Martin Luther, as every school boy knows, challenged the Roman Catholic Church and founded Protestantism by denying that Christians need other men to mediate between themselves and God. The Christian, alone with his Bible, was his own priest; all Christians were priests and had the privilege—indeed, were under the necessity—of dealing with God face to face. Luther stated this often and with piercing clarity, as for example in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) when he discussed the pretenses of Roman Catholic “priests”:
If they were forced to grant that all of us that have been baptized are equally priests, as indeed we are …, they would then know that they have no right to rule over us except insofar as we freely concede it. For thus it is written in 1 Peter 2: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a priestly royalty.” Therefore we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians.
Americans like this idea. Is this not what life is all about—one man facing up to his responsibilities on his own two feet and not trying to hide in the crowd? Just as the ideal American stands alone in warfare, in industry, or even in the civil-rights movement and achieves dignity and worth through his own efforts, so the American Christian must face Almighty God alone and come to terms with Him on his own. Luther was the first to champion this idea in modern times, and we honor him for that. We are thankful that he developed the idea of “the priesthood of all believers,” an idea that has reached its fullest expression in our land.
And yet if we examine more of the Luther corpus, we discover some strangely dissonant ideas, ideas that make us wonder if Luther is really “one of us” or sees things “our way.” For the same Luther who said, “We are all priests,” also said, “Whoever seeks Christ must find the church,” and again, “I believe no one can be saved who is not part of this community [the church] and does not live in harmony with it in one faith, word, sacrament, hope, and love.” This is surely an incongruity—how could the same person proclaim that everyone must face God alone and yet that salvation is found in the Church?
We in America know what the church is. It is an organization we join after scouting out the various alternatives. Churches are evaluated on the basis of what they can offer us by way of inspiration, warm feelings, or entertainment. It is our custom to regard the churches not as centers of interpersonal relationships under the Word of God but as sanctified emporiums competing with weekend camper trips, Little League baseball, and television for the straitened free time of the people. They are places of cooperation where we must be quite careful not to step on anyone’s toes lest that person flee to the church down the block.
As a consequence we usually do not get very involved with one another as church members, choosing rather to focus our church friendships on non-controversial topics. The project-centered activities of “successful” churches, such as Vacation Bible School, missionary crusades, day camps, and fund drives, can usually be accomplished with a minimum of personal commitment to others. Indeed they sometimes even act as buffers to keep people from spending time and energy with one another. It is a constant wonder how little church members know of their fellow members even after years of attendance and participation. Since, as priests, we do not need anyone to mediate between ourselves and God, we will let the minister take care of the odd person or two who feels in need of a boost from spiritual counseling. Church has its place and so do our fellow believers; but since we are our own priests, these are not of utmost importance to us and must take a back seat to our individual dealings with God. With this attitude prevailing in America, our churches have tended to be weak while extra-ecclesiastical efforts such as evangelistic crusades or civil-rights involvement, which draw us into non-reflective action instead of personal interaction, have been prominent.
If this caricature of the American church is not a drastic distortion of the actual religious thinking of many modern Christians, it would be particularly instructive to listen to Martin Luther as he discusses what it means to be a priest before God and what it means to be a Church in which all the members are priests before God. For what Martin Luther meant by the priesthood of believers was a far fuller concept than ours and his esteem for the Church as the corporate body of believing priests was much higher than our own. In fact, he argued with great urgency that the Church is of supreme importance precisely because it is filled with priests. Before looking at the connection Luther saw between the priesthood of believers and the Church, it would be well to examine in a little more detail his concept of believer’s priesthood.
The Priesthood Of Believers
Luther used two basic arguments to undergird his idea of the priesthood of all believers. First, he was convinced by a simple syllogism that in Christ all believers share equally in the priesthood. Christ is a priest; in Christ we become like him; therefore, we too are priests. Or in his own words: “Since [Christ] is a priest and we are his brethren, all Christians have the power and must fulfill the commandment to preach and to come before God with our intercessions for one another and to sacrifice ourselves to God” (Epistle S. Petri qepredigt …).
