W]e…ought not to be satisfied with the knowledge that we have gone out of Babel but we ought to take pains to correct the defects which still remain.” In order for this work to be done, he knew that there would be more help required than the ordained clergy could offer. The matter was not merely practical, but anchored in a theology of the ministry that gave expression to the universal priesthood.
Spener believed that every Christian had a duty to fulfill their priestly service to others, especially those within their home. He sought to correct a common misconception of his day that the ordained clergyman was the only one who did the work of ministry. He believed that any sloth or complacency in the work of ministry amongst the laity was due to this misconception about the pastoral office. He charged every Christian to fulfill their priestly duty! This exhortation agreed with Paul’s encouragement to the Ephesians for every member of the church to do their part, in order that the body of Christ might mature (Eph. 4:7-16). Thus, Spener believed that in order for the church to continue to be properly Reformed, the priesthood of all believers must be rightly understood and practiced. Only then will the Word do the work of bringing maturity by the Spirit.
Priesthood and Christian ministry today
What does the priesthood of all believers mean practically for Christians today? Without offering a comprehensive list, here are three brief consequences for today:
- All who belong to Christ are spiritual equals, but equality does not rise and fall on function. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (1 Cor. 12:18-19). Christians must remember that they have one estate in Christ, even if they have distinct roles and offices in ministry.
- The Church will only mature when each part of the body is working properly (Eph. 4:7-16). Pastors have a priority to preach, but this does not mean that the ministry of the Word stops with them. Every member of the church has a part to play, especially in “speaking the truth in love” (v. 15), as well as many other ways of serving the church.
- Every Christian serves a priestly role of mediation. This point should be noted with care, as this role is carried forward only ever because of the perfect and full mediation of Christ our great high priest. No Christian mediates to make atonement. But each Christian offers prayers for others because they know they have perfect access to God the Father through Christ’s atoning work. Furthermore, Christians represent Christ to other Christians considering “how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24), and to the world they “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
Today we can be grateful for God’s provision of leaders like Martin Luther who helped God’s people escape from Babylon—that idolatrous land of corruption. Through the study of God’s Word and the courage of God’s people, the church and its practices were reformed. With the retrieval of right theology also came the retrieval of right practice. We must be sure to not lose sight of this connection!
If the churches today are to remain faithful to gospel, then the ministry must match the message. This does not mean we should get rid of pastoral leadership in the church. Quite the opposite, we should protect the pastoral office demanding that those ordained to this work stay on task to do their primary work: preach the Word! Perhaps equally pressing today, all Christians must be reminded that the work of ministry does not belong to the pastor alone. As Spener wisely indicated, the clergy cannot do it all! Christ builds his church as every member takes their place of service in the body. The ministry of the Word must abound, and the people must abide. The work of the Reformation must continue, lest we return to captivity.