Priesthood of All Believers
The Priesthood of All Believers, a major point in Protestant doctrine, was also strongly held by the Anabaptists and is a vital idea in Mennonitism. It means not only that no priest is necessary as a mediator between the human individual and God, so that every man has free access to God by repentance and faith in Christ, but also that all believers have a priestly office to perform for each other in that in Christ each can be a channel of God's grace to his fellow and indeed has a responsibility to be such. -- HSB
In contrast to the Old Testament, the New Testament does not use the term priest for a particular ministry among the people of God. "Priest" or "priesthood" is reserved either for the unique priesthood of Jesus Christ or for the priesthood of all Christians. The first epistle of Peter and the book of Revelation refer to the believers corporately as priests of God, as a kingdom of priests or as a royal priesthood 1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).
This imagery builds on references in the Old Testament. According to Exodus 19:6 God has set the people of Israel apart, among the peoples of the world, to serve as priests. Isaiah 61:6 envisions the day when the other peoples will recognize Israel as God's priests and ministers as well as tend their flocks and cultivate their fields. First Peter specifies the believers' priestly functions: Christians offer spiritual sacrifices and declare God's wondrous deeds among the nations. According to the book of Revelation, the Christian community has been gathered from all the peoples of the earth, purified by Christ, and made a kingdom of priests to serve God and rule on earth with Christ.
During the early centuries of Christianity, the churches reverted to having a priesthood as a mediatorial class set apart from and over the laity. The Protestant Reformers reacted against this pattern and tried to correct it. Particularly Martin Luther articulated a doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and made it a popular Protestant motto by his early essays An open letter to the Christian nobility of the German nation, The Babylonian captivity of the church, and A treatise on Christian liberty, all written in 1520.
According to Luther the priesthood of all believers has spiritual, ecclesiastical, and social implications. Socially, he accepted the context of western Christianity, where temporal rulers belong to the body of Christendom. Within the Christian social order, the rulers are ordained of God to punish evildoers and protect those who do good. Luther argues against the medieval division between the temporal and the church authorities and their separate jurisdictions in all matters. Because the German nobles too are baptized and therefore belong to the priesthood of all believers, they should exercise their vocation by correcting wrong-doing and reforming specific practices in the church without respect to pope, bishops, and priests.
Ecclesiastically, Luther rejects the clergy's monopoly on interpreting Scripture, determining correct doctrine, forgiving sins, and exercising discipline. Because all believers are priests, all are to participate in these functions of the Christian community. Properly understood, "priests" should be ministers of the Word, who are called by the congregation to preach the Word and administer the sacraments with the consent of and in the service of the congregation.
Finally, Luther applies the term "kingdom of priests" to all believers in a spiritual sense. As many as believe on Christ are kings and priests with him. All are kings because by faith all are exalted above all things which seek to harm them and because all things are compelled to work together for their salvation. And by faith, all are priests, worthy to approach God in prayer for others and to teach one another the things of God.
Anabaptist writers in the 16th century rarely refer to the priesthood of all believers, although they have much to say in opposition to clericalism ("anticlerialism," see Anabaptism). Menno Simons does use the concept in The Christian faith (1541). According to Menno, believers have been made kings and priests in order to be a chosen and holy people which serves God in love. As such, believers are to publish God's power and show by their life that God has called them out of darkness into light. As kings, Christians already reign, but with the sword of God's holy Word rather than with worldly weapons. And God's Word is more powerful than wealth, armies, persecution, death, or the devil.
All believers are also priests because they have been sanctified and are called to live as those sanctified by God. They are to sacrifice their own unrighteousness and evil lusts as well as admonish others to do the same. They are not priests who sacrifice bread and wine for the sins of the people or sing masses. Instead, they purify their own bodies daily, are willing to sacrifice themselves and to suffer for the Lord's truth, pray fervently, and give thanks joyfully (Menno, Writings, 326-27).
In Menno's interpretation of the church as a royal priesthood, he thus emphasizes the spiritual and moral quality of its life, its missionary witness, the self-discipline and mutual discipline of its members, its dependence on the power of God's Word, and its willingness to suffer for the gospel. He does not apply the priesthood of all believers to the temporal authorities as did Luther. And apparently neither Menno nor other Anabaptists and Mennonites of that time related the question of Christian ministry or the appointment and ordination of ministers in the church to the priesthood of all believers.
Since then Mennonites have usually agreed in theory, if not always in practice, that the church should be a community of believers rather than a combination of lay and clerical classes. They have usually agreed in theory, if not always in practice, that all believers are called to participate in the life and witness of the church, to share in mutual discipline and forgiveness, and to test the interpretation of Scripture and doctrine. And they have usually agreed in theory, if not always in practice, that ministers are to be appointed by the community of believers and to serve for its welfare. But these understandings have been based on other New Testament teachings and examples rather than linked with a doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
In the 20th century some Mennonites and non-Mennonites have made passing references to "the priesthood of all believers" to characterize some aspect of an Anabaptist (or presumably Anabaptist) view of the church or Christian life. For some, it means that every Christian is a minister (Kauffman/Harder, Yoder). For some, it signifies a process of making decisions in the church (Littell, Yoder). For one, it refers to the believer's access to God without the mediation of a priest and to being a channel of grace for other Christians (Bender). For another, it represents the Radical Reformation's rejection of dividing the church into clergy and laity (Williams). So far, Mennonites have neither developed a common understanding nor elaborated a particular view of "the priesthood of all believers." -- MEM
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975: 184-85.
Kuipers, Wim. "Het priesterschap aller gelovigen." Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, n.r. 6 (1980): 65-77.
Littell, Franklin H. The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism. New York: Macmillan, 1964; originally published as The Anabaptist View of the Church, 1952: 94.
Luther's works, vols. 31, 36, 44. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-
Williams, George H. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962.
Yoder, John Howard. The Priestly Kingdom. Notre Dame, IN: U. of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
Yoder, John Howard. Fullness of Christ: Paul's Revolutionary Vision of Universal Ministry. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1987, cf. Concern pamphlet no. 17 (1969): 33-93.
Eastwood, Cyril. The Priesthood of All Believers: an Examination of the Doctrine From the Reformation to the Present Day. London: Epworth Press, 1960, summarizes the doctrine according to various Protestant theologians and denominations, but does not refer to Anabaptists or Mennonites.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 1116; vol. 5, pp. 721-722. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. and Marlin E. Miller. "Priesthood of All Believers." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P752ME.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. and Marlin E. Miller. (1989). Priesthood of All Believers. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P752ME.html.