The Priesthood of All Believers

by Catrin Harland

Last week, Roger Walton suggested that the very Methodist idea of social holiness, while perhaps originally concerned with the internal life of Methodist community, typically also finds meaningful expression within the sphere of social justice.

Another phrase with strong resonance for Methodists is ‘the Priesthood of all believers’. Being a ‘priesthood’ is rightly seen as emphasising a sense of community, but without losing that dimension, I want to suggest that this idea has often been too inward-focused, concerned to too great a degree with internal relationships, including between lay and ordained. Understood in the context of its biblical roots, I would suggest, it is a concept which has more missional potential, and should turn us outwards.

Luther, in speaking of the church as a priesthood[1], drew on 1 Peter 2:5 and 9. These, in turn, seem to derive in part from Exodus 19:6, where Israel’s relationship with her God is powerfully proclaimed. The writer of 1 Peter adopts this language to give an identity as God’s people to those living as ‘exiles’ and ‘strangers’ – a ‘diaspora’. They are a people, not because they are gathered in one place, but because they share one identity in Christ.

And they are a priesthood. This is inextricably linked with holiness. Holiness in Scripture comes by being chosen by God, close to God, dedicated to God’s purposes. The Temple and its priesthood are holy. The land and people of Israel are holy. The people who belong to Christ are holy. This is a result not of their actions, but of God’s choice. This is the grace of God, a message close to the warmed heart of Methodism.

So what are we to make of the idea that the people of Christ are a holy priesthood?

Firstly, I would suggest that it is linked to the idea of exile identity. It is striking that, in first century Judaism, not much appears to have been made of this Exodus verse. The one exception to this is Philo, a diaspora Jew from Alexandria. He quotes the Greek translation of Exodus – not the ‘Kingdom of Priests’ of the Hebrew, but a ‘royal Priesthood (hierateuma)’. This word is unusual, and found mainly in Alexandrian Jewish literature. So maybe the idea of priestly identity had some particular currency among the diaspora community there? For a Jew in Jerusalem, holiness would be embodied in particular by the priests. But in the diaspora, with very few priests around, the Jewish community would have felt particularly holy – even, perhaps, priestly – relative to their ‘unholy’ host city. If so, it may be that the Christian communities to whom 1 Peter is written, are being offered this relative holiness. They are the few who know themselves chosen and made holy by the grace of God.

Secondly, priests entered the holiest parts of the Temple not on their own behalf, but on behalf of the people. So perhaps the ‘priestly’ diaspora was holy not merely relative to, but on behalf of, Alexandria? As a Christian community, we are a holy priesthood, knowing ourselves close to God, not so we can feel superior to those around us, but so we can offer prayer for a world that often feels lacking in holiness and desperately in need of it. And that holiness that comes through grace makes us very aware of how far we and the whole world fall short of the holy way of life to which we are called, and can both lament and offer confession for the world.

Which leads us to the third implication of our priestliness. Paradoxically, holiness is a gift of grace, but also a way of life. We do not make ourselves holy, but we are called to ‘be holy, as the Lord is holy’[2]. 1 Peter makes it clear that the followers of Christ are to live and behave in a particular way, not just for the sake of their own souls, but also so others ‘may see your honourable deeds and glorify God’[3]. As priests, we proclaim and imitate Christ’s self-giving love, telling and living a story which is transformative and holy.

The priesthood of all believers is a chosen community, with a special place in God’s heart, but it is also a community looking outward. It is a missional community, a community committed wholeheartedly to the messy world in which we live. It is an open community; entry into it is not earned, but offered freely. And it is a holy community. Holiness is a gift of God, and a way of life. The priesthood of all believers is a community blessed with, and called to, that holiness.

[1] An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, Luther, W.A., 6.407; It is this text which is often seen as the origin of the doctrine we now call ‘The Priesthood of All Believers’.

