“The Ministry of the Word Belongs to All”: Understanding the Priesthood of All Believers in Context

May 17, 2018

One of the most frequently-misunderstood Reformation doctrines is Luther’s assertion of the “priesthood of all believers.” Often seen as some kind of radical call to abolish all order and hierarchy in Christian society—a radicalism from which Luther’s more cautious successors rapidly retreated—it tends to polarize modern readers into, on the one hand, those who blame it for the individualistic chaos of the modern world or, on the other hand, heirs of the radical Reformation who lament the other Reformers’ failure to carry through on Luther’s genius. Both misunderstand the original contours of the doctrine. First and foremost, like all of Luther’s teaching, it was a statement about “the inner man” rather than the visibly organized church in human society. As such, it sought to ensure that, since the believer’s relationship with Christ was on the basis of faith and the Spirit alone, there was no role for human authority in establishing, ending, or otherwise conditioning this relationship.

However, this is not to say that it had no implications for the visible order of the church, for which the priesthood of all believers meant the mutual service of edification that each of us owe the community. This mutual service, moreover, did not do away with ordained ministry and church authority. To understand Luther’s nuanced account, let’s begin with a quote from one of his most important treatises, the Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in which he systematically deconstructs what he calls the “three walls of the Romanists.” The first wall, he says, is their distinction between the temporal and spiritual power, against which he insists, “that all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone.”1

He then goes on to give a classic “desert island” scenario, arguing that a group of Christians stranded alone with no priest could nominate one from among themselves and appoint him to exercise the powers of preaching, baptizing, administering the Eucharist, etc. This is an important departure from medieval Catholic teaching, but notice what Luther does not say. It is not that if a group of Christians find themselves stranded alone with no priest, they should “take it in turns to act as a sort of executive minister for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of external affairs.”  He still presumes that they will in fact appoint a minister who will henceforward exercise regular clerical responsibilities. Hence, consider his qualification above that there is no difference “save of office alone.”

Let’s dig deeper into the logic of Luther’s position by considering two lengthy quotes from his 1523 treatise On the Ministry. There he writes that

The keys belong to the whole church and to each of its members, both as regards their authority and their various uses… As we have declared already, the ministry of the Word belongs to all. To bind and to loose clearly is nothing else than to proclaim and to apply the gospel. For what is it to loose, if not to announce the forgiveness of sins before God? What is it to bind, except to withdraw the gospel and to declare the retention of sins? Whether they want to or not that the keys are an exercise of the ministry of the Word and belong to all Christians.2

Shortly afterward, however, he writes,

For since we have proved all of these things to be the common property of all Christians, no one individual can arise by his own authority and arrogate to himself alone what belongs to all. Lay hold then of this right and exercise it, where there is no one else who has the same rights. But the community rights demand that one, or as many as the community chooses, shall be chosen or approved who, in the name of all with these rights, shall perform these functions publicly. Otherwise, there might be a shameful confusion among the people of God, and a kind of Babylon in the church, where everything should be done in order, as the Apostle teaches. For it is one thing to exercise a right publicly; another to use it in time of emergency. Publicly one may not exercise a right without consent of the whole body or of the church. In time of emergency each may use it as he deems best.3

There is a lot going on in these quotations, which I will now attempt to flesh out systematically. The first point is to say that the authority underlying Christian ministry—that is, the duty for each Christian to be Christ to his neighbor and preach the Word to his neighbor—resides originally in the whole body of the church and is only confined to church leaders or ordained ministers by delegation from below. Ministers thus have a representative role, focusing the authority of the whole community in a single person or group of people, who then exercise it on behalf of all.

However, there is a tension here, for the minister has a dual function, not merely representing the people to God to one another, but also representing Christ to the people. The authority he or she bears is—viewed from a different perspective—the authority of Christ as shepherd and sustainer of his flock, an authority that Christ delegates to his ministers. The Scriptural prooftexts for this are myriad—Christ authorizes his apostles to preach and forgive sins on his behalf several times in the Gospels (Mt. 16:13-19, Mt. 28:16-20; Lk. 9:1-8; Lk. 10:1-23; Jn. 20:21-23), and in the Epistles, it is clear that church leaders (however exactly we understand church polity) receive their gifts and authority from the Spirit (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11; Eph. 4:11). So, does the power come from above or from below? Is it apostolic succession or democratic representation?

