I'm no expert on the historical use of this phrase but surely there are some unhelpful ways of spinning this evangelical touchstone. Here's what I think the phrase must protect:
The church as a whole is the only earthly priesthood the NT recognizes. (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 5:10)
Every Christian has equally entered this priesthood.
None is more priestly than another.
To this should be added the indispensibile prior truth: Christ is our one and only, all-sufficient Priest. (How easy it is to trumpet the priesthood of us against catholic understandings. How much better to lead with the priesthood of Christ. But that's for another time!)
So this is what we are protecting by the phrase. BUT surely what we can't mean is: Every individual is equally a priest in themselves. Here is the great danger of misunderstanding the phrase - I may start to look for my priestliness in myself. That is, I may say 'the priesthood is all believers; I'm a believer; therefore I, on my own, am a priest.' To think like this is to completely invert the intention of the doctrine. My priestliness is found only in union with Christ and with the corporate priesthood that is His body. And I must look for priesthood in both those places - first in Christ and second in His body. But never in me! I, on my lonesome, am not a priest. I, on my lonesome, cannot begin to bring God to world or world to God.
Why is this important? Well, let's just think of the implications for evangelism:
1. Upon trusting Christ I have joined a priestly body and therefore my whole existence is now caught up in priestly work - i.e. mediating God to world and world to God. But...
2. It is a priestly body and so I must never do this in isolation. The self-funded, self-governed, one-man evangelist is not godly evangelism.
3. Because there are many parts but one body (1 Cor 12:20) we can honour the different parts without forcing 'hands' and 'feet' to be lips! In other words we shouldn't force non-speaking-gifted Christians into speaking roles. But...
4. We do have to encourage speakers and servers (1 Pet 4:10f) together to utilise their complementary gifts in mission.
That seems fairly straightforward. And yet.
How much of a church's evangelistic strategy simply involves bringing the non-Christian to the pulpit?
How much of evangelism training simply equips individuals for solo-witness?
- How much of it simply equips individuals for their verbal 'answer'?
What does the average church-goer think of when they think of evangelism - corporate or individual? The 'answer' or more than that?
How many of the church's exhortations to evangelism are straight-forward challenges for 'hands' and 'feet' to be 'lips'?
How little do we encourage members of the body to come together organically and complement one another in mission?
How do Christians feel who aren't gifted speakers - do they feel that they are just as missionary, just as priestly?
I think much of these problems come from an individualizing of the 'the priesthood of all believers'? We have turned something inherently corporate into a private possession of each member. As soon as this happens then I can be an evangelist without you. The 'lips' get on without the 'hands' and we quickly revert to a 'priesthood of the few' - just via another route.
Anyway, these thoughts have come out of preparation for this sermon on 1 Peter.