The great Baptist theologian Carlyle Marney used the phrase “a priest at every elbow.” Marney was emphasizing a key theological insight in the theology of Martin Luther and the 16th-century Protestant Reformation: the priesthood of all believers. This was a crucial perception for Luther. It is the vision that all Christians are priests. We are priests to each other.
All Christians are priests
The phrase may sound strange to Presbyterian ears. We are used to knowing Roman Catholic priests and Episcopal priests — and they are clergy. Priests hold a revered place in these traditions. They often wear clerical garb that visibly distinguishes them from lay members of the church. Like all clergy, priests are recognized by their “callings” to become church leaders. They have pursued a “vocation” or calling. This has set them apart for their special work in ministry.
So it may jar us a bit to hear that we are all – all Christians – priests! It was jarring in the 16th century when Luther began emphasizing what became known as “the priesthood of all believers.” Luther did not use that exact phrase. But he advocated its meaning, especially when interpreting 1 Peter 2:4-10. Here, Peter told his readers that as Christians, God was building them into “a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5). He went on to say: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9).
These words were written to early Christians. They hearken to the words God spoke to Moses when the Israelites reached Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:1-6). Moses was to remind the Israelites how God “bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” in liberating the people from Egypt. Now, God was establishing a covenant relationship with Israel. God said: “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:6). The people were set apart to be in covenant with God, receiving the benefits and blessings God gives and committing themselves to be a holy nation, serving God as priests in God’s reign or kingdom.
This is the heritage New Testament believers received. Now we carry it on and carry it out even more fully as a “holy priesthood” of God’s “own people.” We serve God in Jesus Christ who is “the great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14; cf. 8:1). The purpose of God’s royal priesthood is to proclaim God’s “mighty acts” (1 Peter 2:9) as God’s people who have “received mercy” (2:10).
Luther interpreted these passages to mean that all of us who are Christians are priests of God. We are God’s people who serve God. Christians serve God by carrying out ministries as “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:1). We serve Jesus Christ by offering our “spiritual worship,” which happens when you “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” as Paul says (Romans 12:1). Our spiritual sacrifice is the offering of ourselves to God in Christ. As John Calvin noted, we cannot offer anything to God until we have first offered ourselves to God. We give ourselves to God when we deny ourselves and follow Jesus (Mark 8:34).
The ministry of priesthood
Our priesthood is serving God in Christ. Our priesthood is ministry. We offer ourselves – all we are and have – as an act of sacrifice to the God who has loved us, forgiven us and served us through Jesus Christ. In our continuing self-sacrifice, we serve as priests to others. We are priests as we serve each other in the name Jesus who came “among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27).
This was what Luther found as he interpreted the Scriptures. This discovery of the “priesthood of all believers” was a revolutionary insight during the Reformation. All Christians share the same baptism, the same gospel, the same faith in Christ. We are all equal in Christ and we are all priests in Christ on the basis of our being “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3). We are “all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26, 27). It is baptism, the gospel and faith in Christ that creates Christian people who are priests to each other — a “priest at every elbow.”
This interpretation shook the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchical structure, Luther scholars point out. Baptism established a true priestly ordination, a priestly vocation or calling for every Christian. There was no different “essence” or “essential difference” between those who served as clergy “priests” in the church and the ordinary, baptized Christian. Each had a calling as a “priest.” They carry out their callings in different ways. But all “are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Church “priests” and church “members” are on equal footing. All are “baptized into Christ” (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27). Someone said that there is level ground at the foot of the cross. We could also say there is level ground at the baptismal font. There is no hierarchy within Christian faith itself. We are all baptized Christians; we are all priests of the same kind — called to be servants of Christ and serve neighbors as priests to each other. As sometimes noted, Luther turned priests into laity — and laity into priests!
A Reformed understanding
Some important implications emerge when we recognize the priesthood of all believers as taught by Luther but also emphasized in vital ways by John Calvin and our Reformed and Presbyterian traditions.
We are priests by baptism.
This is our identity. We are “named” in baptism and baptized into Christ. In baptism, God claims us as God’s own children and we enter into the “royal priesthood,” the people of God, the church. We know who we are, and whose we are in baptism. Our self-understanding as “priests” grows as we continue to become “servants of Christ” and live out our discipleship by self-denial and following Jesus. Our ministries in service to others are expressions of identity, of being “in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our spiritual priesthood does not occur through our making clerical vows. Our priesthood as Christ’s servants comes from God in Christ. Our consecration in Christ establishes our ministries, which are nurtured in the church community by Word and Sacrament. The power of Christ to carry out our service as priests is sustained by the work of the Holy Spirit who ministers in us and among us so we can be priests to others in the daily course of our lives.
