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But 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. 1 Peter 2:9

From this verse is derived the phrase ‘priesthood of all believers’.

When I was growing up and even as a young adult, there was no such thing as Every Member Ministry (EMM), where laying a table at a church supper counts as much as preaching the Word of God.

So it seems, at any rate.

Today’s churches of whatever denomination push their various programmes involving laypeople. These are often referred to as ministries. It still surprises me to visit a church website, click on the word ‘Ministries’ and find that these do not pertain to clergy.

Such is the ‘priesthood of all believers’.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) says (emphases mine):

We affirm the priesthood of all believers. Laypersons have the same right as ordained ministers to communicate with God, interpret Scripture, and minister in Christ’s name. That is why the Convention requires strong lay involvement on its boards.

This doctrine is first and foremost a matter of responsibility and servanthood, not privilege and license.

It is of course, a perversion of this doctrine to say that all views are equally valid, that you can believe anything and still be a Baptist or that the pastor has no unique leadership role.


Notice how the SBC calls this ‘priesthood’ a ‘right’ and a ‘responsibility’ in an incorrect way.

On this topic, Theopedia cites Daniel Akin in Perspectives on Church Government, (p. 37):

The priesthood of all believers… means that in the community of saints, God has constructed his body such that we are all priests to one another. Priesthood of all believers has more to do with the believer’s service than with an individual’s position or status. We are all believer-priests. We all stand equally before God. Such standing does not negate specific giftedness or calling. It rather enchances our giftedness as each one of us individually and collectively does his part to build the body (Eph. 4:11-16). We are all priests. We are all responsible.

It will come as no surprise to find that Dr Akin is a leader in the SBC and is president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

If that is the actual reading of St Peter’s verse, then how is it that most churches never held to this position until the past 20 years or so?

I was not alone in having been raised by parents and religious teachers with the concept that ministry — the pastorate — was a ‘vocation’ or a ‘calling’. This also held true for abbots, nuns, friars, brothers and other vow-professing members of religious orders. It did not extend to Mrs Smith or Mr Jones down the street, as nice and churchgoing as they were.

Earlier in 1 Peter 2 — verse 5 — Peter introduces Christian priesthood by saying:

you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Reading that verse puts a different slant on 1 Peter 2:9.

One of the few traditional, orthodox interpretations of ‘priesthood of all believers’ is that of David J Riggs:

all Christians are of that holy priesthood and can offer spiritual sacrifices to God. All have the right to go directly to God through Jesus Christ, our High Priest (Heb. 4:14-16). 

… Rev. 1:5-6 says, “To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” Consequently, the New Testament repeatedly teaches that all Christians are priests. When one obeys the gospel of Christ, he is added to the body of Christ and is thereby part of God’s holy priesthood. As priests, all can offer up spiritual sacrifices and draw nigh to God through the mediatorship of Jesus.

A sacrificing priesthood of men was appointed under the law of Moses, but the animal sacrifices offered by those priests were mere types and shadows of the one sacrifice made by Christ. By the one sacrifice made by Jesus, He put an end both to the Levitical priesthood and the Old Testament law. (See Heb. 7:23-25; Col. 2:14-17) …

There is no priesthood on earth that has the right to forbid each Christian from going directly to God through Christ, or to assume the authority to administer graces and obtain mercy for others. All Christians are of that royal priesthood of God, and have but one great High Priest, Jesus Christ …

That is what the ‘priesthood of all believers’ means.

It does not mean judging and demanding confessions in small groups, like the Communists do (as per Bella Dodd). No layman has the ‘right’ to hear about your sins.

It does not mean poking our noses in someone else’s business because they do something in the freedom of Christ with which we personally disagree.

It does not mean that by baking cookies for the church fête or being a church greeter on Sundays that we are performing a priestly function.

The ‘priesthood of all believers’ means that we do not require a high priest on Earth to intercede on our behalf to our Father in Heaven. The Christian lay ‘priest’ (true believer, faithful to the Gospel) may pray freely and directly to Christ Jesus, his only Mediator and Advocate.

Dr R Scott Clark explores this in one of his Heidelblog posts, ‘Ministers All?’

Clark examines Ephesians 4 and other New Testament passages in light of Every Member Ministry (EMM).

He started his Christian journey as a Southern Baptist before becoming a Reformed minister. Note how the aforementioned SBC ‘priesthood of all believers’ definition came to play out in his life:

I wasn’t always a stuffy high-church Calvinist. I came to faith in the context of a revivalist Southern Baptist congregation. I learned quickly as an evangelical that I needed to have a “ministry.” It wasn’t enough simply to be a teen-ager and to learn the basics of the faith and to go about my daily life trusting Christ, dying to sin and living to God. No, I had to have a “ministry.” So we took “spiritual gift” tests. The test said that I had the gift of prophecy. I’m still waiting for that one to kick in. In order to be regarded as full-time, sold-out, born again Christians, one had to have a ministry. So, with other students, we started a campus bible study at the local public school (which was contested by the Nebraska Civil Liberties Union the next year!). I was at Campus Life and if not there then at Youth Group or at a FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) or Campus Crusade (I was a religious over-achiever) meeting at the University or every week. My last two years high school w[ere] a blur of religious activity. When I got my first radio job helping to produce and then to host a Sunday morning gospel show on a local country station, my well-meaning youth pastor told me that it was okay to miss Sunday AM services because I had a “ministry.”

