There is an important biblical idea that has great implications for our personal spirituality and public life in the Church and in the world: the idea that every believer is a priest, regardless of his or her full-time occupation.
This notion was one of the top three ideas of the Protestant Reformation. The first two, Sola Scriptura—which asserts the sole authority of Scripture—and Sola Fide—which teaches justification by faith alone—have been widely taught, but the notion of the “priesthood of all believers” has been by far the most neglected. Martin Luther thought in a sermon that has been preserved in the book, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude Preached and Explained, that “this word priest should become as common as the word Christian” because all Christians are priests. Yet for whatever reason, the priesthood of all believers has been much less understood, taught, and expounded upon in writing.
When Luther referred to the priesthood of all believers, he was maintaining that the plowboy and the milkmaid could do priestly work. In fact, their plowing and milking was priestly work. So there was no hierarchy where the priesthood was a “vocation” and milking the cow was not. Both were tasks that God called his followers to do, each according to their gifts.
This has enormous implications for how Christians live their daily lives. If the Church teaches that working in business, communications, politics, or any other profession is just as impactful as working directly in the ministry, it allows Christians to connect their beliefs to their everyday actions, giving them purpose in their jobs and equipping to them to serve others and improve society through their daily work. On the other hand, if the Church implies that the ministry is a higher calling than other professions, it will lose the impact that it has on individuals and society through “secular” vocations.
Priesthood of All Believers in Scripture
The priesthood of all believers is based on the clear teaching of Scripture. The Old Testament anticipated this teaching when God said to his people at Sinai, “will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). Isaiah says that a time will come when “And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God” (Isa. 61:6).
The New Testament points to the reality accomplished. In 1 Peter 2:5, it says to believers that “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The passage goes on to say, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession that you may proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Revelation 1:5-6 says, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever!” Revelation 5:10 echoes the reality prophesied in Exodus 19:6 “Thou hast made them a kingdom and priest to our God and they shall reign on earth.”
The theological background for this idea is Christ’s high priesthood. Christ is the High Priest who ends all priesthood. The Old Testament passage most often quoted by the New Testament is Psalm 110:1-4. In verse 4 it says, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
Hebrews 7 offers a full-scale explanation of this priesthood. Christ’s priesthood is not from the tribe of Levi as was all Old Testament priesthood. He is a priest not of the old order but of a new order, that of Melchizedek. Christ is sinless whereas priests were sinful. Christ offered himself whereas priests offered bulls and goats. Christ’s sacrifice is once for all whereas the priest’s sacrifice was ongoing and continual. Because of this higher order of priesthood, all human priesthood is fulfilled and abolished. Yet strangely because of Christ’s high priesthood, and because we are now in him, Christians have all become priests. Because of Christ, believers are now all prophets, priests, and kings. His followers are now part of a “royal priesthood” that prophetically proclaims his message (1 Pet. 2:9).
Recovering our Identities
If we recover our identities as full-time followers of Christ, regardless of where we work, we will be willing to prophetically confront the problems in the Church and in the world. We will be able to live our faith both through our direct participation in the Church, through our professions, and through our engagement in work and society. We will be agents of reconciliation, ambassadors, and mediators; in other words, we will be “priests” in our society. Luther’s hope that “priest” becomes as common a self-designation as “Christian” may never be realized unless Christians work to appropriate this truth so that it becomes part of their lives and identity.
Can we see our work in the world as a priestly act, as part of a royal priesthood? Can Christians use their professions to serve those around them? The notion that all believers are priests can revolutionize the Christian’s work in the Church and in the world, encouraging believers to serve the Lord in whatever capacity or profession they find themselves.
With this ministry-oriented mindset toward all areas of life, God’s followers can come boldly into his presence, praying for fruitfulness in their own professions, being prophetic about things they see that are unjust, and acting as agents of reconciliation in their offices, schools, and community.
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Dr. Art Lindsley’s paper, The Priesthood of All Believers. Read it in full here.