Every Christian a Priest?: Exploring the Common Priesthood Doctrine

As some of my readers already know, over the last two years I have been studying the seventeenth and eighteenth century renewal movement known as “Pietism.” The Pietists took the doctrine of the “Priesthood of every believer” very seriously and believed that a widespread revival of lay-driven ministry would be necessary if the Church was to be renewed. (If you would like to learn more about this story I recently published an article on this very subject in a scholarly journal. You can find that article at this link The Pietist Revival’s Implications for Church Ministry in the Post-Pandemic Church | Pace IV | Jurnal Jaffray (sttjaffray.ac.id) The Pietists’ emphasis on this doctrine inspired me to study what Scripture says about it more thoroughly and this article is the result of my studies. I hope you enjoy reading it. God Bless! – Julian Pace.

I have long been fascinated by the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer so championed by the Protestant Reformers and their Pietist descendants. Both the Reformers (particularly Luther) and the Pietists thought that by placing more emphasis on this doctrine a widespread revival of lay-driven ministry might be unleashed. What New Testament references undergird this doctrine the Reformers and Pietists so cherished?  For starters, there are roughly 150 references to the terms priest(s) and priesthood in Acts and the Gospel narratives. During Jesus of Nazareth’s day, a large priestly class continued to play a vital role in the administration of the old covenant sacrificial system. They were also important religious leaders and had an often-tempestuous relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. (Matt 21:23, Luke 20:1-8)

The priesthood image was clearly an important concept to some New Testament authors. 1 Peter 2:5-9 addresses the new covenant concept of the priesthood most explicitly. In this passage, the author of 1 Peter notes that believers form “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” who are empowered to make “spiritual sacrifices” and proclaim the person of Jesus of Nazareth to the world. The author of Hebrews (Paul, Apollos, Barnabas, Priscilla?) envisions Jesus as the unmatchable and glorious “Great, High Priest” flanked by a priestly corps composed of the faithful. Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 both refer to believers a “kingdom of priests” and Revelation 20:6 notes that those who share in the first resurrection (namely believers) will be “priests of God and of Christ.” Tying in closely with the thought of 1 Peter 2:5-9 the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans notes that he has the “priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God.”

The Old Testament is also replete with mentions of the terms priest(s), priestly, and priesthood warranting more than 500 mentions. Featured most frequently in the Old Testament record is the “Levitical” or “Aaronic” Priesthood. This priestly corps played a central role in Jewish religion serving as intermediaries between the Jewish people and Jehovah. Probably the most central task of this priestly corps was to perform offerings and sacrifices on behalf of the people so that their infractions against God’s law might be forgiven (Leviticus chapters 1-9). Priests also had the responsibility of declaring people and material things ritually/ceremonially clean and unclean (Leviticus chapters 13-15).

Occasionally, members of the Levitical priesthood functioned as prophets and all were expected to be “stewards of the knowledge of God.”[1] The biblical evidence suggests that Aaron (Exodus 7:1-7) and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1, 7:9, 13:1-15) performed both priestly and prophetic roles. Recent scholarship demonstrates that the Levitical Priesthood contributed to the corpus of the Old Testament, preserved the text of the Old Testament, and contributed substantially to the religious ideology and identity of the Jewish people.[2]

The Old Testament does not only mention the Levitical Priesthood. Moses’s father-in-law Jethro is notable for being the “priest of Midian” (Exodus 2:16). Jethro and his people were likely monotheists, and the Biblical narrative portrays him as a wise man (Exodus 18:14). However, the Old Testament is silent on the precise contours of his role as a priest. Genesis chapter 14 tells us of the fascinating figure of Melchizedek who was both a king, priest, and perhaps even a prophet (likely typologically foreshadowing Jesus who is “prophet, priest and king.”) In Hebrews, Jesus Christ is explicitly called a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Finally, Job appears to have performed a priestly role for his family (Job 1:5).

