They could have billed it as the “Fall of the Alamo, Part 2,” only this time it was an idea that was about to be massacred.

On June 15, 1988, during the one-hundred-thirty-first Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio, a group of Southern Baptist dissidents stalked out and marched over to the ruined shell of the Alamo. There they ceremonially put a match to a resolution that had just passed, a resolution declaring that “misunderstanding and abuse” of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers had undermined the authority of pastors over their congregations. The protesters wanted to let everyone watching know what they thought of the resolution (and of what event its passing reminded them).

Now, fireworks are common enough among Southern Baptists. What was curious about this controversy was the topic of the resolution being put to the torch. It had to do not with biblical inerrancy, nor women elders and pastors, nor homosexuality. It was about the priesthood of all believers.

The priesthood of all believers? It always seemed to be a given of life itself that Baptists were the chief guardians of “the priesthood of all believers” (and the cluster of ideas about “soul competency” and “the right of private judgment” that seem to go along with it). But the truth is that, while Baptists (and almost all evangelicals) have seen the priesthood of all believers as a key principle of Protestant Christianity, the fiery debate in San Antonio showed that it is one principle that is far from being well understood. No slogan of the Reformation has remained so much a mere slogan. No Protestant teaching has so often embarrassed Protestant teachers, or so often been seen as a threat to their office. This is a matter for regret, for the ...

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