What does it mean to be a priest?
There are five verses that refer to all believers as priests.
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. –First Peter 2:5
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. –First Peter 2:9
And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. –Revelation 1:6
And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth. –Revelation 5:9-10
Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years. –Revelation 20:6
The two verses in 1 Peter state that believers are in a priesthood but do not explain the meaning. For this reason, there is debate about the meaning of the priesthood of the believer. And some debate that it should be understood as the priesthood of believers.
But if each believer is a priest to God, then would that not mean that there is a priesthood of believers? There is no debate about the existence of the holy and royal priesthood. The debate is about its meaning. A correct understanding must come from other passages to answer questions that arise from these verses.
Priests are ministers of God.
Exodus 40:15 describes this, saying,
And thou shalt anoint them, as thou didst anoint their father, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office: for their anointing shall surely be an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations.
And Exodus 40:13 tells us that priests must be properly prepared to serve the Lord, saying,
And thou shalt put upon Aaron the holy garments, and anoint him, and sanctify him; that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office.
Believers are prepared to minister to God through the new birth in Jesus Christ.
Under the Old Testament, priests offered sacrifices to God. Hebrews 5:1 tells us,
For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.
But unlike Old Testament priests, New Testament priests (believers) do not offer sacrifices on behalf of others.
Everyone must do that for themselves. And it begins, first of all, with accepting the sacrifice of Christ’s life, who is our high priest and example of living sacrificially for the benefit of others. It is by believing in Him, the Eternal Sacrifice, that we are saved and made priests.
Unlike the priests of the Old Testament, believers offer themselves as sacrifices to the Lord, even as did Jesus, our high priest. Believers in the New Testament are a priesthood that do not offer sacrifices for atonement of sin. Jesus, our high priest, did that once and for all. Our sacrifice of life is a surrendered life to Him to do His bidding. It is a sacrifice of self for the benefit of others. It is through our sacrifice that others hear and see that God is good and that salvation is by grace.
As New Testament priests, we offer sacrifices on our own behalf. This kind of sacrifice cannot be forced or fabricated. We offer to God sacrifices and offerings from our lives of praise, thankfulness, dedication, and more. We are not required to make such offerings through someone else or another priest. We all, individually, have direct access to the throne of God.
The priesthood of believers is one of sacrifice and reconciliation. Every believer is called upon to follow Christ in this regard. We are to sacrifice ourselves for the well-being of others, just as our high priest did for us, in order to accomplish the goal of reconciling others with God (2 Corinthians 5:17-20). We are commissioned to make disciples and to serve one another.
Unlike Old Testament priests, all believers are New Testament priests and are invited to the House of God to worship and minister unto the Lord (2 Chronicles 23:6). There is no class distinction in this regard.
Under the Old Testament, priests served as typologies of the one and only intercessory priest, Jesus Christ, who can truly intercede for us and offer the only acceptable sacrifice for sin payment. And so, Old Testament priests offered sacrifices on behalf of sinners wanting to make amends with God.
But these sacrifices offered up by men never took away sins. Hebrews 10:4 states it plainly, saying,
For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
And because these sacrifices were insufficient to pay for sins, Hebrews 10:11 explains,
And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.
Hebrews 10:1 explains that this is the reason that sinners needed to return year after year to offer sacrifices.
Unlike under the Old Testament, Jesus is our high priest, to whom we have direct access and through whom we are cleansed (Leviticus 14:24). There is no more foreshadowing of the Lamb of God to come. He has come; He has paid for our sins; and He is our one, true mediator.
Because we serve under a new high priest under a new and better covenant, Hebrews 7:12 states,
For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.
New testament believers are kings and priests through Jesus Christ, who is in the lineage of the kings of Judah and after the order of Melchisedec’s priesthood. New Testament priests do not conduct themselves as the priests under the Old Testament.
Whereas under the law fellowship with God is prevented because the wages of sin is death, under grace from the one true high priest, there is life. Romans 8:2 says,
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
There is separation from God under the law, and so the priesthood of the Old Testament showed people that they could never have direct access with God. But the priesthood of the New Testament, made possible by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, shows people that direct access to God for life and fellowship is possible.
