Priesthood of all believers

Exodus 19:5-6; 1 Peter 2:9-10

A Distinguishing View

One of the beliefs that distinguishes the Protestant Churches from the Roman Catholic Church is the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. When Martin Luther, in 1520 wrote To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation he dismissed the medieval view that Christians in the present life were to be divided into two classes: "spiritual" and "secular". He stated that all baptised Christians are ‘priests’ and ‘spiritual’ in the sight of God. But, how are we to understand this view that has been abused in many Protestant Churches, particularly in more recent times? How are we to avoid what began as a God-centred practice in the Old Testament, becoming a man-centred activity?

When Peter wrote to the believers scattered throughout the northern part of Asia Minor, he said,

…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God, once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Pet. 2:9-10).

Peter was clearly referring to Exodus 19:5-6, but applying it to Christians. To understand the implications correctly, however, we need to understand the context. Where did Israel come from when God made the incredible announcement that they were to become a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’? It’s only the context that can help us appreciate the enormity of this calling.

The Origins

We read the account of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, their progress through the desert as they headed for an unknown destination, finally arriving at the foot of Horeb, or Mt Sinai. Then God revealed Himself to them in an earthshattering way so that they ultimately pleaded with Moses, ‘You speak to us, but don’t let God speak to us.’ (Ex. 20:19). What was this leading up to?

What they had been through was incredible enough. But it becomes even more incredible when we consider what God had planned for them in the light of where they came from. Professor F.F. Bruce writes,

The early kings of Dynasty XIX, Seti I and Rameses II (c. 1300-1225 BC) drafted them in large numbers into forced labour gangs for the building of fortified cities on the north-eastern frontier of Egypt. They rapidly lost their former manner of life and were in danger of forgetting the faith of their fathers. A few generations more, and they would have been assimilated to their depressed fellow-serfs of Egyptian origin.[1]

This “undisciplined body of slaves which left Egypt”[2] finally arrived at Mt Sinai to be told that God had chosen them to be a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’! We couldn’t blame them if they said, ‘Hello! Who are we talking about?’

Of course, they had witnessed God’s mighty works as He wrestled them out of Pharaoh’s iron grip, and led them miraculously through the Red Sea. But, these plans of God were equally stupendous. In the eyes of an independent observer, God had chosen a very unpromising bunch of people. So how was He intending to achieve His purposes for them and the world for which He cared very much?

God had been working stage-by-stage towards the goal of bringing the nations of the world back to Himself, because the whole earth belonged to Him. (Ex. 19:5). He had now selected the people He would groom to be His agent of blessing. They would become His priests to the world, as long as they were prepared to be shaped into a ‘holy nation’. Their existence under the direction of God was to help the nations come face-to-face with the kind of God they belonged to; His holiness, His justice and righteousness, and His ability to save.

Why Priests In A Priestly Nation?

The fact that they needed to be shaped was obvious. The process of shaping Israel into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation was the responsibility of a special priesthood. It explains why a priestly nation required a special priesthood.

Israel had come from a background where for generations they knew little of Yahweh, their ancestral God. They had lived under severe pressure where they could not even worship God in the prescribed way or on prescribed days. They had been slaves with no right to dictate to their Egyptian overlords what their religious practices demanded of them.

Once they were set free from their bondage in Egypt and started heading for the land promised to their ancestors, they had to learn almost afresh what it meant to worship and serve Yahweh in an exclusive relationship. It is completely natural for values, standards, practices, and perspectives they had grown up with in Egypt to rub off onto them and shape their lives. A new understanding of God, His moral requirements, and His ways had to be learned. So, who was to teach them? In this case, a specially consecrated priesthood.

This was an incredible responsibility! No-one could take this responsibility to himself. This priesthood was responsible to God through His servant Moses. Not only were they to teach the people the way God’s laws were to be understood and applied, but they had to teach the people a correct form of worship; a worship that was different to the way the pagan nations worshipped. God had already given provisions for that, and how it was to be followed. God said to them, You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, i.e. the way the pagan nations worshipped. (Deut. 12:4, 31). God have them the pattern for worship, so that they could learn what was appropriate, and acceptable to Him. He was holy, and only people who understood that, and prepared themselves accordingly, could approach Him in worship.

The function of the priests and Levites was to teach the people what it meant to be holy, so that a holy God could continue among them and direct their lives. If they were to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation that God could bless and make a blessing to the world as He promised Abraham, they needed to be taught and shaped.

How are we to understand holiness? To begin with, holiness describes the nature of God, the ‘awe-inspiring side of the divine character’.

