Evangelical Questions: Priesthood of all Believers

by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC

Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about priesthood of all believers. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.

It is Thanksgiving week here in the US, so happy Thanksgiving if you celebrate. We got snow on the mountains here in Utah County, so there is plenty to be thankful for in these parts. I hope it’s a week of gratitude for you too, no matter where you live.

Okay, today we’re going to talk about one of the most misunderstood verses in the New Testament when it comes to conversation between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints: The priesthood of all believers. We’ll start with 1 Peter 2:5:

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.

Now, no Latter-day Saint that I know of would disagree with that verse or verses like it. There is no quibble as to if this is a good verse translated properly or not. The question becomes what does it mean by “priesthood”? And as with most things, digging down a little into history and language helps us clear up the confusion.

Let’s start with history. So, rewind all the way back to before the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther has had it with the corrupt practices of the Catholic church and nails his 95 thesis to the door of the Wittenburg Chapel. Luther had 95 complaints and social media hadn’t been invented yet, so nailing something to the door of the church was what he had available to him. A lot of that document has to do with the concept of purgatory and the paying of indulgences. Indulgences were purchased for money by living people in essence to shave off some of the time a dead person would have to serve in purgatory. Sometimes they’ve been wrongly thought of as purchasing a free pass to commit some sin, and there may have been some of that happening, but what Luther was really upset about was the idea that a living person could impact the experience of a dead person- without that person having to accept the work. Luther wasn’t even primarily mad at the idea that a living person could do some proxy work for dead people – he was mad that indulgences discouraged the purchaser from doing works of mercy in a way that would cause growth in their own soul. His logic was: How could people who were not pious give any assistance toward the piety of dead people? It would be as if we were baptizing people for the dead but there were no requirements on the righteous living of the person doing the work. Luther saw this issue really clearly. By the end of the 95 Thesis Luther makes it clear that he’s not trying to do away with proxy work altogether, he just wants to have it be done in such a way that requires righteousness from living people.

And what Luther was trying to do, he states this very clearly, is to begin a conversation among the religious scholars of the day. But by 1520 (just 3 years later) the whole thing spins a bit out of control for him as the conversation morphs into, “what is the role of the priest in forgiveness – are they actually the ones deciding if you get forgiven? Or are they the ones who pronounce forgiveness upon you but that forgiveness is granted from Christ, not the priest.” And that’s where we’ll pick up the thread.

So things are not going well for our boy Martin, at least in terms of debate among his academic peers. He wanted to be having this as an academic conversation, and he got some of that, but the people are starting to understand at least a bit of what he’s talking about when they see the implications for them. And Luther himself sees this to. In 1520 he puts out a document that has a very unfortunate name if you’re standing on this side of history. “The Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” But this is the document where he really lays out his growing ideas on the priesthood of all believers. And what he’s trying to do is react against the pre-Reformation idea that humans are divided into 2 categories – the secular and the sacred. So before this, if you lived in some little German town, there would be the regular people living their lives, mostly just trying to feed themselves and their families. These were the secular people. Even if they were followers of Christ, they were considered secular. The sacred people were the priests and those who had taken holy orders to live in monastic communities. And how it played out was that the secular people who believed in Christ didn’t have much access to materials that would help them learn the scripture or grow on their own – so they kind of gave up and let the sacred people take on that burden. It was sort of the attitude of, “I’m just a regular person, I don’t need to spend my day praying because those monks up in the monastery on the hill are spending their days doing that on my behalf.” And you can see where Luther gets upset at this – he’s not mad about the “proxy-ness” of it, he’s mad that the secular people side-step their own responsibility to grow and outsource most spiritual tasks to the priests, monks, and nuns. In the monasteries, the system was set up so that they prayed at fixed points throughout the day, including the middle of the night. And this system of prayer became more and more elaborate, requiring more and more time. The regular folks just trying to live their lives and feed their families couldn’t live under a schedule like that, so instead of modifying it for their own use in ways that were workable, they mostly just let the monks and nuns take care of the prayers for them. And Luther is upset at this because it leaves the regular people spiritually immature. And he wants to correct this situation, so he writes about it in “Nobility of the German Nation.”

And so one of Luther’s goals becomes the emptying of the monasteries. He wants everyone – secular people and sacred people – to know how to do the work of prayer and Christian living. The term “liturgy” has its origins here – liturgy means, “the work of the people.” And you can see how Luther is using this term in particular – he wants the regular people to do spiritual work too. But in order to do that, he has to help them break out of the system they have going that separates secular and sacred. So he spends a lot of time and energy teaching that the regular people also have a priesthood to which they belong, the priesthood of all believers, and there are responsibilities in that priesthood.