With payment of our sins fulfilled and imputed righteousness in new birth, there is no need for an intercessory shadow to stand between us and God. Jesus is our intercessor, our sacrifice, and our Father; and we stand in the presence of God individually by grace.
First Timothy 2:5-6 declares,
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.”
No earthly man, priest or otherwise, stands between us and God.
God expects every believer to be a faithful priest to Him to do His bidding (1 Samuel 2:35). And His will is that we be engaged in proclaiming His message to the world. In Matthew 28:19-20, He commissions us to:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
Our duty as New Testament priests is to deliver the Gospel message of salvation by whatever sacrifice of our lives is required. As priests, we are all responsible to proclaim to the world the ways of God, and we must demonstrate with our lives, as living sacrifices to Him, that His will is good, acceptable, and perfect (Romans 12:1, 2). We must carry in our lives and share with our words the wonderful works of God to others.
As New Testament priests, we must declare His Word to show the lost the error of their ways (Leviticus 13:8), and the need for soul cleansing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if they will not heed the Gospel message of Jesus Christ that we share with them, they will die in their sins (Deuteronomy 17:12).
The priests of God represent His Word and truth in a world that does not know Him. As priests, we no longer have our part with the world. We are in the world, but no longer of the world. We are set apart for service to Him. We serve Him and not ourselves. We live for Him, and in so doing minister unto others (Matthew 25:35).
As priests, we pray directly to God in our fellowship with Him. And our prayers are not just for ourselves, but for the needs of others as well. In 1 Timothy 2:1, the apostle Paul writes,
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men.
This is our duty as priests in the priesthood of believers. We live for the benefit of others. We live to enlarge the kingdom of God. We live to portray the good qualities of Christ, our high priest. And we do so with the hope of bringing others to Christ for salvation.
The Priesthood and Church Organization
Being in the priesthood of believers and having direct access to God does not mean that the priesthood is without order and organization. Being a priest of God does not give one license to go solo in ministry in the name of God. God built His church to be the pillar and ground of truth in this world. First Timothy 3:15 explains,
But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.
The church is the embassy of God where His ambassadors gather, coordinate, and train to do a good work for God.
Just as there are different roles in marriage and family, there are different roles in the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul explains,
God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
And then he asks,
Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret (1 Corinthians 12:29-30)?
The point is, though all believers in the church are in the royal priesthood and have equal access to God, not all priests are the same in duty and authority.
Paul elaborates further in 1 Corinthians 12:14-20, saying,
For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body.
Being a priest in the royal priesthood of believers means that you are part of a community. This is a community of priests or ministers of God. Each has a responsibility to fulfill that is different from other priests.
Do differences mean that they are not equal in the eyes of God? No.
Do differences mean that they are not equal in gaining access in fellowship with God? No.
Just as Paul explained that a body has many members fulfilling different roles, all are equally important and responsible to fulfill their roles.
For the purpose of organizational unity and order, every church body of believers has members fulfilling different roles. Ephesians 4:11–16 explains the purpose of church organization, saying,
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.
Organizing His priests on earth into local assemblies of believers gives order to God’s churches and helps them achieve their goals in serving Christ. Organization of priests does not violate individual priesthood rights. It simply organizes them.
Romans 14:7–8 reminds us,
…none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.
As priests, our duty is to the Lord, and He adds us as members to a particular church body to fulfill His plan and purpose. We are responsible to Him to get along with other priests and to coordinate ourselves for the glory of God.
We affect each other. We influence each other and are supposed to be a part of edifying others. Church relationships are designed to be more than casual relationships. A church relationship involves a covenant and commitment to do God’s work God’s way. It involves a commitment to God and to each other to fulfill our roles to accomplish the most important work on earth. To casually violate or abandon the covenant you make with other church members that God has added you to is to fail in fulfilling a very important responsibility.