The Lord reigns,
let the nations tremble;
he sits enthroned between the cherubim,
let the earth shake.
Great is the Lord in Zion;
he is exalted over all the nations. (Ps. 99:3).

Holiness is the way God discloses Himself to His creatures. It is the way He wants them to know Him. When it comes to understanding holiness in His people, it had to do with being separated to Him; demonstrating His ownership of them; their readiness to live as people who belong to Him, and as that belongingness was reflected in all of life. They were to be quite distinct from the pagan nations around them in the way they worshipped and lived.

Today’s Church

When Peter wrote to the believers of his day, Jews and Gentiles, he told them that they were to see themselves as the new people of God, accepting the privileges and responsibilities given to Israel of old, and called to continue their God-given role in the world. Central to Peter’s statement, is the nature of the Christian community and its relationship to God. It is to be holy, recognising that they are not their own, they have been bought with the price of the death of God’s own Son.

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies. (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

Christians who belong to God through Jesus Christ are commanded to be holy, because the One who has redeemed them is holy. They are to show that they belong to God, and to God alone by the way they live, the values they hold, the perspectives that influence all their actions.

When Peter said, once you were not a people, he was referring to the children of Gomer, ‘Lo-ruhamah’ and ‘Lo-ammi’ who were signs to Israel. (Hos. 1:6–9). ‘Lo-ammi’ meant you are not my people, and I am not your God. These were descriptions of Israel alienated from God by their ongoing rebellion against Him. Yet, God promised to show mercy to them in the future, to restore, and rebuild them.

Peter told his readers that they had been called to declare the praises of him who called them out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Pet. 2:9). This sharing was not to be confined to the kind of ‘sharing’ that takes place in holy huddles within the four safe walls of the Church. God’s concern has always been for his whole earth. Peter said, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (1 Pet. 3:15). This is the world asking us why we believe what we believe.

What lessons can the Christian Church learn from the origins of the concept of the ‘priesthood of all believers’? God was laying the foundations for our understanding of the kind of people He wanted shaped through whom He would continue His ministry in the world. There are two aspects involved in this shaping. To bring about 1) a holy nation, and 2) a priestly people. Paul expressed the nature of pastoral ministry in these terms.

The Pastoral Role

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-13).

To bring people to maturity in Christ (shaping a holy people).
How often is this objective stressed in any pastoral education program? It can’t be emphasised enough. The pastoral role has a clear biblical objective; it is to ‘shape’ the congregation into a holy people. Some might say, ‘That’s not my role; that’s the work of the Holy Spirit’. If that were the case, then Paul would not have told us what we should be aiming at in our ministry. Obviously, spiritual transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit, but how has He chosen to carry this out? As always, He works through the Word of God that He inspired in the first place, preserved over the ages, and continues to use to convict people, to guide them, and to convert others.

That’s why God has given the Church the gift of ‘pastors/teachers’, whose role is to expound the Word of God, so that the Holy Spirit can use it to do His work. Preaching and teaching must be seen as a very serious responsibility. A responsibility that cannot be shelved for other priorities, or delegated to others who are not called, trained, or competent to do this. Pastors cannot neglect this responsibility. They have been gifted to the Church for this special task. They can’t avoid it. And if they don’t stick to this ‘job description’, nobody else can compensate for this neglect.

No pastor can use the excuse that he is not a teacher. If he is not, then he shouldn’t be in pastoral ministry. For some it might involve much harder work than for others. That is why pastors have to go through theological training as a starting point for delving into the Scriptures. Theological training only gives the tools for pastors to continue to study the Scriptures so that they can share the truths of God’s Word from a heart that is full of the wonder of God’s plans for His people and the world.

When a pastor turns to activities he prefers to do at the expense of preaching and teaching, he has lost the plot. Success in Christian ministry does not lie in good administration; or in using proven ‘methods’; it lies in God achieving His purposes as His Word is preached consistently, faithfully, and from a heart that is constantly kept fresh.

When Joshua took over the reins of leadership from Moses, what did God tell him?

‘Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. (Joshua 1:7-8).

Why is it that Churches and their leaders tend to forget these basics? Have we become so modern and civilised that we have become less dependent on God and the work of the Holy Spirit, thinking that we have to help Him out in these modern times? Do we realise that we have moved from a God-centred focus in the way we live and serve Him, to a man-centred focus; where it’s all about us, and not so much about Him?