So far, Latter-day Saint friends, I don’t think there is much for you to disagree with. What Luther was doing is very reasonable in lots of ways. But let’s flip contexts out of Luther’s German world, and into our English-speaking world. And you’ll easily see how the problems develop.

Very often when translating from Biblical Greek to English we have more English words to choose from. But in some instances it works the other way around – Greek has more words for something while English only has 1. Probably the best example you’re familiar with is the various words for “love” in Greek describe important nuances between different forms of love. But in English, we use the same word for, “I love pizza” and “I love my child.” It’s the same situation with “priesthood.” We have 1 word, priesthood, while the New Testament has 2 words: One that means “sacred person” and the other that means “one with elderhood.”

So when Luther says, “you are the priesthood of all believers” he means, “You are not just secular people who have nothing to do with the spirituality of those monks and nuns….you too are sacred people, even just living your normal lives of taking care of your families.” He never intended to say that there aren’t 2 different kinds of priesthoods. The one we are talking about right now, the priesthood of all believers, is a universal priesthood that everyone who claims the name of Christ has – the priesthood that asks us to do the spiritual work for ourselves and those over whom we have responsibility such as children. The other form of the word meaning, “the one who has eldership,” is not canceled because of this universal priesthood responsibility that the average believer also has.

So, what about our Evangelical friends? What do they make of all of this? Well, as we’ve talked about here a number of times Evangelicals value 2 things above all else – independence and devotion to Christ. When I say “independence” what I mean is they do not want to be told what to believe by anyone who claims authority. To them, the very claim of authority is problematic. They want an absolute level playing field where no person has authority over any other. They want to do what is right in their own eyes – you get the appeal, I’m sure. But they also value devotion to Christ and the concern here is that they do not want anyone “standing between” them and Christ. Not monks and nuns up on a hill, not priests that help with confession and repentance, not even the body to which they are a church member. If they don’t like what is being taught they see no obligation to stay – they move on to another church. In practice what this means is that they each have to be their own Prophet. They don’t get – or want – guidance that comes with authority. They are the authorities.

They also see Christ as being not just the “great High Priest” but also the only current priest of any type. And to be honest, we’re not too far apart from each other on this one – we would also say that the priesthood belongs to God. It is his power on the Earth. But Evangelicals worry that any claim to priesthood is an attempt to take the power away from God and give it to man.

And this is part of the arc of development for them as people embedded into a particular time and place. The Evangelical movement grew up right alongside of the modern, hyper-modern, and post-modern era. The natural conclusion of this arc is that the concept of authority itself is invalid. Think of how people conceptualize books. It used to be that the author had a meaning in mind, she would write her thoughts, and people who wanted to understand what she’s on about would read the book. The author got the final say, as it were. But in the postmodern turn it is the reader who brings meaning to the book. The reader decides what it means, even if that meaning is wildly different from what the author intended. The reader gets the final word. There is an important philosophical concept that started back in the 1960’s that says, “the author is dead”….and by natural progression, the very concept of authority dies with him. Author-authority. We see this play out in our national debates – what is an authority anyway? Is a guy at home with an internet connection just as much of an authority as a guy with a PhD? Large parts of our current culture answer that question as: Yes. Authority has died. And this is the culture the Evangelical movement has grown up alongside. Any authority that comes with priesthood is bad, it’s nonexistent to them. Only the common authority anyone has over their own lives matters, the idea of, “you can say what you want as long as its true for you.” But, “history predicts the future” and these things are cyclical – at some point things change. If you look at last week’s Deseret News you will find an article titled: Want to fix education? Bring back authority.” (You also will find a piece in DN last week with my name on it – its a summary of the presentation I gave at the FAIR conference back in August if you’re curious.) But “Bring back authority” is essentially getting at this same thing – we’ve swung too far away from the idea that anyone, teacher/priest/researcher/anyone can have authority at all. And maybe these things correct themselves over time.

This got to be a long episode, but I hope it helps you think though why your Evangelical friends get so worked up about the “priesthood of all believers” concept.

Okay, we’ve got 5 episodes left. Next week we’re talking about the Holy Ghost and asking what does it mean when an Evangelical also experiences the Holy Ghost. I think you’ll be plenty fascinated with that one. See you then.

More Come, Follow Me resources here.


Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.

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