Are Members of Christ’s Body Part of a “Priesthood?”
It is a widely held belief and teaching among Protestants that all believers in Christ are part of a priesthood. This teaching began with the proclamation of it in Luther’s famous treatise, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, published in 1520:
“How then if they are forced to admit that we are all equally priests, as many of us as are baptized, and by this way we truly are; while to them is committed only the Ministry (ministerium Predigtamt) and consented to by us (nostro consensu)? If they recognize this they would know that they have no right to exercise power over us (ius imperii, in what has not been committed to them) except insofar as we may have granted it to them, for thus it says in 1 Peter 2, ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom.’ In this way we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. There are indeed priests whom we call ministers. They are chosen from among us, and who do everything in our name. That is a priesthood which is nothing else than the Ministry. Thus 1 Corinthians 4:1: “No one should regard us as anything else than ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God.”1
Of course the “they” and “them” referred to in this quote is the Roman Catholic Church,2 which established that only those men appointed through an ordination process were to be referred to as “priests,” effectively erecting a wall (themselves) between God and ordinary believers.
No doubt, Luther’s intent was to bring this wall down, and there was everything right about this intention, but in doing this he (and those who followed in his footsteps, e.g., Calvin) created something just as wrong as the erroneous RC doctrine creating a separate, priestly class of believers; wrong because it attempts to apply a designation to the body of Christ that doesn’t belong to it.
If it doesn’t belong to the body of Christ, to whom does the priesthood designation belong? As his proof text, Luther quotes 1 Peter 2:9, one of seven places the word appears in the new testament3 The entire passage in 1 Peter 2 that deals with the subject is as follows:
1 Peter 2:5-12
5 Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
6 Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded.
7 Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner,
8 And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.
9 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:
10 Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
11 Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul;
12 Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.
Note in verse 12 , in italics, the designation, “the Gentiles”. I put an emphasis on this because I wanted the reader to see that Gentiles here are clearly distinguished as a separate group from this royal priesthood of believers Peter is addressing in verses 5 and 9. Also notice that these priests of God are also referred to as “an holy nation, a peculiar people”, and in this context it is them that have obtained mercy, not the Gentiles.
The “Royal Priesthood” is a fulfillment of OT Prophecy
Let’s connect some dots in the OT scriptures with those in the NT scriptures, that will clearly identify who these folks are, and dispel any notion that they were or could have been what is referred to as “the church, which is his (Christ’s) body.”4
In the book of Deuteronomy we first see the label, “a peculiar people”:
“…for thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.”
And in Exodus 19:6 we find the phrases “holy nation” and “kingdom of priests.”:
And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
Previous to this verse was the verse that gave the qualification for these “peculiar people” to become this “kingdom of priests”:
Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
“If ye will obey…and keep my covenant, then ye shall be……”
As those who have studied the old testament know, “they,” “the nation,” which turns out to be Jacob’s twelve sons, aka, the “twelve tribes of Israel,” did not hold up their end of this covenant made with them, which resulted in God giving the priesthood to the tribe of Levi, and then commanding the other eleven to support to them. Therefore, Exodus 19:6 was left unfulfilled.
Protestant theology teaches that Exodus 19:6 has been fulfilled in the Christian church, which is often referred to as one and the same as “spiritual Israel”. This is because the “holy nation” of Exodus 19 is Israel. Moreover, this is believed because it plainly says that Jesus came “not but for the lost sheep of the house of Israel”(Matthew 15:23), and according to Matt. 16:18, to establish his church on earth, to which Peter was given the keys (vs. 19).
Since reformed theology makes no distinction between Paul’s revelation and the rest of new testament scripture, it therefore concludes that where Peter refers to a “royal priesthood”, he must needs be referring to what Paul referred to as “the body of Christ.” In a nutshell, according to reformed theology, all the unfulfilled prophecy in the old testament about Israel, has been fulfilled in the Christian church.
But hold on. There’s a fly in this ointment. That fly is that Paul referred to his revelation as a “mystery…not made known unto the sons of men….kept secret since the world began…hid from ages and generations,”5 which has to mean that what he established was not revealed in the prophetic scriptures (the old testament). Moreover, he claimed in two places in the epistle to the Romans,6 that his mission was to Gentiles, not Israel.
Furthermore, in the four gospels, and what is referred to as “the Hebrew Epistles” (which would include Peter’s letters), something called “the body of Christ” is never once mentioned. The reason for this is very simple: all of this part of the new testament scriptures is a part of prophecy, and the body of Christ is a part of Paul’s mystery, and prophecy and mystery are mutually exclusive.
Finally, the words “priest,” “priests,” and “priesthood” are never used by Paul in his epistles as an alternate description for the body of Christ.
The nation of priests referred to in Exodus 19:6 is, indeed, Israel under the new covenant, and will be fulfilled in the group of people Peter refers to as a “royal priesthood”, and to whom John refers to in the Revelation as “kings and priests.”7
Notice, I said will be fulfilled, which means it is something that is yet in the future. What has been going on since the writing of these scriptures—for almost 2000 years now—is not the new testament, but, rather, Paul’s mystery, which he identified as “the dispensation of the grace of God.”8 Within this dispensation, Paul reveals that everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, is being placed into a spiritual entity called the body of Christ by believing “the gospel of Christ.”9 In contrast, Gentile believers under the new covenant are in a subordinate, subservient position to Israel, but in the grace dispensation they are in the position of being “fellowheirs.”10 Things that differ, are never the same.
While ministerial offices were created by the Apostle Paul for the purpose of edifying the body of Christ1 those who occupy these offices are never referred to as “priests,” nor is any other member of the body referred to as such. It is therefore incumbent upon believers in Christ today to adhere to the “form of sound words,”11 by attending to the things our apostle, Paul, said.12 In doing this we will be enabled to come to a full understanding of who we are (and who we are not), and what God would have us to be doing and saying, that we may be accounted “workman that needeth not to be ashamed.”13 Amen.
All Scripture references are taken from the King James Bible. Please feel free to distribute this article as you see fit.
|2||The Roman Catholic Church, according to RC doctrine, is the priesthood, and does not include the laity. For two more expansive studies on how the RCC derives its authority from scripture, see the article (on this website), “Apostolic Succession”, and the section on the RCC in my book, 85 Pages In The Bible.|
|3||One more time, in 1 Peter 2:5, and five times in Hebrews. The word “priests” appears six times in Hebrews and three times in the Revelation; “priest”, 70 times in various places throughout the NT.|
|5||Eph. 3:5; Romans 16:25; Col. 1:26|
|6||Romans 11:13; 15:16|
|7||Rev. 1:6; 5:10|
|9||“How that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures…for our justification…believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved..” 1 Cor. 14:3,4; Rom. 4:25; Acts 16:31|
|11||2 Tim. 1:1|
|12||2 Tim. 2:7|
|13||2 Tim. 2:15|
Ephesians 4:11,12 ↩