In the second place, Luther saw that Scripture itself tells the Christian he is an eternal priest superior even to the old Levitic order: “The scriptures of God … assert, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’ ” (Concerning the Ministry). But in this second instance the Christian has more than the bare word of Scripture, said Luther: he has that word quickened in his hearing until it becomes the voice of his Shepherd, the very Word of God himself (That a Christian Assembly …). It is this living Word in a believer that creates a priest of God, that equips the Christian for a life of service to God. This Word involves the power of the Holy Spirit, which converts men and sets them on the path of sanctification. Luther described Christians as ones “inwardly taught by God” and as having “God’s word … on [their] side.” And this, to Luther, was the simple fact that made the humblest Christian peasant the equal of the mightiest Christian lord. Luther could boldly state: “Therefore, when we grant the Word to anyone, we cannot deny anything to him pertaining to the exercise of his priesthood” (Concerning the Ministry).
It was on this basis, then, that Luther denounced the hierarchy of spiritual being on which the Roman Catholic Church rested. No one had the right to claim an exalted spiritual status or to denigrate another as somehow less Christian: “For since we have proved all of these things to be the common property of all Christians, no one individual can arise by his own authority and arrogate to himself alone what belongs to all” (Concerning the Ministry). This type of thinking explains why Luther could admonish the Augsburg Diet in 1530 to recognize the Roman Catholic Church as a false church because it advocated unbiblical papal prerogatives and granted extraordinary privileges to its priests. And it explained to Luther why the Roman Catholic establishment raged against him so—his proclamation of the clear Word of God concerning the equal status of all Christians cut their feet of clay right out from under them.
But if this was the status of individual believers, what place could the church have? How could the Church be important if believers were their own priests and could approach God on their own? Luther’s reply to this question was simply that the Church is important because it is made up exclusively of priests. The modern Protestant concept of believer’s priesthood is, in fact, far from the concept Luther proposed. He did not see the priesthood of believers as a warrant for individualistic posturing before God and closed-hearted isolation from other members of the Church. On the contrary, a priest for Luther was one who, although he had the privilege of standing before God, also had definite rights and duties among men because of his special status as God’s priest.
A simple dictionary definition of the word “priest” clues us in to this insight. For a priest is someone who performs religious duties for other people. To be a priest certainly means that one can come face to face before God; yes, indeed! But the reverse side of priesthood is that one has a responsibility and privilege of working among others as God’s representative. This seems like an obvious matter, but it has eluded most American Christians, who have traditionally prided themselves on their independence and self-reliance in church as well as in the world.
Only when we understand this concept of the priesthood of all believers does Luther’s fastidiousness in giving names to the Church make sense. For Luther was concerned that the Church’s true nature as a body of priests not be obscured by formal terms that stressed structure and hid the essential aspect of priestly intercommunion. Luther much preferred the phrase “a holy Christian people” (sancta catholica Christiana) to the bare word “church” (ecclesia). Ecclesia, he thought, is often taken to mean the church building, a most unfortunate usage; it is occasionally used to refer to the Christians in any one particular area or era, and this is somewhat better; but in reality the Church is the communion of all holy Christian people from all time, a reality that the word “church” obscures. Luther felt that the abuses of the papal hierarchy might have been reduced if ecclesia had been understood as “a holy Christian people,” the true meaning of the body of Christ. In German, Luther favored words for the church such as Haufe (group) or Versammlung (assembly) rather than such words as Gemeinschaft (association). In this he was faithful to the New Testament usage of ecclesia, for there ecclesia always means God’s “called-out ones” all over the world or those gathered in a specific place.
Through whatever words he could find, Luther was determined to eliminate static, parochial, or institutional connotations of the word “church” and to refocus attention on the gathering of individual Christians under the Word of God. The communio sanctorum (communion of saints), which Luther saw as the key definition of the Church, had to mean both the gathering of holy people and the communion among them if the Church was ever to reflect its actual importance as that entity in which Christian priests are active. For it was in the communion of believers that priesthood played such an important role. If we in our day are to regain a sound view of the importance of the Church, we too will have to see it as a place in which Christian priests are active toward one another and active corporately in the world.