[2] 1 Peter 1: 15-16; cf. Leviticus 11: 44-45; 19:2

[3] 1 Peter 2:12

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9 thoughts on “The Priesthood of All Believers”

  1. I’m glad to see your post, Catrin, because it seems to me that Methodists have a tendency to shy away from priestly language. As you say, much attention is expended on dealing with it in the context of lay/ordained relationships, and the root of that is a rather negative engagement in the Deed of Union with it’s reasoning that presbyters should not be thought of as priests per se. Even more, that negative engagement comes out in an evangelical conviction that each person can come to Christ in their own right without any need for a priest as intermediary.
    You offer an articulation of how we can engage with that language in a more positive way. But there remain ambivalences, or tensions. That comes out in what you say about priesthood being a concern within the church, but wanting to turn it outward. So it is an idea which is about separateness and difference on the one hand, and representation and connection on the other. How does the church, as the body of Christ who is the great high priest, relate to the world? And how do we resolve the tensions about being separate and different, and yet being connected and in empathy? It doesn’t surprise me that many contemporary Methodists would want to soft-pedal the separation and difference (and holiness?), in order to emphasise the connection and empathy.

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    1. You’re so right, and it’s obviously impossible to do justice to those tension within a short blog post. And to some extent, they can’t really be resolved, arising from quite different understandings of priestliness, but just have to be held in tension. Clearly, the original Exodus verse is about the distinctiveness of Israel, but then that has to be held alongside other Hebrew Bible visions of Israel as (eg) a ‘light to the gentiles’. So with 1 Peter, which tries to encourage the church to endure persecution (and yes, I know there’s an entire thesis to be written about that!) by pointing out how distinctive and special they are, called to follow in the footsteps of Christ, and then encourages them to engage with the everyday business of human life, as Christ did.
      And therein lies the root of the paradox perhaps – that our High Priest was both separate and engaged – holy and outward focused. And then we get to the nature of the God who is Trinity…

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      1. Very thought provoking, Catrin. Thank you. This outward looking, missional, priesthood is consistent with the sentiments of 1 Peter 2.9-12, which sees our shared priesthood as on behalf of and for the world. I am wondering whether we might extent the notion of priestly calling ‘as on behalf of’ to the wider creation. Is our call to the stewardship, care and liberation of creation, which involves a praying ministry enabled by the Spirit (Romans 8.19 onwards), also an expression of the priesthood of all believers?

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  2. I’d value thoughts on whether the ‘priesthood of all believers’ means that collectively the church exercises priesthood. To me this means, not that we are all priests individually, but that together we fulfil the priestly role with our different gifts all contributing.

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    1. I would completely agree that it’s the latter. Though that may perhaps feel different if you use the language of Exodus (and Revelation), who speak of a ‘Kingdom of priests’ rather than the more collective ‘priesthood’.

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  3. The wisdom those who us who have known Catrin’s ministry! The mention of ‘prayer’ is useful to me – and I expect others – looking ahead to preaching on the 24th. What Catrin says throws light on the content of the Lord’s Prayer.

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  4. I’m very grateful for this, Caitlin, and it is a helpful resource for the work we are doing in the Faith and Order working party on ministry in the Methodist Church. Like Andrew I’ve found Methodism unnecessarily shy of priestly language, and this emphasis on the communal aspect of a priestly vocation is very welcome. I’ve also been helped by reading Graham Tomlin’s recent book, Widening Circle, which links the theme of priesthood with creation and covenant community.

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    1. One issue perhaps within Methodism at present is that the only ordained routes are Presbyter and Deacon. As a local preacher there is little opportunity to build really close relationships with congregations that would enable a new level of engagement in encouraging discipleship. You turn up at a church, you lead worship, you go and may not see them for some months, or even longer. Congregations see their minister once or perhaps twice a month and there is little opportunity for continuity. Is that a potential weakness in our current set-up? Within myself, there is a missional flame burning – a desire to help people find that relationship with God through Christ and to develop it.

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