Copyright © 2017 Roger Helland
On October 31, 1517, a massive theological tsunami slammed the shores of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther—gripped by a fresh understanding of salvation by faith and grieved by the abusive corruption of the papacy—launched a new movement later called the Protestant Reformation. Eventually, a revolutionary doctrine emerged called the priesthood of all believers. It challenged the vast hierarchical and wealthy medieval church system.
A century and half later, Pietism, and eventually evangelicalism, reclaimed and partially activated the doctrine. Common among church renewal movements, we need to reactivate the practice of the spiritual priesthood of all believers in our churches today. It has the potential to unleash the church according to the gifts and callings of ordinary people who serve on mission together along with ordained clergy as the Spirit-powered body of Christ. The key texts that support the doctrine are: 1 Peter 2:4–12; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; and 20:6. The term is always used in a corporate or plural sense and the responsibilities of the priesthood are never confined to a special clergy class. Ordinary people, not just ordained people, constitute the spiritual priesthood.
Pietism and the Spiritual Priesthood
The doctrine of the spiritual priesthood of all believers was a major feature of early Pietist spiritual renewal. An issue that continues to plague pastoral ministry and churches today is a clergy dominated role in Christianity and church life held in overprized esteem by both clergy and parishioners alike! But one key biblical role of pastors and teachers is to “equip the saints” (Christians) for their ministry (Eph. 4:11–12).
I know many pastors who burn out or paddle in the deep end like an anxious dog with the water level just below its nose as they try to do all the ministry themselves—preach, teach, counsel, care, lead worship, attend committee meetings, visit, administrate, attend anniversary and birthday parties, evangelize, marry, bury, taxi people around. Pietist Philip Jacob Spener remarked, “One man is incapable of doing all that is necessary for the edification of the many persons who are generally entrusted to his pastoral care.”
Practicing the Priesthood
Let me offer six practices for the spiritual priesthood:
1. Sacrifice and Service
God’s people are a spiritual temple and priesthood called to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet 2:5). Pastors must equip God’s people in holiness of hearts and minds, and continuously call them to standards and service that are acceptable and pleasing to God. They must help them get out of the grandstands as spectators and onto the playing fields of sacrifice and service. 2.
2. Worship and Sacraments
Pastors should see themselves as “worship choreographers and chief priests” who equip God’s people to understand what worship is and how to worship God, and involve as many people as possible to plan and participate in the design and delivery of Spirit-led worship services. Pastors should also plan ways to equip and encourage worship leaders and teams.
3. Prayer and Intercession
God’s people are called to prayer and intercession (1 Tim. 2:1). They must devote themselves to continual prayer (Acts 2:42; Col. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:17) and to intercession. Pastors should equip and encourage God’s people to understand the meaning, and practice of prayer and intercession. They should incorporate prayer and intercession into all church services and ministries and involve many people to pray and intercede beyond the routine pastoral prayer, and become a house of prayer.
4. Teaching and Preaching
God’s people, not just clergy, are called to the ministry of the word, and must read, study, teach, and obey it (Psa. 119; Acts 2:42; 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:14–17; 4:2; Jas. 1:22–25). Pastors should equip God’s people in how to read, interpret, and apply the Bible and inspire the Pietist value on the transformational use of Scripture. Pastors should develop preaching and teaching teams and train gifted people in how to preach and teach and how to offer the public reading of Scripture.
5. Care and Counseling
God’s people are called to love and care for each other, and some will have spiritual gifts in the areas of exhortation, mercy, helps, and spiritual counseling. When each member does its part, the body builds itself up in love (Eph. 4:16). Pastors must equip God’s people in how to care and exercise their spiritual gifts. They should also equip teams of caregivers and counselors, and spiritual directors, some of whom might be small group leaders, deacons, elders, or others.
6. Vocation and Mission
God calls people to both vocation and mission. People spend significant time each week in the workplace and community. The paradigm for many Christians, however, is to serve God on Sunday at church and then enter the real world on Monday. Frederick Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet.” People have natural bridges into the world to be priests on Christ’s mission to spread the gospel and to be salt and light in their spheres of influence where God is at work (John 5:17–19). Pastors should equip people in how to live out their faith as missional priests in the workplace and community.
When you think of pastoral ministry and the spiritual priesthood, think of the Pietists and spiritual renewal. The Pietists can teach us more about spiritual renewal in today’s church than what I cover here. For more on the Pietists, see my book, The Devout Life: Plunging the Depths of Spiritual Renewal.
Roger Helland, DMin. serves as district minister of the Baptist General Conference in Alberta, Canada, and teaches as an adjunct instructor at several Bible colleges and seminaries. He is the author of six books including Missional Spirituality, Magnificent Surrender, and The Revived Church: https://www.amazon.com/author/rogerhelland