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What does the 'priesthood of all believers' mean?

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. 

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Anyway, these thoughts have come out of preparation for this sermon on 1 Peter.

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0 thoughts on “What does the 'priesthood of all believers' mean?

  1. kc

    Glen that’s likely the best sermon I’ve ever heard given from 1st Peter. I appreciate your perception on evangelism so much. I was really impressed with the phrase you used to illustrate the humble attitude and approach we should maintain; “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread” (or similar words to that effect). I love it! ;-)

    With respect to our position as priest do you think that perhaps it could be considered corporate in purpose and practice yet still individual in responsibility and authority? To be honest I think I might question item No. 2 of your post in some ways. I think there are great many wonderful evangelists that are, or have been, “tent makers”. I would agree that none of us should govern ourselves. I would love to discuss Church government with you in time. ;-)

    Though I fear that I judge to be openly honest it seems God has truly blessed you with the most wonderful abilities to preach and to teach and I look forward to hearing and reading much more!

  2. Glen

    KC, too much! In Australia we just say 'On ya mate!'. In England: "That was helpful." To hear encouragement that is genuine and effusive... Too much! But thank you. I'm very glad it was a blessing.

    You may be onto something with:

    "corporate in purpose and practice yet still individual in responsibility and authority"

    Yes the responsibility falls equally to all because all are in the priesthood and yes the authority belongs to each memmber because all are in Christ. Yet if we really took the 'corporate in practice' seriously - what would this mean? This is what I was getting at with point 2). I wasn't at all meaning to get at tent-makers in the Pauline sense. He went outside the walls of the church in order to go and plant churches! None of his ministry was done behind the back of the church. When he went on missionary journeys he took others - always. (When he was stranded somewhere he preached in the Areopagus sand God blessed that - but that was not his strategy). I'm opposing the model of ministry where a lone-ranger blows into town, shoots off a few rounds of 'repent and believes' and blows out again. If evangelism is truly to be corporate in practice then we must find ways of doing is corporately. So I hope tent-makers in the Pauline sense weren't offended by point 2) it wasn't aimed at them.

    On church government, I'll send you a pdf written by a friend of mine from UCCF (UK equivalent of IVF). It's a defence of para-church in the context of a massive affirmation of church as the evangelistic body. It's a really helpful intro to ecclesiology too.

    Thanks again for the encouragement.
    Glen

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  5. Bert

    Glen I became interested in your message because last week I preached on this topic of priesthood. I agree with much of what you have said. Due to the many diverse opinions of what the priesthood of all belivers meant my emphesis was more on what God requires of His priests. In my humble opinion the priesthood of all belivers has much to do with the character of the Christian rather than works such as evangelism. Reading (1 Peter 2:1-3). also this topic carries through to 1 Peter 2:12.
    As to the question on evangelism and witnessing for the Lord Jesus Christ I see all believers called into this ministry. (Acts 2:8). This can and should be encouraged to individuals and collectively. Ephesians 4:11 tells us that God gave evangelists in order to equip His people to do His work. Personally I have trained teams to witness from door to door and witnessed a remarkable growth in those who too part in this work and people were added to the church. Individually I have had the pleasure of preaching in nations such as India and Pakistan. (Romans 10:13-15) Glen, Keep up the good work many labourers needed. Bert

  6. glenscriv

    Hi Bert,
    Thanks very much for dropping by. Just back from holiday and I'm very encouraged by your comments. I'll be posting more on our missionary task very soon.

    God bless,
    Glen

  7. John Fenner

    My primary concern is that most Baptist Christians do not understand that they have access directly to God. They don't realize the real power of prayer.

  8. Pingback: But we’re not all evangelists, are we? « Christ the Truth

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