Church Officers and The Priesthood of Believers

There are certain Reformed revisionists who claim that the “priesthood of believers” somehow militates against the ministry of church officers. Such claims aren’t new. Anabaptists made them in the 16th century. House church advocates have been loudly asserting this in recent years. For example, Frank Viola writes:

What the Reformers failed to do was to recover the corporate dimension of the believing priesthood. They restored the doctrine of the believing priesthood soteriologically—i.e., as it related to salvation. But they failed to restore it ecclesiologically—i.e., as it related to the church…It was the Anabaptists who recovered this practice. Regrettably, this recovery was one of the reasons why Protestant and Catholic swords were red with Anabaptist blood.

– Pagan Christianity, p. 128

I agree with Viola that the reformers didn’t apply the priesthood of believers ecclesiologically. I disagree that this was a failure. It was the Anabaptists who misapplied it. Therefore, it is very strange to hear those who self-identify as “Reformed” echo the sentiment of Viola and his Anabaptist predecessors.

The priesthood of all believers is an important Reformed doctrine. There is no denying it. Who would want to, anyway? Not me. However, I do strongly reject that it in anyway militates against a Reformed understanding of church officers. This claim was being made in their day. Therefore, they clearly explained that it was a misapplication. In the Second Helvectic Confession, Heinrich Bullinger is explicit that the priesthood of believers doesn’t abolish or diminish the ministry of church officers. He writes:

PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIEVERS. To be sure, Christ’s apostles call all who believe in Christ “priests,” but not on account of an office, but because, all the faithful having been made kings and priests, we are able to offer up a spiritual sacrifices to God through Christ (Ex. 19:6; I Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6). Therefore, the priesthood and the ministry are very different from one another. For the priesthood, as we have just said, is common to all Christians; not so is the ministry. Nor have we abolished the ministry of the Church because we have repudiated the papal priesthood from the Church of Christ.

Bullinger isn’t alone. The great reformer Martin Luther writes:

For although we are all priests, this does not mean that all of us can preach, teach, and rule. Certain ones of the multitude must be selected for such an office. And he who has such an office is not a priest because of his office, but a servant of all the others, who are priests. When he is no longer able to preach and serve, or if he no longer wants to do so, he once more becomes part of the common multitude of Christians. His office is conveyed to someone else, and he becomes a Christian like any other. This is the way to distinguish between the office of preaching, or the ministry, and the general priesthood of all baptized Christians.

– The Works of Martin Luther, vol. 13 p. 332

This understanding of the priesthood of all believers, as far as I can tell, is universal among the reformers. The evidence for this is easily unearthed. You find it laid out in all the Reformed confessions. It will either be found in sections explicitly dealing with church officers, or in sections covering the right administration of the sacraments. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that only a “lawfully ordained” minister can dispense the sacraments (28.4). This theological mindset is pervasive in the confessions. Therefore, it is not Reformed to use the priesthood of believers as a way to diminish the reality of church officers. That is an Anabaptist tactic.

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