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Priesthood of All Believers

Q I feel that lay participation in worship has gotten out of hand in my church. People use the line “priesthood of all believers” to justify everything and the kitchen sink. Is this really what Luther had in mind when he stressed this doctrine?

A My guess is that there’s more to your question than simply this doctrine, perhaps having to do with good communication within the congregation. Here I’ll simply address the doctrine itself.

This doctrine takes us into beautiful and mysterious territory. First Peter 2:4-8 and Revelation 1:4-6; 5:6-10 refer to believers as priests— a remarkable claim indeed in light of the nature of priesthood in the Old Testament. The point is that the church’s professional clergy are not the only “access points” to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. All believers can pray in Jesus’ name—anywhere and anytime.

This is, as you suggest, a central theme in the Reformation. The Reformation phrase “in Christ alone” stressed that Christ is the only mediator we need to have full access to God. Luther championed this cause.

Interestingly, Luther did not champion the phrase “priesthood of all believers.” As noted historian Timothy Wengert insists, “The category of the‘common priesthood of all believers,’ developed by seventeenth-century pietism and championed by some Luther scholars to this day, has nothing to do with Luther’s own thought.” Wengert alludes to how the phrase“priesthood of all believers” came into its own well after the Reformation to protest clericalism and formalism. (It could be that something similar is going on in your congregation.)

Even then, the leading proponents of the priesthood of all believers assumed that ordained pastors would be the primary (and often the only) up-front leaders of the church’sworship.

This helps us see that the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers addresses a different question than leadership roles in church worship. In worship, people take different roles depending on their gifts and callings. In fact, one of the requirements for leading in worship should be that of understanding, at least implicitly, the significance of this very doctrine. Being able to pray and lead music in a wise, pastoral way requires understanding that it is Jesus’ ongoing intercession for us that makes worship possible. People who haven’t internalized this reality, though they certainly have full access to the priesthood of Christ, should be urged to grow into deeper knowledge of this before takinga leadership role.

One last point. Your question and my answer thus far have talked about this doctrine at the level of individual Christians. We each, as individuals, are priests with full access to the priesthood of Christ. But the notion of the priesthood of all believers is even better than this. The central biblical texts involved here speak about the “royal priesthood” or a “kingdom of priests”—a collective whole. The most luminous and beautiful part of this doctrine is that the church as a whole is a royal priesthood in which all of us as individuals find a home and identity. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

As many of our brothers and sisters from around the world point out, the beauty of this claim is hard to sustain in North America—unless we ask the question you’ve asked and ponder again these amazing biblical texts.

In sum, I am a big fan of wisely developed lay involvement and of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. But conflating thetwo causes problems.