The universal priesthood or the priesthood of all believers, as it would come to be known in the present day, is a Christian doctrine believed to be derived from several passages of the New Testament. It is a foundational concept of Protestantism. It is this doctrine that Martin Luther adduces in his 1520 To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in order to dismiss the medieval Christian belief that Christians were to be divided into two classes: "spiritual" and "temporal" as on for the time on Earth, not unto eternity. He put forward the doctrine that all baptized Christians are "priests" and "spiritual" in the sight of God:
That the pope or bishop anoints, makes tonsures, ordains, consecrates, or dresses differently from the laity, may make a hypocrite or an idolatrous oil-painted icon, but it in no way makes a Christian or spiritual human being. In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2[:9] says, "You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom," and Revelation [5:10], "Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings."
Two months later Luther would write in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520):
How then if they are forced to admit that we are all equally priests, as many of us as are baptized, and by this way we truly are; while to them is committed only the Ministry (ministerium Predigtamt) and consented to by us (nostro consensu)? If they recognize this they would know that they have no right to exercise power over us (ius imperii, in what has not been committed to them) except insofar as we may have granted it to them, for thus it says in 1 Peter 2, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom." In this way we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. There are indeed priests whom we call ministers. They are chosen from among us, and who do everything in our name. That is a priesthood which is nothing else than the Ministry. Thus 1 Corinthians 4:1: "No one should regard us as anything else than ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God."
The Bible passage considered to be the basis of this belief is the First Epistle of Peter, 2:9:
- But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.
(This New Living Translation version reflects the Protestant view, as the universal "royal priesthood" from the Bible Luther cites above has been changed to individual "royal priests".)
Other relevant Scripture passages include Exodus 19:5-6, First Peter 2:4-8, Revelation 1:4-6, 5:6-10, and many passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
In ancient Israel, priests acted as mediators between God and people. They ministered according to God's instruction and they offered sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. Once a year, the high priest would enter the holiest part of the temple and offer a sacrifice for the sins of all the people, including all the priests.
Although many religions use priests, most Protestant faiths reject the idea of a priesthood as a group that is spiritually distinct from lay people. They typically employ professional clergy who perform many of the same functions as priests such as clarifying doctrine, administering communion, performing baptisms, marriages, etc. In many instances, Protestants see professional clergy as servants acting on behalf of the local believers. This is in contrast to the priest, whom some Protestants see as having a distinct authority and spiritual role different from that of ordinary believers.
Most Protestants today recognize only one mediator between them and God the Father, and that is God the Son, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). The Epistle to the Hebrews calls Jesus the supreme "high priest," who offered himself as a perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 7:23-28). Protestants believe that through Christ they have been given direct access to God, just like a priest; thus the doctrine is called the priesthood of all believers. God is equally accessible to all the faithful, and every Christian has equal potential to minister for God. This doctrine stands in opposition to the concept of a spiritual aristocracy or hierarchy within Christianity.
The belief in the priesthood of all believers does not preclude order, authority or discipline within congregations or denominational organizations. For example, Lutheranism maintains the biblical doctrine of "the preaching office" or the "office of the holy ministry" established by God in the Christian Church. The Augsburg Confession states:
[From Article 4:] Furthermore, it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us ... [From Article 5:] To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel ... [Article 14:] Concerning church government it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call.
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The origins of the doctrine within Protestantism are somewhat obscure. The idea was found in a radical form in Lollard thought. Martin Luther adduced it in his writings for the purpose of reforming the Christian Church, and it became a central tenet of Protestantism.
The doctrine is strongly asserted within Methodism and the Plymouth Brethren movement. Within Methodism it can plausibly be linked to the strong emphasis on social action and political involvement within that denomination. Baptist movements, which generally operate on a form of congregational polity, also lean heavily on this concept.
The vast majority of Protestants nonetheless draw some distinction between their own ordained ministers and lay people, but regard it as a matter of church order and discipline rather than spiritual hierarchy.
Some groups during the Reformation believed that priesthood authority was still needed, but was lost from the earth. Roger Williams believed, "There is no regularly constituted church of Christ on earth, nor any person qualified to administer any church ordinances; nor can there be until new apostles are sent by the Great Head of the Church for whose coming I am seeking." Another group, the Seekers, believed that the Roman Catholic Church had lost its authority through corruption and waited for Christ to restore his true church and authority.
Priesthood in non-Protestant traditions
Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholic Christians traditionally believe that First Peter 2:9 gives responsibility to all believers for the preservation and propagation of the Gospel and the Church, as distinct from the liturgical and sacramental roles of the ordained priesthood and consecrated episcopate (see Apostolic Succession). They and other Christians also see the ministerial priesthood as being necessary in accordance with the words of the eucharistic liturgy: "Do this in memory (anamnesis) of me" (Luke 22:19-20; First Corinthians 11:23-25).
Roman Catholics point to passages such as Matthew 16:18-19 ("upon this rock I will build my church") as the establishment of the Papacy and ecclestiastical hierarchy. Most Protestant and Orthodox theologians believe Jesus was referring to Peter's confession of faith or himself as "rock."] Orthodox and Roman Catholics also interpret John 21:15-17 (where Jesus tells Peter, "Feed my lambs") as Jesus' establishment of religious orders in the church.
The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches have always taught implicitly that a Christian's personal relationship with God is independent of whatever ordination they have received, as evidenced by the guidelines and rubrics for personal prayer when no priest is present.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints interpret First Peter 2:9 to mean that the members of Jesus Christ's church should aspire to receive the priesthood and perform the ordinances of the priesthood rather than depending upon a professional clergy.
- "Protestantism originated in the 16th-century Reformation, and its basic doctrines, in addition to those of the ancient Christian creeds, are justification by grace alone through faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the supremacy of Holy Scripture in matters of faith and order" ("The Protestant Heritage." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 20 Sept. 2007
- Martin Luther, Weimar Ausgabe, vol. 6, p. 407, lines 19-25 as quoted in Timothy Wengert, "The Priesthood of All Believers and Other Pious Myths," page 12.
- De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae praeludium [Prelude concerning the Babylonian Captivity of the church], Weimar Ausgabe 6, 564.6-14 as quoted in Norman Nagel, "Luther and the Priesthood of All Believers," Concordia Theological Quarterly 61 (October 1997) 4:283-84.
- Augsburg Confession, Article 21, "Of the Worship of the Saints". trans. Kolb, R., Wengert, T., and Arand, C. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000.
- Articles 4, 5, and 14 of the Augsburg Confession in Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, trans. and eds., The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 39, 40, 46.