Baptists: The Priesthood of The Believer
or of Believers?
“Each believer is a priest, both before God for oneself and by caring for fellow believers and for persons in the world for whom Christ died.”
From We Baptists, James Leo Garrett Jr. (editor-in-chief)
To say that a Baptist is a priest sounds strange to some persons. But we are. Every one of us. In fact, Baptists insist that all who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior are priests, believer priests. The concept of the priesthood of believers is basic for Baptists. As with some other beliefs important to Baptists, we have varying interpretations of what the concept means, but we all treasure the biblical truth of the priesthood of believers.
What Does it Mean to Be a Priest?
Being a priest involves both opportunity and responsibility. In the Old Testament, a priest held a special place in the worship of God. Priests were responsible for certain aspects of worship, such as the sacrifice of animals. They served as mediators between the people and God.
The High Priest, the head priest, was the only one, however, allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple. This especially sacred place was separated from the rest of the temple and from the other priests and worshippers by a great curtain or veil.
With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, all of this changed. No longer was the sacrifice of animals appropriate, because Christ, the Lamb of God, had given himself as a sacrifice for sin. This was a once-and-for-all act.
At the crucifixion of Jesus, the great veil in the temple “was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51 NIV), indicating that Jesus, the great High Priest, now mediated between God and humankind. No longer were priests of the Old Testament variety needed. Indeed, all who believe in Jesus become priests with direct access to God. Human mediators are no longer needed. We can go directly to God in prayer, confession, praise and worship. What an opportunity!
But being a priest also carries responsibility. In the Old Testament, a priest in a sense represented God to the people. Today, the believer priest has responsibility to share his or her knowledge of God with other persons, both in word and in deed.
The believer priest has responsibility to bear witness to God’s love as shown in Jesus Christ and to demonstrate God’s love by ministering to persons in his name. This responsibility is carried out in various ways by Baptists, such as in evangelism, missions, ministry and social action to benefit others.
Where Did the Concept of the Priesthood of Believers Come From?
Martin Luther, a leader in the Protestant Reformation, is often linked with the concept of the priesthood of believers. Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church’s emphasis on the special role played by the Roman Catholic priests.
Luther insisted that every believer was a priest, with direct access to God. He did not call for the elimination of the role of pastors but indicated that all persons, not just pastors, had a priestly function. Even before Luther burst on the European church scene, various Christian groups had stressed the priesthood of believers.
However, the concept of the priesthood of believers for Baptists does not come from the teachings of Luther or any Christian group but from the New Testament. On the basis of various New Testament passages, Baptists have insisted that every person who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ has access directly to God. Each is directly responsible to God. Each is to share the love of God.
The Priesthood of The Believer
The priesthood of each believer in Baptist thought is tied closely to another concept, that of soul competency. Each person has a God-given competence to know and follow God’s will. A decision to follow Christ as Lord and Savior is an individual decision; no one can make it for another. Being a believer priest is a gift from God, not a human achievement; it comes with salvation.
Each believer priest is responsible for his or her own actions. Individual believers can go directly to God without the aid of any intermediary. Individuals can and should read and interpret the Bible for themselves without religious officials dictating to them what to believe.
Believer priests are all equal to one another in Christ (Galatians 3:26-28). There is only one High Priest, that is Jesus Christ (Hebrews 7:23-8:13).
Each believer priest has a responsibility to be committed to Christ and to share Christ through word and deed. As Peter stated it: to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9 NIV).
Therefore, a church does not have only one priest. Potentially it has many who communicate the love and forgiveness of God and demonstrate concern and compassion of one believer for another.
The Priesthood of Believers
The New Testament also speaks of the priesthood of believers. Believer priests are part of the body of Christ. They form a community of believers. Although each believer priest is individually responsible to God, all believer priests are related to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
This communal aspect of believer priesthood highlights the fact that being a Christian involves fellowship with other believers. This fellowship functions to encourage and assist the believer in Christian growth and ministry. How sad and difficult it would be to live the Christian life in isolation from other believers.
The fellowship of believer priests also aids in interpreting the Bible and understanding God’s will. Although each believer priest can and ought to read and interpret the Bible for herself or himself, the competent and wise believer will seek insight and understanding from other believer priests. By searching the teachings of believer priests in the past and by seeking out the wisdom of those in the present, persons are aided in their understanding of the Bible and of God’s will.
The Baptist model of a church rests on the concept of the priesthood of believers. A church is made up of persons who have exercised their God-given competency by believing in Jesus as Savior and Lord and by voluntarily associating with a particular fellowship of believers.
Each believer priest in the fellowship is equal to all of the others. Therefore, no one is in authority over all. Thus decisions are made by the community of priests seeking to know the will of the head of the church, the great High Priest, Jesus Christ. They do this by prayer, Bible study, meditation, discussion and decision.
So, which is it? Priesthood of the believer or priesthood of believers? It is not either/or but both/and.
The term “the priesthood of the believer” communicates the biblical emphasis on the individual and soul competency. The term “priesthood of believers” communicates the biblical emphasis on community and fellowship.
Throughout history in all aspects of life, a tension has existed between the individual and the group. Baptists have not escaped this tension. We do well when we refuse to elevate one above the other, but instead attempt to keep them in balance.