June 217

June 217

Understanding the Priesthood of All Believers

We recently celebrated Ascension Day, when we remember Jesus’ ascension “far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. And some he gave as … pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). Jesus gives us pastors! But why? What about what we call the “priesthood of all believers”? If we’re all priests, why do we need pastors? After all, many modern Lutherans might point out that Luther rediscovered the scriptural teaching that it is not pastors alone but all Christians who serve as priests before God. This is based on 1 Peter 2:9, “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.” There is no denying that the priesthood of all believers is a scriptural teaching.

There are, however, some widespread misconceptions about just what it means that we, as the people of God, together constitute a “royal priesthood.” I remember traveling with my wife in Virginia some years before becoming a pastor. One Sunday morning, we attended a service at a Missouri Synod congregation—which isn’t always as safe a thing to do as you might think! Among a number of things that made me uncomfortable about the service was a note in the bulletin explaining the use of lay readers in proclaimingthe Scripture Lessons: they had laity proclaiming the Scriptures to show that they believed in the priesthood of all believers. In this understanding, for us to be a “royal priesthood” means that we are in effect all pastors. Those who are actually called and ordained exercise those functions that uniquely pertain to the pastoral office, such as proclaiming the Scriptures in the readings, preaching the Word of God in the sermon, and administering the body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar, but the laity are just as qualified, and just as called, to do the same things. Preaching, teaching, and administering the Sacraments are viewed as part of “proclaiming the excellencies” of God.

But this is not what St. Peter teaches, and it is not what Luther taught when he rediscovered St. Peter’s teaching. Luther understood the Office of the Ministry, with all its functions (publicly reading the Scriptures, publicly preaching the Word, and publicly administering the Sacraments), as belonging to the congregation as common property. Every Christian has the right and the duty to proclaim the Word in whatever walk of life in which God has placed him. Fathers are to proclaim the Word to their households. Mothers are to proclaim the Word to their children. Teachers are to proclaim the Word to their students. Children are to proclaim the Word to one another. And pastors are to proclaim the Word to their congregations.

Luther’s explanation was that if something belongs to everyone, no one has the right to exercise it without the express authorization of the whole group. That’s our understanding of the call to the pastoral office: we all have the duty to proclaim the Word, so none of us ought to exercise that duty publicly without the consent of the whole congregation. It’s like a public park: the park belongs to everyone, so I dare not pitch a tent and live there without the permission of the whole community. So also the Office of the Ministry belongs to everyone, and we dare not exercise it unless everyone has agreed to entrust us with that responsibility, and unless God has made it expressly clear that He has called us to that task in that place.

Following Luther, C.F.W. Walther expressly taught that the priesthood of all believers is distinct from the pastoral office. We are all priests, to be sure, but we are not all pastors. We all proclaim God’s excellencies according to our stations in life, but it is pastors who have been entrusted with the public proclamation that takes place in the corporate worship of the Church.

The priesthood of all believers is a doctrine that has seen much abuse in recent years, but that ought not to stop us from deriving from it the encouragement that St. Peter, and the Holy Spirit speaking through him, intended for us. Let us proclaim the Word boldly to those among whom God has placed us: our children, our spouses, our friends and neighbors, and especially our enemies, whom we are called to love and serve. And let us offer spiritual sacrifices to God, sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise, good works and acts of mercy and love—which is what priests do! Meanwhile we thank God for those whom He has placed among us, those “called and ordained servants of the Word,” who act “in the stead and by the command” of Christ and are given to us as gifts by our triumphantly ascended Lord.


Pastor Neuendorf