Thoughts on the Priesthood of all Believers . . .

On Thursday night our group began a discussion of the “priesthood of all believers”, and what this means for a new congregation.  In the emerging church movement, there’s a general reaction against hierarchy in the church.  Doug Pagitt has called the priesthood of all believers the “unfunded mandate of the Reformation.”  Similarly, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch write, “From Pentecostals to the Orthodox Church, from Baptists to Episcopalians and Presbyterians, the hierarchical model seems to be universal.  For how much longer can the church ignore Paul’s radical dissolution of the traditional distinctions between priests and laity, between officials and ordinary members, between holy men and common people?”[1] 


Frost and Hirsch have shaped much of my view of mission and ministry, but Thursday’s discussion pointed out that they may be weak on this question. For one, Paul didn’t dismiss leadership or authority in the early church.  What if instead of idealizing Acts 2:42-47, we instead took a look at how the leaders and elders of a maturing church handles real problems at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15?  Notice a few things: (1) Paul goes to the elders (v. 2) to mediate the argument about the inclusion of Gentiles. In doing so, he acknowledges the authority the elders have. (2) The elders listen to the testimony of those who are not elders (v. 12) before making their decision.  (3) James and Peter speak with special authority as leaders among the elders (v.7 and v. 13).  (4) But the final decision is made by all together – “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” (v. 22), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (v.28).  There’s neither a top-down nor bottom-up view of hierarchy here.  Instead we find picture of church governance in which recognizes the authority of elders, but also requires that in making decisions those elders be attentive what the Spirit is doing in and through the lives those who are not in similar positions of leadership in the Church. 


So, how do we embrace a more balanced view of leadership in church, neither completely top-down, nor completely flat? The more important thing for us to think about with regard to the “priesthood of all believers” is not a question of who exercises authority within the church, but how all believers participate in the work of the Kingdom of God.  All of us, whether pastors or elders or church-members, are called to be first and foremost disciples.  As Matt pointed out to the group, Hebrews 9 is the root of the priesthood of all believers.  There the picture is given of Christ consecrating the altar in the heavenly temple (v.11-14) so that we as his followers can offer up sacrifices to God of our whole lives placed on that altar.  Every part of our life is dedicated to God as a living sacrifice.  This means that as we grow in discipleship, we offer up the whole of our lives for the kingdom.  Our jobs, our lives at home and with family, our shopping, our recreation  – every aspect of life is turned over to God to be done according to his will and for the sake of his Kingdom.  Our responsibility as “priests” is to participate in that action of turning over every aspect of life to Christ.  And this inevitably leads to our calling as missionaries, which flows directly out of our discipleship.  If we turn over every aspect of life to God as a living sacrifice, we find ourselves participating in God’s mission of redeeming the world in surprising ways: making conscious choices to protect the environment as stewards of God’s creation, bearing witness to Christ in the friendships and relationships we build, blowing whistles on unjust business practices where we work, interceding in prayer for our enemies as well as those we love, supporting business that pay their employees a fair wage rather than using sweat-shop labor, giving to the poor rather than turning a blind-eye, etc.   


As a “royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” let us never lose sight of the reason that all disciples of Christ are a part of that priesthood: “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).


[1] The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson  2003) p. 21

  1. Chris,

    I think the hardest part of any pastor’s ministry (as well as the Session’s joint ministry) is turning the congregation from spectators on Sunday to disciples of Christ all 7 days of the week.

    With established (for that read: old and unchanging) congregations, there are more pew sitter/spectators than disciples. For them, the term priesthood of all believers has no meaning. More often than not, if asked who has the responsibility for evangelism in the church, they’ll tell you the Pastor, that’s what we pay him for . It is very hard for someone who is new to the congregation, who is then voted onto Session, to try to change the established way of thinking. I’ve said more about this on my blog.

    In your situation, knowing of the professors you had at PTS, you already have a good foundation on how to keep those who will become members of the Open Door community from becoming spectators.

    I look forward to following the progress of the Upper Room as it begins sharing the Good News.


  2. Um … as noted in my last line, I know the NCD is called the Upper Room, I was thinking of Hot Metal and the Open Door as I was typing that comment.

  3. mikegehrling said:

    I think one of the keys to cultivating a congregation of priests rather than “spectators” is to emphasize the variety of spiritual gifts given to the church. Frost and Hirsch, of course, get into this later in their book, though I think even they are too limiting in only considering apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. (Though to their credit, I think it’s fantastic that they’re trying to recover a recognition of apostolic, prophetic, and evangelistic gifts).

    I think it is true that the church has a problem of creating hierarchies that laud certain gifts (i.e. pastors) over other gifts. BUT, the problem as I see it is that a lot of attempts at egalitarianism in the church doesn’t break down the system that creates hierarchy, but rather tries to move everyone up the hierarchy. To put it differently, a lot of attempts at egalitarianism try to make everyone in church the pastor/preacher. A better way of creating a more flat, egalitarian church would be to lift up the other spiritual gifts in addition to pastoral gifts, including the other four gifts Frost and Hirsch list, but also gifts listed elsewhere in Scripture: hospitality, acts of service, etc. (tongues?).

  4. Mike,

    I agree totally. Again, with the Upper Room, you and Chris have a great opportunity to educate the congregation on the use of their gifts to grow their faith, and the church.

  5. Dan Thayer said:


    Thanks for these great reflections. This is a really thought-provoking topic.

    I don’t the our denomination has ever had a coherent position on the priesthood of all believers. Look at the ordination of ministers. On one hand, the Book of Order repeatedly states that it is merely “for reasons of order” that certain functions can only be performed by ordained ministers. But on the other hand, the entire ordination process emphasizes being called and set apart by God for a special office.

    Also, concerning hierarchy vs. egalitarianism, the fear always seems to be that hierarchies lead to abuse of power. But just as often (perhaps more often), the lack of a hierarchy leads to abuse of power. Many independent churches are built on the personal charisma of a single leader. And what happens in Presbyterian churches when the pastor and session don’t exert their authority? Often, one or more strong-willed people become the de facto rulers of the congregation. It is not hierarchies but human sin that leads to abuse of power. Conversely, the key to good church leadership is not a particular structure but obedience to God.

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