The term ‘pastoral’ is used in many secular institutions these days, so that the Christian distinctiveness can easily be forgotten. It’s possible that this is what has happened in many Churches that have pastoral teams but do not carry out the biblical pastoral function. The word ‘pastoral’ is defined by some as, “Pastoral care is an ancient model of emotional and spiritual support that can be found in many cultures and traditions. It has been described in our modern context as individual and corporate patience in which trained pastoral carers support people in their pain, loss and anxiety, and their triumphs, joys and victories.”[3]

In some Churches ‘pastoral teams’ don’t even necessarily have all pastors on it. They are seen as administrative committees. But, because they are called ‘pastoral teams’, there doesn’t seem to be any understanding what other kind of pastoral function is necessary. When ‘administrators’ are seen as exercising a ‘pastoral’ role, it gives them a completely wrong understanding of their place in the body of Christ.

What is involved in this responsibility? Once again we need to turn to the Old Testament to ask ourselves the question, ‘What was involved in shaping the “undisciplined body of slaves which left Egypt” into a holy nation and a priesthood that was to serve God in the world? That surely is our starting point.

People who come to our Churches come from all sorts of backgrounds, beliefs, or un-beliefs, holding all kinds of values, with all sorts of perspectives and worldviews. These have to be brought under the influence of God’s Spirit and His Word. They have to be re-shaped. People have to be helped to develop a biblical worldview and start looking at life from God’s point of view. They have to be helped to develop a new set of values, and to be a holy people. Telling people to be holy doesn’t mean much unless they are taught what holiness means; that it means developing a God-centred, rather than a self-centred focus in life; that it means showing the world in which we live and work that we belong to Jesus Christ, and are seeking to please Him in all that we do.

The role that God’s Word plays in this process is vital. If we take the attitude that the Bible is out-of-date, we won’t have anything worthwhile to offer except psychologising homilies. God’s Word has always been relevant to people of all ages because humanity hasn’t changed. We have to show people how it is relevant to them. That means we have to have a good understanding of the Scriptures, and a good understanding of the issues that face people, at home, at work, in the world.

There has been a tendency to downplay the importance of the study of God’s Word as a prerequisite even for pastoral positions. This sometimes comes from leaders in para-church organisations who themselves have not done either Bible College or Theological College training, yet have clambered up the ladder to become successful leaders in their organisations. They may end up good evangelists, even administrators, but could never fulfil the role of a pastor in bringing a congregation to spiritual maturity.

Boasting about giftedness can sometimes be a way of avoiding facing the issue of holiness in a congregation. The former is never a substitute for the latter. After all, Paul found the Corinthian Church a gifted Church but spiritually immature. Even the issue of holiness needs to be clarified. Some people can be naturally nice, pleasant, calm in manner, but that isn’t necessarily holiness. Holiness has to do with the whole orientation of a person’s life and outlook. It has to do with seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

We need to do more than just sing songs about God’s greatness, awesomeness, holiness. That is no guarantee that we have understood His holiness or respected it when we worship Him. These things have to be taught and explained, not just mentioned. Holiness doesn’t just take place during a worship service. It needs to be lived out every day, in every place where we live and work. It shows that we are consciously living a life that is separated to God Teaching this was the role of the priests in the Old Testament. It is the pastoral role today.

To prepare people for ministry in the world (to be God’s priests in the world)
The second aspect of pastoral ministry is to equip God’s people to have an effective message to bring to the world. Israel revelled in their special relationship with God and completely forgot their responsibility to the world. When God appointed them as His priests, He told them that the whole earth was His as well. When He chose Abraham, He told him that He would bless him, make his name great, and make him a blessing to the world. God’s end-purpose has always been to bring the nations of the world to experience His salvation, and under His rule. He chose Israel to be the agent through whom He would accomplish His purposes.

Israel’s persistent disobedience, failure, its self-centredness, its parochialism, its departure from God and His will for them, finally led them into Exile. It seems that much of the Christian Church in the West is presently in ‘exile’, impotent, and groping around for solutions to its predicament. When pastors do not lead their people in corporate repentance through the faithful preaching of God’s Word, and prayers that seek the Lord wholeheartedly, they are failing to understand the real plight of the present-day Church.

The greatest danger is that they then turn to ‘methods’ that might rescue their congregations from a state of apathy and somnambulism, i.e. sleep-walking. When the heart of the people have not been adequately prepared to appreciate the nature of God, His holiness and His intentions for the world, no amount of ‘method-preaching’ will awaken the ‘sleeping giant’.

