The Priesthood of All Believers The understanding of the concept of the Priesthood of All Believers and its impact on evangelism during the sixteenth century Reformation
It has often been said that the leaders of the sixteenth century Reformation were so preoccupied with theology that evangelism was overlooked and missions stifled, except for the Anabaptists. This essay seeks to determine how Luther, Calvin and the Anabaptists understood and applied the doctrine of “Priesthood of all Believers” and how that affected their evangelistic strategies.
The Greek word euangelizesthai means “announce the good news.” Evangelism in the New Testament meant sharing or announcing the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. (Acts 4:10-12, Romans 10:9). The methods by which the good news was pronounced varied as widely as the context within which the gospel was preached, from preaching in the synagogues, debate in secular forums (Acts 17), training of associates (1 & 2 Timothy & Titus), one to one evangelism (Acts 16), and persecution resulting in scattering, which in turn aided the spread of the Gospel (1 Thess. 1:8). Similarly, evangelism by the leaders of the Reformation reflected a diversity of methods also. However in seeking to understand the different approaches taken by the early reformers two important questions are: how did they understand and interpret the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and how did that affect their evangelism strategy? Biblical evidence for the doctrine is clear. Israel was represented as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). In the New Testament all believers are regarded as a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) and “a kingdom and priests to serve his God.” (Revelation 1:6) The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers enjoins the task of evangelism, as established in 1 Peter 2:9. As priests, Christians are to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God in worship “declaring the praises of Him who brought us out of darkness into light.” Thus, Christians bear witness of the grace of God to the world.
However, while the priesthood of all believers was acknowledged by the reformers, they applied it in various ways. Interpretation and application of the doctrine was used intentionally or otherwise for evangelistic purposes as follows:
The priesthood of all believers as access to God
Luther fought for biblical truth in an age when error had so undermined the church that indulgences were sold by priests to the laity in order to obtain forgiveness of sins. The 27th of Luther’s 95 theses states, “they preach man, who say that the soul flies out of purgatory as soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles.” Forgiveness could be obtained through “letters of indulgence” supplied by representatives of an institutional hierarchy of priests in exchange for financial consideration. Such sacerdotalism became a barrier to ordinary Christians under the sixteenth century Roman Catholic regime, preventing immediate and direct access to God through Christ. Martin Luther fought to overturn such clerical abuse by emphasising justification by faith and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Luther taught that “as fellow priests with Christ we have access to God and may do all things which we see done and figured in the visible and corporeal office of priesthood. We are worthy to appear before God, to pray for others, and to teach one another.” (G Henderson, Scottish Journal of Theology, 1954:5) This understanding of the concept of the priesthood of all believers went hand in hand with Luther’s teaching on justification by faith.
Even so, while Luther acknowledged the practical application of the priesthood of all believers and taught individual responsibility, the doctrine was not dealt with at length. So Luther’s primary contribution to the doctrine consisted in the teaching that implied access to God through faith in Christ without the need for earthly mediators.
How did Luther’s emphasis on all believers having direct access to God through Christ contribute to the spread of the true Christian faith throughout Europe? What impact did it have on evangelism? Direct access to God without the need of human mediation meant the Word of God belonged in the hands of the laity and in their language. Luther spoke, preached and argued in the language of the day. Although he was a learned man, capable of winning debates with his peers, Luther’s language was simple. His 95 theses, plus many of his sermons and tracts, were written in the German vernacular and had a wide circulation. The sermon was of prime importance to Luther. He regarded it as the proclamation of God’s Word, and preached regularly and with great power. Luther also translated the New Testament and later the Old Testament into German. His translation was unequaled in dignity and felicity of expressions, and soon became popular amongst the laity.
Luther’s proclamation of justification by faith alone (a corollary of the priesthood of all believers) clearly refuted the doctrine that every sin had its temporal punishments which required payment either in this life or in purgatory. The doctrine of purgatory evoked fear in the hearts of adherents to the Roman Catholic Church, hence the fiscal success of the Roman Catholic Church in the selling of indulgences. Thankfully, within four years of posting his theses, the system of paying indulgences for the forgiveness of sins had collapsed. A sermon which addressed the matter was published and “penetrated places a thousand academic disputations would never have reached” (J. Atkinson, Luther, MMS 1968, page 54). While Luther neither planned for the Reformation of the church or the spread of Lutheranism, his deep conviction, empathy with the laity, clear teaching and powerful preaching addressed a deep spiritual need. This need was met by Luther’s understanding and teaching of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers – those having direct access to God through faith in Christ. Luther’s strategy had a positive impact on evangelism in that it helped thousands of people realise that they had access to the Father through faith in Christ, without the need of any earthly mediators.