God added you to your church because you are needed there, and you need to be there. Most important is the strength and vitality of a church that is built on trust and close relationships. To casually leave that commitment causes great distress throughout the congregation. It is like a divorce, which many say is worse than death in a family. It is a traumatic experience that demoralizes many in the church. The damage can be overcome, but prevention is much better.
Priests need to be responsible to fulfill their commitment to God, and this involves fulfilling their commitment to their churches.
By Holy Spirit administration under the head of the church, Jesus Christ, the church ordains men and authorizes them to fulfill their roles. Likewise, by church authority under Holy Spirit administration, a pastor is designated. And by church authority, a pastor is granted authority to lead the congregation. It is not the role of the pastor to make all the decisions for others, especially for all of their spiritual decisions. But it is his duty to be aware of and to confirm the vision and direction God has planned for the church.
Misuse of Priesthood of the Believer Doctrine
The Catholic church adopted a form of the Old Testament priesthood and placed a special class of priests between secular men and God. Those priests were spiritual agents to act as intercessors between God and secular men. This class division of priests and laity is corrupt doctrine as is the concept of continuing to worship a dead Savior on a cross. The priesthood of believers is a priesthood under the New Testament, not the old. Its high priest is Jesus Christ in the priesthood order of Melchizedek.
The protestant backlash to Catholic priesthood introduced the concept of ministers as employees of the priesthood to carry out its duties. This too is a twisted, carnal view of the priesthood doctrine that excuses spiritual irresponsibility.
All priests are expected to fulfill their priestly duties. If all are priests, then all are called to be ministers.
Martin Luther wrote in his On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church in A.D. 1520:
How then if they [papists] 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 First 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 do everything in our name. That is a priesthood which is nothing else than the Ministry. Thus, 1 Corinthians 4:1 says,
No one should regard us as anything else than ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God.
Luther promulgated the class distinction of a priesthood of ministers or servants in the priesthood of believers. This gave way to a professional class of clergy hired by congregations to fulfill their spiritual duties, who do everything in our name. Thus, in practice, priests hire other priests as their ministers to do their work for them.
John 10:12–13 points out that hirelings are inclined to flee when trouble threatens the flock. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.
But the Bible knows nothing of such class distinctions. All believers approach the throne of God through Jesus Christ individually as priests. The Bible makes no distinction between ministers and laity.
All believers are priests, and all believers are responsible to minister to God. In this way, all believers are equal. However, as a community of believers, they are not without organization and difference in roles.
The priesthood of believers does not conflict with community organization of priests (believers) in a church. God set up government for order, protection, and efficiency. Priesthood misunderstood is misused by some to promote self and to justify rejecting authority, engaging in rebellion and self agenda, all in the name of God, of course.
It is a convenient twist of the doctrine to get one’s own way, especially if that way is contrary to pastoral and church leadership positions. Christ never did that. He invented authority and government. He is the one who makes role and responsibility distinctions in His churches. We are all one body, but not all one member. As believers, we are all priests but different. And for the sake of order and organization, God has designated leaders among the priests in each of His churches.
Government, by design of God, is for order and stability. Like the Old Testament priesthood, the New Testament priesthood has structure and organization among its priests (Ezra 8:24). To say that government or leadership in a church interferes with personal access to God is to say that God is contradicting Himself.
Obviously, that is not the case. The problem here is not with God-ordained leadership but with faulty understanding of what the priesthood of the believer is. It is an error to equate government leadership with control over others’ access and fellowship with God.
It is abuse of the priesthood doctrine to use it to discount God-ordained organizational structure in His church. Anyone in direct communion with God knows that He appoints pastoral leadership for the sake of unity and operational efficiency in His church. Understanding this is a part of knowing God’s will.
The claim that priesthood doctrine makes everyone in the church equal in roles and authority ignores distinctions clearly identified in Scripture. For example, God gives churches apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). He instructs us in 1 Timothy 5:17 to
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.
In 1 Timothy 5:1, he says,
Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren.