To pose the question this way is a false dichotomy. Consider the analogy of political authority (this, although there are also profound disanalogies between political authority and church authority). Christianly understood, political authority has a similar dual function—or rather triple function: representing the community to itself, representing the community to God, and representing God’s rule to the community. In principle, every man and woman under God has authority to govern him or herself and to ensure that justice is done to their neighbor. But in practice in a sinful world, there must be particular individuals tasked to exercise authority over all on behalf of all. This power, which we call sovereignty, lies originally and ultimately with God, and so political authorities can legitimately exercise sovereignty only to the extent that God delegates it to them and allows them to use it representatively. At the same time, however, since all people are created equal, and God rarely providentially intervenes to name His own representative, civil authorities can ordinarily only be constituted as representatives of the community—whether this happens via a democratic election, or by the acclamation of a new king or queen.

When you put all this together, you find that despite the original equality of humankind, (a) there is a conditioned necessity for some to exercise political authority over others, (b) to the extent that anyone does so, they mediate the authority of God and thus their office is one authorized specifically by Him, and (c) the particular individuals who are to fill this office must be authorized specifically by the people.

By exact analogy, the church is such that despite the priesthood of all believers, (a) there is a conditioned necessity for some to exercise ministerial authority over others, (b), that to the extent that anyone does so, they mediate the authority of God and thus their office is one authorized specifically by Him, and (c) that the particular individuals who are to fill this office must be authorized specifically by the people.

As evidence that the “democratic” element of this picture did not die with Luther, we can quote Heinrich Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics:

The subject to whom God has transferred the power of the keys is the whole Church, the whole communion of believers, which may allow it to be used orderly through its ordinary servants.4

We can go further with this analogy and say that, unless God specifically provides otherwise, (d) the particular process for appointing human authorities in church or state, and the structure of those authorities, is left up to the discretion of particular communities; (e) the authority delegated is non-exhaustive, such that there are still plenty of legitimate ways in which individuals within the community may serve the common good without holding a formal office; (f) in emergency situations where the deputized authority is not in a position to act on behalf of the community, authority devolves back on the individual who is in a position to act; and (g) similarly, in situations where authority has collapsed, or is thoroughly failing to exercise its office, authority devolves back on the community until authority has been re-constituted.

These last three points are particularly important for understanding the ways in which the Protestant interpretation of the universal priesthood continued to condition the authority of the ordained ministry even where it was admitted to be ordinarily necessary. Thus, even the staunch presbyterian Francis Turretin, writing 150 years after Luther, would insist that “when the public office (which ought to serve this purpose) is either not as yet constituted; or if it has been constituted, is so corrupted and depraved as to teach a lie in place of the truth,” then the general office of all Christians to preach truth to one another must take over: “Then anyone, in such a state of things, ought not only to care for those things which belong to his own salvation by retaining the known truth and manfully rejecting received errors, but also with all zeal to carry forward those things which pertain to the salvation of his neighbor.”5

The priesthood of all believers, then—far from encouraging an every-man-for-himself Christianity—is precisely the opposite: a summons to “carry forward those things which pertain to the salvation of one’s neighbor.” This is to be done wherever possible by orderly means—usually through formal offices, but in emergencies, by any means possible.

About the Author
  • W. Bradford Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh) is the President of the Davenant Trust and teaches at Moody Bible Institute. He is the author most recently of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty (Eerdmans, 2017), as well as three other books and numerous articles and book chapters on Reformation theology and Christian ethics; his particular interest is in retrieving the legacy of the great English theologian and political theorist Richard Hooker. He blogs occasionally at bradlittlejohn.com.

  1. Letter to the Christian Nobility, in Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan Roberts, eds., Reformation Theology: A Reader of Primary Sources with Introductions (Davenant Press, 2017), 137.  

  2. Luther’s Works 40:27-28.  

  3. Luther’s Works 40:34.  

  4. 685-86  

  5. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. James T. Dennison, III:220.  

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