The Priesthood of All Believers: We Still Need Pastors

As we contemplate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation we are reminded of the glorious truths (and their entailed spiritual experiences) rediscovered and recovered that had been long lost under centuries of encrusted extra-biblical tradition. Clericalism was one such tradition. There were many reasons for the rise of clericalism which is the exclusive focus on the ministry of the ordained priest in the church.

One reason for the rise of clericalism was the theological error of assuming a pastor in the New Testament church was an extension of or was identical to the office of (official function/role) the old covenant priest. This was erroneous since Hebrews tells us that both the OT priesthood (descended from Moses’ brother Aaron) and its related sacrificial system were now outmoded and abrogated with the coming of Jesus Christ, a priest after the order of Melchizedek who has offered up himself once for all as the perfect sacrifice for sin.

Another reason for the rise of clericalism may have been the need to look to leaders in the church for strength and encouragement during periods of persecution, a need that gave rise to the epitome of clericalism-monarchical episcopacy (which then evolved into the papacy in Rome). Undoubtedly there were many other factors that fed into the rising tide of the stream of clericalism in the early and medieval church.

What precious doctrine did clericalism subvert, distort, and cover over? The biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. In 1 Peter 2:9-10, the apostle Peter tells the recipients of his letter and us that

…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Martin Luther and other reformers recovered and rediscovered the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers as explicated by Peter in the preceding words. Peter reminded the Christian pilgrims that while they might be exiles in a foreign land they were in fact living stones being fitted together as part of the temple connected to Jesus Christ. Shifting metaphors Peter noted that Christians are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Peter is clearly building on Old Testament pictures of God’s people that now includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The foundation of the idea of the priesthood of all believers goes back to the garden of Eden and the original calling of Adam as a prophet, priest, and king. There is a real sense that Christians are restored to these offices in the renewal of the image of God in us (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10). We know that Jesus Christ is the ultimate prophet, priest, and king. Because of Christ’s person and work noted above and because we are now all renewed as priests, we have no need of any other human intermediary between God and us. We still need a Mediator to be sure. But that is Jesus Christ. For any mere human to usurp Christ’s unique priestly office is to rob him of his glory (although not his power since that can be diminished by no one in reality).

I am afraid that many Christians today misunderstand the recovery of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers to entail the elimination of the ordinary church offices of minister, elder, and deacon. The doctrine entails no such thing. A minister/pastor/teacher is not a priest in the Old Testament sense in that he does not serve as a necessary intermediary between God and man. The old covenant priest was meant to serve as a picture of the coming Lord Jesus who has gloriously fulfilled that role. Christ is the ever-living and once-dying high priest who cannot and will not be replaced by another (Heb 9:11ff).

But Christ as prophet, priest, and king, has chosen to provide pastoral care and oversight for his church through ministers and elders under the Word of God. Ministers preach and teach, and with the assistance of elders, govern the church as under-shepherds. Ministers are not priests in the old covenant sense nor in the sense understood in the Roman Catholic church. All believers have direct access to the Father through the mediation of the Son by the Holy Spirit. We all possess this privilege. But God still uses men to oversee his people as shepherds under the chief shepherd and overseer of souls (1 Pet 2:25).

The apostle Paul laid out the spiritual requirements for ministers, elders, and deacons in the pastoral epistles (1 Tim 3:1-15; Tit 1:5-9) and until the Lord returns in power and glory the church will be fed, guided, and guarded by fallible under-shepherds who answer to Christ and his Word.

So let’s celebrate the recovery of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, but let’s not confuse that with the democratization of Christianity in an unbiblical and unhealthy sense. We are a royal priesthood and some of us are also answerable to Christ as his under-shepherds. God is all-wise. Is he not?!

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.


Jeffrey Waddington