Yesterday marked the 499th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The folks at First Things posted a great article by Timothy George about one of the phrases often associated with the “movement,” the concept of the “priesthood of the believer.” I’d go so far as to say that of all the phrases, “the priesthood of the believer” has been the one I’ve heard most often as a Baptist. Mr. George asserts that we’ve gotten it wrong.
Building off of Luther’s thinking:
All baptized believers are called to be priests, Luther said, but not all are called to be pastors.
George goes on to say:
While the priesthood of all believers was used by the reformers to buttress an evangelical understanding of the church over against the clericalism and sacerdotalism of medieval Catholicism, the ecclesial context of this Reformation principle has often been eclipsed within major sectors of the Protestant tradition. In my own Baptist family, for instance, it became common in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to speak of the “priesthood of the believer.” The reformers, however, spoke instead of the “priesthood of all believers” (plural). For them it was never a matter of a lonely, isolated seeker of truth, but rather of a band of faithful believers united in a common confession as a local, visible congregatio sanctorum. The best interpreters of the Baptist tradition have always recognized how devastating the attenuation of this principle has been for Baptist ecclesiology.
One of those “best interpreters of the Baptist tradition, George asserts, is Winthrop S. Hudson. Hudson asserted that
To the extent that Baptists were to develop an apologetic for their church life during the early decades of the twentieth century, it was to be on the basis of this highly individualistic principle. It has become increasingly apparent that this principle was derived from the general cultural and religious climate of the nineteenth century rather than from any serious study of the Bible. … The practical effect of the stress upon “soul competency” as the cardinal doctrine of Baptists was to make every man’s hat his own church.
And in doing so, we Baptists more fully bought into an individualistic approach to the faith that has potentially done as much harm as it has done good.
Imagine that, being priests to one another and to the world! That is, of course, the thrust of the biblical story, particularly in the thinking of Peter and of John. And it is more than a thick metaphor: it is a clear picture of what God expects from those led by the Spirit in following Jesus. “A kingdom of priests” indeed.
You can read Timothy George’s piece in its entirety here.
(image from sophiesworld.net)