We approach God directly.
A primary implication of the priesthood of all believers is that because Jesus Christ is our high priest, we can approach God through Christ directly, without need of any intermediary such as a clergyperson. Jesus Christ is our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), the one who intercedes for us (Romans 8:34). The Latin word for priest is pontifex, which literally means “bridge-builder.” Jesus is the bridge-builder between God and us, meaning we can pray to God directly, “in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” This is our true liberation, enabling us to be free always to be in prayer to God.
We can read the Scriptures directly.
Both Luther and Calvin stressed the centrality of Scripture as the Word of God. Scripture has authority for the church and for our lives. The priesthood of all believers means we can read and interpret Scripture as God leads us. We are not strictly bound by church traditions or interpretations. Yet we read and interpret the Bible in the context of the church community. We do not seek “private interpretations.” We believe in the priesthood of all believers, not the priesthood of a believer. We read and understand Scripture in the company of sisters and brothers in Christ.
We minister to others.
The church as the people of God, the “royal priesthood,” is full of priests! Ministry in the church is carried out by all its members. Ministry is not just left up to “the minister.” All priests in the church are to carry out their ministries as servants of Christ. It is up to everyone to do so. The world is to experience “a priest at every elbow.” Carrying out ministries of care and love and service is what Christian priests do. All have responsibilities. There’s a sting in a story of a pastor in a small town who everyday at noon walked to the train station and watched the train go through town. When asked why he did this, the pastor replied, “Because the train is the only thing that moves in this town that I don’t have to push!” The “ministry of the laity” is the heartbeat of church congregations. Jesus Christ is the priest for us. He enables us to be priests to each other. All church members minister to others.
We all have vocations.
Prior to the Reformation, the “religious” were those who took clerical vows and lived in monasteries or convents. So if someone was asked where to find a “religious person,” the answer would be to point to a monastery or convent and say: “That’s where the ‘religious’ live.” Priests and nuns were the ones who had “callings.”
Luther and Calvin changed this perception by recognizing all Christians have vocations or callings. We are all called to be priests. We are called to ways of carrying out our priesthood or vocations in the world. The Protestant Reformers stressed the work we do in the world can be ways of carrying out our priesthood. Our work – whether paid or unpaid – can be done in the service of God and for the glory of God. Our “callings” are means of living out our “priesthood.”
But our greatest vocation is to be “a priest at every elbow.” We live out our baptismal vocation to be a servant of Jesus Christ in all we do. We are more than persons who “have a job” or a profession. We are relational persons. We relate to others in many ways, in complex networks of human communities. Our priesthood and callings extend into all our relationships. We are involved in all aspects of life bringing the love of Jesus Christ into every situation and interaction we have day by day. Our Reformed tradition has always stressed the great command of Paul: “Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). We do everything for the glory of God — this is our true vocation as priests of God!
Rediscovering the priesthood of all believers
Perhaps we can rediscover the priesthood of all believers. In what ways would your life in Christ be different if you saw yourself as a baptized child of God who is also a “priest,” living as a disciple of Jesus Christ? In what ways can you as a priest help build bridges with other people? What if you recognized that sisters and brothers in Christ are serving you as a priest? What if you consciously sought to be a priest to others — loving, caring, serving, listening, and bearing their burdens? If every encounter and situation is recognized as God at work among us – bringing priests to us – and enabling us by God’s Spirit to be priests to others, just think how energized life could be!
Our baptismal vocation can come alive when we see our calling to be to our ongoing identity. Baptism is not just an event “way back then.” It is the springboard and launching pad of our ministries in the world and with others in service to the God who loves us in Jesus Christ. Baptism shapes us into the people Jesus Christ wants us to be. Then, we too, join with others in being a priest at every elbow!
Donald K. McKim is an honorably retired Presbyterian minister. His recent books include “The Church: Presbyterian Perspectives” and “Moments with Martin Luther: 95 Daily Devotions.” “Mornings with Bonhoeffer: 100 Reflections on the Christian Life” will be published in October. He lives in Germantown, Tennessee.