Church as Priesthood of All Believers
By: Rubel Shelly

Most people know that the earliest Christian church modeled its life after the Jewish synagogue. Although there was structure to the synagogue, there was nothing that would strike an observer as essentially hierarchical or sacramental in its nature. It functioned through the activity of persons who were neither priests nor clerics in the generally understand meaning of those terms.

The synagogue pattern of praise, exhortation from the Word of God, and prayer seems to have been the one followed not only by those first Jewish churches in and around Jerusalem but among Gentile congregations that formed later. In reading Paul’s letter to Corinth, for example, there were issues related to worship. It seems that the very simplicity of Christian worship made it susceptible to abuse in certain situations. So the apostle gave guidelines designed less to formalize the church’s assemblies than to keep it from becoming utterly chaotic (cf. 1 Cor. 14:27-36). But it is interesting to note that anyone in attendance at one of those assemblies was a potential presenter. Thus Paul prefaces his broad “rules of order” with this observation: “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1 Cor. 14:26).

In the Constantinean Revolution of the fourth century, this changed dramatically and decisively. The worship and life of the Christian church moved away from the synagogue model very quickly to be parallel the Temple precedent of priest, sacrifice, and observers. The Lord’s Supper as a meal of communion and thanksgiving became a (re-) sacrificing of the body of Christ; the table became an altar. But if there was now a sacrifice to be placed on an altar, there must be priests. Just anyone can give thanks at a meal or join in communion, but not “just anyone” can lay a sacrifice on a holy altar! So the next several centuries saw functions become offices, saw a distinct hierarchy emerge in the church. “Clergy” officiated at communion and baptism; “laity” observed in silence – except to respond as told to do so. What was true of worship in particular was reflected in all other aspects of the church’s life.

A doctrine evolved over the decades following Constantine that the church is the saving institution. Rites such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper soon became sacraments. So did marrying and burying people. And the sacraments became the province of the church – in particular the “ordained” priests who dispensed them. People were granted or denied access to the institution and the sacraments through the mediation of a human priesthood. Power of that sort was immense and heady – and led to abuses of the worst sort. The church became the dispenser of salvation.

When the Reformation Movement protested many of the departures that had taken place between the first three centuries and Luther’s famous theses, one of the emphatic doctrines that emerged was the priesthood of all believers. But the “doctrine” never quite returned the earliest practice of the Christians. The caste system of clergy and laity has continued to dominate the Christian religion in practically all its forms.

The first Christians were Spirit-filled amateurs at their God-given tasks. But they turned the world upside down! The role of “professionals” in the ministry of present-day churches needs desperately to be moved from priestly performance with audience critique to the role of church leaders as Paul understood it. He saw the work of men such as himself as serving “to equip the saints for the work of ministry so the Body of Christ will be built up” (Eph. 4:12). But we will come back to the responsibility of leaders to nurture, equip, and commission the larger group in the following chapter. For now, the task is to understand that it is the “larger group” (i.e., a church’s total membership) that has been called to function as Christ’s representatives in the world – not just that group’s professional (i.e., paid) staff. As one writer reminds us, it was professionals who built the Titanic but amateurs who built the ark.

So our task today is to grasp the New Testament truth summarized in these words: "Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:5).