Distinctions do not make church leaders superior to others. Distinctions define responsibilities and authority to fulfill for the sake of God’s work in His churches. And equality as priests before God does not eliminate distinctions in responsibilities and authority to fulfill those responsibilities.
Baptism, for example, was not and is not acceptable by just anyone. Philip was a deacon in the first church at Jerusalem, but when he baptized believers in Samaria, the empowerment of church authority was lacking. So, Acts 8:17 records that Peter and John then laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
Baptism without proper authority is not approved by God. Everything else that Philip did was correct. All that lacked was authority, and Peter and John took care of that by signifying approval for church authority, granted to them by their church in Jerusalem, by laying hands on the baptized believers. Philip was in the royal priesthood, and so were the other believers. And though they had equal access in fellowship with God, they lacked authority to baptize.
During the apostle Paul’s missionary journey, approved and authorized by his church in Antioch (Acts 13:1-4), Paul ordained elders in churches (Acts 14:23). This shows that an elder is not simply an older person. Why would Paul need to ordain an older man in order for him to be elderly?
Rather, the Bible indicates that elders in the church were church leaders. Obviously, not all believers in the priesthood were ordained, and this makes a distinction between the believers. The distinction is not that some are better or greater, but rather that there are different roles and responsibilities. Some are ordained and given the authority needed to fulfill their responsibilities.
Other distinctions between priestly believers are mentioned in the Scriptures, including carnal Christians and babes in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:1), teachers in contrast to those needing to be taught (Hebrews 5:12), and rulers over others in the church (Hebrews 13:24). Second Timothy 4:2 and Titus 2:15 indicate that pastors should exhort and rebuke with all authority. If all believers in the royal priesthood are equal in authority and responsibility, then whom are pastors supposed to teach and rebuke?
In addition, women are believers too and are included in the royal priesthood. Yet they are told to be in subjection to their husbands (1 Peter 3:1); they are not to speak in tongues in church (1 Corinthians 14:35); and they are not qualified for ordination as pastors or deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13).
The teaching that being in the royal priesthood makes all priests equal in authority and spiritual discernment is contrary to Scripture. Some use it simply to justify license to defy church leadership and escape organizational authority. It is a false teaching and breaks down when scrutinized by Scripture.
Misuse of the royal priesthood doctrine is often resorted to for justifying rebellion and denying accountability to pastoral and church leadership. If every believer answers to God alone, then why is it necessary to send two or three to correct a brother in error?
Why is it expected of churches to discipline members (1 Corinthians 5:12-13)? After all, if each priest answers to God alone, then what business is it of others to say they are wrong, much less to discipline them? If all priests have the same authority, then when there’s conflict, there is an impasse. Every man is right in his own eyes and equal in authority.
At such an impasse, the work of God is fractured, and churches are weakened. Most often, conflict arises over procedural decisions, not doctrine. What a travesty when the most important work on earth is undermined because of disagreement over operational preferences about how things should be done!
The fact is, the priesthood of believers does not give individuals the right to flaunt self over leadership or to break ranks in God’s design of organization. Priesthood is about access to and communion with God. It is about serving God and serving others in order to win souls and make disciples.
And those who are in communion with God obey God’s ordained leaders and authorities over them. And everyone in communion with God respects God’s designated leaders and God’s design for structure and organization. Those in communion with God abhor sowing seeds of discord, just as God does. Instead, they seek to promote peace and unity among brethren in order to strengthen the ministry of God in His churches.
Undermining and challenging the authority of pastoral leadership in a church is sin. Shamefully, the doctrine of the royal priesthood has been twisted to discredit God-ordained roles and repudiate God-ordained authorities. It has been used to deny distinctions that God makes in membership. Sadly, it has been misused to serve as a snare for Satan’s purposes, to despise God’s designated counselors and leaders, and to divide church congregations.
The apostles and ordained men did not take authority upon themselves. They did not appeal to the priesthood doctrine to declare autonomous authority and representation of God. They were approved and authorized by God’s churches. Likewise, the pastoral office does not give a man license to do as he pleases with self-proclaimed authority. And it does not make him unaccountable to doctrinal truth and moral practice.
