The Priesthood of the Church
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
– 1 Peter 2:9 (RSV)
As an Anglican priest, I am often reminded by my Baptist friends that members of the Church are part of the “universal priesthood of believers.” I have no serious qualms with this terminology but I also doubt that a biblical and catholic expression of the doctrine entirely negates distinction between clergy and laity. So while I can affirm the phrase “priesthood of all believers,” I doubt I can adequately affirm what it means in the context of Baptist ecclesiology. For the doctrine to be expressed properly, it needs to be heavily informed by Old Testament typology and a robust ecclesiology.
Old Testament Typology
1 Peter 2:9 draws from the Old Testament’s description of Israel, in particular Exodus 19:6. Israel was described as a nation of priests because they were called to be a people chosen by God to represent him to all the nations of the earth (see Ex 19:5). It could further be argued that this priestly task is reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s “working” or “keeping” (Hebrew: ‘abad) in the Garden of Eden according to Genesis 2:15, which is sacerdotal language (Lev 8:35; Num 3:6-8). Israel’s corporate priesthood was a reminder that they were to transform the common into the sacred by carrying God’s presence into the world. This theme culminates in the inclusive eschatological hope that “many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob” (Isa 2:2; cf. 56:7). Israel’s priestly responsibility was reflective of God’s desire for universal salvation that transcends ethnic boundaries (Gal 3:28).
Yet Israel’s corporate role as a priestly nation did not negate the fact that there was another kind of priesthood within Israel. The role of the Aaronic priesthood was focused on maintaining the sacrificial system (see Lev 8-10). In fact, Israel’s corporate priesthood was made possible only because of the Aaronic priesthood. It was through the office of the priest that the proper rituals were performed, allowing Israel to be holy and therefore representative of God to the world.
However, the trajectory of the Old Testament is rather disheartening because Israel failed at their divinely assigned task. The Deuteronomistic corpus and the writings of the prophets are riddled with story after story of Israel foundering its covenantal obligations. As Hosea 1:9 testifies, they were so disobedient that God admitted that the Israelites are “not my people.” Though in God’s sovereignty, Israel’s failures could not hamper the unfolding drama of salvation. While the Israelites could not remain faithful to their covenantal responsibilities, God’s faithfulness prevailed as Israel was instrumental in the Incarnation of Christ.
The major outflow of Christ’s work was the establishment of the Church. The Church, properly defined, is the mysterious body into which all believers, whether alive on earth or in heaven, are active participants on account of their incorporation by the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of Baptism. The Church includes individual believers but it precedes and extends beyond those individuals; it is an ontological reality that exists with Christ as the Head and the many members as the body (see Eph 4:11-16). In this context the Christian priesthood exists. As E.L. Mascall states, Christian ministry “exists indeed not apart from the Church, but in the Church and for the Church; it is an organ of the Church’s very life. But it does not come from the Church, but from Christ who is the Church’s Head” (121). This reality enables all Christians to be a part of the “royal priesthood” since Christ is the “great high priest” (Heb 4:14-16).
Paralleling the relationship between Israel as a nation of priest and the Aaronic priesthood, the Church has a collective priestly role and a formal priesthood. Whether one has had their hands laid on by a bishop in apostolic succession does not prevent them from contributing to the priestly mission of the Church, but it does prevent them from formally joining the order of ministers commonly referred to as priests. This distinction between clergy and laity is a necessary means by which the visible Church retains continuity with itself. Contrary to the spirit of the Evangelical age, the Church is not a nominalistic entity formed out of mutual association between believers. The ontological reality of the Church is an outpouring of the salvific actions of Christ in space and time. The formal ministerial organization of the Church is not an autonomous feature of the local body but a deposit carried from one generation to the next through the laying on of hands in apostolic succession. Because of the ontological nature of the Church itself, there must be an ontological change in the ordinand who becomes a minister. Mascall states:
The Bishop is not merely the organ of the earthly Church, whether of the past or of the present, but of the whole Church of Christ, here and beyond the grace. And the sinful man on whom priestly character is conferred in ordination receives the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest “in the Church of God”… Just as baptism takes a man or woman up into an already existing unity, so consecration takes a man up into an already existing unity which exists within and for the sake of the former one (123-4).
The person called to perform ministry in Christ’s Church, that is the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, must undergo this ontological change because he is participating in an ontological ministry.
The Church truly is a “royal priesthood.” Yet this collective reality in no way diminishes the sacramental nature of ministry as expressed by the historic episcopate and priesthood. It is in these offices, which are the locus of sacramental efficacy, that Christ, the Head, communicates with his body. The Church is bound up in baptism and Eucharist and the priesthood is the means by which these are preserved. Without priests, it is hard to see how the aggregation of individuals called the Church could be a “royal priesthood.” Yet both priesthoods point beyond themselves to Christ. It is this fact that should cause us to enthusiastically agree with the author of Hebrews:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)