Priesthood of All Believers

  • Read 1 Peter 2:4-10 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

MARTIN LUTHER – 1520

“That the pope or bishop anoints, makes tonsures, ordains, consecrates, or dresses differently from the laity, may make a hypocrite or an idolatrous oil-painted icon, but it in no way makes a Christian or spiritual human being. In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2[:9] says, “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom,” and Revelation [5:10], “Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings.”

Martin Luther’s primary complaint with the Roman Catholic church concerned the sale of indulgences. However, as part of that argument Luther came to emphasise the fact that all Christians are “consecrated priests through Baptism”.

Since Luther penned these words almost 500 years ago, the “priesthood of all believers” has become a mainstay of Protestantism. Various streams of Protestantism have applied this in different ways with some still having a deeply entrenched view of clergy and laity, while others (including the Churches of Christ) have emphasised equality among believers.

The first issue I want to address is a textual one. Although other parts of the New Testament, and particularly Hebrews, describe Christians as fulfilling the functions of priests, 1 Peter 2:9 is the primary text when teaching this doctrine.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (See also Rev. 1:6)

Immediately, we see a distinction between this translation from the NIV and Luther’s translation. Where the NIV refers to “a holy nation”, Luther discusses a “priestly kingdom”. So, for Luther this verse has even stronger teaching about the priesthood than it does for us.

The other difficulty we have in using this verse to support the doctrine that each individual Christian is a priest for God is that these terms seem to describe the church as a collection rather than individuals. Although the initial “you” in the Greek is plural, “people, priesthood, nation, and possession” are all singular. So one could legitimately apply this verse to the church as a whole, rather than individual Christians.

The New Living Translation avoids this problem with a creative translation.

But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. (A footnote indicates that the Greek reads “royal priesthood”.)

Perhaps the version with the most clever translation is the Contemporary English Version which manages to retain the singular of the Greek while also reflecting the doctrine of individual priesthood. “You are a group of royal priests and a holy nation.

I don’t have enough training to unravel the legitimacy of each translation, but it at least highlights the point that this doctrine is a little fuzzy.  BUT, I’m not going to let that stop me preaching on it! 🙂

In my sermon I identified 3 functions of priests (I’m not at all trying to suggest that these are the only functions.) that we can integrate into our lives as we fulfill our spiritual calling.

  1. Priests offer sacrifices. The Scriptures challenge Christians to make several sacrifices. (Romans 12:1ff Offer your body as a living sacrifice.”; Philippians 2:17 Faith and service are like a sacrifice. Philippians 4:18 The gifts sent to Paul were a “sacrifice, pleasing to God”; 2 Tim 4:6 Paul felt that his life was being poured out like a drink offering; Hebrews 13:15 We can offer God a sacrifice of praise as we speak of Him to others.)
  2. Priests petition God on behalf of others. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 describes the Christian responsibility to pray for our community. James 5:16 Confess sins and pray for each other. 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 provides an example of Paul praying for other Christians.
  3. Priests represent God to the world. 1 Corinthians 11:26 Participating in the Lord’s Supper proclaims Christ’s death and return. 2 Corinthians 5:20 “We are Christ’s ambassadors” carrying his message of reconciliation to the world. Mark 1:17 We are all called to follow Jesus and “fish for people.”
  • Is the image of a priest a helpful one for you to consider your relationship with God and others?
  • Which of the three priestly roles listed above do you find the most challenging?
  • Does it matter to your understanding whether 1 Peter 2:9 refers to the church as a group or Christians as individual priests?
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