The priesthood of all believers applied in a representative way
Like Martin Luther, John Calvin understood the description of all Christian believers as priests to involve their personal access to the Father through Jesus Christ. The implication for believers according to Calvin was that they are to live their lives as “living sacrifices” to God dedicating their personalities, talents and property in those areas of life in which they can best serve God. Calvin believed that the ministerial order was taught in the Word of God, and sought to safeguard and use that order in the promotion of the gospel. Thus we find that Calvin’s contribution to evangelism was chiefly through such ministerial representatives of the church.
Calvin taught that all Christians are permitted to share in a priestly status and service before God (J Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Westminster, 1960, 2-15- 6). However, they do so according to their gifts. “Each member is assigned a certain measure, a finite and limited function” (Institutes, 4-6-9). Thus Calvin regarded the role of pastor and minister in highest regard, and primarily responsible for the task of teaching. In Calvin’s day that included the function of evangelist, which he regarded as a special office that God raised up to restore pure doctrine to its lost position. According to George Henderson’s understanding of Calvin’s interpretation of Ephesians 4:11 “the minister was held to be representative of the people” according to gifting and function. (Scottish Journal of Theology, 1954: 12)
His regard for the office and concern for sound teaching prompted Calvin and his colleagues at Geneva to train and send pastors to establish Protestant churches throughout Europe and England. Between 1555 and 1563, over eighty men were sent by French congregations alone to study with Calvin and Beza. Once they were trained they were sent back to France as missionary pastors (R. Kingdon, Geneva and the Recording of the Wars of Religion in France: 1555-1563, Geneva, Librairie E Droz, 1956, p.3 9ff). Hundreds of young men from almost all the nations of Europe were matriculated in the first year of the Genevan Academy as regular scholars, and almost as many, mostly refugees from France and England, prepared themselves by the theological lectures of Calvin for the work of evangelists and teachers in their native land. They felt called to study the Scriptures in Geneva under Calvin. Some were already pastors in Reformed churches, and were sent to Geneva for further training. Others were well-educated middle-class men, often students of the law. There were men from France, Switzerland, Germany, England, Holland, Italy and Scotland. A table of missionaries sent to France from Geneva (Registres de fa Compagnie des Pasteurs de Geneve in the Genevan State Archives. Reprinted in Kingdon, 1956:54-55) lists 88 men sent to 64 churches in France alone. They were schooled in the usual linguistic and theological disciplines, including public speaking, and then examined before being sent out with a letter of accreditation to a selected church. Thus the gospel continued to spread through these Reformed churches, and by 1561 Protestant churches in France alone were said to number 2,150 (J.M. Gray, The French Huguenots, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1981, page 77). Many of those were established by trained missionary pastors from the Genevan Academy.
Calvin’s understanding of the priesthood of all believers involving corporate representation according to gifting, resulted in a most effective evangelistic strategy in the training and sending of pastors to plant Reformed Churches in many parts of Europe. However, its limitation was that beyond the minister, the only form of involvement in ministry by unordained laity was through elders and deacons. To overcome natural apathy and trepidation by the laity would, perhaps, have required a more pro-active recruitment of church workers.
The priesthood of all believers as a lay movement
Early leaders of the Anabaptist movement felt that the early Protestant church (1520s) was not sufficiently removed from the sacramentalism, institutionalism and clericalism of its predecessor. They emphasised the primacy of personal faith with respect to the sacraments (especially baptism), and repudiated ordination while stressing that conversion produced a priesthood of all believers beyond having access to God by faith. Moreover they opted for a simplified liturgy and Spirit-led worship. G.H. Williams in The Radical Reformation, Westminster Press, 1962, page 857-61, makes the point that the “Radicals” (as he designated the Anabaptists) had three main distinctives: Baptism, Spiritualism and Evangelical Rationalism. These respectively promoted believers’ baptism, a greater dependence of the leading of the Spirit rather than the “letter”, and a lay apostolate. This idea of a wider application of the priesthood of all believers spurred a liberated laity on to missions. According to Kenneth Latourette, the missionaries of the movement were numerous, recruited mainly from the lower classes, and traveled extensively throughout Europe (A History of Christianity, Harper&Row, 1975:781-782).
