The Priesthood of All Believers
The Protestant Reformation is the talk of churches around the world in recent days. It only makes sense, considering the fact that last month marked its 500th anniversary. The Reformation brought with it the presentation of three major biblical doctrines: salvation by grace and faith alone, the Scriptures as the authority and rule for faith and practice, and the priesthood of all believers. The first and second tenets are well-known and well-practiced in the majority of Protestant and biblically-minded churches around the world. We should praise God that salvation and the Scriptures are being properly understood, and we should live out the truths of these doctrines in our own lives. However, no matter how well-known, I would contend that the third of these tenets has unfortunately been pushed to the wayside in the thought and practice of many church bodies and believing individuals.
In general, the priesthood of all believers is the idea that there is no legitimate distinction between the pastor/elder/overseer and the congregation when it comes to Christian life and practice. Believers have one Mediator between themselves and God, and He is Christ, not the pastor (1 Timothy 2:5). Ephesians 4 contains one of the pinnacle passages giving believers a template laying out the roles in the Body of Christ:
And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Ephesians 4:11–13 (emphasis added)
It’s tempting when reading this passage to emphasize the first five roles and look over those which follow. After all, apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers are the ones who “do” ministry, right? According to this passage, that would be an incorrect understanding. The saints, which includes the entire congregation, are the ones who do “the work of ministry” while the teachers/overseers of the church are the ones who equip the saints to do such work. In essence, partaking in the “work of ministry” is how the Spirit sanctifies believers. We must despise the idea that the pastor-teachers of the church are the ones who do ministry. Instead, we must relocate the work of the ministry to its proper place: into the hands of the congregation. As one of my professors never fails to mention, “Until we give [the ministry] back to the people, the Body of Christ will never be fully formed in this world.”
The “work of ministry” is a very broad category and cannot be explained exhaustively in one short post, so I’ll zero in on a couple important points. All work of the ministry falls under the worship of God but, more specifically, the work of ministry includes evangelism and the “building up” of ourselves as well as one another within the Body of Christ. In places like Matthew 28:19,20, Christ commissions all His disciples to spread the Gospel message. Sometimes it seems as if pastor-teachers of the church beat the proverbial dead horse in relation to this topic. We can hear ourselves say something in response like, “Of course we know that the Great Commission applies to us just like it applied to the original disciples! We’ve heard this before, pastor!” But are we evangelizing? Maybe we’re the dead horse and the pastor-teachers of the church are trying to beat us to life. (Pardon the metaphor.)
We as believers cannot attain “the stature of the fullness of Christ” mentioned in Ephesians 4 if we’re not sharing our faith. That which matures and grows also multiplies. So, are you multiplying? We cannot call ourselves true worshippers of God if we don’t actively seek to share our faith with those who don’t know Jesus. True worshippers are largely characterized as such by their obedience. As John says, “this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments [are obedient to Him]” (1 John 5:3). Only that which we truly love will we truly worship, to make the connection between worship and love. So, are we being obedient to Jesus’ Great Commission? If we understand the pastor-teachers of the church to be the ones who do the work of ministry, then we make it too easy for ourselves to shirk our responsibility to share our faith and, therefore, shirk our responsibility as part of the priesthood of all believers. After all, that’s their job, not ours…right?
Evangelism is not the only work of ministry which all believers are responsible for. Jesus tells us in John 8:31 that “If you continue in My Word, you really are My disciples.” Where else do we find the Word of Christ if not in the Word of God? We cannot call ourselves true disciples of Christ if we do not actively and frequently seek Him in His Word. It is not the pastor-teacher’s job to be an “in-the-Word-substitute” so as to present his study to the congregation to free them of their own responsibility. It is our job as part of the priesthood of all believers to join the Holy Spirit in His sanctifying work by reading and applying the Scriptures to our lives daily. Let us pray in tandem with our Savior: Lord, “Sanctify [us] by the truth, Your Word is truth” (John 17:17).
Not only should we be invested in this work of self-building, but we must also be invested in others-building. Paul writes pervasively about the idea that Christians are formed together as one Body with Christ as the head (Romans 12:4,5; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Colossians 1:18). We cannot call ourselves true and functioning members of the Body of Christ if we’re not using our God-given gifts for the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ. No one wants their hands or feet to stop working or to disappear altogether, yet this is precisely what happens if each member of the Body fails to actively serve based on their spiritual gifts.
So, do you know your spiritual gift? If not, discover it! Are you using your spiritual gift? Don’t read this post and simply reflect on your disuse of the gifts God has given you; find out where you can plug in, then plug in!
Taking part in these responsibilities which are for all the saints — evangelism, study of the Word, and the use of spiritual gifts — is the mark of the growing disciple. By the grace of God, we can overcome our tendency toward lethargic Christianity. Let us daily ask Him for strength and stamina to be good stewards of both the Gospel He has given us and the gifts He has given us.
Wesley Nottingham served as one of Grace’s summer pastoral interns in 2016 and has been part of the Grace family his entire life. He is in his fourth and final year at Liberty University studying Theology and Apologetics, hoping to go to seminary at some point after graduation as he pursues God’s calling on his life to become a pastor. A few of Wesley’s pastimes include golfing, basketball, and snowboarding.