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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Priesthood of All Believers? Hmmmmm

I became a Christian through Protestant Christianity and I quickly picked up that one important doctrine was "the priesthood of all believers."

Now I must say that I have given this doctrine very little thought over the twenty-nine years since my conversion. It seems to pop up now and again in conversation when my conversation partner will present it as an obvious truth that some bad person has seen fit to deny but I must confess that it was always a doctrine that loomed small with me.

In part, I suppose that this is because it seems to be built upon two passages of the NT. 1 Peter 2:9 and Rev 5:10.

The idea was that new covenant believers (unlike old covenant Israel) were all priests so we needed no priests (implied: what the flip are those Catholics playing at!!!).

But, of course, 1 Peter 2:9 is actually a quotation from Exodus 19:5–6 in which God calls Israel a kingdom of priests. So the notion of the community as a priesthood is hardly a way of contrasting the old and the new covenants. Old covenant Israel was just as much as "royal priesthood" as new covenant Israel and the nations in Christ.

The idea in crass presentations of the priesthood of all believers (and I am not referring here to the sophisticated presentations) is that in the old covenant the people needed their relationship with God to be mediated by a priest but we no longer do. Mediation is now cast aside.

But it is not.

New covenant believers have no unmediated access to God. We have a new and better mediator—Christ Jesus—but unmediated access we most certainly do not have.

And the other thing that bugged me about the focus on the priesthood of all believers is that, in good Protestant individualist fashion, it was often interpreted as "John is a priest, Jane is a priest, Colin is a priest, Catherine is a priest, ..." and so on. We are all, as individuals, priests. But in both the OT and NT texts it is the community that has a priestly function. The church is a royal priesthood.

And there is the other thing, the idea of the royal priesthood is often interpreted to mean that we now need no mediation in our relationship with God but that is NOT the point of the biblical image. The thing about being a priest is not that you have unmediated access to God but that you mediate in some sense between God and others. So if the church is spoken of as a priesthood then the point is that the church in some sense mediates between God and ... others.

Don't mishear me. I am not saying that we do not have access to God "within the veil"—we have unrivaled access mediated through Christ. My point is simply that the notion of the priesthood of all believers has been misused within some sections of Protestantism.

6 comments:

Chris Tilling said...

Yes and amen, well put Priest Robin

Alden said...

But Robin, Jesus is God.

Micah said...

Well-said! The Son is our High Priest, The Mediator between us and the Father. And then we are His mediators/ambassadors between the Son and the lost?

Robin Parry said...

Alden

indeed but he mediates our access to God the Father. We have no unmediated access to the Father.

And he mediates not in his capacity as the divine Logos but in his capacity of the Word made flesh. It is sharing in our humanity that enables him to be the perfect mediator.

Robin

Anonymous said...

This doctrine has huge implications for WHO should be carrying out the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20). If we are all to help others be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5), then each of us has the responsibility to 1) share the gospel 2) baptize those we lead to faith 3) teach them to obey and do the same . . . Is the Great Commission for EACH believe to obey, or only for the 'ordained'. We usually say each person, but how many are currently baptizing their friends and teaching them to do the same . . . Nice post.

Robin Parry said...

Anonymous

I think I disagree.

1. It seems to me that those churches that have an ordained priesthood also emphasize that all the people in the church are called to evangelize. At least, they ought to. The ordained minsters are there to "equip the saints for works of service" so they do not do mission instead of unordained believers; they seek to empower unordained believers for mission.

2. The two Bible texts you reference may, if anything, be seen to limit evangelism to leaders. The great commission is given to the disciples. It may apply to all believers (I think it does) but it is not clear from the text that it does. 2 Cor 5 has Paul speaking to the Corinthians about the ministry God has given to him and his team (he is not saying that it is a ministry the Corinthian believers themselves have). Of course, as a good evangelical I think that it has an application to all believers BUT I have to acknowledge that this is not how Paul is using it.

It is a controverted topic among NT scholars as to whether evangelism and mission were expected on all members of the church or only those with special callings. My instinct is to say that all have that responsibility but the NT is not 100% clear.

So I do sort of agree with you but I also have some hesitations