Their earliest efforts were spontaneous. Missionaries wandered as pilgrims, attempting to avoid their persecutors while establishing small churches, mostly in country villages.
Anabaptists systematically sent out missionaries from local churches in teams of three people, designated “apostles” for the purpose of church planting. These were not necessarily trained preachers. Committed lay folk were relied upon to do most of the mission work (G.H. Williams, 1962:860-861). Established churches would hold commissioning services for their new missionaries in order to commit other members to prayerfully support those sent onto the mission field.
Anabaptists were also generally committed to a high view of discipleship, insisting that their converts live exemplary lives. “No one can truly know Christ,” they said “unless he follows Him in life” (Balthasar Hubmaier, The Summa of the Entire Christian’s life, Pipkin & Yoder, 1989: 81). No doubt such personal piety strengthened them as witnesses for Christ. Hence, their missionaries had a reputation of being fearless evangelists who often persevered in the face of persecution. According to George Williams (1962:863), “they were overwhelming in their sense of earnestness, their lonely courage and their conviction ... to be a Christian is to be commissioned.”
The results of Anabaptist lay missionary efforts are impressive. A list compiled by Kasdorf reveals that the estimated total of converts led to Christ by 15 of the leading missionaries in the short space of three years exceeded thirty thousand converts. (1984:66). The cost of obedience to the Great Commission was also high. According to Kasdorf, “over 2,000 Anabaptist martyrs are known by name” (1984:67). Nevertheless the example set by these “Radical Reformers” has greatly influenced and encouraged the Protestant lay missionary movements of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The sixteenth century reformation of the Church released the laity from the oppression of Sacerdotalism and Sacramentalism. Believers now had access to God and were able to realise their responsibility before God to live as a holy priesthood, offering the sacrifices of lives devoted in service to Christ and humanity. Luther re-affirmed this biblical doctrine with enthusiasm and vigour. While he did not go much further in implementing it other than preach it, his preaching drew many to faith in a gracious God through Jesus Christ. The Anabaptists were eager to apply the priesthood of all believers as they believed it was meant to be applied according to Scripture. However, due to a lack of rigorous training among some of the lay missionaries, doctrines which diverged from those of the mainstream Reformation; and certain excesses such as the uprising at Munster, there arose a strong reaction against the Anabaptist lay movement by mainstream Protestants. As a later reformer, Calvin was representative of this reaction. He effectively minimised lay involvement in ministry to that of elders and deacons. The pastoral and preaching function rested in the ordained minister as the one who possessed the God-given gifts for that function, and who represented the whole congregation in that task. Hence Calvin’s strategy of training and sending pastors to plant Reformed churches. Negatively, the effect of subduing the laity resulted in complacency and a dearth of lay involvement in Protestant missions until the period of the “Great Awakening.” K.S.Latourette, recording that later period of history wrote, “the lay element became prominent. This was to be expected from the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers, but what had been held in theory now became more of a reality” (A History of Christianity, Harper & Row, 1975:1020). The Anabaptists were very effective in implementing the concept of the Priesthood of all Believers because of their “radical obedience” to the Great Commission, their stress on discipleship and the use of the laity. However, because of the oppressive ecclesiastical climate of late medieval Christendom, with its misunderstandings, excesses and inexperience, their lay missionary movement was suppressed to rise again another day. G.H. Williams has described the early Anabaptist movement as an ‘Abortive Counter Revolt within the Reformation’ (1962:862).
Nevertheless, the history of the church has, since the Reformation, shown that there will always be an important place for plain and faithful preaching of the Gospel which proclaims free access to God through Jesus Christ. There will always be a place for the rigorous training of pastors to lead and plant churches. There will always be a place for discipling the laity for evangelism and works of service. All three are faithful implementations of the Priesthood of all Believers, and all three can effectively contribute to the Church’s task of evangelism.