But 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.
(1 Peter 2:9)
Once in a while we all tend to get a proverbial “burr under our saddle”. Recently my ride has been agitated because of a burr created by agenda driven people who are bent on distorting Scripture in order to see their agenda come to fruition. The distortion in this case is a perverted view of the sacred doctrine of, “Priesthood of all believers.”
Actually, painting this issue as merely a burr under my saddle is a massive trivialization, for the implications of misrepresenting the priesthood of all believers are immense! Not only is it extremely destructive to misinterpret Scripture, but to purposefully misinterpret Scripture in order to legitimize a personal or “pet” doctrine is especially repulsive. That is exactly what many do when they attempt to legitimize their skewed ecclesiology by adhering to Congregationalism on the basis of Priesthood of all believers.
I do not think Congregationalism is the best or most biblical form of church polity and I think I can solidly, easily, logically, but most importantly biblically argue against it, but that is not my major concern. My major concern (at least for the purpose of this blog) is to show that using the doctrine of Priesthood of all believers to prove Congregationalism, is irresponsible, immature, and, in the words of the Grinch, “an appalling dung heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of rubbish imaginable… mangled up in tangled up knots”! Well, you get the point…
So, what is the doctrine of “Priesthood of all believers”? The thought in context of 1 Peter 2:9, which is the basis for this doctrine, is corporate in nature, unlike what some have touted, even going so far as to call the doctrine, “Priesthood of the believer”. According to Timothy George, “The reformers talked instead of the “priesthood of all believers” (plural). For them it was never a question of a lonely, isolated seeker of truth, but rather of a band of faithful believers united in a common confession as a local, visible congregatio sanctorum.” George goes on to say, “Priesthood of believers, then, has more to do with the Christian’s service than with his or her status. One function Luther specifies as incumbent upon all believer-priests is that of “a guardian or watchman on the tower” (warttman odder welcher auff der Wart). This is exactly what one calls someone who lives in a tower to watch and to look out over the town so that fire or foe do not harm it. Therefore, every minister . . . should be . . . an overseer or watchman, so that in his town and among his people the gospel and faith in Christ are built up and win out over foe, devil, and heresy. According to Luther, then, the priesthood of all believers, far from providing a cover for individual doctrinal error, is a stimulus for defending the church against those forces which would weaken and destroy it.”
Luther also said, “Let everyone, therefore, who knows himself to be a Christian, be assured of this, that we all are equally priests, that is to say we have the same power in respect to the Word and the sacraments.”
It’s clear, according to the reformer Martin Luther that this doctrine is not focused on the individual, but on the body of Christ as a whole and is focused on service, not power or authority. This was a common thought with the reformers. Timothy George describes Calvin’s view of the doctrine, “John Calvin interpreted the priesthood of all believers in terms of the church’s threefold participation in Christ’s prophetic, kingly and priestly ministry. Specifically, every Christian is mandated to be a representative of Christ in his redemptive outreach to the world.”
If the doctrine is corporate in nature (the church as a whole), why seek to individualize it (individual Christians)? The purpose in individualizing the doctrine, in my opinion, comes from the desire to use the doctrine for ulterior purposes. The ulterior purpose is to prove congregationalism. This is not a new tactic. According to Karen Jobes, “Since Luther’s time, this interpretation of 1 Peter 2:5, 9 has at times been used to bring the Christian Laity into sharp tension with the ordained clergy. Moreover, it is often taken to mean the individual believer has a spiritual authority equal to that of the ordained priest or minister. But this is probably a misuse of Luther’s thought, for he immediately continues, ‘However, no one may make use of this power except by the consent of the community or by the call of a superior’”
So then, “the priesthood of all believers” is, as Jobes describes it, “…believers who must think of themselves as holy with respect to the world, set apart for purity and a purpose demanded by God. This is the priesthood that serves the King of the universe.” With all that being said, it’s clear that, in context of 1 Peter 2, Priesthood of all believers is focused on the church as a whole, to come out and be separate, as the priests in the OT were required to do. It has nothing to do with taking on the role and/or function of the priests. That is an entirely different issue! Therefore, it has nothing to do with legitimizing Congregationalism!
On the other hand, neither can it be used to prove an autocratic type of leadership, which I am utterly opposed to as well. But again, my point is not to prove or disprove any particular church polity, that may be another day, it is simply to declare that the doctrine of “Priesthood of all believers” cannot be used to legitimize Congregationalism as biblical church polity. 🙂