What Does (and Doesn’t) the Priesthood of Believers Mean?
The priesthood of the believer, of every believer equally, is one of the cornerstones of Baptist doctrine and practice. As we can see from 1 Peter 2:9 it is also a biblical doctrine. The New Testament calls Christians “a royal priesthood” without exceptions.
But today there is a great deal of confusion about this bedrock Baptist belief. What does it mean? How does it work out in practice? Unfortunately, there is little consensus among Baptists, including Baptist biblical scholars and theologians, about the answers to these questions
Why does it matter? It matters because this beautiful truth of every Christian’s priesthood is being distorted or neglected or even denied by some Baptists to say nothing of other Christians—and that has dire consequences. I believe we can see those consequences in Baptist life today.
The New Testament mentions the priesthood of the believer at least two passages. But nowhere does it explain what it means. So, as with many good biblical truths, we have to discern what it means using tradition, reason and experience—the three sources and norms of theology that help us interpret Scripture.
The background is the Jewish religion of the first century. When these passages were written, probably, anyway, the Temple in Jerusalem was gone. Along with it went the Jewish priestly class—the men who offered up the sacrifices in the Temple and who entered the “Holy Place” and the “Holy of Holies” to encounter God as directly as possible.
Jewish priests, as all priests, were considered mediators between God and his people. It’s not that first century Jews couldn’t go directly to God in prayer, but when it came to the sacrifices so crucial to the covenant between God and his people priests were needed. Only priests could really carry out the essential function of reconciliation between God and his people.
It seems that our New Testament writers were harking back to the report that when Jesus died on the cross the curtain between the Temple’s Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was torn—symbolically declaring no need of a merely human high priest because of Jesus’ priestly sacrifice on our behalf on the cross.
Now, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, we have one high priest and mediator—Jesus Christ. And according to our Scriptures this morning, we are all mediators—priests. Thus, there is no longer any “priestly class” as there was in Temple Judaism. Every Christian has a high priest in Jesus who offered himself up as our sacrifice and every Christian is a priest unto God.
Notice what made Jesus our high priest—he offered himself as a sacrifice and served as our mediator before God. Hebrews says he lives now to make intercession on our behalf to God the Father.
One terrible distortion of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer is a focus on the individual as priest for himself or herself and not for others. And worse is when it is used as a basis for assertion of one’s own rights. The essence of true priesthood is sacrificing and mediating on behalf of others and, if Jesus is the purest example of true priesthood, it means sacrificing one’s self on behalf of others.
By the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the Catholic church had seriously misunderstood and distorted the idea of priesthood. It was a throwback to the Temple Judaism of the first century and before—certain men were believed to be the only ones who could mediate between God and his people. Only an ordained clergyman could perform the sacraments—sacrifices. Only such a person could hear confessions of sin and pronounce absolution of guilt after assigning acts of penance.
Martin Luther rebelled against this and other practices of the medieval church proclaiming three great truths: sola Scriptura—Scripture above tradition, sola gratia et fides—salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and the priesthood of the believer.
But, all branches of the Protestant reformation except one held onto certain Catholic notions of priesthood. Luther and Zwingli and Calvin and other so-called magisterial reformers taught that only ordained clergymen could officiate the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and said clergyman must be present when believers meet to worship or study the Bible.
As recently as the mid-19th century it was illegal for lay people to meet together to study and discuss the Bible without benefit of state-church clergy in many Protestant European countries.
The one Reformation group that rejected this clericalism was the Anabaptists—which means “re-baptizers”—the forerunners of Baptists who emerged a century later. They believed that the mainline Reformers still did not understand the priesthood of the believer and they took it farther by rejecting clericalism altogether making every baptized Christian spiritually equal.
The first Baptists were John Smyth and Thomas Helwys who learned about the priesthood of the believer from the Anabaptists. They founded the first Baptist congregations in Holland in 1609—400 years ago this year. Like the Anabaptists they took the priesthood of every believer seriously and taught that every baptized Christian is fully capable of serving as a priest unto God.
Ever since 1609 Baptists have upheld this doctrine with passion. But they have not always agreed about its exact meaning. Recently very serious disagreement about it has broken out among Baptists as part of the larger controversy between so-called “Fundamentalists” and so-called “Moderates.” We who call ourselves Moderates believe our more conservative brothers and sisters have once again forgotten what the priesthood of the believer means. We see them as following a new priestly class of religious leaders who act as if only they can read the Bible rightly and only they can make decisions for other Christians. All who disagree with them are banished.