Later, as a young Reformed minister:

If I can be brutally honest when I embraced the “every member ministry” model during my pastorate in Kansas City it was because we were a small church and we didn’t seem to be growing and, in response to the tremendous internal and external pressure felt by most pastors to “grow the church,” I adopted a series of “new measures.” I became a predestinarian evangelical. I fiddled with the Regulative Principle and I made friends with the so-called “church growth” movement and I let those things color my biblical exegesis. I read a series of distinctly modern assumptions back into Ephesians 4.

Clark cites Ephesians 4:11-12 (ESV):

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…

He rightly asks:

Did Christ give the various offices listed “to equip the saints to do the work of ministry” or did he give them “to equip the saints, for the work of ministry….”? In other words, are these two phrases to be taken as a list of things to be done by these special offices or is the purpose of the offices to equip the laity to do the work of ministry?

Clark begins his post by saying that EMM has its roots in the 18th century Second Great Awakening. By the 1820s, it was becoming a pattern in American evangelicalism.

Is EMM biblical or is it populist and democratic?

The New Testament does not say much about EMM:

Our Lord did not give the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16) to every member but to the apostles, the first officers in the visible, institutional church. The “every member” model fits well into the program-driven approach adopted by virtually all evangelicals since the 18th century but does it fit Paul’s view of the church elsewhere? It seems to me that, if Paul had such a view, he would have expounded on it in detail in other places but he did not. He did, however, spend a considerable amount of space detailing the nature of the special offices. 1 and 2 Timothy were written to a young pastor. 1 Timothy 3 is about the offices of elder or overseer (vv.1-7) and deacon (vv.8-13). Most of 1 and 2 Timothy are about how Timothy should conduct his office as pastor. Much of Titus 1 is taken up with the matter of elders and Titus 2, again, is about the conduct of pastoral ministry. 1 Peter 5 is devoted to the office of elder. In other words, we have extensive revelation about the special offices and precious little about so-called “every member” ministry.

I’ve heard it argued that Acts 8 reflects the apostolic approach to “every member ministry” in as much as the church was scattered and “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” One difficulty with the application of this narrative to this question is that the only Christians named in the narrative are special officers (Stephen and Philip). The first example of this preaching to which Luke turns is Philip. It is not at all clear that the intent of his narrative is to supply a ground for the “every member” ministry model.

Back to Ephesians 4:

Why would Paul turn to “every member ministry” in the midst of a discussion aimed at and about the ministry of special officers? In the verses before Ephesians 4:11-12 he’s speaking to Timothy about the conduct of his office and the first thing he says in v. 13 has to do with the public administration of the Word. In short, the every-member interpretation of Eph 4:11-12 doesn’t seem to fit even the immediate context.

So, what do laypeople do as church members? Clark helpfully explains our responsibilities as Christians just the way I understood them when I was a child:

I think it’s helpful to speak about the witness of the laity to the faith (that which is objectively revealed in the Word and confessed by the Reformed Churches) and their witness to their faith, i.e. to their subjective appropriation of the biblical faith. Yes, we should speak to our neighbors, friends, and co-workers about the faith and our faith, but we should distinguish lay witness from the official proclamation of the gospel. God the Spirit is free to act through popular witness or public proclamation, but as has been noted, it is to the latter that he has attached promises.

I realize this is heresy in contemporary evangelicalism, but not everything every Christian does is “ministry.” The baker has a vocation to bake to the glory of God but baking is not his ministry. We need to recover the idea of vocation. Calling the daily work of Christians “ministry” is intended to elevate it but it actually accomplishes the opposite. It devalues it by implying that anything that isn’t “ministry” isn’t valuable significant in itself. Really, what the EMM model has done is to take us back to the pre-Reformation view of the church in which there were two classes of Christians. The Keswick Movement did the same thing. Again, folk were thinking of two classes of Christians, those who have the blessing and those who don’t. The EMM movement implies that unless what someone does is “ministry” it isn’t really significant.

To those looking for their first church or transferring to another, beware the exhortation to join a ‘ministry’ under the spurious obligation of the ‘priesthood of all believers’.

Respond by telling them what that phrase really means.

And, yes, let’s recover the idea of ‘vocation’ and ‘calling’ with regard to our clergy.

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