Some well-known American-based Christian organisations have succeeded in maintaining their organisational structures in different parts of the world through strict adherence to given ‘methods and procedures’. They follow Charles Finney’s philosophy that if you do certain things in a specific way, you will inevitably reap fruit. A certain amount of methodology can be helpful at a particular stage of a person’s spiritual development. But, when there is insufficient consideration given to where people are spiritually in the first place, it just leads to frustration and disillusionment.

If there is no specific procedure in place to bring a congregation to spiritual maturity, or to holy living, then to try to introduce people to ways and means of reaching out into the community is counter-productive. Ultimately, people will want to invite others to their services, but, the confidence to do so seems lacking among many.


In what way can a pastor or pastoral team equip a congregation for more effective witness in the world?

  1. In the first place, a congregation has to be convinced from Scripture that people outside of Christ are lost. Laying the foundation for this understanding is paramount.
  2. Showing the effects of sin in the lives of individuals, families, societies and nations over the millennia can only be done by preaching through the Scriptures.
  3. The Bible clearly demonstrates that salvation from social and political oppression is not enough. Israel’s rescue from Egypt and Babylon brought about no changes in their nature.
  4. There is a need to show that Jesus Christ is the only way back to God, and showing in what way other religions have no answer to the human predicament.
  5. Showing that God’s concern is for the whole world, not just for our own little congregation. Concern for the world has to be built into the way the congregation is exposed to the needs of the world, and the prayers that take place regularly in our services. It is sad when nations and peoples are being torn apart and we don’t even think about them as a congregation of God’s people, basking in our own security.
  6. People have to be taught how to put their faith into practice in every area of life. It is applied faith, tested under all sorts of conditions in the secular world, that alone can gain an audience. Christians also need to know how to explain that faith.

Some Misleading Views

There have also been some extreme interpretations of the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. Some have claimed that all Christians are to regard themselves as ‘ministers’, and are free to preach, teach, interpret Scripture, disciple others, and lead. This is a serious failure to understand the importance of the division of gifts. The Southern Baptist Conference in the United States has been aware of this danger, and has issued the following statements.

The doctrine is first and foremost a matter of responsibility and servanthood, not privilege and licence.

It is of course, a perversion of this doctrine to say that all views are equally valid, that you can believe anything … or that the pastor has no unique leadership role.[4]

Wrong understanding of the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ has come from failing to understand the context in which Luther reacted to the ‘popes, bishops and lords’ within the Roman Catholic Church of his day. The laity was given no role in the Church at that time. Through its hierarchical structures the leaders ruled everything in the name of the Church. Luther saw, from his reading of Scripture, that salvation was not something that was to be passed on for a sum of money by the clergy, but was available to all through the free gift of God’s grace, and was to be accepted by faith alone. This argument undermined the status and authority of the priests in the Roman Catholic Church. But it also raised the status of the laity, who had been in a state of subjection.

This doctrine does not make all believers ‘ministers’ or ‘pastors’. Some contemporary voices have given the word ‘service’ the new status of ‘ministry’, and then further raised it to ‘pastoral ministry’. This interpretation has become popular. It appeals to people’s egos. It is a reaction against clericalism and hierarchical structures in organisations. However, it is contrary to what the Bible teaches. All believers are called to be ‘witnesses’ to the grace of God in their lives wherever they live and work, but they have not all been called to be ‘ministers’. That is where the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ has been abused, leading many believers to think that they are fee to interpret the Scriptures in any way they please simply because they too have the Spirit of God. (See Numbers 12:1-2).

Unfortunately, this view is perpetuated by some para-church organisations that tend to minimise the importance of biblical training for Christian ministry. These organisations are popular, especially with the younger generations that don’t want the hard work involved in studying the Bible seriously. Most of them feel they know it well enough to teach others. Leaders who promote such attitudes don’t seem to understand that once a person is brought to Christ, discipling that person involves a lot more than taking them through a set course on basic Christianity.

A Litmus Test

If a pastor wants to see to what extent he has been successful in his pastoral role, he needs to ask himself these two questions:

  1. To what extent is the congregation growing in spiritual maturity? Do they have an appetite for the Word of God, and for doing His will? Do they have a burden for the lost, locally and overseas? Are the members concerned that the programs of the Church reflect God’s concerns?
  2. Are people being equipped to be more effective witnesses outside the four walls of the Church? Do they know what they believe and why they believe it? Can they give a reasoned answer to those who ask them? Do they have a worldview that can challenge other worldviews?

[1] F.F. Bruce, Israel and the Nations (Exeter, Great Britain: The Paternoster Press, 1965) p.14.

[2] Ibid, p.16.


[4] Official view of the Southern Baptist Conference, USA, as at 2013.