But in the heat of our controversy we may have forgotten what the priesthood of the believer really means. Some of us have swung the pendulum away from the Catholic concept of priesthood and away from the ultra-conservative interpretation too far. And we have unconsciously absorbed the individualism of our culture and confused believer’s priesthood with individual autonomy.
The New Testament knows nothing of individualism. Yes, the individual is created in God’s image, but being created in God’s image means being created for relationships. God is a community; we are to reflect the divine community of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our lives together.
But too often we wrongly imagine that being priests unto God means having our own way, being unaccountable, even rejecting authority outside the self. None of that is New Testament Christianity or Baptist theology. One moderate Baptist leader is famous for declaring “Ain’t nobody but Jesus going to tell me what to believe.” That’s understandable as a reaction against the dictatorship of fundamentalism. But it is too individualistic to accurately express New Testament Christianity or even historic Baptist life.
Being a priest involves having certain privileges—going directly to God on behalf of others and ourselves and having equal right to perform the sacraments or ordinances and preach and teach and lead in congregational life. And it means that nobody is better able to interpret the Bible than anyone else in the body of Christ just because he or she is ordained. The priesthood of the believer means the Bible is open to everyone to be interpreted faithfully and reasonably.
But being a priest also involves certain responsibilities such as bearing other’s burdens to God, laying down one’s self for others as our high priest did on the cross, being accountable to the body of Christ for our gifts and our lives and our decisions.
One of the debates among Baptists about our doctrine of the priesthood of believers is whether it should be expressed as the “priesthood of the believer” or the “priesthood of all believers.” In other words, is each individual a priest unto God as an individual or are we priests unto God together? The debate reminds me of the old beer commercial—“more flavor/less filling.” Remember that? So many debates are false either-ors. Why can’t a beer be both more flavorful and less filling? That’s what made the commercial funny. Why can’t the priesthood of the believer be both individual and together?
Individually as a priest I can go directly to God and I am ultimately responsible only to God. There is no group of people who are endowed with a higher order of spirituality through which I must go to relate to God.
Together we, as priests, take care of each other, approach God on behalf of each other, and are responsible for each other and accountable to each other.
Individually as a priest I can read the Bible and interpret it as the Spirit guides me. I do not have to bow down before some man-made creed or obey some magisterial human authority that crushes my conscience to the ground. That’s what “soul competency” means.
Together we read and interpret the Bible in community, tell each other what we think the Bible means and listen as others affirm or correct us. Together we work toward consensus as the Spirit leads us together in our discernment of the Bible’s meaning for us today. Soul competency must be balanced with responsibility to the body of believers to which we belong.
The priesthood of the believer has never meant unaccountability for what we believe or how we live. Whenever I hear a Baptist or anyone say “I’m a priest unto God so I can believe and live however I want to because that’s strictly between me and God” I know that person doesn’t understand priesthood. Priesthood has nothing to do with demanding my rights or asserting my autonomy; it has everything to do with sacrifice and service and promoting harmony and peace and community.
I’ve heard many moderate Baptists claim that the priesthood of the believer means absolute freedom to determine one’s own beliefs and to shape one’s own doctrine and spirituality without accountability to anyone else. That is such a distortion of the historic Baptist doctrine of the priesthood of the believer that I can only shake my head in amazement that it has caught on so much.
One of the leaders of moderate Baptists in America is Cecil Sherman—the first Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Listen to what this great statesman of moderate Baptists has to say about the individual and Christian belief. Commenting on Jude 3 and referring to the great doctrines carved out by the church fathers he says “’Once for all entrusted to the saints’ suggests that we are not at liberty to change ‘the faith.’ We can accept it or reject it, but we are not free to amend or delete. The faith is no more ours to change than the Ten Commandments are ours to vote up or down. Each generation will have to examine and put into their own idiom the ideas of ‘the faith.’ But the goal of rephrasing is not to change, but rather, to clarify. We are always preserving the essence.” (Formation Commentary May-August 2000, Smyth & Helwys, p. 92.)