Interpreting the New Testament concept of the priesthood without reference to the Old Testament concept of the image is surely unwise. The authors of the New Testament would have been familiar with the Levitical Priesthood as well as other priestly figures (namely Melchizedek) of the Old Testament era. Furthermore, they lived in a historical period where their culture and religious life was dominated by a powerful priestly class centered around the Temple at Jerusalem. As such, the New Testament authors built on Old Testament concepts and tropes about the priesthood to form a new concept of priesthood better suited for the body of Christ.[3]

Biblical scholar Ben Witherington has argued in his work that the New Testament authors entirely “spiritualize” the priesthood image.[4] Whereas Levitical Priests once sacrificed flesh and blood bulls, goats, and doves as acts of worship to God, New Testament priests worship God by performing “spiritual sacrifices.” Christians from some traditions will almost certainly bristle at Witherington’s assertion that the New Testament authors entirely spiritualize (as well as democratize) the priesthood concept as Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and others have ostensibly and quite self-consciously sought to apply tropes and concepts from the Levitical Priesthood more concretely in their respective ministerial contexts.

But if the priesthood concept has indeed been entirely spiritualized, and if every believer is a member of the new covenant priesthood, then this truth has radical and important implications for the Church’s self-understanding as well as the role it must play in the world. Throughout history, priests have been viewed as intermediary figures connecting people to the divine. Likewise, believers today have the priestly privilege and task of “proclaiming the gospel of God” to those who have not heard (Matthew 28, Romans 15:16, 1 Peter 2:5-9). Thus, the Church must consciously seek to live up to its’ identity as a priesthood set apart for the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel to a world that desperately needs it. Believers must view themselves as priests who have been powerfully equipped for ministry by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12).

The priesthood image also has radical implications for the internal functioning of the body of Christ. As already noted, Levitical Priests performed sacrifices on behalf of the Jewish people so their sins might be absolved. They also had the power to certify people and items as either ritually/ceremonially clean or unclean. Christians now have the priestly role of performing “spiritual sacrifices” on behalf of their fellow believers by “incarnating” the spiritual reality that God’s forgiveness rests on their lives even declaring them “clean” and “right” in the sight of God.

When Jesus gives instructions about Church discipline in Matthew 18:15-20 and declares in John 20:21-23 to his disciples that they have the power to forgive sins, he is quite likely giving concrete examples as to how believers might exercise their ministries as priests. Applied practically, this means that all Christians enjoy the priestly privilege of “pronouncing forgiveness” over the truly repentant and such a privilege does not only belong to a small sacerdotal class within the larger Christian family. Ultimately, forgiveness of sins comes only from Jesus “the Great, High Priest” who takes away the sins of the world. However, God can use the faithful in a “sacramental” sense, as a “channel” for his grace, to impart forgiveness upon the truly repentant.

Does the priesthood idea say anything about the church’s mission and how its members should minister to and interact with the world? In Matthew 28 Jesus gave his followers the clear command to “go and make disciples.” Ironically, since that time, various Christian churches and traditions have sought after pithy and memorable mission statements when Jesus has already provided us one! An essential aspect of making disciples is declaring the Gospel of God to those who do not know Jesus Christ. Thus, Jesus’s call to make disciples and the Christian’s priestly duty of proclaiming the Gospel go hand in hand. Furthermore, in a world wracked by sin, strife and broken relationships, our priestly mission of channeling reconciliation and forgiveness on behalf of God is surely the healing salve our hurting world needs.[5]

If all believers are honored priests worthy of reverence and respect, such a reality must surely be balanced by the fact that believers are likewise called to be “servants” in the scriptures (John 13:1-17). The reality of our honored place in God’s economy must not lead the believer to a place of arrogant pride. Rather, the believer should see their priestly office as a calling to serve the Church and the world in a truly “sacrificial” manner (Galatians 6:10).

Recognizing that all believers are a part of a new priesthood, set apart and equipped for Spirit-empowered ministry also provides a helpful balance to the reality that the Church requires a ministerial class within its midst composed of elders and deacons for its good functioning (1 Timothy 3:1-13). Unfortunately, an unhelpful dynamic has arisen in some Christian traditions (particularly in many mega-churches that operate more like businesses than churches) where ministry is almost entirely performed and directed by the officers of the Church and the lay faithful are merely expected to “pray, pay, and obey.” Such a dynamic surely cannot be a Biblically faithful model.