A pastor is not the leader because he is more special, better, or greater than others. He is pastor because God wants designated leaders in His churches who will role-model what it means to be a Christian, teach His Word, provide organization, and help bring a congregation to unity in Christ.
Appealing to autonomous authority as a believer in the royal priesthood, with no regard for the roles God designates in His church, is tantamount to the despicable sin of self-righteousness. Being a priest does not make you infallible. Thinking you are right does not make you right.
Being a priest does not place you above the rule of God’s law or His church organization and authority. To take authority into your own hands is egregious to the Spirit, and it is worse when claiming your self-righteous authority in the name of God. Such a man will give account to God for his actions of rebellion and betrayal (Malachi 1:6). And this is true for the pastor too. The church body is essential for confirmation, authority, and unity in the decision-making responsibility granted to its leaders.
Respect for a church’s God-ordained leadership is essential for the integrity of its testimony and the protection of its congregation. No one is greater than another, no one better than another. First Corinthians 3:18 – 4:1 says,
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain. Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are your’s; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s. Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Using the priesthood of the believer doctrine to justify rebellion in the name of God is a shame to Christ’s name and a contradiction to the unity and harmony that Christ desires for His church (Mark 15:10; Hebrews 6:6). Such misuse of the doctrine is essentially saying that darkness is light, that Christ condones rebellion and chaos.
God does not work in secret. He does not set up confusion with autonomous ministers, all of whom claim to hear the voice of God but all disagreeing with one another. God confirms His directives through His church congregations to protect us individually and corporately.
Acts 13 shows that God’s work is not hidden to all but one man alone, but rather it is confirmed and authorized by those engaged in ministering to Him in His church. Corporate confirmation safeguards truth, serves to identify what is right, and protects believers from deception.
When the Church Disagrees with the Pastor
If the church is the pillar and ground of truth, then the pastor does not have the final say except that it is granted to him by the church. And even then, in practice, pastoral authority is only as influential as each individual grants to him that authority as decisions are made.
Nonetheless, it behooves a congregation to consider their obedience to pastoral authority as obedience to God (Ephesians 20:28; Hebrews 13:7, 17). The pastor is given to the church for spiritual counsel. A church should strongly heed the counsel of the pastor, because that is his role.
But even though the pastor is granted final decision-making in most issues, there are things that the pastor cannot do by his own authority. It is by church confirmation and authorization, under the administrative influence of the Holy Spirit, that a man is designated to be pastor. The church is used by God to grant a pastor the authority to baptize and conduct communion. It is also through the church that corporate decisions are affirmed as being directed and approved by God. A wise pastor seeks direction through the church membership in such cases. It is up to the church to authorize the extent of the pastor’s authority and decision-making.
What if the church congregation as a whole opposes pastoral leadership and recommendation? In such a case, the pastor would be denied church confirmation and authority. He can go ahead and do whatever it is that he desires to do, but it will not be sanctioned with church authority. Likewise, a man can rise up and challenge the pastor and present himself as pastor before the church. If the current pastor opposes the challenger, he is duty bound to present his counsel to the church in order to guard the flock.
And a wise church will heed not only the counsel of the pastor but beware of the spirit that challenges him, remembering that pastors are instructed to
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. –Acts 20:28
The Royal Priesthood in Summary
As believers, we are a holy and royal priesthood, duty bound to serve our Lord, King, and high priest, Jesus Christ. We have been called out of darkness into His marvelous light to proclaim the Gospel of salvation to a lost world. We sacrifice our lives for the ministry of winning souls and making disciples.
Together, as a community of priests, we commit ourselves in organized assemblies called churches. We exercise our different roles to edify, to train, to unify, and to protect one another in fulfilling our great commission, while fighting a fierce and vicious enemy.
As priests, we live to help others come to God, and we carefully and respectfully seek God’s will in the safety of counsel through the leadership He provides in our churches. A priest in communion with God will always strengthen His churches and advance His kingdom.