Clearly, according to Cecil Sherman, who is an authority on Baptist distinctives among moderate Baptists, priesthood of the believer does not mean freedom to adjust the gospel and basic Christian doctrine to one’s own whims and fancies.
While we are not a creedal people in the sense of requiring anyone to sign a man-made, written statement of faith to be a member or leader of our church, we are people of the Christian faith which is not compatible with anything and everything. Historically, Baptists have not handed a creed or statement of faith to new members or potential leaders and said “Here, sign it or go away,” but we have said “What do you believe?” and considered whether the person’s doctrinal beliefs are consistent with ours.
Priesthood of the believer also does not mean that everyone in the body of Christ has equal authority over everything. If that were the case, the New Testament wouldn’t mention “gifts”—offices—such as teaching, pastoring, evangelism, prophecy. Clearly, the New Testament church had leaders who were more than mere hirelings to do chores.
Because we have seen other churches abuse spiritual leadership we moderate Baptists have tended to abandon the whole idea and we talk about hiring pastors instead of calling them. We wrongly refer to them as “employees.” These terms are appropriate in a business setting, but they are not appropriate for referring to spiritual leaders.
In Baptist history, the pastor is the elder and bishop of the church. 1 Timothy 5:17 refers to “elders who rule” and says they are worthy of honor especially in the labor of preaching and teaching. Titus 1:5-9 makes clear that “elder” and “bishop” are the same office in the church. We Baptists call this office “pastor.” But we have too often wrongly viewed the pastor as our servant in the sense of employee to be managed by some board—whether deacons or some other elected body of lay leaders.
One Sunday I visited a Baptist church (not my own). The relatively young and new pastor was away and the guest preacher was an elder statesman of Baptist life in that state. He addressed the congregation about their new pastor and told them to “put the saddle on him” right away. The rest of his words made clear what he meant—that the laymen of the congregation should tame the pastor and make clear to him who his bosses are—the deacons of the church! I shuddered for that young man and every pastor who goes into such a church.
To be sure, pastors are not spiritually superior beings; they are neither infallible nor holier than others. But they are trained and ordained and they deserve respect and honor–much more than they tend to receive in many Baptist churches.
On the one hand, the pastor is just another priest. He or she is not a special, necessary mediator through whom we must go to reach God. On the other hand, the pastor is a leader—the elder and bishop of the congregation worthy or honor and respect and even a certain amount of deference.
The problem of how many Baptist churches treat pastors is symptomatic of a larger problem in Baptist life: our tendency toward angry atomizing. Too often we break apart into smaller and smaller units over relatively minor issues. Too many of us lack respect for the authority of the community.
Let’s face it—Baptists are notorious for our feistiness and even divisiveness. There are, unfortunately, like Heinz, 57 varieties of Baptists in America. In Waco alone we have about 125 Baptist churches—the thickest concentration of any metropolitan area in America. Many of them are splits from other Baptist churches. Non-Baptists view us as congenitally divisive.
I took one of my classes to the local Greek Orthodox church. During the Q & A time the priest said to us “I just learned that you Baptists don’t have bishops; is that right?” The students and I gladly affirmed it. Then he asked us “How do you settle disputes?” We all looked at each other and then at him and someone said “We don’t.” The priest then raised his hand and said “Then my benediction to you is ‘Go and fight’.” He meant it facetiously, but his words were truer than he knew. It’s in our DNA to fight.
You’ve probably heard of the Baptist man who was stranded on a desert island in the Pacific Ocean like Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway.” When his rescuers came they found him standing in rags and long, scraggly hair in front of three crudely built huts. One of the rescuers said “What are those three huts behind you?” The Baptist castaway said “That one is my house; I sleep there.” “What is the third one over there?” asked the rescuer. “Oh, that’s my church; I worship there.” “And what is the middle one?” “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.”
After the horrible riots that rocked Los Angeles some years ago Rodney King, who had been unjustly beaten by police, asked “Why can’t we all just get along?”
I suggest that one reason we Baptists don’t just get along is our deep-seated attitude of individualism and our mistaken notions about the priesthood of the believer contribute to and reinforce that. We need to adjust our views about priesthood and rediscover its true privileges and responsibilities and stop using that beautiful truth to defend our individual rights over against others and to protect our lack of accountability to each other. Priesthood must be balanced with community; individual priesthood without community is empty just as community without equal priesthood is dangerous.