The priesthood of all believers was a key principle advanced during the Reformation. However, by the time of the Pietistic renewal movements, a new clericalism had emerged especially in state churches. Pietism elevated the laity to a new position in the church. The early Pietists still held onto an ordained clergy, but they were no longer an elite class. Non-ordained Christians were to study the Bible, pray and engage in devotional practices even without clergy present.
This does not seem that revolutionary to us now, but 300 years ago, these were fighting words. In some parts of Europe laws were passed that forbade lay people to gather and read the Scriptures together. All Christians could have a direct encounter with Scripture. There was no need for clergy to serve as the guide or the intermediary.
Today, we say, yes! we too affirm the priesthood of all believers. And yet look at our churches: celebrity pastors who are followed too often without critique. The elevation of the pastor as uber-teacher who alone understands the nuances of the original languages. Pastors are still elevated to a special class. In my opinion this is the greatest impediment to the advance of the church. The professionalized clergy has had a disastrous affect on missional engagement.
David Bosch writes: “the movement away from ministry as the monopoly of ordained men (sic) to ministry as the responsibility of the whole people of God, ordained as well as non-ordained, is one of the most dramatic shifts taking place in the church.” This does not mean the elimination of pastoral leaders, nor the elimination of ordination. This remains an important role in the church.
But the professionalized mood and stance of the modern pastor needs to change. Moving away from a hierarchical, clergy dominated church will empower the people of God in new missional movements. The de-professionalilzation of the clergy allows a new understanding of the missional people of God to emerge. There must be no clergy-laity divide where the clergy become the privileged class. Volf writes: “On the basis of a common baptism, all have become priests, and all realize their priesthood in their own way on the basis of their respective charismata. Hence, all members of the church, both officeholders and “laypersons” are fundamentally equal.”
This is how the Evangelical Covenant Church expresses this: We affirm the Church as a fellowship of believers. Membership in the Covenant Church is by confession of personal faith in Jesus Christ and is open to all believers. We observe baptism and Holy Communion as sacraments commanded by Jesus. We practice both infant and believer baptism. We believe in the priesthood of all believers—that is, we all share in the ministry of the church. We also affirm that God calls some men and women into professional, full-time ministry. The church is not an institution, organization, or building. It is a grace-filled fellowship of believers who participate in the life and mission of Jesus Christ. It is a family of equals: as the New Testament teaches that within Christian community there is to be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)
The affirmation of the priesthood of all believers must be seriously engaged in our churches. The continued presence of the clergy-laity divide must be acknowledged and dismantled. We must pay serious attention to the structures of the church that we simply take for granted. A new understanding of church leadership (based on Ephesians 4) must emerge.