Note: this is the abridged verion of a talk I gave at Seminario ESEPA, on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. To download the entire article with footnotes, go HERE or download the pdf here: Shogren_The Priesthood of All Believers in the Reformation En español: Shogren_El sacerdocio de todos los creyentes
We are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when believers came to reject certain tenets of the Roman church and attempted to restore biblical doctrine. And everyone remembers that doctrinal superstar, the final authority of the Scriptures; also, the famous justification by faith alone. But according to many experts in the field, the third principle, there would have been no Reformation. This is the doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers; that because we are united with Christ, and anointed by the Spirit, then each and every Christian is a priest.
Its biblical basis, among other texts, is:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Pet 2:9, the NIV here and elsewhere in this paper).
[Christ] has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father (Rev 1:6).
The Roman doctrine is, and was that, Catholic priests act in persona Christi, that is, “in the person of Christ.” They and only they may offer the sacraments, most particularly the sacrifice of the mass. While in one sense every believer is a priest, in practical terms there is a special priesthood. But the Reformers showed that this was a medieval doctrine, that first began to show up in the church father Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd century:
There is one God, and Christ is one, and there is one Church, and one chair founded upon the rock by the word of the Lord. Another altar cannot be constituted nor a new priesthood be made, except the one altar and the one priesthood.[i]
It is this idea which the reformers argued was a deviation from the Scripture and also from the earliest Church fathers. And so Luther and the rest pointed to the fathers of the church for proof that the universal priesthood of believers was not a novel doctrine, but an ancient one.
In great part, it was Martin Luther who developed this doctrine in two early books: Address to the Nobility of the German Nation (1520) and later that year The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. And it was Luther who began to introduce groundbreaking changes. Who, then, is a priest? Every believer is, all the baptized:
If they were forced to grant that as many of us as have been baptised are all priests without distinction, as indeed we are, and that to [the Roman clergy] was committed the ministry only, yet with our consent, they would presently learn that they have no right to rule over us except in so far as we freely concede it. For thus it is written in 1 Peter 2:9, “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, and a priestly kingdom.” Therefore we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians.[ii]
…[not just the clergy, but] all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone. As St. Paul says (i Cor. xii), we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others, This is because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, Gospel, and faith, these alone make spiritual and Christian people.[iii]
And so, “every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another.”[iv] And this truth brings with it many implications, for example: if every believer is a priest, then it is essential that everyone ought to be able to read the Bible translated into his own language.
It should be mentioned that, Luther continued to distinguish between preachers of the Word and other Christians, since preaching is based on a special calling and ordination; and also, that no woman can teach the church.
John Calvin developed this doctrine even further:
…when the Jews, who by their refusal of Christ had departed from the covenant, still improperly gloried in this title, [Peter] claims this honor for the members of Christ only, saying, “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood,” etc. (1 Peter 2:9).[v]
And thus it is that every believer has a high priest in Christ, and is also a priest.
At the same time, other groups charge that the Reformers had not taken the doctrine of the universal priesthood to its logical conclusion. Some Anabaptists, the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Brethren, and other groups went further and rejected all distinctions between clergy and laity. After all, the apostle recognized multiple leaders of the church: “And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” (1 Cor 14:30-31)
In the 18th century, John Wesley took it in still new directions. One way was found in his dictum that lay preachers can and must extend the kingdom of heaven:
Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergy or laymen, such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven upon earth.[vi]
These “laymen” included lay women; he trained and sent out female preachers of the gospel.
The other contribution of Wesley is, for me, one of the most impressive expressions of the universal priesthood: his Class Meetings. The twelve members of each society would meet weekly for an hour and a half; they would be held accountable one to the other, confess their sins, and pray. They would pose a set of questions of one another, especially these five:[vii]
- What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
- What temptations have you met with?
- How were you delivered?
- What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
- Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?
For every gospel truth, there exists its mutation, or maybe even its perversion. For Satan does not need to invent new ideas, not when it is possible to simply give a twist to the truth. And the universal priesthood of the believer is found in forms which, from my perspective, would have scandalized the apostles and the Reformers.
Anti-intellectualism: this is the idea that since you are anointed by the Spirit, then you do not have to use your mind, and that in fact your intellect is dangerous. The Reformers had no patience with this idea.
The “Super-Anointed” leader: where I work in Latin America, this is the most obvious rejection of the priesthood of all believers. We have seen this in churches small, medium, and large; it does not have to be a megachurch, since it can happen even in a group of 50, where there are 1-2 persons on the platform and the rest are spectators, watching, while the evangelical priests do their work. And since he is the “priest,” he must receive the tithes of the people.
Hyper-Individualism: here is the idea that, I have no need of pope, bishop, priest, pastor, or apostle. And so I have in myself alone everything I need to live and flourish in the Lord; “It’s just me and the open Bible, and that’s that.” This means that, there are evangelicals who would go ballistic if someone told them they should obey the pope, but in a very real sense, they are their very own popes. This was never the vision of the Reformation, where the universal priesthood works only when we are part of a congregation of the saints.
As a priest you represent God before the world, principally in evangelism, and by all that you do in the name of Christ. And in prayer, you represent the world before God.
Within the church, your ministry is to give and to take: one place to study this dynamic is to simply read through the list of “one another” texts in Paul:
Rom 12:10 – Be devoted to one another in love
Rom 15:5 – have the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had
Rom 15:7 – accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God
Rom 15:14 – you are filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another
1 Cor 12:25 – there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other
Eph 5:19 – speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit
Col 3:13 – Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you
Your ministry for God among his people is to offer the sacrifices of praise and prayer; to edify, instruct, forgive, encourage, and by every means bless the other priests. Instead of a mass with a priest doing all that is necessary; or a pastor or even a handful of people doing all the ministry, Paul had this vision: “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” (1 Cor 14:26)
Your pastor is not your priest; nor is your “apostle”; the leaders of the church are people who train and support a congregation of priests.
[ii] Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church 7.9. (http://www.lutherdansk.dk/Web-babylonian%20Captivitate/Martin%20Luther.htm)
[iii] Martin Luther, Address to the Nobility of the German Nation. Luther adduces Matthew 18:15-17, and states that anyone could take any two or three members of the church and rebuke any Christian, up to and including the pope. (https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/luther-nobility.asp)
[iv] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (rev. ed.; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2013), 96. See too Lesslie Newbigin, “Can a Modern Society by Christian?” given as 1995 Gospel and Culture Lecture, King’s College, London – “The priesthood of the whole membership is not primarily executed by sitting on church committees or in church assemblies. It is exercised in the life of the world…The sacrifices acceptable to God are to be made in all the acts of loving obedience, small or great, which a believer is called up to make in the course of daily work in the world.”
[v] Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries on Exod 19:6. (https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/commentaries.i.html)
[vi] John Wesley, “Letter to Alexander Mather (August 6, 1777),” in The Letters of John Wesley, ed. John Telford (London: Epworth, 1931), 6:271-272. (http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-letters-of-john-wesley/wesleys-letters-1777/)
“What? Me, a priest?!” by Gary S. Shogren, Ph. D. in New Testament Exegesis, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica