The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers states that all believers in Christ share in his priestly status; therefore, there is no special class of people who mediate the knowledge, presence, and forgiveness of Christ to the rest of believers, and all believers have the right and authority to read, interpret, and apply the teachings of Scripture.
In contrast to the beliefs of the medieval church, the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers holds that there is no longer a priestly class of people within God’s people, but that all believers share in Christ’s priestly status by virtue of their union with Christ. Although there was a select group of priests in the OT, who mediated the knowledge, presence, and forgiveness of God to the rest of Israel, Christ has come and fulfilled the priestly role through his life, death, and resurrection. Therefore, Christ was the final priestly mediator between God and his people, and Christians share in that role through him. This means that Christians are not dependent upon the priests within the church to interpret Scripture for them or affect God’s blessing of forgiveness for them; all Christians are equally priests through Christ and stand upon the same ground before the cross. This does not mean that we should do away with pastoral or ministerial authorities. While those authorities are a part of the way that God blesses his church with instruction in sound doctrine, those with churchly authority need the rest of the body just as much.
Medieval Views vs. Protestant Understandings
Medieval theologians believed that salvation came from God through the church. In these simple terms, this sounds very similar to the way most Christians understand it. There are, however, significant differences between medieval and Protestant understandings of how God works through the church. The medieval church taught that God works exclusively through a select class of priests as they administered the seven sacraments of the church: baptism, the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), confirmation, penance, extreme unction, marriage, and holy orders. Protestants, on the other hand, believe that all people in the church are priests, or in the language of the 16th century reformer, Martin Luther, the priesthood of all believers. What are the differences between these two views? In short, the medieval view rests on the teaching of church tradition whereas the Protestant view grows out of Scripture.
Medieval Christians believed that the church was part of a celestial hierarchy where everything in the heavens and earth had its place in a great chain of being. The great chain begins with God, then archangels, and angels; this heavenly hierarchy finds its earthly parallel through the sacraments, those who are inspired by God to comprehend them, and those initiated by them. God passes his knowledge and grace down the chain to the angels, who in turn invest this information in the sacraments, and those who administer the sacraments (priests), who then give them to the laity. Salvation chiefly comes through the sacraments and the priests who administer them, and the priests are a unique class of individual who have been gifted by God to contemplate the things of God. They are of a higher order than ordinary people who have no capacity for such sublime truth. This view of a hierarchy prevailed in the church through the middle ages until the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Luther challenged this prevailing notion because he rejected the church’s claims; he believed the church rested its idea of the unique priestly class on tradition rather than the authority of Scripture. Luther instead believed that offering the sacrifice of the mass did not make one a priest but rather anyone who had faith in Christ, our great high priest, was indeed a priest of God. In Luther’s typical pithy manner, he claimed: “Faith alone is the true priestly office.” Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers versus the priesthood of only a select few rests in the priestly office of Christ and in the believer’s blessing to share in all that Christ is through union with him.
Scripture clearly identifies Jesus Christ as our great high priest: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Heb. 4:14). The Old Testament whispered and hinted about the priestly office of Christ through types and shadows, such as Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, and the Levites. God instructed Aaron, for example, that he had to cleanse Israel of their sins through the protocols of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). Aaron, and Aaron alone, had to sacrifice a bull to cleanse ceremonially himself (Lev. 16:11) and then take some of the blood, enter the holy of holies, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat (Lev. 16:14). God instructed him to take two scapegoats and sacrifice one of them and sprinkle its blood on the altar (Lev. 16:18) and take the second goat, lay his hands on it, confess Israel’s sins over it, and then send it out of the camp into the wilderness (Lev. 16:21). In this act the goat was to “bear all their iniquities” and carry them away (Lev. 16:22).
As the Old Testament progressively unfolded God’s plan of redemption, the prophets revealed that the Messiah was the ultimate sacrifice. No longer would Israel look to the blood of bulls and goats but to the blood of the Messiah, who would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, bear our griefs, and carry our sorrows (Isa. 53:4–5). No longer would the scapegoat bear Israel’s sins but rather Jesus would, “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). The Messiah would be both sacrifice and priest: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11–12).
In his baptism, God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit to carry out his threefold office of prophet, priest, and king (Luke 3:1–21; Matt. 3:1–17; Mark 1:1–11). Likewise, we who are in union with Christ share in this same anointing through Christ’s outpouring of the Spirit upon the church (Acts 2:1–41, esp. 33, 38; cf. Gal. 3:14). Through Christ’s priestly office, all believers who are united to him share in his anointing. Two chief texts of Scripture teach us this truth. The first is 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Within the context of Peter’s statement, he rests the church’s identity as a royal priesthood in their union with Christ. They have come to the living stone rejected by men but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and as such, they have become living stones “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:4–5). Our priestly office finds its fount and source in Christ’s priestly office.
The second text is like this first one, “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). What is an implication of Christ’s redemptive work? What is one of the things he accomplishes through his shed blood? “You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall rein on the earth” (Rev. 5:10). Believers united to Christ share in all that he is and does, and in this case, they share in his priestly office. Unlike the Old Testament priests, who offered sacrificial animals, New Testament believers rest in the finished work of Christ, the one true sacrifice. Now, as Peter writes, we proclaim the excellencies of the God who called us out of darkness into light and offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Christ, the sacrifices of our bodies as “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1) and praise to God, that is, “The fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15). The implications of this scriptural teaching are profound.
The most significant blessing is that there is no hierarchy of beings (archangels, angels, archbishops, bishops, and priests) standing between the believer and God. Rather, we have union, communion, and fellowship with God through our great high priest, Jesus Christ. When Christ uttered his last breath on the cross, he tore in two the temple veil that shrouded the holy of holies. Christ’s priestly work opened the new and living way through the veil of his flesh so that all believers have immediate access to God who is in the heavenly holy of holies. As Christ taught his disciples, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20).
That all believers are priests means that not only ministers but also the person in the pew has the right and authority to read, interpret, and apply the teachings of the Bible. A caste of priests does not have this right. No longer must we place our implicit faith in the teaching of the church magisterium (the official teaching arm of the church), but like the Bereans in the days of the apostle Paul, we can learn immediately from the word of God and the instruction of the Holy Spirit (Acts 17:11).
Every person, therefore, who is united to Christ, shares in his priestly office, but this great blessing does not mean that we should reject the authority, function, and office of minister. We are indeed a holy nation and kingdom of priests. Christ dispenses this holy office to all Christians through the outpouring of the Spirit. But in addition to this blessing, Christ has also given to the church gifts: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–12). The shepherds and teachers of the church are priests just like the rest of the body of Christ, but the Spirit uniquely gifts them so they can equip the church for their own growth in grace and the proclamation of the gospel. These shepherds and teachers do not belong to a higher order of being, as in the medieval understanding. Rather, they are one part of the body of Christ, not greater than any other part but necessary nonetheless. The shepherd cannot say to the person in the pew, “I have no need of you because the Spirit has gifted me to be a shepherd.” Conversely, the person in the pew cannot say to the shepherd, “I have no need of you because I am a priest in Christ.” God has sovereignly arranged the body of Christ in such a manner that each part, though different in function and gifts, needs every other part (1 Cor. 12:4–26).
Rejoice that because of your union with Christ you share in all who he is and does. In this case, his high priestly office means that you too are a holy and royal priest.
- Andrew Malone, God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of Priesthood
- Carl Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom
- Ligonier, A Royal Priesthood in Christ
- Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian
- Tim Bertolet, Luther’s Theology: The Priesthood of Believers
- Timothy George, The Priesthood of All Believers