This weekend, Protestants commemorate Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door, a call to disputation that marks the symbolic starting point for the Reformation. As Luther slashed through the corruptions of late medieval Catholicism, “priesthood of all believers” rapidly became one of the great slogans of the Reformation.
Every Christian is a cleric, Luther proclaimed in one of his earliest treatises, The Freedom of a Christian, and those who “are now boastfully called popes, bishops, and lords” are in reality “ministers, servants, and stewards, who are to serve the rest in the ministry of the word”—servants of the servants of God. Whether he knew it or not, Luther was ringing the changes on a patristic teaching that had never wholly been lost during the medieval period.
Unfortunately, the priesthood of the faithful in both its Protestant and Catholic forms has been corroded by fusion with modern individualism. While no denomination sanctions this fusion, strains in popular Protestantism, especially American Protestantism, have taken “priesthood of believers” to mean that every believer has an absolute right of private judgment about morals and doctrine, the liberty to interpret the Bible with complete autonomy.
“Priesthood of believers” means that believers can do very well without attachment to any church, thank you very much. Each believer is a church unto himself. Renouncing Rome’s one Pope, Protestantism has created thousands.
This was not Luther’s view. Priestly ministry was ministry within and to the church. To be a priest means to be a priest for someone. “The fact that we are all priests and kings means that each of us Christians may go before God and intercede for the other,” he wrote in a preface to the Psalter. “If I notice that you have no faith or a weak faith, I can ask God to give you a strong faith.” Timothy George captures Luther’s viewpoint in one sentence: “Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another” (emphasis added).
But for Luther, the priesthood of believers was not an excuse to abandon the church, but rather described the shape of life in communion with the body of Christ and the family of faith. It was not a call to individualism, but summoned individuals to serve God, others, and the common good of the church. It did not free the believer from obedience to authority or leave him free to do as he thought best.
Biblical teaching about priesthood fills out the picture, because in the Bible priests are always embedded in liturgical communities and attached to a liturgical center. What they did in Israel for the whole of the people of God, Christians are all—being priests to one another—to do now, embedded like them in our liturgical communities and attached to a liturgical center.
Ordained priests first appear in Israel’s history at Sinai, when Israel constructs its first sanctuary. Israel as a whole is a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), but within Israel Yahweh chooses Aaron and his sons as ministers in his house. They are brought near to “stand and serve” (Deuteronomy 10:8; 18:5) at Yahweh’s altar, around his courts, in his house, in particular as household servants, stewards of the royal house of King Yahweh.
All the duties of the Aaronic priests were forms of household service, which is to say, community service. They measure off and establish holy space, and then stand guard at the doorways to prevent unauthorized intruders from trespassing on sacred ground. As the late Torah scholar Jacob Milgrom showed in his Studies in Levitical Terminology, “doing guard duty” is one of the key responsibilities of Levites and priests (Numbers 1:53; 3:5-10; 18:1-7). If anything unclean entered the sanctuary, Yahweh would break out in wrath against Israel, and so priestly guards were essential to the health and safety of the nation.
Priests also cleaned house. As Milgrom pointed out many years ago, Israel’s tabernacle was like Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. In Wilde’s story, a hidden portrait of Gray displays all the wear and tear of his dissolute lifestyle, while the man himself continues young and vibrant. Similarly, all of Israel’s sin and uncleanness “registered” on the sanctuary.
Priests cleaned house by performing the sacrificial rites, sprinkling or smearing blood on the furniture of Yahweh’s house, purging the earthly sanctuary with the blood of bulls and goats. If the house became defiled, Yahweh threatened to leave his house and his people desolate, and so again priests served Israel by serving Yahweh.
Priests were sacred butchers, butlers, and bakers. They butchered the animals, ground the grain, and baked the bread that was placed on the altars. Yahweh’s altar was his table (Ezekiel 41:22; 44:16), where priests offered his morning and evening “bread” (cf. Leviticus 3:11; 21:21-22). Priestly ministry at the altar was their “table service” before Yahweh.
In the holy place, priests kept the lampstand in working order by trimming wicks and replenishing oil (Exodus 30:8; Leviticus 24:1-4). Each morning and evening they offered incense (Exodus 30:7-8), and each Sabbath they changed the twelve loaves of bread on the golden table (Leviticus 24:5-9). Through their work, the King’s house was well lit, aromatic, and supplied with daily bread.
In each of these areas, the priests had double duty, their work involving both service to the literal “house” of the Temple and service to the metaphorical “house” of Israel. By their teaching and judging, priests served as guardians of Israel’s holiness. By teaching Torah to the people (Leviticus 24:8), they trained Israel to distinguish pure and impure forms of behavior and so helped them to be holy as Yahweh their God was holy.
When they cleansed the house, they were also restoring worshipers to fellowship with God. They led Israel to Yahweh by offering his bread on the altar, and also in leading the people to lift up the “bread” of praise and thanksgiving. When they turned incense to smoke on the golden altar, they were also offering intercessions (cf. Psalm 141:2). None of the priestly service was for the priests alone but for the Israelites whom they represented.
With the arrival of a new and better priesthood through Jesus (Hebrews 4-5, 7), Christians united to Christ who is King and Priest are priests and kings in him (Revelation 1:6; 5:10). All that the Aaronic priests did in shadowy ways at the tabernacle, believers now do in reality in the heavenly sanctuary. And, just as the Aaronic priests served Israel by serving in Yahweh’s house, so the new Christian priestly labor is corporate ministry in the church.
We are all stationed as guardians of God’s holy house, now identical to the holy people, called to distinguish between holy and unclean and to maintain the purity of God’s household. All believers offer the sacrifice of praise through Jesus, the Bread of God. Every Christian offers the incense of prayer in the holy place of God’s house, and through practices of forbearance and forgiveness we keep God’s house clean. Through using the gifts given by the Spirit, each member of Christ’s body contributes to the edification of the whole.
In the old order, priestly service was housekeeping. In the new order, all are priests, called to the ministry of bodybuilding.
In the hands of some Protestants, “priesthood of believers” became an anti-ecclesial slogan, a “get out of church free” card. Understood in its original biblical and Reformation sense, the priesthood of believers is quite the opposite. It is not a solvent of ecclesial Christianity but an affirmation of churchly piety and the foundation of a thoroughly catholic church practice. Five hundred years after the event, this Reformation slogan may be even more relevant than it was when Luther first shouted it out from Wittenberg.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in, Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His latest book, Defending Constantine, has just been released by InterVarsity Press. His last articles for “On the Square” were Newsweek, Caesar, and the Things of God and Fathers and Sons.