How The Church Lost Sight of the Priesthood of All Believers

How The Church Lost Sight of the Priesthood of All Believers

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One of the great (and desperately needed) cries of the Protestant Reformation was the “priesthood of all believers.”  The emphasis is that Christ became our one and everlasting “great high Priest” (Heb. 14:14).  All those who follow Christ are invited into Christ’s ministry of reconciling the world to God.  We are all given spiritual gifts, and we can all participate as ministers in Christ’s name, working together as a part of Christ’s body, the Church.

It’s again a great emphasis of the Protestant Reformation.  But in America in the mid-1800s, it’s an emphasis that started to fade within certain Protestant denominations—including Methodism. In early America, Methodism had its roots in the frontier: circuit riders working tirelessly to bring the Gospel message to small communities who explored and settled different regions of the country.

By the mid-1800s, with the growing industrialization of the country, more and more people were living in larger towns and cities.  And within churches there was the thought—understandably—that “we need to organize ourselves.”  There needed to be agreed-upon standards for leadership within the church; there needed to be formal training for the clergy.

There also proved to be a bit of competition among churches and denominations to attract new members.  Sometimes this quest to attract people took silly forms like making sure that one’s own church’s steeple was taller than the steeple on the church next door.

In short, the need to organize and ‘refine’ our Christian circles in towns and cities, fueled also by some competition among churches for new members, led to the thought that “our clergy really need to be professional clergy.”  So, training for the clergy becomes more formalized.  The role of clergy becomes seen in terms of being a profession one might train for, and enter into.  It becomes seen as a kind of career.

Now, I don’t want to argue that all this is necessarily a bad thing.  I teach in a seminary, and I indeed think that, as a general rule, it’s important for priests and pastors to have a grounding in serious, theological studies.

But what I do want to take issue with is a subsequent slide in mindset that is easy to make.  From the mindset that “the clergy are the professional Christian workers”, it is easy to move into the thinking that “the clergy are the real Christian ministers.”

So a kind of hierarchy gets assumed.  The laity perhaps have their particular ministries.  But in the end, it’s a kind of ‘second-tier’ ministry.  The primary, or ‘first-tier’, Christian ministry remains with the professionals, the clergy.

Let me gently suggest that that is a big bunch of nonsense.  And for any denomination with its roots in the Protestant Reformation, it is especially poignant to think of how we can lose sight of the great rallying cry of the “priesthood of all believers.”

This isn’t intended as a post to somehow diminish the role of, or requirements for, the clergy.  The clergy should have certain characteristics.  They should be mature Christians, have certain recognized gifts, and so on.  My point has simply been that they’re not somehow more of a “Christian minister” than someone who is not an ordained elder.  Clergy have a ministry of Word and Sacrament.  That’s one particular kind of ministry.  But if you’re a salesperson, or administrative assistant, or work at home, or do volunteer work at the church or at a community center…and you’re where God wants you to be…then your work in no way makes you a ‘second tier’ Christian or a ‘second tier’ minister.

The Church, as Christ’s body, has always been called to be incarnational: to go into all the world, making disciples and shining Christ’s light into the darkness.  And so we need Christians—the ones interested in ‘first tier’ Christian ministry—to be spending their time in offices, in supermarkets, on factory floors, in neighborhoods.  This is where the people are whom we’re called to go to.  And so if you’re spending most of your time Monday – Friday in places like this, then great.  You’re perfectly positioned for Christian ministry in every sense of that word.

Kevin Kinghorn is a faithful contributor to Faith and Work Collective.



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