Christian Priests In The Church
On several occasions Luther outlined just what the duties and responsibilities of Christian priests were. In Concerning the Ministry, a letter to the Bohemian Christians written in 1523, he described in some detail the rights and privileges that a Christian priest bore as he represented God to other Christians and the world. These rights and privileges had in the popular mind of his day been restricted to a tight coterie of the spiritual elite. In our day these matters have been equally neglected because of our preoccupation with the fact that we stand as priests directly before God. The Bohemians, remnants of the Hussite movement, were concerned with problems involved in obtaining an ordained ministry. Luther not only defended their right to select or approve their own ministers but also said that as Christians their rights and duties extended into many other areas of service for the brotherhood: the ministry of the Word, the right to baptize, to administer the Lord’s Supper, to exercise the office of the keys, to sacrifice their bodies to Christ (as per Romans 12:1), to pray for one another, and to judge doctrinal teaching. In sum, the papists had illicitly tried to tear from the Bohemians the presence of the Holy Spirit that inhered in every Christian and that bestowed the above rights on all believers. And these were primarily rights to be exercised with, for, or to other Christians and the world. These rights and duties contrast sharply with the casual relationships common among modern church members.
In an earlier tract of that same year, That a Christian Assembly or Congregation has the Right and Power to judge all Teaching …, Luther had defended even more explicitly the right of every Christian to take an active role in proclaiming the teaching of the Church. Offensive teaching was not to be an occasion to leave the Church, as it would be construed in the American situation, but a call to work with the other members to correct the error. He cited many Scripture passages (e.g., Matt. 7:15; John 6:45) to buttress this defense of “private judgment,” always, we must remember, harking back to the biblical Word-in-the believer as that which equips him and gives him the responsibility to judge teaching. And Luther concluded with a very strong statement: “Here again it is certain that a Christian not only has the right and power to teach God’s word but has the duty to do so on pain of losing his soul and of God’s disfavor.” Therefore, to be a priest meant that each believer had to be a preacher of the Gospel for the benefit of his fellow believers and also non-Christians.
But for Luther the responsibilities of Christian priests went much further than preaching the Gospel or exercising a sustained concern about the content of teaching. The priesthood of all Christians meant that a believer may be the agency through which his brother can be assured of the forgiveness of his sins. Luther wrote in 1522:
This means that I may go to my good friend and say to him, “Dear friend, this is the trouble and the difficulty which I am having with sin,” and he should be free to say to me, “Your sins are forgiven, go in the peace of God.” You should absolutely believe that your sins are forgiven as though Christ himself were your father confessor—as long as your friend does this in the name of God [Acht Sermones].
Believer’s priesthood meant also that a Christian’s goods and his spiritual exercises were forfeit to the needs of the Church. In 1520 Luther wrote in an exposition of the Ten Commandments:
I believe that in this community of Christendom all things are common, the goods of one belong to the other, and that no one possesses anything that is his own. As a result all prayers and all good works of the entire community help me and every believer; they all stand by and strengthen each other in every time of life and of death so that each one bears the other’s burdens, as St. Paul teaches [Eine kurze Form der 10 Gebote].
And Luther could even write that in an almost eucharistic sense believers partake of one another as all partake and are partaken by Christ:
And just as one member serves another in such an integrated body, so each one eats and drinks the other; that is, each consumes the other in every drink, and each one is food and drink for the other, so that we are simply food and drink to one another, just as Christ is simply food and drink to us [Vom Anbeten des Sakraments].
The Priesthood Of Believers And The Church
That, says Luther, is what the priesthood of believers means. These are some of the things entailed among the responsibilities of those who have been granted the exalted privilege of communing directly with God through the sole mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that is why the Church was so important for Luther, because he saw it as the place where the priesthood of the individual could find its natural expression and could benefit from the ministration of other priestly believers. Paul Althaus sums this up nicely in his Theology of Martin Luther: “The universal priesthood expresses not religious individualism but its exact opposite, the reality of the congregation as a community” (Fortress, 1966, p. 314). And because it is where Christian priests are active, the community (i.e., the Church) takes on immense significance. The concept of priesthood advocated by go-it-alone Protestantism is a momentous distortion of Luther’s teaching because it fails to realize the immense importance of the Church for Christian priests.