But if we are to move away from such an unhealthy ministry paradigm, and if a widespread revival of lay-driven ministry is to be accomplished, then the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer must be recovered in all its’ richness and depth. Returning to the Pietists, Phillip Jacob Spener (1605-1635) was confronted with a spiritually moribund Lutheran Church where the clergy were out of touch and the laity were increasingly disengaged. However, he reemphasized the priesthood doctrine in his writings and ministry to impressive effect. In his books Pia Desideria and The Spiritual Priesthood Spener emphasizes the spiritual equality of all Christians as well as their concomitant privilege and ability to minister on behalf of the Church and God himself.

In Spener’s very own Lutheran Church, lay believers inspired by the priesthood doctrine created small groups for the purpose of Bible study and dedicated themselves more thoroughly to the pursuit of holiness. Some even taught themselves Hebrew and Greek so they might better understand the scriptures and teach them more effectively to their fellow believers. I believe that a renewal of lay-driven ministry is needed within the American Evangelical Church as our effectiveness has waned considerably in recent years. Perhaps we should follow the example of the Pietists and remind believers of their privileges and responsibilities as priests.

On a personal level, I feel that my church, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, needs to revive the priesthood image desperately, especially as we debate the place of women within the ministry of the Church. We need to be reminded that God has equipped all Christians (irrespective of gender) to perform Spirit-empowered ministry (1 Corinthians 12). Furthermore, whether God has called women to be elders, pastors, or otherwise within his Church, he has certainly called all women to be priests and powerfully “proclaim the gospel of God.” Other Churches may benefit from reviving this doctrine as well.

Mega-churches that increasingly function like businesses where professional pastors dispense spiritual services may need to revisit the priesthood image in their context. Too many believers in this context see the extent of their Christian commitment as believing the right things and attending services occasionally. Such a truncated faith simply will not do (James 2:14-26).

Smaller churches will also benefit from reviving the priesthood image in their local context. Many smaller churches (particularly those in rural areas) are served by part-time pastors who may only be able to dedicate 10 hours a week to ministry there. Pastors in these contexts will need to reemphasize the priesthood doctrine and remind the laity that their ministries are desperately needed and incredibly consequential.

Para-church ministries may benefit by intentionally envisioning themselves as playing a priestly role within and towards the larger church and the world it inhabits. Many para-church organizations like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and CRU (formerly Campus Crusade For Christ) exist to perform the priestly role of “proclaiming the Gospel of God (Romans 15:16).” By intentionally reviving the language and category of priesthood, these organizations may come to enjoy a richer understanding of their evangelistic calling.  

In conclusion, I believe the priesthood image is one of the most fascinating and rich images of the Church in scripture. It reminds every believer of their honored place within God’s family. It reminds us that all of our ministries, no matter how humble, have consequence and worth. Throughout history, Christians have revived the priesthood image in their contemporary context and seen God do wondrous things. Could it be that by reviving the priesthood image in our local ministry contexts God might use us in ways we never thought possible?

Footnotes

[1] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 124.

[2] Mark Leuchter and Jeremy Michael Hutton, Levites and Priests in Biblical History and Tradition(Atlanta, GA: The Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 1-2.

[3] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 689-690.

[4] Ben Witherington, “Why Arguments Against Women in Ministry Aren’t Biblical,” The Bible and Culture, Patheos, last modified June 2, 2015, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/.

[5] John R.W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World: What the Church should be doing now! (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 20-34.

Bibliography

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014.

Leuchter, Mark and Jeremy Michael Hutton, Levites and Priests in Biblical History and Tradition. Atlanta, GA: The Society of Biblical Literature, 2011. 

Minear, Paul S. Images of the Church in the New Testament. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Spener, Phillip Jacob. Pia Desideria, translated by Theodore G. Tappert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1964.

Stott, John R.W. Christian Mission in the Modern World: What the Church should be doing now! Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975.

Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.

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