Luther was not playing games when he laid such great significance on the Church. In his eyes the role of the Church was so great that a proper understanding of its function was a true requirement for Christian life. All Christians were priests, and all priests needed to function. By this very functioning the Gospel became alive and changed men for God. As Althaus once again summarizes well: “This seems to be the greatest thing about the community for Luther: God’s word, the gospel, is always near and present to me so that I am everywhere surrounded by its sound and do not need to ask for it. It is close to me in every brother, for he may, in God’s name, speak it to me in my trouble” (p. 318).
It was this concept of priesthood, therefore, involving both rights before God and definite, spiritual responsibilities to others in the Church and in the world, which led Luther to say, “Whoever seeks Christ must find the church” and “I believe no one can be saved who is not part of this community and does not live in harmony with it.” The care and concern shown by a true priest for his Christian brother or for a prospective Christian did not create a barrier between God and man as the Roman Catholic priesthood had. True Christian priesthood was rather a conduit through which the love of God in Christ Jesus could be channeled to another person with great immediacy.
Furthermore, it was as Christian priests took their responsibilities to one another seriously that the Church became the place where the Holy Spirit works faith and sanctification in the life of the believer. Because the Holy Spirit was active in Christian people, not only or even primarily for their own benefit, others in the Church would be strengthened in the faith. That is, as God’s priests ministered to one another, the Holy Spirit was active in building up the Church through the interlocking and mutually supporting activity of its members.
These ideas signaled a revolution in the concept of the Church. In place of a hierarchical and stratified ecclesiastical structure, Luther proposed a model based on the equality of all members under their head, Christ. He replaced the rule of the oligarchical few, not, as we in America are inclined to believe, with the rule of the democratic many, but with the rule of the eternal Son of God who was active in all true members. And as Jesus in his life on the earth lived and died for others, so must his children, those in whom he lives, spend their lives in service for others on an individual basis: first to their brothers in Christ and then to the world. The salvation Christ has accomplished for his children is the keystone of the Church, for this salvation enables all Christians to act as finite images of Christ in ministry to others.
The Book of Revelation contains a stirring résumé of all that Luther was trying to say about the relation of the priesthood and the Church. In Revelation 5:9, 10 it is recorded:
And they sang a new song, saying: “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
The church, which when it is purified and gathered will be the triumphant Kingdom of God, consists of priests. Through the blood of the Lamb they have been ransomed for God. They now have the immeasurable privilege of coming before him face to face clothed in the blood of their Saviour; they have the equally immeasurable privilege of representing their Lord to fellow believers and the world. And this service will reach its fulfillment when all the priests of God serve as the rulers of the earth.
The foundation of the Church and the source of salvation for individuals are identical: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and his triumphant resurrection, which led even captivity captive. Martin Luther saw that the Church and the salvation of individuals were bound by this, their common origin. When we realize what it means to be a priest of God as Luther realized it, to have not only the right to stand before God but also the responsibility to act as his presence to others, we will come to value the Church as Luther did. For the Church is the place that God has ordained for his priests to be active in personal service to one another and to the world. The Church is simply God’s living temple in which the priests of God are active in ministry to one another and to those whom God has ordained to bring into that communion.
For this high view of our calling as priests in Christ Jesus, it would not be asking too much to relinquish our proud and self-serving concept of priesthood as a selfishly guarded “right” pertaining only to our status before God. To be a priest is to be a servant; it is to act as Christ did in ministering the Gospel to others. And the Church must be the primary place for this service. With great clarity Martin Luther stated the bedrock truth of Christianity that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. With equal clarity he understood, and calls us today to understand, that the gift of faith also brings responsibility to believers. Chief among them is the necessity to exercise priestly functions in the church and thereby to restore the Church, the bride of Christ, to its rightful place of honor in the kingdom of God.
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